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Mental Causation
James Symposium
Galen Strawson

Galen Strawson developed a Basic Argument which attempts to prove that free will and moral responsibility do not exist. It is an extensive version of the logical and simplistic standard argument against free will.

Strawson is close to a group of thinkers who share a view that William James would have called "hard determinism," including Richard Double, Ted Honderich, Derk Pereboom, Saul Smilansky, and the psychologist Daniel Wegner.

Some of them call for the recognition that "free will is an illusion."

Galen Strawson also carries on the tradition of his father, Sir Peter F. Strawson, with his interest in our attitudes and feelings about praise, blame, and punishment. The elder Strawson said that such feelings, and the accompanying moral responsibility, would not disappear if determinism is true, at least for some thinkers he called "optimists," roughly the same as compatibilists. However, he also recognized there were "pessimists," roughly incompatibilists.

Some philosophers say they do not know what the thesis of determinism is.
Others say, or imply, that they do know what it is. Of these, some — the pessimists perhaps — hold that if the thesis is true, then the concepts of moral obligation and responsibility really have no application, and the practices of punishing and blaming, of expressing moral condemnation and approval, are really unjustified. Others — the optimists perhaps — hold that these concepts and practices in no way lose their raison d’être if the thesis of determinism is true.
Whereas P. F. Strawson was likely an optimist, Galen Strawson's position is that strong free will (with ultimate moral responsibility) is provably impossible whether determinism is true or false. He is not simply a hard determinist. He does not say that free will is impossible because determinism is true. He does think that free will is incompatible with determinism, but also and equally thinks that it’s incompatible with indeterminism. This is of course the standard argument against free will.

Indeterminism does not help, according to Strawson, if some thoughts and subsequent actions are randomly generated. But chance need not be the direct cause of actions.

In his major work, the 1986 book Freedom and Belief (corrected edition 1991), Strawson makes his case against free will.

There is no such thing as free will. There is a fundamental sense of the word 'free' in which this is incontrovertibly true; and this has been known for a long time. There are plenty of senses of the word 'free' in which it is false. But the sense in which it is true seems to be the one that matters most to most people. Or rather, it seems to be the one that most people think matters most to them — rightly or wrongly.

Why is this sense of 'free' so important? (Why is it thought to be so important?) Because it is, among other things, the sense of 'free' that is in question when it is said that because people are free agents, they can properly be held to be truly responsible for their actions in such a way as to be truly deserving of praise and blame for them. It is the ordinary, strong sense of the word 'free'. Chapter 2 presents one version of the argument that such freedom is impossible.

If Chapter 2 is supposed to prove that there is no such thing as free will, what is the rest of the book about? It is partly about some of those senses of the word 'free' given which free will can be said to exist. But it is principally concerned with what one might call the 'general cognitive phenomenology' of freedom: it is concerned with our beliefs, feelings, attitudes, practices, and ways of conceiving or thinking about the world, in so far as these involve the notion of freedom. It is concerned with the experience we have of being free agents, and of being truly responsible for what we do in such a way that we can be truly deserving of praise and blame. It considers the causes, the character, and the consequences of this experience.

Why concentrate in this way on the experience of being free, rather than the thing itself? Because the best way to try to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the free will debate, and of the reason why it is interminable, is to study the thing that keeps it going — our experience of freedom. Because this experience is something real, complex, and important, even if free will itself is not real. Because it may be that the experience of freedom is really all there is, so far as free will is concerned.*

In his Introduction to Freedom and Belief, Strawson says that what 'free' means depends on how you define it.

He defines it in terms of moral responsibility, which he defines in terms of 'desert,' which he circularly defines in terms of freedom. Freedom, he says, is a synonym for 'true responsibility.'

Are we free agents? It depends on what you mean by 'free'. In this book the word 'free' will be used in what I call the ordinary, strong sense of the word. According to which to be a free agent is to be capable of being truly responsible for one's actions.

The idea that people can be truly or completely responsible for their own actions, authors or originators of their actions in such a way that they can be responsible or answerable for them in the strongest possible sense, is a very familiar one, and it will seem perfectly clear to non-philosophers. But philosophers will want to ask a question: 'What is it to be truly responsible for one's actions in this way?'

For the moment this question can be answered simply as follows: so far as moral agents are concerned (and we naturally take ourselves to be moral agents), to be capable of being truly responsible for one's actions is to be capable of being truly deserving of praise and blame for them.1

The idea that people can be truly deserving of praise and blame for their actions—the idea of desert, that is—is also a very familiar one. But philosophers will want to ask another question: 'What is it to be capable of being truly deserving of praise and blame for one's actions?'

Perhaps the best answer to this question at this juncture is the one that draws the present chain of definition — of freedom in terms of true responsibility and of true responsibility in terms of desert — into a firmly closed circle: given that an agent is a moral agent, it is capable of being truly deserving of praise and blame for its choices and actions when and only when it is capable of free choice and free action. Freedom is now defined in terms of true responsibility, true responsibility in terms of desert, and desert in terms of freedom.

Circles like this are usually frowned upon; but this one seems to be just what is needed, at this early stage. The terms 'desert', 'responsibility', and 'freedom' just are related in this way given the ordinary, strong sense of the word 'freedom'. This interdefinition simply serves to make clear which notion of freedom of choice and action is presently in question. It simply provides a starting point for discussion. The detailed business of trying to state the necessary and sufficient conditions of this freedom in a non-circular fashion — the business of stating what sorts of properties a being would have to have in order to be a free agent in the present sense — has not yet begun.

Some philosophers may insist that they still do not really understand what kind of freedom is presently in question. But if they do, they are being (tactically) disingenuous. For the freedom presently in question is a property, real or imagined, that nearly all adult human beings — in the West, at least — believe themselves to possess. To say that one doesn't understand what it is is to claim to lack the most basic understanding of the society one lives in, and such a claim is not believable.

In what follows, then, the word 'free' will be used interchangeably with the phrase 'truly responsible'. Questions about what freedom is, and about whether or not we are or could be free, will be understood to be questions about what true responsibility is, or might be, and about whether we are or could be truly responsible or truly deserving of praise or blame. The equation of 'free' and 'truly responsible' is not a step that is entirely without substance, for many have maintained that although we are free (although the meaning — the true meaning — of the word 'free' is such that it is correct to say that we are free) we are not really truly responsible for our actions. These reject the present equation: they propose a fundamental revision of the ordinary central meaning of the word 'free', one that will not be adopted here.

The equation is useful for another reason. The notion of responsibility — not necessarily moral responsibility — is in many ways a clearer notion than the notion of freedom. It is, for one thing, a notion with a strong and obvious causal element. It helps to have it always in mind when discussing freedom.2

In chapter 2, Strawson says we cannot be free (truly responsible), whether or not determinism is true or false.

'Objectivist' theories of freedom suppose, naturally enough, that the task of showing that we are free involves showing that we have certain properties, not including the property of believing we are free, that are necessary and sufficient for freedom. Such theories usually take the question of whether determinism is true or false to be important when one is trying to answer the question whether we are free. And they regularly come up against the sceptical objection that, whether determinism is true or false, we cannot possibly be free either way.

here Strawson states concisely the Determinism Objection and the Randomness Objection to free will
It is a compelling objection. Surely we cannot be free agents, in the ordinary, strong, true-responsibility-entailing sense, if determinism is true and we and our actions are ultimately wholly determined by "causes anterior to [our] personal existence"* And surely we can no more be free if determinism is false and it is, ultimately, either wholly or partly a matter of chance or random outcome that we and our actions are as they are?

So far as Objectivist theories go (and nearly all theories are Objectivist theories), the sceptical objection seems fundamentally correct. Neither of the two options, determined and random, seems able to give us or allow us what we want. But together they exhaust the field of options.

Strawson recognizes that a major problem for indeterminism in a model for free will is the location of the indeterminism in the process of decisions and actions.

Locating Indeterminism (Freedom and Belief, p.43)

It has been argued that the only way in which libertarians can plausibly give indeterminism a positive, freedom-creating role in the process of action-production is by holding that indeterminism must affect the agent's reasons or reason-states, and play a part in their being as they are. Libertarians have nowhere else to locate the indeterminism that they must show to enter into the process of action-production in such a way as to make actions free. But how can indeterminism do what is expected of it, given that reasons are compounded of beliefs and desires? That beliefs are regularly determined in us by the way the world is is easy to accept, difficult to reject. Their primary business is just to match the way the world is as well as possible. There are other ways in which beliefs are determined in us—by wishful thinking, for example. But we are on the whole concerned simply that our beliefs be true. We do not wish to be undetermined by anything, so far as the formation of our beliefs (and therefore their content) is concerned; nor do we wish to be self-determining with regard to the content of our beliefs; nor do we think we are. (We may of course choose to acquire a lot of beliefs about this or that, but once we are in pursuit of such beliefs we do not wish to be able to choose what their content will be, we just want them to be true.) Rather, we think (and hope) that what we believe is determined, and as a result reflects, how things are.

In a 1994 article called "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility," Strawson describes his Basic Argument for disproving free will and moral responsibility...

There is an argument, which I will call the Basic Argument, which appears to prove that we cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions. According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.

The Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and its central idea can be quickly conveyed. (1) Nothing can be causa sui - nothing can be the cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one's actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.

In this paper I want to reconsider the Basic Argument, in the hope that anyone who thinks that we can be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions will be prepared to say exactly what is wrong with it. I think that the point that it has to make is obvious, and that it has been underrated in recent discussion of free will — perhaps because it admits of no answer. I suspect that it is obvious in such a way that insisting on it too much is likely to make it seem less obvious than it is, given the innate contrasuggestibility of human beings in general and philosophers in particular. But I am not worried about making it seem less obvious than it is so long as it gets adequate attention. As far as its validity is concerned, it can look after itself.

A more cumbersome statement of the Basic Argument goes as follows.

(1) Interested in free action, we are particularly interested in actions that are performed for a reason (as opposed to 'reflex' actions or mindlessly habitual actions).

(2) When one acts for a reason, what one does is a function of how one is, mentally speaking. (It is also a function of one's height, one's strength, one's place and time, and so on. But the mental factors are crucial when moral responsibility is in question.)

(3) So if one is to be truly responsible for how one acts, one must be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking—at least in certain respects.

(4) But to be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, one must have brought it about that one is the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects. And it is not merely that one must have caused oneself to be the way one is, mentally speaking. One must have consciously and explicitly chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, and one must have succeeded in bringing it about that one is that way.

(5) But one cannot really be said to choose, in a conscious, reasoned, fashion, to be the way one is mentally speaking, in any respect at all, unless one already exists, mentally speaking, already equipped with some principles of choice, 'P1'—preferences, values, pro-attitudes, ideals—in the light of which one chooses how to be.

(6) But then to be truly responsible, on account of having chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, one must be truly responsible for one's having the principles of choice P1 in the light of which one chose how to be.

(7) But for this to be so one must have chosen P1, in a reasoned, conscious, intentional fashion.

(8) But for this, i.e. (7), to be so one must already have had some principles of choice P2, in the light of which one chose Pl.

(9) And so on. Here we are setting out on a regress that we cannot stop. True self-determination is impossible because it requires the actual completion of an infinite series of choices of principles of choice.'

(10) So true moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires true self-determination, as noted in (3).

This may seem contrived, but essentially the same argument can be given in a more natural form. (1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise). (2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. For (3) both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one's success in one's attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And (4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience. (5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one's being truly morally responsible for how one is.

The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions.
(Adapted from Freedom and Belief, 1986, published in Philosophical Studies, 75/1-2 (Kluwer 1994), 5-24, and reprinted in Free Will, ed. Watson, 2003, p.212.)

Strawson says that this argument, which is a priori and certainly valid, convinces all his students.

What students aren't convinced by their philosophy professors? Strawson was Saul Smilansky's thesis advisor.

I have encountered two main reactions to the Basic Argument. On the one hand it convinces almost all the students with whom I have discussed the topic of free will and moral responsibility' On the other hand it often tends to be dismissed, in contemporary discussion of free will and moral responsibility, as wrong, or irrelevant, or fatuous, or too rapid, or an expression of metaphysical megalomania.

I think that the Basic Argument is certainly valid in showing that we cannot be morally responsible in the way that many suppose. And I think that it is the natural light, not fear, that has convinced the students I have taught that this is so. That is why it seems worthwhile to restate the argument in a slightly different — simpler and looser — version, and to ask again what is wrong with it.

Some may say that there is nothing wrong with it, but that it is not very interesting, and not very central to the free will debate. I doubt whether any non-philosopher or beginner in philosophy would agree with this view. If one wants to think about free will and moral responsibility, consideration of some version of the Basic Argument is an overwhelmingly natural place to start. It certainly has to be considered at some point in a full discussion of free will and moral responsibility, even if the point it has to make is obvious. Belief in the kind of absolute moral responsibility that it shows to be impossible has for a long time been central to the Western religious, moral, and cultural tradition, even if it is now slightly on the wane (a disputable view). It is a matter of historical fact that concern about moral responsibility has been the main motor — indeed the ratio essendi — of discussion of the issue of free will. The only way in which one might hope to show (1) that the Basic Argument was not central to the free will debate would be to show (2) that the issue of moral responsibility was not central to the free will debate. There are, obviously, ways of taking the word `free' in which (2) can be maintained. But (2) is clearly false none the less. (p.214)

Strawson says that his work simply restates a traditional argument.
There is nothing new in the somewhat incantatory argument of this paper. It restates certain points that may be in need of restatement. "Everything has been said before", said Andre Gide, echoing La Bruyére, "but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again." This is an exaggeration, but it may not be a gross exaggeration, so far as general observations about the human condition are concerned.

The present claim, in any case, is simply this: time would be saved, and a great deal of readily available clarity would be introduced into the discussion of the nature of moral responsibility, if the simple point that is established by the Basic Argument were more generally acknowledged and clearly stated. Nietzsche thought that thoroughgoing acknowledgement of the point was long overdue, and his belief that there might be moral advantages in such an acknowledgement may deserve further consideration." (p.227)

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