J. David Velleman
J. David Velleman argues for a concept of "epistemic freedom" which is related but not reducible to the determinist/compatibilist idea that we are free because we do not know what the future holds for us. Velleman thinks we can "correctly" describe alternative futures that would be consistent with what he calls the "central evidence" of how things are causally related. "Correctly" means that if we decided to choose one of the alternatives, we can predict (describe) the consequences accurately. This appears to be a multiple-alternatives example of G. E. Moore's argument that we could do otherwise if we choose to do otherwise. Of course, if determinism is true, we cannot choose to do otherwise. But Velleman accepts the significance of Moore's point. If we could choose to do otherwise, the world would simply have been in a different causal sequence. In his 1989 essay Epistemic Freedom (later chapter 2 of his 2000 book The Possibility of Practical Reason), Velleman says
Epistemic freedom is the freedom to affirm any one of several incompatible propositions without risk of being wrong. We sometimes have this freedom, strange as it seems, and our having it sheds some light on the topic of free will and determinism. I think that there are two equally important reasons why we seek an alternative to determinism as an account of how our actions come about. One reason is phenomenological: we just feel free. Determinism seems incompatible, in the first instance, with what it's like to be an agent. Our other reason for seeking an alternative to determinism is conceptual. We fear that if determinism is true, then we shall have no grounds for applying concepts such as responsibility and desert to ourselves and our fellows. The conceptual reason for worrying about determinism has tended to take precedence in the writings of philosophers, but I think that the phenomenological reason deserves equal attention. My own view is that explaining what it's like to be an agent is just as interesting, philosophically, as finding room in the world for punishment and blame. And even those who disagree with me on this score should consider that the experience of freedom serves, in some philosophical theories, as a datum from which conceptual consequences are derived. The conceptual problem of freedom thus becomes intertwined with the phenomenological problem.
The Openness of the Future
The experience that I shall explain is often described, in particular, as the experience of openness in our future. Whenever we face a decision, we feel that our future is partly undetermined and thus leaves something for us to decide. This feeling seems to be a perception of real indeterminacy in the course of future events; how much indeterminacy is a difficult question. One might think that our sense of deciding an aspect of the future intimates that there is no antecedent fact of the matter as to how that aspect will turn out. Alternatively, one might think that our sense of deciding an aspect of the future doesn't intimate that there is no fact about it but only that any such fact isn't causally determined by the present state of the world. Under either interpretation, the experience is taken to contain a denial of determinism, the first denial being considerably stronger than the second. My thesis is that under either interpretation, the experience is an understandable illusion. Our sense of an open future is occasioned by a genuine indeterminacy, I believe, but the indeterminacy that occasions it is not the metaphysical indeterminacy that the experience represents to us. Our future is undetermined, I shall argue, in a way that explains our feeling of freedom without conflicting with determinism. Of course, to say that indeterminacy doesn't conflict with determinism sounds like a stark contradiction. The reason why it isn't a contradiction is that talk of indeterminacy is ambiguous. There is a sense in which the indeterminacy of the future would falsify determinism, and then there is a sense in which it doesn't. These senses seem inseparable, but they can in fact come apart. Here are the two different senses in which our future might be undetermined. On the one hand, there may be no particular way that the future is going to turn out—or at least, no way that's necessitated, under the laws of nature, by the present state of the world. In that case, the future would be metaphysically or causally open. On the other hand, there may be no particular way that we must describe the future as turning out, in order to describe it correctly--or at least, no way that's necessitated, under the laws of nature, by a correct description of the present state of the world. In that case, the future would be, as I put it, epistemically open. So formulated, these two kinds of indeterminacy seem inextricably linked. We naturally assume that if there is a way that the future will turn out, then that's the way we must describe it as turning out, in order to give a true description of it; and we assume that if the present will determine the future, under the laws of nature, then a true description of the present will determine, under the same laws, how we must describe the future in order to describe it correctly. I shall argue that these assumptions, however plausible, are false. For in some cases, even if the future is going to turn out in a particular way, we don't have to describe it as turning out that way in order to describe it correctly, since there are several other, incompatible ways in which we would be equally correct to describe it as turning out. Similarly, even if the present determines how the future will be, a correct description of the present needn't dictate how we must describe the future as being in order to describe it correctly.Velleman gives us an example of telling a waiter what you will have for lunch. There are many correct answers (within reason - things you actually like, on the menu, etc.). If you say any of those reasonable items, you will indeed have it for lunch. If you said something other than that which is predetermined, which of course you cannot do...
The Feeling of Freedom
Now, my claim is that confronting the waiter's question "What will you have for lunch?" makes you feel that your future is open. You feel your future to be open, in respect to what you'll have for lunch, because you know that there isn't one, predetermined thing that you must say you are going to have, in order to speak the truth. You feel free to decide what you'll have for lunch because you know that there is, in your mouth, no unique true answer to the question "What will you have?" Yet as I have shown, the fact that there isn't one, predetermined thing that you must say you'll have, in order to speak the truth, is perfectly compatible with the fact that there is something that you're predetermined to have. There isn't a unique true answer for you to give, but there may still be a unique truth of the matter. I do not claim, of course, that you are aware of the compatibility between your epistemic freedom and determinism; quite the reverse. The evident lack of a unique true answer for you to give in response to the waiter's question makes you feel that what you are going to have for lunch is metaphysically undetermined — that your luncheon selection is still open. But in feeling that your luncheon selection is open, you are mistaking epistemic for causal freedom. All that's open is, not what you are going to have for lunch, but rather what you would be correct in saying you are going to have. You mistake your license to say any one of various things about what you'll have for the possibility that you'll have any one of various things. Here I am not making the familiar but, to my mind, less convincing claim that you feel free because of mere ignorance. According to that claim, the reason why you think that you might do any one of various things is simply that you don't know which of them you'll do. But the difference between not being sure what will happen and there being nothing that's sure to happen is perfectly clear in most cases. Why, then, should it elude you in this instance? My view is that if the experience of freedom is mistaken, it ought to rest on a more likely mistake. And although the difference between ignorance and metaphysical freedom is hard to miss, the difference between epistemic and metaphysical freedom is not. There being no unique answer to the question "What will I do?" — unlike your mere ignorance of the answer — is easy to mistake for there being no unique thing that you'll do.