|FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY
NEITHER COMPATIBLE NOR INCOMPATIBLE WITH DETERMINISM -- A NOTE ON WHY
by Ted Honderich
Emails still trickle in to philosophers of my persuasion from sensible people born with the Law of the Excluded Middle or Non-Contradiction in their bones. Some emails come from students who, whatever they have in their bones, have just been to a first-term class in logic. How can it be said, they ask, that neither Compatibilism nor Incompatibilism about freedom and determinism is true? How can it be that neither of these long-running philosophical doctrines is true?
The Law of the Excluded Middle is that either proposition p or proposition not-p is true. It can't possibly be that a well-formed thesis and its negation or denial are both false. So -- either the proposition that freedom is compatible with determinism is true or the proposition that it isn't compatible with determinism is true.
Some emailers mention Aristotle, for good reason, and some mention W. V. Quine, Philosophy of Logic (1970), pp. 83-5. Some, having had a look at The Oxford Companion to Philosophy or The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, confidently complicate things a a bit.
A little logic, even a little formal logic, is not a dangerous thing. But it won't save either of Compatibilism or Incompatibilism. That is because, simply, there is not one thing that is freedom but two. One of them is compatible with determinism and one is not. So with responsibility.
Freedom as voluntariness, very roughly speaking, is acting without constraint or coercion -- acting from causes within yourself, to put it most clearly. Freedom as origination or free will, obscure as it is, is acting without there being any cause. One freedom is, and one is not, consistent with determinism. So with the attitude of holding someone responsible where that ascribes voluntariness to them, and holding them responsible where that ascribes origination to them.
Do you think it would be better to put the proposition that freedom is neither compatible nor incompatible with determinism in some other way? Better just to say, unconfusingly, that there is a freedom compatible with determinism and a freedom incompatible with it? That is in one sense the essential point, and it avoids the impression that the law of non-contradiction is being denied.
But it leaves out something, indeed the main thing, in the discussion of the two traditions or doctrines of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism. That is indeed that they are both false. One is false in its main proposition that freedom is consistent with determinism, one is false in its main proposition that freedom is inconsistent with determinism.
Also, there is the excuse that the philosophers of those traditions chose the same way or style of asserting or denying the things in question. It was they who said that freedom is compatible with determinism or freedom is incompatible with determinism. It wasn't us Johnny-come-latelies who took up the easy way of talking.
Maybe we should we have been more circumspect and put our main proposition this way: Freedom and responsibility are neither compatible nor incompatible with all of freedom. Or even better, freedom and responsibility are neither compatible nor incompatible with all of the freedom we think we have or anyway want.
Will compatibilists and incompatibilists, now mollified by our new circumspection, now shuffle off the stage of philosophy and leave room for the future?
They shouldn't think they have another reason to linger, by the way. Compatibilists shouldn't now retreat to the position that voluntariness is our more fundamental or important kind of freedom. Incompatibilists shouldn't linger by falling back to the position that origination is our more fundamental kind. Some self-styled Compatibilists of the present day have indeed abandoned their predecessors and said this new and smaller thing. So with some self-styled Incompatibilists.
It is clear, however, that each of voluntariness and origination is fundamental to our lives. We are committed to both. It isn't hard to show. Think, for a start, of the large fact of our having rights or making claims to rights -- which things at bottom are our being left voluntary with respect to certain actions or our resisting constraints or compulsion with respect to certain actions. Think, for a start, of the large fact of your existence as someone who lives a life of feeling that others really could do otherwise than they do to you. We're all that way.
For the full story of it all, go to A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes (1988), pp. 472-87, themselves derived from pp. 379-42. Or, for the same pages, go to the paperback The Consequences of Determinism (1990), pp. 104-19 and 11-104. For a lot less but enough of the story, go to How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem (2002), pp. 91-121, or, in the 1993 edition, pp. 80-106.
For briefer stories, newer, click on Effects, Determinism, Neither Compatibilism Nor Incompatibilism, Consciousness, or After Consequentialism and Incompatibilism, or Determinism's Consequences, or Determinism True, Compatibilism and Incompatibilism Both False, The Real Problem.
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