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Thoughts on living without free-will: Baggio it's not your fault

Thoughts on living without free-will: Baggio it's not your fault

If you’ve ever taken a course on Metaphysics, or due to some bizarre intellectual fetish have decided to research this area, it is likely that you’ve been exposed to the core triad of philosophical positions that largely constitute the free-will debate (that is, whether we freely choose our actions or not): libertarianism, compatibilism and hard determinism.

The philosophical debate between whether an individual has an ability to exercise free-will or not, has been a controversial topic for centuries without any side of the debate making any significant progress over the opposing point of view. Despite the protracted stalemate between the arguments of free-will and determinism, recent experiments from the domain of neuroscience and our further developed understanding of how the brain works have potentially suggested that the metaphysics of determinism is more likely to be the correct picture of the universe. Although there is fierce philosophical debate about whether we can have freewill in a deterministic universe. In any sense, the traditional sense of freewill, it is thought, is becoming redundant.

The philosophical triad of positions mentioned above are typically complex and nuanced, but here we will state them in their bare pared-down framework. Traditionally free-will means, simply, I could have done otherwise (than that which I did). For example, suppose at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I decided to buy a strawberry milkshake, I have free-will if, and only if, at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I could have chosen banana milkshake over strawberry milkshake if I so desired, and should strawberry and banana milkshake both be in stock at the supermarket I have just entered.


However, the recent combined scientific picture of behaviour and metaphysics suggests then an individual is said to be determined to have acted in the way that they did, for instance, he could not have done otherwise given the causal closed physical laws of the universe (at the level above quantum mechanics) and neurochemistry. That is, at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I could only have chosen the strawberry milkshake over the banana milkshake, given those exact circumstances I found myself in, I would be determined to choose strawberry milkshake every time. This is the primary contemporary philosophical arena over which philosophers argue whether this constitutes a notion of free-will and a free-will worth wanting. The majority say that it is (these are known as compatibilists) whilst a fiercely growing minority says that it is not (broadly known as the free-will sceptics, under which hard determinism comes under)


The strongest philosophical position in the metaphysical debate that we do have free will is called Libertarianism: they argue that a free decision “must be caused by the agent, and it must not be the case that either what the agent causes or the agent’s causing that event is causally determined by prior events” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) This view is known as agent causation. The most well-known determinist position known in this metaphysical debate is called Causal Determinism: this theory states that “every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” So, according to causal determinism, human action is not freely chosen, but rather whether I choose strawberry or banana milkshake on November 18th 2015 at 4.00pm has been made necessary by previous events and conditions together with the laws of nature. There is no room left for a free independent decision to choose which drink to have outside of the laws of nature together with previous conditions and events.


It has been suggested throughout the philosophical tradition that the concept of moral responsibility is intimately connected to the notion of free-will, although the significance of free-will is not dependent on the concept of moral responsibility, because it is commonly assumed that to be responsible for one’s own action an individual has to be acting freely. Let’s assume the significance of the free-will debate is closely connected to moral responsibility, and for this reason deserves a closer look at the connection between the two.

Before I give a brief explanation as to why each philosophical position is compatible or incompatible to moral responsibility, I will quickly explain the central condition in what it is to be responsible for an action. It is thought that a central condition in being responsible for an action is having the relevant control over an action, known as the “control principle”, where the mechanism of the action is “up to us” in some sense. This intuitive notion is meant to distinguish between involuntary actions such as having a hand spasm, or slipping on the pavement, compared to voluntary chosen actions such as intentionally picking up the strawberry milkshake over the banana milkshake to drink.

In regards to Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism whether we are morally responsible for our actions depends on whether those theories believe that we have the relevant and necessary control for our actions. In relation to Libertarianism we have full moral responsibility as we have complete control over our voluntary actions since we can freely choose how to act. In regards to Hard Determinism, as our actions are ultimately completely determined we do not have necessary control for our actions, since ultimately our actions are not “up to us” but rather are due to the laws of nature together with antecedent events and conditions. Compatibilism, on the other hand, although it expresses its support of determinist metaphysics it believes that we are still morally responsible for our actions. Even though ultimately we are not in control of our actions, we are still morally responsible as long as we are able to make choices and act upon reasons and be responsive to reasons, in this sense we have local control of our actions.

Living with the belief of the existence of the brute metaphysical thesis of determinism – irrespective of whether it is compatible or incompatible with moral responsibility (and whether it is a type of free-will worth wanting) – as contrasted to the metaphysical thesis of free-will, appears at times to be a difficult and unnatural burden to bear when dealing with the practical realties of living.

I think it’s best to illustrate this discussion by an example in the first person, since it is trying to understand the psychological burden of believing in hard determinism versus the conflict of naturally having the phenomenology of freewill. Previously, I went to a job interview in which I had to undertake a written assessment. Now, during the assessment I obviously attempted to complete the assessment to the best of my ability, and due to the strict and pressuring timed element of the examination, I did not have too long to ruminate and use practical deliberation to inform my written response. So, on the way back home by train I, naturally, (and it has to be natural, since I did in fact react in this fashion – as I guess most of us do) thought of ways that I could have performed the written exercise differently: “I should have written about this aspect in more detail” or “I should have emphasised that relation and been more concise in my wording.” I compounded my misery by continually berating myself for not completing the assessment in this post-hoc manner, whipping myself into a self-loathing frenzy that I could have done otherwise than that which I did. Always in a manner better than which I completed it.


Yet given the (assumed) truth of determinism this is crazy! The belief that I could have done otherwise in that situation is an abhorrent illusion. And furthermore, given my philosophical belief in Hard Determinism (which I will not philosophically justify here) I am not even ultimately morally responsible for my actions! Yet my natural pre-theoretical thought-patterns is to believe that I could have done otherwise, and done things differently in those exact same circumstances at that exact same time. These possibilities however are really just vagaries of imagination.

However, we naturally forget that this intuitive, pre-theoretical thinking is devoid of the conditions that modified our behaviour in the first place. When I was thinking of what I should have done, and berating myself for not writing down what I imagined I could have done in the examination, I had the luxury to think through my answers, to try and understand what they were asking of me, and what they wanted for me to demonstrate, away from the pressure cooker atmosphere of the examination room and absent the oppressive timing of the clock.

But I think what we are really engaged in within these moments is a type of profound misunderstanding in ascribing our thought processes as a type of free-will. I think we are guilty of conflating between believing that we could have done otherwise and actually just suggesting improvements to our own actions. Our own vanity though is then to transcribe those suggested improvements and believe that we have the power and ability to manifest those improvements in the previous scenario.

Let’s test this out in a real famous example. 1994 world cup final, Italy are playing Brazil and it has gone to a penalty shoot-out. Roberto Baggio, probably the best player at the world cup and one of the best players in the world at that time, has the chance to level the penalty shoot-out, but inexplicably puts the football over the bar. Italy lose to Brazil on penalties, and Brazil win the world cup.

Now, whenever Baggio thinks about the penalty kick he probably blames himself for missing, “I could have just side footed it in the corner of the net”, and has probably went through intense personal sessions of self-loathing and sadism that he didn’t just choose to put the football into the corner of the net. It seems so natural and understandable to do so. Yet, given determinism, such possibilities are just fantasises of the imagination. Yet, given determinism, he’s received collective social abuse and personal guilty for what is merely the unfolding of factors beyond his control in missing that fateful penalty (and adulation for his special gift at being a wonderful footballer) But really, to say that he should have just passed the ball into the net is merely to suggest an improvement on his previous behaviour, and then to believe it was possible in the actual scenario. It is not to say, he could have actually done otherwise in that precise situation as it unfolded, but rather rational deliberation has informed him that the situation could have turned out otherwise. It is not too hard to imagine the following counterfactual: Baggio stepping up and scoring that penalty by sidefooting it into the corner. But these “could have done otherwise improvements” are disconnected from the real world factors and stresses of the actual scenario: the pressure, tiredness, fatigue, mental instability, thought processes, strain, nervousness, expectation and burden placed on Baggio’s shoulders as he took that penalty. Given the assumption of determinism, with those multitude of factors, at that exact moment, Baggio will miss again and again, and ultimately he is not morally responsible for it whatsoever. To think that Baggio could have scored is to believe in free-will. “Free-will, the belief that we can transcend circumstances” as the Philosopher Saul Smilansky asserts.


The moral of the story is for philosophical determinist to start thinking like a determinist and not to fall back into incoherent notions of free-will. Remember that when you’re staring at the ceiling thinking “you could have done otherwise”, that in fact you really couldn’t have, and despite when the majority are losing their heads, you are not to blame. Thinking you “could have done otherwise” is simply suggesting future improvements to your actions should you become engaged into a similar scenario in the future.


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