Ep#57 – Do We Have Free Will? Jonathan Pearce


Author and Philosopher Jonathan Pearce (@ATipplingPhilo) will be dropping by The #GSPodcast to let you know that free will is an illusion. We touch on de-converting theists and the justice system. Also, what can biology and genetics tell us about the likelihood of criminality? Where is god in all this? We also talk about the importance of Neuroscience in the free will debate and discuss the disagreement between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Listen to it – you have no choice.

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  • Hmm, interesting discussion, but there are some serious problems with this line of reasoning.
    1) You have discounted free will, and claimed that people’s decisions are subject only to determinism, by presupposing determinism. If that isn’t circular reasoning, I don;t know what is.
    (This is from your example of making tea). Your premise is that molecules define what a person’s actions are.
    2) You contradict yourself. On the one hand, you absolve criminals of their deeds by virtue of lack of free will, yet seem to act as though you have free will yourself by wanting to change the justice system with even more emphasis on “rehabilitation” (which the justice system has embraced for many decades now, and has not worked as hoped)..
    3) If determinism exists, you have reasoned that the accountability lies not with the individual, but with their grandmother (your words), and back to further generations. How far back does this infinite regression go? At the end of this, no one is held to account. If that is your position, that is fine, I understand the analogy with infectious diseases and quarantine, but catching a cold is radically different than raping, murdering, etc. I expect a philosopher to understand this.
    4) This whole discussion is moot. Whether there is or isn’t free will cannot be proved, due to not being able to test/experiment. Unless a time machine is made, or we are able to create parallel realities, this is just verbal masturbation.
    5) While I am atheist, I just don;t get the constant harping on Christians. Assuming free will is a very reasonable assumption. It holds people accountable to their actions. One has hypothesize all day long about how sub-atomic particles affect decisions, but if
    6) You do make a very good point about the brain tumor not being categorically different from other neuro/biological/chemical factors. My position, though, is that it frankly doesn’t matter why one is a pedophile or mass murderer. I would rather side with innocent victims than with violent criminals, regardless of what biological factors influenced their decisions and acts.
    7) Your constant assertions that those who disagree with you are not rational, and/or are ruled by emotions are false smears, It is rational to hold the position that individuals should be held to account, and decide their actions. Your position may be rational as well. Opposing positions can both be rational. I find it distasteful that you resort to false smears in order to discredit those who disagree with you.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hi there Geoff, thanks for your comments, though, despite your rather dogmatic and forthright claims, I find them wanting.

      1) They are not circular at all. They start with looking at the philosophy and logic of it all, involving causality, and go from there. Added to that comes the scientific evidence to defend such a position, which is almost trivially true because science looks to explain cause and effect relationships in the world around us, which implicitly accepts causality, which implicitly needs determinism to make any sense (QM aside). I/u cannot see how this is circular. Circularity could be claimed of free willers who often (and this comes from personal experience arguing against them) claim they need free will for moral responsibility, claim humanity cannot work without it, and so the whole thing becomes a mechanism involving begging thee question.

      It is also worth noting that some 86% of philosophers think that such free will is incoherent, so I am in good company (though would not want to make an argumentum ad populum!).
      I don’t just discount free will (heck, I used to believe in it!) in some hand waving conclusion based on nothing. I think your first point is pretty disingenuous.

      As for molecules defining what actions are, this would take a lot of unpicking with dualistic interactionism being put under the spotlight. I do not think interactionism works, and I do think, as many naturalists do, and for good reason, that brain states define the mind, that the mind supervenes on physical matter (the brain). Why? Well, here are a few basic starters:

      a) The evolution of species demonstrates that development of brain correlates to mental development
      eg “We find that the greater the size of the brain and its cerebral cortex in relation to the animal body and the greater their complexity, the higher and more versatile the form of life” (Lamont 63). Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. 5th ed. New York: Unger/Continuum, 1990.

      b) Brain growth in individual organisms:
      “Secondly, the developmental evidence for mind-brain dependence is that mental abilities emerge with the development of the brain; failure in brain development prevents mental development (Beyerstein 45). Beyerstein, Barry L. “The Brain and Consciousness: Implications for Psi Phenomena.” In The Hundredth Monkey. Edited Kendrick Frazier. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991: 43-53.

      c) Brain damage destroys mental capacities:
      “Third, clinical evidence consists of cases of brain damage that result from accidents, toxins, diseases, and malnutrition that often result in irreversible losses of mental functioning (45). If the mind could exist independently of the brain, why couldn’t the mind compensate for lost faculties when brain cells die after brain damage? (46).” Ibid

      d) EEG and similar mechanisms used in experiments and measurements on the brain indicate a correspondence between brain activity and mental activity:
      “Fourth, the strongest empirical evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from experiments in neuroscience. Mental states are correlated with brain states; electrical or chemical stimulation of the human brain invokes perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental states (45).”

      e) The effects of drugs have clear physical >>> mental causation
      Phineas Gage is a useful example here.

      Please do not reply until I have answered all 5 points! It may take some time…

      • Jonathan MS Pearce

        3) “If determinism exists, you have reasoned that the accountability lies not with the individual, but with their grandmother (your words), and back to further generations. How far back does this infinite regression go? At the end of this, no one is held to account. If that is your position, that is fine, I understand the analogy with infectious diseases and quarantine, but catching a cold is radically different than raping, murdering, etc. I expect a philosopher to understand this.”

        That is ‘EXACTLY the point, and why commonsense notions of causality and moral accountability are untenable. If you have ever read the French Legionnaire’s thought experiment that Dennett uses, this will start you off realising that such basic notions of causality are far too simple. I set this out in “Have I killed someone?” – http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2014/04/28/have-i-killed-someone/ – which looks at this linear idea of causality and pulls it apart. The whole problem is that such notions are built upon the Sorites Paradox where you draw an arbitrary line to cut off causality where you want it. Here is a simple example. What killed Jim when Harry shot him with a shotgun? Who was responsible for this? In legal terms, Harry; but we shall see that this is problematic.
        Let’s take this back step by step (though I am missing almost infinite steps out for simplicity’s sake):
        The lack of neural stimuli to the organs
        The lack of oxygen to the brain
        The pellets hitting vital areas of the brain
        The impact of the pellets on the skin
        The pellets flying through the air
        The explosion from the guns mechanism
        The pulling of the trigger by Harry’s finger
        The neural stimuli from H’s brain
        The decision to pull the trigger
        The triggering angry outburst from Jim just previous to this
        Jim having an affair with H’s wifeH’s wife deciding NOT to phone to ask him to calm down and come back
        H having some gene variants predisposing his to angry outbursts
        H’s wife being promiscuous
        Etc etc
        H’s parents and grandparents and ancestors getting together to eventually produce H, and his genetic makeup and existence
        Homo sapiens evolving
        The Big Bang

        Etc etc – I could have padded this out with thousands of other factors back and forward.

        Each of these are necessary, contributing factors to the eventual outcome. Remove just one, it doesn’t happen. So what is responsible for the death? Well, you would seem, I guess, to want to cut that whole list not off proximally, at the nearest cause, but back a little at the first agent. But this is arbitrary, since all those events conspired to bring the final event about (se JL Mackie’s INUS conditions for causality here).
        What most people have is an arbitrary approach to causality and thus responsibility. This is how we cope with law making (see age demarcations), species (see the Species Problem which even Darwin was aware of), and anything which sits on a continuum. Sorites has a lot to answer for as a thought experiment!

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      2) The word “change” is problematic in talking of determinism because one doesn’t change a course of action from a course of action that would have taken place. However, it does imply a sense of authorship and causal potency which does exist. How3ver, in chronological sense, things can change from one state to another different one over time. This is how change is used wrt the justice system.

      Rehabilitation has not quite been embraced per se (having spoken at length to a very close friend who is now a probation policy maker for the NZ govt, moving from the UK being disenfranchised by the current state of affairs). There are large elements of rehabilitation, but are they properly assigned, funded, evidence-based etc. This is a huge topic, and though we have moved towards rehabilitative measures, there is still a long way to go. When this fails, you keep them quarantined, as Pereboom sets out (I would adivse reading Living Without Free Will by Derk Pereboom).

      When talking about free will or lack thereof, as Strawson opines, it is very difficult to shuffle off such free will language and reactive attitudes: it is part of our psychology; hence why he argues to maintain the illusion.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      4) Depends what your definition of proof is. Nothing can be proved in a Cartesian sense apart from cogito ergo sum. Does this mean we should give up philosophy? God cannot be proved or disproved either way: do we give up being atheists? You declare you are one, but the point is moot, right?

      No, I take things on both probability and models of coherency to which hard incompatibilism works exceptionally well and libertarian free will fails in a massive way. It is not coherent with philosophy, science etc.
      Again, I refer to the fact that most philosophers fully reject LFW. In fact, it appears that only theistic ones retain belief in it (pout of necessity) as according to the Philpapers 2009 survey and meta data. (There are rare naturalistic occurrences like Robert Kane).

      What most philosophers now spend time discussing is whether it affects moral responsibility (and what that even is) and the criminal justice system. It seems that the actual arguments into whether LFW exists in somewhat passe.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      5) The podcast is Godless Spellchecker. Christianity is the prevalent religion, culturally. Most points against it are also salient for the other religions. I am a philosopher of religion. Don’t invite a philosopher of religion author who has written massively about free will and Christianity on if it is not to your liking! (not that you invited me on, of course!).

      Free will does not hold people accountable because, statistically, it looks like random. Worse than that. It is perhaps more fatalistic than deterministic fatalism!

      Libertarian free will is pragmatically useless. I have expressed this before in the scenario of a psychologist/psychiatrist/psychotherapist. You would not accept this:

      Problem person lying on couch: Doc. I’ve got this problem, X. Can you help me to get over it.
      Doc: Sure, what is it.
      PP: X, etc. I would like to know what caused it.
      Doc: OK, I see. Now, did you exhibit this behaviour of your own free choice?
      PP: Er, yes?
      Doc: Well, then, unfortunately, I can’t help you, as you merely chose to, so antecedent causality is not relevant. Soz.

      As you can see, this is useless for solving problems. Psychs look to antecedent causality to understand the behaviour of subjects. The past, the brain, the biology, the genotype, the phenotype, the environment. Changing these as much as possible, where possible, is the job of such psychs such that the behaviour does not manifest itself in future similar scenarios.

      The same with any behaviour. Neurocriminality, and merely criminality (and associated probation services and social services, and education etc) look to understand why things happen.

      LFW doesn’t. The agent did it because… the agent. AXIOM. You need to understand that this is where LFWers are at. Your refusal to grant antecedent causality its rightful potency means that you are throwing your hands up and saying, “just because”.

      So in fact LFW becomes fatalistic, whereas determinism becomes empowering. Whilst under strict determinism, there is no such thing as a change in the course of actions, apparent change authored by people who have a sense of causal circumstance is what it is all about. Understanding causality allows people to “harness” it for the betterment of themselves and society.

      As ever, fatalism is the biggest threat to determinism, and occasionally makes me feel nauseous thinking about its intricacies. But the truth of the matter seems to be that LFW gives such understanding of the world and agents an impotence which lends it some large degree of irony. We end up imploring people to change their behaviour which was uncaused with a “just because” so that they do something good “just because”. You’re not allowed to plump for antecedent causality… Remember, it is called “contra-causal” free will for a reason.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      6) Thank you, but wow. OK, so you are saying explanations of an event are irrelevant. I would rather side with the victim morally, but seek to understand the perpetrator. Without understanding, what hope do you have of rectifying the scenario? I don’t think you have thought through your position. Here is an analogy:

      Volcano goes off, causes loads of destruction and victims.

      Your position would be to spend all time and effort sorting out the victims.

      My position is do that, but also spend time and effort in understanding how and why volcanoes go off to minimise the impact of any future occurrences, lessening the number of future victims. Apply this to any disease, any natural disaster, and any man-made disaster, including crime. I suggest you read Adrian Raine’s excellent “The Anatomy of Violence”.

      I posit that your approach is somewhat anti-intellectual and anti-scientific!

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      7) I would have to listen again to the piece to answer to that. Yes, both positions can be rational. If I did do as you say, then it would be in the context of defying the basic notion of causality and logic, which LFWers famously do. No model or account of libertarian free will has ever adequately been put forward, which is why hardly any naturalists adhere to it. I claim they are being irrational in this case because they hold on to something come hell or high water for other notions, rather than let go of something. Similar to what Stephen Law calls Going Nuclear.

      As a point of fact, I was arguing free will with someone recently (ongoing over a year now) who has invented God (I actually deconverted him) contradicte all his other philosophies so there was no coherence, ignored evidence etc, JUST to hold on to LFW. He went nuclear before our eyes, and has ended (imho) in a right twist because the whole process becomes ad hoc, trying to rectify things with add-ons.

      I have stripped back my philosophy and done a bottom up approach and followed where it led me. This means going right back to the building blocks of philosophy: abstract ideas and universals. The few LFWers who I have come across do the reverse: they hold on to LFW as an a priori conclusion and argue from there, not wishing to let go no matter the consequences.

  • On the point about emotions/rationality, I would add that there is much about your priorities/values (and about all people’s, including my own) that are based on emotion, and not grounded in technical/scientific basis.
    For example, you claim that giving $5 to a homeless person is a morally good thing. That view is based on your value system, which is emotionally based. No different than the people you chastise for valuing moral responsibility.
    There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but calling people out on something one practices themselves is a bit hypocritical.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      On your final point, I am not sure exactly where you are going with that, but this is indeed a complex area, not least because of theories like the dual process theory of moral psychology. Kahneman, Damasio and many others have looked at moral philosophy and decision making in light of our various systems of thought. Does deciding to do something intuitively and using merely our emotional mechanisms invalidate the decision as being irrational? Perhaps, it all depends on how you define rationality, and whether conscious and rational thought or deliberation is necessary for moral culpability. For example, if you did something in your sleep, or fully automatically without conscious thought, would you be morally or as morally culpable? It turns out prosocial behaviour is no longer, as we thought, a deliberate suppression of selfishness, but an automatic functioning of the amygdala (and other things like the COM-T gene variant) etc. What does this say about our decisions when our rational, and more deliberative cognitive processes are not involved?

      However, other research has shown that we need both in tandem to make the most optimal decisions (such as in certain strategy games). Yet again, though, in other experiments, such as a three deck strategy card game, our conscious brain thinks we have deciphered the best strategy by, on average, the 25th turn. However, it turns out our nonconsious brain has worked it out by the 13th turn. And our conscious brain is merely late to the game, so to speak.

      All this and more makes moral responsibility a hard concept to understand and harness. Therefore, certain philosophers (with whom I am inclined to agree to some large degree) think that the term “moral responsibility” is in some sense impotent and by losing it, we don’t actually lose much (again, see Derk Pereboom’s work). We can still be moral agents in a determined world, but responsibility, wrapped up with dodgy understandings of causality (often linear when they CLEARLY are not), is not so obvious.

      Thanks for your comments, though I think some of your claims are a little harsh: I have thought long and hard about all and everything brought up here. My conclusions are coherent with all my other philosophy; I would ask whether yours are themselves. I would be interested to see how you establish libertarian, contra-causal free will, given that you have claimed I have presupposed, but have not yourself set out how your model could work, thus perhaps presupposing yourself!

      Thanks again,


      • If you are arguing for “hard determinism” then how can one possibly be a moral, or even immoral) agent when everything has been pre-determined? I don;t ask this rhetorically, but am honestly curious. I have not seen even a plausible explanation of how this is possible.
        My point about some of your points being based in emotion rather than science was not meant as an insult. I readily acknowledge that many of my arguments are also based on the same.
        For example, your suggestion of quarantine for murderers/rapists is based in the emotional value judgment of murder/rape being undesirable. There is nothing wrong with this. Murder/rape are not “wrong”/”bad” based on science, but on morality/emotions/values. Again, absolutely nothing wrong with this.

        I honestly think this entire discussion is taking place at the level of the bedrock of each other’s premises.

        I am still drafting responses to your replies above. I will try to get them up as soon as possible.

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          No rush!

          On the point about morality, we can still be moral agents even under hard determinism in the same way i can ascribe aesthetic value to something in a determined world, an action or a person can have moral value.

          As Pereboom says:

          “Honderich maintains that although determinism is in his distinctive sense incompatible with retributive attitudes, since these attitudes typically presuppose that agents causally originate actions, determinism is not incompatible with judgments of right and wrong, goodness, and badness.37 In a similar vein, Smilansky contends that it is difficult to see why denying moral responsibility should entail rejecting these other moral notions.38 His scheme divides morality into two distinct components. The first concerns what “morally ought to be done (or not done),” and the second, agents’ blameworthiness or praiseworthiness for their actions. In Smilansky’s view, ordinarily moral agents have both components in mind when contemplating what to do. Hard determinism undermines the second component. But, he argues, it does not thereby undermine the first as well….

          Although hard incompatibilism denies that human beings can have moral worth in the sense that they are morally praiseworthy for their actions, it need not renounce the notion of an agent’s moral worth altogether (as Smilansky himself argues elsewhere).61 An agent can have moral worth by, for example, persistently doing what is right, even in situations in which there are strong countervailing pressures, by regulating her behavior by moral reasons, by having dispositions to examine her past behavior from the moral point of view, and by possessing a willingness to change her behavior when tendencies to immorality are recognized. These features of moral worthiness would not be illegitimate or impossible if hard incompatibilism were true. Moreover, perhaps from the moral perspective, it is these features of the ordinary concept of moral worthiness that are most significant, while praiseworthiness has a comparatively diminished role. Indeed, if one is a hard incompatibilist, a concern for one’s moral worth in this sense might be more or less continuously present.

          Smilansky affirms that in the hard determinist view, agents can be more or less morally attractive. An agent could be seen as a ‘fine moral specimen’,” and “a determined human being can behave in an ‘ethically noble’ way.”62 As hard determinists, we might appreciate agents for having these qualities. This seems right to me. Smilansky does say that such appreciation “would border on the aesthetic” even though it still has deeply moral aspects. In my view, perhaps such appreciation is more like the aesthetic sort than is often thought because it does not involve blameworthiness or praiseworthiness, but it is no less moral for that reason.”

          (Living Without Free Will)

          • While I can kind of see how actions may be deemed moral or not in a determined world, no one can be a moral agent, nor an agent at all in such a world. I am interested in what definition of the word agent you are using, because every one that I have seen involves power. If everything one does is pre-determined, then that individual has no power. The only exception to this, as far as definitions of agent go, is the one where agent refers to someone taking actions on behalf of a principal (such as a real estate agent, athlete’s agent, etc).

            Even more broadly, morality itself seems like a questionable concept in a world of hard determinism. If no one can be held to account, i.e. not responsible for “their” actions as it were, then how can one even judge something as moral or immoral? These actions would just be like an apple falling from a tree, entirely mechanistic, and falling outside any human judgment.

            Judgments of morality are largely based on intent and consequences. If intent and consequences are pre-determined, no judgment is possible, unless of course you mean the judgment itself is pre-determined, and this entire discussion is pre-determined, ad infinitum, and this is in some way futile and actually proving your point. Bu, on the other hand, we could be proving mine, by influencing each other and the world around us. Will we ever know either way? I doubt it.

            By the way, I am still working on drafting a response to your original replies to my comment. Life and new comments keep getting in the way. Don’t blame me for the delay, maybe it was meant to be this way 🙂

  • Hi Jonathan, fascinating talk, I have a couple questions which I tried to ask on Twitter but obviously the restraints meant that I couldn’t elucidate and I think your answers might need slightly more than 140 characters!

    1. I’m slightly bemused/confused to hear that theists claim to have free will, is it not a fact that many of them believe in a controlling deity and therefore there free will is curtailed? Can you elucidate a little on this?

    2 Is everything we ‘choose’ to do do governed by our biology? My analogy is – I’m thirsty, I go to the fridge and in there is still water, sparkling water and coke, I decide to drink still water upon this occasion because I think it may be best to quench my thirst but later I return for a coke because I like the flavour, have I not chosen one drink over another because of my freedom and free will to do so?

    3. I do understand that for many things, especially crime, that there may be a causal link, but our desire to see perpetrators punished and for the protection of society we prefer them locked up, is this morally right or in your opinion should we be doing something else, I’m particularly thinking about that guy who got locked up the other day for rigging the LIBOR market.

    4. I buy PG tips because its what we drank as kids!

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hi there Johnny,

      1) Yes, free will an and omniscient God who knows your future freely willed actions will indubitably come to pass is notoriously dodgy as a concept. This is why Open Theism has evolved, with adherents believing that God does not know future contingent decisions. However, this is problematic for a whole host of reasons, not least of all reducing God to effectively randomising the world (yet still having prophecies in the Bible etc).

      2) It is not just biology, but all the ologies: your biology & genetics, your environment – every single variable enacted in you, on you and by you. The question you should ALWAYS ask is why? If there is no answer, it becomes “just because” and thus effectively random; if there is an answer, then this invites determinism through the door.

      3) Locking up – this is a phrase that can hide a multitude of ideas. What are you locking them up for? Is is as a deterrent? For rehabilitation? For just desserts? For a deterrent, that is OK if your moral value system is utilitarianism where you can use people for a particular end. However, next time you go into a hospital, perhaps you might be stolen and harvested for your organs, because this serves the greater good of leading to 5 people surviving medical problems. The concepts surrounding consequentialism here take a lot of unpicking. Rehabilitation is the most sound reason, and keeping them humanely quarantined whilst this is happening is morally fine. Just desserts for someone who could not do otherwise, in a retributive sense, is the least acceptable outcome under determinism.

      4) I’m a Sainsbury’s Organic or Yorkshire Tea man myself. Given the theoretical choice…

      Thanks for the interest!

      • Jonathan, thanks for that, this has opened some philosophical doors for me and I intend to study the area of free will or rather the lack of it further.

      • I am trying not to get sidetracked from my task of replying to Jonathan’s replies to my original comments, but wanted to reply to this while it was fresh in my mind.

        1) I am not a theist, and cannot speak for theists, but theists are far from being the only ones who believe that free will can or does exist. Yes, theism is faced with the ever present problem of “can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot move it?”, but I think we have other issues to deal with.

        2) If everything we “choose” to do is strictly governed by biology, genetics, etc. then what gave rise to those genetics, biology, etc? If everything is just another link in a long chain of a causal chain under a hard determinism, what started the chain? I don’t know, nor do I think anyone does, nor can know, precisely because as I described earlier, it is impossible to test either theory out.
        However, truly working under the assumption that there is no free will, in my view, leads either to some impractical, or worse case, horrifying, consequences. Why even get up in the morning, why live, why not rape, murder, etc?
        I ask these half-jokingly. If there is no free will, and everything is pre-determined, that undermines a lot of people’s premises on which their actions are based.
        Now, yes, of course none of this means that there is free will, obviously. I think we are going down a rabbit hole with no end to it, and one that would take us all to a place we don’t want to go, regardless of how true it may be.

        For all the bashing of theism (I am guilty of this too sometimes), and the shortcomings of theism, much of what we enjoy and take for granted today would not be possible without millennia of theism affecting our social and biological development. I’d actually rather have a moral, peaceful and free order built on falsehood, than an amoral, violent and ruthless one that was built on the truth. I am not saying that those are the only two possibilities, but merely illustrating my priorities.

        3) “Locking up – this is a phrase that can hide a multitude of ideas. What are you locking them up for? Is is as a deterrent? For rehabilitation? For just desserts? For a deterrent, that is OK if your moral value system is utilitarianism where you can use people for a particular end. However, next time you go into a hospital, perhaps you might be stolen and harvested for your organs, because this serves the greater good of leading to 5 people surviving medical problems. The concepts surrounding consequentialism here take a lot of unpicking. Rehabilitation is the most sound reason, and keeping them humanely quarantined whilst this is happening is morally fine. Just desserts for someone who could not do otherwise, in a retributive sense, is the least acceptable outcome under determinism.”

        Jonathan, you have missed an important term/concept in your brief list of what we lock up perpetrators for: justice.
        In m view, this is similar, but not exactly the same as just deserts.
        While deterrence and rehabilitation (despite, quite frankly, the failure of this approach) are part of the rationale, justice is the more over-riding component, hence the name presumably.
        While I would agree that utilitarianism is abhorrent and completely amoral (for various reasons that we can get into for those who may not know why – like I did not until relatively recently), deterrence has virtues beyond just utilitarianism. Deterring the rape and murder of innocents of a small number of people by a larger number of people would be such an example. Burning, killing and hanging gays/albinos/etc. by a mob is not allowed, even though one could possibly argue that the net gain in “utility”/happiness to the mob outweighs the net loss to the smaller group.

        On to your point about humanely quarantining. Who says this is morally fine? There is no science to back this up. This is an arbitrary value judgment. Even IF that person could not do otherwise (and I think the evidence to back this up is sorely lacking), humane quarantine is still arbitrary. One might say that it is not, since that would be the least unpleasant option for themselves, and operating under the Golden Rule, it seems reasonable to apply that to others. Still, using the Golden Rule itself is a value judgment.

        Even IF the perpetrator (is that term even allowed under no free will, since the perpetrator was ultimately the universe itself???) in question could not have possibly done otherwise, then what should do?
        Well, if we torture him/her, burn them alive or feed them to piranhas while alive, we couldn’t have not done otherwise either, so we are in the clear too. See what I did there?
        All actions, regardless of how repugnant they may seem, are beyond moral responsibility, since we could have not possibly done otherwise. We are all just products of our surrounding. Please don’t take this as me being facetious, but I am taking this thinking to its logical conclusion.

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          “Even IF the perpetrator (is that term even allowed under no free will, since the perpetrator was ultimately the universe itself???) in question could not have possibly done otherwise, then what should do?
          Well, if we torture him/her, burn them alive or feed them to piranhas while alive, we couldn’t have not done otherwise either, so we are in the clear too. See what I did there?”

          We do what is best for society in a moral sense if we want to be the morally best we can be. Obviously, this language is infused with the idea that we have the ability to do otherwise, and this is a challenge for determinists. But we can still author action and our own future. Some Q and A and resources concerning this can be found here, at naturalism.org: http://www.centerfornaturalism.org/faqs.htm#Q4

          Here are three salvos form them against fatalism: http://naturalism.org/fatalism.htm

          “All actions, regardless of how repugnant they may seem, are beyond moral responsibility, since we could have not possibly done otherwise. We are all just products of our surrounding.”

          Of course we are. As a naturalist, what else could be responsible for us? Our surroundings, together with ourselves, produce who we are and what we do.

  • Jonathan, thanks for your reply. I am in the process of writing out a reply. Please just be patient with me, as there are a number of points to address. Cheers.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    Hi Geoff. Here goes!

    1) I think your “far from” is a rather large exaggeration. The philpapers 2009 survey, the biggest ever of philosophers, shows that only just below 14% believe in LFW, and this correlated almost exactly to the number of philosophers who believe in God, and the meta data shows that this is more than a mere correlation, that the naturalistic philosophers denied LFW, and the theists adhered to it. There is the odd exception, such as Robert Kane, but his model doesn’t cut the mustard.
    2) “If everything is just another link in a long chain of a causal chain under a hard determinism, what started the chain?” – great question and right up my alley, so to speak. In philosophy and reality there are three ways of grounding things: axiom, infinite regress and circle. Now think of this in terms of the universe. Brute fact, infinite temporal regress or circular. There are theories like Loop Quantum Cosmology which try to get round infinite time in reverse with bouncing reboots of time etc. This is the territory of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, on which I wrote my thesis, and three projects down the line will be a book. I love this topic, so I could bore you here. However, there is a problem for the theist since the KCA and LFW are mutually exclusive, as I set out here:


    Suffice to say, however the universe stated or rebooted, causality was enacted from thence, and here we are (random interpretations of QM aside).

    “Why even get up in the morning, why live, why not rape, murder, etc?” – this is fatalism and not determinism, one being psychological and the other philosophical. I agree that fatalism is a big (psychological) challenge to determinism, though says nothing of the truth. Sam Harris and others talk a lot of this. Here is a thread on his forum with some good explanations and links: https://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/16904/

    Why not rape/murder has nothing to do with determinism, and more to do with your own moral value system, morality and life. I am a determinist, but don’t just think “fuck it all, I’m off to kill someone!”.

    Interestingly, Saul Smilansky wrote a book on free will as an illusion and then urged not to let the masses know as it would be dangerous! Also, we potentially evolved the illusion of free will – for a reason. And perhaps shedding that beneficial trait might be problematic! But, like Spinoza and Pereboom and others, I think it will on balance be beneficial to society to understand the universe as best we can, including causality.

    3) I believe, in some sense, there is no really big distinction for the purposes here in just deserts and justice. Someone does something wrong, they get time in prison as justice – they deserved it for doing wrong: their just deserts. The question would become, again, “what for?” This is wrapped up, in determinism, with praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, which has no place in hard determinism (though reactive attitudes are part of our makeup – this is why Strawson believes we should retain the illusion of free will because he sees our psychological reactive attitudes as so integral to human nature that we can’t shift them). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FocUpoReaAtt

    I will paste the pertinent passage here:
    In “Freedom and Resentment” (1962), P.F. Strawson broke ranks with the classical compatibilists. Strawson developed three distinct arguments for compatibilism, arguments quite different from those the classical compatibilists endorsed. But more valuable than his arguments was his general theory of what moral responsibility is, and hence, what is at stake in arguing about it. Strawson held that both the incompatibilists and the compatibilists had misconstrued the nature of moral responsibility. Each disputant, Strawson suggested, advanced arguments in support of or against a distorted simulacrum of the real deal.

    To understand moral responsibility properly, Strawson invited his reader to consider the reactive attitudes one has towards another when she recognizes in another’s conduct an attitude of ill will. The reactions that flow naturally from witnessing ill will are themselves attitudes that are directed at the perpetrator’s intentions or attitudes. When a perpetrator wrongs a person, she, the wronged party, typically has a personal reactive attitude of resentment. When the perpetrator wrongs another, some third party, the natural reactive attitude is moral indignation, or disapprobation, which amounts to a “vicarious analogue” of resentment felt on behalf of the wronged party. When one is oneself the wronging party, reflecting upon or coming to realize the wrong done to another, the natural reactive attitude is guilt.

    Strawson wanted contestants to the free will debate to see more clearly than they had that excusing a person — electing not to hold her morally responsible — involves more than some objective judgment that she did not do such and such, or did not intend so and so, and therefore does not merit some treatment or other. It involves a suspension or withdrawal of certain morally reactive attitudes, attitudes involving emotional responses. On Strawson’s view, what it is to hold a person morally responsible for wrong conduct is nothing more than the propensity towards, or the sustaining of, a morally reactive attitude of disapprobation. Crucially, the disapprobation is in response to the perceived attitude of ill will or culpable motive in the conduct of the person being held responsible. Hence, Strawson explains, posing the question of whether the entire framework of moral responsibility should be given up as irrational (if it were discovered that determinism is true) is tantamount to posing the question of whether persons in the interpersonal community — that is, in real life — should forswear having reactive attitudes towards persons who wrong others, and who sometimes do so intentionally. Strawson invites us to see that the morally reactive attitudes that are the constitutive basis of our moral responsibility practices, as well as the interpersonal relations and expectations that give structure to these attitudes, are deeply interwoven into human life. These attitudes, relations and expectations are so much an expression of natural, basic features of our social lives — of their emotional textures — that it is practically inconceivable to imagine how they could be given up.

    Back to me. I would not be so strong on utilitarianism, since about 90% intuitively are (on the trolley experiment in basic form). The simple fact of the matte ris no moral value system works perfectly. It’s that simple. Philosophers have got nowhere in all the time they have spent arguing the most fundamental area, and are currently split into roughly thirds among the three main contenders (deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics). This lends to the fact that perhaps we should adhere to moral nihilism (in the sense that abstract ideas don’t exist ontically, outside of our conceptual minds, and thus to claim morality is objectively true would be false). This can be uncomfortable for some, but it is consistent with what is descriptively going on. I believe in a universal subjective morality based on lots of caveats. Whether this is actually moral realism, I doubt. I am a conceptual nominalist, so abstract ideas, as mentioned, do not exist outside of conceiving minds.

    As for consequentialism, there are many nuanced forms, and very complex and intricate manners of trying to get around the problems you seem to see. Eg http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/

    A few examples: Consequentialism = whether an act is morally right depends only on consequences (as opposed to the circumstances or the intrinsic nature of the act or anything that happens before the act).
    Actual Consequentialism = whether an act is morally right depends only on the actualconsequences (as opposed to foreseen, foreseeable, intended, or likely consequences).
    Direct Consequentialism = whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act itself (as opposed to the consequences of the agent’s motive, of a rule or practice that covers other acts of the same kind, and so on).
    Evaluative Consequentialism = moral rightness depends only on the value of the consequences (as opposed to non-evaluative features of the consequences).
    Hedonism = the value of the consequences depends only on the pleasures and pains in the consequences (as opposed to other goods, such as freedom, knowledge, life, and so on).
    Maximizing Consequentialism = moral rightness depends only on which consequences are best(as opposed to merely satisfactory or an improvement over the status quo).
    Aggregative Consequentialism = which consequences are best is some function of the values of parts of those consequences (as opposed to rankings of whole worlds or sets of consequences).
    Total Consequentialism = moral rightness depends only on the total net good in the consequences (as opposed to the average net good per person).
    Universal Consequentialism = moral rightness depends on the consequences for all people or sentient beings (as opposed to only the individual agent, members of the individual’s society, present people, or any other limited group).
    Equal Consideration = in determining moral rightness, benefits to one person matter just as much as similar benefits to any other person (= all who count count equally).
    Agent-neutrality = whether some consequences are better than others does not depend on whether the consequences are evaluated from the perspective of the agent (as opposed to an observer).

  • Jonathan, I am currently gathering data to write a pretty lengthy bit on the problem of evil and unbelief and there is A LOT of things you’ve said that I really want to implement (even some of the responses in the comments here). Of course, I don’t want to do that without your permission. Is this ok to use your words here either paraphrased or quoted? (I’ll definitely be sure to cite this weblink if I did)

    If what you said is true, do you agree that this makes every moral evil ultimately due to some underlying natural evil?

    Also, if you have any links to articles/books that will be good for the discussion of how omniscience/foreknowledge/sovereignty relates to evil and unbelief, I really would appreciate if you could direct me (I have your book “Free Will? that I cannot wait to read).

    If email is better, my email is [email protected]

What do you think? Leave some comments!