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The True Problem of Determinism And Robert Kane’s New Libertarianism Taylor Wilkinson


We can appeal to common experience in the assertion of our free will. But what, if anything, does common experience tell us? Certainly we can be fooled by our senses, misguided by our prejudices, and led astray by the habits of common day-to-day experience. The concept of freedom and not just freedom from coercion (physical and otherwise), but true freedom of the conscious agent to do as he or she will at every moment is either an illusion or is metaphysical truth. Still others say that we do, in a sense, have metaphysical freedom of will and in a sense we do not (they are called the compatibilists).

I deem it safe to say that in our common everyday experience away from our philosophical pulpits, we at least act and think as though we are agents with free wills. It would be rather disturbing or odd to see somebody in the act of robbing a bank and explaining to the teller that “I am doing this because I am determined to do this, I really have no real choice in the matter sir and I am simply along for the ride”.

If determinism is true, then in what sense are we responsible for our actions? In what sense do we deserve praise or punishment? What happens to morality? What about the relevance and importance of our human emotions? When I love a person (and I am a determinist), I do not freely will to love a person in the metaphysical sense, but I love a person because I was destined to (which may or may not sound romantic depending on your point of view, I am inclined to think the latter). Modern physics folds another wrinkle in this issue, and there are those who hail quantum mechanics as a savior for indeterminism and those that are skeptical of its implications for free will. I will briefly touch on the infusion of quantum mechanics to the debate when I discuss Kane’s libertarian argument. Regardless, I take it as obvious fact that an ultimate free will is necessary for moral responsibility and the relevancy of human interaction. The traditional libertarian argument, however, is highly inconsistent and therefore needs restructuring. Robert Kane who is a leading champion for indeterminism proposes a new system, and it is this one I wish to evaluate and defend.

Libertarianism is notoriously difficult to defend due to major inconsistencies, contrasted with the much simpler and systematically coherent determinism theory. There is no doubt a great temptation to subscribe to the determinism, but I find the consequences quite bizarre. Ted Honderich, a leading determinist even has trouble with the implications of his philosophy: Having lately engaged explicitly in autobiography, rather than the kind of it in which philosophy is sometimes said to consist, I have been newly taken aback by the strength and durability of my attitudes to myself inconsistent with determinism. Is the stuff about culture really enough to explain them? (Honderich).

One needs to appreciate Honderich’s honesty and deep thought about the consequences of a determinist theory. It is important to see the shift Honderich wants to make in the free will debate, namely that the question needs to be focused on what the theory means to us in our lives and how we are to reconcile it with our attitudes. I see no hope of resolution between determinism and our common attitude, but I do see hope elsewhere and I think Honderich does as well:

Will some dramatically different reconciliation of determinism and freedom one day be achieved? Certainly it will not be another appearance of that weary warhorse, Compatibilism. Will it have something to do with a connection between desire and truth? Again the point is not about desires affecting our pursuit of truth or obscuring it, but about their entering into the constitution of it (Honderich).

Something needs to be said about his last point. I am not in any way rejecting determinism simply because of our “desires”; indeed I find determinism a very philosophically appealing theory. But if we put the theory into practice it simply does not work with our psychological and moral practices (I gave the bank robber example at the beginning of this essay). I find a different theory even more appealing and better fit to our psychology, namely Robert Kane’s new version of libertarianism.

Kane’s new theory is focused on the development of character—which draws from Aristotelian virtue ethics. It is important to define the idea of free will in a concrete way, and Kane identifies it as “the power of agents to be the ultimate creators and sustainers of their own ends or purposes” (Kane). The word “ultimate” is of utmost importance for the theory, because at the foundation of Kane’s libertarian argument is the condition of Ultimate Responsibility (UR for short); that is “to be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason (condition, cause or motive) for the action's occurring” (Kane). Kane wants to put responsibility back into our choices through the development of our character, and he admittedly acquires this from Aristotle.

According to Aristotle we develop our characters through our choices and actions—so if one has a morally good character then he or she must have sometime in the past made a good choice to foster that disposition. Yet, so far it seems determinism could still potentially be compatible with UR in that our choices are predetermined and therefore our characters are as well. Nobody would deny that the bank robber was the agent performing the action, and his character has a certain temperament that would necessitate the robbery (nobody was holding a gun to his head to force the felony). This is the sort of argument that the compatibilist makes but Kane is very much against compatibilism. There is a sense in which Kane agrees that some of our choices are determined, but they are determined through our character. The difference between Kane and a determinist (and a compatibilist) is that we are ultimately responsible for our characters in that we are the ultimate creators of our actions. It is through individual moral development that free will takes a part in, and not necessarily at the particular time and place of the choice. For Kane, free will is made possible through what he calls “self forming actions” (or SFAs). SFAs are choices and actions that we make that contribute towards a disposition, which has the possibility of determining future choices and actions (Kane). It is in the self-forming actions that there must be a break of deterministic causation.

Many indeterminists have called chance to the frontlines of the debate, but probability is fundamentally problematic for free will since it takes away responsibility just as much as deterministic events would. To illustrate, if I am in a situation where I am making a decision between A and B, a chance event spontaneously inserts itself into neuronal processes and I (as a result of chance) choose B. There is no sense in which I had true responsibility for my choice since it was all up to chance. The insertion of random events is extremely problematic for libertarians and many have tried to find solutions. Kane finds the traditional explanations unsatisfactory since they call into the discussion a so-called “extra factor” (Kane). These factors include Kant’s “noumenal self” that appeal to something beyond the normal flow of events within the brain that try to explain away the gap that occurs in the decision process without appealing to chance events. The problem with these, according to Kane, is that traditional agent causation “cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary modes of causation in terms of events familiar to the sciences” (Kane). This is a major point at which, up until now, determinists have solidified their split with their libertarian opponents. They are disenchanted, and rightfully so, with the “extra factors” that give determinists like Honderich ammunition for labeling libertarianism as more a belief than a philosophically rigorous system. Kane’s new argument does a number against that criticism in reframing the position of indeterminists.

A key point to understanding the new system is that not all acts have to be undetermined, but only those by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely "self-forming actions" as touched on earlier (Kane). But how is our character formation through SFAs undetermined? The answer Kane gives is internal strife and conflict—a sort of excitation of chaos “in the brain that makes it sensitive to micro-indeterminacies at the neuronal level” (Kane). All of us have had moments where we have had great difficulty making moral decisions, or decisions about our future that concerns who and what we may become. It is these moments of uncertainty that our choices are undetermined and we build our character. Now, one could still reasonably say that this is just an insertion of chance in a disguised way, but Kane wants to make it clear that the will still has a great role to play in the decision process (or rather a combination of several wills). In those times of internal conflict and soul-searching there is a competition of several previously formed wills each with different motives. From the conflict comes the decision, that is a SFA, and from the aggregation of SFAs we are able to derive Ultimate Responsibility (UR). I find Kane’s theory sufficient in explaining how the free will is possible with indeterminstic events without denying determinism completely, and without the complications associated with chance. Now any libertarian argument must include an assumption; it is simply unavoidable. Kane’s presupposition is that indeterministic events do occur at some level in the neuronal activity of the brain. So any reductionist who holds that neural events are purely deterministic will at once have to reject Kane’s argument on that basis. But, neuroscience according to Kane has at this point neither affirmed nor denied the existence of indeterministic events in the brain and it is reasonable to posit “that some combination of quantum physics and the new sciences of chaos and complexity in self-organizing systems may provide sufficient indeterminacy in nature for free will. But it is only an idea” (Kane). This is Kane’s greatest weakness in his philosophy, as he fully admits. Yet this same weakness can be said of determinism, in that they presuppose neural events are purely deterministic—which scientific results have not verified beyond a reasonable doubt. Time will only tell as the debate balances in the hand of neurology.

Presuppositions aside, the uniqueness of the SFA idea is what provides freshness to the libertarian’s repertoire. Robert Kane puts our free will exactly where we need it: in the process of forming our character. Our individual dispositions and moral structure is exactly what we want and should call our own. This is something the determinist necessarily cannot claim to posses, and gives rise to the massive inconsistencies that Ted Honderich noted with the way we live our life and our philosophies. Illustrative of this is David Hume’s advice to “Be a philosopher but, amid all your philosophy be still a man”. Hume was well aware of the consequences of his own philosophy how inconsistent they were with human life. The strength of Kane’s argument is that it is both philosophically plausible and is still in sync with the way we live our lives. It does not have the same unsatisfactory chasm between our experience of reality and what our philosophy tells us as Honderich candidly admitted. Even if you do not buy into Kane’s unique theory you must admit that it breathes life into a rather stalemated topic.



Works Cited

Honderich, Ted "Determinism As True, Both Compatibilism and Incompatibilism As False, and the Real Problem." The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York: Oxford Univ Pr, 2002. Philosopher's Index. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2009.

Kane, Robert "Responsibility, luck, and chance: Reflections on free will and indeterminism." Journal of Philosophy 96.5 (1999): 217. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2009.