Dr. Torley sometimes buries some beautiful stuff in the comment threads of his posts. I am determined to dig them out to display to a wider audience. Here’s one. In response to a comment on his free will post he writes:
Thank you for a thought-provoking response. I have to say that despite the impressive level of argumentation, I was not persuaded that a determinist gains anything by taking responsibility for past mistakes.
You offer the example of the two women, one of whom takes responsibility for her past while the other one does not. You appeal to a complicated metaphysic of alternative universes to justify your point that by taking responsibility for your past, you can change your future. I would reply that you can change your future without taking responsibility for your past. Consider the following example.
Tess is a young athlete. She’s very good at running 100-meter sprints. She has a rival, named Sandra. One day, at an athletics carnival, they race. Sandra wins by 0.2 seconds. Tess feels disappointed. But she’s an incompatibilist determinist, so she does not feel guilty for not having trained harder.
After the race, her coach walks up to her with a video in his hand. He’s an incompatibilist determinist, too, so he doesn’t raise his voice or get angry at her. He sits down with her and they watch the video together. “Now I want you to look at this,” he says, showing her a clip of the beginning of the race. “Do you see how your feet were positioned at the start? Now have a look at Sandra’s starting position. Her feet are perfectly positioned. That gave her a 0.3-second advantage. But Sandra only won today’s race by 0.2 seconds, so I’d say she’s 0.1 second slower than you are. Why don’t you try Sandra’s crouch position next time? Our next practice session is tomorrow.”
Tess agrees and the next day, she practices starting a race in Sandra’s crouch position. Her coach is right. It shaves about 0.3 seconds off her time for the 100 meters. At the next athletics carnival, Tess beats Sandra by 0.1 second, just as her coach had predicted.
See what I mean? No counterfactuals, no alternative universes, no Godel paradoxes. Just give it a go, based on an appeal to deterministic considerations: the mechanics of running. Change the inputs to get different outputs. In my story, Tess manages to turn her running career around: she gets to be the State champion. But she remains an incompatibilist determinist. She isn’t a “prisoner of her past”; she simply doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk”, as she puts it.
End of story? No, not quite. Just before the National Championships, Tess is feeling rather nervous, because she knows that ten runners from other states are better than her. Her coach (who has no scruples about doing whatever it takes to win) offers her a drug that will speed up her reaction times, and that will leave no traces in her system after two hours. She agrees to take the drug, because she has heard that athletes are seldom tested right after the race. Unfortunately, the coach of one of her rivals has videotaped the event, and notices on the replay that Tess was out of the blocks very early. He calls for a drug test immediately after the race. Tess is found to have taken a performance-enhancing drug. She is banned from competition for two years, and is sent home in disgrace.
On the bus ride home, Tess gazes out the window, and has a good, hard think. All her life she has been focused on one thing: getting good results. Do whatever works best. That has been her motto. Now she sees that living in acordance with that motto has landed her in disgrace. She realizes too that all her life, she has been manipulating her circumstances to help her get the best results, in a very calculating, deterministic fashion. That includes people too. She has been treating other people merely as means to help her realize her personal goals, instead of as agents like herself. That has been her mistake. She remembers the look of utter contempt that the other State runners gave her when her result came back positive. “I’ve been training for this day for three years”, one of them said to her. “Why did you have to spoil it for me?” Tess realizes that she has neglected to think about how other people feel. But then a little demon of doubt enters her mind. “We’re all determined”, it says. “That’s science. You know that. Change your attitude if you like, but don’t pretend it’s any different from improving your running techniques. You’re just changing your behavior to fit your new goal: social acceptance by your peers, so you can come back and race again in two years’ time. I suppose you’ll be appearing on TV soon in a commercial, telling kids not to do drugs? Nice. Will that be that part of your rehabilitation? Whatever. You’re still the same old you. You haven’t changed a bit, deep down. And you never will.”
“NO!” Tess screams aloud, startling herself and the other passengers on the bus. Something has changed inside her. She felt a surge of empathy with the other State runners, this afternoon: she felt their pain and disappointment. She recognizes that she has stopped thinking of herself and other people as objects – very complex objects, to be sure, but still objects – bascially, glorified machines. That, she realizes, has been the root of her problem. For if people really are like that, then what’s wrong with manipulating them? The key to freeing herself from the machine metaphor, she realizes, is to stop thinking like a machine. No more “What are my goals and what’s the best way to achive them?” Forget about goals,and focus on agents. “Who is in my world, what are my relationships to them, and what obligations do I have towards them?” That is the primary question. Once she has adopted this moral perspective, Tess notices that she is no longer goal-focused. She has become more people-focused. She has stopped living her life as if the arrow of time were moving inexorably towards the big D. Her new moral perspective is now a timeless one. She, like the other moral agents she has started noticing around her, is no longer concerned with future goals as such. For the goals that befit a human being are not future goals, but ones that transcend time. She decides to go back into athletics, not as a runner but as a coach. She decides not to train champions, but to help kids of varying backgrounds and levels of ability experience the pure, wholehearted joy of participating in a physical activity while doing their personal best. Looking back, she can see that it was that feeling of joy that got her into running in the first place.
In Tess’s new life, determinism doesn’t get a toe-hold. She still believes that procedures work, and that they can be made to work better by manipulating the circumstances. That’s a perfectly legitimate way of thinkig about objects. But she no longer counts people as objects. Insofar as they are capable of moral agency, they transcend the physical universe. She thinks of herself as transcending this cosmos, too. Laws constrain her – she can’t run 100 meters in 2 seconds – but they do not define her. Neither do circumstances. The moral universe in which she operates is no longer one of past, present and future alone, and she no longer fancies that her thoughts are the product of her brain chemistry. Her thoughts are what they are, and she doesn’t try to put them in a box. She realizes that her thoughts and attitudes are, to a large degree, something which she can freely choose. She no longer tries to predict other people’s behavior, in order to manipulate it better; instead, she tries to understand it. She is always aware, however, that to understand is not the same as to excuse. She can understand her past moral mistakes, but she makes no attempt to excuse them. She simply wants to live a good life in her chosen field: athletics.
Elizabeth, I know that you strongly believe in agency. But it is profoundly self-limiting to accept the notion that your noblest thoughts, words and deeds arise out of your body and brain chemistry – even if they are not reducible to it. For by accepting this notion of supervenience, you have allowed yourself to believe that the domain of the moral can be explained in terms of a domain whose workings are entirely non-moral (physics and chemistry). That is a notion that stunts people from achieving their full potential. And there’s not a smidgin of scientific evidence for it. I would urge you to liberate yourself from the confines of the material cosmos. For it does not contain you; part of you will always lie outside it, no matter how you draw it.
I know you like Godel, so here are a few quotes from him, taken from A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy by Hao Wang (MIT Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0262231893). “Consciousness is connected with one unity. A machine is composed of parts.” “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit.” “Materialism is false.” “Our total reality and total existence are beautiful and meaningful . . . . We should judge reality by the little which we truly know of it. Since that part which conceptually we know fully turns out to be so beautiful, the real world of which we know so little should also be beautiful. Life may be miserable for seventy years and happy for a million years: the short period of misery may even be necessary for the whole.” And I suppose you’re aware that Godel originated an interesting little proof for the existence of God, right?