Stopping The Buck

In scattered posts over the past weeks, we’ve been circling warily around the ancient puzzle of free will, looking from various angles at some of the opinions, beliefs, worries, and wishful thinking that inform our opinions on this vexatious topic. The biggest worry, it seems, is the threat to our moral responsibility posed by the possibility — which is almost certainly true — that our brains, and therefore our minds and our choices, are fully embedded parts of the world’s causal web. But is there really anything to fear?

Before we move on, let’s remind ourselves once again how difficult it is to come up with a coherent alternative. What people seem to be hoping for is some sort of loophole whereby we are Ultimately Responsible: we make our choices, but nothing makes us make our choices. We wish to be Prime Movers, Uncaused Causers, Domino One. This notion is known as “agent-causation”. But does it make any sense?

The problem with determinism, we are told, is that if the present state of our brains is what causes (in the usual way that all the other events in the world appear to be caused) the decision we are about to make a moment from now — and if our present state is in turn the result of previous causal influences of the customary material sort — then the decision, which is really just a link in a causal chain that recedes into the past, is not really ours at all. But what, then, do we want? My brain now is full of thoughts, beliefs, desires, opinions, valuations about the matter at hand; do I really wish that the important decision I am about to make should be disconnected from all of that? And if my decision isn’t going to be the result of summing over all of those complex and countervailing dispositions, then what is it going to be the result of? I certainly don’t want the choice I am about to make to have nothing to do with what I have in mind now, do I? At every moment in time, am I supposed to be radically disconnected from what I was in the previous moment? If so, then how is it even coherent to think of me as the same “me” that I was previously? And if prior deliberations, dispositions, etc., are taken out of the causal sequence, then what is left to do the deciding?

Is the problem limited to a deterministic world? Let’s say that at the moment of choice the causal chain is broken, and my choice, rather than being the result of electrochemical processes in my brain, is made in an indeterministic way: by a coin flip, perhaps — or if that is still too determined for you, then by a truly random event at the quantum level. We have gotten out of the dreaded causal trap, but at a price, because now it’s hard to see how such a choice can really be ours. After all, we didn’t cause the quantum coin-flip to come out the way it did; that’s simply not possible. So how are we responsible?

So we find ourselves in a cleft stick: we are looking for perfect, Ultimate Responsibilty, and nothing — neither determinism nor its opposite — seems to give it to us.

The problem, I think, is our fondness, when thinking about such abstractions, for absolutes. We haven’t even bothered to think about what might constitute an acceptable, useful, real-world concept of responsibility; it’s all or nothing. The unquestioned assumption always seems to be that either we must be godlike Ultimate Buck-Stoppers (whatever that means), or we are entirely worthless. Why?

Perhaps we can do better if we think a little bit more about what really matters, about what might indeed make any sort of meaningful difference in our lives. We might begin with a fundamental question: why do we even care about moral responsibility? We all think it’s awfully important, but have we any idea why? It won’t do just to announce that determinism threatens something infinitely precious; we have to understand just what it is we think is so precious, and why. I think this is where we have to turn our attention next.

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