Saturday, July 16, 2005

Freedom & time-travel

I’ve been asked to comment on Peter van Inwagen’s objection to theological determinism. This is, of course, bound up with his case for libertarian freedom. If LFW is true, then theological determinism is false.

I’ll confine myself to three comments:

i) Van Inwagen’s argument has evolved over the years. In fact, he’s come to the point at which he regards the arguments for determinism and indeterminism as equiprobable, or—if you prefer--equi-improbable, in the sense that both can’t be right, although both can both be wrong, and he is, in his own words, “absolutely clueless,” as to where the truth lies, and, indeed, regards the dilemma as “evidently impossible of solution.”

ii) This raises the question of what, if anything, would count as evidence for LFW even if LFW were true. There are three logical alternatives:

a) Hard determinism: We are not free to do otherwise even if we wanted to do otherwise.

b) Soft determinism: We are free to do otherwise if we want to do otherwise—although we are not free to want to do otherwise.

c) Indeterminism: We are free to want to do otherwise.

The Westminster Confession implicitly opts for (b). Cf. WCF 3.1; 4:2.

An example of hard determinism would be Frankfurt-cases. A Frankfurt-case is a thought-experiment in which the subject, unbeknownst to himself, has a failsafe device implanted in his brain which would prevent him from making a certain choice.

Frankfurt-cases are generally deployed to show that LFW is not a necessary condition of moral responsibility. But aside from their relevance to the ethical issues raised in the debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism, they are also relevant to the epistemic question of what would count as evidence for LFW, were it true.

The problem which Frankfurt-cases pose for libertarians is that the subject of the experiment believes himself to be free, even though he isn’t. There is nothing in his experience to falsify his belief that he is other than free, even though his belief is false.

On this view, not only is hard determinism compatible with moral responsibility, it is also compatible with the illusion LFW.

It is not my purpose to make a case for hard determinism. Rather, I’m arguing from the greater to the lesser. If the indeterminist can’t even disprove hard determinism, he can scarcely disprove soft determinism.

The problem is that an agent is in no position to know, from the inside out, whether his actions are determined by an external source.

As such, this question can only be resolved by revelation rather than reason.

iii) Finally, I’d like to raise another objection to LFW. Since we’ve all grown up on SF, we’re all familiar with the paradoxes of time-travel. And this is one reason to believe that time travel and retrocausation are impossible.

In a typical case, a scientist goes back in time and accidentally kills his father before is father has a chance to father him. But to change the future in that respect would remove a necessary condition for the experiment in the first place, since the son would not exist in the future to go back in time and accidentally kill his own father.

Now, I submit that if LFW were true, it would raise this conundrum to a global level. The typical form of the paradox assumes that a time traveler must intervene in the past to change the past in order to change the future.

But, if LFW were true, no such intervention would be needed to change the future. It would be inessential to alter the past in order to alter the future.

Rather, all you’d need to do, to alter the future, would be to exactly replicate the past. For the leading principle of LFW is that an agent is free to do otherwise under the very same circumstances.

And this, I submit, carries a further implication. If LFW were true, and you kept replicating the past, then, of necessity, the same agent would do otherwise in the same situation. If he really could do otherwise, and you keep giving him enough chances to do otherwise, he would do otherwise—sooner or later.

But if enough past agents were to do otherwise, the future would be so different that the experiment could not be performed in the first place.

Hence, I conclude that LFW is incoherent on the same grounds as retrocausation.


  1. Thanks for the post! I mentioned in my second email that I might ask a follow up question, and now I have one (yeah, I know, didn't take very long... lol).

    Inwagen says in that article you linked:

    **Begin Quote**
    And either this nature determines that He shall create a world or it does not. If he does, He was not free not to create. If it does not, then, it would seem, the fact that He did create a world was merely a matter of chance. For what, other than chance, could be responsible for the fact that He created a world? His choice or His will? But what determined that he should make that choice when the choice not to make a world was also consistent with His nature? What determined that His will should be set on making a world, when a will set on not making a world was also consistent with His nature? We should not be surprised that our dilemma concerning metaphysical freedom applies even to God, for the dilemma does not depend on the nature of the agent to whom the concept of metaphysical freedom is applied. The dilemma arises from the concept of metaphysical freedom itself, and its conclusion is that metaphysical freedom is a contradictory concept. And a contradictory concept can no more apply to God than it can apply to anything else.
    **End Quote**

    What would you say to an incompatibilist who responded in this way (I'm quoting a friend's paper here):

    **Begin Quote**
    For consider the creation of the physical universe by God. Surely it is not the case that there are causal laws and antecedent conditions outside his control that determine what he does. On the contrary: God is the author of the causal laws that do in fact obtain And obviously enough, God had a choice in the matter as well. There is something obviously flawed in the argument cited by Inwagen as if true, then it appears that God could have no choice about the outcome of any of his own deliberations. An interesting theological brew indeed ! In light of that, it seems rational to say that Jane does indeed have a choice about whether the pulse [he's referring to an example of a neural pulse deciding what choice Jane will make in a situation -A] goes to the right or left. This is so because (like God) Jane is a person and is the ultimate source of action . Jane choosing to tell the truth is not caused by another event or a desire/state within Jane, but is instead caused by Jane herself. In response to this, the compatiblist may ask, well what caused Jane to decide to tell the truth? This is not a valid question, as it is logically impossible for a person to be caused to agent-cause something . To say that Jane is the agent-cause of her decision to tell the truth is to say by definition that she is the uncaused cause of that act. There does seem to be some mystery about how a person actually goes about agent-causing a decision in regards to the actual world. Yet in my estimation this is not something to lose sleep over as there is precedent to believe in agent-causation due to the existence of God.
    **End Quote**

    What I'm most interested to know is what you think about the basic response above that asking "what caused this person to choose this" is an invalid question, and therefore that there is no problem with incompatibilism.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but I wasn't sure how else to phrase it besides quoting.

    Thanks again! No need to hurry in responding if you're busy. :-)

  2. I don’t agree either with van Inwagen or your friend, but for different reasons. My basic problem in van Inwagen’s dilemma, as applied to God, is that it suffers from an equivocation of terms or simple semantic fallacy.

    He is using the word “cause” the way it’s used in the cosmological argument, where a cause is external to the agent or part of a cause/effect continuum, or outside the causal chain, as its primary cause.

    And the presupposition of the cosmological argument is that an infinite chain of causal links would be vicious.

    Now, whether or not we agree with any of this, to apply that category to divine volition is a misapplication. The proper way to pose the question is not to ask what “caused” God to choose to create this world, but to ask what “reason” did God have for choosing to create this world. Reasons are not external to the agent. So to ask what “reason” God had for doing X does not put God within a causal continuum.

    A reason can function as a cause. I drank a glass of lemonade be-cause I was thirsty. That’s my reason for imbibing lemonade, of which imbibing is the effect.

    Yet someone might ask, what caused me to have that reason? But whether this is a different and deeper question depends on what we are after. In some cases it’s just a different way of posing the same why-question: Why did you do it? What was your reason? What caused you to do it?

    When, for example, your friend says that “Jane is the agent-cause of her decision, does the qualifying phrase “agent-cause” really have any explanatory value? Or is it just a disguised description? Does it mean anything more than simply saying that “Jane made the decision herself“? Throwing in the phrase “agent-cause” may look like we’re explaining something, but all we’re really doing is to say the same thing twice over.

    “Agent-causing a decision” is like “willing a will.” The tautology is disguised by substituting different synonyms.

    So this is really a stalling tactic. My basic problem with your friend’s reply is that he simply begs the question, and does so in especially implausible fashion.

    BTW, whenever the phrase “by definition” appears in the course of an argument, nine times out of ten this is a sure-fire indication that the argument suffered a fatal heart-attack before crossing the finish-line, and everything which follows “by definition” is verbal padding.

    In action-theory, the agent may be the immediate cause of the effect, but an agent chooses according to his nature (character-determinism) and circumstances (freedom of opportunity). In the case of a human agent, his nature and circumstances have a source outside himself.

    Thus far, in speaking of an “agent,” I’ve confined myself to human agents. But at this juncture there is a critical difference between a divine and a human agency. God was not endowed with the nature he has. And God is not confronted with a set of circumstances, from which he must choose. Rather, it is God’s own nature that generates the array of possible choices.

    In addition, a human being is a property-instance of human nature. Hence, the nature determines the person, in the sense that all human beings share certain generic traits that both empower and constrain their field of action.

    However, God is not a property-instance of a divine nature. There is no exemplar/exemplum relation in play here: no antecedent nature ontologically prior to God that takes him as its particular instantiation. So God’s nature doesn’t “cause” God to be or do what he is or does in the sense that human nature causes a man to be or do what he is or does. God’s nature is simply the sum of his attributes. Given his attributes, there are certain things he wouldn’t do. But that’s not be-cause of the “kind” of being he is.

    Going back to van Inwagen, there’s a difference between saying that a divine reason determined his choice, and saying that a reason determined God (in making that choice). A divine reason is not something over and above God himself.

    In addition, the alternative to denying that God’s choice was necessitated is not to leave it to chance. On the one hand, reasoned action is the antithesis of random chance or random events. On the other hand, reasons need not constrain a given course of action, for the action or inaction, or choice of action may, in each case, involve a good—a lesser good or greater good or alternative good or second-order good. Each potential choice would be a good choice, and therefore be reasonable, without there having to be a compelling reason for any of them to obtain.

  3. Wow, thanks again for a such a detailed answer!

  4. Steve,

    While I would agree with your first two comments as a matter of course, the third criticism (regarding time travel) is very thought-provoking (in the way only SF can be!).

    Would LFW be incompatible with current quantum mechanics and string theory regarding potential "parallel universes" in time travel and causality (popularly, if not completely accurately, displayed in Jerry Bruckheimer's film "Deja Vu")?

    And doesn't your criticism presuppose a B-theory of time which many LFW advocates would not be willing to grant?