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Is free will incompatible with physical determinism?
In this essay, I will begin by explaining the consequence argument, subsequently introducing Lewis’ objection of local miracle compatibilism. However, I will show how Lewis’ objection falls short. I will not argue that the consequence argument is sound, but I will show how specific objections such as Lewis’ does not prove that it is not sound, and on this basis, we have strong reasons to accept incompatibilism. Overall, I will not spend time debating whether determinism is plausible, as this is a contested matter that is beyond this scope of essay. Controversy begins when one investigates whether free will is compatible with determinism, in which I will argue that it is not.
Some judge, J, could have prevented the execution of a sentence to death upon a criminal by raising his hand.
Below is a basic formulation of the consequence argument by Van Inwagen who is an incompatibilist. Incompatibilism is the thesis that one cannot act freely if we accept that determinism is true. Before I outline the argument, let me clarify its main components. 𝑃0 represents the initial state of the world at T0; L represents a description of the laws of physics; P denotes the proposition that expresses the state of the universe at T. In this scenario, P would be J not raising his hand at T, which led to the execution of a criminal (Van Inwagen, 1975: P190). Theconsequence argument is comprised of the following premises:
1) If determinism is true, then the conjunction of 𝑃0 and L entails P.
2) If J raised his hand at T, then P would be false.
3) If (2) is true, then if J could have raised his hand at T, J could have rendered P false.
4) If J could have rendered P false, and if the conjunction of𝑃0 and L entails P, then J could have rendered the conjunction of 𝑃0 and L false.
5) If J could have rendered the conjunction of P0 and L false, then J could have rendered L false.
6) J could not have rendered L false.
7) If determinism is true, J could not have raised his hand at T.
This argument is valid in which if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows. Premise 1 follows from the definition of determinism; as the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy suggests, determinism is the concept that everything that happens, including everything that has happened or will happen, is determined by external facts such as the initial state of the universe combined with the laws of nature (Kadri, 2018). Premise 2 simply translates the ability to do otherwise into the idiom of “rendering a proposition false”. Premise 3 logically follows from the previous premises, in which if J raised his hand at T, then P would be false. Premise 4 argues that if a phenomenon is logically entailed by two other things, and you manage to render that phenomenon false, you then render those two other things false. Premise 5 logically follows from premise 4. Premise 6 strikes much controversy between compatibilists and incompatibilists, and I will be testing this premise. Van Inwagen argues that, “if anyone can (i.e., has it within his power to) render some proposition false, then that proposition is not a law of physics” (Van Inwagen, 1975: P193). In turn, if J raised his hand, the proposition would simply not be a law of physics because nobody can render a law of physics false. However, since it was a law of physics, it could not be rendered false. (Beebee, 2013: P19).Overall, if determinism is true, then one could not have done anything otherwise than what one did; according to the Consequence Argument, one simply cannot act freely.
Although premise 6 of the consequence argument seems intuitively attractive, some compatibilists, whilst accepting determinism, have questioned the premise’s plausibility.Lewis’ ‘local miracle compatibilism’ argument poses the most interesting objection. He renders Van Inwagen’s 6th premise as ambiguous, and differentiates two potential meanings:
6a) J cannot do or cause anything that would itselfconstitute a law-breaking event.
6b) J cannot do anything such that, were he to do it, some actual law L would be false.
Lewis believes that there is a possible world where counterfactual scenarios exist. Let us call this possible world W, where laws of nature are being routinely falsified through a ‘local miracle’; event M is a miracle if and only if M occurs at W, and M is contrary to some actual law L in the actualworld (Beebee, 2003: P266). In turn, premise (6a) would constitute an A1 ability (strong), where an agent causing some law L to fail by way of some direct-action A is untrue. Premise (6b) would constitute an A2 ability (weak), where an agent cannot execute an action that would render some law L false, even when it is not directly by his action, which Lewis claims is also untrue (Lewis, 1981: P115). In turn, Lewis believes that we have weak abilities because that counterfactual that ‘I am able to do something such that, if I did a law would have been broken’ does not imply that either my action or an effect of my action was a law-breaking event (Oakley, 2006: P338). As such, Lewis believes that if we insert (6a) into the Consequence Argument, the argument will be true, however it will not be valid since the fact that J cannot cause a law-breaking event does not (together with the other premises) entail that J cannot raise his hand. If instead we insert (6b), the argument will be valid, but it will not be sound because it will be a false premise since J could raise his hand; this is because we are able to do some things such that were we to do them, an actual law would be false since our acts are consequences of true propositions about the past and the laws. According to Lewis, the consequence argument fails to establish incompatibilism on either premise (Beebee, 2003: P264).
The compatibilist in this sense would accept premise (6a) as true, whilst denying premise (6b). Beebee presents the best objection to Lewis’ claim. Local miracle compatiblism cannot rule out the existence of possible worlds at which A1 abilities are false, failing to provide us any reason for why we are unable to break the laws of nature. If local miracle compatibilism cannot rule out the possibility that deterministic agents have strong abilities, then it is committed to the claim that it is merely a contingent matter (Beebee, 2003: P268). However, it seems implausible for it to be a contingent matter; the laws of nature place inviolable constraints on our actions irrespective of our social conditions and circumstances. Lewis argues that the divergent miracle could not have been, for example, J raising his hand (assuming J raised his hand), but some event prior to J raising his hand which changed the course of action. What strikes most contention is Lewis’ argument that “Nor would it have been any other act of mine.” (1981, 294). Lewis gives no reason where event M, my deciding to raise my hand, cannot be the divergence miracle, and hence a law-breaking event (strong ability, A1). In turn, if there is no reason to suppose that one cannot hold strong abilities, then there is no reason to suppose that one cannot hold strong abilities in all possible worlds.
Lewis argues that the agent’s action does not directly cause the divergent miracle. This is because the action was absent from the actual course of events, and some prior divergence was in fact the cause that broke the law, hence J (for example) raising his hand must be a weak ability. This is an attempt to reconcile how L could be rendered false without a strong ability, redefining premise 6 of the consequence argument: J could have raised his hand if some prior divergence miracle occurred. However, such a response seems implausiblebecause it leads to an infinite regress (Beebee, 2003: P270). We could use the same reasoning onto some divergence miracle N, in which N would not be a divergence miracle, but would be some result of some prior divergence miracle, just like any other event. In turn, the concept of a having events different to what 𝑃0 and L entails seems implausible, and the consequence argument stands.