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Libertarian Free Will and Moral Responsibility

  1. Dec 2, 2007 #1
    Imagine two parallel universes. Everything is exactly the same. In these universes, there exists a man whose desires, knowledge, experience, thoughts etc. are exactly the same. Exactly the same.

    In one Universe, he kills his wife; in the other, he doesn't. This is consistent with libertarian free will (that is, ability to make decisions regardless of desire, knowledge, experience, thoughts, past etc.), how can this man be held morally responsible or accountable?

    In fact, nothing in him, from his desires, experience or thoughts was the reason to why he did. How can one say that the man who killed his wife did something wrong? How can you punish him if his actions did not have anything to do with his desires, knowledge, experience or thoughts?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 2, 2007 #2
    This premise seems inconsistent with the statement that the two versions of this man are exactly the same. Are you saying that in the one case he killed his wife out of random impulse (insane) ?

    In either case judicial punishment has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with vengeance and prevention against recurrence.
  4. Dec 2, 2007 #3
    OK, lets say man A1 = one that killed a wife C. Man A2 = one that did not kill a wife C. So, how do we hold A1 responsible for his actions in your example ?

    Well, clearly, wife C no longer exists in the "A1 universe", while wife C does exist in the "A2 universe" (that is, we know this because you state that both universes are identical just before the killing act, that is, wife C must be present in both universes from the start). So, because the free will actions of Man A1 result in the death of wife C (that is, man A1 had the choice not to kill, similar to the choice made by man A2), and because wife C has a moral right to life in both universes (same rights given to man A1 and man A2), then, in your example, we must hold man A1 responsible for his actions, for the simple reason that moral right to life of wife C no longer exist. Now, one way around this is to claim that wife C does not have same moral right to life as either man A1 or man A2 in either universe--is that what you are saying ?
  5. Dec 2, 2007 #4
    Everything is exactly the same in terms of the material world. The cause is left unexplained; the only thing we know is that the resulting actions where independent of his desires, experience, knowledge and thoughts.

    Rade, the "choice" was not based on something the man's desires, knowledge, thoughts or experience had any control over. If this is correct (which is the premise), then it is impossible to hold the man morally responsible, and thus morally accountable for his actions, since neither his desires, knowledge, thoughts or experience etc. played a role in the action.
  6. Dec 2, 2007 #5
    It does not matter what "played a role"--the action (killing) is immoral because wife C no longer exists in universe of A1.
  7. Dec 3, 2007 #6
    By the same principles that guided him to murder or not murder his wife.
  8. Dec 3, 2007 #7
    Sounds like an accident.

    If he had no control over it, that is, it wasn't intentional nor a result of negligence then how can you even say 'he killed her'? How did she die?

    Your example seems to have some logical inconsistencies.
  9. Dec 3, 2007 #8


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    (Guessing at what you meant the spirit of this hypothetical to be, since the actual statement is poorly worded...)

    We should shun those who would murder just as much as those who do murder. The problem is that it's hard to accurately identify that class of people (remember; we want very few false positives!) unless they've actually committed the murder.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2007
  10. Dec 5, 2007 #9
    But is this even a plausible scenario?? Can we really do ANYTHING that is truly detached from, or rather unaffected by our experiences, desires, knowledge, etc???
  11. Dec 5, 2007 #10


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    I think the definition of free will is a bit skewed here. Free will, from what I understand, is that you can make choices that aren't determined by strictly physical processes. But once you get into this realm, there's no reason to think carbon copies of a universe will have people feeling the same emotions, and have the same desires, because of free will
  12. Dec 21, 2007 #11
    No, that goes against the definition of libertarian free will; that your actions, decisions etc. are independent of your emotions, mental states, knowledge, feelings etc.

    The point of this argument is to show that libertarian free will excludes moral responsibility.
  13. Dec 21, 2007 #12
    In your example the person is not subject to cues of the physical world (emotions or other things one cannot control) -- they are "rising above" something. In this sense, would they not even have more moral responsibility because they are not ruled by 'uncontrollable' phenomenon (for example, heated passion which is an emotion based on a deterministic physiological process) ?
  14. Dec 23, 2007 #13
    Well, since nothing of his qualities, from knowledge, emotions, moral character, beliefs took any part in it, then there would be no way to say that the man who killed his wife was evil and the other good since that would assume the first man's badness caused him to kill, while the good man's goodness caused him to refrain. But these men are identical in all ways physically possible. In this way, one could not say that he did what he did because he was good or bad man. In fact, we could not even say why he acted, What quality in either man that is uniquely a part of "him" can be blamed for causing his particular choice? There is none.

    The only logical alternative to 100% causation is randomness. Here's the deal. "I" am defined by my knowledge, abilities, character, values and desires. The "I" could then not have cause the action. Without knowledge, abilities, values, desires, virtues, memories, reasoning, a character, there would be no person at all, and if something other than these things caused us to do something, then no one could really say "we" caused it, because we are all those things, none of which are responsible from the perspective of libertarian free will.
  15. Dec 23, 2007 #14
    What exactly are you arguing though?

    There are two possibilities
    1. Something happens in the world that has no prior cause, it's completely random or
    2. Something happens but has a cause, usually coming from the man himself, like his brain, but can also be other things like an accident like already mentioned.

    If 1 then we have no scientific, philosophical or logical way to explain it thus there is no argument

    if 2 then we do have the above things and can proceed to solving the reason why he killed his wife.

    Can you clarify it a bit?
  16. Dec 23, 2007 #15
    My argument is that this kind of libertarian free will eliminates moral responsibility. I should perhaps have said that earlier.
  17. Dec 23, 2007 #16
    Morally, the responsibility for an action should lie with what caused the action to happen. If a man's action is not caused by anything identifiable then no responsibility can be assigned to anything. If a man's action is caused by his current state then whatever caused this state is responsible.

    Moral responsibility matters for punishment. If judges play by the same rules of conduct (if any) as the man in question then all is in order. Punishment is either applied without identifiable cause or as a result of whatever caused the judge's current state, just like the man's actions.
  18. Dec 23, 2007 #17


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    Hey ‘whack. Good post. :smile:

    Hi Moridin,
    The most common assumption regarding free will is either that we have deterministic causation or random causation. Computationalism obviously relies on deterministic causation while another line of thought appeals to quantum mechanics in order to propose some kind of random causation. ‘t Hooft for example, has proposed a deterministic solution to quantum indeterminacy which essentially robs us of the common sense notion of free will. On the other hand, Suarez claims his theory is in error.

    Ref: New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/channel...00-free-will--is-our-understanding-wrong.html
    Suarez: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0705/0705.3974v1.pdf

    Free will and responsibility historically arose from a philosophy of dualism. Religion told us we have a soul which is independent of our body, such that our soul is responsible for our body and thus we are responsible for what our bodies do. When the 1800’s rolled around, scientific philosophy embraced a very mechanistic view of the world. I think science still embraces this mechanistic world view, resulting in our current thinking that causation allows us to reduce all phenomena in mechanistic terms, and that reduction results in either deterministic causation or random causation.

    Personally, I think we need to loosen up on this grip we have of either deterministic causation or random causation. No one has yet proven that this approach is a valid one, but there have been many papers by folks in all fields which lend support to this idea. Laughlin (Nobel laureate for physics) for example, talks about emergent properties. I think we must assume he intends to mean strongly emergent including downward causation.

    One of the most interesting papers I’ve read on this topic recently is by William Hasker, “How not to be a reductivist”.* He points out:
    Ref: http://www.newdualism.org/papers/W.Hasker/Hasker_NonReductivism_103103.pdf

    Why should consciousness be an epiphenomena? A computer, either classical or quantum mechanical, can perform what it does without the need for qualia. If qualia exists, it becomes an epiphenomena for any computational structure. And being this is true, why should this epiphenomena “reliably correspond to the way things really are in the world”? That, if you ask me, is a damn insightful point!

    And if we can understand why qualia should exist or more importantly, why consciousness should exist, then perhaps it is NOT an epiphenomena, but a phenomena unto itself which is ‘responsible’ for the actions of any downward causation it creates.

    *Note: This paper was published in Progress in Complexity, Information and Design (a fundamentally religious leaning journal), which instantly gives one cause for concern. However, I found there’s nothing particularly problematic in any of his logic. In fact, I’ve seen other philosophers argue along the same lines such as http://www.kearnsianthoughts.com/index.html". Anyway, Hasker sticks to a solid philosophical argument without resorting to the supernatural, referencing only mainstream philosophers including Chalmers, Block, Kim, Nagel, Searle and others.
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  19. Dec 23, 2007 #18
    That entire argument hinges on the existence of qualia in the first place, which have been criticized by people like Daniel Dennett etc.

    According to compatibilism, 'free will' is not only compatible but demands that both your own and everyone else's actions are causally determined. Free will, seen this way, is about freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself. To clarify this distinction, Dennett uses the term evitability as the opposite of 'inevitability', defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones. Moral responsibility follows quite nicely from this sort of compatibilism.

    The main question is whether any form of libertarian free will can account for moral responsibility, seeing how it, ultimately, relies on something, per definition, unverifiable (souls etc.).

    Interesting idea. You could have any number of combinations of the two, but one would end up with more than 50% control, making it either completely deterministic or completely random either way. Unless you are suggesting more alternatives than the two?
  20. Dec 24, 2007 #19


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    Dennett and qualia. I’d like to understand what you know about this because I really don’t see that he has any valid argument. From “Quinning Qualia” for example, he provides “intuition pump #5” where he talks about inverted qualia:
    Dennett is saying that there are at least two ways of inverting the experience of qualia. In the case of inverted qualia, the person can not tell if the qualia he is now experiencing is the correct one or not. In the case of the changed neural links from the eyes, the qualia are actually inverted. In the case of the changed memory of what the qualia should be, the qualia are NOT actually inverted. Thus, Dennett is asserting that the qualia are not knowable to the individual.
    1. This assumes computationalism is true (ie: classical mechanics alone is responsible for the qualia) such that your memory of the qualia is symbolically encoded. But symbols are not the right substrate for qualia to begin with. See Harnad, “The Symbol Grounding Problem”.
    2. Even if computationalism is true, this argument is still based on the sensation that the experience exists. Dennett is still relying on the experience of qualia to prove it doesn’t exist. If he can’t get rid of this fundamental assumption (ie: that qualia exists) then there is no valid argument – the experience is still a phenomena which must be explained.

    Dennett is a wonderful public speaker (check out a few of his videos on U-Tube) and writer. I think it’s because of this eloquence in his writing and speaking skills that he has so many people entranced with what he has to say. He has many other "intuition pumps" we could discuss, but I chose this one only as an example and because it seems to sum up his argument fairly well. Maybe - maybe not...

    I’d honestly like to hear what you have to say about Dennett’s arguments. Perhaps I’m missing something. Let’s talk about what it is that convinces you that qualia should not be taken to exist.

    One final note. I think it's worth pointing out that the sensation of anything should be considered "qualia". Thus, the sensation of having "free will" needs to be explained in the same way we want to explain the experience of seeing red. It is not an 'easy problem' as I believe you and many others want to make it. It is a 'hard problem' because free will is the experience we have in making decisions. We could equally make any decision without this experience of free will. Computers do it all the time, as do rocks. Any causal event is equivalent to a decision, so why should decisions made by people be encumbered by this sensation of free will?
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2007
  21. Dec 24, 2007 #20


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    Regarding compatibilism and the “interesting idea”: compatibilism still makes fundamental assumptions which I disagree with. As I tried to point out in post #17 and again in #19, one has to still accept that there is an experience of free will, just as there is an experience of many other qualia. The question then is – Why should evolution, or nature in general, have created experience if it has no causal influence? And why then should this experience “reliably correspond to the way things really are in the world”?

    Q_Goest's intuition pump :smile: ...
    If experience is a phenomena which emerges from the act of computations, just as any automaton simply creates behavior or ‘acts as if it is experiencing something’, then why should the experience correspond? It doesn’t matter if we feel an orgasm when we touch a red hot coal if this is true. Why not experience something good and wonderful instead of pain if the reaction and the subsequent behavior is independent of the experience?

    Personally, if I have to go through life with no ability to control my actions, I’d rather experience continuous orgasms than pain, frustration and many other qualia.
  22. Dec 24, 2007 #21
    I'm not going to have time to answer all points, but here we go. Your entire argument hinges on the actual 'experience' of free will, but we do not experience free will at all. We are heavily restricted in our every day life.

    Evolution will obviously select against those who get orgasms while touching red hot coal and similar.

    Ah, the classical fatalist fallacy. The argument falls when one tries to argue that the results are inevitable, just like a rock falling towards the ground. But that is a faulty argument, as Dennet has coined the term evitability, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones. The reason we feel in control is because of this sort of positive feedback system and the fact that our actions depend on our mental state and we feel not in control when we are causally push by another agent.
  23. Dec 26, 2007 #22

    I cannot wrap my head around how Dennett or any other Eliminativist can essentially argue against something that they gather data with and observe their science using, namely qualia, for their own argument. Maybe I'm looking at it wrong, but this seems almost as absurd to me as epiphenominalism :rofl:

    I found this interesting article on the subject yesterday which you may have already read. If not, enjoy: http://www.unc.edu/~ujanel/ElimWeb.htm" [Broken] by William G. Lycan
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  24. Dec 27, 2007 #23
    According to Dennett, the concept of qualia contradicts itself and is not actually useful in situations it may be applied to. Also note that qualia has nothing to do with what you use to do science.

    http://cogprints.org/254/0/quinqual.htm [Broken]
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  25. Dec 27, 2007 #24

    Is the visual perception used to gather scientific data and to ‘learn’ the rules of reasoning not a series of ‘experiences’ much like that meets that the definition of a certain subset of the so-called 'qualia'? Are the words we read off of paper, computer monitors and elsewhere not coloured symbols contrasted against backdrops of different substrates? Are these not ‘experiences’ of quale when we consume them? (Albeit of a lesser ‘intensity’ than say, that of drinking a chocolate milkshake or experiencing a sexual orgasm – but ‘quale’ nonetheless.)

    A great amount of my learned information, particularly for reasoning, has come through sight itself. I would imagine the same applies for scientists and philosophers like Dennett.

    How does Dennett propose all of what is gathered through this for science and philosophy is immune and neatly tucked away into a special area that cannot be touched by the slaying of qualia?

    I’m a layman so this seems particularly hard for me to grasp. I absolutely must read eliminative materialism more closely… it sounds rather impressive. Thanks for the link, Moridin!
  26. Dec 27, 2007 #25


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    If all positive electrical charges became negative electrical charges overnight, and all negative became positive, there would be nothing we could do to detect this change - the universe would go on exactly as it had before with no observable change.

    Maybe Dennett should eliminate positive and negative electrical charges from science too.

    The above argument has nothing to do with the fatalist position, you've missunderstood. Let's see if there's another way to explain...

    Let's say the activation of an electrical switch in a computer is based on electrical charges. Let's say they are not activated by any qualia you experience. (I'm being facecious here - electrical switches are of course activiated ONLY by electrical charges.) If this is the case, if electrical switches only change due to electrical charges, then does it matter if touching a red hot coal results in the qualia of pain as opposed to orgasm?

    No! Why should it? My pulling back away from the red hot coal is due to electrical switches being energized, not because I felt any pain. I could not have done otherwise. I could have experienced an orgasm instead and my reaction would be exactly the same. In fact, as long as the switches were set up ‘properly’ I would have ‘learned’ not to touch red hot coals ever again regardless of what qualia I experienced. There is no reason to associate a specific qualia with the operation of electrical switches if there is no reliable correspondence. Hopefully, that clears up any missunderstanding.

    If the world is mechanistic as determined by either deterministic or random causal actions, then qualia doesn't matter. Qualia can be anything just as Dennett says, and the world will go on without skipping a beat. There will be no measurable change if qualia are inverted. If Dennett is correct, then we should find orgasms replacing pain since it doesn't matter one bit what the qualia actually is. If all interactions are the result of only deterministic or random causal actions, then it simply doesn't matter what qualia are associated with those little electrical switches changing state in a computer.

    The point is, consciousness would not have evolved, nor would qualia reliably correspond, if they were just epiphenomena. Qualia may have evolved if they did NOT reliably correspond in a mechanistic world since qualia wouldn’t have any causal influence at all, but qualia seem to have what is called ‘reliable correspondence'. This seems to say that qualia and consciousness are more than just epiphenomena.

    I have to conclude that Dennett is just plain wrong. His argument is invalid primarily because computationalism is false, something he uses as an unwritten axiom in his paper "Quinning Qualia". If he were correct, positive charges could invert with negative ones overnight and all of science would have to shut down.


    If you can get past the problems thrown up by Dennett, then we can get past qualia and consciousness just being epiphenomena. What I’m trying to suggest is that the mechanistic world view is incomplete. There is something other than just mechanistic causal actions going on, something more than just deterministic or random causation. This mechanistic paradigm doesn’t allow for free will in any way whatsoever, Libertarian or otherwise. The original premise is false.
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