(0:05) You make that sound like it's an easy question, like this is a starter question. But it’s
actually very hard.
So that's a good question, I think free will is...
Free will is…
Free will, I think is…
What free will is actually a pretty complicated question.
So, what is free will?
(0:31) Santiago Amaya:
Hello, this is Free Will Matters. My name is Santiago Amaya and I'm an associate professor
in Philosophy at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. I am very happy to host this podcast.
The problem of free will has been at the center of many discussions in Western Philosophy
for the last 20 centuries. But in recent years the problem has reappeared in a fresh form.
There are new and exciting developments in the field that make this a fascinating topic of
conversation. For this podcast we have invited various philosophers who work in free will.
Philosophy might be a daunting thing, but with their help we will get to know better the
what, the how, and the why of free will. Welcome.
For our last episode of the season we’re very happy to have Derk Pereboom. Derk is Susan
Lynn Sage Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University and he's also senior associate Dean
for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. Derk is the author of
various books and many, many articles, including Living without free will and Free will,
agency and meaning in life.
Hi, Derk. Let's begin at the very beginning. Can you tell us in a few words what free will is?
(1:48) Derk Perebook:
Free will has a number of characterizations in the history of Philosophy. One is to have free
will is the ability to act and to refrain, and often nowadays that's put in terms of the notion
of being able to do otherwise. The idea is that when you have free will and you act in a
certain way, you also had at that time the ability to have acted differently. That's one
definition. Another characterization of free will in the history of Philosophy links free will
with moral responsibility. The idea is that to have free will is to have the control in action
that's required for moral responsibility. Of course, at this point there's a question as to
what control means and what moral responsibility means. In my view, if you wanted to find
the notion of free will so that it divides the players in the debate between those who
believe in free will and those who don't, it's important to define free will in terms of the
control in action required for a controversial sort of moral responsibility. And that is for me
the sort of moral responsibility that entails desert and, more specifically, basic desert or
Derk, you are known for defending a skeptical position regarding free will. Can you
summarize the view for us? Can you tell us why you find skepticism appealing?
If we characterize free will as the control in action required for basic desert moral
responsibility, in my view, there is a good argument that we don't have free will of that
sort. So if determinism is true, then there's a good argument from an analogy to
manipulation, deterministic manipulation, that we don't have free will of that sort. And I
think that free will is also compromised if certain kinds of indeterminism are true, because
if indeterminism is true, at least the indeterminism that's most likely to be true on the basis
of our scientific theories, that also doesn't give us the control in action required for that
sort of moral responsibility. After all, indeterminism would give us openness perhaps, but
indeterminism of that sort seems to diminish control. For example, if there is such a thing
as quantum indeterminacy, and if it percolates up to the level of human action, there’s a
question as to whether we're in control of the indeterministic, in control of which
indeterministic possibility actually results.
You mentioned just a moment ago manipulation arguments. Typically, these are arguments
to say that free will is incompatible with the world's having a deterministic causal
structure. Can you explain to us how those arguments work?
So the manipulation argument is an argument against compatibilists. Compatibilists believe
that causal determination is compatible with the sort of free will that I think is at issue in
the free will debate, namely, the control in action required for basic desert moral
responsibility. I think a lot of people are natural compatibilists, they think there's really no
problem with our being morally responsible in that sense, whether or not determinism is
true. And there are incompatibilists, who think that if all of our actions are in the cards as a
result of the distant past and the natural laws, and there's no way in which we can basically
deserve blame and praise, punishment and reward for the actions we perform.
So how to try to get compatibilists on board with this sort of view? One possibility is
through an analogy with manipulation. So it's possible to imagine cases in which agents are
intentionally manipulated in a deterministic way in which they yet satisfy all the
compatibilist conditions on moral responsibility: they endorse their actions, their reasonsresponsive,
they're not coerced. So it's possible to have to set up manipulations scenarios in
which, for example, neuroscientists manipulate an agent to behave in a certain way
deterministically, in a way such that all the compatibilist conditions are satisfied. If you
imagine that they manipulate him into killing somebody in a case in which if he weren't
manipulated, he wouldn't kill the individual, then I think you can generate the intuition that
the agent is not morally responsible for the action. And, at that point, the second step of the
argument is to try to show that there is no relevant difference between a manipulation case
of this sort and a naturalistic, a natural deterministic scenario in which an agent is causally
determined by virtue of the distant past and the laws to behave as he does, but in a way
that does not involve intentional manipulation. So, if you can show that there's no moral
responsibility-relevant difference between the manipulation case and that ordinary
deterministic case, then perhaps you can get the compatibilist, on board, with the view that
compatibilism is on the ropes.
Derk, suppose you were wrong, and it turned out that we really are free. Would there be
any practical cost involved in being a skeptic? In your opinion, in a world where there is
freedom, is the skeptic’s life lacking of something important?
Free will skepticism has some advantages. I think it makes people less retributive when it
comes to punishment. Spinoza argued that it makes people more tolerant. I think that's
probably right. I think it also has some disadvantages. I think it has the advantage of not
endorsing negative basic desert, i.e. retribution, but it also has the defect of undercutting
positive, basic desert. So we naturally think that people basically deserve praise for morally
exemplary actions and that view gets ruled out by free will skepticism. This can be
recouped to a certain extent, maybe they're kind of forward-looking consequentialist
reasons for celebrating morally exemplary actions, but I do acknowledge that there's a loss
Let me ask you another hypothetical question. Suppose you became convinced that
skeptical worries about free will, the sort of worries that you have been raising, could be
adequately answered. What would be the most appealing fallback position for you?
I remember when I was in grad school before I was a freewill skeptic, I was a libertarian
agent causalist and I still kind of like that view. In everything I've written about free will
I've never ever said that libertarian agent causation is incoherent or absolutely ruled out.
So I still think there's an opening for that view being the correct one. And if all the free will
skeptical worries were answered, maybe I'd go for libertarian agent causation.
Here's another question we've been asking our guests. You've been writing about free will
for quite a number of years now. What do you think are the most exciting recent
developments in the field or in the debate?
There's really been in the last, I’d say 25 years or so, there's been an explosion of interest in
free will, in responsibility and so all areas. All subareas of this more general field I think are
being explored profitably and it's really exciting to see. I think there’s a lot of interest these
days in moral psychology, in the moral emotions. There's been a lot of work in the last five
or six years on blame, what blame is and how it works and various kinds of blame, and how
to justify blame. So that's an exciting sort of development. Other moral psychological
attitudes have also seen a lot of action. One example is forgiveness. So forgiveness is a kind
of interesting, complicated moral emotion on which a lot of people have written, and what
you think about moral responsibility and free will makes a difference for what you're going
to say about forgiveness. I think if you think about the notion of agency, I think that what
morally responsible agency is has seen a lot of profitable work. So the compatibilist, for
example, compatibilists on the reason’s responsive side, have developed theories that make
the agent the focus of reason’s responsiveness as opposed to other factors, like in Fischer
view, was mechanisms. In the view of Carolina Sartorio, Michael McKenna, it’s the agent. I
think that's a very exciting development as a free will skeptic, even though it's build as a
compatibilist theoretical take on that view as a free will skeptic. I think that there's a lot of
exciting work in empirical moral psychology that's relevant to free will. There's a lot of
really interesting studies on the attitude of non-philosophers towards questions in the free
will debate, and I think it's very instructive and very interesting. So those are three areas in
which I think they have been great developments.
So, as you mentioned earlier. Recently, there has been a big explosion of work on free will
and one could argue that we have made some progress through this work. But can you tell
us about a question that nobody is asking but that is nevertheless key to make more
progress in the debate?
So I think that if you think about the free will debate, on the one hand there is evidence in
the arguments and they play a role, and on the other hand, there are kind of pragmatic
reasons to believe what people think it's important to believe. We see that view expressed
by Immanuel Kant. So Kant thought that libertarian agent causation we need to believe in
that, but he didn't think that there was a good argument for it. In fact, he says he doesn't
even think we can show that it's possible that we have that sort of freedom, which he calls
transcendental freedom. So, but yet he thought that we have good moral or pragmatic
reasons to believe that we’re free in that sense. So I think that in almost all philosophers
there's two kinds of reasons for their beliefs in free will. One is based on the arguments and
the evidence, and the other is based on pragmatic or practical considerations. And to think
about how those two kinds of reasons relate and whether it's legitimate to believe in free
will for practical reasons when, let's say, the arguments go against free will. So I think that's
an area worth exploring and that I hope sees a lot of action in the near future.
This was the last episode of the first season of our podcast in free will. We have enjoyed
quite a lot talking to our guests and we hope you have enjoyed it too. We’ll be back at the
end of this year. Stay tuned. Till then.
Free Will Matters is part of the LATAM Free Will, Agency, and Responsibility Project. It is
produced by Cerosetenta thanks to a generous grant of the John Templeton Foundation and
with the support of Universidad de los Andes and the University of California in San Diego.
That is freewill.uniandes.edu.co