by Ted Honderich

-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

This is a sketch rather than a finished paper. In fact it consists in a longish abstract and notes for a lecture to the Determinism Workshop sponsored by the Max Planck Institutes at Schloss Ringsberg in Bavaria. The sketch does not take matters a lot further forward than other recent things of mine -- notably the paper After Compatibilism and Incompatibilism for the preceding Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference at the University of Idaho. Is the sketch worth bringing to your attention? Well, it comments on Professor Kane's good paper to be found elsewhere on this website, and it is spirited, as determinists can now be. The Max Planck conference certainly put another nail into the coffin of the idea that an interpretation of Quantum Theory has disproved determinism. To read the papers of the philosophers and physicists who went to the conference and who did get formal papers written, see Between Choice and Chance: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism, edited by Harald Atmanspacher and Robert Bishop..


From before the time of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century, right up to John Searle's impertinent piece in Journal of Consciousness Studies a few months ago, and a major conference in Idaho in April, philosophers of determinism and freedom have divided into Compatibilists and Incompatibilists. The first regiment says that determinism is logically compatible with freedom. The second says it is logically incompatible. They can do this. In a way it is easy-peasy. The first regiment achieves its end by defining free decisions and actions as voluntary: owed to certain causes rather than others -- causes somehow internal to the agent rather than external or constraining causes. The second regiment satisfies itself by defining free decisions and actions as not only voluntary but also originated -- where an originated event, however mysterious, is definitely not a causally necessitated one. 

The two regiments evidently share the common and persisting commitment that we all have one idea of freedom or one important idea. This is nonsense -- nonsense, by the way, that says something about philosophy and conventionality. It is notable that some Incompatibilists, including van Inwagen and Kane, and some Compatibilists, including Fischer, are now at least and at last hedging their bets. 

The truth, in brief, is that we have two important ideas of freedom. More explicitly, we have two families of attitudes, each of them having to do with moral responsibility, life-hopes, confidence in our beliefs, inter-personal feelings, such practices as punishment and reward, and so on. 

The real problem of the consequences of determinism can be taken, as it was by me in the past, to be the practical one of trying to escape the family of attitudes that is seemingly inconsistent with determinism, partly by affirming the value in our lives of the other attitudes consistent with it. It is a problem made more pressing by the failure of interpretations of Quantum Theory and the rest of physics to unseat determinism -- as noted by John Earman at the Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference in Idaho and by a number of philosophers of physics at the Determinism Workshop in Bavaria sponsored by the Max Planck Institutes. 

However, we have the difficulty of actually escaping the attitudes seemingly inconsistent with determinism, notably the difficulty that in autobiographical reflection it seems impossible to escape holding oneself responsible for one's past in a certain way. This attitude can seem to have truth in it. What we need to try is something radically different. We need to give up on the awful dubiousness of origination and seek to find some other way of nevertheless persisting in the attitudes in question. Kant made that attempt, if disastrously.



Determinism, for purposes of this lecture, is the view that every event is an effect. That is, each event is necessitated by a causal circumstance. There is a standard explanation of it. A lot more might be said here, of course. But in connection with the problem of freedom, there is no need whatever for a physicist's mathematized conception of determinism, which indeed is no clearer.

Compatibilism is the view that determinism is logically consistent with freedom -- Hobbes and Hume in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and an unbroken line of philosophers down to Frankfurt as often understood and Fischer these days. What Compatibilism comes to is that we know our freedom consists in, or importantly consists in, just voluntariness -- absence of compulsion or constraint. Our not being in jail or subject to an inner psychological compulsion or whatever.

Determinism is logically compatible with this. Evidently freedom as voluntariness consists in decisions and actions having certain causal circumstances rather than others. 

Incompatibilism is the view that determinism is logically inconsistent with freedom -- Bishop Bramhall in 17th Century, and unbroken line down to van Inwagen, Kane and Searle today. What it comes to is that we know our freedom, if it exists, consists not only in voluntariness but also origination -- or anyway this is our important freedom. This is our bringing-about of decisions and actions in such a way that these are not effects. They are in fact chance events that are subject to non-causal control.

Determinism is incompatible with this. As it is, incidentally, with what has traditionally been called Libertarianism. This is Incompatibilism plus the assertion that we do in fact have the freedom of origination that is incompatible with determinism.



Despite the long line of 'proofs' of each of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, the most forceful of these being van Inwagen's, both of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism are false. So I established to my satisfaction, anyway, in my 1988 book, unfortunately too long for sensible people to read. More people agree these days. Both traditions are false, to put the point too simply (as simply as the two traditions have almost always put their points) because we do not have just one thought or idea about freedom. We have two. One is voluntariness and the other is or seems to be origination. 

Both Compatibilism and Incompatibilism are demonstrably false. There is a behavioural proof that we have both ideas of freedom, and that both are important. Take an obvious case, punishment. We have preventive punishments, which depend only on the idea that offenders were voluntary in their offences. We have retributive punishments, which depend on the idea that offenders originated their offences.

To put the point less simply and more realistically, consider various attitudes, these being emotions of a kind, at bottom desires. Your own hopes for your life. Your personal feelings for others, say resentment. Your confidence having to do with how you have come to your beliefs. Your moral disapproval and approval of others for their actions -- holding them responsible and crediting them with responsibility. There are more, but that will do.

Each of us has two families of these attitudes. Take resentment, or something stronger. Suppose someone damages the life of my daughter. I can have a feeling about him that has to do with the voluntariness of his action -- that it came from his own character, personality and so on. Not from any compulsion or constraint. Most simply, he is a shit. I can also have a feeling that has to do with his supposed origination of what he did. In a certain sense he could have done otherwise at the moment he acted, given the past and present just as it was -- at that moment he could have refrained from damaging her. 

Who is to tell me that I do not have or cannot have both these attitudes? Who is to tell you? 



I note that both Compatibilists and Incompatibilists of good sense are now hedging their bets. They are, in the traditional English term, trimming. 

One of the very best of Incompatibilists is Professor Kane. In his fine paper 'Reflections on Free Will, Determinism and Indeterminism', he has now reduced his claim to this: there is one kind of freedom worth wanting that is incompatible with determinism. That is, he allows there is another kind of importance. It has to be noted, however, that he goes on as before: implying by his concentration on origination that it is the real goods.

Here is a simple challenge for him. A dilemma. If he is an Incompatibilist, as he still avows himself to be, how can he allow that there is an important freedom, seemingly equally important, that is compatible with freedom? If he does allow the latter, how can Incompatibilism be true?

There is much the same trimming with the Compatibilist John Fischer and others, as emerged at the recent Idaho conference on determinism and freedom, but let me put all this aside.

Of course erstwhile or self-incriminating Incompatibilists and Compatibilists can go on elaborating their particular conception of freedom. This is useful philosophical work. But what you might call the philosophical urgency has gone out of the thing. It is one thing to be 'proving' that the Incompatibilist or the Compatibilist idea is our single and settled idea of freedom, and another thing to be clarifying or tidying up one of several ideas. 



Incompatibilists and erstwhile Incompatibilists do have a special problem, as has long been apparent -- apparent for several centuries. It is the problem of making sense of their stock-in-trade, origination. Part of what this comes to is that if a decision is not caused, there is no standard explanation of it. It looks as if maybe there is no explanation of it -- what other kind of explanation of events is there but a standard causal one? But then how can it be in the control of the decider, which is absolutely essential? How can there be any moral responsibility for such a decision?

Let me make four brief remarks on this matter.

(a) It cannot be enough to provide yet another 'proof' that our freedom is incompatible with determinism -- say by way of what was originally Kant's idea, much clarified by van Inwagen, that if determinism is true, and we are free, we will have to control the distant past, which latter thing is impossible. It is necessary to try to say what this freedom of origination is -- as Professor Kane has tried to do.

(b) It really is no good, as Professor Kane rightly sees, to try to make sense of origination by assigning it to a person-within-a-person -- a Self -- and saying there is a funny kind of causation, which is self-causation. The thing is causa sui. Searle seems to go in for this nonsense, which does not increase my hope for it.

(c) It is no good saying, as Professor Kane may be less clear to Professor Kane, that a decision is explained by the 'reasons' the decider had for it, where these are logical premisses. Logical or conceptual relations by themselves explain no events at all in the relevant sense. Their terms are not events. If 'reasons' are being considered differently, as something like causes but not standard causes, this is just the start of the job of clarifying.

(d) Another word for Professor Kane. In his paper mentioned above, and elsewhere, he seems to me in effect to go on in a certain way. 

In thinking of an episode of deciding, he starts, as we all do, with a slew of verbs. In coming to a decision we 'make an effort', 'think about things', 'reflect both ways', 'struggle with our internal conflict' and so on. 

The determinists among us give a causal analysis of all this activity -- i.e. of these verbs. That is how we make sense of it and them.

Professor Kane faces the old problem of explaining the decision, bringing it within the control of the decider, if it is not caused. He asks, traditionally, what makes the decision not random or a matter of chance or arbitrary or whatever.

His main answer is that the decision is not any of these bad things because it is the result of our efforts, our thought, our reflections, our reasoning, and so on. That is, he reverts to the slew of verbs. He uses them.

But that can't help. We knew about all that before. What we need is a general understanding of all that activity. We all need to say what the verbs come to -- get under them. Determinists say it is a matter of standard causation. Professor Kane doesn't give us an analysis by reasserting what needs analysis. This is, in short, the traditional fallacy of depending on what needs to be explained in the course of explaining it.



There is the general question of the truth of determinism as defined above for the purposes of this paper: every event is a standard effect. If determinism is true, that is of course fatal for what traditionally has been called Libertarianism. Also, it takes the heart and soul out of Incompatibilism. It is of course the case that Incompatibilists have almost all been Libertarians -- at least inclined to believing in origination.

So, a few remarks on the truth of determinism.

(a) It is plain that it has not been refuted by a common interpretation of Quantum Theory or any other part of today's physics. You may feel that Quantum Theory as commonly interpreted should incline you against determinism, but that is about as far as you can go. 

(b) I depend for this claim on several things. One is that Quantum Theory is still a mess after decades of struggle to give it sense. It still has fundamental contradictions in it. It is no good confusing the fact that the theory 'works' with its being conceptually adequate. Classical physics worked, and still does for the most part. Interpretations of Quantum Theory have the authority of science, which has money and better things in it, but that is no reason for clear-thinking people to be cowed by it.

(c) A second string to my bow is that it is all too possible that Quantum Theory as interpreted is not about events. What it is about is propositions, possibilities, or whatever -- abstract entities. No determinist ever said the number 5 is a standard effect. None said, even, that a figure's having angles adding to 180 degrees is the effect of its being a triangle.

(d) Even if Quantum Theory as commonly interpreted is true of the micro-level of reality, it apparently is not true of the macro-level. We have no evidence at all for indeterminism at the macro-level. As I am happy to say one more time, no spoon ever levitates at breakfast this morning here at Schloss Ringberg, and there was no report that the law of the lever has at last given up -- and no event is taken by ordinary ongoing neuroscience as having no standard explanation. But the question of determinism and freedom, as all allow, which has to do with decisions and with the macro events of neuroscience, is precisely at the macro-level. 

Indeterminism at the micro-level is consistent with determinism at the macro-level, and there are possible explanations of this. Indeed this 'near-determinism' is the position of most people. It goes nowhere at all to helping out with Incompatibilism and Libertarianism.



As it seems to me, Incompatibilism is still more embarrassed by something other than the probable truth of determinism. This can be brought into focus by attention to any developed doctrine of Incompatibilism, but let me mention the recent article by John Searle in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

This piece is scandalous for its seeming ignorance of the history of the problem of determinism and freedom and the various contributions to it, above all the attention given to what Searle focuses on and presents as a discovery, our sense or feeling that we are free in making our decisions. In thinking about this he's missed out, for a start, Schopenhauer's great work, 'Can the Freedom of the Will be Proven from Self-Consciousness?' -- let alone the amount of stuff that was written on the subject in the 20th Century.

But the main scandal is one shared with almost every developed doctrine of Incompatibilism, including Professor Kane's.

Searle has a view of simultaneous neural and mental states, of brain and mind. So (1) your seeing a good-looking woman, your item of perceptual consciousness, goes with a certain simultaneous neural state. So does (2) the subsequent item of reflective consciousness, your recollection that you are married already. Searle also has the view that such earlier states are somehow connected to later states -- say to (3) the later item of affective consciousness, the mental event of deciding to ask her to come and have a drink.

In order to pay some respect to neuroscience, not to mention a lot of philosophy, he allows that the connection between any neural state and its simultaneous conscious state or event is one of standard causation. The neural state causes the simultaneous conscious state. So there is down-to-up or down-up standard causation. 

For roughly the same reasons -- neuroscience and so on -- there is standard causation with respect to perceptual consciousness and reflective consciousness. Consciously seeing the good-looking woman was a standard effect, as was the thought about your being married. So here there is left-to-right or left-right standard causation. I leave out the details.

But, so that we can have origination of decisions or anyway some decisions, in affective consciousness, there is no standard left-right causation of the neural correlate of a decision. The neural state that went with your deciding to propose a drink was not the effect of anything at all. Here there was just the chance-relation supposed by an ordinary interpretation of Quantum Theory.

This is terrible. 

Down-up causation everywhere but chance with respect to some left-right connections. 

Left-right causation with respect to perceptual and reflective consciousness but left-right chance with respect to decisions. 

This seems to me a factual or empirical absurdity, a kind of impertinence to the world we live in. With respect to the decisions, to put it another way, the brain is consistently a machine down-up, but not consistently a machine left-right. And just taking about left-right, and taking into account perceptual, reflective and affective consciousness, it is sometimes a machine and sometimes not a machine. This seems to me a factual or empirical absurdity, one without the slightest foundation in any respectable neuroscience.



Let me just note in passing something that follows from the fact that this Libertarianism seeks to have the support, for what that is worth, of the indeterminist interpretation of Quantum Theory. What that support comes to, in brief, is that there is no explanation of certain events. 

But the Libertarianism then adds in that there is an explanation of the events. There is a funny explanation by way of Reason or reasons or whatever -- in some form or other by way of the origination stuff.

What Libertarianism then comes to, of course, is precisely a kind of Hidden Variable theory. It is a philosophical Hidden Variable theory.

That amounts to self-contradiction. What we have is both that the decisions or whatever do not have explanations and that they do. Physics as interpreted is not a deferential view that it itself can find no explanations of these events, but there are perfectly good explanations anyway.



If we take determinism to be true, and if Incompatibilism and Libertarianism are for several reasons as good as impossible, this does not leave us with no problem about determinism and freedom. In fact there is a large problem. It has seemed to me to be of a practical kind.

We do in fact have the two families of attitudes, both of them seemingly fundamental to our lives. One family is inconsistent with determinism, having in it at least an image or origination, and the other is perfectly consistent with determinism, having in it a conception of only voluntariness.

The problem is two responses to this situation. One is Dismay, which supposes that life is ruined if we give up, say, the kind of love that involves an image of origination, and all that goes with that kind of love. The other response is Intransigence, which is the response that nothing really changes if determinism is true, that voluntariness is all we really want. Neither of these responses is satisfactory or even tolerable, and it is no good oscillating between them.



What we need to do instead is to make the response of Affirmation -- self-consciously give up the attitudes involving origination, maybe by seeing the value of what is left to us, the other family of attitudes. It has seemed to me in the past that we will only succeed in Affirmation, despite certain attempts we can make, when we really come to believe determinism.

This brief word will have to suffice with respect to my own past reflections on the real problem of determinism and freedom.

What it assumes is that there is the truth of determinism and there is the fact of two families of attitudes. The latter are at bottom desires, not true or false. 

The news is that this assumption is not something I have been able to persist in comfortably.



If you think seriously about your own past life -- if you engage in reflective autobiography, written down or not -- you are likely to find yourself in a certain situation. This, at any rate, has been my own experience.

There are things in my past life that I wish were not there. I wish I had done better in a number of respects. In a word, I have some guilts of a certain kind. I hold myself responsible for them in a certain way. I hold myself responsible for them in exactly the way that seems to presuppose origination and the falsehood of determinism.

This may of course just be a fact about a common sort of neurotic personality, a personality subject to a kind of self-abuse. But there are an awful lot of us. A great many of us, at any rate in Western culture, share this kind of attitude to ourselves.

To come to the point, it can seem that this way of holding oneself and others responsible contains a truth. That is, it is not just an attitude or desire, but it does contain something as true or false as determinism, and in fact something as true.

So determinism is true, and such attitudes as the particular one having to do with one's own moral responsibility really are inescapable, and origination is out of the question since determinism is true -- and so it seems we need to find another truth that enters into or accounts for the attitudes in question.

We need a radically different resolution of the problem of determinism and freedom.



I finish by giving an indication of how differently we have to think. It can't be a matter of tinkering. It can't be a matter of trying harder to make talk of origination all right in the end. That is Professor Kane's ambition, but it seems to me it must fail.

What is it for you to be perceptually conscious now? What is it for you to be aware of this room?

There is an old problem here and with all consciousness. It is the problem of materialism versus dualism. Materialism is rightly parodied as being the proposition that consciousness is cells -- neurons. Nobody actually believes it without being enabled to do so by confusion. Dualism is the proposition that consciousness is funny stuff in our heads -- non-physical stuff, or maybe physical stuff as yet undiscovered and no part of articulated neuroscience as it is. Nobody believes anything clear here, since there is nothing clear to believe.

Here is a radically different answer to the question of what it is for you to be aware of this room. It is for a world in a way to exist. That is not a rhetorical or poetical way of saying what has no more literal content than saying that you are aware of the room. It can be established, or so it seems to me, that it is an analytic advance.

It is a radically different proposal as to the problem of perceptual consciousness. We need something as different with respect to the problem of determinism and freedom.

You may think this recommendation a little idiosyncratic. Indeed it is so to the established scholars of determinism and freedom in Western philosophy. But it may be that I do have a kind of friend and ally, a rather good one. He is Kant.

Kant held that determinism is true, and that moral responsibility has a fact in it. It has truth in it. He did not proceed to deal with this by reducing moral responsibility to the kind of thing familiar in the Compatibilist tradition. He did not take freedom to be only voluntariness. Nor, plainly, could he assert freedom as origination in the way of Incompatibilists generally. He did not deny determinism in their way.

What he said, notoriously, is that there are two worlds, the phenomenal and the noumenal. Determinism is, so to speak, in the first world -- at any rate it is a fact of the first world. Moral responsibility is in the second world, the noumenal world. Origination is there too. There isn't inconsistency because the determinism is in one world and the moral responsibility and the origination in another.

Well -- he said something like that. I am no Kant scholar. His view as I understand it is as impossible as it seems to others. My point is that we now need something as radical if we are finally to make some sense of determinism and freedom.



Hobbes, T. (c. 1650, 1839-45), The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, Vol. 5, ed. Thomas Molesworth (London: Scientia Aalen)

Honderich, T. (1988), A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Honderich, T. (1993), How Free Are You? (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Abbreviation of above. Various translations.

Honderich, (2000) 'Consciousness as Existence Again', Philosophy of Mind: The Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Vol. 9, ed. Bernard Elevitch (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University, Philosophy Documentation Center). Also in Theoria, No. 95, June 2000.

Honderich, (2001), 'Mind the Guff: A Response to John Searle', Journal of Consciousness Studies , Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2001, 62-78.

Honderich (2001), Philosopher: A Kind of Life (London, New York: Routledge)

Hume, D. (1748, 1902), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon)

Kane, Robert (1996) The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press)

Kane, 'Reflections on Free Will, Determinism and Indeterminism', forthcoming in his Oxford Handbook of Free Will.

Searle, J. R. (2000b), 'Consciousness, Free Action and the Brain', Journal of Consciousness Studies , Vol. 7, No. 10, October 2000, 3-22.


Several of the ideas and themes above get fuller and maybe more careful expression in 'After Compatibilism and Incompatibilism', to which you can turn if you want. More light is also shed in 'Mind the Guff: John Searle's Thinking on Consciousness and Freedom Examined' and 'Consciousness as Existence and the End of Intentionality'.

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