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I've been thinking lately about the story of the donkey and the two stacks of

I've been thinking lately about the story of the donkey and the two stacks of hay. In case you're not familiar with it here it is: a donkey is walking by, hungry as can be, and all of the sudden he sees two stacks of hay, each the same distance away from his position and each the exact same size. The donkey cannot make up his mind between the two stacks, and he dies. I recently got into an argument with someone about whether there is such a thing as a completely indifferent decision. In real life, the donkey would not die, would he? So that leaves us with the question: Is the donkey indifferent to the two stacks of hay or is there something in his subconscious that would compel him to choose the left or the right stack?

The donkey in question is usually referred to as 'Buridan's ass' (although there is some question as to whether the example is properly attributed to the medieval philosopher John Buridan .)

The early modern philosopher G. W. Leibniz was quite fond of this example, and appealed to Buridan's ass in order to elucidate his view that there was no such thing as a completely indifferent decision, that is, a decision made on the basis of no reason whatsoever. According to Leibniz, if the ass were in the hypothesized position and were indeed indifferent to the two piles of hay, then the ass would not be able to decide between them, and would consequently starve. Of course, the ass doesn't starve. Leibniz drew the conclusion that the reason that the ass wouldn't starve was because the ass wasn't actually indifferent to the bales of hay: according to Leibniz, there must be some difference between the two bales of hay, or in the ass's relation to the bales of hay--that is, some difference in the ass's perception of the bales of hay, even if only a difference in the representation of the bales of hay that is not consciously accessible to the ass--that would explain why the ass chooses one bale of hay rather than the other (and hence is able to choose one and not starve).

Leibniz deployed this example not out of any special concern for animals, but because he was opposing the view, widely held in the late medieval and early modern period, that freedom consisted in the ability to act or not to act. Leibniz thought that this view made no sense: for one thing, it flouted the principle of sufficient reason, according to which every natural event had to be explicable, and it seemed to him that a choice undertaken in a state of indifference was inexplicable. While this principle has considerable intuitive appeal, not all philosophers share Leibniz's intuition--indeed, certain late medieval philosophers, and certain recent philosophers as well, who share the late medievals' intuitions--would have denied Leibniz's assumption that an agent's choice must be explicable in terms of reasons independent of the agent's capacity for choice itself.

We now come to the heart of the issue: do agents have the capacity to determine themselves, or all events in nature, including free choices, determined by antecedent reasons or causes? This is the deep question underlying the example of Buridan's ass; consideration of this question takes one to the heart of the problem of free will. Does the capacity for freedom require that agents be able to determine themselves, as 'libertarians' hold? Or can an agent be free even if her choices are determined by reasons or causes that are outside of her control, as 'compatibilists' hold? We thereby see how much hay can be made out of a seemingly footling and trivial example.

Has there ever been shown to be an effect without a cause? Is it even possible

Has there ever been shown to be an effect without a cause? Is it even possible for there to be an effect without a cause? If this is not possible, does that prove determinism is true, at least what I believe is called "Hard Determinism?" And even if you can't prove that there can never be an effect without a cause, isn't probability justification enough to make any belief other than determinism ridiculous?

It's not clear what it would mean (or what it would take) to show that there was an effect without a cause (unless we just define an effect as something that is caused, in which case there'd be nothing to show). We certainly have not shown (proven) that every event has a cause in the sense that we have not, and could not, pick out the causes of every event that has ever happened. Rather, we tend to assume that all events have causes, except perhaps those people who assume that free choices are uncaused or who assume that there is a first event that was not caused by any prior event. It's an assumption that tends to work for us--that is, it helps us explain things in science and our everyday life--and it is an assumption that does not have any clear counterexamples (but again, it's not clear what a counterexample would look like). So, as you suggest, this thesis of Universal Causation (UC) might be the most justifiable.

However, one might think that a possible counterexample involves the events described by quantum physics, since it looks like those events are indeterministic: given the exact same prior conditions (or causes) and the same laws of physics, more than one effect might occur. For instance, the electron shot at a barrier might go one way or another and nothing explains (or causes?) which way it goes. However, a better way to describe indeterministic events is that they are probabilistically caused. Quantum physics does not entail randomness--rather it describes objective probabilities between events. So, one can say that the set of events that leads to the electron's hitting the barrier causes it to end up in position 1 (with 50% probability) and causes it to end up in position 2 (with 50% probability). Wherever it ends up, it was caused to end up there by prior effects.

OK, all this is just to set up the take-home message which is that the thesis of UC (Universal Causation), which says that every event--or at least every event after the first event--has a cause, does not entail the thesis of determinism. Determinism is the thesis that: Necessarily, given the same prior events and laws of nature, the same later events occur. UC is consistent with indeterministic causation and hence with the falsity of determinism. So, even if we answer your first two questions 'no', that does not mean we have to answer your third question 'yes'.

Finally, "Hard Determinism" is the thesis in the free will debate that says (a) determinism is incompatible with free will, (b) determinism is true, and therefore (c) free will does not exist. Lots of philosophers (like me) are compatibilists who reject (a) (if interested, see my prior responses to questions in the Freedom category). And most philosophers reject (b) since they accept that the dominant interpretation of quantum physics is indeterministic. But many still think determinism, if true, would rule out free will and do so for reasons that make Universal Causation just as threatening, so indeterminism doesn't help. (Basically, they think that our decisions, like everything else are caused by prior events, ultimately by events over which we have no control, so we do not have ultimate control over our decisions, and they think such ultimate control is required for free will--again, I see no reason to think free will requires such unattainable powers!). These philosophers sometimes call themselves "Hard Incompatibilists" (or Skeptics about free will), and they are the descendants of the Hard Determinists.

This is complicated stuff and I've tried to keep it brief. But I hope this helps!

Is the question of whether homosexuality is "a choice" at all morally relevant?

Is the question of whether homosexuality is "a choice" at all morally relevant? Does it bear, e.g., on whether homosexual lifestyles are morally permissible, or whether gay marriage should be allowed? Many people seem to think so, including many of those who support gays and lesbians.

Just one footnote to Sean. If homosexuality is a choice, it's not, as Richard Mohr once pointed out, like the choice of what sort of ice cream you're going to buy. Here's a thought experiment to try. Think of someone you find sexually attractive. Now try to choose not to have that response. Part two: think of someone you don't find sexually attractive. Now try to choose to be attracted to them. Step three: repeat steps one and two for broad categories of people where you find you have pretty stable patterns of attraction. If you are anything like me, you'll find that the attempt to choose doesn't get you anywhere.

Just how we end up being sexually attracted to the people we're attracted to is not easy to say. What seems pretty clear is that it's not in any ordinary sense a choice,

Of course, having predilections is one thing; that may not be a choice. Acting on them is another; that usually is a choice. If a case could be made that it's wrong for homosexual people to act on their attractions, then the fact that their orientation is not a matter of choice wouldn't simply excuse them. In fact, however, the arguments I've seen are pathetically bad. A bit more carefully, there are of course lots of situations that call for not acting on our attractions. But that said, the idea that there's some special problem about homosexual attraction is a lot harder to defend than some people seem to have thought.

Is there a prevailing consensus on determinism vs. free will, and the

Is there a prevailing consensus on determinism vs. free will, and the implications of that debate for the status of moral prescriptions? I am reading a piece by Derek Parfit, for example, which addresses the topic so briefly that it makes me wonder if his (compatibilist) position is the only one breathing. Thank you! -philosophy fan

Just to add a little to Eddy's fine response, which neatly limns both what position is taken on free will by most philosophers and the general state of play of the debates around free will. I just want to comment briefly on the status of the debate on free will for moral prescriptions--which I take to mean the justifiability of ascriptions of praise, blame, etc. (however they are understood--and there is debate, especially, on how to understand the nature of blame: for a sophisticated, but accessible and very clear treatment of this topic, see T. M. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame). Both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that ascriptions of praise and blame are justified just in case agents are free, but they differ--as Eddy pointed out--with respect to how they define free will, which definitions reflect differing views on metaphysical and scientific views about the nature of human beings and of the world. Very roughly, incompatibilists believe that in order to be free, agents must have the capacity to originate their own free choices, or, in an alternative formulation, that a free choice is one that is such that an agent can either do or not make the choice (this capacity is known as the 'Principle of Alternative Possibilities', or PAP); compatibilists, by contrast, tend neither to think that freedom requires that agents be the sources of their choices, nor that they have the capacity for alternative possibilities. But these are not the only positions that one might take with respect to the justification of ascriptions of praise and blame. Certain utilitarians, for example, believe that ascriptions of praise and blame are meant simply to encourage certain types of behavior (praiseworthy behavior), and discourage other types of behavior (blameworthy behavior), and think that ascriptions of praise and blame can achieve this end regardless of whether human beings are free. (For a classic statement of this position, see Moritz Schlick, "When is a Man Responsible?," or J. J. C. Smart's paper, "Free Will, Praise and Blame," which is collected in the second edition of Gary Watson's excellent collection, Free Will.) Whereas the sort of position advocated by Schlick or Smart is agnostic on the question of whether agents have free will, in recent years, Derk Pereboom has developed a related position, 'hard incompatibilism', according to which, roughly, because agents do not have free will (understood in an incompatibilist sense, as the capacity for agents to be the sources of their choices or actions), therefore the only use that ascriptions of praise and blame can have is that of encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad behavior: essentially, then, on this view, moral practices become a matter of social control.

Now although most philosophers work their way into the problem of free will by considering whether freedom is compatible with determinism, there's an alternative route, adopted, for example, by T. M. Scanlon in his magisterial work, What We Owe to Each Other: one might begin by getting clear about the nature of morality, and moral obligation, or moral practices, and then and only then turning to the question of what sort of freedom is required to underwrite such practices. The virtue of such an approach, to my mind, is that it keeps very clearly in focus just why it is we care about freedom--because we're concerned about the viability of our moral practices--and then seeks to determine just what sort of conception is necessary for those practices to continue to function as they do. (Such an approach, to my mind, casts serious doubt on the sort of revisionary account of moral practices advocated by Pereboom and philosophers such as Smart and Schlick. But this is a vexed matter.)

In The Stone column on the New York Times Site, there is an article about the

In The Stone column on the New York Times Site, there is an article about the issue of moral responsibility, in light of the notion that we are what we are because of such factors as genetics, environment, or perhaps determinism and/or chance. In the end the author stoically concludes, that despite it all in some sense we can choose to take responsibility for our actions. While I respect the author's sense of duty, can we fairly extend that same responsibility to other people? For example, could there still be any defense of punishment that isn't consequentalist. For that matter how can any nonconsequentialist ethical theory hold up against this argument?

Given your question, you may be interested in a discussion of Strawson's NYTimes article at the free will/moral responsibility blog, Flickers of Freedom, here.

There's also a discussion on retribution and punishment (and psychopaths) at the blog here.

You'll see in these discussions that there are plenty of philosophers (called compatibilists) who think that free will and moral responsibility are possible even if determinism is true, and who reject Strawson's argument against the possibility of freedom and responsibility. These compatibilists will generally say that retributive punishment is justified, though they might also think that punishing (or treating) criminals for consequentialist reasons (such as deterrence and rehabilitation) is also important.

My own view is that we can have free will and moral responsibility (determinism is irrelevant to this issue), but that we have less than we think (because the sciences of the mind are showing that we have less self-knowledge and conscious control than we think). So, I think retributive punishment can be justified, but usually criminals deserve less of this sort of punishment than our system doles out. We should put more emphasis on the forward-looking purposes of punishment (or, if you wish, call it quarantine and rehabilitation).

(Firstly I am sorry if this or a similar question has been presented but I can

(Firstly I am sorry if this or a similar question has been presented but I can not find one that sufficiently examines what I am trying to ascertain.) I have been relatively taken with the arguments surrounding determinism and free will. Chiefly the suggestion that there is no way to consolidate the two together into a singular idea. One such reason I have been presented with to support determinism is the fact that such base things as our values or beliefs might be influenced by outisde beings; parents being the example I will use. If people such as our parents can shape our values and beliefs do we actually have free will in what we decide to do when predented with a moral choice? (i.e. Catholic beliefs leading one not to have an abortion or so on). One such issue I saw with this is that through introspection I can see where the beliefs of my parents no longer hold for me. I have adapted and developed what I would consider my own set of beliefs; even though I did start with the beliefs taught by my...

If free will does not exist -- i.e, each person is only an observer experiencing

If free will does not exist -- i.e, each person is only an observer experiencing but never actually choosing or deciding anything -- can life still be meaningful?

This is an important question, since it might be that one of the reasons we worry about whether we have free will is that free will is required for life to be meaningful. If so, then any threat to our free will would also make life meaningless. (Actually, as I write that sentence, it makes me wonder if a person's life can only be meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that word, if it has a possibility of being meaningful--is a worm's life meaningless or does that word simply not apply?) But is free will required for life to have meaning?

As usual (with philosophical questions like this), a lot depends on what we mean by 'free will' and 'meaningful life'. My own view is that a theory of free will needs to be about the powers of control that matter to us, so it doesn't make sense to define free will in such a way that losing it would not matter and such that having it would not matter. If, for instance, free will is defined as some magical ability to exist outside of the natural order of things, then I'm not sure why it would matter if we don't have it. But if, as you suggest, free will is the power to make choices and have your decisions make a difference to what happens, rather than just being a helpless bystander observing what happens, then it would be terrible not to have free will. And I find it hard to see how life could be meaningful without such free will, since it seems like part of what makes life meaningful is deciding what sorts of goals and plans you have and making choices that help you achieve those goals and plans.

I should emphasize that I am a compatibilist about free will and determinism (as I explain here), so I don't think that the truth of determinism would make life lack meaning because it would not make us mere observers whose decisions didn't make a difference. But figuring out how free will works is no easy task. And figuring out what makes life meaningful is even harder.

Assume it were discovered that certain mental aspects of a person - their

Assume it were discovered that certain mental aspects of a person - their temperment, their inclinations, their basic attitudes and desires - were at least partly the result of the person's genes. Now assume that a couple (for whatever reason) decides that they want their child to be an energetic, extroverted, optimistic and competitive; or that they decide they want a calm, collected, intelligent, questioning and cooperative child; or any other variation. They then go on to their doctor and have the embryo's genes modified such that their child will have these qualities. Is the control exercised over the child's fundamental nature an imposition of the parents' wills onto the will of the child? And is a person whose will has been designed by another will as free as a will that has not been designed at all?

Excellent question. It is excellent partly because it goes to the heart of the nature of freedom: freedom makes little sense without a context. So, it makes sense to ask of a person at any time whether she or he is free to do X, but in the case you are imagining there is no will of the child prior to the parent's decision making. So, we do not have a case of when, say, a two year old child is given some character-transforming infusion, we are rather focussing in on the very gestation and emergence of the child. I suggest that there might be reasons to discourage this kind of engineering (perhaps such engineering might tend to make parents feel they have a kind of ownership over their children), but that such engineering need not be seen as an imposition of the parents' will "onto the will of the child" with one proviso. That condition concerns whether the child has any freedom once she reaches maturity to be (for example) not optimistic, not competitive, to neglect her intellectual talents, to be non-cooperative and unquestioning and so on. Arguably, one freely does X when one does X and has the power to do otherwise. If the engineering is so thorough that the child cannot act other than she or he has been shaped then it seems that the parents have, as it were, programmed their child and eradicated her freedom, except in the trivial sense that the child will be free to do what she wants. I describe that as trivial in the sense that while she can do what she wants, she is not free to have any other wants than those her parents have selected.

I'm really struggling to comprehend soft determinism/compatibilism. How can free

I'm really struggling to comprehend soft determinism/compatibilism. How can free will be compatible with determinism? Surely by definition, they both necessitate exclusivity to each other?

Here is a side note to your question. Soft determinism consists of two propositions: (1) the the thesis that determinism is true; (2) that it is compatible with freedom. Compatibilism on the other hand is merely (2). So soft determinism includes compatibilism, but there is more to it. I am a compatibilist but not a soft determinist (I am a compatibilist indeterminist), as I believe that there are some events that have no causes (denial of universal causation), and I also believe that the state of the universe plus the laws of nature do not determine the next state of the universe (determinism), and I also believe that some human actions are free. The only other compatibilist indeterminist I know of is David Lewis.

I want to believe that our actions are products of our own will who can choose

I want to believe that our actions are products of our own will who can choose to do right or wrong but I find this very difficult to believe for a simple philosophical reason. Given the principle that something can not come about by nothing it seems like an absolute and indubitable certainty that the total state of affairs in the universe at any one given moment in time would completely determine the state of affairs at another moment in time. The only thing that keeps me from believing this is my suspicion that my mind is playing a metaphysical trick on me and my hope in religious and spiritual possibilities. Is there some flaw to this reasoning that I can not see? Are there any good arguments that refutes the intuitive position that a non-deterministic universe is an absurdity? I suppose that you could argue that certain areas of science such a quantum mechanics refute the idea of a deterministic universe but such scientific theories don't have the simple persuasiveness of the above mentioned thesis.

Persuasiveness is pretty clearly a relative matter here! After having spent a few decades thinking about quantum theory, I don't find myself much bothered by the idea of indeterminism. Even if I front that "something can't come from nothing" it's a long way from there to the conclusion that all events are governed by deterministic laws. And in any case, when it comes to questions about how the universe really works, I'm not inclined to take my mere hunches and intuitions too seriously. In particular, it's hard to see why I would five my intuitions about nature priority over the painstaking theoretical and experimental work of the sciences. The world has surprised us many times before. I'd bet that it will continue to do so.