Tuesday 4/14

Machine Autonomy I: The Traditional Problem of Freedom of Will





Class Discussion

We will use zoom for class discussion, meeting at the same time as class, but online. Please download the client here for your computer, laptop, or smartphone. You do not need an account, nor do you need to pay for the service. I will text a meeting ID and meeting password to the class via our class GroupMe and via email about 15 minutes prior to class. We will also use the same zoom room for the dedicated office hour immediately following class.

Video Lecture



Today we turned to the traditional problem of freedom of will after briefly discussing why it is so pressing a problem for us.

It is difficult to understate the importance of responsibility for our relationships and the larger society. Today we discussed some of the ways in which the assumption of responsibility underwrites our social practices. Any short list must include

  • Gratitude: It would make no sense to be grateful for another person's kindness if they were under the influence of a psychoactive drug and wouldn't otherwise have given you the time of day.
  • Blame: If someone does us injury purely by accident and through no fault of their own, it may for awhile make us feel better to get angry, but we can't really blame the person--accidents do sometimes happen.
  • Friendship: Suppose someone were hypnotized to be your friend who otherwise wouldn't be in the least bit so inclined, perhaps because the hypnotizer pities you; if you knew, what value could you place on the friendship?
  • Love: A mind-control device to make the object of our desires love us might be tempting, but would it be love?
  • Punishment: It would probably be a good idea to imprison someone who randomly assaults others just to keep them from doing so in the future, but doing so could not be construed as an act of punishment since punishment makes no sense in such a case.

Missing in each case (and many others besides!) is any assurance that the object of gratitude, blame, friendship, love, or punishment acted of their own accord. That is, a necessary condition on holding someone responsible is that their actions be up to them and they presumably could have done otherwise.

Being responsible for one's own actions is, then, for one's actions to be decided by oneself, regardless of outside influences and for one's own reasons. The Traditional Problem of Freedom of the Will can be understood as an attempt to explain how one's actions can be at once free yet still be determined by one's own will. For if Determinism is true, it seems our actions cannot be free. Yet if Determinism is not true, it seems our actions cannot be determined by our own wills. We seem, then, to be caught in a remarkable--and, to philosophers at least, deeply disturbing--dilemma.

After fleshing out the dilemma more fully (see the notes, The Traditional Problem of Freedom of Will), we briefly canvassed some of the responses to the traditional problem and proceeded to recast it in terms of mechanism and autonomy. We pick up there next time.