The Basic Argument

“There is an argument, which I will call the Basic Argument, which appears to prove that we cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions. According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.

“The Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and its central idea can be quickly conveyed. (1) Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.”

– Strawson, G. (1994, p. 5) [The impossibility of moral responsibility. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition75, 5-24.]

Ludicrously-large sense-of-self as a way to have free will

Galen Strawson (1994) provides a succinct argument explaining why we can’t be truly morally responsible for any action. The argument also speaks to why we don’t have free will. It goes:

(1) Nothing can be causa sui — nothing can be the cause of itself.

(2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects.

(3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.

This impossibility thesis holds irrespective of whether determinism holds, i.e., whether everything we do “has a cause, and hence an explanation; even if the explanation is inaccessible to us” (Strawson, 1989/2008, p.338).

Under determinism we and all the actions we take are caused by something outside of us and consequently causa sui fails. Under indeterminism, some randomness – inside or outside our bodies – contributes to an event happening, which doesn’t feel like we are in control either.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and taking it seriously leads to interesting ways of thinking about and coming to terms with the reality in which we find ourselves. We must find meaning without relying on us being the originator of our actions. Concepts like meritocracy and punishment need a rethink too.

Deep curiosity about what happens next seems to be one attribute that runs deep – hence why we watch films even though we know the ending has been predetermined. I’ve recently discovered a Yiddish proverb which goes along these lines: “You should go on living – if only to satisfy your curiosity.”

Also if you experience or do something pleasant or important or desirable, accepting that you did not cause it to happen but rather that a universe-old causal chain led inevitably to it happening makes the event more meaningful, if anything.

But recently I have been wondering what exactly this something that supposedly cannot be a cause of itself actually is. Intuitively, when I think about whether or not I have free will I think of my Self as encased in a body. The aspects of me of which I am consciously aware feel like me, as do unconscious aspects which I cannot experience but which I know are there: all the gory bodily processes which keep me running like my bladder’s internal sphincter.

Much of what comprises my Self comes from outside me. My genes came from my parents. My experiences come from the world around me. Each of the cause-effect chains stretching back to the beginning of time is clearly outside my body. There is a tradition of pondering where self begins and ends, for instance as popularised by The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Consider how much we rely on things in our environment to get things done. Clark and Chalmers discuss a chap called Otto who, like most of us, supplements his skull-encased memory with external notes.

“Most of us already accept that the self outstrips the boundaries of consciousness; my dispositional beliefs, for example, constitute in some deep sense part of who I am. If so, then these boundaries may also fall beyond the skin. The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources.”

Kusch (1999, p. 359) also illustrates how stuff going on outside us can get under our skin: “at least some states of the brain might well be called social states. […T]hey predispose us to differ in the intensity, quality, and duration of some of our sensations.” There is a long tradition of this kind of thinking; those of a psychoanalytic persuasion might cite Bion and others.

Here is where the Ludicrously-Large Self (LLS) Thesis comes in. Under LLS, whether or not determinism holds, everything causally implicated in who we are and what we do becomes part of the Self. We certainly cannot be consciously aware of the vast majority of this since it extends spatially and temporally back to the beginning of time (hence Ludicrously Large). The consciously aware bit does not bother me – I feel quite attached to my bladder’s internal sphincter, even though I have no awareness of it. Now Strawson’s first proposition, “Nothing can be causa sui“, melts away. With the neatly encased model of Self, external cause-effect chains lead to who we are and what we do, whereas now under LLS we take each of those events as part of us – hence we are causes of ourselves. This is a radical challenge to our sense of identity; e.g., “even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense” (Rumi).

Haven’t mentioned free will for a while…

In an introduction to psychodynamic ideas, Jonathan Shedler writes (p. 42):

“If behavior were unavoidably determined, there would be no reason to practice psychoanalytic therapy or, for that matter, any form of therapy.”

Although I’m not sure about free will, I don’t think this is a necessary consequence of having no free will. And it’s important that there is a reason for clients who reject free will.

Suppose we have no free will. Two claims are difficult to refute:

(1) We experience stuff, some of it fun, some of it not. The phenomenological feeling which goes along for the ride doesn’t seem to care about free will. Related to this, I think it’s interesting that we still go to the cinema and read books even though we know the ending has already been decided: we seem to derive great pleasure from finding out what happens next. “You should go on living – if only to satisfy your curiosity” – Yiddish proverb.

(2) Chatting to people partially determines our future experience (sometimes positive!) and behaviour.

So, therapy may just be another link in the big causal network in the universe. Hopefully it’s more likely to improve someone’s life than other links, however unavoidable and predetermined going to see the therapist and its consequences might be.