The Dennes Room

Event Detail

Thu Mar 12, 2009
Howison Library, 4:10–6 PM
Philosophy Colloquium
John Perry (Stanford University)
Freedom and the Consequence Argument

Hume argued that freedom, or ‘liberty’, could be reconciled with determinism or ‘necessity’ once we appreciate that freedom consists in having one’s actions determined by one’s own desires and decisions. This ‘compatibilist’ conception of freedom has had numerous distinguished defenders, from Hobbes, Locke and Hume to Donald Davidson, Hilary Bok and Daniel Dennett. But Kant thought that Hume’s theory was a “wretched subterfuge”, and the incompatibilist position has also had many able defenders. Over the past twenty years, it has been supported by David Wiggins, Carl Ginet, Peter van Inwagen and others by use of the “consequence argument”. Basically, the argument is that one cannot change the past, nor the laws of nature; so, if the laws of nature and the past entail that one will, say, scratch one’s head at t, one cannot refrain from scratching one’s head, for to do so would be to ‘render false’ the laws of nature, or true statements about the past. The argument has been impressively elaborated with notation drawn from modal logic, presented in several versions, and bolstered with all sorts of auxiliary arguments and examples.

Many thoughtful philosophers have thought that the consequence argument, if it does not conclusively establish incompatibilism, at least has led us to a ‘dialectical stalemate’. Thus John Fischer is a ‘semi-compatibilist’: determinism is incompatible with the freedom to do otherwise than one does, but not with moral responsibility for what one does. Manuel Vargas has claimed that the compatibilist position should be defended only as a revisionist strategy.

I will argue that the consequence argument fails, and there is no stalemate. Central to my argument will be a distinction between applying concepts to phenomena and thinking about phenomena via concepts. I will also make a number of other more or less plausible distinctions.

The most accessible versions of the consequence argument are probably the essays by van Inwagen and Wiggins in Gary Watson’s popular anthology FREE WILL. Ginet’s presentation in ON ACTION is admirably clear.

Previous stuff I have written on this topic can be found on my website by following the link to philosophical essays.