Palmer's Defense of Libertarianism

Donald Palmer's account of determinism and free will on pages 214-223 is basically an extended argument in favor of Volitional Libertarianism. (This is fine, it's his book.) However, we can ask if this argument succeeds.

What Palmer Has To Prove

Although Palmer writes as though the soft determinists bear the burden of proof, we actually have overwhelming evidence that soft determinsm is true simply because we have tons and tons of evidence for both free will and volitional determinism. (We see free-willed actions every day in ourselves and others, and our minds wouldn't work at all if volitional determinism wasn't true.) So, in order to prove libertarianism is true (and soft determinism is false), Palmer has to:

1. Prove that free will and determinism are incompatible.
2. Prove that free will can exist in the absense of determinism.
3. Prove that determinism, or at least volitional determinism, is false.

There are certain logical rules that apply to such a project.

1. To prove that free will and determinism are incompatible, Palmer has to show that, if determinism is true, actions that appear to be the result of mental processes occuring inside your own skull are in fact the result of other processes occuring elsewhere than in your skull. (Ie: your purchase of a candy bar was a result of you being subjected to some kind of mind-control ray rather than your pre-existing desire for candy and decision to buy the bar.) If he comes up with a different definition of free will, then he (or someone) will have to show two things. First, that his new definition of free will is more accurate than the one given by soft determinists like Hume, and second, he will have to show that determinism is incompatible with this better definition of free will.

2. If things don't happen of necessity, then they are random with respect to prexisting conditions. If my actions are random with respect to my own thought processes, how can those actions possibly have occured of my own will, free or not? Palmer has to show that a truly random act can represent his will. If he can't, then libertarianism cannot be true, simply because it is indeterminism that is incompatible with free will, not determinism.

3. If Palmer manages to prove #1, then #3 is pretty simple. If free will and determinism are incompatible, then proving the existance of free will amounts to proving the falsity of determinism. If he hasn't proved incompatibilism, then proving the existance of free will doesn't prove anything. Still, Palmer only has to prove volitional determinism false to prove soft determinism false. If he can prove that our freely-willed actions are, or have to be, random with respect to our previous brain states, then he will have proved that the doctrine that our actions are both free and determined is false, because he will have proved that, whether they are free or not, they are not determined.

What if Palmer doesn't prove all three?

Say Palmer only proves #1? If he proves that one, and not #2 and #3, then the huge mountain of evidence we have for determinism leaves open the possibility that hard determinism is true. Proving incompatibilism without disproving determinism is very close to proving that free will doesn't exist.

Say Palmer only proves #2? This would prove necessitism false, but it wouldn't prove soft determinism false, because it would leave open the possibility that free-will is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism.

Say Palmer only proves #3? This would prove soft determinism false, obviously, but it would not prove libertarianism true because, without proving #2, it leaves open the possibility that necessitism is still true, and thus allows for the possibility that free will doesn't exist because our brain processes are indeterminate.

Say Palmer proves #1 & #2, but not #3? This would be a proof that free will might exist. If Palmer doesn't defeat the argument for volitional determinism based on D'Holbach's insight that the brain is a physical process, then he leaves open the possibility that hard determinism is true.

Say Palmer proves #1 & #3, but not #2? This would be another proof that free will might exist. If Palmer doesn't show that free will can exist in an indeterministic brain, he leaves open the possibility that the volitional indeterminism he has proved actually rules out free will.

Say Palmer proves #2 & #3, but not #1? This would be total victory for Palmer, if he could do it. If volitional determinism is false, then neither hard determinism nor soft determinism can be true. That leaves us two alternatives. Either free will can't exist because the brain is indeterministic, or it can despite the fact that the brain is indeterministic. Proving #2 rules out the first alternative, which leaves us with the possibility that libertarianism is true. Add that to the copious evidence we have for the existance of free will, then Palmer wins. (However, to achieve victory by this route he has got to prove that volitional determinism is false without assuming that incompatibilism is true.)

Your task is to review Palmer's arguments and say what, if anything, they prove. If you think any of Palmer's arguments succeed, you will have to both explain the most powerful criticism of that argument, and then explain why that criticism fails. If you think Palmer's arguments fail, you will have to explain at least one of his arguments, and then explain why it fails.

Copyright 2007 by Martin C. Young










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