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Thought Experiment Tuesday: The Principle of Alternative Possibilities

Mercurial

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"Causal Determinism" is the view that "every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature". In other words, if something happens, it had to happen, given prior events plus the laws of nature.

Many philosophers accept that determinism is true, (with a couple of caveats to do with quantum mechanics which we can set aside here).

Of those who accept that determinism is true, some believe that this means that humans do not have free will. The view that determinism and free will are incompatible is called...incompatibilism.

Here is an argument for incompatibilism:

1. Albert is free to perform an action if and only if it is true that he could have done otherwise. (This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities)

2. If causal determinism is true, Albert could not have done otherwise.

3. Albert is free to perform an action only if causal determinism is false.


The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt accepts that causal determinism is true, but denies the truth of the first premise above. Here are three examples of what have become known as "Frankfurt cases":


Case 1: The Inept Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. At the last moment, Tom's conscience gets the better of him and he decides not to fire the shot.

Unbeknownst to Tom, however, his rifle is actually defective: if he had squeezed the trigger, the gun would have jammed. Though Tom does not realize this, there is nothing he can actually do to harm the President.

Question: Should we commend Tom for listening to his conscience and deciding not to squeeze the trigger, even though he could not actually have carried out his murderous plan?

Case 2: The Brainwashed Assassin

Richard watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. He decides to shoot, and successfully shoots the President.

Unbeknownst to Richard, however, he has been implanted with a special microchip that allows his employer to monitor his thoughts and influence his behaviour. If Richard had decided not to shoot, his employer would have activated the chip, which would have forced Richard to shoot.

Question: Should we blame Richard for shooting the President? If Richard had chosen not to pull the trigger, the microchip would have forced him to anyway. Richard could not have done otherwise except to shoot.

Case 3: The Heroic Bodyguard

Harry and Larry are bodyguards, whose duty is to protect the life of the President. Harry spots a would-be assassin, and decides to dived towards the President, pushing him to one side. As a result, the bullet strikes the President in the arm, wounding him instead of killing him.

Unbeknownst to Harry, his partner Larry had also spotted the assassin. Being slightly farther away, if Harry had not dived towards the President, Larry would have Harry into him, causing the bullet to strike the President in the arm, wounding him instead of killing him.

Question: Does Harry deserve praise for diving towards the President, even though the outcome would have been exactly the same had he chosen not to? (Because Larry would have pushed him)



In each of these cases, it looks as though we should hold those involved responsible, even though they could not have done otherwise: Tom is to be praised for listening to his conscience, even though the President was never in any real danger from him, Richard is to be condemned for shooting the President, even though the microchip would have forced him to anyway, and Harry is to be praised for saving the President, even though the President would have been saved if Harry had chosen to do nothing.

Thus, Frankfurt aims to convince us that the principle of alternative possibilities is false: we can hold people responsible for their actions, even if they could not have done otherwise. Do you find his argument convincing?

(If you're wondering what this has to with *political* philosophy, consider how important attributions of free will and moral responsibility are when devising policies that impose burdens or rewards on people on the basis of the choices that they make)
 
Last edited:


artfoley56

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"Causal Determinism" is the view that "every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature". In other words, if something happens, it had to happen, given prior events plus the laws of nature.

Many philosophers accept that determinism is true, (with a couple of caveats to do with quantum mechanics which we can set aside here).

Of those who accept that determinism is true, some believe that this means that humans do not have free will. The view that determinism and free will are incompatible is called...incompatibilism.

Here is an argument for incompatibilism:

1. Albert is free to perform an action if and only if it is true that he could have done otherwise. (This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities)

2. If causal determinism is true, Albert could not have done otherwise.

3. Albert is free to perform an action only if causal determinism is false.


The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt accepts that causal determinism is true, but denies the truth of the first premise above. Here are three examples of what have become known as "Frankfurt cases":


Case 1: The Inept Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. At the last moment, Tom's conscience gets the better of him and he decides not to fire the shot.

Unbeknownst to Tom, however, his rifle is actually defective: if he had squeezed the trigger, the gun would have jammed. Though Tom does not realize this, there is nothing he can actually do to harm the President.

Question: Should we commend Tom for listening to his conscience and deciding not to squeeze the trigger, even though he could not actually have carried out his murderous plan?

Case 2: The Brainwashed Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. He decides to shoot, and successfully shoots the President.

Unbeknownst to Richard, however, he has been implanted with a special microchip that allows his employer to monitor his thoughts and influence his behaviour. If Richard had decided not to shoot, his employer would have activated the chip, which would have forced Richard to shoot.

Question: Should we blame Richard for shooting the President? If Richard had chosen not to pull the trigger, the microchip would have forced him to anyway. Richard could not have done otherwise except to shoot.

Case 3: The Heroic Bodyguard

Harry and Larry are bodyguards, whose duty is to protect the life of the President. Harry spots a would-be assassin, and decides to dived towards the President, pushing him to one side. As a result, the bullet strikes the President in the arm, wounding him instead of killing him.

Unbeknownst to Harry, his partner Larry had also spotted the assassin. Being slightly farther away, if Harry had not dived towards the President, Larry would have Harry into him, causing the bullet to strike the President in the arm, wounding him instead of killing him.

Question: Does Harry deserve praise for diving towards the President, even though the outcome would have been exactly the same had he chosen not to? (Because Larry would have pushed him)



In each of these cases, it looks as though we should hold those involved responsible, even though they could not have done otherwise: Tom is to be praised for listening to his conscience, even though the President was never in any real danger from him, Richard is to be condemned for shooting the President, even though the microchip would have forced him to anyway, and Harry is to be praised for saving the President, even though the President would have been saved if Harry had chosen to do nothing.

Thus, Frankfurt aims to convince us that the principle of alternative possibilities is false: we can hold people responsible for their actions, even if they could not have done otherwise. Do you find his argument convincing?

(If you're wondering what this has to with *political* philosophy, consider how important attributions of free will and moral responsibility are when devising policies that impose burdens or rewards on people on the basis of the choices that they make)
there is no choice about reading this thread while the option to ignore your threads remains switched off :D
 

farnaby

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Here is an argument for incompatibilism:

1. Albert is free to perform an action if and only if it is true that he could have done otherwise. (This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities)

2. If causal determinism is true, Albert could not have done otherwise.

3. Albert is free to perform an action only if causal determinism is false.
I take issue with the concept of free will. It takes a blank slate approach to human agency - i.e. can one choose something in the absence of all causal and influencing factors including conflicting internal factors such as one's emotions, deliberations, knowledge of the moral and legal landscape etc.?

I say no - but this does not relegate us to victims of fate. Rather it is the unique combination of those internal factors that make us who we are, a unique character and agent. What is free will, other than the exercise of our unique decision-making character, weighing alternatives and acting accordingly?
 

Half Nelson

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"Causal Determinism" is the view that "every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature". In other words, if something happens, it had to happen, given prior events plus the laws of nature.

Many philosophers accept that determinism is true, (with a couple of caveats to do with quantum mechanics which we can set aside here).

Of those who accept that determinism is true, some believe that this means that humans do not have free will. The view that determinism and free will are incompatible is called...incompatibilism.

Here is an argument for incompatibilism:

1. Albert is free to perform an action if and only if it is true that he could have done otherwise. (This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities)

2. If causal determinism is true, Albert could not have done otherwise.

3. Albert is free to perform an action only if causal determinism is false.


The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt accepts that causal determinism is true, but denies the truth of the first premise above. Here are three examples of what have become known as "Frankfurt cases":


Case 1: The Inept Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. At the last moment, Tom's conscience gets the better of him and he decides not to fire the shot.

Unbeknownst to Tom, however, his rifle is actually defective: if he had squeezed the trigger, the gun would have jammed. Though Tom does not realize this, there is nothing he can actually do to harm the President.

Question: Should we commend Tom for listening to his conscience and deciding not to squeeze the trigger, even though he could not actually have carried out his murderous plan?

Case 2: The Brainwashed Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. He decides to shoot, and successfully shoots the President.

Unbeknownst to Richard, however, he has been implanted with a special microchip that allows his employer to monitor his thoughts and influence his behaviour. If Richard had decided not to shoot, his employer would have activated the chip, which would have forced Richard to shoot.

Question: Should we blame Richard for shooting the President? If Richard had chosen not to pull the trigger, the microchip would have forced him to anyway. Richard could not have done otherwise except to shoot.

Case 3: The Heroic Bodyguard

Harry and Larry are bodyguards, whose duty is to protect the life of the President. Harry spots a would-be assassin, and decides to dived towards the President, pushing him to one side. As a result, the bullet strikes the President in the arm, wounding him instead of killing him.

Unbeknownst to Harry, his partner Larry had also spotted the assassin. Being slightly farther away, if Harry had not dived towards the President, Larry would have Harry into him, causing the bullet to strike the President in the arm, wounding him instead of killing him.

Question: Does Harry deserve praise for diving towards the President, even though the outcome would have been exactly the same had he chosen not to? (Because Larry would have pushed him)



In each of these cases, it looks as though we should hold those involved responsible, even though they could not have done otherwise: Tom is to be praised for listening to his conscience, even though the President was never in any real danger from him, Richard is to be condemned for shooting the President, even though the microchip would have forced him to anyway, and Harry is to be praised for saving the President, even though the President would have been saved if Harry had chosen to do nothing.

Thus, Frankfurt aims to convince us that the principle of alternative possibilities is false: we can hold people responsible for their actions, even if they could not have done otherwise. Do you find his argument convincing?

(If you're wondering what this has to with *political* philosophy, consider how important attributions of free will and moral responsibility are when devising policies that impose burdens or rewards on people on the basis of the choices that they make)
I hear that some people get degrees for exhausting their brains on this stuff.
(It's a lousy experiment.)
 

former wesleyan

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Case 2: The Brainwashed Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. He decides to shoot, and successfully shoots the President.

Unbeknownst to Richard, however, he has been implanted with a special microchip that allows his employer to monitor his thoughts and influence his behaviour. If Richard had decided not to shoot, his employer would have activated the chip, which would have forced Richard to shoot.
How did Tom morph into Richard or is it a trick question part of the conundrum ?
 

fontenoy

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Case 2: The Brainwashed Assassin

Tom watches the presidential motorcade through the scope of his rifle, contemplating whether to squeeze the trigger. He decides to shoot, and successfully shoots the President.

Unbeknownst to Richard, however, he has been implanted with a special microchip that allows his employer to monitor his thoughts and influence his behaviour. If Richard had decided not to shoot, his employer would have activated the chip, which would have forced Richard to shoot.

Question: Should we blame Richard for shooting the President? If Richard had chosen not to pull the trigger, the microchip would have forced him to anyway. Richard could not have done otherwise except to shoot.
Typo? or different people
 

silverharp

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There have been experiments to show that our brain makes decisions before we become aware of them. For instance think of a famous actor, have you freely chosen it or has your physical brain thrown up an answer based on all your prior stimuli?

Normally this is brought up in terms of the point of justice, there might not be any point "hating" the criminal because they are not as responsible as one thinks they are but they still have to be put away
 

Mercurial

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What is free will, other than the exercise of our unique decision-making character, weighing alternatives and acting accordingly?
Do you think that in order to possess free will, we must possess the ability to do otherwise than what we choose?
 

statsman

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I chose to read the thread. Bad decision.
 

Mercurial

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There have been experiments to show that our brain makes decisions before we become aware of them.
I've read about those, but my understanding is that the results are not as conclusive as might first appear.
 

Half Nelson

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former wesleyan

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In each of these cases, it looks as though we should hold those involved responsible, even though they could not have done otherwise: Tom is to be praised for listening to his conscience, even though the President was never in any real danger from him, Richard is to be condemned for shooting the President, even though the microchip would have forced him to anyway, and Harry is to be praised for saving the President, even though the President would have been saved if Harry had chosen to do nothing.
Why is Tom to be praised ? That means that Tom took the job of assassin knowing that his conscience would kick in. Unlikely.

Richard .Microchip. Ah hear , Jasus.

Harry. Yes. Probably the only example that reflects " real life ".
 

Mercurial

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Why is Tom to be praised?
You might think that Tom should be praised for deciding not to shoot the President, even though his decision didn't actually make a difference, since he couldn't have shot the President if he had decided to try.
 

former wesleyan

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You might think that Tom should be praised for deciding not to shoot the President, even though his decision didn't actually make a difference, since he couldn't have shot the President if he had decided to try.
His rifle is secondary; irrelevant actually. His decision not to shoot came after he took the job on. His conscience kicking in would be mitigating circumstances at most.
 

silverharp

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I've read about those, but my understanding is that the results are not as conclusive as might first appear.
I don't think its definitive because nobody knows yet fully how the brain works , but there is certainly some evidence that it can take some seconds for you to acknowledge you have made a decision and someone with a brain scanner seeing first that you have made one. It would be at least fair to say we have very constrained free will especially if you back up into genetics, how you were raised and all your prior interactions.
its an interesting question does one promote the idea of free will or seek to show how limited it might be? if science in a thousand years could perfectly replicate a human brain and show its purely rules based, would the knowledge be debilitating or freeing?
 

Mercurial

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I don't think its definitive because nobody knows yet fully how the brain works , but there is certainly some evidence that it can take some seconds for you to acknowledge you have made a decision and someone with a brain scanner seeing first that you have made one. It would be at least fair to say we have very constrained free will especially if you back up into genetics, how you were raised and all your prior interactions.
its an interesting question does one promote the idea of free will or seek to show how limited it might be? if science in a thousand years could perfectly replicate a human brain and show its purely rules based, would the knowledge be debilitating or freeing?
There is a view held by some philosophers which says that free will is an illusion, most people don't realize this, and that's a very good thing.
 

Mercurial

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His rifle is secondary; irrelevant actually. His decision not to shoot came after he took the job on. His conscience kicking in would be mitigating circumstances at most.
There might also be plenty of reasons to blame Tom, like the one you mention above, but the claim here is that we should think something like "well, at least Tom decided not to go through with it". (To which the reply is supposed to be something like "Tom doesn't deserve any credit for his decision not to shoot, as that decision made no difference to the eventual outcome").
 

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