Appeal to Fate: A Free Will Fallacy

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 34 min.

There’s a common attack against free will skepticism that, as far as I know, has no name. For now, I’ll call it the Appeal to Fate, or the Appeal for short (maybe not the best name for it, but I’ll try to justify the choice shortly). The job of the Appeal is to expose a fatal inconsistency in the thinking of those who deny free will while simultaneously claiming it possible for someone to rationally respond to stimuli, arguments, reasons, and so on.

I will argue here that the Appeal is fallacious. To be clear, this is not the same as arguing that free will is false. I’m a skeptic about free will, but my goal here is not to inspire skepticism. Though some of what I say here will at least defend the idea that skepticism is defensible—something the Appeal generally denies. But don’t worry, I don’t let us skeptics off the hook, either. Ultimately, then, my goal is to plea for mutually respectful discussion between skeptics and believers. Here goes.

The Appeal seems to be most often formulated as a short statement meant to be so embarrassing for free will skeptics as to stop them in their tracks. Here are two examples taken from real life, though I’ve decided not to use real names out of a sense of fairness to the perpetrators (below, however, I’ll introduce subtler examples from named perpetrators). Appeals are in bold:

A one-sentence, one-star consumer review I recently encountered of a book arguing against free will’s existence can be paraphrased as: “How can I stop believing in free will if I don’t have the free will to do so?

After leaving a conference, a friend of mine called to tell me about a scientist who, during a post-presentation Q&A, was asked by a visibly agitated audience-member (a philosopher skeptical about free will): “How can you say we have free will?!?” The response: “According to you, I have no choice.“ It got a big laugh from the crowd.

There are other instances I could point to, expressed with varying amounts of verbiage, sincerity, and authority (e.g., ranging from anonymous forum commenters to PhDs)—but they say little more than is said in the above examples, so there’s no need to share them. Bedsides, the worst offenders are so condescending, rude, silly, and drenched in unearned self-satisfaction that I’d rather not promote them. Again, I will share a subtler example below.

I’ll distinguish here, then, between Subtle instances of the Appeal and Crude ones (resisting the term Smug, as I think some folks really do just think it a good argument).

Crude expressions typically look like the above two examples in that they are short and make reference to a lack of choice about belief (or, less often, other cognitive states—e.g., attitudes and desires). There are at least two obvious ways that the Crude Appeals are misguided.

First, even those who believe strongly in free will recognize—intuitively and correctly—that belief is often passive. That is, belief is often not something you choose, so much as something that happens to you. Can you, by sheer force of will, believe you are not currently reading this? That your name is something other than what it is? Can you force yourself to really and truly believe you were born in 1471? That Donald Trump was never named president of the United States? That you do or do not have free will?

In other words, it’s odd that a believer in free will would use the passivity of belief as an example of where the skeptical view fails. Odd, that is, unless the implication is that free will skepticism amounts to a belief in fate—i.e., the belief that no matter what information one is exposed to, no matter how much one reflects and deliberates, there is some fixed, final belief that will be arrived at. (More on fate in a moment.)

But no free will skeptic, at least no careful* one, believes that an inability to change one’s belief on command—or to do any other impossible thing (e.g., sprout wings and fly, construct a square circle)—counts as evidence against free will.

[*By “careful” I really mean, roughly, academic types who’ve spent time thinking about free will. Assume this to be the sort of skeptic I’m referring to here. Obviously I cannot really speak for anyone other than myself. So I admit that, throughout this writing, I am to some degree describing what I think a careful free will skeptic should endorse.]

The challenger to skepticism, then, needs a less facile way of getting across what seems to be something like: How can you expect me to respond to the world in a rational or reasoned way on the one hand, while, on the other hand, telling me I don’t have the freedom to author my own choices in some deep and genuine way? Or maybe even better: How can you expect me to think or behave in any way other than I do if you also think I lack the freedom to think or behave in any other way than I do?

There’s a deeper problem here, however, than passivity of belief—one I’ve already pointed to and that I don’t think such revisions can help. This is the second obvious problem with the Crude Appeal, but it also applies to Subtle variants. Namely, the Appeal broadly fails to recognize that free will skepticism is perfectly consistent with—indeed relies on—the fact that human cognitive states (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, desires) and behaviors are influenced by stimuli, arguments, reasons, and such, which I’ll refer to collectively as information. More importantly, it denies that such influence may contribute to—or even take the form of—some rational process (e.g., deliberation).

This is why I call the fallacy the Appeal to Fate1 That is, it seems to characterize the skeptical position as positing that there are cognitive states and behaviors that we are fated to take on, irrespective of whatever else goes on in the world. This fatalist view is not one that any (again, careful) free will skeptic is committed to. Fatalism bears a mystical or superstitious quality, as when the universe or the gods decide I’ll drive to Chicago rather than New York City, no matter what I actually intend—even should this require misprinted maps, GPS glitches, and reoriented road signs.

This characterization is a distortion of the classical or hard deterministic view to which many (though not all, as we’ll see below) free will skeptics adhere; that is, a view in which some particular event must follow—in a perfectly precise way, down to the behavior of every particle involved—from a particular set of events that precede it. Fate, in contrast, holds that some general event must follow from whatever events happen to precede it, even if this requires a miracle: if I’m fated to make it to Chicago, then I’ll somehow survive the explosion should a mall-sized meteor crash into my car while driving through Pennsylvania.

Such hyperbolic comparisons may seem unfair, but I in fact find the Crude Appeal so silly in its blatant straw-man-ery that, when I hear it, I get the same irksome tingle I get from criticisms like, “I guess if I find myself in a burning building I’ll just have to sit there and burn because, according to you, I don’t have the free will to get up and leave. Right?!?” Wrong. Free will skepticism involves no such commitment. Rather, it admits of the existence of human volition, will (just not free will), deliberative efficacy, and choice—in short, of a kind of self-control that amounts to one being the proximate cause of one’s choices and actions. Just not enough self-control to ground being morally responsible for those things, in the sense of deserving to be punished. This is due to the numerous important causal factors that exist well outside of our control; for example, what we believe and desire, or what we desire to believe and desire, and so on.

Here we get a hint of the sort of discussion the Appeal might be designed to evade, more about which in a moment, as we are not yet at that deeper level of discourse. Rather, we are now at a higher-order level in which the free will skeptic, no matter how strong their skepticism, is in a position to tell some informative, coherent, explanatory story about their cognitive states and behaviors. This in fact is another way to put the broader problem with the Appeal to Fate: it denies the free will skeptic the right to higher-order (that is, useful) explanation.

This restriction is unwarranted, even should the skeptic deny that we have any more control over our cognitive states than we do, say, pupil dilation. Such lack of control neither disproves free will nor bars our access to useful explanatory accounts. What sort of account one is being invited to give should be somewhat clear from context. When the children are asked how the lamp broke, it’s usually not a question about the relative densities of glass and baseballs.

Questions about cognitive and subjective states, too, are often reasonable requests for an informative story. A coherent and useful answer to “Why did you choose the pretzels over the cookie?” may be that you lost a coin flip, had too much sugar for breakfast, the cookie has peanuts and you’re allergic, or even just “I prefer savory to sweet.” An uninteresting explanation is, “because, the Big Bang,” which explains nothing due to explaining everything: it would be, in a certain sense, the right answer no matter what you did. So it’s not a useful answer in most contexts.

Similarly, the best answer to, “Why do no longer believe that all swans are white?,” is not that belief is passive. Nor need it involve some story about light and eyeballs and visual information resulting in brain states that correspond to locutions about swans. The answer is simple: “I saw some black ones.”

And when a free will skeptic asks why you left the building, the level of discourse you’re being invited to participate in allows you to coherently respond just as you would when a believer in free will asks that question: “Because it was on fire and I dislike excruciating pain and prefer to be alive.” We may then, at a deeper level of discourse, debate what role free will may or may not have played in that behavior as a response to those reasons. But that is a deeper (or lower-order) level of discourse.

Obviously, what counts as a good answer is not always clear. We may be asked about our religious, moral, or political beliefs—some aspects of which have straightforward answers while others don’t. And sometimes when asked why we believe or feel or behave as we do, we’re really being invited to think more deeply about ourselves or our relations to others, and that can get complicated. But “Why do you love me?” is usually, and quite obviously, not an invitation for a lecture on evolutionary biology, and it may at times not even be a request for a factual explanation of that literal question. And investigating why someone prefers—or believes they prefer—this over that brand of soda may reveal important things about social phenomena (e.g., susceptibility to branding) and may indeed help evolutionary psychologists improve their theories. And on and on.

I’ll return in a moment to the nuanced, messy, complicated relationship we have with our cognitive states, which in large part accounts for why merely pointing to the passivity of belief does not strike a win for free will skeptics. But right now I want to emphasize that the free will skeptic, just like the believer, does recognize that humans can and do change their minds and can give some explanatory account of how this happened. The explanation may be somewhat vague: “Something about Peter van Inwagen’s book finally convinced me that I have free will”; or solid: “I thought all swans were white until I saw some black ones.” Note the especially clear passivity of belief in the swan case: try not believing some swans are black after seeing some black ones.

Likewise, if you make a convincing argument that I have free will, my beliefs may change, whether I like it or not. Of course, I might hear your arguments and not change my mind (like it or not), or I might refuse to admit that I’ve changed my mind, or I might refuse to even contemplate your argument (especially if it takes the form of a 500-page book), potentially subjecting myself to accusations of willful ignorance. But if I do sincerely contemplate your argument, whether I change my mind will be a function of how the argument interacts with my existing beliefs and rational capacities and such, not of what I willfully force myself to believe.

In other words, there is nothing inconsistent about a free will skeptic maintaining that information can, and indeed constantly does, affect our cognitive states and behaviors in some rationally coherent way, while simultaneously maintaining that the process by which information processing does its work on us is not freely willed. I’m repeating myself, but the Appeal—which relies on rejecting or ignoring this point—is so common, and apparently effective, that I feel I must belabor it.

And what an obvious point it is. Indeed, the silliness of my needing to articulate it strikes me as being proportional to the fragility of the Appeal’s straw man, especially in its crudest forms. I suppose the idea is that we skeptics are meant to realize that we ourselves are responsible for that fragility, thereby enabling us to see that the skeptical position we claim to hold conflicts with what we actually believe. The problem with that tactic should be clear by now: being able to sometimes give a sincere, higher-order account of a why we believe or behave as we do is not in conflict with free will skepticism. There is, then, no inconsistency in the free will skeptic asking, “Why do you believe in free will?”

This is not to say that there is no legitimate concern to be found in the neighborhood of the Appeal. Namely, whether we research and deliberate or just flip a coin to decide what to do, whatever we decide to do is ultimately outside of our control. In other words, no matter what we decide, that is what we were determined to decide. I recently wrote a long piece contemplating this worry: “Why Deliberate?

I think free will skeptics (such as myself) should take this worry seriously. But, unlike the Appeal, this worry has baked deep into it the skeptic’s assumption that humans have deliberative efficacy whether or not they have free will. If you revise the Appeal to allow for the skeptic to self-consciously (not to mention optimistically) deliberate, choose, accept their sense of responsibility as meaningful, and view their beliefs as defensible—well, you’ll have revised the fate and fallacy out of the Appeal, which is to say that you’ll have revised the Appeal out of existence. As it should be.

While I’m attending to worries that exercise free will skeptics, I’ll return to the aforementioned nuance and messiness of cognitive states. As usual, I’ll focus particularly on belief, but we can assume that the messiness applies across the cognitive gamut.

Undeniably, the account I’ve given here of belief—more precisely, of our relationship to our own beliefs—is too quick and simple. We are often not privy to how information affects us. Sometimes our story about belief acquisition will be a fiction (whether we know it or not) or incoherent (whether we notice it or not). Sometimes the source of our beliefs really will be recognizably mysterious and requests for a story should be met with a shrug. Sometimes beliefs are best discussed in behavioral rather than phenomenological terms, particularly when our reported beliefs conflict with our overall behavioral tendencies. We often accuse one another of willful ignorance (a charge that may mean different things in different contexts, if it means anything coherent at all). We may at times attempt to control or influence our own beliefs by committing them to oblivion through drink, sleep, suicide, or by way of the prescriptions of Pascal’s Wager (by behaving as though we believe until we do believe) and cognitive behavioral therapists (by testing our harmful beliefs against sustained observation of the world). And on and on.

I acknowledge all of this and more. In some ways, our complicated relationship with our beliefs may seem to bolster the skeptical view. For example, efforts to change one’s own mind, as in the case of Pascal’s Wager or cognitive behavioral therapy, are themselves guided by yet other beliefs and desires—e.g., the desire to believe what one believes it would be better to believe, and on and on. Moreover, Pascal provides an argument for accepting his wager, and those who accept it are thereby persuaded (like it or not) to take on the change-my-beliefs project in the first place. At a certain level, the appropriate story is, “Pascal’s argument, viewed within the context of my already existing beliefs, convinced me.” At another level—after an instance or two of being asked Why?—the best answer will invoke something about brain states, and after another few Why?‘s the best answer might be a shrug.

Here there appears to emerge a transitive connection between belief and behavior: beliefs guide behavior; beliefs are out of one’s control; therefore behavior is out of one’s control. It strikes me that the point of the Appeal may be to avoid a question aimed at taking the discussion down this path, particularly if the skeptic is operating in bad faith—i.e., the skeptic invites the believer to a higher-order level of discourse but has installed trap doors at the entrance. Barring this possibility, which I’ll set aside for a moment or two, I don’t think this should be of concern to the believer in free will.

While there are clearly passive features to belief, it is not obvious that we cannot participate in the formation of our beliefs, much perhaps in the way we can influence involuntary reflexes, such as pupil dilation. Even once the eye doctor puts in the dilating drops, I could choose to commit some violence against myself that stops the eyes from dilating. Beliefs, again, are of course yet more mysterious than pupil dilation, which leaves more room for the believer in free will to stake their claims. Now, I don’t think those arguments work, but neither are they obviously false at first glance.

When the full thrust of the complicated relationship between ourselves and our cognitive states is taken head on, a decisive win is awarded to neither the free will skeptic nor the believer. The upshot of this is that the mechanisms by which the process of belief, desire, attitude, etc. formation does its work can be discussed at an explanatory level that both skeptics and believers can safely visit. Which is to say that the mere act of participating in such discussions does not, in itself, conflict in any obvious way with rejecting or believing in free will.

To drive this point home for wary believers, recall that, in the eyes of the skeptic, an inability to do the impossible does not (or at least should not) count as evidence against free will. This means that believers in free will need to worry about conceding the passivity of many sorts of cognitive states. In fact, it may lead to a troubling paradox for us skeptics: if a free exertion of will is impossible, how can that be said to count as evidence against free will? I explore that here: “Free Will Paradox?” But even if that strange argument (that might get me laughed out of the Careful Free Will Skeptics’ Club) turns out to be a non-starter, obviously impossible acts, like forcing yourself to believe that you were never born, pose no problem for the believer in free will.

Furthermore, while the skeptic has good reason to think that all beliefs are, deep down, products of culture, intuitions, personal history and biochemistry, evolutionary adaptations, brain cells, and physical laws, it is also true that the unfathomably complex interplay of these and other factors is why, for example, two similarly educated people will routinely form competing beliefs given the same evidence. The believer in free will can point to the practical (or even in-principle) impossibility of precisely accounting for those differences—for those tensely opposed beliefs—as being synonymous with genuine free will. (See, for example, Sean Carroll’s compatibilist view of free will as described in his Great Courses lecture series Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time, “Lecture 12: Memory, Causality, and Action.”)

We by now have a good sense of how we might more charitably interpret the above skeptic’s question, “How can you say we don’t have free will?!?,” as an inquiry about belief acquisition: “Given that you experience the world much like I do, have a similar education to my own, share most of my beliefs about the physical facts of world, and have access to the same evidence, reasons, and arguments that I do… WHY are you not a free will skeptic like I am?”

Perhaps the answer will come down to, “I simply find the evidence, reasons, and arguments to mostly favor free will’s existence.” Or, at least, that may well be the best answer during a Q&A during in which time is strictly limited. And that’s fine. Again, to acknowledge the passivity of belief is not—for the good-faith skeptic—tantamount to rejecting free will.

But to respond with the Appeal, particularly in its crudest, “gotcha” form, is an easy out, a cheap laugh-getter (given the right crowd). It fails to see the world—and the language describing that world—from the perspective of the skeptic. It deliberately misunderstands and rudely caricatures that world, thus building a straw man of the skeptical perspective.

Even worse is when the Crude Appeal is delivered in response to an entire book (as in the first example given above), rather than addressing its arguments. (Or maybe the reader really did think the question refuted the entire book. Maybe the reader is correct! I haven’t read the book. If the reader is right, an explanation of how the book makes itself vulnerable to the Crude Appeal would be useful.)

This returns us to an earlier-noted question: Why this evasion? To see that this is an evasion (of some sort), consider how the presenter at the Q&A might have answered the skeptic’s question had it been sincerely asked by a fellow believer in free will—or by a free-will agnostic, a child, an AI, a Martian.

I’ve so far speculated the evasion coming down to a fear of belief’s passivity posing a threat—or appearing prima facie to pose a threat—to the believer’s case, especially if the free will skeptic asks Why? enough times so that the answer becomes, “It’s just my intuition.” This worry is misplaced, for reasons I’ve already noted, the key feature being that an inability to do the impossible does not count as evidence against free will. But that’s a philosophical consolation that assumes the skeptic is proceeding carefully and in good faith.

I’m sad to admit, however, that many skeptics would dig crudely into such an admission: “If you don’t choose your beliefs, you must not have free will.” This cheap attack may be what the believer is evading, but, really, if this is the skeptic’s plan, the believer would have no problem setting the skeptic up for a self-goal, as the skeptic is using the Appeal to Fate fallacy against their own team. The skeptic’s reasoning here makes no more sense than yelling “gotcha!” at someone for not being able to give a rational argument for preferring the taste of vanilla to chocolate pudding.

My hope is that both sides of this debate will set aside these “gotcha” tactics. For example, the skeptic might instead ask the believer in free will to look inward at their experience of passive beliefs and pudding preferences as a kind of gateway for thinking more deeply about their experienced, day-to-day relationship between their beliefs, desires, attitudes, will, and (voluntary and involuntary) behaviors. “Let’s compare notes,” not “gotcha!” When I ponder my experience of such things, I see no room for free will. What do you see?

I suppose that, at its core, this writing is a plea to both sides of this and so many other debates. Why not view arguments as collaboration? More than that: collaborations in which we help one another openly self-interrogate?

To evade one another’s questions is to destroy the power of conversation as a tool for collaboration, discovery, progress, and just plain getting along. “Why do you believe that?” may be asked with the hope that you see the errors of your ways, but also, if I listen sincerely, is an opportunity for me as well to better understand your position, your worldview. And it’s certainly more respectful than a smug dismissal, a refusal to hear you. (I mentioned van Inwagen above. I am so far not convinced by his arguments in favor of free will, but he is still my favorite writer on the topic and I am ever humbled by his efforts!)

I’ve so far been especially focused on the Crude Appeal, but as I said above, the Appeal may take subtler forms (though will, I think, always fail). To head in that direction, consider another example. This time, I’m the perpetrator.

Several years ago, my sister commented to me that if there is no free will, this would be an important fact to uncover and make known. I asked why. She said something like, “So we can adjust our social institutions accordingly.” I thought this a mistake—a failure to recognize what lacking free will really means, which is that society will do no other than it can do. I now see that she was right and I was wrong, and for reasons that I’ve already belabored and will belabor some more.

Acquiring the belief that free will is a fiction may shoot ripples through one’s entire system of beliefs. What sorts of changes take hold as a result may vary from person to person, may play out in unforeseeable ways, and may or may not be significant. The upshot is that, given a persuasive and widespread argument, we might, as a society, come to reject free will entirely, rather than only in some instances (e.g., while under the influence of a brain tumor, drug addiction, or evil neuroscientists), and this rejection might change our institutions in drastic ways. Or it might not. But it might! (I think it would.)

To dive deeper into this question, consider a subtler—or at least more confusing (bear with me)—instance of the Appeal, which appears in some lecture notes by computer scientist Scott Aaronson: “Free Will” (Lecture 18 of a class called PHYS771 Quantum Computing Since Democritus, University of Waterloo). The notes seem to be from 2006, when the course apparently first took place, or from a later instance of the course, in 2008 (as discussed on his blog). I found out about the lecture in a recent newsletter from The Browser. The notes make for a smart, witty, recommendable read that covers several topics I won’t touch on here, including a fallacy accusation against free will skeptics and Newcomb’s Paradox. (Also, I’ve shared Aaronson’s work before: the cool and kinda scary little app that tries to predict whether you’ll next hit “F” or “D” on your keyboard: Aaronson Oracle.)

I don’t know what Aaronson’s current views are on free will, but my interest here is in not what he happens to believe, but rather in the opportunity provided by these lecture notes to think more deeply about the Appeal. First, some setting up is required.

Early in the notes, Aaronson points to a “common misconception” among believers in free will:

If there’s no free will, then none of us are responsible for our actions, and hence (for example) the legal system would collapse.

I agree with Aaronson here. In my experience, one of the most common rebuttals against free will skepticism is that a world without free will means something like, “So now what? Release everyone from prison?” Its expression takes on differing degrees of sophistication depending on speaker and context, but this is the general idea. (The example I just gave was uttered by an undergraduate philosophy major speaking up during a senior seminar I attended on metaphysics.)

This is a poor argument against skepticism. For one thing, the existence of free will is independent of any worries about the consequences of giving up our belief in free will. Free will is true or false whether or not we believe in it. And it’s true or false whether or not we benefit from, gain meaning from, or are harmed by believing in it.

Also, as Aaronson points out, that rebuttal amounts to a misconception. (The above-mentioned student agreed, too, after giving the matter a moment’s more consideration.) That is, it does not follow from a rejection of free will that our legal system would collapse. It’s hard to know what would in fact happen, but it seems to me more likely that our legal system would, rather than collapse, be revised. Perhaps drastically so.

For example, we might do away with the retributivist idea that people deserve to be punished—i.e., that malefactors owe the world a debt of personal suffering in proportion to their malefactions. This need not mean doing away entirely with notions like responsibility and accountability, and such a system would still need to protect society from dangerous actors, and this might require separating those actors from society; and that separation, no matter how gently administered, might be rightly viewed as a kind of punishment. Or we might even continue to think harsh punishment is often still warranted for reasons of deterrence. But we would not (honestly) say that such measures are deserved.

This isn’t the place to delve into these details (as I’ve done elsewhere—e.g., “Frankfurt Cases & Moral v. Legal Responsibility“). The premise I’ll focus on here is that, despite the optimism of many free will skeptics (I’m one of them!), we can’t really know what would happen as a result of rejecting free will.

In other words, while I agree that Aaronson has located a common misconception, I disagree with his analysis of where the free will camp (as he calls it) has gone wrong. To illustrate his point, he refers to the famous 1926 trial of Leopold and Loeb, the University of Chicago students who kidnapped and killed a teenage boy in order to prove that they were smart enough to get away with murder. They did not get away with it.

Aaronson begins his analysis as follows:

They were defended by Clarence Darrow—the same defense lawyer from the Scopes monkey trial, considered by some to be the greatest defense lawyer in American history. In his famous closing address, he actually made an argument appealing to the determinism of the universe. “Who are we to say what could have influenced these boys to do this? What kind of genetic or environmental influences could’ve caused them to commit the crime?” (Maybe Darrow thought he had nothing to lose.) Anyway, they got life in prison instead of the death penalty, but apparently it was because of their age, and not because of the determinism of the laws of physics.

To be clear, the above lines in quotation marks are not quotes from Darrow, but rather a summary of a long argument, in which you’ll find passages of the following sort (extracted from the trial transcript):

[226] … Science has been at work, humanity has been at work, scholarship has been at work, and intelligent people know now that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him. …

[304] I do not know what remote ancestor may have sent down the seed that corrupted him, and I do not know through how many ancestors it may have passed until it reached Dickie Loeb. All I know is, it is true, and there is not a biologist in the world who will not say I am right.

As fun as it would be, I won’t do a deep dive here into Darrow’s lengthy plea, but I will note that Darrow contrasts the view expressed above with that of an antiquated picture in which malefactors are possessed by “the devil”—the sort of comparison one hears today from, say, neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky (e.g., in his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst) or from law professor Peter Alces (e.g., in his 2018 book The Moral Conflict of Law and Neuroscience).

More to the point, Darrow’s statement is a powerful one, and I fear that Aaronson has underestimated its potential to sway minds. I also think Aaronson overstates Darrow’s reliance on “the laws of physics.” Darrow never mentions physics, but does mention biology and environment. For instance, Darrow repeatedly cites “immaturity” as exerting influence on the murderers’ judgement and behavior. As Aaronson notes, age is indeed given as one of the reasons for meting out life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. This was apparently Darrow’s chief goal, and perhaps his appeals to immaturity helped reach that goal.

From what I’ve seen so far (given my admittedly superficial look at the case’s history), it’s unclear the extent to which Darrow’s speech influenced the sentencing. Consider this blurb from Wikipedia:

The judge was persuaded, though according to his ruling, his decision was based on precedent and the youth of the accused; after 12 days on September 10, 1924 he sentenced both men to life imprisonment for the murder, and an additional 99 years for the kidnapping.2 (From Wikipedia entry “Leopold and Loeb,” accessed 4/11/19.)

But what is clear is that Darrow’s plea does not merely come down to, “because, the laws of physics.” If it did, it would be no better than the Appeal. Nor does his argument significantly rely on any sort of strict causal determinism that reduces to a view about particle interactions—what we might call “hard” or “classical” determinism. Many skeptics, in fact, myself included, avoid grounding their skepticism in such a view. We may point, rather, to biology, genetic disposition, education, culture, environment (including that of the womb), or even just the incoherence of the idea of free will (e.g., you don’t get to choose what you desire, nor what you desire to desire, and so on).

None of this requires reference to the laws of physics, which are in fact not understood to be fundamentally deterministic anyway—though of course one’s skeptical picture should not violate the laws of physics.

My principal concern here, however, is not with Aaronson’s unsubtle taxonomy of skeptical views, but rather with his critical analysis of the free will camp’s misconception that, if the likes of Darrow had their way, the legal system would collapse. In particular, the critique seems to rely on the Appeal to Fate fallacy:

Alright, what’s the problem with using the non-existence of free will as a legal defense?

A: The judge and the jury don’t have free will either.
Scott: Thank you! I’m glad someone got this immediately, because I’ve read whole essays about this, and the obvious point never gets brought up.

The judge can just respond, “The laws of physics might have predetermined your crime, but they also predetermined my sentence: DEATH!” (In the US, anyway. In Canada, maybe 30 days…)

Recall that this is aimed at correcting the free will camp’s misconception that “if there’s no free will, then none of us are responsible for our actions, and hence (for example) the legal system would collapse.” I am confused, however, about what corrective work is being done here other than to urge believers in free will to commit the Appeal to Fate fallacy—a move that is unfriendly to free will skeptics while failing to address the free will camp’s worry. Maybe a closer look will clear things up.

Aaronson’s characterization of the free will camp’s worry—which I’ll abbreviate as the Collapse worry—needs some conceptual sharpening. First, notice his exact wording: “if there’s no free will.” In other words, this isn’t just about the world coming to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there’s no free will. Rather, it’s addressing the perhaps deeper concern that there actually is no free will. However, belief must play a critical role here. Why? Because right now, our legal system is what it is, whether or not we have free will.

In other words, there is some fact of the matter right now about whether we have free will. Suppose we don’t have free will. Our legal system is not collapsing. So the Collapse worry cannot be that it’s impossible to lack free will and have our current legal system, because the fact that we have our current system would in itself negate the worry!

The worry must, rather, involve a change in current beliefs that, in turn, affects the shape of our legal system (and social institutions in general, including some religious ones; like Aaronson, I’m focusing on our legal system as it provides a relatively tidy example).

I would wager that widespread belief in the falsity of free will is really the more prominent, or viable, concern for most folks who believe in free will. But, again, Aaronson’s characterization goes the extra step of asking us to imagine that “there’s no free will.” So, I will flesh out his characterization of the Collapse worry as follows (though it would not be difficult to adjust the discussion around leaving the truth of free will mysterious):

If scientists and philosophers and such manage to soundly demonstrate that free will does not exist, and they are able to convince the world of this correct conclusion, then our legal system (and such) will collapse.

Again, I agree with Aaronson that this worry amounts to a misconception of what it would mean to give up the concept of free will. He aims to correct that mistake by way of exposing what he describes as “the problem” with Darrow’s “non-existence of free will defense.” Namely, Aaronson argues that if the defense is successful, then it will reveal to—and convince—the judge and jury that they, just like the murderers, also lack free will. Here’s where things go off the rails for me.

First, it’s no consolation to the free will camp that the judge and jury lack free will and have come to believe this fact. Sure, in Aaronson’s example, this leads the judge to give a death verdict, but it could also have resulted in the judge and jury getting up and leaving in a fit of existential angst (i.e., contributing to the collapse of the legal system) or letting Leopold and Loeb off entirely (again, contributing to the collapse of the legal system); or, as free will skeptics would have it, it could have led the judge to show some compassion (e.g., by sentencing them to separation from society—i.e., to a long prison sentence—rather than to death).

Indeed, as noted above, Darrow’s argument may very well have inspired compassion, and had it been even more powerful, it might have inspired even more compassion. And notice, of course, that due to the passivity of belief, we might be helplessly swayed by such defenses, whether or not we have free will (this in part motivates my above-noted thought that the Collapse worry is more about belief than about free will actually being false).**

Aaronson even kind of concedes this, perhaps inadvertently, with his joke about a Canadian judge giving a lighter sentence. The lighter sentence is a matter of cultural influence—what we might call cultural determinism—and this is just the sort of thing the free will camp is worried about: that belief (correct or not) in a lack of free could lead to a change in our cultural institutions such that our current conceptions of justice are lost. Like when two murderers only get 30 days.

[**My understanding is that such pleas have grown in effectiveness in recent years, and that this is likely due to a combination of:

-defense attorneys having refined the sort of argumentative angle assumed by Darrow;

-genuine advances in our understanding both of the mind-brain-behavior relation and of the relation between one’s likelihood to commit crimes and one’s social status, upbringing, and so on;

-popular conceptions about our current understanding of the mind-brain-behavior relation, many of which may actually be incorrect due to tenacious myths, oversimplified/over-enthusiastic journalism, and even problematic research methodologies. Notice that such misconceptions may actually be to the defender’s advantage, e.g., in the case of persuasive, but essentially useless, brain scans that really should not be admissible as evidence! Such occurrences could bolster the free will camp’s Collapse worry, particularly if it’s mostly a worry about belief.

To be clear, I—along with, say, philosopher Gregg Caruso—am in favor of a fully functioning but non-retributivist legal system that has done away with free will and desert. But I’m not in favor of using bad-faith, or just plain bad, arguments to get us there! Some of the above is good, some of it bad.]

So, the judge’s lack of free will is no consolation for the free will camp. But I’m not so sure this is really where Aaronson means the free will camp to find their consolation. That is, if there is a fear of a widespread and correct belief in the nonexistence of free will, the correction to that fear can’t be, “well, don’t worry, because none of us has free will.” That this is not what Aaronson really means (as far as I can tell) is hinted at in the characterization of Darrow’s “non-existence of free will defense” as a problem. I mean, it shouldn’t be a problem, at least not philosophically, if Darrow’s defense is actually correct—if we actually don’t have free will, so that Darrow succeeds in convincing the judge and jury of a deep truth about reality that has crucial implications for morality and justice.

Rather, Aaronson seems (as far as I can tell) to be saying that the defense is a problem rhetorically—i.e., for someone who cares especially about winning an argument. Namely, as something judges can claim to take on board while going on to make whatever ruling they want, supported with no more justification than their own lack of free will. That is, by invoking the Appeal to Fate.

I’ve already said why I find this move fallacious and as useless as when “What brings you here today?” is answered with “my feet” or “my mother’s womb” or “my neurons fired that way” or “some dead stars” or “the Big Bang.” All true, in some sense, but I bet if the question were being answered in order to claim lottery winnings, even the most gung-ho Appeal enthusiast would answer the question actually being asked. That’s a practical concern, but it is rooted in a more fundamental, explanatory concern: that an act is predetermined does not explain why there arises this act and not that act in a world in which all acts are predetermined.

Now, I presume Aaronson does not mean that judges would or should literally just cite the Appeal as their opinion for a ruling. But I can’t see any version of the Appeal being anything but fallacious. Which is to say that I don’t see it doing much for the Collapse worry, however Aaronson means his correction to be taken, which, as far as I can tell, comes down to:


(1) the hope that correctly learning about the nonexistence of free will won’t lead to societal and institutional collapse, because people wouldn’t have the free will to think, desire, or behave other than they did before correctly learning about the nonexistence of free will (a subtler version of the Appeal to Fate meant to inspire optimism in the free will camp about how things would go should their deepest fears be confirmed—i.e., should free will be publicly proven false). In other words, this is the hope that judges will give the same rulings whether or not they believe in free will.


(2) the hope that judges will have the mental fortitude to not be swayed by defenses citing the nonexistence of free will, and will have the rhetorical resources to implicitly reject such defenses on, essentially, the ironic grounds of the nonexistence of free will (a less subtle version of the Appeal to Fate that aims to inspire optimism in the free will camp on the grounds of how easy it is to discredit free will skepticism).

Or maybe some combination thereof, further adjusted for any distinctions you’d like to make between beliefs about free will on the one hand, and the existence of free will on the other. Keep in mind that belief is passive, so even if free will is false, the belief in the nonexistence of free will could be helplessly taken on given powerful enough arguments.

It’s telling, in fact, to ponder an interpretation in which Aaronson’s example amounts to the judge holding a robust but incorrect belief in the non-existence of free will—yet without the judge’s free will being overriden. This is tantamount to saying something like, “install in me whatever beliefs, attitudes, and desires you like, and even rearrange my brain to correspond thereto; I’m not worried, because I have the free will to transcend that.” I would expect this suggestion to inspire pessimism in the free will camp, particularly among those who reject the existence of fate, souls, and other mystical phenomena. (I haven’t touched here much on what may, for many, be implicit for their worry about free will not being true: it might mean they don’t have a soul.)

I doubt this is what Aaronson means, however, given not only that his wording, “if there’s no free will,” suggests we are dealing here with a correct belief in the non-existence of free will, but also due to its overt disregard for physical laws—in particular, literally positing that the judge is fated to give a particular ruling would amount to an outright rejection of free will! (In the circles I run in, believers and skeptics agree that the facts of the matter about free will cannot violate the laws of physics.)

It makes more sense, then, to view the ruling given by Aaronson’s judge as an ironic, anti-skeptic rhetorical move—i.e., as an invocation of the Appeal. In other words, it seems that (2) above is by far the most reasonable interpretation of Aaronson’s argument, though I do suspect he means (1) to be present to some degree. Though I’m not sure how. As I said earlier, I find the argument confusing.

Still, I do consider Aaronson’s usage of the Appeal to Fate (or whatever name you’d like to give it) to be a Subtle one, despite the facetious air of his delivery and the markers of Crudeness borne by his judge’s ruling—i.e., a sudden sting meant to paralyze the skeptic with embarrassment, but one that refers not to belief, as in the earlier-cited Crude examples, but rather to the more complicated meting out of punishment; an important distinction.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t think this subtlety saves it. Rather, I consider his argument an attempt to arm the free will camp with an unfriendly fallacy—unfriendly to skeptics for its failure to charitably engage the skeptical view, and unfriendly to the free will camp for giving bad advice that doesn’t address their actual worry.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where Aaronson stands on the free will question, he clears that up in the opening lines of the lecture notes:

So today we’re going to ask—and hopefully answer—this question of whether there’s free will or not. If you want to know where I stand, I’ll tell you: I believe in free will. Why? Well, the neurons in my brain just fire in such a way that my mouth opens and I say I have free will. What choice do I have?

Is this a good-faith acknowledgement of belief’s passivity? An Appeal-to-Fate gambit aimed at beating skeptics to the “gotcha” punch? (And a Crude-ish one at that: one might ask why the neurons fire in that way.) I don’t know. After a closer look at Aaronson’s argument, I remain confused. At least at this point in his lecture notes. Later on in the document, he explores other arguments I haven’t touched on here; here’s that link again: Free Will (Lecture 18).

I’ll close by repeating that free will skepticism is not difficulty free. As I noted above, I think more skeptics (myself included) need to take more seriously the question of why one should bother deliberating if whatever one decides is determined.

Even worse is the free will skepticism that insufficiently respects mental causation, as though neurons—or “brain states” (a vague concept)—are in the business of physically knocking each other around like so many billiard balls in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. Folks whose arguments against free will come down to phrases like, “because, physics” or even “because, neuroscience” (thus relying on another vague concept: emergence) often fall into this camp. This isn’t to say that I consider mental causation to lack a physicalist solution. I have something in mind. One day, after reading more of the philosophy of mind literature, I’ll say more about this (to get a sense of how I might start such a conversation, see my naive post “The Magic of Meaning“).

Enjoy or find this post useful? Please consider pitching in a dollar or three to help me do a better job of populating this website with worthwhile words and music. Let me know what you'd like to see more of while you're at it. Transaction handled by PayPal.
Or click the banner to shop at Amazon (at no extra cost: it just gives me some of what would have gone to Amazon).

Further Reading


  1. There are other plausible interpretations of the rhetorical move I’m trying to pinpoint, but fate-oriented is the one I’ve landed on after a fair amount of consideration. I’m open to suggestions.
  2. Two citations are given here:

    The Perfect Crime: In Love with Murder – Transcript.” American Experience. PBS. April 10, 2018. Retrieved April 11, 2018.

    Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen, Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson (Boston, 1998).

Share your thoughts:

Deprecated: Directive 'allow_url_include' is deprecated in Unknown on line 0