Jonathan Webber on “Sublating the Free Will Problematic”

Comments generously given by Jonathan Webber on the paper that I posted recently (scroll down or look under “free will”).  I will reply a.s.a.p., but I invite others to weigh in also.  The topic of powers and free will is garnering increasing attention these days; I’m certainly not the only one writing on it!

Hi Ruth,

Thank you for sharing this paper. I think it is a really impressive work. I found the synthesis of so many aspects of the free will debate from the perspective of a powers ontology to be very enlightening about the debate and about the ontology. But there was something quite central to the argument that I didn’t understand.

I can see how the powers ontology illuminates what lies beneath such nomological regularities as can be found. So I can see why the metaphysics of powers leads us away from considering the compatibility of free will with nomological determinism. But I don’t grasp why this is ‘a non-determinist sublation’ (p. 8) or why this is really anything new.

Although the problem of free will and determinism has often been framed in terms of laws of nature recently, it needn’t be. At its core, it seems to me, the problem has always been to understand whether only one future is possible and, if so, how that can be compatible with free will. (This is a problem, after all, that is really rooted in medieval discussions of divine foreknowledge.)

So far as I can see, the powers ontology leaves open a fully deterministic picture, according to which the set of powers in play at any given time is fully determined by the set in play at a previous time. The set here includes not just the directions of the powers (what they exercise pressure towards), but also the actual strengths of each power (how much pressure they exert).)

Indeed, it sometimes looks to me as if this determinism is more than consistent with a powers ontology, but is actually entailed by it. For if an action or event is brought about by the powers that are in play, then surely the full set of powers in play necessitates the outcome. (Sure, adding another power might change the outcome; but only by changing the full set in play!)

If this is right, then William James’s definition of determinism, that ‘those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be’ is at least consistent with, perhaps entailed by, the powers ontology.

I have the same difficulty in understanding the discussion of the idea of free will in your draft. I find Ekstrom’s point, which you discuss on p. 13, to be very strong. Surely it isn’t enough to say that an action was the exercise of the agent’s powers, when that simply raises the question of why the agent exercised that power to that degree at that time.

The deterministic picture of powers I’ve just sketched can explain why the agent exercised that power to that degree at that time. Without that determinism of powers, does the question have to go unanswered? (The point that the agent has the meta-power to choose when to exercise other powers simply pushes this issue back one step.)

So, I guess what I don’t get is why the powers ontology should reconfigure the debate in the way that you outline, rather than simply clarifying the metaphysics underlying determinism but leaving the question of the compatibility of free will with determinism untouched.

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