An Internal Critique of Physicalism: Freedom and Responsibility

Peter Smith and O.R. Jones begin their discussion of causality and freedom by restating three points to provide a context for their discussion.

            First, it is a deeply entrenched presumption of science that all physical changes      are to be explained entirely in terms of physical causes… (252)


            Second, we humans belong to the physical world, at least in the sense that there     is no more to our make-up than ordinary organic stuff… (252)


            Third, we have claimed it as a virtue of our broadly functionalist account of the     mind that it allows us to speak of mental states while still acknowledging that we      are (as far as our matter is concerned) purely physical beings… (252)


This means that whenever a physical change takes place it does so due to prior physical causes in line with the laws of physics and that any physical changes made with respect to our bodies are no exception to this rule, including those involving terms describing mental states. This physicalist view leads to what many see as a pretty serious problem having to do with moral responsibility.

            It would seem that if a person is to be held responsible for his or her actions then that person must be free in some sense to choose between different actions. This dilemma is recognized and stated in question form by Smith and Jones.

            So if our mental states and our actions are physical happenings, and like everything else in the physical world are bound into a nexus of causes and effects, then how can there really be room for the crucially important notion of free action? (252)


This is not something to be scoffed at or dealt with lightly. Everyday people speak and act in ways that presuppose the responsibility of humans and it is difficult to see how this part of human experience could ever be eliminated. Yet responsibility does not square with such a deterministic view as the one that has been presented for the context of this discussion because of the apparent inconsistency between determinism and freedom.  Smith and Jones hope to show that their physicalist position captured in the description above is not “obviously incompatible with everyday conceptions of free action”. (253)

            The argument is that the physicalist view is compatible with human freedom. There are of course times when physicalism allows that human freedom or responsibility is completely absent due to causal factors. For example, when a storm picks a person up and throws him or her into the middle of a flower patch, destroying the flowers, it is not his or her fault that the flowers have been destroyed, “for what you did was caused by a natural, impersonal force with no intentional contribution from you”. (253) Of course this misses the point entirely so far; for the objection is that in the physicalist view human actions are no different in their relation to the causal chain than they are in the flower patch example. Physical and psychological causes are essentially the same on the physicalist view, so that the “presence of any sort of cause, if it brings about a human action in accordance with some law (if it ‘determines’ the action, to use Berlin’s word), is enough to make it an unfree action for which the question of personal responsibility cannot properly arise”. (254) So far one must side with the position that takes the physicalist position to be incompatible with free action.

            In response to this obvious concern Smith and Jones wish to distinguish between actions based upon their causes. They do not believe that all causes need to be thought of as the same impersonal kind of forces which produce solely determined actions. (254) Continuing with the example, rational desires should be thought of in a different way than storms are thought of when it comes to the causes of events. Smith and Jones appeal to Aristotle to confirm this point, quoting his Nichomachean Ethics.

            That is compulsory of which the moving principle is outside, being a principle in    which nothing is contributed by the person who acts – or, rather, is acted upon,         e.g. if he were to be carried somewhere by a wind, or by men who had him in        their power. (254)


When moving principles, physical causes and laws of physics external to individuals cause physical movement of their bodies and nothing is contributed by the individual that bodily movement is compulsory rather than voluntary. This is only repeating what was stated earlier about physicalism allowing that human freedom or responsibility is sometimes completely absent due to causal factors. The agent involved would not be held responsible in such a situation.

            What is implied by Aristotle’s view is that when physical causes inside of an individual yield bodily movement or behavior with some contribution on the part of the individual the action may be deemed voluntary. Aristotle thus actually views voluntary actions as being contingent upon physical causes within an agent who is aware of some of the results of his or her actions.

            So Aristotle’s view comes roughly to this: voluntary acts are those which are          caused by desires, in the presence of appropriate beliefs about the particular   circumstances of the action. (255)


Desire and thought are taken as the factors which distinguish voluntary actions from involuntary actions, and are the physical causes which bring about human behavior in some instances. Intentional actions on the part of human beings are part of a causal chain but Smith, Jones, and now Aristotle want to hang on to an account which states that these actions can still be voluntary.

            This view flatly rejects the contention that determinism is incompatible with voluntary actions, and therefore also moral responsibility. Aristotle would disagree with the objection.        

            On the contrary, he holds that such acts are voluntary precisely because they are    caused in the right way, by desires rather than by storms (or by the tugging of           strings attached to one’s arms, or by the activation of reflex arcs, etc.). (255)


So far Smith and Jones have not aptly dealt with the objection though, even in their appeal to Aristotle. We certainly do not throw storms into the same category as rational desires as far as causes are concerned. All agree on this, but all do not agree that we should do anything other than throw them all together in the same category if the physicalist context Smith and Jones provide is correct. This is the very point in contention, so it is question begging on the part of Smith and Jones to overlook this and proceed upon the general view that their physicalist view may very well be in conflict with. The objection against the Smith and Jones view is not that causes which lead to action are not found within humans; it is that there seems to be no reason to differentiate between these and any other physical cause, internal or external, which may bring about particular behavior or bodily movement.

            With regards to physical causation, both internal and external events are the same. The point raised seems so far to be irrelevant to defending physicalism against the argument from moral responsibility and freedom brought against it. Why draw a distinction between what is inside of an individual and outside of an individual, if both are the same with regards to physical causation? Voluntary actions are caused by desires, but as stated earlier, desires are physical and thus part of the deterministic causal chain.

            There is, for instance, no incompatibility between saying that a certain arm             movement has purely physical causes and saying that it is caused by a desire,        because on our view desires are physical states. (252)


So far there has been no departure from determinism, which is actually fine with Smith and Jones because of their position that human freedom is dependent upon some level of determinism. The way that Smith and Jones go on to write about Aristotle and his way of discerning what acts are voluntary and not voluntary may is tautological. Recall what they wrote about his position.

            On the contrary, he holds that such acts are voluntary precisely because they are    caused in the right way, by desires rather than by storms (or by the tugging of           strings attached to one’s arms, or by the activation of reflex arcs, etc.). (255)


Internal acts are, according to the way Smith and Jones cite Aristotle, voluntary because “they are caused in the right way”. (255) What does the phrase “in the right way” refer to though? If it refers to internal voluntary acts which are caused in the right way to be voluntary acts, then Smith and Jones are only stating the same thing twice, namely that voluntary acts are those acts which are caused in the right way to be voluntary acts. Of course to be fair to the quote “the right way” may be taken to refer to internal actions which are caused by desires, but still nothing has been shown which would even close to imply that these desires are to be taken seriously as something which distinguishes internal, allegedly voluntary acts from external involuntary acts. Both are still physically caused, and both are still a part of the determinative chain just like bodies that are thrown through the air by storms are. The burden of proof is therefore still upon Smith and Jones to show why we should “be impressed by the differences between the kinds of causal factors” involved in each case, otherwise there is no reason to suppose that we are not committed to both internal and external events being determined as opposed to free events. (255) There is no reason to think that a normal human action is any different as a segment in a causal chain than being taken up by storm is and there is every reason to think that they are the same. There are causes in both of these events and nothing special about the causal factors which makes one differ from the other.

            It turns out that Smith and Jones have only now gotten to the point they need to set forth. Some voluntary actions are actually not free in the sense that they warrant moral responsibility. Someone might voluntarily do something without actually deliberating about and choosing that thing. However if an action is deliberated about then it is voluntary and therefore free in the way which warrants moral responsibility. The playing field is considerably narrower than when the discussion first started. The alleged crucial difference between the actions and events that are necessary for moral freedom and responsibility is deliberation. A strong case must therefore be made in favor of deliberation somehow implying freedom and the corresponding responsibility.

            A rational agent, however, can consciously set out to reflect on the ends of his       actions, he can evaluate and choose the best means to those ends and act on the        basis of such deliberations. This capacity for deliberative choice is what brings us          – as distinct from animals and small children – within the ambit of moral practice   and appraisal. (256-257)


It is unclear as to how being able to reflect upon the results of actions entails the freedom necessary for moral responsibility. It does make sense to say that if a person has no idea of the consequences of his or her action, this should be figured into whether or not this person may be held morally responsible. However, in the event of a storm which has the power to pick a person up and drop him or her into the middle of flower patch that person may very well know possible outcomes of being thrust into such a predicament. The same is true when it comes to personal decisions, and it is possible that the outcomes may not be as well known as they even are in the storm example. The storm is still determined with no real freedom being possible and there is no reason to infer that things are any different in the case of human actions.

            The entirety of the defense Smith and Jones make of their position rests on the capability of deliberation to make actions free. What exactly is meant by deliberation will be important here, and they first speak of “desires about desires”, which leaves them no better off than before. (259) How may people be held morally responsible for not deliberating when deliberation is described as having desires about desires, all of which are caused? Aristotle is cited as thinking of deliberation as being just as much a part of the causal chain as anything else is. (259) The debate centers around the notion of caused deliberation which allegedly is the distinguishing mark of actions which people may be held morally responsible for. Those in opposition still do not rest, as real deliberation is not like this.

            This is what real deliberation is like: there is no fixed chain of causes in the             proceedings – and were things in fact to be causally determined then (as Berlin         insists) freedom would be absent. (260)


Smith and Jones argue that “even if there are no strict psychological laws relating types of mental states to types of action, it doesn’t follow that the mental states cannot be the causes of the actions they explain”. (260) This is a tricky move on the part of Smith and Jones. They wish to hold that while even deliberation and anything which would be described in more popular language as a mental event is physical and part of the causal chain, there is not necessarily such a thing as psychological determinism.

            In other words, the Aristotelian can claim that deliberated action has causal            antecedents without thereby committing himself to psychological determinism.   (261)


This appears somewhat arbitrary, however. Not only is it difficult to understand how one may deliberate when there are no such things as truly open options, but there needs to be a stronger argument in favor of rejecting determinism at the psychological level but not at other levels. While we may not speak of types of events which yield specific other types when it comes to psychological conditions (largely because of their complexity), other physical events often involve so many factors that they are not easily classified as types either. The reason for the rejection of the necessity of psychological determinism even when determinism is held in every other area seems to be based more upon a current lack of human knowledge with regards to psychological states and what they yield.

            For the essential thought was that our experience reveals deliberation to be an        open-ended, indeterministic affair which doesn’t run along strict causal paths.     And the truth behind this intuitive claim is that deliberative processes as we   conceive them in everyday folk psychological terms are indeed not subject to             strict laws which operate at that level. (261)


The conclusion drawn from this is that mere appeal to human experience of freedom is not enough to refute the causal explanation presented by Smith and Jones. However this assumes that the explanation of how psychological determinism is not true while the Aristotelian determinism already discussed is true. If it is the case that psychological determinism still holds along with the other determinism presented, then the point in contention is again that this is incompatible with human experience and therefore either there is no real human freedom or physicalism must be tweaked or rejected to make room for it.

            When someone’s deliberations are part of a physical causal chain there is no way that the person’s deliberations or resulting actions could have been other than what they were, and this means that the person’s deliberations and actions were not free at all. If one cannot do other than what one actually does, then one is by definition not free. An individual who is determined by causal factors to act in a certain way does not possess the ability to act otherwise, for there is no capacity present in the individual, no potential to do anything else. This is what is normally meant by ability. The physical causes which may prevent a boy from playing the trumpet, including never having lessons or not owning a trumpet, are no different from the physical causes that would bring it about that the talented trumpet player who owns a trumpet has no desires to play the trumpet or is in a psychological state which determines that he does not play the trumpet.

            Smith and Jones make an attempt at reconciling their physicalist view with the moral responsibility implied by everyday human experience. While they raise some interesting points in attempting to base freedom upon determinism via deliberation, there is much more argument needed to support their position. Given the determinism they provide their readers with, the readers have no other option but to assume that a major part of human experience is somewhat of a farce due to determinism in decision making and actions unless Smith and Jones satisfy the burden of proof and show why some causes are truly different from others with respect to the determinate physical causal chain of events we as humans are fully a part of.



Peter Smith; O.R. Jones. The Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. UK. 1986.

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