63 - Like a Rolling Stone: Stoic Ethics

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Peter considers two of the Stoics’ most challenging ideas, a determinism that leaves room for moral responsibility, and the ideal of an ethically perfect sage.



Further Reading

• S. Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: 1998).

• T. Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate (Oxford: 2005).

• K. Ierodiakonou (ed.), Topics in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: 1999) [on Stoic ethics see the pieces by Inwood, Sedley, and Mitsis].

• B. Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford: 1985).

• B. Inwood and P. Donini, “Stoic Ethics,” in The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy , ed. K. Algra et al (Cambridge: 1999), 675-738.

• R. Salles, The Stoics on Determinism and Compatibilism (Burlington VT: 2005).

• G. Striker, “Following Nature: a Study in Stoic Ethics,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 9 (1991), 1-73.


Jon on 17 January 2012

Free Will in the Stoic Ethics Episode

Hi Peter – Thanks for continuing to produce this excellent podcast

In your Stoic Ethics episode you covered the argument that causal determinism undermines free will. I’ve only been studying philosophy for a couple of years and I’ve heard this many times, but I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation for the alternative. Libertarians use the existence of free will as an argument against determinism and Compatibilists like the Stoics say it doesn’t matter, but no-one ever explains how a non-deterministic view leads to free will. Can you explain that or could you point me at some reading that explains it?

The negative argument (against Compatibilism) seems to be that anyone who is causally determined cannot be praised or blamed for their actions. They might perform a virtuous act, but only because they are already a virtuous person and they are not responsible for being who they are. There is an unbreakable chain of cause and effect leading to the person they are today. I understand that.

But what is the positive argument (for Libertarianism)? If someone is not causally determined then how are they any more responsible for being who they are? Something (God or Nature or Chance)  created them as a virtuous agent so they are not responsible. It’s possible for someone to choose to change who they are (becoming more virtuous) but they have to start somewhere and they are not responsible for that starting point.

I understand determinism and randomness but I can’t see the third thing. My own view is that it doesn't matter how I got to to be who I am right now, I'm free to choose how I affect the future, so I guess I'm a Compatibilist.

Thanks again

-          Jon

In reply to by Jon

Ollie Killingback on 18 January 2012

Free will in the Stoics episode

Is it so senseless to praise a determined but virtuous act? Doesn't the environment of praise and blame number among the influences that determine the action? Am I not less likely to act badly and more likely to act well because of those influences? The influence doesn't have to be on my rational choices. The automatically influenced workings of my neurones are me too are they not?

I have long thought that we are less free/more determined than we normally believe, and this seems even more so as time goes by. But then I made a rational decision to drink less alcohol in 2012, and when I open the fridge and see a bottle of cold chablis and my hand instinctively moves towards it something, rational I hope, stops it. So maybe I have more choice than I thought after all...

In reply to by Ollie Killingback

Peter Adamson on 18 January 2012

Determinism and freedom

Thanks for the comments. I think the worry about randomness is exactly what the compatibilists will use against the libertarians: that is, they'll say that if there are no causes determining the choice, then the choice is just a random event. The libertarians would not, I think, need to insist that the choice is completely free of causal influences -- for instance your pre-existing desires will obviously play a role in your deliberation. And this would help explain why it isn't random. But they will then want to say that what distinguishes a free choice from other kinds of events is that free choices actually select one of a range of genuinely open possibilities. Thus, if I am choosing between staying at home or taking a walk, it must be possible for me to take the walk but also possible for me to stay home. Obviously a great deal turns on the question of what "possible" means here as we've seen in the podcast episodes where I talk about Chrysippus' definition of the word. But for modern-day libertarians "possibly P" in this context requires that the causal chain leading up to the moment of choice does not rule out P. That is, the causal chain does not determine whether I will take the walk or stay home, even if it gives me very strong reasons for choosing one or the other (which would make my choice comprehensible).

The argument for this is just going to be that if only one course of action is in fact possible for me, I am not free with respect to that action. This seems to be a pretty deep-seated intuition, for instance Aristotle says that if only one outcome is possible there is no point in my deliberating, and so on.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ollie Killingback on 18 January 2012

Determinism & Freedom

I began to think about this 30 years ago when taking tea with one of Surbiton's Grande Dames eating cucumber sandwiches off beautiful china plates in her flat overlooking the river. My point then was that she actually could not deliberately break one of those plates. She said she had a choice and chose not to, I thought it was impossible for her: it would have been totally contrary to everything in her character. Aristotle would have seen no deliberation.

In reply to by Ollie Killingback

Felix on 18 January 2012

But Ollie, if you had put a

But Ollie, if you had put a toothpick in front of her, then presumably she would have felt less constrained?

That is to say, for less consequential decisions it is easier to overcome your natural inclination.

In reply to by Felix

Ollie Killingback on 18 January 2012

Determinism & Freedom

I understand what you're getting at. But my point is that due to the Lady's upbringing something so beautiful and precious to her as her china could not be broken, while something as cheap and inconsequential as a toothpick she would have snapped without a moment's thought. Neither requires a rational decision. One is impossible, the other is trivial.

I think what I am getting at is that what you call natural inclination - I'd prefer a different term, but I am not sure what at the moment, I need something that takes in the whole environment - determines what we do, at least for a very large part. I agree it can be overcome, once you're aware what's going on, but that may be very difficult.

But let's shift the metaphor. Let's say my Lady and her china are in a prison camp in the Far East in WW2, and that the only way she has to distribute what meagre rations are available is by using, and therefore risking, her china. She'd equally do that without a thought because she knows (instinctively) the value of human life compared to china. Or to try to take on Marcus Aurelius' approach (if it is his approach) what is appropriate in Surbition is not appropriate in the camp, and in neither case is a decision involved.

Perhaps this is a way of addressing both the value issue and the determinism issue in one go. As far as I can see the main problem with this line of thinking is that it does not deal with the question of hard cases where an ethical decision is actually required.

In reply to by Ollie Killingback

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2012

Breaking china

Hi Ollie,

But are you not assuming too much when you say that the lady literally could not break the dish? This seems clearly false. Rather what we should say is, "she would not break the dish," because she had no good reason to and plenty of reasons not to. "Cannot" implies that it is not under her power, and intuitively, she's able to break the dish but she simply does not wish to. So you need to say more to show why she literally is unable to do it, than merely to point out that given her desires and so on, she would never want to do it.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ollie Killingback on 19 January 2012


Yes, you're right, I cannot know that.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jon on 18 January 2012

Determinisnm and freedom

Thanks for replying -

>  The libertarians would not … insist that the choice is completely free of causal influences -- for instance your pre-existing desires will obviously play a role in your deliberation

So the question is – how were your pre-existing desires caused?

>  Obviously a great deal turns on the question of what "possible" means … for modern-day libertarians "possibly P" in this context requires that the causal chain leading up to the moment of choice does not rule out P

So the Libertarian doesn’t think the desire is part of the causal chain… or if most of the desire is caused, the last little part isn’t (which seems pretty desperate to me). That’s what I don’t understand. If the last little part is not caused and is not random then I don’t know what it is. If it’s free then it’s only free to be the way it already is – which doesn’t sound any different to being caused to me.

>  The argument for this is just going to be that if only one course of action is in fact possible for me, I am not free with respect to that action. This seems to be a pretty deep-seated intuition, for instance Aristotle says that if only one outcome is possible there is no point in my deliberating, and so on.

That seems like the wrong meaning of “possible” to me. I can see that if an outcome is fated (eg. if Oedipus had sailed away and gone to live in China – the gods would still have arranged for him to bump into his parents there) then there is no point in deliberating. But if you act at random or act after deliberating you will inevitably do different things. So the fact that the result of your deliberation may be caused doesn’t seem to stop it being important to deliberate. By deliberating you are taking responsibility for the outcome – or at least the intended outcome.

- Jon

In reply to by Jon

Felix on 18 January 2012

Jon, "If the last little part


"If the last little part is not caused and is not random then I don’t know what it is."

Determinism doesn't sound so bad when you pare it down to an individual choice of 99.9% prior beliefs & preferences & experiences + 0.1% 'Me' and then admit that 0.1% (basically random) "Oh what the hell I'll do it anyway" does not exist.

But, if you look at the larger picture - that the entire course of events on the planet ever since you were conceived is actually the result of the state of the universe at that moment in time you can see the problem again!

I think that determinism is a fact and that 'compatibilist' explantions choose to ignore the bigger picture of what that means.

I also think that we should totally ignore this unpleasant fact and operate as though strong free will existed.


In reply to by Felix

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2012

Desires and freedom

So Jon, the point I was making was not that the pre-existing desires are up to you -- to the contrary. You might just find yourself with a desire as a result of causal processes out of your control (e.g. through your upbringing). What I was trying to say is that for the libertarian these desires, and other factors influencing your decision, do not _necessitate_ your choice. You choose in light of them but it is (as the Stoics would say) "up to you" what to do, in the sense that alternatives remain possible. So a clear case would be where you had, say, two conflicting desires, which were equally strong (strawberry vs vanilla ice cream and you like both equally). In such a case you would simply choose between them, and the libertarian would say that there was nothing about the world that determined you to choose one way or another. The reason it is not random is that it is under your control, and the reason it is not necessary is that in exactly the same scenario you could have done something different. Does that help?

(By the way I'm a compatibilist, so I am playing devil's advocate here.)

Felix is right to say that even a little indeterminism means determinism is false; and also that some determinists think that we should act or can't help acting "as if" we were free or "as if" determinism is false. "Hard determinists" have explored the idea that we are not in fact free and concluded that this might not be so bad!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Felix on 19 January 2012

Peter, can you explain how,


can you explain how, as a compatibilist, you respond to my challenge that everything that has happened in your life was certain before you were born?

In reply to by Felix

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2012

Past certainty

That's no problem for a compatibilist: remember that a compatibilist is someone who says that free choice (or maybe moral responsibility, or both) is _compatible_ with determinism. So as a compatibilist I can say, "ok, it's all inevitable, but part of what is inevitable is that I am making genuinely free choices which confer moral responsibility on me."

The problem is for incompatibilists, who (like Aristotle) will need to argue that not everything is certain in the way you suggest.

(And by the way strictly speaking, by signing up to compatibilism all I'm saying is that if determinism is true, I could still exercise free choice; it's not necessarily claiming that determinism is in fact true.)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Felix on 19 January 2012

Incidentally, do you think

Incidentally, do you think determinism is true?

But primarily, you say:

"ok, it's all inevitable, but part of what is inevitable is that I am making genuinely free choices which confer moral responsibility on me."

I believe that there are very reputable philosophers who think that that position is just word-play, but I can't quote them at the moment because Wikipedia is not available!

So, in my own words, I think your explanation is inherently self contradictory - the outcome of a choice cannot be inevitable in 100% of cases. To define choice in those terms is to define it contrary to common usage.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Felix on 19 January 2012

As a counter-factual let me

As a counter-factual let me propose the following:

If we assume that determinism is true and acknowledge that our actions are determined (a long time) in advance.

We can then ask why it is that our predetermined actions 'feel' as though they are what we would have 'chosen' if we had the ability?

Could it not equally be the case that our predetermined 'choices' turned out, almost invariably, to be the opposite of what our (impotent) minds would have 'chosen'?

The apparent correspondance of 'choice' and 'desire' could be explained as

1. Chance

2. Some other explantion.

3. Proof that we do have free will after all.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Marissa on 30 January 2012

Inevitability of free choice


I hope I'm not too late to post a question here: I only just caught up on this podcast.

I would really appreciate a reply, bc this is a point which I find very important.  I'd like to understand how compatibility makes sense (independent of whether it's True).

You say that: "ok, it's all inevitable, but part of what is inevitable is that I am making genuinely free choices which confer moral responsibility on me."

Now what this sentence actually says is that it is inevitable that people make free choices.  I can agree with that; but then the free choice would break the on-going chain of inevitable causation.  If what was meant was - the outcome of the (free) choice is also inevitable - then that seems to me to be simply nonsense.   Or, to put it another way, just word play.  I can say "I have a pet dog which is a reptile", but it's just nonsense.

Since you've been thinking about stuff like this for years, and are clearly not stupid, I assume I'm missing something.  The only thing I can think is that the words "free choice" and "inevitable" are being defined in some careful, technical sense, such that they can both apply to the same act.  Would you be kind enough to explain?

(On a separate note: thanks very much for the podcasts.  They're fascinating, and very well presented.)


In reply to by Marissa

Peter Adamson on 30 January 2012

More on freedom

Dear Marissa,

Thanks for your comment. You're right that the words "free choice" and "inevitable" are being defined in a sense that is not the one you have in mind, though it doesn't need to be very technical. Here's a possible way to think about it:

An action is freely chosen if the agent performs it on the basis of their desires and beliefs, rather than (say) by being coerced by external forces.

That looks plausible, right? But it doesn't say anything about the act being inevitable or not; it may be that the agent's desires and beliefs have been formed as the result of a deterministic causal chain. But it will still count as a "free action" if the action proceeds from these desires and beliefs.

To make this more concrete, imagine (as in the podcast) that you see a child about to be hit by a train. Given your upbringing (which obviously is not now, and arguably never was, under your control), you inevitably rush to pull the child out of the way. You would do this 100 times out of 100, you do not stop to consider the pros and cons, etc. But you weren't compelled to do it, it was "up to you" (as the Stoics would put it), because it was your value system and so on that led you to save the child. The fact that you could not avoid having this value system has nothing to do with whether it was free or not (in this sense).

You may not find that this is how you would naturally use the words "free will" but it does clearly distinguish our own deliberate actions from actions that are coerced, or that are the outcome of, say, body spasms or whatever.

Does that help?


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ollie Killingback on 31 January 2012

Free will in the Stoics episode

Is it that people normally, by free will, mean a decision made consciously uninfluenced by anything else, whereas in fact almost no decision can meet that definition?

When people say "me" they usually mean "my conscious self" but in fact there is a lot more to a person than that, including what they have learned which has become hardwired into their brain.

We know from neuroscience that the brain can initiate an action by stimulating muscles before we make a conscious "decision" to do that action. That's presumably what happens in the baby & train situation. The total person reacts before their conscious mind has time to get involved. Part of what is effecting what happens is what we have learned about moral responsibility. But if we think that actions can be reduced to electrochemical events in the brain and are therefore part of a physically determined world, there is still no way out of the problem because quantum events are statistically probable, not determined, if I have understood that correctly.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Marissa on 31 January 2012

More on freedom


Yes, that does help, I think.  First up, I want to repeat a point you made earlier: I'm not arguing whether determinism is true.  I'm asking what the implications are, if determinism *is* true.

Your claim is basically: all my non-coerced actions arise *only* from my "desires and beliefs", which in turn arise from my upbringing, temperament, etc.  Since these influences are all immutable by me, I will always make the same decision, in the same circumstances.

That is a plausible claim.  But I certainly dispute the use of the word "free"  to describe such decisions.  In that scenario, rescuing the child is "up to me" only in the sense that it is "up to me" how tall I grow.  After all, my height is also a consequence of my upbringing and my genes.  

I guess another way of saying this, is that the coerced/non-coerced dichotomy is a furphy.  Everyone would agree that coerced decisions are not free.  That leaves automatic choices, such as the not-a-single-thought child-rescue, and actual free choices, such as making a considered decision whether or not to bear a child. Automatic choices have a lot in common with flinching from a passing cricket ball, or (for others than me) putting your hands out to catch it.  Considered decisions are different from that: or if they're not, then they cannot reasonably be called "free".  

So I'd say, in order to communicate the compatibilist position most accurately, you should say our non-coerced choices are a result of "directed will", or "constrained will".  Of course, no one would be suprised that "constrained will" should be compatibile with determinism, so we'd all be compatibilists.

Let me know if I've mis-represented your position; provided the precise state of the universe when you're reading this email leads to your doing so. :)


In reply to by Marissa

Felix on 31 January 2012

Excellent Post

"But I certainly dispute the use of the word "free"  to describe such decisions.  In that scenario, rescuing the child is "up to me" only in the sense that it is "up to me" how tall I grow. "

Very well put!

I agree with you absolutely Marissa. I would just clarify that every action you take is only up to you in the same sense.


In reply to by Marissa

Peter Adamson on 31 January 2012

Up to you?

Hi Marissa,

Actually I am less convinced than Felix is by your remark that saving the child would be "up to you" no more than how tall you are. In the sense I outlined, such actions are up to you (or if you like, "free") and being a certain height is not: you aren't the height you are because you want to be, or think you ought to, etc., whereas you act to save the child because you want to, think you should, etc.

By the way the same argument goes for non-spontaneous actions (so the child-saving case could be misleading in this respect(. You might deliberate for a long time about what to do in a difficult situation: what you do will still, on this account, be up to you just so long as you chose as you did as a result of your beliefs and desires. And all that can be the case even if determinism is true.

I think the reason you are balking at saying these things are free choices because you want to hold on to the idea that choice involves the presence of alternative possibilities. But that is precisely what the compatibilist rejects. I think most incompatibilists (like you) just find this intuition so strong that they can't give it up. Also you probably find that you just have a very powerful experience of seeming to have various possibilities open to you.

But, as was pointed out by a previous post on this page, if your "choice" is not brought about by your desires and beliefs, it looks like it is just arbitrary or random. Probably what you want, then, is a view where your choices are brought about by your desires and beliefs and yet not in such a way as to rule out alternative possibilities. But the compatibilist is just going to say that adding the last bit about possibilities is unnecessary -- what matters is that we are able to do what we want to and think we should, not whether we could in fact have done differently.



In reply to by Peter Adamson

Marissa on 1 February 2012

Beliefs and delusions

My thoughts arise from a highly complex, but entirely determined, interaction between my environment and my genes.  (That's what determinism requires, not?)  My height arises from a much less complex interaction between my environment and my genes.  As it happens, the thought-generating interaction produces a delusion of self, which goes by names like "beliefs" and "desires".  So what?  How can you hang anything of substance on a delusion?  On what basis do you priviledge thoughts above any other process in the body?

Put it another way: I think using words like "beliefs" and "desires" smuggles in the concept of an autonomous self (i.e a self-determining person).  Having used that intuition to justify calling our choices "free", it is then explained that in fact the beliefs and desires are entirely determined.  Compatibilists then draw the conclusion that free choices are determined.  But I think the argument fails bc terms were redefined half way thru'.  It's oral sleight-of-hand (if that's not too appalling a metaphor).

Of course I want to hold onto the idea that choice involves the presence of alternative possibilities. Of course I do.  It would bother the bejesus out of me, if I was forced to conclude that I have no control over my thoughts or actions.  I suspect it would bother compatibilists, too, which is why they want to claim we do have some worthwhile kind of free will.  As Ollie mentioned yesterday, lots of data point to determinism being true.  Hence my interest in its implications.   I can understand Felix's position that the only possible response to concluding we have no free will is to pretend we do; but I'd rather not go there!  

btw, no wonder the Stoics decided to believe in a universe run by providential goodness.  If you believe you have no possibility of changing the future, you'd really want to believe it was bound to turn out well.

Thanks for your time.  We may be at the horse-flogging stage.  But if you could have one last go at answering my first para, I'd appreciate it.

In reply to by Marissa

Ollie Killingback on 1 February 2012

A horse still kicking?


I think I agree with Marissa that we are entering dead horse territory, but I also agree that the subject is a nagging one. But not to everyone - Susan Blackmore, for example, seems to be quite happy that she has no free will. But if I remember rightly, she said somewhere that she has trained herself not to make decisions: at first sight that looks self-contradictory.
Yes, Marissa, it must be comforting to believe the world is providentially ordered. For myself, I can't do that. At least Epicurus was right about atoms. But I don't see why one cannot aspire to (at least a humane version of) Stoic ethics without the comfort of Providence.

In reply to by Ollie Killingback

Marissa on 2 February 2012

A civil disagreement

But, Ollie, what does it mean for me to "aspire" to anything, since everything I decide is inevitable?  I will be Stoic or Hedonistic, depending on what the state of the Universe dictates.

OK, I'll stop.

Peter, I think "agree to differ" is where we're at.  I'm glad, but, to have an understanding of the compatibilist position; so thanks for that.  I would also like to comment that your post is the first time, ever, I've encountered the phrase "begging the question" used correctly.  Well done.  You get three gold starts and a giraffe stamp!

Looking forward to the next podcast,



In reply to by Marissa

Peter Adamson on 2 February 2012

One last go

Hi Marissa,

OK, here's one last go: you say, "As it happens, the thought-generating interaction produces a delusion of self, which goes by names like "beliefs" and "desires"... I think using words like "beliefs" and "desires" smuggles in the concept of an autonomous self (i.e a self-determining person)."

Yes, I see what you mean, and many incompatibilists have exactly this reaction to the compatibilist line. The response would just be to say that being able to do what one wants to do is what it is to be in control (as you put it later in your post), or to be autonomous. To insist that control/autonomy is _defined_ as being free of causal determination is to beg the question against the compatibilist: that is precisely what they are denying. Of course, you could insist on it and then you'll have to agree to disagree. But they are trying to give you a good reason to give up on the insistence that autonomy involves absence of causal determination, which is that "I can do what I want to do, and believe I should do" sounds like a perfectly reasonable interpretation of "I am in control of what I do" or "I am autonomous with respect to what I do." So they have a reasonable interpretation of these notions that makes no mention of causal indeterminism.

They would add that the fact that your beliefs and desires have a causal history is not surprising, and perhaps that the alternative where your choices just arise in an uncaused way sounds rather like saying that the choices you make are just random events.

But this is pretty much just restating what I've already said, so maybe it doesn't help?


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jon on 19 January 2012


Peter –

>  a clear case would be where you had, say, two conflicting desires, which were equally strong (strawberry vs vanilla ice cream and you like both equally). In such a case you would simply choose between them, and the libertarian would say that there was nothing about the world that determined you to choose one way or another. The reason it is not random is that it is under your control, and the reason it is not necessary is that in exactly the same scenario you could have done something different. Does that help?

Not really - but thanks for trying :-)

When you say “nothing about the world determined you to choose one way or another” and that the choice “is not random” and “is under your control”,  we are back to “not determined”, “not random” but “something else”. I still don’t understand what that “something else” could be.

It seems to me that if libertarian free will exists then the only way you can take responsibility for a decision is if you caused yourself to be who you are, but then you’re stuck in an infinite loop.

So I think I’ll just assume that the “something else” is mysterious and unknowable. And since I don't mind the idea of determinism and a weak definition of free will I think I'll leave it there.

Thanks Peter and Felix for your comments

 - Jon

Marissa on 1 February 2012

Are actions free?

For anyone who's interested: here's a case study in "Would a person's actions will always be the same, in the same circumstances?"

Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3fA5uzWDU8

It's a recording of a woman who is suffering from Temporary Global Amnesia. She's lost her memory of recent events, and is not laying down short term memories. This video is taken the same day as her seizure, and she seems to be forgetting everything longer than a minute or two ago. (There's a happy ending - she recovers completely over the next few days.)

The interesting thing here is that she says almost exactly the same thing - same words, same intonation - each time she forgets. Of course,her brain is not exactly normal at this time, but she's not incoherent.

You can also check out http://www.radiolab.org/2011/oct/04/ for an interview with the woman and her daughter.


In reply to by Marissa

Ollie Killingback on 1 February 2012

Are actions free?

Very interesting, thank you for the link. Her recovery is not something I am indifferent to.

Ollie Killingback on 4 February 2012

Further reading

Peter's excellent podcasts are very lucid but necessarily brief. I have benefitted from reading Sharples from the reading list earlier. Chapter 4 helped with determinism and 5 & 6 with ethics. Got it very cheap, used, from Amazon. Perhaps I should try Bobzein next.

peter l on 17 June 2014

chimes of freedom ...

I think this business of causality versus freedom is tricky ... but when a question is put whether a free human action is somehow a 'break in causality', like a 'hole in the fabric of causality', then I think something like a 'category mistake' has been made.

you simply can't eliminate the agent as the author of his own actions. you can't say there is an unbroken chain of physical events which led to say, someone murdering their wife. so actually, it just happened, like the final domino tumbling in a line of falling dominoes, no-one's responsible.

it's no accident that no legal system (as far as I know) accepts this as a principle for acquitting someone. there has to be very special circumstances for someone to be absolved of responsibility like this. for instance, if the murderer had been systematically brainwashed to kill when a certain trigger was activated (like the chiming of a clock for instance, inducing a hypnotic trance). but it's precisely this kind of circumstance which eliminates the free agent as an author of events. this shows that in 'normal' circumstances, actions are attributed to individuals as free agents.

the problem is, if we want to preserve the agent as source of his own actions, there's a tendency to look for a 'hole' in causality, so we just end up saying that the agent wasn't like a tumbling domino, he just decided to fall and there's no cause or reason for his decision. who knows why he killed?

there have to be reasons for human actions ... maybe the killer killed because he would inherit a lot of money, maybe he killed because he wanted put his wife out of the misery of a terrible illness. but these reasons are not causes I don't think ... they're not explanations in the sense of 'why did the snooker ball head off in that direction at that velocity? ... because momentum was imparted to it from another ball colliding with it'

in order to understand human actions at all ... even to be able to speak about them, we have to have a free agent as part of the 'language game'. when you ask the question ... 'is a murderer really responsible for what he does?' you are already presuming that you can engage in a discussion which revolves around (in 'normal' circumstances) a free agent. you can't come to a conclusion which destroys the basis on which you were able to ask the question in the first place.

If we are to look at purely deterministic systems which use physical events to show how, say, a knife is raised and the final blow is struck (as surely as if the blow had come from a programmed robot), then we must see this mechanistic system in its entirety … it’s no use just to say:

‘there are clearly a physically determined set of events operating to the point x (where perhaps the knife comes to be lying on the table); then we progress via what we erroneously call “free” action to the lifting of the knife and the fatal blow being struck. We’re not sure what physical events (in the brain, say) completed this chain but obviously there must have been some. so the “perpetrator” is not properly to be called a “murderer” in the normal sense … “he” is just another physical system in the interacting series of systems … ‘

well, having said that ... there *is* a type of causal explanation for human actions, namely Freudian psychoanalysis, which *does* seem to eliminate the agent as author of his own actions. in this case, as I understand it, the agent is only free to act out his neuroses within certain parameters ... the man acting out the Oedipus complex is perhaps not destined to kill his father but he is always going to have a desire to do so, because his father frustrated his own infantile sexual love for his mother …

under this system, an entire new way of interpreting human action has been effected, there is an entirely new ‘language game’ in operation. And of course, this is a ‘psychological’ determinism, not a physical determinism. The Freudian psychological causal chains which determine a human action are quite unlike the physical causal chains which determine a physical action. Hence, there is no ‘ontological gap’ which arises when we need to make the leap from the language of physical events, which may determine the conditions for a human action, to the final action itself, which is in the language of human events.

In reply to by peter l

Peter Adamson on 20 June 2014


There's a lot in that comment but just to focus on one issue, I suppose most philosophers would agree with you that agents need to be taken seriously as exercising causation - and not as just puppets of external forces. The Stoics would agree with that too of course. The question is whether one can get around the apparent dilemma where you have to embrace one of two horns. Either (a) the agent's action is basically a random event, since there is no explanation of why the agent did one thing rather than another (your "hole in causation" is a particularly extreme formulation of this horn of the dilemma), or (b) there was such an explanation, which guaranteed that the agent would act as s/he did. Obviously part of the explanation could be the agent's internal states, like desires and beliefs. So this is exactly the Stoic view: the agent is responsible for the act because it was her desires etc that led to the act. But there is of course a further causal story about how she got to have those desires. So nothing is uncaused or unexplained but there is still a difference between being forced, and exercising agency - the difference is made by the fact that the agent's own psychological state is (part of) the causal explanation.

Justin H on 4 February 2015

Eternal Recurrence and Hard Determinism


Fantastic podcasts. No gaps!

From listening to this episode on the Stoics, I find myself a little confused with how Compatibilism is *ahem* compatible with a physical world view wherein the exact same cycle of events occurs eternally. If there is eternal recurrence of the exact same events, this sounds like a form of hard determinism. And if everything is fixed to happen, how can choice be said to occur? Even if one claims that choice is built into a deterministic system, if the same decision is made over each iteration of the cycle of time, from conflagration to conflagration, that seems to me to not be choice at all.

I guess my question is twofold:
1) Can one believe in eternal recurrence and be a Compatibilist?
2) Were the Stoics hard determinists or did they believe that we made the same choices over each cycle of time? Or neither?

Thanks for your time,

Justin H

In reply to by Justin H

Peter Adamson on 5 February 2015

Hard determinism and recurrence

First we need to clarify the terminology: as I understand it (and I think this is the usual understanding) "hard determinism" means accepting that the world is deterministic and that hence humans are unfree. So hard determinists are incompatibilists: like most incompatibilists they think causal determination is not reconcilable with human freedom, and their distinctive move is to say "but determinism is actually true, so there is no freedom" whereas of course most incompatibilists go the other way and argue that we are free, and that the world is not deterministic.

Clearly the Stoics were not hard determinists: they in fact are the inventors of the compatibilist position, according to which determinism does not preclude freedom; so they assert determinism and say that we can choose nonetheless, because choice doesn't require the possibility of acting otherwise.

As to the issue about eternal recurrence, in a sense I don't think this matters so much for their position. A Stoic is going to say that the world's causal structure guarantees that we will choose in certain ways, and whether this happens once or more than once (or an infinite number of times) their point will be that the causal determinism doesn't rule out the choice. A good way to think about this is that in each cycle of the world, the same causal factors are going to be at play, so the same things will result - including human choices, which are free in the sense that the Stoics accept (i.e. as not requiring that something different could have happened, but only that the choice originates from the agent rather than being compelled from outside).

Does that help?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Justin H on 5 February 2015

Yes! That clears it up. A

Yes! That clears it up. A belief in the idea of eternal recurrence does not need to influence how one interprets human agency. What matters most here is the interpretation of causal determinism: a Stoic would say (likely in Greek or Latin) that causal determinism does not preclude choice; a hard determinist would say it does. Eternal recurrence is a cosmological feature of the Stoic philosophy instead of a physical one.

I think compatibilism is just tripping me up since I find it strange to assert that one chooses even if one could not have done otherwise. Maybe the 'all-or-nothing' positions of incompatibilism are simpler to grasp as systems. But that is my problem and it just means I've got some research to do!

Anyway, thanks for the quick response! I really enjoy the podcasts.

Justin H

In reply to by Justin H

Peter Adamson on 7 February 2015


Yes, that's it exactly. I often have this problem when I teach - trying to help people get their heads around compatibilism. It may help to think about it this way: if there is even one action (ever) in the world that is both freely chosen and causally determined, then compatibilism is true (because incompatibilism denies that this is possible). So, think about an action of yours that you felt totally in control of, but where you felt that your motives, history etc. guaranteed that you would act as you did. My favorite example is asking someone to marry you: in that case, you presumably feel you are exercising free choice, yet you might also feel very strongly that you could not in fact do otherwise (how could I NOT ask this wonderful person to marry me?! we were meant for each other! etc). Not sure if you find that intuitive or plausible, but I tend to.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Justin H on 18 February 2015

Thanks for another response!

Thanks for another response! I should probably let this thread die but I was mulling over compatibilism this morning and I think i finally got it. Although, maybe I didn't and compatibilism and I are not *ahem* compatible. 

Maybe it's something like this: every event in the universe is causally determined. All of one's actions are also causally determined (since one is part of the universe). This does not remove the possibility of one being able to choose, although it may make it impossible for one to choose anything but one specific choice at a moment of choosing. So the universe sort of sets up each scenario in which one acts and then one acts in that scenario. Both the scenarios and one's actions are causally determined. The universe might end up placing an individual in a situation in which that individual can render a decision. Yet, that individual, being casually determined, will only choose one way, i.e. they can never choose otherwise. This gives the invididual a feeling of free will. And the individual might actually have free will at some moments since there could even be moments wherein the universe opens up a space of choice and the individual's actions are not causally determined. 

Maybe that's it. Thanks again for your time. 



In reply to by Justin H

Peter Adamson on 21 February 2015


Yes, that's pretty much it. Two qualifications: when you say "This gives the invididual a feeling of free will" I think a compatabilist would rather say that our awareness of exercising free will comes from the kind of causal story involved: e.g. if the action stems from our desires and beliefs, we feel like we are free or "in control" whereas if we are forced by an extxernal compelling cause, we don't. Also, the compatabilist would see no need for "moments" where determinism fails - that might happen but isn't needed for free will, and in fact it would be more likely to yield just randomness than choice (since what matters for choice is that our desires and beliefs are causally active, rather than, say, random subatomic fluctuations that have nothing to do with our desires and beliefs).

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alex on 3 February 2017

I'm trying to wrap my head

I'm trying to wrap my head around your assertion that "choice doesn't require the possibility of acting otherwise". Isn't choosing to select from a number of possibilities? When you say "But are you not assuming too much when you say that the lady literally could not break the dish? This seems clearly false" (and forgive me, as the comment is from 2012), aren't you contradicting yourself? Aren't you saying that breaking the dish, in spite of the lady's love for her china, is also possible? Curiously, "decide" comes from the Latin for "to cut off", i.e., to cut off other options, which are options precisely because there is not one action that is necessitated. Speaking of etymology, "arbitrary" initially meant "depending on the will, uncertain". It's only much later that it acquired the meaning of "capricious". This suggests to me that we are dealing with a false binary here (random/determined) and a confusion of terms. At least traditionally, the will, which is not wholly natural and as such not completely subject to determinism in nature, is either necessitated by the complete good, or not, as in the presence of competing partial goods, in which case it chooses. Could you clarify? And thanks once again for your podcast and books!


In reply to by Alex

Peter Adamson on 3 February 2017


Well, what you are saying is that you have a very strong intuition in favor of the so-called "principle of alternative possibilities," i.e. that if you don't have more than one option available to you, then you are not free. The Stoics are the originators of a theory of choice that rejects this principle - and believe it or not, their view and not yours is probably more prevalent among philosophers nowadays though it is a matter of great debate. The best way to see that the Stoic, compatibilist view is not absurd or meaningless is to consider a case where an agent - perhaps God, though it could be a human - definitely wants to perform a certain action, having decided it is clearly the right thing and not being even slightly inclined to do anything else. (So consider cases like God choosing to reward the good and not the evil, or someone choosing to propose marriage while feeling that their whole happiness depends on marriage to this particular person.) If the agent's mental state now precludes any alternative action because of the sheer weight of conviction and desire to do this one thing, then on your principle the agent would not be free; but this seems false.

Also there is the problem you mention about randomness: if the agent's mental state does NOT necessitate that action, then why do they perform this action and no other? The tradition you're alluding to would say "by an act of the will" but the Stoics would say that this just puts a mysterious name on an apparently unexplained choice of action A over action B. Since the agent's beliefs, desires etc do not necessitate the choice of action A, it seems like some element of randomness or arbitrariness has crept in to explain why A and not B resulted.

Does that help?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alex on 3 February 2017

Thanks for your response. My

Thanks for your response. My point was NOT that in order to be free you have to make choices but that a choice requires alternatives. That's the meaning of choosing, or deciding, or selecting. How is it a choice if there are not alternatives? Or are you using the word in another sense? When you say "having decided it is clearly the right thing and not being even slightly inclined to do anything else", what do you mean by "decided" and "anything else"? Didn't you just say that there was "nothing else", no other alternative? At that point in time, the decision is already made (and I'm not talking about God but just any agent) and "necessitates" the choice, but was it always so? Or just after deliberation?

In reply to by Alex

Peter Adamson on 4 February 2017


Yes, I knew what you meant - as I say, you are asserting the principle of alternative possibilities. The debate is over whether this is a reasonable condition to put on "choice." A lot of people strongly feel that it is, and you are obviously among them. The other side will say something like: "choice is not a matter of having other options, it is a matter of wanting to do what you do and not being forced by an external power." On this view there may often be other options available, but this is irrelevant.

It might help to imagine an agent who has only one action available (it isn't even possible for them to refrain from the action) but really, really wants to do it. On what basis would you accuse the agent of not choosing that action?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jessica Miller on 17 December 2018

Socrates saw what you did there...

Is there a name for this? Is the name for the conversation you just had: is it dialectics, with a Socratic bent?

Michael Gebauer on 30 April 2015

Hobbes vs. Bramhall

The part about compatibilist fatalism would precisely seem to be what you'll have to get back to when you come to the position of Thomas Hobbes, in his debate with his scholastic opponent Bramhall. -- By the way, since you meanwhile roam the medieval centuries, which sort of scholastic would this Bishop Bramhall seem to be on your view? (Perhaps you can tell us beforehand, when you get to a similar controversy.)

In reply to by Michael Gebauer

Peter Adamson on 30 April 2015


Well, so far I don't know enough about Bramhall to know - just that he was an opponent of Hobbes. Maybe you can let me know when you hear something similar then!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Michael Gebauer on 1 May 2015

Bramhall vs. Hobbes

I'll e-mail you a .pdf of the debate between Hobbes and his scholastic opponent.

Bashir on 11 August 2020

The Problem of Induction

I know I'm hella late to this conversation but I hope my comment will nonetheless elicit a response. I discovered the podcast about a month ago and have been working my way from the first episode at a steady clip. It's become part of my daily routine. I'm particularly looking forward to geting into the episodes on Indian and African philosophy. With Chinese philosophy hopefully to come. Thank you, Peter, for the great work.

Reading all the previous comments in this thread led me to ponder this question: 

Causal determinism asserts that a given chain of causes (whether external or internal) must result in a given effect. How is this assertion reconciled with Hume’s problem of induction?

In reply to by Bashir

Peter Adamson on 11 August 2020

Hume and determinism

Great, glad you have found the series and are enjoying it.

Re. your question, I think that your worry is in a way too far ahead of the game to connect with Hume. What Hume is worrying about is whether we can establish causal connections at all on the basis of inductive experience, like, given that we have seen one billiard ball move another a thousand times, how do we know it will happen again next time? I think that it's only once you accept that there is in fact a causal connection that you could start to worry about whether such connections are deterministic or not.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Bashir on 11 August 2020

Hume and determinism

Hume’s argument compels us to question what we can infer about causality on the basis of experience. Given phenomena as disparate as the motion of billiard balls impacting one another, the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes, and the choice about whether to eat strawberry or chocolate ice cream given that a person likes both equally but can only choose one, how do we infer a notion of causality that applies to them all? It appears to me that causal determinism takes the picture given to us by a particular set of phenomena — phenomena such as the billiard balls — and asserts that this picture suffices to understand all phenomena. 

In reply to by Bashir

Peter Adamson on 12 August 2020

More on Hume and causality

Well I am not an expert on Hume and of course we haven't gotten to him yet in the series (and won't for quite a while!) but all I meant was that Hume's critique of induction seems to me to apply equally well to indeterministic causation. So imagine you have a probabilistic account of induction, e.g. the isotope will degrade by time T with 70% probability. What I was thinking is that the extrapolation of the 70% for future events from past experience would be no more warranted (by Hume's argument) than a 100% would be in the case of deterministic causation. However I think you are right that Hume had in mind deterministic causation when he offered the argument, I am just saying that changing to an indeterministic account of causation probably wouldn't solve the problem. Though as I say this isn't exactly my field so I may be wrong here.

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