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John Hospers and free will – some remarks

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John Hospers (1918 -2011), US philosopher and first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party

The philosopher John Hospers lived to the ripe old age of 93 and died in 2011. His essay “What means this freedom?” was published in a 1961 philosophical compendium, Determinism and freedom in the age of modern science, edited by Sidney Hook, and reprinted in Free will and determinism, edited by Berofsky. I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly when the essay was written. The internet tells me Hospers was strongly associated with libertarianism, and was once a good friend of Ayn Rand, which strikes me as bizarre considering that the above-mentioned essay presents an argument against free will. Perhaps a closer study of the essay will clarify the apparent contradiction.

Hospers brings up the concept of unconscious motivation in his first paragraph. He reflects on a ‘criminal act’:

The deed may be planned, it may be carried out in cold calculation, it may spring from the agent’s character and be continuous with the rest of his behaviour, and it may be perfectly true that he could have done differently if he had wanted to; nonetheless his behaviour was brought about by unconscious conflicts developed in infancy, over which he had no control and of which (without training in psychiatry) he does not even have knowledge. He may even think he knows why he acted as he did, he may think he has conscious control over his actions, he may even think he is fully responsible for them; but he is not. Psychiatric casebooks provide hundreds of examples. The law and common sense, though puzzled sometimes by such cases, are gradually becoming aware that they exist; but at this early stage countless blunders still occur because neither the law nor the public in general is aware of the genesis of criminal actions.

The conscious/unconscious division, born of psychoanalysis, seems dated now, but there’s plenty of evidence of retarded neural development in childhood, and of the epigenetic effects of early developmental experiences, both pre- and post-natal. It’s also worth noting that Hospers here confines himself to ‘criminal actions’, without seeming to recognise the much wider implications of the determinist world we live in. Our deterministic world is massively more encompassing, something that perhaps remains hidden to many of us because of the more or less infinite variety of human individuals the chains of cause and effect produce. And, of course, because of the modern WEIRD emphasis on human freedom.

A problem with Hospers’ argument is that, as he claims above, it supposedly relies on ‘training in psychiatry’. In a marginal note to Hospers’ analysis of Hamlet’s inability to act, due to an unconscious ‘Oedipal conflict’, I wrote this, more than 40 years ago:

I can’t accept this – it suggests that someone else knows my motives better than I do. This is the insidious power structure on which psychoanalysis is built.

Of course it’s true that if you want an accurate description of a person’s character, you ask those who know her well rather than the person herself, because for sound evolutionary reasons, we emphasise our ‘best’ qualities and minimise our worst. However the psychiatric view misses a great many other factors in determining character – genetic, epigenetic, cultural, hormonal, traumatic, dietary, and probably countless others still insufficiently researched. All of these factors create a self, which, according to many ‘compatibilists’, including Sidney Hook in Berofsky’s collection, is the agent which ‘freely’ acts. What means this freedom, indeed!

It’s hardly Hospers’ fault that he didn’t widen the determining factors I’ve just mentioned, as so little was known about them, mid-twentieth century. And yet, much further along in his essay, he makes this extraordinary claim:

I want to make it clear that I have not been arguing for determinism.

And much of what follows makes little sense to me. The philosophical language, it seems to me, gets in the way of basic reasoning (not only here but in most of the essays in the Berofsky volume). For example, much is made  of the question ‘Are our powers innate or acquired?’ This is a non-issue. We acquire certain ‘powers’ or skills or world-views or whatever because of the family we’re born into, the zeitgeist that surrounds that family, and particular mentors or events that have influenced us, particularly at an early age. We have no control over our early brain development, over whether we’re attractive or ugly by our community’s standards, whether we’re short or tall, ‘black’ or ‘white’ skinned, or introduced as babies into the English or Tagalog language. And these factors and a thousand others heavily influence what we will become. To sort them into innate or acquired characteristics is largely a mug’s game.

Essentially the reason Hospers and others are fearful of the determinist label is the idea that all is ‘fixed’, that nothing could have been otherwise, or can be otherwise in the future. So what’s the use of trying? What I do tomorrow is already set. No need to think about it, to worry about what to wear to work, what to prepare for tomorrow’s lesson – it’s already taken care of. But that’s not how things work. What’s missing is the complexity of interacting determining factors that make us, the most hyper-social mammalian species on the planet, want to survive and thrive within the social web that has created us. Some of us, largely due to the luck of our early years and environment, are very good at doing this, sometimes to the detriment of others, sometimes not. Others are overwhelmed and seek to withdraw into a more ‘safe’ and static environment. In any case, things are not fixed, due to the dynamic, albeit determined, world that we have to negotiate constantly throughout our lives. A determined world is far from being predictable, because we’re constantly encountering unexpected events, conversations, challenges, requests, crises, accidents, insights, and so on. They often come at us thick and fast, and we must deal with them, determined though they be. And our own dealing with them has always been determined, because we dealt with them in this way and not that. How we deal with a situation in the future isn’t yet determined – nor is it entirely predictable, because the elements of that future situation are always unique, and complex.

To return to Hospers, let me analyse some remarks towards the end of his essay:

What of the charge that we could never have acted otherwise than we did? This, I submit, is not true. Here the proponents of … ‘soft determinism’ are quite right. I could have gone to the opera today instead of coming here; that is, if certain conditions had been different, I should have gone. I could have done many other things instead of what I did, if some condition or other had been different, specifically if my desire had been different.

Hospers goes on to examine ‘could’ as a ‘power word’, but in my view that is beside the point. The point, as Sabine Hossenfelder bluntly states in her video on free will, is that, given all the things you could have done in response to situation x (which are virtually infinite), you did y. And this decision was the result of all the impinging circumstances of the moment together with the character you have become due to a virtually infinite combination of historical events, neural connections, hormonal flows, genetic inheritances and so forth. Hospers mentions desire, as if this is something we have control over. I can attest that, when young, I became pathetically sick with desire for certain young women while unmoved by others who seemed equally attractive by general standards. I felt like the plaything of strong emotions which I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud of or ashamed of. I’ve also felt extremely violent emotions towards people who mistreated me, in my view, such as an old headmaster, but also toward long-dead dictators and war-mongers I’ve read about. None of these feelings are under my control. Nor is it really under my control that I haven’t acted on my violent or libidinous passions. My desire not to go to gaol or make a fool of myself, which are pretty commonplace desires, shared by the vast majority of people, have kept me well out of the spotlight. That desire is, of course, the result of experiences that have befallen me, and shaped me. Not of my own free will – whatever that means.


Free will and determinism, ed Bernard Berofsky, 1966


Written by stewart henderson

December 1, 2023 at 6:52 pm

free will, revisited

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yet to be read

I’ve written about free will before, here , and especially here, (the commentary at the end is particularly interesting, IMHO), and probably in other posts as well, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe it’s time for a refresher (though, if I say so myself, those earlier posts stand up pretty well).

I first became acquainted with and absorbed in the ‘philosophical’ argy-bargy about free will way back in the seventies, when I read Free Will and Determinism, a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky. It was published in 1966, and is, amazingly (since I’ve moved house about 50 times), still in my possession. Glancing through it again now brings back memories, but more importantly, the arguments, which mostly favour compatibilism, aka soft determinism, seem both naive and somewhat arrogant, if that’s the word. That is, they’re mostly variants of ‘of course we have free will – we display it in every decision we make – but many of us find it hard to present a rational explanation of it, so I’ll do it for you’. Only one philosopher, from memory, John Hospers, argued for ‘hard determinism’, that’s to say, for the absence of free will. And though I found his argument a bit clunky (it was largely based on Freudian and neo-Freudian psychology), it was the only one that really stuck in my mind, though I didn’t quite want to be convinced.

In more recent years, after reading Sam Harris’ short book on free will, and Robert Sapolsky’s treatment of the issue towards the end of his monumental book Behave, I’ve felt as if the scales have dropped from my eyes. Another factor I should mention was a talk I gave to the SA Humanist Society a few years ago on the subject, which didn’t quite go all the way on ‘no free will’, and a pointed question from one of the attendees left me floundering for a response. It was likely that experience that made me feel the need to revisit the issue more comprehensively. So, for memory lane’s sake, I’m going to reread these old essays and then comment on them. And hopefully I’ll be able to slip in a bonobo mention along the way!

I should mention, as Sapolsky does in Behave, that neurology has come a long way since the 1970s. More papers have been published in the field in the first two decades of the 21st century than in all the centuries before, which is hardly surprising. With this, and our greater understanding of genetics, epigenetics. developmental psychology and other fields relevant to the topic, it will behoove me to be fair to the thinking of intellectuals writing a number of generations before the present. However, I’m not interested in giving a historical account – how Cicero, or Augustine of Hippo, or Spinoza, or John Stuart Mill conceptualised the problem was very much a product of the zeitgeist of their era, combined with their unique gifts. The era I live in, in the particularly WEIRD country (Australia) that is my home, religion is fast receding, and the sciences of neurophysiology, endocrinology, genetics and primatology, among others, have revolutionised our understanding of what it is to be human, or sentient, or simply alive. And they help us to understand our uniquely determined situation and actions.

So let me begin with Berofsky’s introduction, in which he raises a ‘problem’ with determinism:

The fact that classical mechanics did not turn out to be the universal science of human nature suggests that contemporary proponents of determinism do not ally themselves to this particular theory. Many ally themselves to no particular theory at all, but try to define determinism in such a way that its rejection is not necessitated by the rejection of any particular scientific theory.

This takes us back to the effect upon the general public of such notions as ‘quantum indeterminacy’ and its manipulation by pedlars of ‘quantum woo’ (for example, The tao of physics, by Fritjof Capra, which I haven’t read). But clearly, however we might understand quantum superposition and action-at-a-distance, they have no effect at the macro level of brain development, genetic inheritance and the like, and they certainly can’t be used to defend the concept of free will. The ‘no free will’ argument does rely on determining factors, and openly so. Our genetic inheritance, the time and place of our birth, our family circumstances, our ethnicity, our diet, these are among many influences that we don’t see as ‘theoretical’, but factual.

Berofsky goes on to worry over types of causes and causal laws in what seems to me a rather fruitless ‘philosophical’ way.

A determinist, then, is a person who believes that all events (facts, states) are lawful in the sense, roughly, that for event e, there is a distinct event plus a (causal) law which asserts, ‘Whenever d, then e’.

The extremely general or universal character of this thesis has raised many questions, some of which concern the status of the thesis. Some have held the position as a necessary or a priori truth about the world. Others have insisted that determinism is itself a scientific theory, but much more general than most other scientific theories.

As you can imagine, none of this is of any concern to a working neurologist, biochemist or primatologist. In trying to determine how oxytocin levels affect behaviour in certain subjects, for example, they won’t be reflecting on a priori truths or causal laws, they’ll be looking at all the other possible confounding and co-determining factors that might contribute to the behaviour. It seems to me that traditional philosophical language is getting in the way here of attributing effects to causes, however partially.

Berofsky points out, in the name of some philosophers, that determinism isn’t a scientific theory in that it’s essentially unfalsifiable (my language, not his), as it can always be claimed that some so far undiscovered causal factor has contributed to the behaviour or effect. But scientists don’t consider determinism to be a theory, but rather the sine qua non of scientific practice, indeed of everyday life. We live in a world of becauses,  we eat because we’re hungry/it’s tasty/it’s healthy/it reminds us of childhood, etc. We don’t think like this in terms of laws. We needn’t think of it at all, just as a dog wags her tail when she sees her owner after a long absence (or not, if he’s also her abuser).

So much for determinism, over which too much verbiage has been employed. The real issue that exercises most people is free will, freedom, or agency. Here’s how Berofsky introduces the subject:

It has been maintained that if an action is determined, then the person was not performing the action of his own free will. For surely, it is argued, if the antecedent conditions are such that they uniquely determine by law the ensuing result (the action), then it was not within the power of the person to do otherwise. And a person doesfreely if, and only if, he could have done something other than A. Let us call this position ‘incompatibilism’. Incompatibilists usually conclude as well that if a person’s action is determined, then he is not morally responsible for having done it, since acting freely is a necessary condition of being morally responsible for the action.

This is a long-winded, i.e. typically philosophical way of putting the ‘no free will’ argument, which is usually countered by an ‘of course I could’ve done otherwise’ response, and the accusation that determinists are not just kill-joys but kill-freedoms. Presumably this would be a ‘compatibilist’ response, and many find it the only common-sense response, if we want to view ourselves as anything other than automatons.

But there are obvious problems with compatibilism, and here’s my ‘death by a thousand cuts’ response. There are a great many Big Things in our life about which we, indisputably, have no choice. No person, living or dead, got to choose the time and place of their birth, or conception. No person got to choose their parents, or their genetic inheritance. They had no choice as to how their brain, limbs, organs and so forth grew and developed whilst in the womb. So, no freedom of choice up to that time. When, then, did this freedom begin? The compatibilist would presumably argue – ‘when we make our own observations and inferences, which starts to happen more frequently as we grow’. And there would be much hand-waving about when this gradually starts to happen, until we’re our own autonomous selves, who could’ve done otherwise. And here we get to the response of Sam Harris and others, that this ‘self’ is a myth. I would put it differently, that the self is a useful marker for each person and their individuality. These selves are all determined, but they’re each uniquely determined, and at least this uniqueness is something we can salvage from the firm grip of determinism. What is mythical about the self is its self-determined nature.

As Berofsky puts it, guilt and remorse are strong indications, for compatibilists, that free will exists. I would add regret to those feelings, and I would admit, as does Sapolsky, that these strong, sometimes overwhelming feelings, based largely on the idea that we should have done otherwise, are our strongest arguments for rejecting the no free will position.

This issue of guilt needs to be looked at more closely, since our whole legal system is based on questions of guilt or innocence. I’ll reserve that for next time.


Bernard Berofsky, ed. Free will and determinism, 1966

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2017

Sam Harris, Free will, 2012

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2023 at 8:40 pm