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Freedom and context

Term Paper for Freedom of the Will

Sergiu Sptan
MA Student, CEU
There is something intriguing and attractive about contextualism, something probably related to the fact
that it promises so much (solving the skeptical problem or explaining how linguistic meaning works)

with so little (a thesis about words sensitivity). Epistemic contextualism for example, although not so
popular today as it was two decades ago given the great amount of criticism it has received in the
meanwhile continues to awake imaginations and hotly debates (connected to assertability maneuvers,
concessive knowledge attribution or, of course, skepticism).
It should not be a great surprise, then, that contextualism is also used in trying to solve such an old and
important problem as the one connected to free will. Why wouldnt it? The problem of freedom and the
problem of epistemological skepticism are alike in many respects. As Thomas Nagel points out (1986, p.
125): The parallel *of the problem of free will] with skepticism in epistemology is clear. The extremely
general possibilities of error that the skeptic imagines undermine confidence in all our beliefs. [..]
Similarly with action. Some of the externally imposed limitations and constraints on our actions are
evident to us. When we discover others, internal and less evident, our reactive attitudes toward the
affected action tend to be defused, for it seems no longer attributable in the required way to the person
who must be the target of those attitudes. For my ears, that sounds very much like contextualism.
And this is precisely what I want to show in this paper: that we can have a contextualist analysis of
freedom, and that through this analysis we can offer a contextualist solution to the problem of free will.
After presenting in more details how the two problems are related, I will review two ways of cashing out
the contextualist solution to the problem of free will. Finally, because I find some objections to these
two proposals, I will sketch, in the final part of the paper, my own understanding of how the problem of
freedom can be solved contextually.
Consider the closure-bazed skeptical puzzle:
(1) I know that I have two hands (or any other mundane fact)
(2) If I dont know that I am not a brain in a vat (or in any other skeptical scenario), then I dont know
whether I have two hands (or any other mundane fact)
(3) I dont know that I am not a brain in a vat (or in any other skeptical scenario)

See Preyer & Peter (2005) for a good anthology of contextualist theories (and objections to such theories) in
epistemology and philosophy of language.
This is a genuine philosophical paradox because, although all three sentences are individually very
intuitive [most of us agree that deductive closure the principle on which (2) is based is a very
important and plausible principle, we all have the feeling that we know a lot, but we definitely agree
that we cannot know we are not brains in vats how could he know it, all evidence suits either
hypothesis?+, together they are incoherent. If (2) and (3) are correct, then their direct conclusion (I dont
know whether I have two hands) is in direct contradiction with (1).
Note, furthermore, that every classical solution to the problem of skepticism represents the denial of
one of the sentences, inheriting in this way also the drawback of denying an intuitive claim: skepticism
represents the denial of (1), classical mooreanism is the denial of (3), while relative alternative theory
(or Nozicks tracking analysis) denies the deductive closure principle, and thus (2).
Consider now the following puzzle (Rieber 2006, p. 223):
i) I am free to raise my hands (or to do any other trivial thing)
ii) If my raising my hands is the product of a causal chain going back to something other than me (if I am
determined by other forces me to raise my hands), then I am not actually free when I raise my hands (or
in doing any other trivial thing)
iii) The fact that I raise my hands is the product of a causal chain going back to something other than me
(I live in a deterministic world)
Again, this puzzle is paradoxical because, although the three sentences are individually very plausible
(who would deny that I am not free in doing such a banal thing as raising my hands? Or that at a micro
molecular level I am plainly determined in doing whatever I am doing? Or that if am so determined, then
I am not actually free?), they are jointly inconsistent: (ii) and (iii) imply the denial of (i).
Still again, note that the classical solutions to the problem of free will are represented by the denial of
one of the above sentences: hard determinism represents the denial of (i), incompatibilism is the denial
of (iii), while compatibilism denies van Invagens consequence argument (), and thus (ii). Furthermore,
the main drawbacks of these solutions are precisely the fact that they refute very plausible and intuitive
claims (Rieber 2006, p. 224).
Now, the contextualist strategy concerning the skeptical puzzle is to say that all the three sentences
above are true, but in different contexts. (1) is true in day to day contexts (when discussing the grocery
list, or who got elected president), (3) being false in these contexts,
while, respectively, (2) and (3) are
true in epistemological and skeptical discussions, yielding (1) false. The skeptic is therefore right in
saying that we dont know much, but only in very specific environments. In the most common, daily
contexts, the skeptic is wrong. This strategy is based on the claim that the true values of the sentences

(2) seems to be true in all contexts. But be careful, if asserted in daily discussions, it changes, so to say, the
context. So it is a bit tricky to say it is true in daily contexts, although it is not false either. I will explain a bit later
why (2) has this paradoxical feature.
containing knowledge claims (like S knows p) are relative to the context in which those sentences are
asserted; namely, knowledge claims are sensitive to the context of the ascriber of knowledge.
The analogous contextualist strategy for solving the problem of free will has the following form
(Hawthorne 2001, Rieber 2006): the true values of the sentences containing claims about free will (of
the form S is free in -ing) are relative to the context in which those sentences are asserted; they
depend on the context of the ascriber of freedom. Keeping this in mind, we can see that the above
puzzle about free will can be solved by simply saying that the sentences in question are each true in
different contexts. In normal, day to day contexts, (i) is true while (iii) is false
and, respectively, in
metaphysical and philosophical contexts, (iii) is true while (i) is false.
E.g. Consider again (i). We usually say that when I consciously decide to raise my hand, and raise it, I am
free in doing so. The usually at the beginning of the last sentence refers, the contextualist says, to the
contexts in which we do not scrutinize the limits of freedom, but simply state a fact about our day to day
capacities. But then again, if I, or any of us, assert (i) in a metaphysics class, or at tea party while fiercely
debating the problem of free will, the truth value of the sentence is not that fixed anymore: we are way
more reluctant in ascribing freedom to my action, given the deterministic world in which we live.
These are the general features of a contextualist solution to the problem of free will. What is further
needed at this point is a more detailed account of how the switch in attribution of truth values occurs,
from one context to another; namely, an account of the mechanism that makes that switch possible. I
will consider, by turn, Hawthornes and Riebers accounts.
According to Lewis (1996, p. 561):
S knows proposition p iff p holds in every possibility left uneliminated by Ss evidence Psst! except
for those possibilities that we are properly ignoring.
The every in the definition, just like the every in I checked every corner, but didnt find it, does not
refer to all possibilities in the universe (I dont have to check all the corners in the universe to find the
ball), but only to those possibilities that are relevant in the specific context in which S knows p is
asserted, or so is Lewis claiming. That means that in some contexts we can legitimately ignore some
possibilities in which not-p, without thus rendering S knows p false, while in others we cannot ignore
Again, in the market, or in the privacy of my own courtyard while playing basketball, I am entirely
entitled to use truthfully sentences like I know how much the cabbage costs or I know I scored more
than you, precisely because I ignore certain skeptical scenarios (like the possibility that the cabbage is
actually painted cauliflower). The truth value of these sentences changes only when we consider and
stop ignoring such skeptical hypotheses (global or local).

(ii) has the same feature as (2), as noted in the above footnote.
The mechanism by which we decide on this issue is constituted be several pragmatic rules (Lewis 1996, pp. 554 -
560): rule of actuality, rule of belief, rule of reliability, two rules of method, rule of conservation and rule of
attention *a possibility that is not ignored is ipso facto not properly ignored (p. 559)+.
Analogously, consider the following definition (Hawthorne 2001, p. 68):
S does x freely only if Ss action is free from causal explainers beyond Ss control Psst! apart from
those causal explainers that we are properly ignoring. The causal explainer of an action is a state of
affairs which provides an adequate causal explanation of an action.
Again, even if the word every is not used, the idea is the same: the domain of causal explainers of an
action is restricted to the ones that we are not properly ignoring. When I consider whether my action of
drinking a cup of coffee every morning is caused by complicated addictive processes beyond my control,
I am no longer ignoring the possibility that that was the actual cause of my drinking the coffee (and not
the decision I consciously and confidently made in the morning) and therefore I am not properly ignoring
that possibility anymore. Thus, by this process, by the fact that I am not properly ignoring the causal
explainer that is beyond my control, I render the sentence I am free when drinking my coffee false.
There is nonetheless a problem in making the analogy between the two solutions too strict. It would
seem simply hazardous to claim that the rules by which somebody determines what is properly ignored
in the case of knowledge attribution are precisely the same as the rules by which something is properly
ignored when judging someones freedom. The two domains are too different. The problem of freedom,
first and foremost, is linked to the issue of moral responsibility, and thus the rules of what is relevantly
ignored should be connected to moral theory (Hawthorne 2001, p. 71). But Hawthorne does not commit
himself to a project of spelling out a list of such rules, precisely because he doesnt want to engage with
moral theory.
The theory, in this case, as Rieber emphasizes (Rieber 2006, p. 230), is simply incomplete.
Another drawback of Hawthornes theory is the fact that it is unmotivated apart from its capacity to
solve the free will puzzle; or so is Rieber arguing (Ibidem): no independent reason has been given for
thinking that ascriptions of freedom are context-sensitive in the strong sense required by the
contextualist. The solution is simply ad hoc.
Riebers plan for overcoming this problem is to propose an analysis of freedom that is not determined
by the need alone to solve contextually the puzzle presented above, but which nonetheless provides
such a solution. Consider then the following definition:
An agent A did x freely iff A caused x and in so doing was the original cause of x. (Rieber 2006, p. 231)
The talk of original causes, as noted by Rieber (Ibidem), might sound quite strange, given the fact that
the original cause is by definition uncaused. But actually, Rieber argues, original cause is a context-
sensitive term. Consider the following situation (Rieber 2006, pp. 231 - 232): a forest fire is responsible
for the destruction of a house. We would say, watching the scene from the roadside, that the fire was
the cause of the destruction. Still, somebody else might say (a neighbor who witnessed the events) that
actually the lightning was the original cause of the destruction, given that the lightening caused the fire.

He sketches only three strategies for making such a list (2001, pp. 71 - 72): a) a consequentialist strategy, b) a
descriptive strategy or c) a transcendental strategy.
We can see from this example that, although the lightening itself is not uncaused (how could it be?), the
context legitimates the use of the phrase original cause for describing the lightening. But consider now
another context, in which the cause of the lightening itself is looked at. We can surely say that, given
that the lightening was caused by cold, dry air coming into contact with warm, moist air, the actual
original cause of the destruction was not the lightening, but the natural phenomenon that led to the
lightening; and so on and so on. Original cause is therefore a context-sensitive word.
But somebody might claim that original cause is not actually context-sensitive (but rather absolute):
our considerations above are a mistreatment of what original cause truly means. In reality, the critic
would say, the term denotes the beginning of the causal chain that leads to the target event or the
absolutely first cause (Rieber 2006, p. 233). This, nonetheless, Rieber answers, sounds simply incredible:
if this is the case, then no other use of the phrase than the one referring to God or Bing Bang is correct.
Surely this is wrong, given the frequency of our use of original cause.

Let us then grant that original cause is a context-sensitive word. It then follows that the context-
sensitivity of freedom comes not from a need of solving contextually (ad hoc as Rieber called it) the free
will puzzle above, but from the very way we analyze freedom. If freedom is defined as the capacity of an
agent to be the original cause of an event, and the notion original cause is context-sensitive, it then
follows that freedom itself is context-sensitive.
With this definition in our hands, we can now go to the contextualist resolution of the puzzle.
First, let us rewrite the sentences composing the puzzle:
(ia) The original cause my raising of my hand was me
(iia) If my raising of my hand is the product of a causal chain going back to something other than me,
then the original cause of my raising of my hand was not me
(iiia) The raising of my hand is the product of a causal chain going back to something other than me
Second, consider the following rule (extracted from the lightening-fire-destruction example):
R: In a context in which it is salient that something prior to A caused B, the sentence A is not the
original cause of B is true. (Rieber 2006, p. 232)
Given this rule, and the above definition of freedom, we can easily see why in one context (in which it is
not salient that something else than myself caused the raising of my hand), (ia), the original cause my
raising of my hand was me, respectively I freely raised my hand or I am free when I raise my hand are
true, while in another context [brought about by the mentioning in (iia) and (iiia) of another cause, prior
to myself, for the raising of my hand], (ia) is false.

And he lists impressive proofs of the use of original cause in daily discourse: from BBC News Online to
Tocquevilles Democracy in America or Encyclopaedia Britannica (Rieber 2006, note 15, p. 249).
From a broader perspective, we can now understand why we have the conflicting intuitions concerning
our beliefs about free will. On the one side, we have the strong intuition that we are free in many of our
endeavors. On the other side, we realize that there are causes of our behavior and actions that are not
our own selves, and in this way we tend to weaken our belief in the existence of freedom. What is
occurring is a shift in context which affects our judgments about the original cause of an action and
hence, according to the analysis, our judgments about free will. In an ordinarily context the standards
for applying the original cause are relatively low, and so the agent is the original cause of his action.
But in a context in which we think about the likelihood that the action had earlier causes, such as the
agents upbringing or genetic endowment, the agent is less likely to be seen as the original cause
(Rieber 2006, p. 236).
There are quite many issues remained unresolved for this type of contextualist solution to the problem
of free will. One is the place of moral responsibility in the big picture. Both Hawthorne and Rieber stay at
a safe distance from moral theory.
But that is a bit problematic: there is a need of understanding how
we should define moral responsibility, given that for such a long time moral responsibility was closely
connected to the issue of freedom (and intuitively it still is). Another unknown thing is the relationship
of freedom contextualism with other classical theories. Hawthorne considers that it is a kind of
compatibilism, while Rieber is reluctant in committing himself to any party. My greatest worry,
nonetheless, is whether it truly gives a proper answer to the arguments against free will.
Consider the analogous worry concerning epistemic contextualism. According to Klein (2000), Kornblith
(2000), or Feldman (2004), the problem with epistemic contextualism is that it doesnt really seem to
answer the skeptical problem; namely, it misconstrues that problem. In Feldmans words The debate
about skepticism is not as a debate in which the quality of our evidence is agreed to and the debate
results from differing views about what the standards for knowledge are. Instead, it is a debate about
how good our evidence is. (Feldman 2004, p. 32) In other words, it is a debate about whether we can
have any evidence for our beliefs in the first place. Epistemic contextualism answers not to Full-Blooded
Skepticism, to use Kornbliths words (2000, p. 25), but only to High Standards Skepticism. Similarly, a
critic of freedom contextualism might argue, freedom contextualism does not actually answer the Full
Blooded Hard Determinism: the problem with free will is not a matter of how original is the cause
represented by the agents will, but whether it is truly original in the first place whether the agent truly
caused an action or not. And the answer to this question seems to be a plainly no (even for the
contextualist framework).
Another analogy might come at hand here. Sosa (2000) claims that epistemic contextualism is only a
metalinguistic theory, that bears no significance for true epistemological debates. If you think about it,
the question whether we have knowledge or not exists only in the epistemological debates, and in these

We have seen already that Hawthorne is not committing himself to any view concerning moral theory. Rieber,
too, discusses moral responsibility only in passing (2006, pp. 241 - 243), without deciding whether moral
responsibility is also context-sensitive or not; the main topic of this paper is free will, not moral responsibility (p.
contexts, even for contextualist, the skeptic is right in saying that we lack any possibility of gaining
evidence or knowledge. In the same sense, then, freedom contextualism might be a nice, coherent
metalinguistic thesis, but it does not bear any consequences on the real problem of whether we have
free will or not. Again, even the freedom contextualist would agree that these discussions take place in
the metaphysical class contest. But in such a context the supporter of freedom is mistaken.
There is therefore the risk that freedom contextualism does not actually answer the real problem of
hard determinism and thus it fails to give us a worthy solution to the problem of free will.
My strategy for dealing with this problem, both in epistemology and, it seems, in philosophy of action, is
to expand the presuppositions of contextualism and work more with them.

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