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Against the No Past Objection

This is part three of an unnamed series. I guess it’s generally on arguments for strict incompatibilism.

(part one)

(part two)


We previously looked at an informal presentation of the Consequence Argument, CA. One way the conclusion of the CA has been stated is that no one ever had a choice about anything they do, among the things they are able to do. Suppose we’re talking about Giuseppe eating a slice of pizza. If we let p be the proposition, “Giuseppe ate a piece of pizza in 2000,” then we’d say that Giuseppe never had a choice about if Giuseppe lived in a deterministic world.[1] Campbell (2007) pointed out that this phrasing was problematic. Perhaps now Giuseppe can’t now do anything about p, but why think he couldn’t in 2000? After all, he was alive then. So why think Giuseppe never had a choice about p, even if Giuseppe now (2013) doesn’t have a choice about (i.e., about whether p is true or not)?

Thus, CAs have prominently employed a premise about the remote past. A proposition, p0, is about the “remote” past when p0 is a true proposition about a time before there were any humans. Perhaps p0 states a truth about the location of a star a few billion years ago. With this qualification, we can see how we can get our premise that no one ever had a choice about p0. Then, given determinism, since the laws of nature (L) + pentail that p, i.e., they entail that Giuseppe eats a pizza at t, then Giuseppe doesn’t have a choice about eating a pizza at t. Since our choice of agents and actions was completely arbitrary, the CA generalizes to all agents, like you and I, and concludes that no one has a choice about anything. Therefore, incompatibilism.

In response to the CA, I referred to an ingenious argument by Joseph Campbell (2007)—and the reader is advised to read at least that section to get a feel for the objection. The upshot is that the CA fails as an argument for incompatibilism, where I defined incompatibilism in the previous posts as strict incompatibilism, i.e., incompatibilism across all possible deterministic worlds. But as Campbell (2011) says, “that we have a remote past is not an essential feature of deterministic worlds. Therefore on popular line of reasoning in support of incompatibilism doesn’t really prove incompatibilism. At most, it establishes a weaker thesis: Given determinism and some contingent propositions about the world, no one has free will” (51). Since a large set of putative “proofs” for incompatibilism employ similar contingent premises, if the no past objection tells against the CA, it tells against these other arguments too. We call this objection, following Bailey (2012), “The No Past Objection,” or, the NPO.

Now, the incompatibilist can say, “But I don’t care about whether freedom is incompatible with determinism in this strict sense, I just care about whether people like us, i.e., people with remote pasts, can be free.” I called this, again following Bailey (2012), “weak incompatibilism.” I actually think this move raises a whole host of interesting conceptual issues, but I’ll pass on commenting about weak incompatibilism for the moment—however, I will discuss some of these issues in a separate-but-related post to this series. Now, what if one wanted to demonstrate strict incompatibilism? How would one do so? In this post I’ll briefly discuss some of the objections to Campbell (2007), and Bailey’s analyses of them.

Against the No Past Objection

Bailey (2012) discusses several of the ways incompatibilists have responded to the NPO. I won’t discuss these objections, or Bailey’s analyses of them, in much detail at all. I’ll briefly mention them, but the main thing I’ll highlight on is the general problem that Bailey says afflicts each of them, and Bailey’s goal of offering another argument for incompatibilism that avoids the general problem.

1. The way of resistance

Recall that “Adam” was the agent who existed at the first moment (so he has no remote past) and does a free action in the first instant. The other “Adam” example was oscillating Adam, who lived in a world with cyclical, always growing old and then young again, and so he had no remote past either.  The way of resistance claims that Adam cases are impossible for some reason or other. One way this impossibility is cashed out is in terms of placing a “historical condition” on free action, “a condition that entails that S exists prior to her performing a” (Bailey 2012, 357-358). For our purposes, I want to highlight Bailey’s response,

The Way of Resistance . . . is plausible. But it has a cost. It takes on rather specific metaphysical commitments about (free) action, belief-desire complexes, anticipation, deliberation, and what it is to take responsibility for a mechanism. . . . Resting the case for incompatibilism on contentious views about, say, deliberation, will not help on this front. There is a cost to claiming that Adam cases are impossible or irrelevant. Perhaps this cost is one that incompatibilists should pay willingly. As we shall see, they needn’t so do. (2012, 358-359)

2. The way of retreat

Bailey discusses two variations of the way of retreat. Travelers on the way of retreat tell us that they are not concerned to defend strict incompatibilism but merely some weaker thesis. Above, “incompatibilism” was defined as the thesis that free will and determinism are not compossible. Weak incompatibilists care only about whether creatures like us can be free, and creatures like us, it would appear, have a remote past. They care very little whether weird, whimsical beings, like Adam, can be free given determinism.

As I mentioned above, I think “weak incompatibilism” raises many interesting issues. I will refrain from discussing weak incompatibilism further, as well as an interesting objection Bailey gives to theistic philosophers who would be tempted to endorse this way. The simple points to note are this: (a) Baisely argues that the way of retreat comes with a cost, and he wants to get incompatibilism without costs, and (b), since we’re only interested in strict incompatibilism in this series, weak incompatibilism is otiose.

3. The way of renewal

The way of renewal takes its name from an argument deployed by Roberto Loss, the Renewed Argument.[2] The Renewed Argument offers a new argument for strict incompatibilism, and it does not make any appeal to the existence of the past. Rather, it depends on a crucial premise, dubbed ‘(γ)’, which is a premise about the necessity of the present, where ‘pt’expresses a proposition about a fact at time t and ‘Ntp’ states “, and no one has any choice at t whether p”:

(γ) ∀t (pt → Ntpt)

Again, our concern is not with the details of this strategy but with Bailey’s response. Bailey (2012) argues that  must be generalizable across all worlds to get strict incompatibilism, but it is not so generalizable (366-368). Bailey argues against  from three cases that he claims are each possible but which  needs to be impossible. Moreover, to defend against Bailey’s criticisms of , the defender of the Renewed Argument will inevitably wind up paying a cost.

The upshot of (3) for our purposes is that Bailey does not think it is at all clear that the popular responses to Campbell’s objection work to support strict incompatibilism, and the extent to which they might work involves the incompatibilist incurring metaphysical costs. But, Bailey thinks these costs can be avoided and that there is a better way to argue for strict incompatibilism.


In this post we looked at several strategies for responding to Campbell’s NPO. We noted Andrew Bailey’s (2012) analyses of the strategies. Here’s the take home for our purposes: Bailey thinks each of the strategies, at best, come with metaphysical costs, but some may even be false. Bailey wonders if we can get strict compatibilism without paying the costs, and he thinks he can get it.

[1] Technically, the world need not be determined, where a world w‘s being determined means that w is globally determined. Actually, the world could be globally indetermined but there could be, say, local “pockets” of determinism that obtain in w. Indeterminists would also say that Giuseppe couldn’t freely eat a pizza even where his action is locally determined. But even here we’d need to get more technical. That is, some indeterminists would allow that local determinism is true in w and that Giuseppe freely (or at least responsibly) eats a pizza at t in w. To smooth over this apparent contradiction, we should note that indeterminists introduce a tracing condition. This condition says that someone, S, is free or responsible for doing an action Φ at t, where S is determined to Φ-at-t, only if we can trace the determinism back to an undetermined free action at time t* on S‘s part, where t* < t. For example, suppose Giuseppe (libertarian) freely opts to get hypnotized at t* to eat a pizza at t. Suppose that once hypnotized, Giuseppe will be unable to refrain from eating the pizza at t. Libertarians would still say Giuseppe freely (or at least responsibly) eats the pizza at t, since this action can be traced back to a free action. I believe philosopher Kevin Timpe distinguishes between non- and derivative freedom. A necessary condition for doing a derivatively free action is that we can trace this action back to a non-derivatively free action. Timpe and other libertarians get a lot of mileage out of this distinction—however, I should point out that compatibilists can appeal to this distinction too, in the sense that they can endorse a tracing condition too, e.g., John Martin Fischer.

[2] See Loss (2009), Campbell (2010), and Loss (2010).


Bailey, Andrew (2012). “Incompatibilism and the Past.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXXV No. 2, September 2012, 351–376.

Campbell, Joseph Keim (2007). “Free will and the necessity of the past.” Analysis 67: 105–111.

_____. (2010). “Incompatibilism and fatalism: reply to Loss.” Analysis 70: 71-76.

_____. (2011) Free Will. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Loss, Roberto (2009). “Free will and the necessity of the present.” Analysis 69: 63–69.

_____. (2010). “Fatalism and the necessity of the present: reply to Campbell.” Analysis 70: 76–78.

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June 2013


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