Cui Bono

Who benefits?

What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.- Friedrich Nietzsche

Puppetry was practiced in ancient Greece. One Greek word translated as puppet is neuróspastos, which literally means drawn by string, string from neuron, meaning either sinew, tendon, muscle, string, or wire, and spao meaning draw or pull. So, puppets have been around for a long time and they are of course remotely controlled. Strings have been replaced by radio or infrared for most remote-control purposes and even small children now are familiar with remote control of their television sets and many other things around them. These electronic “strings” are much faster, and more accurate, and you can get better feedback from them, but remote control is still subject to limitations.

Finite degrees of freedom leads to autonomous control. This is a concept that has been neglected, so far as I know, in philosophers’ discussions of free will. It’s much used in physics and engineering, and it has much more to do with free will than other varieties of freedom that philosophers like to talk about. It should be front and center. A standard diagram shows the basic degrees of freedom of an airplane or a drone: up/down, forward/back, left/right, yaw, pitch, and roll. Each degree of freedom is an opportunity or a need for control. So the remote control device for a drone must have a button or knob or joystick for each degree of freedom that is under the control of the drone-operator. If you’ve got more degrees of freedom than you have controls for, then those are degrees of freedom that you’re not going to control. They’re going to be out of control. If you don’t want to have to control it, you had better clamp it, removing the source of variability.

A locomotive on railroad tracks has only two degrees of freedom: forward/backward, and faster/slower. No steering wheel needed. That’s why locomotive engineers don’t have to be, well, rocket scientists. And as automated public transit systems around the world demonstrate, these agents can be safely replaced by rather simple machines. Railroad tracks, by the way, are a popular image used by philosophers writing about determinism and free will, but it’s a perniciously inappropriate image, mis-focusing the imagination. Railroad tracks are excellent limitations on control opportunities; they clamp degrees of freedom. Determinism doesn’t clamp degrees of freedom.

So, what does this mean? That autonomy, in the form of self-control, is a real phenomenon. We can distinguish physical systems or entities that are autonomous from those that are remotely controlled and from those that are out of control. Autonomy then has nothing to do with determinism.

So, just as a reminder, determinism does not prevent you from making choices, from turning over a new leaf, from becoming less impulsive, from rethinking decisions, from learning from your mistakes, from resolving to do better—or from taking advice on how to think about free will. If that’s news to you, you have been mis-imagining determinism. Look around you; you’ll see many instances of these phenomena occurring every day. They do not prove that determinism is false; they prove that determinism does not prevent such things from happening. Determinism doesn’t tie your hands either literally or metaphorically. Control is an ability that is enjoyed by agents. Even a bacterium is an agent that does things for reasons, though it doesn’t need to understand or represent those reasons. All agency is designed, by natural selection or by intelligent designers. Evolution depends on “random” mutation, but random like coin flipping, not quantum-random.