Has the idea of responsibility for NOT having a certain thought been addressed in the free will literature? Certain forms of compatibilism seem to hinge on denying that we are 'bypassed', a term described very well by Professor Nahmias as referring to "the idea that our conscious deliberations, our desires, or our reasons play no role in what happens" (quoted from his response to question 3236 on 6/1/10). But what about thoughts and ideas that simply don't occur to us? There is no grand buffet of potential thoughts that I (whatever "I" means) get to choose from, I can't prevent myself from having something occur to me and I can't force something to occur to me. So how could I be responsible for the absence of a certain thought. Clearly there are uncountably many situations in which someone's failure to act or someone's decision to act lead to consequences that may not have happened had a different thought occurred to the person. But, in a certain sense, they were definitely bypassed in the "thought selection" process. They just weren't bypassed in the "I'm now aware that I'm thinking this thought" process. Thanks for your answers and thanks for this awesome website!

Great question. Here's a question for you:

Suppose a friend asks you to pick her up at the airport (or water her plants while she's gone). Suppose you promise to do so. Suppose (scenario A) that you fail to put down your obligation in your calendar. Or suppose (scenario B) that you put it in your calendar but fail to check your calendar on the day of your obligation. Question: are you responsible for failing to honor your obligation?

It seems to me that, unless there are some mitigating circumstances (e.g., you had a migraine that incapacitated you), you are responsible. But you might retort: "I simply never had the thought (A) to write it in my calendar or (B) to check my calendar that day. How can I be responsible for not doing what I promised when I didn't have a particular thought that [we can assume] is necessary for my doing it?"

My response is that you should have had the relevant thoughts and (in the controversial compatibilist sense of "could") you could have had the relevant thoughts. You are blameworthy for failing to have those thoughts and that is why you are blameworthy for (A) your poor friend being stuck at the airport and having to waste money on a cab or (B) your friend's poor plant dying.

Why could you have had the relevant thoughts? Because you have the capacities to think about what sorts of things you need to do to fulfill obligations like this (you've done it before, nothing obstructed you from doing it, your capacities were in working order, etc.). It is true that you cannot "force" a particular thought to come to mind. But you can do the sorts of things you need to do to have certain types of relevant thoughts. (E.g. "I just promised to pick up my friend at the airport. Now, what should I do to make sure I remember to do that?" And that will likely lead to calendar thoughts coming to mind. Whereas, this is less likely to: "Sure, I'll pick you up." Whatever, now what was I watching on TV.)

Having said all this, you are right to wonder about how much control we have over what particular thoughts we have (and the effects of those thoughts on our choices and actions). There is interesting literature on this question. And I haven't addressed the "deep" incompatibilist worry that, if determinism is true, then (in some sense of "could") we could not think anything other than what we actually think. Other than the fact that I think the incompatibilist worry is mistaken, I have ignored it because in this context it is not any different than the worry as applied to choices or actions.

Hope this helps! (And don't forget to pick up your friend and water the plants.)

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