More of an observation than a question, about "compatibilism" in the free will "versus" determinism debate. In the short run, there is a strong correlation between life expectancy tables and the number of people who die in a calendar year. Somehow, even though on the level of the individual, many of these events may be due to "luck" (wow, that train just missed me; or wow, what a freak combination of factors to lead to such a bizarre accident); on the level of the population, the total number of deaths in a year can be "predicted" fairly well even if no individual death can be predicted. In the long run, life expectancy tables do change over time: collectively, each individual person uses what they learn about diet, exercise, cigarette smoking, etc. and makes adjustments in their day-to-day lives; and the aggregate results over time do reflect these changes. It seems to me that there is a good question buried here in this analogy but I can't quite figure out how to unearth it. Any thoughts from a panelist or two? Thanks!

Your actuarial analogy seems similar to a point that quantum physicists often make. As I understand it, orthodox quantum physics says that the precise behavior of an individual particle is impossible to predict even in principle. Yet once you get zillions of such particles together, their collective behavior -- the behavior of the entire system -- becomes highly predictable. We can't predict the behavior of a particular atom belonging to the baseball, but we can predict with near-perfect certainty that the whole baseball won't suddenly tunnel through the earth and emerge on the other side. So individual unpredictability is compatible with collective predictability, both in the classical case you described and in the quantum case where the individual unpredictability isn't just a function of our ignorance.

The flip side of this idea would be deterministic chaos, where individually predictable parts combine to make an unpredictable system -- unpredictable not because the system isn't still deterministic but because it's too complex, or too sensitive to initial conditions, for us to predict its behavior.

But I confess I can't see how to link these observations to the debate over free will and determinism. Now, some say that determinism is compatible with a free action (i.e., an action for which the agent is morally responsible) only if the agent doesn't know in advance what that determined action will be. But it's hard for me to see how such foreknowledge makes an action unfree that would be free otherwise. One might say that such foreknowledge makes it senseless for the agent to deliberate about what to do, but Randolph Clarke's "Deliberation and Beliefs About One's Abilities" (PPQ, 1992) persuades me that it isn't senseless. As Clarke says, deliberation is primarily about finding good reasons for a course of action, and one can coherently seek good reasons for a course of action that (somehow) one knows one will pursue.

You make an important observation for compatibilism. What your analysis does is to show that we can have predictability and law (in a regularity sense) with no implications for individual freedom. My decision to cross the railway track might lead to my death, and it might produce a number that fits the predicted number of deaths on railway lines in a year. Was my decision then not a free one? Hardly, because for that to be the case it has to be coerced or whatever the particular compatibilist line being taken is. The fact that there are h homicides a year in the United States, on average, and that without the homicide I commit the number would be h-1 has no relevance to the freedom or unfreedom of my act. Your point was of central importance to the classical compatibilists, who realized that knowledge and predication of what will happen have no tendency to undermine freedom. I know what I will do, but this could hardly be a reason to say what I will do is not free. It might even be a condition for it to be free!

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