Free Will and Solving Galen Strawson’s Infinite Regress.

By Dr. Peter C. Lugten

Philosopher Galen Strawson developed a “Basic Argument” to prove the non-existence of free will and moral responsibility; that they are, in fact, illusional. In his book “Freedom and Belief”(1), he said that to choose freely and consciously, we must have formed a personality that is motivated to choose in a certain way. To arrive at this personality, we must have chosen in the past to be that way. To have chosen that way in the past, we must have made choices that gave rise to this personality, and to have made those choices, we must have been personally motivated so to choose, and so on, an infinite regress. This proves that we cannot be the cause of our choices, as there is no bottom level to take responsibility. Instead, we are determined by the state of affairs in the past, running all the way back to the determinacy of the Universe. This argument, running backwards from the present into the past, might be appropriate for Benjamin Button, but for the rest of us, living life from birth forwards, our ability to make personal choices develops in the following three stages:

Initial “choices” are instinctual: to suck, grip, smile, laugh, cry, burp up, dirty one’s diaper, etc.,

Learned choices follow: attempts to more or less replicate actions we are trained to perform. When these are performed “correctly”, as determined by our parents or other trainer, we are rewarded either exogenously with praise or treats, or endogenously, by a feeling of pleasure. Positive feedback reinforces the subconscious modules involved in the performance.

Then come free choices between potentially rewarding options offered as problem solutions by subconscious modular activity. The choice may be more or less random. If rewarded, feedback will reinforce the likelihood of that option being strongly offered in the future, even if the other option was also good. If the choice was mistaken or punished, feedback will more or less delete that type of option from future consideration. Personality is then built up on a succession of choices, initially more or less random depending on one’s training, that were reinforced by feedback, and from which we base our decisions in the future. Where Galen Strawson concluded “So true moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires true self-determination”, it is more appropriate to say; “True moral responsibility is possible, because it requires true self- (with a little help from our family and friends) determination”.

But, argued Strawson, we are then determined by our upbringing, and if we try to change, both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of hereditary and previous experience, and any further change that one can bring about ditto. In this, Strawson is wrong, because experience, possibly random, may alter the weighting our subconscious applies to various options in terms of reward potential. Given a choice between options “a” and “b”, you may realize that in the past you would have automatically chosen “a”, but now, realizing certain problems about “a’’, you’ll choose “b” instead. This can even happen if you choose “b” by mistake, and then are surprised by a rewarding outcome. Feedback then re-weights our subconscious, and our personality changes. Nonetheless, Strawson argues that “it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is. The claim is not that people cannot change the way they are, they can. But people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions”. 

Complete nonsense! Everyday, our belief systems are challenged by events thrown at us from the world, so much so that the challenges become predictable (but not predetermined). Some people will allow these challenges to rebalance their reward systems, others will resist, but may succumb eventually. Research by Jon Haidt showed that this resistance is partially determined by the relative strength of neural circuits in the Prefrontal Cortex versus the Amygdala, but it is not absolutely determined(2). It is adequately determined by the steady feedback influencing the weighting applied to our subconsciously generated options, a mechanism that blends and hides from us the roles of chance and determinism in our decision making. The infinite regress into the past is broken by this feedback loop, which depends on feedback from our present decisions. Benjamin Button, like the rest of us, is therefore Free because this mechanism allows him to choose in the present, and we are Responsible because the mechanism governing our choice allows us to feel that the choice, having been made in the past, is still ours.  


1.Galen Strawson. “Freedom and Belief”. Oxford University Press, 1986, corrected edition 1991. 

2.Jonathon Haidt. “The Righteous Mind”. Knopf Doubleday, 2012

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