The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism


Compatibilism is a philosophical attempt to rescue personal responsibility from determinism. The idea, now fashionable in scientific and philosophical circles that, thanks to an ultimately deterministic macro-universe, libertarian free will is an illusion. The libertarian part is important because compatibilists are so named precisely because they claim that we can be responsible for our acts even in the absence of our capacity as agent to initiate novel physical chains of events (through control of our bodies which are indisputably physical). Initiation is the key here. As Lowe points out (“Personal Agency” 2004) when I elect to raise my arm it is my brain and its physical connection to physical nerves, the nerves to muscles, etc. that actually controls the physical motion of my arm. That is the micro motions of my arm, the exact speed with which it goes up, exactly how high, and at exactly what angle, etc are all controlled by a physical chain of multiple events in my nervous system coupled with the capabilities of my muscles. What I do as an agent is initiate this process by choosing to raise my arm in a general sense with such and such a force, in so and so direction, etc. In order to be libertarian, that choice has to be theoretically prior to any physical causation. I might raise my arm because I want to ask a question of a lecturer, but that reason is not the cause of my arm’s going up because I could just as easily have chosen not to ask a question at that moment. Nor does any activity in my brain outside my conscious control force me to raise (or not raise) my arm. For libertarianism to be real then, there must be some agent who has the power to “initiate physics”. It is exactly this power that is denied these days by a large number of scientists and philosophers.

I think compatibilism has problems on several levels but before I get to them let’s look at what compatibilism says. The basic idea here is that if some act of mine is not coerced by an external agent, then I remain responsible for it even if in the end the act was foreordained by some prior set of physical events ending in my brain and thus the act itself. If someone puts a gun to my wife’s head and threatens to kill her if I do not rob a bank, then I am not responsible in any full sense for robbing the bank. If on the other hand there is no gun to my wife’s (or my) head then I am responsible for robbing the bank even if that act was not a libertarian choice but rather the culmination of prior physical causes, that is brain activity. Notice however the key requirement for agent coercion in the compatibalist view. Suppose I am far from home, tired, cold, and have no money. I choose to break into what appears to be an unoccupied house merely to get warm and spend the night. Surely I am responsible for that act. Now imagine that it isn’t tiredness that drives me but a hurricane from which I wish (naturally enough) to take shelter, so I break into the same unoccupied house. Neither act involves agent coercion and any court would find me guilty of breaking and entering in either case. In the latter case, the court might forgive my act because it would be reasonable for me to believe that by remaining outside the hurricane threatened my life. But I remain responsible for the act. By contrast if a man (an agent) put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me if I did not break into that house I would not be judged responsible for it.

So lets have a look at this… If I am coerced into doing something under threat of death from another agent then I am clearly not responsible for that doing in any normal sense. But given the assumption that libertarian free will is an illusion, why does agency coercion make a difference? Presumably if not coerced I would not rob the bank, but what about the agent who coerced me? Supposing he was not himself coerced into putting a gun to my head, a court would say he was responsible for that act. But since libertarian free will is an illusion, his behavior was determined in some sense by his brain in someway over which he had no prior control. Indeed even if I was not coerced, I too had no choice in the matter because my behavior also was determined, if not by coercion then by events in my brain and their causes and their causes and so on all the way back to the big bang — or at the very least to my birth.

The difference between the gun to my head and the hurricane is that in the latter case we might presume I had some alternative than breaking and entering. A hurricane might kill me, but then it might not. But the same thing cannot be said concerning brain events. The universe may not be an agent, but its deterministic imposition is even more sure in its result than a gun to my head. I might, after all, fight off an armed man, but I cannot fight off the causal outcome of a brain state over whose particulars, the result of a long chain of events, are beyond my control.

In effect I am an automaton differing from a more conventional automaton only in degree and not in kind. Even today we can build highly adaptive automatons so our appearance of adaptiveness is hardly a counter argument. The difference is only that the conventional automaton’s fixed state, its starting state, goes back only as far as when it was first turned on. Mine goes back at least to my birth, and if we take the metaphysical implications of the sort of determinism we are talking about seriously, all the way back to the big bang.

Returning more directly to compatibilism, besides the matter of prior determination, by a coercing agent or the universe, there is the problem it presents for the notion of agency itself. Libertarian free will is dismissed on the grounds that there is nothing in physics that supports it. But the same can and has been said about mind, consciousness in general, and the experience of agency, our subjective awareness of a self that appears to have an internal arena (consciousness) and the power of libertarian free will. There is nothing in physics that supports those either! If purely physical processes can cause to emerge a subjective that appears from the experiential inside to be non-material, there is nothing in physics that would permit that epiphenomenal entity to have any downward effect on physics. Physics might recognize an utterly illusory agent (although the ontological status of illusions is problematic), but the illusion cannot be permitted to effect a change in physics. If it could, then any such effect might in fact be the freely chosen act of an ontologically genuine (given that an illusion cannot cause physics) agent, the very notion rejected as being impossible.

How can an agent coerce me if the agent is an illusion and cannot affect physics? A man with a gun to my head is merely another automaton. Of course I will follow instructions and rob the bank because an additional layer of coercion has been added to that which determines my choices anyway. If there had been no gun to my head I would not rob the bank, but that course too would be the outcome of a deterministic chain. There is nothing in physics that prevents the behavior of one automaton from becoming part of the input to which another automaton adapts but either way, there is no agent acting, only a zombie (albeit a complex zombie) body, so the relation of agency to compatibilism is incoherent. Without libertarian free will the agent is no different from the hurricane. By denying libertarian free will and resting compatibilism on the presence or absence of a coercive agent, philosophers are resting a doctrine of responsibility on a redundant illusion. I am coerced by circumstances no matter what I do and no matter if there is an “agent-automaton” present or not.

If libertarian free will is genuine then we are already responsible; we are agents of our will and must own our acts. We don’t need compatibilism. But if libertarian free will is an illusion, no compatibilism will recover our responsibility because (1) the very notion of “agency” becomes problematic, and (2) even if the agent notion were somehow coherent, its behavior is determined at some level with or without the presence of a “coercing agent”.

Why Smoke Cigars

Picture of me blowing smoke


I get asked this question a lot, of course by people who do not smoke cigars. Even cigarette smokers do not “get it”, though pipe smokers mostly do. In trying to answer this question here, that is where I live on the once flower-powered central California coast, I find the answer that elicits the most comprehension is one that compares cigars to wines. They have a lot in common.

Why to people become wine aficionados (technically known as oenophiles)? Well, of course there is alcohol which makes you high, but people who take their wine seriously are not drinking to get drunk. If they were, there are far cheaper wines and of course beers, than the ones they are getting from specialty liquor stores, tasting rooms, and wine clubs. The same is true for cigars. There are lots and lots of cheap, machine rolled cigars having plenty of nicotine. If a smoker is looking for that, there are easier and less expensive ways to get it than by smoking more expensive, hand made, boutique cigars. In both cases, something more is going on.

Wine comes from grapes, a natural product grown on vines in fields. Cigars are made from tobacco, another natural product grown in fields. Grapes are crushed and filtered. Cigar leaf is hung in airy barns to “cure” which is to dry them a bit. Grape juice is fermented into new wine, more or less of the sugars in the grape juice are converted into alcohol. The new wine is then put into barrels under climate controlled conditions to age. It is in this step that all of the various flavor compounds one tastes in wines are produced as the wood of the barrels, the little bit of air that gets through the wood, and time itself works its magic creating hundreds of different molecules that were never present in the original grape juice. The barrel aging can take from one to several years. After curing, cigar leaf is fermented. This is a different sort of fermentation than for wine. No alcohol is produced, but sugars and many other compounds in the tobacco leaf are turned into many many other compounds, potentially hundreds of them. Wine fermentation is a short process, a few days. Most of wine’s flavor compounds are produced in the aging step. Cigar fermentation takes place in big cubical piles called pilons and takes not days but months. Most of tobacco’s flavor compounds are produced in this step as are, alas, most of its carcinogenic compounds.

After barrel aging some wines are bottled, but just as frequently, aged wine from various barrels is blended with wine from other barrels. These wine in these additional barrels might be of a different age, type of grape, or both. The blends are then further aged in barrels to allow their different components to meld and produce yet more flavor compounds. Cigar leaf is taken from the pilons, sorted, and rolled into cigars by combining leaf types in various blends. Sometimes before this step it is left to age in big bales for months and in rare cases years. Rolled and blended cigars are then left for a few months (again sometimes years) in climate controlled rooms where there various tobaccos further meld their flavors.

Lots of parallels here. Vintners decide how to blend their wines to achieve various flavor profiles. Much of the time they do not know exactly how they will come out, but as long as the results are complex and taste good they succeed. The cigar world has its own version of the vintner, the blend designer who decides what proportion of what sort of leaf goes into a finished cigar. Like the vintner, they do not always know exactly how things will come out, but as long as they achieve a good tasting product with a complex flavor profile, they have succeeded. So both wines and cigars have many things in parallel, and enjoying a finely crafted cigar is much like enjoying a well made wine and the parallels do not end there, for of course besides flavors there are the aromas of both. Wine flavors are described in terms of fruits, sweetness, tannins, and flavor products of the barrel, oak, other wines, even sometimes “tobacco flavors”. Cigar flavors can range in many directions from sweet nuttiness, to vegetal, leathers, chocolate, coffee, fruit and many more. As with the wines, these are not full on flavors. A wine doesn’t taste like cherry juice, but rather might carry hints of cherry. Similarly, a cigar doesn’t taste like a mouth full of roasted mushroom or pecan, but only suggest hints of such flavors.

Besides the creation of cigars and wine there are a other parallels. Cigar smokers often buy boxes of cigars. Some are smoked soon after purchase and some are put away in humidors for months or even years. As cigars age in appropriate conditions (see my humidification articles)  their flavors continue to evolve and enjoying those changes is very much a part of the cigar smoking hobby. Oenophiles buy cases of a favorite wine and store bottles in climate controlled conditions opening a bottle every few months to see how they are coming along. Like cigars in a good humidor, wines continue to evolve in their closed bottles. There is some luck and judgement involved in this. Not every wine ages well for years and the same is true for cigars. But this is much less the case for whiskeys and rums.  A sealed bottle of whiskey sitting in reasonable conditions (mostly not too hot or cold) will taste pretty much the same when opened a year or even 5 years down the line. I suppose there is some evolution of flavor over many years, but I do not know of any whiskey/rum drinkers who put cases of their favorites away for decades.

Of course there are also aspects of cigar smoking that have no parallel in wine drinking and those would have mostly to do with construction. After all pouring one wine into a glass is pretty much like pouring any other wine into a glass, but cigars have to be elaborately and (one hopes) expertly constructed so that they deliver their flavors without being clogged or burning unevenly. An ounce of wine is an ounce of wine, but two different cigars of exactly the same size and shape can deliver the goods over widely varying times. I have some 4″ cigars that smoke as long as some 5″ cigars and that doesn’t mean either is bad, only that how the cigar is constructed and the types of tobacco used make for those differences. Similarly, most wines are blended to finish up in the bottle at 12% alcohol by volume. By contrast, depending on the tobacco used the amount of nicotine delivered by a cigar can vary greatly.

So no, the parallels between wine and cigar appreciation are not exact, but there are enough of them so that any wine aficionado should be well able to understand why it is that people who know, enjoy cigars! Once the parallels are understood, the reasons for smoking cigars are as similar and varied as reasons for enjoying wine. One builds up an expertise in the subject from pure experience. It is a hobby and as such relaxing. Then of course there are the pleasures of the aromas and flavors. It’s all in what you like, and what you like grows with experience. The Next time someone asks why you smoke cigars, tell them about wine!

Rum Review: Foursquare 2004 and Port Cask Finish

Rum Review: Foursquare 2004 and Port Cask Finish

As in some other paired reviews done here, these two rums share a family resemblance. They are from the same Foursquare distillery in Barbados. It is possible that the family resemblance stems from the same feed stock and stills. What distinguishes these is the aging process and also the final ABV. The 2004 is offered at 59% ABV and spends 11 years in American Bourbon casks. The Port Cask comes in at 40% ABV. It spends 3 years in bourbon casks and then another 6 in barrels previously used to age Spanish Port. At least one other review of these points out that both rums are unadulterated (no added sugar) and the port barrels used for the Port Cask started out dry, without any port sloshing around. Both are “honest rums” whose distinct flavors and aromas come from the genuine care taken in distillation and aging under conditions conducive to their exceptional development.

foursquarepcprisma-jpg  First opened was the “Port Cask”. The label here, as with that of the 2004, is one of the nicer I’ve seen; not for art’s sake, but for the information it conveys about the rum including its age, barrel number, and a firm declaration that nothing has been added to this rum. A heavy wax seal concealed a metal screw cap.

Pouring, it is a medium dark amber shading to red. Swirled it produced tiny tiny beads that take forever to form into legs of varying thickness that slowly at first, and then more quickly drop into the liquid. Aroma is marvelous. There is so much in here. Just a little alcohol, fruit like apricot, orange, grape, raisin, and banana. There is a little vanilla, brown sugar, and a little burnt caramel. There is even a hint of funkiness like the dominant note in Pusser’s or Appleton 12, but it is barely there. None of these is overwhelming they all seem balanced and available to the nose. The smell is sweet, I almost didn’t want to taste it for fear of spoiling the effect.

But I did take a sip. My first impression was “Wow! This might be the finest rum I’ve ever had!” Some days and a few glasses later I remain convinced of it. This doesn’t mean it will replace some of my best cigar pairing libations like the Dos Maderas 5+5, Barbancourt 5-Star, or my Mocambo 20 year, but as goes the quality and sophistication of the drink I think this one takes the prize at least if you like a fairly dry spirit. Like the aromas, there are a lot of flavors in this one, but they all come with a light touch that lets you tease them out one by one. Both bright and dark fruit are present as is a little burnt brown sugar and vanilla. There is a hint of coffee too. The funk I thought I sensed on the nose does not appear on the palate. The rum is slightly creamy and most interesting of all, despite the dry notes up front there is a distinct fruit-sugary sweetness on the long aftertaste. How do they do that? The swallow is smooth but with a little more fire than I find in most of my 40% ABV rums and this effect is probably due to the absence of added sugar.

foursquareallcomposite-jpg  I opened the 2004 a few days after the Port Cask and have had a few glasses. A bottle identical to that of the Port Cask, same style label, and same metal screw cap — though this time without the thick wax seal. Color in the glass is almost the same as the Port Cask, perhaps a slight shade lighter. That difference must be the port casks because the 2004 offering is aged two more years for a total of 11 in bourbon’d oak. Swirled in the glass the rum makes fast but thick legs that quickly coalesce as they run. The aroma is a little thin carrying hints of caramel and brown sugar, vanilla and perhaps raisen. Some sharpness of alcohol comes through but surprisingly lightly considering the ABV, a nod to the aging time.

At 59% ABV this is a kick-ass rum. Other reviews tell me that this is not an “overproof” rum, but a genuine from-the-cask bottling the blender thought worked well at this ABV. As high in alcohol as it is, this rum can be sipped neat. One can feel the smoothness of the aged spirit even as one also notices the fire that comes up as you swallow it. That it can be sipped this way is a testament to its fine pedigree. Even at full strength it has a little creaminess and there are flavors melded into the alcohol but they are hard for me to tease out. Of all my spirits this is the only one I’ve discovered that stands up to added water without tasting like a diluted spirit. I found that about 1/4 teaspoon in a dram (1.5 oz) glass not only cuts the heat (only a bit) but enhances flavors. In particular, I get apricot, green grape, raisen, vanilla, and caramelized brown sugar in the flavors once a little water goes in. I remind myself to try this rum with an ice cube on the next warm day around here.

A quick calculation tells me that my 0.25 t-spoon brings the ABV down by only 3%. Not much but it makes a big difference in the flavors that come out of the rum.

As goes cigars I have nothing much to report. I’ve had only a few glasses of each of these bottles now and so paired them with but a few cigars. So far nothing stands up and shouts “great pairing” at me, but of course all the combinations have been enjoyable.

Neither of these rums will appeal to you if you like the sweeter stuff, even the moderately sweeter stuff. Both are dry up front with a tickle of sweetness. The Port Cask is distinctly sweet in its aftertaste, while the 2004 is less so but adding some water brings the sweetness out. Even undiluted it avoids the bitterness that comes up at the end of a swallow for some rums.

In my rum journey I have transitioned very far from the sweeter offerings I enjoyed early on (Atlantico, Papa’s Pilar, Diplomatico R.E. and others) to much drier rums. These two from Foursquare are exceptionally good. I think the flavors in the Port Cask are a little more fulfilling, but the 2004 is a grand example of superb refinement in rum. At roughly $40 the Port Cask is exceptional. At $70 the 2004 is of course more expensive, and more subtle version of the Port Cask.