Freedom in Uncertainty

Public Defence of PhD Thesis by Filippos Stamatiou.

Assessment Committee

  • Professor Klemens Kappel (University of Copenhagen)
  • Professor Elisabeth Pacherie (Ecole Normale Supérieure)
  • Professor Alfred Mele (Florida State University)

Moderator of the defence

  • Associate Professor Leo Catana (University of Copenhagen)

Copies of the thesis will be available for consultation at the following three places:

  • At the Information Desk of the Copenhagen University Library, South Campus, Karen Blixens Plads 7
  • In Reading Room East of the Royal Library (the Black Diamond), Søren Kierkegaards Plads 1
  • At the Department of Communication, Karen Blixens Plads 8


We live, think, and act in an environment of subjective uncertainty and limited information. As a result, our actions are influenced by factors beyond our control, such as luck. With our freedom severely limited, can we justify holding each other responsible? Through three articles, I develop a philosophically credible and psychologically realisable account of control necessary for moral responsibility. The thesis provides a naturalistic theory of action, as a process of error minimisation that extends over time. Thus conceived, control serves to minimise the influence of luck on action and enables freedom in uncertainty.

In Article 1, Thor Grünbaum and I argue for a psychologically plausible account of the kind of control necessary for moral responsibility. We begin by establishing the relationship between agentive contribution and responsibility-level control. One way to determine whether one has the right kind and degree of control to be morally responsible is to track one’s degree of contribution to the action. However, a psychologically plausible account of control in terms of agentive contribution may seem to contradict the types of functional-mechanistic explanations used in cognitive science. In cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, personal-level capacities are explained by a set of sub-personal mechanisms. Often, such explanations leave no room for a contribution by the agent. By integrating insights from theories of cognitive control and incorporating them into a philosophical account of intentions, we propose a way of thinking about the distribution of cognitive control resources as something the agent does.

Article 2 argues that a classic argument concerning luck, originally aimed at libertarianism, generalises beyond any specific theory of free will, and regardless of whether determinism or indeterminism is true. I call this mental luck. Because we all make decisions under conditions of relative uncertainty and limited information, it is possible for an agent to make decisions that are contrary to their own motivation. In such situations, it may be a matter of luck whether the agent makes the right decision. Attitudes within the agent's perspective do not rationally govern mentally lucky decisions, and thus, may be indistinguishable from unlucky ones. From the agent's perspective, such decisions may resemble the outcome of a lottery. Therefore, mental luck poses a challenge to the most prominent theories of free action and moral responsibility.

Finally, article 3 engages with the issue of resultant luck, namely luck in how things turn out. Resultant luck raises a challenge for theories of moral responsibility because its existence suggests that one may be responsible for factors beyond one’s control. Prominent responses to resultant luck led to a choice between internalism and scepticism. I argue that familiar cases of resultant luck are based on the assumption that actions are events. Instead, I propose an alternative ontology of action as an ongoing goal-directed process with a many-shots structure. Described this way, cases of resultant luck are not representative of ordinary action. The proposal of action as a many-shots process is consistent with predictive coding, a cognitive architecture which centres around error minimisation. Under this framework, cases of resultant more luck are no longer failures of action, but rather anticipated errors to be settled within the normal process of action.