Can there be free will? Eight answers

Complicated questions tend to need complicated answers. How about this: Assuming the world is deterministic, can there be free will?

No, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, and yes. As follows:

1. No.

If events in the world are fully determined, we cannot change what happens, hence we cannot make choices.

2. Yes.

We think we think we must have a choice in the sense that we could have made a different choice in the exact same circumstances, but implicitly that’s not what we really want. We want to be able to do what we want. If our desires are the thing that determines what we choose, then the choice is free. This idea is called voluntarism. It works even in cases where we want to resist some particular desire — as we do want to resist it, we just want the desire to resist be the one to get followed.

3. No.

That doesn’t work because we can show examples where we act out of a desire but not freely. If someone’s making you do something at gunpoint, you’ll want to do what they’re telling you so as not to get shot, but that’s not a free choice.

4. Yes.

It’s true voluntarism needs to be amended by adding stipulations such as that someone else forcing you to do things is never freedom. This doesn’t contradict determinism, though, just an oversimplified view of voluntarism.

5. No.

Well, regardless of all that, what we mean by free choice does involve the possibility of doing otherwise in a strong sense. Not just that if you wanted to do otherwise, you’d do otherwise. Not every person has the same intuitions, but this seems to be a very common requirement. It can also be shown people implicitly want to do what they want to, not undetermined things. This shows that the very concept of free will that we have is contradictory; it requires both determinism and indeterminism. As such, we certainly can’t have free will.

6. Yes.

Yes, that intuitive concept of free will is contradictory. However, the discussion under voluntarism above shows that we don’t actually need the part about it being possible to do otherwise under the exact same circumstances — the one that contradicts determinism. It may be part of our intuitive concept, but we can use a concept that leaves it out, and we’ll lose nothing but the contradiction. What’s actually valuable about free will, and what we should wish for, and what we usually implicitly assume anyway, is a version of voluntarism where we are able to act on our best desires. In other words, we can change an existing concept if that’s rational to do.

7. No.

All right then, we’ve solved the conceptual problem. How about we now look at the actual world? People having free will is threatened by something quite else than the general possibility of determinism. People constantly act irrationally and out of reasons they don’t even see at the time — not the best reasons. They are determined by the wrong reasons. Humans have the capacity in theory to rationally deliberate and act to their best interests, but their brains and bodies are also built with all kinds of other systems that often influence them instead, leaving the thinking part to rationalise or bemoan irrational acts.

8. Yes.

True — but note the part that we do have the capacity to be free. To be as rational as possible in the sense that it makes us free is what we should aim for. It’s also what we should ask of ourselves and others. If we conceptualise ourselves and others as not free, we and they are less likely to be and become more free. We can become more free, and we should do it to make the world a better place, so we should stress the capacity to become so, not the grim fact of how little people may be free already.

The lesson: A lot of questions can’t just be answered “yes” or “no”. In addition, understanding how “opposite” answers can be true at the same time is deep understanding. In the above example, there’s a kind of succession of increasing understanding, with every answers mostly involving understanding of the answers above it but also going beyond them. Of course, these are really brief summaries, and don’t necessarily give out the understanding that leads to them. The matter would need to be discussed at more length if it were more than an example.


8 thoughts on “Can there be free will? Eight answers

  1. Determinism implies that the current events and current state reliably bring about the next events and the next state. This chain of causation goes on for eternity.

    This interesting fact raises the question “So what?”

    Is the fact that your next choice is inevitable helpful in any way? No. Because you cannot know for certain what you will choose until you go through your mental process of evaluating your options and making the choice yourself. And if you already knew the result you would skip right to the answer. Every deliberate choice begins with uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty then there is no choosing involved.

    Suppose it were possible to see the future, and to know what would inevitably happen? Well, being the rebellious sort we are, we’d probably choose something else just for spite. So knowing the inevitable means it is no longer inevitable.

    The physician knows what will inevitably happen if she fails to treat a fatal disease, the patient will die. So she chooses to treat the disease and the patient lives. The doctor was able to chose what would become inevitable and what would remain merely a possibility.

    Inevitability itself changes nothing. Everything remains precisely as it is. In fact, it was inevitable that everything would be exactly as it is now.

    This includes free will. You are still choosing for yourself what you will do. And what you do will determine what happens next. And, as long as someone else is not forcing you to do something against your will, you are acting of your own free will. And that means you are the final responsible cause of what results from your action.

    If you commit a crime, it is useless to claim that “determinism made me do it”, because the judge can also claim a rich history of causes and effects that resulted in society creating and enforcing laws. Penalties repair the harm, correct the offender, and protect the rest of us. If there are “extenuating circumstances”, like mental incapacity, or contributing factors that were actually outside your knowledge and control, then they may be taken into account. But causality is always an assumed constant, on both sides of the equation, so it is never a “get out of jail free card”.

    If everything is inevitable, can you just sit back and wait for it to happen? Well, you should try doing that when you’ve been tossed into a swimming pool. If you remain still, totally engrossed in observing what was inevitably to happen next, you’ll likely drown. The point is that inevitability requires your active participation. And if the choice is to sink or swim, you had best take control of your own destiny. You’ll find that life often tosses you into a swimming pool.

    There is no separation between you and causality. It is not some foreign agency forcing you to comply. Causality is also you, thinking, choosing, and acting of your own free will. What becomes inevitable is in your hands. All of your reasons, feelings, beliefs, values, experience, and so on, that cause you to choose one thing rather than another, are totally impotent to cause anything without you.

    So there you have it. Determinism is a fact of life. It is a deducible characteristic of the real world we inhabit. Free will is also a fact of life. It is an objectively observable phenomena that occurs in the real world. Therefore there can be no conflict.

    To find conflict, you have to enter an irrational world, like the one proposed by the “anti-causal libertarian free willers” or the equally irrational world of the “anti-choice determinists”. Both of those worlds are trapped in the paradox. Don’t let the silly paradox trap you.

    • VVK says:

      Thank you for the long comment. Very well put. You may not have thought so, but I almost entirely agree – except about free will and determinism being firmly established, but in my view that’s largely a different discussion. For the most part, how you say it is how I see it. The reason I am not just saying all that here is that I’m looking at different points of view in this post. (Very briefly, too, so I know I haven’t properly explained them.) And if we tell what you say to people with the libertarian view who don’t want to give it up, they’ll just go on forever about the possibility of choosing otherwise. That’s part of the point of answer 5: whether it makes sense or not, and indeed even though it doesn’t, the possibility of doing otherwise in a sense implying indeterminism is part of the intuition a lot of people have and what they mean by free will in the first place. Of course, I’d never stop at that level since the requirement doesn’t make sense – I have at least one other article here about what may give rise to it – so we get to answer 6, which is to ditch the contradicting part of the common intuition.

      I think there are real threats to freedom that have little to do with determinism as such. That’s the point of answer 7. Just because you experience a sense of freedom when you act or choose doesn’t mean you are acting freely if you are, say, acting irrationally out of motives you’re not aware of. It’s consistent with your description of free will that not being able to make choices rationally threatens freedom.

      Don’t worry about my getting trapped by a paradox. My seeing past the apparent contradictions is precisely why I wrote these answers from so many different points of view.

    • VVK says:

      You know, while I liked the reply on the whole, I’m going to take issue with one part.

      How is determinism possibly a deducible property of the world? It’s not a logical contradiction that it should not hold. Thus, we need empirical observation to determine whether it does. The closest to an argument proving anything about it that I can think of is the argument that we must assume the universe to be somehow comprehensible, which I touched on here: However, being somehow comprehensible is consistent with limited, small-scale indeterminism, which is indeed currently thought to exist in the phenomena described by quantum physics.

      That free will is objectively observable, well, actually I may agree with that with reservations. There’s probably some sense in which you can say that reasonably, though there are a lot of potential problems.

      • We need a deterministic world, one where causes reliably produce specific effects. We observe that the things we drop will reliably fall to the ground. If I were to drop an apple, and sometimes it would fall to the ground, and sometimes it would explode, and sometimes it would float into space, and sometimes it would become a cat … Well, everyone loves a magic show, but no one could remain sane for long if the universe were truly indeterministic.

        We do observe though that dropping the apple reliably results in an apple on the ground. The only hiccup in determinism is that we have not actually dropped all of the apples, yet, so it is not “proven” that every apple will fall rather than changing into a cat. And that’s the “-ism” part of determinism. We take it “on faith” that causes reliably produce their effects.

        And if this is universally true, then everything that is going to happen will reliably happen, because everything is both a cause and an effect. Deterministic inevitability is deduced from the reliability of cause and effect. And we observe this reliability every day.

        I don’t think that quantum mechanics offers any escape from this. I believe that our inability to identify the cause of an inexplicable phenomena does not mean that there is no cause. It just means we don’t yet know it.

        Universal inevitability is certainly true. But it is an especially useless truth. It provides no guidance at all. Your choice may be inevitable, but you still don’t know what it will be until you have made it. You cannot take it into account in your deliberations without producing an infinite loop (“it appears it is inevitable that I choose A so I will choose B instead”, “Oh crap, now B is inevitable, so I’ll go back to A”, etc.)

        Not only is it useless, but normally intelligent people like scientists, philosophers, and theologians start drawing all sorts of confused ideas by misusing the concept.

        The worst misuse of universal inevitability is the idea that we no longer have free will. The mental error is imagining that inevitability is somehow coercing our choices, as if we were somehow separate from it.

        But we’re not. We are biological organisms produced by a deterministic universe with the neurological ability to imagine alternatives and choose among them the one we think and feel is best for us. That choice is our will at that moment. And, so long as no one else forces us to do something against our will, our will freely determines what happens next.

        We get to choose what becomes inevitable.

      • VVK says:

        Like I said, I get that about determinism and free will.

        As for determinism in general, what you’re saying is a variation of the line of thought I suggested and that is discussed in the article I linked. However, I disagree with the finer detail.

        If indeterminism were universally true, there would be no laws of nature, and the result would be much weirder than apples falling upwards and people not being able to remain sane. (Of course, perhaps you know this and were just trying to simplify it for me. There’s no need to.) There could be no apples and we could not comprehend anything at all about such a universe. There could be no comprehensible physical entities of any sort, because all of those require some constancy, which requires law. The apple falling upwards still follows most physical laws applying to it in remaining an apple, to say nothing of all the constancy of law it has taken for its complexity to evolve in the first place.

        However, it is possible for the universe to be partly or even mostly comprehensible while there is indeterminism in some limited sense, with the limitations being determined by a law with no exceptions. We may not know which of several options a quantum particle’s behaviour will take, but we know that it will only be one out of a limited sphere of options, capable of having a limited effect on the rest of the universe – we know it’s not going to make some apple fall upwards. In addition, large numbers of these events handily approach a certain statistical average, making for practically deterministic behaviour on a larger scale. This allows the universe to remain mostly comprehensible, as the indeterminism stays within specific limits and we can see clear causes and laws in the rest of the universe. Hence, the level of determinism or lawfulness that we need to take on faith is not contradicted by the randomness of quantum events.

      • Right. My example was to put indeterminacy in familiar terms to get the idea across.

        But it also leaves those wishing to insert indeterminacy into the universe to explain where it starts and where it stops, and why it should stop at one level and not another.

        I don’t believe there is any indeterminacy. There are two meanings to “determine”. One meaning is causation, as in “the boiling point of water lowers as the altitude of the stove rises”. The other meaning is to “discover or know the cause” as in “I can’t determine why my water is boiling sooner when I try to boil eggs in the mountain cabin than when I boil them at the seaside”.

        I believe there is always reliable causation even if we cannot determine what that cause is. We just don’t yet understand the causes of some subatomic particle behaviors.

        When we cannot identify the causes or cannot control and measure their effects, we resort to probability and act AS IF the behavior were actually random.

        It’s like flipping a coin and trying to predict whether it will be heads or tails. If we could control the thumb flip like a professional knife thrower controls the flips of the knife thrown at a target, then we could reliably cause the coin to land heads up all the time.

        But the coin flipped in the usual way appears to land heads up “randomly”. So we use probability and statistics to try to predict what will happen. And we might also need to account for both possibilities, and I suspect that might be behind the issues surrounding Schrodinger’s cat.

        So my guess is that quantum indeterminacy is due to a lack of knowledge of the causes in play or a difficulty in measuring the specific influences of known causes. I have faith that it is the kind of indeterminacy that comes from missing knowledge of causation, and not from any missing causation.

    • VVK says:

      You can make that guess if you like. I won’t take guesses on faith (which is more than just making a guess) myself because I try to minimize the number of things to take on faith.

      By “determination” I here mean the effect (as it were) of determinism in nature. It’s actually different from causation as I’d define it in that there can be indeterministic causation, where something may cause more than one effect and you can’t in principle know which one in advance. Of course, that indeterminism will need to be limited the way I described, as otherwise you can’t say what caused what and therefore can’t even speak of causation.

      • I think we have free will and determinism. Even within the context of universal inevitability we are still there, right in the middle, thinking and choosing what becomes inevitable. That thing which we call “us” is a thinking, feeling, willful agent of causation. We are a piece of nature interacting with the rest of it.

        All of the factors that influence our decision become “us” before they have any power to change anything. So that it is truly and freely “us” that is choosing what becomes inevitable.

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