What follows are the notes that I jotted down in preparation for an open discussion on free will that will soon be available on the Wait, what if… podcast series hosted by the inimitable Kevin Sullivan and his guest Mike Stojic. Check out this podcast episode or listen below.

Traditionally philosophers have outlined three positions of free will: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Below I offer a high-level explication of each. [Note: Despite the opening quotation from William Lane Craig in the podcast episode, for time’s sake we purposefully chose not to discuss free will in relation to theology and God’s omniscience. For an Augustinian move toward what I call theological compatibilism, see my “De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will)”.]

Toward a definition: Every choice and every decision is determined by prior conditions and causes not under our control. Thus, the past controls the present and the future. The presence of alternative options at the time of deliberation give the appearance of free will, yet because the present and future are fixed by the past, free will does not exist. The future is closed and there is no “ghost in the machine” stepping in to change the course of events. Consequently, there is no basis for holding individuals morally accountable for their actions.
“Man is born without his consent, nature does not consult him through the course of his life, nor are his habits and dreams his own as he is unceasingly modified by causes beyond his control and his will counts for nothing that he does” (paraphrasing Henri d’Holbach, d. 1789)

Key Assumptions:
  • assumes all of reality is physical and a closed system
  • for every event (choice) there is a set of sufficient conditions and causes that explain that event
  • biology / heredity are determinative
  • environment is determinative
  • [typically] humans are only physical, material beings and the same laws that govern the natural sciences also govern the social sciences
  • correspondingly, humans do not have the ability to overrule the law of cause and effect but instead are subject to it as part of the physical universe
  • causality is real and rests on the metaphysical presumption that every event has a cause
  • events that occur at time t necessarily occur due to a set of necessary and sufficient antecedent causal events. Thus, any event is theoretically traceable to a previous event(s)
How does determinism differ from fatalism?

Not all determinism entails fatalism. To say an outcome is caused is not to say it is certain (difference between metaphysics = caused and epistemology = certain).

Moreover, determinists do not argue that all events and human actions are inevitable. Inevitability / fatalism argues that no human action matters ultimately and everything is the outworking of pure fate. Whereas for fatalism all human endeavors are futile and in no way are outcomes dependent upon human action (nihilistic fatalism), determism holds that human action is meaningful in so far as human choices are causal agents in the chain of causation.

Toward a definition: The libertarian self is autonomous and stands independent of any external factors that may appear causal and determinative. The past does not control the present nor the future but instead both are created spontaneously by the free act of the will. The future, therefore, is open as there is a “ghost in the machine” authentically stepping in to change the course of events and determine the future. Consequently, there is a basis for holding individuals morally accountable for their actions.
“There is an unmistakable intuition that every human being is free to deliberate and make choices and that decisions rendered could have been different, which is why regret and remorse are so powerfully disturbing.” (paraphrasing Corliss Lamont, d. 1995)

Libertarians appeal to the arguments from deliberation, introspection, quantum physics (Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty), and moral responsibility to make its case. Without a commitment to free will libertarians argue we have no basis for holding people morally accountable for their actions.

Key Assumptions:
  • what applies to the physical, natural sciences does not necessarily apply to the social sciences. Although there appears to be a regulation of events and objects in the physical universe governed by laws of cause and effect, this only applies to the material, tangible world; not the immaterial, nonphysical realities, including those of human action involving consciousness, intentionality, mind, et al.
  • genuine alternative choices are available to me
  • there is a parity of inclination toward or away from any given act such that any given choice rendered is equally possible
  • genuine human freedom is incompatible with causal determinism
  • although my freedom to choose one action over another is limited to environmental and/or natural conditions (I cannot choose to run a mile in 2 min or the criminal behind bars is not free to go shopping at the mall), those same environmental and natural conditions can enhance my freedom to choose (build a house or a baseball field)
  • libertarian freedom is an all-things-being-equal freedom
Problems for Determinists and Libertarians

Both cannot explain how the mental (nonmaterial aspect of human existence) affects the physical. How exactly does the mind connect with the body and move it to action? What exactly are the points of contact or hooks that move us from the inside out [Cartesian problem]?

From the perspective of neurophysiology and raw science we appear to be determined by factors material and tangible (biology / environment). From the perspective of subjective moral agents, we view ourselves as being wholly responsible for our choices. Which is it?

Problems for Determinists Include:
  • Morality is negatively affected. It becomes merely social convention or agreed upon principles (tacit or explicit) that provide some survival advantage to the human species. If all human actions are causally determined by prior causes and conditions, then no one is morally responsible for their actions. Not only can criminals not be held morally blameworthy for committing a crime, but beneficent acts cannot be morally praiseworthy if we are just victims of nature and/or nurture.
  • Truth is compromised. “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms” (J. S. B. Haldane, British scientist and philosopher)
  • Coherence suffers. What precisely is the material, antecedent cause of the nonmaterial, seemingly a priori assumption that causation is real?
  • Causation is given too much credit. There is a methodological assumption underlying determinism, which is that causation applies universally to all sciences (natural and social). Bertrand Russell: “A man may look for gold, but that does not mean gold is present everywhere.” It was Hume who pointed out that causation is illusory and arises from our experience of regularity and observation of sequence. No one has ever seen “causation” so why presume that it exists? Moreover, universal causation in the physical universe can only give us statistical probabilities and not logical certainties, given the Heisenberg Principle (the position and momentum of a particle cannot be accurately measured at the same time). Of course, this does not prove free will, but it does prove that causation as assumed in the physical sciences is not so precise and determinism not so cut and dry.
  • Causation is oversimplified. This view fails to take into account the complexity of causation
  • Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient, final: Imagine a person drowning is thrown a lifeline by a lifeguard. The drowning person is saved because the strength of lifeline is sufficient to suspend the person above water (material cause). Or the drowning person is saved because the lifeguard dispenses his duty as a lifeguard (formal cause). Still, the drowning person is saved because the lifeline was offered by the lifeguard (efficient cause). The drowning person is saved because everyone is committed to the value of saving life from unnecessary harm (final cause).
  • How can something physical result from something nonphysical, e.g., consciousness, from which freedom of the will emerges (though some choices are unconscious, e.g., habit, hallucination, most choices are conscious decisions/renderings.)
  • All beliefs and desires are not the result of free choices but are thrust on us by our biological nature and/or our environmental conditions.
  • The question is not whether antecedent causes and conditions are at play in human choices, but whether or not they incline one’s will in a certain direction or the other.
  • Ownership of our choices is missing. If determinism is true, then we do not own our choices but our choices own us. If determinism is true with regards to our choices, why would it not be true with regard to our beliefs and convictions? Are they likewise determined and, therefore, not our own?
Problems for Libertarians Include:
  • “We are condemned to freedom” (Jean Paul Sartre). That is, no convention, tradition, rule of law (natural or human) has the final word on our sense of morality.
  • That an act of the will is moved by one’s own self and without respect to antecedent causes or conditions, this does not mean the act is undetermined. While no external causes may determine one’s choices, one still chooses based upon reasons, in which case reasons function as causes. After all, what would a free action look like if not undergirded by reasons? A lunatic! Thus, libertarians do not get away from some kind of determined cause for human actions.
  • Actions are capricious and arbitrary and under the control of no one or no thing, including the agent who acts.
  • To be free in a libertarian sense means that one’s wishes and preferences are not determined by one’s socio-psychological conditions and dispositions. But this seems too heavy a burden for the libertarian since all of our desires and preferences are conditioned by these factors.

Toward a definition: Genuine human freedom is compatible with determinism, broadly defined. It is not logically inconsistency to hold that both free will and causation together explain human choice. That said, simply because an act is caused is not to say that it is compelled. Genuine human action is compatible with causal conditions that decisively incline the will without constraining the will. Humans, therefore, are morally responsible for their actions when genuine alternatives are available and one could act otherwise. There is a “ghost in the machine” capable of making choices that are significantly free and can change the course of events that otherwise would not have instantiated. The question of whether the future is open or closed is a non-sequitur for compatibilists.

[Caveat] It’s important to parse out the notion of choice into 1) action and 2) intention. For example, although neural activities in the brain are involved in raising one’s hand (action), why one does so depends upon one’s intention, which cannot be reduced to a brain state. While a purely physical explanation may get at the mechanics of human choice, a full account of free will involves intentionality, which is beyond the realm of the physical sciences.

Compatibilists (sometimes referred to as soft determinists) maintain that everything in the universe is causally determined (in the Aristotelian sense; see above) but that some form of genuine human freedom still exists.

To illustrate, we need to differentiate between “necessity” and “constraint.” Some events and human choices are “necessary” in that they cannot be changed (e.g., the past), but other human choices are “necessary” in the sense that they are made in light of human nature, based upon the kind of thing a human is. For ex., I can voluntarily and spontaneously move from one location to another by several means (walking, running, skipping, jumping) but I cannot do so by flying. Acting with necessity and in accordance with my nature is not the same as acting under necessity in concert with a fixed chain of causes.

However, I may be constrained to act against my wishes and my will (a teller during a bank robbery). Yet my will to act is not, therefore, removed since I have an option not to comply. It is not inevitable that I yield to the bank robber’s request, but it is within my and/or others’ best interest that I do so.

There is an instance where my will to act is removed and no options exist, such as my body can be forced to move against my will should a driver unexpectedly veer into the bus stop where I’m standing and knock me off my feet. In both cases of constraint (bank robbery, car collision), I act against my will and I am a victim but only in the car collision does my free will have no part to play in the choice, since no alternative option was available to me at the time of impact.

Nevertheless, my desire moves me to act but does not constrain me to act, as illustrated by the fact that I occassionally act contrary to my strongest desires (exercise patience when annoyed). Thus my will to act is determined by my desires most often, but there are instances when my desires do not determine my will to act.

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