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Outlining the argument over free will

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Someone on yahoo!answers indicated recently that he is preparing to take part in some sort of debate of fatalism versus free will. He wants to take the "free will side" and he wants to know what argument he has to be most prepared to meet and how he might meet it. 

I'm happy that inquiring minds want to know. Here's how I responded.


Let us conceive of "free will" in "incompatibilist" fashion. The basic idea is that the necessity of my actions is logically incompatible with responsibility for credit or blame --- if I robbed the bank from causes that were already implicit a second after the Big Bang, then I could not have done otherwise and am not responsible, in an intuitively powerful sense, for robbing the bank. So, we WANT to believe in free will (indeterminism) because it will make sense out of what we're going to do anyway -- punish bank robbers. 

That isn't yet an argument in its favor. But you can create one readily enough from the materials of modern science. Fractal geometry, the butterfly effect, quantum mechanics -- science tells us that indeterminism IS part of the way the world works, so we are not fated.. 

That's the argument. Now the counter argument. Fatalists will say, "Randomness is just as external and unhelpful from the point of view of personal responsibility as is determinism. Determinism says I robbed a bank because of something true a billion years ago. Your indeterminism says that I robbed a bank because of, what? some uncaused event at the microcosmic level that happened the day I robbed the bank. In no sense could 'I', this macrocosmic person, have prevented either! So free will in the sense you have in mind is doomed either way." 

Now, you want THAT counter-argument to fail, right? So here is a rebuttal. In the intuitive sense, I am responsible for an action, I took it freely, if (a) the action resulted from one or more enduring character traits of mine and (b) there was something non-deterministic in the development of those traits. There is no scientific reason to exclude either possibility.


  1. (b) in the final paragraph begs the question. It assumes what it is used to prove, namely the existence of something non-deterministic. The concept of free will is incoherent. There is no alternative besides determined or random.

  2. It makes sense to punish bank robbers despite the absence of free will, because to punish bank robbers may deter bank robbery. How can it do so in the absence of free will? We say that some people, because of fear of punishment, will choose not to rob banks. What we mean is that the universe has foreordained that some people will value avoiding punishment more than they will value robbing banks. You can choose not to rob a bank, but you cannot choose to choose not to rob a bank. Therefore, your choice not to rob a bank is in reality determined.

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  4. I introduced (b), along with (a) , chiefly to clarify the intuition that a lot of people share, the intuition for example that likely caused the individual at yahoo!answers to say that he wanted to take the "free will side" of such a debate. The argumentative work is done by the next, the last, sentence of the last paragraph, in which I noted that science doesn't "exclude the possibility" of either (a) or (b). So it doesn't exclude the conjunction, either. That isn't proof, of course, just a suggestion that our would-be debated could pursue.

    This is not of interest to you because, I'm guessing, you don't share the intuition that underlies indeterminism. Further, I believe that if you don't, it is because that intuition has been educated out of you. Which is one of those misfortunes that accompanies education.

    Yes, social utility will continue to lead us to punish bank robbers whatever metaphysics accompanies it. But human nature will continue to lead some of us to look for a scientifically reputable metaphysics that makes sense of the view that responsibility implies that something COULD have been otherwise.

  5. Christopher,

    I do share the intuition that underlies indeterminism. One could hardly function in life without that intuition. Rather, the intellectual disbelief in indeterminism has been educated into me, but it has little effect on my day-to-day life.

    Similarly, I doubt that, in their day-to-day lives, Berkeley behaved as if the material world didn't exist, or that Hume behaved as if causation didn't exist. I think that Hume acknowledged that once; I can't find the quotation.

  6. The following may be the quotation that I had in mind, but it doesn't make the point that I thought it did. It is from A Treatise of Human Nature:

    Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and faculty.

    Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is in
    capable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself
    suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by
    relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation,
    and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate
    all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

  7. Henry,

    I've often mis-remembered that passage myself, imagining that Hume played "billiards" with his friends. Surely the sensation of the cue call hitting the 4 ball, and the 4-ball beginning to roll just as the cue ball stops, THAT would have made doubts about cause and effect appear ridiculous.

    Backgammon? the only cause-effect there is human agency. A person places a tile on a given spot, and that has various consequences on the minds of the other players insofar as they all understand the rules. More complicated, and perhaps not as well suited to cure philosophical delirium.

  8. This probably goes without saying, but I doubt that Hume sought to instill doubts about cause and effect. He sought merely to observe that we can never witness it, and therefore cannot prove its existence. The 4-ball's beginning to roll just as the cue ball stops could be a coincidence, however, unlikely that may be. Or, though Hume would not believe this, it could be that, just as the cue ball stops, God sets the 4-ball in motion.

  9. We exist in physical reality as physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. As living organisms, we act “purposefully” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As an intelligent species, we act “deliberately” by imagination, evaluation, and choosing.

    “Free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, when free of coercion or other undue influence.

    “Determinism” is the belief in the reliable behavior of the objects and forces that make up the physical universe. But it is not itself an object or a force. It is only a concept used to describe their behavior. It is at most a comment. It is not itself a cause.

    Because “reliable cause and effect” is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will.

    Because our decisions are reliably caused by our own purpose and our own reasons, our deliberate choosing poses no threat to determinism.

    And, because a choice made for our own purpose and our own reasons is both authentically our own “freely chosen will” and also “reliably caused”, the concepts of free will and determinism are naturally compatible.

    The logical error that created the original paradox is called a “reification fallacy“. There is a common human tendency to speak of concepts metaphorically as if they were concrete “things” in reality. In this case, the concept of “reliable cause and effect” is treated as if it were a force acting upon the objects in the physical universe, rather than an observation of the reliable behavior of the actual objects and forces themselves.

    1. With respect, Dr. Edwards, I completely disagree. I don't believe reification had anything to do with the arguments of the great incompatibilists: James; Popper (if I read him properly); Isaiah Berlin; Robert Kane. In each case the underlying idea was that belief in human agency requires some situations in which the road not taken might have been taken, and concern about morality requires that underlying notion of agency.

    2. Christopher, if I am alone in a room with a bowl of apples, and I'm feeling hungry, and I decide to go ahead and eat an apple, then I am the meaningful and relevant cause of the apple being eaten. Do any of the authors you mention suggest that it was "some thing" other than me that caused the apple to be eaten?

      (P.S. I'm not a doctor. I was a psych major, who also dabbled in student government. I was Honor Court chairman. And I managed to have the SGA replace the Honor Court with a Student Court. This took a lot of my attention, and I ended up dropping out before the semester grades were due. I never completed my college degree. However, this has little to do with my understanding of free will. I had already resolved the paradox as a teenager in the public library ages ago.)

    3. I thought I had replied to this, but I see nothing here, so apparently it didn't "take." I'll try again. Each of the four authors I mentioned above would agree with the following observations about eating apples. First, self-preservation is the deepest instinct, so of course we aren't free to get hungry or not to get hungry. In that sense, the matter is determined -- and the specific appeal to us of appeals, through sight, smell, memories of the taste of earlier apples -- is deterministic and tempting. But, second, if you think that settles the question, you have missed the point. Because, third, history shows many examples of individuals resisting hunger, choosing to fast, even to an extent that puts self-preservation in danger for various causes (such as, say, the independence of their nation).

      Aha! you will say, "that is causation too." But it is precisely in these cases of intersecting and contrary pulls, opposed determinisms, that the possibility of indeterminism arises and is important. There is (the authorities I've just listed would agree, and I with them) no good argument for the proposition that the conflict between, say, my desire to get through today without eating on the one hand and the tempting quality of those apples on the other always has a knowable determined ending.

    4. The "appeal to us of apples" I meant to write, not the "appeal to us of appeals."

  10. Christopher, while it is for all practical purposes unpredictable, it is still theoretically predictable, if we take into account all three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational.

    To be clear, it is never anything other than "that which is me" that is doing the choosing, thus it is authentically a choice of my own free will. If someone held a gun to my head and insisted that I eat an orange instead of the apple, then that would mean I wasn't acting of my own free will, but was forced to act against my will and do his will instead.

    And that's what free will is about. Free will is when a person decides for themselves what they "will" do, when "free" of coercion or other undue influence (e.g., hypnosis, mental illness).

    In choosing to eat the apple now, it is "that which is me" that is identical to "that which chooses". The hunger, while referred to as a "biological drive", is actually an integral part of me. Without it, I'd starve to death. And biology is not a "thing" which drives me, it is only a way to describe me and my behavior. The drive is integral to who and what I am. Thus, biology is not the cause of the apple being eaten, it is still I, myself, as I am at that moment of choice, that is controlling what happens next.

    In the same fashion, determinism never causes anything, because it is not an object or force, but merely a comment about the reliability of the behavior of the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe.

    I happen to be one of those objects. But I'm a special kind of object. I'm an object constructed as a living organism, that seeks to survive, thrive, and reproduce. That's "purposeful action". And I've evolved as an intelligent species, capable of imagining different ways to accomplish my biological purpose, estimating how each of my options might turn out if chosen, and choosing what I will do next. That's "deliberate action".

    Causation is not just bottom-up, but is also top-down, based upon my own reasoning as to how best to fulfill my desire to satisfy my hunger, and to integrate this with other goals, like a healthy diet.

    My actions are deterministic, a result of who I am as a biological organism and also as a rational being, but they are my own actions. Determinism is not itself a thing or force that can actually do anything or cause anything.

  11. Your first sentence states the problem precisely. This isn't about what is me versus what is a thing forced on me. It is about the difference between theory and practice. You say certain questions are "for all practical purposes unpredictable" but they are still "THEORETICALLY predictable" (emphasis mine). I'd rather keep theory aligned with practice.

    Sometimes one just lifts the lid of the box and finds that the cat is dead. He could have survived, but voila! he did not. A garb for the apple may be like that. If may just be the way a probabilistic wave function resolved itself.

  12. Hmm. So I may drop dead as I'm grabbing for the apple?! 😪

    Damn those probabilistic wave functions!!

    Oh, well. And in the background, universal causal inevitability sings, "Que Sera, Sera. What will be, will be". 🙂


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