Skip to main content

Outlining the argument over free will

Image result for fatalism

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.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

Philippa Gregory

My recent reading includes large helpings of Philippa Gregory's latest, THREE SISTERS, THREE QUEENS (2016), another of her fictionalized takes on love and betrayal among the royals of Renaissance Europe.

In this book, the focus is on the early Tudor dynasty, and especially on Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, founder thereof, and the older sister of the future Henry VIII. Margaret became Queen of Scotland with an arranged marriage to James IV. She reigned and ruled under the title of Dowager Queen after James' death at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

So who, you ask, were the other two sisters of the novel's title? One is Margaret's blood sister, Mary Tudor, who was known as one of the great beauties of the age. Mary was the inspiration for the name her brother Henry gave to his older daughter. More important for Gregory's story, she wed the King of France (Louis XII) in 1514, and Anne Boleyn served as her maid of honor at that ceremony.

The third &…