- People who argue against free will sometimes try to portray free will as a concept that’s self-contradictory by its own definition, in other words as a concept that’s self-contradictory for reasons that are necessarily so, independent of any kind of discovery. This effectively paints free will as being self-contradictory by definition. The concept of free will itself is simple in essence, so if it were inherently self-contradictory then the contradiction would be obvious, and all but the insane would realize that before ever believing in free will, much like with the idea of a square circle. People who say or imply that free will is self-contradictory by definition are speciously over-analyzing it and are probably using straw-man definitions of free will.
Some people say that free will is not possible because the only alternative to an action being caused, or determined, is for it to be (absolutely?) random, and that meaningless randomness isn’t any more conducive to free will than being totally determined. Yet by posing those as the only two logical possibilities and then alleging that, in each one, free will is logically ruled out, one is effectively ruling out free will by definition, which I debunked in the first bullet point. Also, if free will were rulable out by definition, then it wouldn’t be necessary to even mention the two alternative possibilities of randomness and determinacy to prove its self-contradiction because they’re not parts of the definition, so the proponent of this view has to be thinking about the problem incorrectly. (This incorrect thinking probably involves a straw-man definition of free will.)
One way of looking at this problem with such arguments is that the opposite of “random” is not necessarily “caused” or “determined,” so there’s a false dichotomy there. The idea of causation has more constraints on it than that it simply not be random. Causality implies linearity in time, a particular direction of primacy in time, constraints of proximity in space or time, measurability, exclusively mathematical/mechanistic relationships, consistency on some level, functional separability between causing parts and affected parts, etc. How could we possibly know that something is “random” if “random” is the lack of some or all the above features? Yet things are assumed to be “random,” and “random” is assumed to be “meaningless” in some important sense. But really, pretty much the only way to make “random” meaningless is be to define it as such, which would of course be begging the question.
Put “meaningful”—or “the quality of having some kind of “rhyme and reason”—and “random”—as in “not deterministic or mechanistically predictable”—together, and there you have the magic of free will. If reality did not wholly meet all of the above requirements for causality, then you would think that science would come up upon effects that don’t seem mechanistically causal and hence wouldn’t know what to do with them. It has, and those effects are called quantum randomness. (We do not know that quantum-random events are “absolutely” and meaninglessly random; that is mere assumption. All we know about them is that (a) we can’t predict them, and (b) they’re not accountable for by local hidden variables.)
The “meaninglessly random” vs. “meaninglessly determined” dichotomy, in which both options apparently defy the notion of free will, is a false one, and it only arises under the assumption of a wholly mechanistic universe. (Yes, even our conception of absolute randomness, especially as as being meaningless, is framed by our unconsciously mechanistic worldview.) We do not actually know that the universe is wholly mechanistic. Free will could be based in a nonmechanistic/amechanical aspect of the universe, in which case free will is not meaninglessly random, though it is unpredictable and not deterministic. In other words, it is only under a totally mechanistic worldview that the only alternative to empty determinism is empty randomness.Basically, it’s because of unconsciously (or consciously) taking the whole world to bewholly mechanical, due to our scientistic’ physicalist zeitgeist, that we think an effect must either be (a) mechanically determined by a cause, (b) meaninglessly random, or (c) some combination of the two. The truth is that the “randomness” (the non-mechanically-caused and unpredictable by physical theory) in life is neither deterministic nor meaningless.
- Free will actually pertains to mind—the inner reality/experience. This arena is not particularly known to necessarily adhere to a causal, mechanistic paradigm like the external world more or less does. We don’t have any experience of a deterministic overarching ruleset in our minds/inner lives, and nor do we have any particular reason to believe any of it is just random, or at least meaninglessly or absolutely random. And by its nature, the inner/mental world lends itself much more to a paradigm of “rhyme and reason” being behind things without an underlying mechanistic or deterministic basis than external reality does.
(Yes, scientists largely believe that mind is produced somehow solely by the physical brain and its processes, but that is only theoretical, while I am talking about the natures of “mind” and “external/physical reality” as concepts. I wrote more about this here.)
It’s hard to describe why the inner/mental world lends itself more to the a neither-determined-nor-random, nonmechanistic paradigm than the physical/external world does, but here are some aspects: its whimsical and transient nature; the level of pure freedom involved in its constructions; the perhaps mystical (or, at least, mysterious) nature of its constructions; the fact that concepts and emotions can bleed into each other, transcending any boundaries the mind uses to analyze and modularize things; and the non-reducibility of its contents (e.g. thoughts and imagined forms can’t be internally dissected and found to be composed of thought-atoms or anything; even if some thoughts can be argued to be made of component thoughts, those component thoughts are still monadic).
- Some people think that we have no free will because our actions are determined by our wants/desires, and we presumably can’t choose our wants or desires. In other words, since we can’t will to will something, we don’t have free will. Yet in my experience we do have some control over what we want. But it doesn’t really matter, because where does one draw the line? That is, does one demand that we be able to want to want what we want? Or to want to want to want what we want, etc.? It would seem totally arbitrary to stop at two levels, so, by this logic, where would it stop? Taking this demand all the way to its telos, therefore, leads to an infinite regress, where you must will your will to will your will to will to will… ad infinitum.
This of course doesn’t prove that free will doesn’t exist, but rather the opposite: since demanding infinite regression would be a logical absurdity, it shows that the fundamental idea of requiring that we choose what we want is going about it the problem in the wrong way. The logical absurdity is not the problem of free will, because it’s not defined to imply ability to will our will, or ability to will our will to will, etc.
Furthermore, not everything we choose to do comes out of wants/desires in a static sense. Some actions come from a place of pure, flowing creativity, and that’s where free will shines the most.
- Free is defined as having a lack of restraint. The laws of physics, contrary to popular thinking, cannot be restraints per se, so the laws of physics don’t contradict free will, and wouldn’t even if they were deterministic. So-called physical “laws” are an aspect of the very nature physical existence and its constituents; a thing or its actions cannot be restrained by its own nature and what makes its existence possible, anymore than a square can be restrained by the fact of its having four corners.
A physical impossibility may be ultimately a logical impossibility, which would be the very reason such a thing doesn’t occur. A thing is not restrained from doing something that is a logical impossibility; the idea of doing (or being) something that is a logical impossibility is an absurd and flawed hypothetical to begin with.
If physical laws were restraining, constraining, or otherwise enactors of some sort, then you’d need further/more-meta laws to enforce or constrain those laws, because why would they continue to consistently do what they do otherwise? (Or if they would just naturally continue to constrain or enforce, then it’s equally plausible that the physical “laws” are just things naturally doing what they do, rather than doing those things because they’re constrained or enforced by laws.) And we’d need further laws to enforce those laws, etc., to infinite regression. And not to mention that it would probably require infinite energy for this infinite tower of laws to rule. So determinism, therefore, doesn’t counter free will—at least not by that definition.
So in one sense, determinism is compatible with free will (this particular bullet point is a compatibilistic argument for free will), thus defeating the argument against free will even on deterministic grounds.
Incidentally, I think that what we experience and know of as “free will” is not possible in a deterministic world, as its nature is wholly spiritual, magical, ineffable and nonmechanistic.
Even if free will weren’t compatible with determinism, I don’t even believe a deterministic world is possible, because (a) the entire timeline would be boil down to a continuous logical/mathematical transformation of state, so there’d be no room for an ever slowly progressing “now” because logic itself is instantaneous, and (b) that would make all the information of the world compressible into nothing but an initial state plus a set of laws that acts on it until the end of time, and any frame of reference that doesn’t see the universe in its most compressible state is arbitrarily seeing duplicity of information where none necessarily exists. I wrote more about this (a long time ago) here.
- If you are disappointed by your conclusion that you don’t have free will, then that is proof that you’re not thinking rationally. To borrow an analogy I saw someone once make, it’s like the fish that is saddened because he suddenly learns that the water he’s been swimming in all his life is actually urine. (Obviously that fact can’t make his quality of life any better or worse than it already was, and he already knew exactly how good or bad his life was.)
- It makes no sense to say that free will is an illusion. An illusion is the appearance of something that’s not really there. If free will is an illusion by nature, there is nothing else that it can appear to be. If there were something we could think is free will—and therefore something to say that the alleged free will is an illusion of—then that has to be what free will is, because free will can only be experienced, and we can’t be wrong about what we experience…what we think a given experience is/what we call, it is what it is. For example, if you’re feeling sad, how can sadness be an illusion?
(And for those who think that free will is an illusion just because they think consciousness must be an illusion—if there are any such people—I have a refutation of that idea here.)
- You can argue about free will and try to find logical flaws in it, but that requires arguing based on definitions, and any definition is only approximate (except for those of words created solely to stand in for a particular definition, such as in mathematical jargon, for example). Defining a word is an art, not an exact science, so, to some degree, the meaning of free will (or of almost anything) is not subject to rigid analysis. The real meaning and magic of free will is not necessarily encapsulated in its definition, and logical analyses of free will rely heavily on definitions. I wrote more about meanings versus definitions here.
- The bulk of the sentiment that free will doesn’t exist seems basically to rest on the scientistic notion that mind reduces to physical stuff, particularly the brain or neurochemical processes (and that physical stuff appears to be wholly mechanical). But I’ve shown why this is impossible here. I also talk about the subject here.
- G.K. Chesterton said, “If there were no god, there would be no atheists.” Similarly, if free will were not a part of our nature, or a part of the cosmos (it is, and can only be, both), we would not yearn for it and we would not argue over it. It’s not “wishful thinking”. Wishful thinking requires a reason you know of what you’re wishing for, and not to mention a reason to wish for it. If not for free will, we probably would never even think of the idea, and if we did we wouldn’t care.
I think we have free will in the deepest sense one could possibly hope for. Our mechanistic and rationalistic thinking on the matter doesn’t stand up to the magic and open-endedness of the universe.
5 thoughts on “Notes on Free Will”