Here is a short note I wrote for my undergraduate students last semester on Free Will. I thought some might find it helpful.
A note on Free will & Determinism
What is free will? The basic idea is that our choices are up to us and we have options open to us. By “open” I mean that they are accessible, we can either bring them about or not bring them about. There is nothing prior to or “in back of” us that brings about the specific course of action. We bring it about. The acts are genuinely ours.
Why should we care about the problem of free will and determinism? The first reason is that moral responsibility seems tied up with whether we have free will or not. If someone commits a crime we deem them responsible for the act because they did the act. They were the source of the crime. So we locate responsibility where the source of some act ends up being. If it turns out that the criminal was sorely abused as a child and grew up with criminals or if the criminal performed the crime to meet some natural and fundamental human need like say eating, then we usually relocate the source of the act to those causes. They end up being the source for the act. So our ascriptions of blame seem to be tied to our notions of free will. The same can be said about our ascriptions of moral praise. Someone is thought to be morally praiseworthy if they are the genuine source of the act. This is why out of a desire for humility people often reply “I was just doing my job” to relocate the source of the act so that the requirements of the job, not they themselves were the source of the act.
But there are other reasons to care about free will other than moral responsibility. What it is to be a person seems to be tied up with our concept of free will. Persons are thought to be the things that, at least on some occasions, bring about acts without being acted upon. The difference between a rock and me is that while the rock can be caused to bring about some further event, the rock never brings about new causal lines on its own. Even animals seem to perform acts out of instinct or just plain desire. Here there seems to be a difference between animals and humans-humans can act for reasons. So reasons seem to be a part of our concept of free will. Think back to Aristotle’s three forms of life and his taxonomy of genus and species. What differentiated humans from animals and plants?-that they were rational. Humans do things for reasons-they form intentions.
It is important to be clear at this point. First there is a difference between an event and an act. All acts are events but not all events are acts. A rock falling down the side of a hill is an event while my moving a ball with a stick is an act. You might be tempted to think that reasons or desires are what cause us to perform the acts that we do. If this were true, many philosophers would say that we didn’t have free will since we would be determined by our reasons or desires. Whatever our strongest desire or reason was, that would be the one that we act upon. But this is a mistake for at least a few reasons. Reasons are not causes and neither are desires. There is a simple way that you can know that this is so. If reasons or desires were sufficient or enough to cause an act, then merely having a reason or desire would bring about the act. I can have a reason or desire to perform some act and the act not occur, even if I don’t have any competing desires or reasons against doing it or doing something instead. This shows that reasons or desires are not causes of actions or at the least not sufficient causes.
But there is another reason to think that reasons or desires are not causes of actions. The Greek philosophers spoke of people who suffered from akrasia or weakness of will. They know what they want to do or ought to do but they fail to do so. So think of a drug addict, cigarette smoker, or kleptomaniac. They know that they need to stop doing what they are doing, but they do it anyway. Here they lack control over their acts which is why we don’t think that they are free. But sometimes akratics win out over their compulsions and they decide not to smoke that cigarette, steal that item of clothing or shoot up the heroin. How can this be if the strongest reasons or desires always cause actions?
There is a missing piece here of what makes up actions, namely intentions. Intentions are the things that get executed in making a decision. Intentions are plans of action. Reasons and desires make up our intentions but there is something more to intentions than just reasons and desires. Since intentions are plans they have a teleological element to them. They have an end or goal and as such they are goal directed. The source of some intention is therefore the source of the act. This is why we tie free will to what it is to be a person. It is our intentions that get executed and other forms of life do not seem to have intentions but only desires or instincts. If you take intentions as having an end or goal, you can look at the explanation for that intention from the vantage point of the goal. From the goal backwards, what ends up being the source of the intention or plan? The agent that formed the intention obviously is and this is why we say an act is intentional or deliberate because in order for the intention to be formed we have to had deliberated between various possible intentions. The process of deliberation then is a way to stave or hold off on making a decision since no intention has yet been formed. Intentions seem to be “up to us” which is why we think that free will is tied to personhood. If we don’t end up having free will, then it seems we are not fully personal.
Lastly, we care about free will because we have this view of ourselves as persons or personal, bringing about new causal lines in the world and a specific view of science. Contemporary science, whether it is psychology or physics, understands the world in terms of causes and effects. Every event that occurs has to be explained in terms of causes and effects and every cause is an effect of some other cause and every effect is the cause of some later effect. If this picture is right, then it seems that the status of acts as “ours” is threatened. If the cause of my doing some act is not really me, but something in the past that occurred well before I was born, then it seems that my act isn’t up to me either. On the other hand, if my acts are “up to me” and do not come about because of some event that occurred long before I was born, this appears to threaten to the scientific enterprise. Now there will be causes that in turn do not have any sufficient explanation prior to them. If you were to trace out the causal chain of events it would end with me. In the scientific view of the world every cause is essentially an effect of the Big Bang. Free will seems to contradict this picture since it would introduce causes that are not themselves effects of the Big Bang. Just like in philosophy of mind, we want to keep both pictures and to reconcile them. The question is exactly how are we going to do it?
Determinism is the thesis or idea that an antecedent state of affairs are sufficient to bring about one and only one consequent state of affairs. Another way to think about it is to say that causes necessarily bring about their effects. If something is necessary, then it isn’t “up to” anyone to change it. If something is necessary then you are helpless or powerless to bring it about or change it.
There are many forms of determinism-logical, psychological, causal, and theological. We are primarily concerned with what is usually called causal determinism.
The name can be misleading since in every other form of determinism the antecedent states of affairs serve as some type of cause or explanation for the consequent states of affairs. What we mean here by “causal” is efficient causation. From now on, I will just call it determinism.
Determinism that we are discussing is the thesis that,
The past state of the world, together with the laws of nature, are sufficient to bring about one unique future.
The idea is that from the Big Bang, everything is set or fixed so that only one possible course of events will come about. The only way to alter the course of events would be to either change the laws of nature or the past state of the world. This seems impossible. So if you knew the initial conditions of the world and all of the laws of nature, then you could predict with complete accuracy what happens at every moment of the future.
What then is indeterminism? Indeterminism is the thesis that causes bring about their effects but not necessarily. Causes do not necessarily bring about their effects. This is what it means for something to be indeterminate. It might happen or it might not. Here some of you might be confused. You might be thinking that causation and determinism just are the same thing. But causation is a different idea from determinism or indeterminism. Causation just is the idea that some antecedent state of affairs brings about some consequent state of affairs. Determinism and Indeterminism are explanations about how causes function. So the difference here can be portrayed with a little help from modal logic.
Modal logic is that area of logic that attempts to symbolize and study truth preserving inferences with respect to possibility and necessity. Logicians try to figure out which inferences with respect to possibility and necessity are truth preserving. So they are trying to figure out what the concepts of possibility and necessity mean. In modal logic we use a symbol to capture the idea of necessity, the box operator which looks like . And hence the name. So if we take two letters to represent an antecedent state of affairs and a consequent state of affairs (A & C) we can combine it with a symbol to represent causation → to form a diagram to bring out the differences between determinism and indeterminism
(A → C)
Determinism says that necessarily A causes C, whereas indeterminism says that If A causes C, then necessarily C. Notice that on indeterminism, whether A causes C is an open question. The first is what is called the consequence of necessity while the second is called the necessity of the consequent.
A little Quantum mechanics might help us out here. QM is that part of physics, roughly construed, that deals with describing how very very small objects behave. In QM quantum level events are indeterministic. The standard example is of a particle approaching a barrier. Whether the particle breaches the barrier or not is undetermined-it might or it might not. Even if we knew all of the antecedent factors, the best we could do is to say that one outcome is more probable than the other, but neither outcome is fixed by the antecedent factors.
Now let’s suppose that the particle breaches the barrier, what will be our explanation? Our explanation will be in terms of the laws of physics and the antecedent facts. This will be our explanation if the particle does NOT breach the barrier either. The explanation will be the same. This is because the event is undetermined. The past state of the world, together with the laws of nature, does NOT single out or make inevitable one and only one outcome. This is an example of what it means for some event to be indeterminate or undetermined.
Incompatibilism is the idea that free will and determinism cannot both be true. It is not a claim about whether or not we have free will or whether or not the world is deterministic. Most scientists and philosophers today agree that the world is not deterministic. Incompatibilism is the thesis that either there is free will OR the world is deterministic, but both cannot be true. The two ideas are mutually exclusive. There are two possibilities with respect to being an incompatibilist. Either it is the case that we have free will or it is the case that we are determined. Philosophers who take the first option can be either Libertarians or Compatibilists and philosophers who take the second option are called Hard Determinists. Let us look at why philosophers might think that free will and determinism are incompatible.
The main argument that philosophers given for thinking that free will and determinism are incompatible is called the Consequence Argument. Roughly the argument can be stated as,
(*) If the past state of the world together with the laws of nature, are sufficient to bring about one and only one unique future, then they are sufficient to bring about my choices.
But what the past state of the world or the laws of nature end up being are not up to me (they aren’t under my control).
Therefore, none of my choices are up to me.
The idea here is that the past state of the world and the laws of nature are beyond my control. I am helpless to change them or bring them about. If I am helpless or powerless to change them, and they bring about my acts, then I am powerless with respect to my acts too. The source of my acts is not me, but the past state of the world together with the laws of nature. Since I am not the source of my acts, then I obviously don’t have free will. Moreover, since I am not the source of my acts I cannot bring about any alternative possible courses of events. The course of my choices is singular and fixed.
Notice how the argument works. It takes something over which I am powerless and that powerlessness is transferred through logical connections. It looks like this
N = powerless
= logical implication (P implies Q-just like in modus ponens)
P = some proposition representing some event
Np (I am powerless over p)
p (p is necessary)
N(p q) (I am powerless over p implying q)
(p q) (necessarily p implies q)
q (q is necessary)
Here you can see how powerlessness is transferred through logical connections. If I am powerless over p, and p implies q, then I am powerless over q too. This shows why many philosophers think that if determinism is true, then we lack free will. This is why determinism and free will are incompatible.
Some philosophers who are incompatibilists are Libertarians. They think that we do have free will and they have a precise idea in mind as to what free will is. There are two conditions for libertarian free will-UR and AP. UR stands for ultimate responsibility and AP stands for alternative possibilities. UR captures the idea that we are the source of our actions. We are the explanatory end or terminus as to why some act occurs or doesn’t occur. Responsibility means that whatever will we end up having is up to us. In order for us to be responsible and the source of the will that we end up having, we have to be able to choose between a plurality of wills. Here what I mean by selecting a will is like setting your character-what kind of person you are going to choose to be. So if a plurality of options are open to you this means that you have alternative possibilities. So UR implies the AP condition.
It is important to keep a few things in mind with respect to libertarianism. First libertarian free will doesn’t imply that acts have no causes. Libertarian free will implies only that causes do not necessitate their effects. So a necessary condition for libertarian free will is indeterminism. Second, the question as to whether we have free will is different from the question of how often we have it. Most libertarians think that we exercise free will very infrequently. Only major decisions usually end up being considered freely willed because they play such a large part in forming what kind of person we are going to end up being.
Third, libertarian free will is compatible with some amount of determinism. Most of our acts are determined by how our character is set. Just so long as we are the ones who set our character, even those determined actions can be considered free. So for example take the case of a guy at a bar that has a drinking problem. He knows he has a drinking problem and he knows that if he takes a drink he probably will keep drinking. But he freely does it anyway and eventually becomes drunk. He drives home and gets into a car accident seriously wounding innocent drivers. Now, the man is responsible because even though he eventually lost control, he had control at the beginning of the series of acts of drinking. It was up to him if he took the drink or not. The fact that after a certain point he didn’t know what he was doing does not exculpate him from blame. Fourth, having libertarian free will doesn’t mean that you are not caused by prior states of affairs in the world to do some act. My genetics, culture, etc. all contribute to my acts but if my acts are freely willed then these are just contributing causes. They by themselves are not sufficient to bring about a free act of mine. Something more has to be added, namely my act of willing the specific act. So these causes along with my act of will are jointly sufficient to bring about some act, but these causes apart from my will are insufficient.
Agent Causation & Teleology
Philosophers who are libertarians split into two camps with respect to how to understand human actions. The first is what is called Agent Causation. Agent Causation theorists (AC) think that there are two kinds of events in the world. There are everyday events that happen in the world that are caused by non-agents-examples would be tornadoes, a book falling off the shelf, gasoline burning, etc. They label the causation involved in these events as event-causation. The second type of causation in the world is what they call agent causation. It is different from event causation in that it is brought about by an agent and it is qualitatively different from ordinary events. For AC the world has two different kinds of causes in the world. AC then is what is called sui generis. It is a unique kind of causation.
Other libertarians take a teleological account of what constitutes an act. An act for them is made up of the very same kinds of causes as ordinary events. For the teleologists, what makes something an act is intentionality or if it is goal directed. Teleologists think that there is only one kind of causation in the world which is brought about by intentional as well as unintentional objects. Agents are intenders and that is what differentiates the effects that they bring about as acts.
Hard determinism is a kind of incompatibilism. Hard determinists (HD) think that free will and determinism are incompatible and that we are determined. HD’s are the flip side of libertarians. They think that our ascriptions of praise and blame can survive recognition that we do not have free will. We just need to revise our notion of responsibility in the appropriate way. Most theorists are not HD.
Compatibilism (soft determinism)
Compatibilism or sometimes called soft determinism is the idea that free will and determinism are compatible. That is to say that compatibilists think that we can have free will and determinism can be true. Compatibilists have a different notion of freedom from libertarians. Their notion is rooted in the freedom or liberty of spontaneity. The idea here is that you are free if you can carry out your desires. Just so long as you do what you want to do and there are no obstacles or impediments preventing you from doing so, then you are free. Compatibilists give two arguments against libertarianism, the first is called the Mind argument because it occurred so often in the prestigious philosophy journal Mind. The second set of arguments is called Frankfurt Counter-Examples.
The Mind Argument
The mind argument attempts to show that libertarian free will is incompatible with indeterminism. The argument is essentially that indeterminism is incompatible with free will because indeterminism rules out the possibility that any actions are mine. The basic idea is that if indeterminism were true, I would not have any control over whether some act of mine occurred or not. Choices of mine would be like epileptic seizures. I would undergo choices, but I would not have freely willed them. Indeterminism seems to undermine or eliminate our control altogether. Libertarian free will is therefore incompatible with indeterminism and determinism. If so, then it is very hard to see how libertarian free will is a coherent idea.
Another reason to think that Libertarians are wrong are what have been dubbed Frankfurt Counter-Examples, duly named after the esteemed Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. A counter example is a constructed case that aims to show that a claim is mistaken. From such cases we can then figure out what is wrong with the specific claim or idea, why it specifically fails to capture the idea we are after. Frankfurt Counter-examples comes in a variety of forms but they all involve a covert controller of some kind. A covert controller is some agent that controllers in some way or another, another agent’s actions without the knowledge of the second agent. This is why it is covert. The kind of control that the covert controller has is usually what is called counter-factual control. Let me explain a bit. Counter factuals are cases where if things had gone different than the way they did go, some other state of affairs would obtain. So they are counter to the way things have gone, and hence counter to fact or counter factuals. So let’s look at a Frankfurt example,
Suppose there is an evil neurosurgeon named Black who is a fanatical democrat. He wants Kerry to win even it is by hook or crook. Black has a fancy widget that he can implant in a persons brain without their knowledge that permits him to see, monitor and change that persons intentions and decisions. So Black implants this widget into Jones’ head. Jones is an undecided voter even when he goes to the polls. He hasn’t made up his mind yet as to who to vote for. So Black monitors Jones’ mental processes.
Now, if Black sees that Jones is going to vote for Bush, he pushes the appropriate button and neutralizes the neural pathway that is correlated with the mental event a vote for Bush. If on the other hand, Jones votes for Kerry, Black does nothing. As things just so happen to go, Jones votes for Kerry on his own and Black does nothing. Black’s control here is counter factual since he only does something if things go counter to the way they did end up. Notice here that Jones doesn’t seem to have any alternative possibilities open to him. His options have been closed off to him. Frankfurt argues that examples like these show that someone can be free even if they do not have any alternative possibilities open to them. Libertarianism is therefore mistaken. Just so long as Jones does the act on his own, he is free-he doesn’t need alternative possibilities.
Libertarians have a slick reply to Frankfurt’s examples. Frankfurt’s examples are supposed to convince the libertarian that she is mistaken without assuming determinism. Notice that in Frankfurt’s example, Jones seems to be free and free of determinism. The example does not obviously depend on determinism or indeterminism and this is why it is supposed to convince the libertarian that she is mistaken.
But think about the example for a moment. If Jones is really free in the example and he is undecided then he hasn’t made a decision yet, right? So his act of deliberating is staving off or holding off on making a decision. So what is Black looking at in his head?- Only Jones’ indecision between the two candidates. Black needs a “tip off” or a prior sign to know what Jones is going to decide. But if Jones is really free and he hasn’t decided, the only thing that will clue Black into what Jones is going to do is Jones’ actual decision. There can’t be a prior sign because Jones hasn’t decided yet. But if Black waits for Jones’ decision then it is too late for Black to intervene, Jones has already exercised his free will in alternative possibilities.
If on the other hand, there is a prior sign, it will have to guarantee that Jones will vote one way or the other. That is the only way Black can know what Jones is going to decide. This means that the prior sign is a deterministic cause of Jones’ choice. Then the Frankfurt example assumes that determinism is true and the Libertarian can just balk by saying that the example is unconvincing because it begs the question-it assumes as true a position that the Libertarian rejects. If the case assumes determinism then the Libertarian can say that she rejects it because the example was supposed to show that libertarianism was mistaken on grounds that the libertarian would accept. Either the examples beg the question in assuming determinism or Black is helpless because if Jones is truly free then there can’t be a prior sign as to what Jones is going to do.
Ok, don’t laugh. Ass here means donkey. Buridan’s Ass is a case where a donkey is stuck between two equal bails of hay. The options he has to choose from are entirely equal. Since he has libertarian free will and is not determined to choose on over the other, he never does choose between then and therefore dies of starvation. This example tries to show that libertarian free will is absurd since it would imply that we would never make decisions. We would be rather paralyzed since our reasons, desires or antecedent states would not determine us to act one way or another.
Here is a helpful way that a libertarian can think of the case. First, deny that there are such cases where the options are truly equal. Second, the libertarian can deny that each outcome is equally probable. Remember the discussion of quantum mechanics and the particle breaching the barrier. Now it can be indeterminate as to whether the particle breaches the barrier but this does not mean that both outcomes are equally probable. One outcome can be more probable than the other. So even though a free agent’s choices may be indeterminate, this doesn’t mean that both options are equally probable. And like the particle, no matter which option is selected, we will explain it in terms of the agent’s free choice just like we would explain either outcome with the particle on the basis of the very same causal law.