Debate 1: Humans Have Free Will

Pro Argument – By Nathan S.


Today’s debate topic is an ancient one. Free will has long captivated the imagination, and, I expect, will continue to captivate long after our newly formed Agora forum disintegrates into digital dust. Philosophers have written volumes on the topic. Many of us feel certain that we have free will, though what exactly this amounts to is much less certain – according to David Hume, the question of the nature of free will is “the most contentious question of metaphysics.”¹ While consensus may never be reached upon this question, it’s exploration remains relevant and bears significant impact upon our ethical systems, social structures, and indeed, each individual’s entire set of (suspect) free decisions throughout life.

Are we free? Most of us have an immediate sense that we are. We feel free. We feel like we make all sorts of decisions that lead to both beliefs and actions that are entirely of our own choosing, like, sitting down on a Saturday afternoon to write an article about free will. I will demonstrate that free will describes something valuable in our human experience, appears logically consistent, and can reasonably “mesh” with science.

Some Definitions for Starters

The view that humans are capable of entirely free actions is known as libertarian free will — not to be confused with political libertarianism. In this model, an action is free only if the agent (the person doing the thing) could have done otherwise. Put another way, truly free actions must require options, i.e., a principle of alternative possibilities. 

Contrary to this is the belief in hard determinism, which doesn’t allow such options. It holds that all events are causally determined by every event that came before it. Every effect has a cause, and everything that happens now in the present is the necessary result of events that occurred in the past. An “agent” could never have done anything other than what they did, and therefore, they are never free. Determinists believe that you can’t help but feel and react the way you’re reacting right now, which can be reduced to the physical states that gave rise to the biological states in the brain which produced the current mental state we experience.

So, which view is true? Is it possible to rationally hold both views (i.e. compatibilism)?

Unless I’ve misunderstood them, the main positions don’t actually disagree on commonly held observations or facts. They may simply disagree on semantics. Hard determinists might say there is no such thing as free will. We are just robots made of meat that, while sentient, are largely unaware of how we work, and the feeling that we have free decisions is simply an illusion. Benjamin Libet’s famous (and contentious) experiments of the 1980’s found that brain activity occurred nearly three-hundred milliseconds before test subjects reported the urge to act, a seeming outright rejection of free will.² Hard determinism is tough to refute, and it has some really uncomfortable implications.³ Our argument here in favor of free will for humans will attempt to accommodate physical determinism as part of the framework, not fight against it.


To escape the logical prison we may think ourselves shackled in by these unbroken causal chains of events, a human agent — a being propelled by a mind — would need to be able to start a whole chain of causality that wasn’t caused by anything else OR we would need to expand / re-define what we mean by free will.⁴

But where would these free decisions, the ones that launch entire new causal chains, come from? Are they simply random? What would compel an agent to make one decision and not another? If we were able to answer these questions and explain what would cause an agent to act, we’ve just reinforced the notion that our actions are causally determined and not really free. Speaking as a parent for one moment, it has always stunned me with amusement and wonder when asking my young son “WHY did you do that???” to be met with the most genuine, honest, and simplest of answers … “Because I wanted to.”

What would compel an agent to make one decision and not another? If we were able to answer these questions and explain what would cause an agent to act, we’ve just reinforced the notion that our actions are causally determined and not really free.

Semantics may be Significant

Attempting to explain what causes an agent to act might be missing the point of free will, or at least the usefulness of free will as a concept in describing human behavior. It is precisely all this stuff happening up in our skull, all the thought and deliberation, internal desires and dreams, free from external compulsion — that is free will.  It appears to be inextricably linked to our sense of self, or consciousness, which is in itself, somewhat mysterious (and sometimes eerily absent, like ¼ of each day).

Saying free will doesn’t exist may be like saying value doesn’t exist. Value is an attempt to measure what a person wants and is willing to give up or trade for other things. We measure that with dollars, pounds, yuan, rupees, etc. There’s nowhere you can go to hold an actual dollar. The coin in your hand isn’t a dollar — it’s just a lump of metal that we have assigned the value of dollar. While maybe you can’t hold a dollar in your hand (it’s just a measurement) the concept is useful and it measures something important. It would be silly to just throw away the concept. 

If we look inwards and examine whether we are making decisions or experiencing them as they happen, for myself I feel like it can be a combination of both of these at the same time. A kind of feedback-loop that can also provide guidance and influence the decisions made. But this perspective isn’t something I can easily transfer or share with another person directly, as far as I know. You’d need to examine this internally for yourself. 

Here’s an example experiment one could perform (with permission of course!) to illustrate the point further. Look closely at a green eyed person’s iris with a microscope. Is the iris green, or is it made up of little specks of brown and yellow? (And let’s say it’s actually made of brown and yellow specks). The hard determinist might say “The iris is not green, that’s just an illusion caused by Tyndall scattering⁵ – green pigment is never present in the human iris or ocular fluid.”⁶ And the compatibilist may reply, “Actually, we have a word for when these combinations of light hit your retina – and we call that green! It’s green from all regular viewing distances, and in every way that matters, what else would you call it?”  Both can be “right” at the same time – the two positions are accurately describing different aspects of the “same” thing, allowing for a multi-layered conversation.

I don’t think the above example qualifies as an example of an emergent system or property, though compatibilist Christian List posits that free will may be an example of such a thing.⁷ I think, rather, the example is semantic in nature, describing two very different, but true, aspects of reality within our experience. Admittedly, it is difficult for me to see how the above approach allows for any kind of falsifiability, which would be preferred for any kind of experimental design on free will; I welcome anyone’s thoughts and recommendations on that note.

Formal and Technical Arguments 

There are tomes of well-crafted technical/philosophical explanations for the hard determinist and compatibilist view-points, arguments, counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments.⁸ While a full summary of these would be out of scope for this brief article, a few of them may be worth highlighting that may favor (or at least allow the possibility of) free will in humans. For those interested, some well written summaries of the many positions can be found online at and

For our purposes here, we will focus on answering the Origination Argument found in Determinism with a brief overview of Reasons-Responsiveness Theory, a compatibilist model in which free-will would not be logically inconsistent within a deterministic world governed by the laws of nature and event driven causal chains.

We can represent a formal iteration of the determinist argument, called the “Origination Argument,” as follows:

1. An agent acts with free will only if she is the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.

2. If determinism is true, then everything any agent does is ultimately caused by events and circumstances outside her control.

3. If everything an agent does is ultimately caused by events and circumstances beyond her control, then the agent is not the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.

4. Therefore, if determinism is true, then no agent is the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.

5. Therefore, if determinism is true, no agent has free will.

The Origination Argument appears valid. It’s soundness must, then, be evaluated on the truth of its three premises. Premise 3 is apparently true, since for an agent to be an originator literally means that agent is not to be ultimately determined by anything outside of herself. Premise 2 of this argument is true by the definition of determinism. Premise 1 is the only option left to refute, if the conclusion is to be avoided.

In other words, given the definition of determinism, compatibilists must reject that free will requires an agent being the originator or ultimate source of her actions. But how might this be done? 

Most frequently, compatibilists motivate a rejection of the “ultimacy condition” of free will by appealing to either a hierarchical or reasons-responsive view of what the will is. If all that is required for free will, for example, is a certain mesh between an agent’s 1st-order volitions and 2nd-order desires, then such an account does not require that an agent be the originator of those desires. Furthermore, since the truth of determinism would not entail that agents don’t have 1st and 2nd-order desires and volitions, a hierarchical account of the will is compatible with the truth of determinism. Similarly, if an agent has free will if she has the requisite level of reasons-responsiveness such that she would have willed differently had she had different reasons, ultimacy is again not required. Thus, if one adopts certain accounts of the will, one has reason for rejecting the central premise of the Origination Argument. (Amendments may need to be added to accommodate cases of spur-of-the-moment, or impulsive freely willed action).

“The most natural way to understand a reasons-responsive theory is in terms of an agent’s responsiveness to reasons. To illustrate, suppose that Frank Zappa plays the banjo of his own free will. According to a reasons-responsive theory, his playing the banjo freely at that time requires that if, in at least some hypothetical cases, he had reason not to, then he would refrain from playing the banjo. For instance, if Jimi Hendrix were to have stepped into Frank’s recording studio and asked Frank to play his electric guitar, Frank would have wanted to make Jimi happy and thus would have gladly put his banjo aside and picked up his electric guitar. It seems, then, that for Frank to play the banjo of his own free will, Frank — the agent — must have regulative control and not merely guidance control over his playing. His freedom must consist partially in his ability to act upon alternatives.”

There are many other formal and technical arguments on the topic, but the ones above seem to resonate most with my current experience and reflections.

If all that is required for free will, for example, is a certain mesh between an agent’s 1st-order volitions and 2nd-order desires, then such an account does not require that an agent be the originator of those desires.


So, where does that leave us? What is evident, is that each of us, on a daily basis, are consciously aware of our decisions, and that our decisions have many contributing causes, including our own reasons-responsiveness. We can say correctly, then, that at least some of our actions are “determined” by our will. Our will chooses from free alternative possibilities, at least some of which are creative and unpredictable. Human free will, understood in these terms, allows for free choices even while accepting (and indeed embracing) the determined physical laws of nature. There are always . . . possibilities, Spock said.Free will in humans provides a reasonable account for our subjective (and apparently widely shared) conscious human experience (such as reasoned decision making, sense of self and ownership, interpersonal relationships, moral responsibility, etc.). Free will “meshes” with the strong feelings we experience in deliberate actions, or accomplishing something we are proud of (or not proud of). And because free will has been shown to be logically coherent with principles of physical determinism, if there are no sound arguments to show it is demonstrably false, it seems unwarranted for us to discard it, just as it would be silly to discard green eyes or dollars (though, greenbacks, we can do without). Free will, for the purposes of the human and social sciences, boils down to agency, intentionality, and choice, which are well-supported and indeed explanatorily indispensable ideas. Denying free will would be warranted only if these ideas weren’t needed for explaining human behavior or if they were somehow incoherent, which they don’t appear to be.¹⁰

My layman’s attempt to address this ancient question will inevitably fall short in settling anything, though I hope I won’t leave any reader feeling unsettled. There is an opportunity here for a multi-faceted, nuanced conversation, which is something to be excited about.

As the sometimes-charming Christopher Hitchens ironically says: “Yes I have free will; I have no choice but to have it.”¹¹ He’s gone now, and presumably his will, free or otherwise, is gone with him. What do you think of all this? How do you feel about the vergence of conscious reflection and options before you? Did you really have any choice in reading through this entire article? You just had to keep reading didn’t you? Looking forward to reading the con’s article and all the comments and discussion to follow – I am sure they will freely follow the predetermined Rules of Engagement.

¹ quoting I think from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, “Of Liberty and Necessity”. See also Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part III, Sections I-II.

² Libet B, 1983. “The onset of cerebral activity clearly preceded by at least several hundred milliseconds the reported time of conscious intention to act.”

Though Libet himself pointed out the conscious mind might choose to reject, or veto, the subconscious impulses – termed the “free won’t.” Philosophers Dennett and Mele point out serious experimental design flaws. See

³ Some philosophers make an interesting point that physical determinism is not “true” because physics is empirical, not logical, and therefore the evidence has never justified the assumption of strict determinism. This seems a bit like splitting hairs to me and not a strong response to the observable phenomena. Furthermore. quantum mechanical indeterminism is extremely well established. While also not logically “true,” the evidence for quantum mechanics is better established than classical physical determinism. Quantum indeterminism and the probabilistic models it necessitates, while fascinating, appear esoteric for this current discussion and may be best saved for a later time.

⁴ I take issue with re-defining terms that have a long-standing, commonly understood meaning(s) and set of claims/attributes associated, and so this should not be done lightly. Fascinating video example of this can be found here: 

⁵ Sturm R.A. & Larsson M., Genetics of human iris colour and patterns, Pigment Cell Melanoma Res, 22:544-562, 2009.

⁶ Fox, Denis Llewellyn (1979). Biochromy: Natural Coloration of Living Things. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-03699-4.

⁷ Christian List: Why Free Will Is Real – for a counter-argument of his position see

⁸ PBS Digital Studios “Crash Course Philosophy” #24 and #25 provide an exquisite expose of the main lines of thought.



Con Argument – By James T.

There are a lot of disputed issues in the world where, when you ask yourself why you think what you think, your mind automatically vaguely gestures in a direction and says “I think this because of all that over there.”  Unfortunately, this is not terribly useful for discussion.  And it is even worse for questioning yourself and seeing how you could be wrong, which is yet more important.

I think that humans don’t have free will.  That is, I do not think humans are something like little Gods, initiating causal chains in the world with no antecedent in either purely random happenstance or deterministic causality.  I’ve tried to ask myself why I think this is the case, and of course my mind immediately responds with a vague gesture in a general direction.  But after distilling down the vague gesture in my mind, I think it boils into something as follows.

By default, we think that things in this world lack free will.  So wind, waves, proteins, parrots, orchids and the ocean, despite having many interesting and complex features, all lack free will.  And so, by default, we should probably judge humans to lack free will as well, unless there are specific, good reasons to judge humans to have free will.  The reasons given generally fall into two categories, namely that (1) it is self-evident that humans have free will or (2) there is some specific thing about human understanding or introspection which shows that humans have free will.  If both of these efforts fail, then humans probably don’t have free will.  And in what follows, I’ll show both of these efforts probably fail.  After showing why they fail, I’ll go on to explain why I expect pretty much all other arguments for free will to fail.

To address the first: is it self-evident that humans have free will?

By default, we think that things in this world lack free will. So wind, waves, proteins, parrots, orchids and the ocean, despite having many interesting and complex features, all lack free will. And so, by default, we should probably judge humans to lack free will as well, unless there are specific, good reasons to judge humans to have free will.

Well, I will start on the smallest scale possible: It certainly does not seem self-evident to me that humans possess free will.  Sure, after I have decided between eating ice cream or fasting, I often find it hard to point to any particular antecedent cause that determined one choice or the other.  But that it is hard to point to some antecedent cause of my decision by no means indicates that the ultimate cause of my decision was my bare will.  Often after reflecting on why I made a decision, after all, I find out that I did so for reasons quite unlike those my subconscious initially served up; I am assuredly very bad at judging the reasons that I do what I do.  So I think my subjective experience fails to provide any good argument that freedom of the will is self-evident.

And to expand outward, of course, I find I am hardly alone in lacking such an insight.  Calvinists, scientific determinists, and many others have also gazed within themselves and found themselves uncertain whether they have freedom of the will.  Of course, you can judge them all willing to lie to themselves, each and every man of them, turning away from something evident to all men — I cannot very well prove that this is not the case.  But this argument requires great, uniform categories of men to be either somewhat evil or somewhat stupid.  And in general, over time, I’ve learned to be wary of arguments that ascribe incredible hypocrisy or stupidity to homogenous masses of men, because when I meet an individual from that homogenous mass I generally find them to lack the requisite vice.  So I don’t think it is tenable to hold that even most men have self-evident insight into their possession of freedom of the will.

But perhaps, although neither I nor most men can perceive this self-evident truth, it is the case that a few select souls have insight into freedom of the will, which renders them immediately certain of the fact?  Well, I doubt that this is the case.  The Buddhists have, over time, developed a finely-grained, albeit slowly-learned, phenomenology of moment-to-moment experience, which I would expect to issue forth in such a certainty if anything could.  Yet Buddhists have not, generally, converged on belief in freedom of the will.  And in general, each individual who claims a special insight into the nature of their experience, unreproducible and without any offered steps regarding how to reproduce it, should probably be met in the same way that we meet people claiming special and personal revelation from God: with a shrug.  Believing these people renders the world a more interesting place, certainly, but these revelations have no particular tendency to cohere with other revelations, with the evidence of our senses, or with common sense.

Let me, then, turn from the claim that it is self-evident that humans have free will, to the claim that you can prove that humans have free will from some feature of our subjective experience.

One such claim, indeed the strongest such claim, is that without an immaterial soul, it is impossible to have any subjective experience at all.  We have subjective experience, and so we have an immaterial soul, and so, one could argue, we also have freedom of the will.  Basically no one currently adheres to this argument, given that it more or less requires you to think that dogs are either experienceless automatons or that dogs do indeed go to heaven, extremes of blindness and optimism that most people are rather wary of.  But I mention it to illustrate how, for many, it is simply taken for granted that having freedom of will is equivalent to having an immaterial soul.  C. S. Lewis accepts this in his argument for the immaterial soul in Miracles, for instance, and I believe it is implicitly contained within the Thomist conception of the soul.  I’m willing to grant it, for now, and to consider that if there is some proof that humans have an immaterial soul, there’s also some proof that humans have freedom of the will, and moreover that humans cannot have freedom of the will without an immaterial soul.

A more defensible claim is the argument that because man has understanding, he has an immaterial soul.  So in the Summa, Aquinas claims that when a man understands a stone, he knows it absolutely as a stone, as an instance of a class.  If a man understood through a composite of form and matter, Aquinas claims, man would be unable to know a stone as a stone but merely as an individual.  So whatever has knowledge of forms “absolutely,” Aquinas concludes, must be immaterial.

This is a tricky argument.

My initial inclination, when encountering the argument, is to point to machine learning. At this point you can show machine-learning algorithms video or photos of the world, and easily show that from this they learn categories like “ocean” or “sheep.” Machine-learning algorithms don’t seem to be immaterial, far as I can tell, so it seems like a simple disproof. But surely Aquinas knew that, say, dogs were able to learn the difference between a sheep and a goat, and not merely learn about individual sheep. And Aquinas clearly thought that dogs lacked immaterial souls. So this disproof seems to prove too much.

Perhaps Aquinas meant, though, that although many material things can learn classes, they cannot identify them as classes, and use them for further reasoning.  But if this is the case, then again machine learning seems to show that this argument is wrong.  When a machine-learning algorithm learns about categories like “sheep” or “goat,” in the case mentioned above, it will do so though learning about finer categories like “wave” or “hair,” which certainly looks like using classes for further reasoning.

At this point, I think, a machine-learning practitioner would point out that although such classes are implicitly learned in modern machine-learning algorithms, machine-learning algorithms often lack human speed and quickness in learning new classes from pre-learned classes, and most seem to lack a high level of reflection upon the learned classes that allows you to flick between different levels of abstraction rapidly.  This is true, although of course this is an area of active research.  But at this point, I’d say, it’s grown impossible to give a counter-argument to Aquinas’ position, not because it is impregnable, but because it is vague.  Did Aquinas have in mind classes used in such a way that they form the foundation for quick discursive reasoning?  Did he have in mind classes used as the basis for acting in the world?  All of these are, again, active areas of research within machine learning, but alas I cannot use progress in this area as counter-arguments simply because the original argument is unclear.

[A] machine-learning practitioner would point out that although such classes are implicitly learned in modern machine-learning algorithms, machine-learning algorithms often lack human speed and quickness in learning new classes from pre-learned classes, and most seem to lack a high level of reflection upon the learned classes that allows you to flick between different levels of abstraction rapidly.

So I regard Aquinas’ argument from human understanding, like the argument from subjective experience, to fail.

And this basically terminates the live, active arguments in favor of free will of which I am aware.  And so I would judge that by default humans, like parrots and proteins, lack free will.

I also  think that there’s an argument you can give for why humans almost certainly lack an immaterial soul and therefore for why they lack free will.

If humans have an immaterial soul, which helps them think, it must have some specific function.  So it must, as for Aquinas, be the thing by which men understand the forms as forms; or it must, as for, the Neoplatonists, the part by which you meditate and skim through the spiritual realm.

But the further neuroscience advances, the harder it is to maintain that there’s any specific function that the soul performs, rather than some part of the mind, because the study of brain pathology pretty clearly shows how finely the mind can be dissected through brain injury.

And that means that you cannot attribute any of these dissected functions to an immaterial soul.  A particular brain injury, for instance, will give you blindsight, where a human is physiologically able to see, can perform some tasks as if they can partially see, but lacks the conscious awareness that they are seeing and will deny that they can do so.  So it seems like the soul cannot be responsible for knowing that you see.  The opposite and more disturbing twin of blindsight is Anton-Babinski syndrome, where a human is physiologically unable to see, tripping over objects and running into doors, but believes that they are able to see and will repeatedly deny that they are blind.  So nor can the soul be responsible for awareness of the abilities that you actually have.  They are yet finer dissections, though.  Those who suffer from apperceptive visual agnosia can see the parts of things and identify their colors but cannot group them together as a single object, so the soul cannot be that which identifies things as things.  But unless they have apperceptive tactile agnosia they will still be able to perceive things as a single object and name them by touch.  And both of these can be distinguished from associative agnosias, where one can see the parts of an object, see that they are a single object, but fail to name it.  And this is to leave to the side the multitude of different disorders that you can have relating to human interaction.

You can argue, of course, that if the soul does something, it might still be a something that depends on some specific part of the brain, and therefore a brain injury might take it away.  But if that were the case, again, you would expect some single, massive decrease in human capability when the soul’s point of contact with the body were separated.  After all, by taking away that point of contact, you would render a human into more or less the same state as an animal.  But the brain seems weirdly robust, capable of great adaptations, and so this hypothesis too seems doubtful to me.

So, I have recounted why I believe some arguments in favor of the freedom of the will do not work.  I have also explained why — although the default position should be that we lack freedom of will — there are also positive reasons to think that we do not possess it.  If my esteemed opponent offers me reasons I have not considered before, I will of course attempt to revise my position as the evidence suggests.

19 thoughts on “Debate 1: Humans Have Free Will

  1. So, the argument here starts with the Con position arguing hard-determinism and the Pro position pushing for compatibilitism. I’m generally sympathetic to compatibalism. I find it interesting that the Con didn’t address it.

    In my opinion, when people argue against the existence of free on the basis of physical determinism, they’re treating the question like a physics problem when in reality, free-will is an ethics problem. The real concern is, “Do we hold people responsible for their own actions?” In that case, the question of determinism strictly speaking seems like a red-herring. We don’t need humans to contain internal uncaused causes when instead we can use Hobbes’ definition: “A free agent is he that can do as he will, and forbear as he will, and that liberty is the absence of external impediments.” The real question is, can a deterministic system be capable of deliberation and choice and I see no reason to say it can’t.

    The best arguments against free-will in my opinion, are arguments that point out that outside influences can affect how human’s makes choices in a manner that doesn’t seem conducive to deliberation and choice. For example, It someone gives me a cookie and I weighing the different influences upon my minds like hunger, desire for sweets, and concern about gaining weight, decide to eat that cookie, that seems like it was a free choice, even if my mind is ultimately a deterministic machines and would have made the same choice given the same starting conditions every time. However, if someone is able to put their finger on the scale so-to-speak and uses pheromones (or whatever) to influence my choice without my knowing. In that case, was my decision less free. Should I or the pheromone bandit be held responsible for my overeating?

    Furthermore, is a person responsible for their own development? That is, is a person capable of reversing long habits and changing who they are merely through choice and force of will? If not, it’s hard to argue that we have free will but not because of any determinism but because of ego-depletion. And I think that’s where the real issue rests. Human beings obviously have a will, even if some traditional metaphysical definitions of will don’t make as much sense as we would like. However that will is definitely constrained, not by determinism but by calorie requirements.

    my 2¢

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The deterministic perspective seems to adhere to the notion that given the same conditions, we would make the same choice every time. Just because those conditions could be changed by another outside force (like a pheromone) doesn’t negate agency any less. I guess I’m wondering if you believe that the will is acted upon by more than the forces of circumstance (past events + nature) or are positing some other arrangement: something immaterial about human beings that makes the choice?


      1. I think that there is a difference between conditions that inform the decision making process and decisions that interrupt it. If we were to conceptualize this as an election process, elections and election results are the products of circumstances, but we distinguish between the circumstances which establish the election process (a constitution or something similar,) the circumstances which inform the results according to it’s proper function (voter’s opinions) and circumstances which would alter the results in a manner inconsistent with the election’s proper function (ballot stuffing.) Regardless of whether we attribute free will to individual voters, we still distinguish between a free election and an unfree election based on the integrity of the decision making process.

        Presumably, a human being makes decision in a certain manner. Our self perception is that we take in information, weight our emotions, rationally deliberate, and then make a decision. If we make a hasty or emotional decision, we’ve partly skipped the deliberation process, but we are aware of that and know how we made the decision. (We made a decision to be less deliberate.) Even though our minds and personalities were constructed ahead of time, that still results in a decision making process analogous to the above. This sense that we are deliberating based on input is what I think people are essentially referring to when they discussion ‘volition’, or ‘free-will’.

        If however, as some psychologists assert, we make decisions ahead of time according to criteria we aren’t even aware of, and then try to construct reasons after the fact for decisions that we already unconsciously made, then that sense of deliberation is largely an illusion. In that case, our sense of volition would also be an illusion. In a sense, we would still be free, because the self is still acting and making choices, but the self that is making choices would be different than the self that perceives itself as having made those choices, if that makes any sense.

        I’m not positing any immaterial decision maker.


      2. Andrew, that distinction makes perfect sense to me (unless I’m misunderstanding). Say that all human actions, like everything that happens, are deterministic. Still there would be a difference between those actions that have us, or our frontal lobe let’s say, as part of the chain of causality. If we sneeze, that’s not free even in the sense of unconstrained, while if we choose to accept a job offer, that’s free in the sense of being truly our own action even if it’s still deterministic. And there can be actions anywhere on a spectrum between these two, depending on how much deliberation we do or how much pressure is put on us from the outside.


      3. That seems to imply that there are tiers to the process. At what point are our decisions free, and when is an action un-free? Where’s the dividing line?


      4. I would say that our actions are our own to the degree that our brains are part of the chain of causality that leads to those actions. So if our brain is bypassed altogether, like when someone grabs your hand and makes you punch yourself, that action isn’t yours. But if you were drunk or distracted and did something bad, it’s at least partly yours.

        I don’t think there’s a sharp line between “free actions” and “unfree actions,” because the amount of deliberation and choice we experience varies so widely.


  2. I mean, I think we pretty much agree.

    I say “Yo, [metaphysical libertarian] free will doesn’t exist,” and you say “Yep, but you can call this other thing [not metaphysical libertarian] free will, and it’s almost as good.”

    The question as to whether it makes sense to call the [determinist] free will “free will” is really then a question of social practicality? As far as I gather, we pretty much agree about the way the world is. It’s just that, in addition to this agreement to how the world is, you think it would be great to carry over the label of “free will” to something which doesn’t quuuiite match the historical use for “free will”, while I just don’t address the issue.

    I don’t have *super* strong opinions on this. None of my argument above addresses it, obviously. I have a hunch it is kinda misleading, to do that, though. The label “free will”, when, it meant metaphysical free will, could be invoked to justify things like (1) retributive justice or (2) the difference between man and animals. I don’t think that the new meaning behind the label for “free will” can be so invoked. So I’m kinda — [hand wavy motion] — on whether it clarifies communication to carry over the label. Again, though, if one wishes to carry it over, that’s fundamentally just a thing you can do. I probably wouldn’t.

    Also, sidenote, I feel like when I started writing mine, the archetype for what I had in mind was an oral presentation, whilst what you had in mind was an essay, and it was amusing / fun to note the difference.

    (If a metaphysical libertarian wants to critique my perhaps-too-casual arguments I’m of course all ears. :))

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    1. James, I’m wondering if you see any difference between kinds of things at all. I mean, in their levels of organization, do you think they have a variety of properties that can be properly said of them at a given level of organization? For example, it seems to me that there’s a difference in the kind of thing a democracy is (a system of government made up of many human agents) and a stone (a grouping of an element made up of many atoms). I consider the parrot and the protein to exist on different levels of organization, with different properties (although I’m perhaps falling prey to some fallacy of which I’m unaware). It seems to me that animals can exercise choice (or at least the illusion thereof) in a way that’s fundamentally different than that of atoms. Is there anything to this distinction, do you think?


      1. Oh, yes. I do definitely think that different things at different levels of organization, and I realize my rhetoric might be, um, problematic on that point.

        More precisely, I think that humans and parrots and dogs react to their environment in ways that are fundamentally different than do, stones. All these animals reflect the environment in a way the stone doesn’t; we take some kind of energy from the environment, and in some way recapitulate the causal relations of the environment within ourselves, and then act to adapt ourselves to it. I do think that animals can exercise the (illusion?) of choice, probably rather like humans, although I suspect humans are often better at it.

        (As a sidenote: I don’t think that choice is an illusion, just because it isn’t free? What we call “choosing” after deliberation is just that, the sort of “go” squeeze from the brain, and people experience that whether or not it doesn’t have the kind of freedom attached to it that a lot of philosophers have attached to it? But that’s a relatively unimportant point.)

        I do like Stine’s analogy between freedom and the correct functioning of the democracy, and non-freedom and ballot-stuffing above. I think that gets at a lot of what we think about when we think about free v non-free actions, at least at the phenomenological / lived experience level. I also think that you’re 100% correct that it is a fuzzy line. Just as it’s fuzzy where proof of ID, proof of residence, etc, become voter-suppressing techniques, so also it’s pretty fuzzy where being persuasive, using techniques of hard-selling, etc, becomes something that bypasses free choice altogether.

        Regarding responsibility, which you asked about: I feel like “responsibility” can be used in a lot of different ways. But for me, it is used chiefly in a kind of… delegative, sense? Like if someone says I am responsible for fixing a bug at work, everyone knows that (1) they don’t need to do it and (2) I’ll probably suffer some consequences if I don’t do it. And that’s a useful use of the word, without free will attached to it.

        There are other, more absolute notions of responsibility out there. But many seem to trace to this causal notion, although I could be blind to certain things…


      2. With regard to responsibility, I think that in discussions of free will the kind of responsibility people are talking about is “moral responsibility.” IE, does it make sense to blame people for their own choices. This is related to the ‘pre-crime’ discussion that Sheila brought up below. “At what point does it become right to punish someone for wrongdoing as opposed to simply preventing it or undoing harm?” I think that the cutoff point that most people feel is most appropriate is after they have _chosen_ to do the wrong thing and this is why free-will is even a concept that we worry about.

        I think that the main moral theory of western civilization (and beyond) is that blame is apportioned to those who chose to violate social norms. In the legal system, for example, there is a great deal of emphasis of punishing people who chose to commit a crime. Intent is usually weighed very seriously during sentencing and some crime such as murder are broken up into different degrees based on intent and state of mind. Punishment is something done to people who make wrong choice and done so in accordance with the degree of intent or freedom behind the choice. People who commit crimes due to mental illness are generally forgiven. People who commit crmes with their will unencumbered, are responsible for those crimes.


  3. What would you both say to the notion of responsibility? Are there actions of a human being that could be said to be properly their own? If not, why not?

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  4. Thus far I have only read Nathan’s Arguments. Admittedly this kind of debate is not my forte, but … Nathan , you were commenting on the truthfulness of the premises so as to support or refute determinism. You stated premise 3 appeared T since “ for an agent to be Original, the agent isn’t determined by anything outside itself” . But premise three was referring to the actions of the agent being beyond external control , not the agent as you stated. If I am reasoning correctly then your statement doesn’t support the truthfulness of premise 3. At first I thought that distinction was crucial , but when I went back to your orig def of free will as involving the possibility of options( intentionality), your arguments seems clear. I do have a question, or comment . As one not familiar with this format. I realize it may be helpful to explain and define the opposing side, but if the statement is Humans have Free Will, do you have to disprove the opposing argument ( determinalism) in order to prove Humans have free will . It seems that is getting sidetracked. Can you develop premises to support Free Will, vs falsehood of premises supporting determinism) , or at least in addition to.

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    1. Hello Margaret, and welcome! Just a note on the format. The general tone of the debate is persuasive, and is mostly informal in style. There isn’t really a formal “burden of proof” that one side or the other is required to meet, except in the minds of those reading and commenting. At the end of the comment period, we will have a vote open to everybody on which side did a better job (both in the post and through comments) of persuading us. I guess that’s a long way of saying we can always ask for more from the authors, but there’s no “fault” in them not meeting a burden of proof on one side or the other.


    2. Thank you very much for your comments – very appreciated. I didn’t do a precise job of re-stating premise 3 (my apologies and thank you for pointing this out!).

      I really like the questions and points you are raising. In a nutshell, you may be correct that in order to preserve “free” will, one may need to provide convincing reasons to show determinism is not true, or define free will in a way that doesn’t hinge on determinism. I attempted the latter method, but in so doing may not have done sufficient justice to the pro argument. There are probably other ways to approach the question.


  5. I’m with others who have pointed out that compatibilism isn’t really the version of free will many people seem to want. If all our actions are caused by us, and everything we are is caused by other things (genetics, upbringing) upstream from us, then doesn’t that mean, on some level, that our actions are caused by other things we’re not really responsible?

    I lean compatibilist myself, but it seems to butt up against the same problem straight determinism does: is it just, given that none of us actually chose to be what we are, to punish people for the things they do? If there is *nothing* in a chain of causality leading to a murder besides the murderer’s genetics and the outside sources that motivated him, is it then unfair to send the murderer to prison?

    You could say (and I do say) that we should do it to keep him from killing again, or to discourage other people from murdering (since knowledge of the expected punishment can be part of the causal chain preventing people from murdering). But then it doesn’t really matter if the murderer has killed someone yet or not. It’s just as good to punish people who haven’t committed murders, if we can figure out that they are very likely to do so in the future. That feels unfair. Is that just a reflex, or is my intuition that there is such a thing as just punishment, and it’s only justly done to someone who has “freely chosen” to do a crime, a hint that truly free will actually exists?

    Like I say, I lean compatibilist. But this is the one argument that really gives me pause. How do we understand our own actions and those of others if we accept that they are simply the end result of a chain of causality that started before we were even born–that we couldn’t actually have done otherwise? Is it useful for us to do so, or harmful?


    1. “But then it doesn’t really matter if the murderer has killed someone yet or not. It’s just as good to punish people who haven’t committed murders, if we can figure out that they are very likely to do so in the future. That feels unfair. Is that just a reflex, or is my intuition that there is such a thing as just punishment, and it’s only justly done to someone who has “freely chosen” to do a crime, a hint that truly free will actually exists?”

      So I feel like this situation resolves more cleanly, when you imagine different time-delays on our predictions of who will kill in the future.

      First scenario: Imagine we can predict if someone is going to kill someone ~5 seconds into the future, and stop them with our ubiquitous nanobots. Does punishment feel fair then?

      I think so. It still could be a deterrent — I mean, in terms of intention, going to kill someone in 5 seconds is usually not that different from actually killing someone, so people still will be like “Yeah, I shouldn’t plan to murder.” It is basically like catching someone right before they stab someone, so to speak. It could still be rehabilitative, because the to-be-murderer could be like “Yeah, I was going to do that. Yeah, I shouldn’t have.” Etc. So as far as my internal feelings go — sure, go for it.

      Second scenario: Imagine we can predict if someone is going to kill someone 6 months from now, and stop them with our ubiquitous nanobots. Does punishment feel fair then?

      It doesn’t, but for reasons that I think make sense. It isn’t really a deterrent, because while “don’t plan to murder someone” is something you can reasonably warn people about, “don’t be the kind of person who murders someone 6 months from now” is a much harder think to try to do. And it also isn’t rehabilitative, because the person themself will feel — regardless — that it’s unfair.

      And I think it mostly feels unfair because, why have a “punishment” at all if it’s that far in the future and could be stopped through so many means? If our perfect-predictive-algorithm predicts someone is going to get in a fight at a bar 6 months hence, and manslaughter someone while drunk, I think it makes more sense to get that person into an AA meeting and fix the problem like that, then to get that person into prison and fix the problem like that. Similarly, if the algorithm predicts someone is going to kill someone in a road-rage incident, maybe get them some anger management sessions. It’s just that… if our ability to look into the future is *that* good, then if (1) deterrence and (2) rehabilitation are our aims, then punishment is far too blunt an instrument to reliably accomplish those aims.

      (And finally, I think the *actual* reason punishing people before they do someone bad feels unfair is that we know in practice that no one has that kind of omniscience, and claims about it are excuses for tyranny rather than about actual care for the common good. But the above is all assuming those claims are genuine.)


      1. Hmm, yeah, it’s true that we aren’t perfect at predicting future crime. And discouraging crimes is better achieved by punishing the people who actually commit them. Take three people who are going to commit a crime in the future. If one commits the crime and is punished, the other two will maybe rethink committing it. But if #1 commits the crime, #2 hasn’t yet, but both are punished equally, there isn’t really a reason for #3 to rethink committing the crime. He’ll assume that the powers that be have already predicted whether or not he’s going to do it, so he may as well do it.

        But I do wonder about psychopaths. What if we could test people and find that they have no empathy at all, little self control, etc. So that even though they haven’t done anything major yet, we can predict they’ll be doing horrible things throughout their lives.

        Is it legitimate to put an ankle monitor on them now, because we’ve judged them to have a higher risk of being violent criminals? Is it legitimate to euthanize them, sort of the death penalty in advance, because we’ve decided it’s just the same to be the type of person who will murder as to be a person who has murdered?

        (An ad absurdum here; I don’t believe in the death penalty. But I do wonder what are we supposed to do with psychopaths and narcissists; we don’t know how to cure them and they do immense harm.)


  6. Both the hard determinist and the Libertarian are incompatibilists. They both believe that determinism is incompatible with free will. The hard determinist claims free will is false. The Libertarian claims that determinism is false.

    If we define “free will” as the absence of determinism, or, if we define “determinism” as the absence of free will, then they become incompatible concepts. So, let’s stop doing that.

    Free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion and other forms of undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, or any other influence that effectively removes our control). This is the operational definition of free will, the one that everyone uses to evaluate a person’s moral or legal responsibility for their actions.

    Determinism asserts that we live in a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. Each event is reliably caused by prior events, going back in time as far as we can imagine, and going forward into the future.

    If my choice is reliably caused by my own purposes and my own reasons, then that choice is both reliably caused (determinism) and reliably caused by me (free will). That’s compatibilism.


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