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.”
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 https://iep.utm.edu/freewill/ and https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/.
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.”⁹
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.
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 https://iep.utm.edu/freewill/ 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.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6640273/
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 https://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/free-will-or-free-wont-what-neuroscience-says-about-the-choices-we-can-and-cant-make
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VA9jaGBKsmE
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 https://mappingignorance.org/2019/10/21/why-emergent-levels-will-not-save-free-will-2/#reference-6317-1
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?
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.
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.