Free Will: The Ultimate In Nonsense


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Doubt is a double-edged sword

What about free will? How should we understand the disagreement between the compatibilist and the incompatibilist?

Why Free Will is Not an "Illusion"

Are we born with free will? If not, when do we acquire it, and in virtue of what abilities or powers do we have it? What is the difference between acting intentionally and acting with free will? The free will thesis is a minimal claim about free will; it would be true if one person in the universe acted with free will acted freely, acted while possessing free will on one occasion.

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Since non-determinism is the negation of determinism, and since determinism is a contingent thesis, we can divide the set of possible worlds into two non-overlapping subsets: deterministic worlds and non-deterministic worlds. Given this apparatus, we could define incompatibilism and compatibilism in the following way: incompatibilism is the thesis that no deterministic world is a free will world. Equivalently, incompatibilism is the claim that necessarily, if determinism is true, then the free will thesis is false. And we could define compatibilism as the denial of incompatibilism; that is, as the claim that some deterministic worlds are free will worlds.

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Equivalently, compatibilism is the claim that possibly, determinism and the free will thesis are both true. This way of defining compatibilism is unproblematic. There are compatibilists who are agnostic about the truth or falsity of determinism, so a compatibilist need not be a soft determinist someone who believes that it is in fact the case that determinism is true and we have free will.

But all compatibilists believe that it is at least possible that determinism is true and we have free will. So all compatibilists are committed to the claim that there are deterministic worlds that are free will worlds. But this definition of incompatibilism has a surprising consequence. Suppose, as some philosophers have argued, that we lack free will because free will is conceptually or metaphysically impossible, at least for nongodlike creatures like us Taylor , []; G. Strawson , If these philosophers are right, there are no free will worlds.

And if there are no free will worlds, it follows that there are no deterministic free will worlds. So if free will is conceptually or metaphysically impossible, at least for creatures like us, it follows that incompatibilism as we have just defined it is true. If it is conceptually or metaphysically impossible for us to have free will, then we lack free will regardless of whether determinism is true or false.

Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will

And if that is so, then the incompatibilist cannot say the kind of things she has traditionally wanted to say: that the truth or falsity of determinism is relevant to the question of whether or not we have free will, that if determinism were true, then we would lack free will because determinism is true, and so on. If we want to avoid this counter-intuitive result, there is a remedy. Instead of understanding compatibilism and incompatibilism as propositions that are contradictories, we can understand them as propositions that are contraries.

Compatibilism and incompatibilism are both false if a third claim, impossibilism, is true. Impossibilism is the thesis that free will is conceptually or metaphysically impossible for non-godlike creatures like us. If we accept this three-fold classification, we can define our terms as follows: Impossibilism is the thesis that there are no free will worlds.


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Incompatibilism is the thesis that there are free will worlds but no deterministic world is a free will world. Compatibilism is the thesis that there are free will worlds and free will worlds include deterministic worlds. For some objections to this three-fold classification see McKenna and Mickelson a. For defense, see Vihvelin and Theorists who defend impossibilism include Double , G. Strawson and , and Smilansky Another kind of impossibilist is the fatalist Taylor , []. In the older literature, there were just two kinds of incompatibilists—hard determinists and libertarians.

A hard determinist is an incompatibilist who believes that determinism is in fact true or, perhaps, that it is close enough to being true so far as we are concerned, in the ways relevant to free will and because of this we lack free will Holbach ; Wegner A libertarian is an incompatibilist who believes that we in fact have free will and this entails that determinism is false, in the right kind of way van Inwagen But in the contemporary literature there are incompatibilists who avoid such risky metaphysical claims by arguing that free will is possible at worlds where some of our actions have indeterministic event causes Kane , , , , a; Ekstrom ; Balaguer or that free will is possible at worlds where some of our actions are uncaused Ginet Note that none of these three kinds of incompatibilists agent-causation theorists, indeterministic event-causation theorists, non-causal theorists need be libertarians.

They may reserve judgment about the truth or falsity of determinism and therefore reserve judgment about whether or not we in fact have free will.

They might also be hard determinists because they believe that determinism is in fact true. But what they do believe—what makes them incompatibilists—is that it is possible for us to have free will and that our having free will depends on a contingent fact about the laws that govern the universe: that they are indeterministic in the right kind of way see the entry on incompatibilist theories of free will. Given these definitions and distinctions, we can now take the first step towards clarifying the disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists.

Both sides agree that it is conceptually and metaphysically possible for us to have free will; their disagreement is about whether any of the possible worlds where we have free will are deterministic worlds. Arguments for incompatibilism must, then, be arguments for the claim that necessarily, if determinism is true, we lack the free will we might otherwise have. It is easy to think that determinism implies that we have a destiny or fate that we cannot avoid, no matter what we choose or decide and no matter how hard we try.

Man, when running over, frequently without his own knowledge, frequently in spite of himself, the route which nature has marked out for him, resembles a swimmer who is obliged to follow the current that carries him along; he believes himself a free agent because he sometimes consents, sometimes does not consent, to glide with the stream, which, notwithstanding, always hurries him forward. Holbach []: ; see also Wegner It is widely agreed, by incompatibilists as well as compatibilists, that this is a mistake.

But these threats to free will have nothing to do with determinism. Determinism is consistent with the fact that our deliberation, choices and efforts are part of the causal process whereby our bodies move and cause further effects in the world. Putting aside this worry, we may classify arguments for incompatibilism as falling into one of two main varieties:. Someone who argues for incompatibilism in this way may concede that the truth of determinism is consistent with the causal efficacy of our deliberation, choices, and attempts to act.

But, she insists, determinism implies that the only sense in which we are responsible for what we do is the sense in which a dog or young child is responsible. Moral responsibility requires something more than this, she believes. Moral responsibility requires autonomy or self-determination: that our actions are caused and controlled by, and only by , our selves.

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To use a slogan popular in the literature: We act freely and are morally responsible only if we are the ultimate source of our actions. Each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause these events to happen. Chisholm Free will…is the power of agents to be the ultimate creators or originators and sustainers of their own ends or purposes…when we trace the causal or explanatory chains of action back to their sources in the purposes of free agents, these causal chains must come to an end or terminate in the willings choices, decisions, or efforts of the agents, which cause or bring about their purposes.

Kane 4. Arguments of the second kind focus on the notion of choice. To have a choice, it seems, is to have genuine options or alternatives—different ways in which we can act. The worry is that determinism entails that what we do is, always, the only thing we can do, and that because of this we never really have a choice about anything , as opposed to being under the perhaps inescapable illusion that we have a choice.

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Why Free Will is Not an "Illusion"

Someone who argues for incompatibilism in this way may concede that the truth of determinism is consistent with our making choices, at least in the sense in which a dog or young child makes choices, and consistent also with our choices being causally effective. But, she insists, this is not enough for free will; we have free will only if we have a genuine choice about what actions we perform, and we have a genuine choice only if there is more than one action we are able to perform. A person has free will if he is often in positions like these: he must now speak or be silent, and he can now speak and can now remain silent; he must attempt to rescue a drowning child or else go for help, and he is able to attempt to rescue the child and able to go for help; he must now resign his chairmanship or else lie to the members; and he has it within his power to resign and he has it within his power to lie.

Our choices include choices among purely mental actions to pay attention to a lecture or to spend the time deciding what to cook for dinner as well as choices about the actions we perform by moving our bodies. We might question whether arguments based on self-determination and arguments based on choice are independent ways of arguing for incompatibilism for the following reason: I cause and control my actions in the self-determining way required for moral responsibility only if my actions are the product of my free will and my actions are the product of my free will only if I have the ability to do choose to do, decide to do, intend to do, try to do otherwise.

If determinism has the consequence that I never have the ability to do otherwise, it also has the consequence that I never cause my actions in the self-determining way required for moral responsibility Kane At one time, this link between moral responsibility, self-determination, and the ability to do otherwise was common ground between compatibilists and incompatibilists. That is, everyone agreed that a person is morally responsible only if she has the right kind of control over what she does, and everyone assumed that a person has the right kind of control over something she does only if she is able to do or at least decide, choose, intend, or try otherwise.

Given this assumption, anyone hoping to defend the claim that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism had to first show that the ability to do otherwise is compatible with determinism. This debate was crippled by the fact that it took place at a time when counterfactuals were still poorly understood, before the advent of the Lewis-Stalnaker possible worlds semantics D. Lewis For argument that this pessimism was premature, see Vihvelin and Frankfurt wanted to defend the claim that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism without having to defend the claim that the ability to do otherwise is compatible with determinism.

His strategy took the form of an ingenious thought experiment that was supposed to show that no matter how you understand ability to do otherwise—whether you are a compatibilist or an incompatibilist—you should agree that the possession of this ability is not a necessary condition of being morally responsible Frankfurt There were two steps to the thought experiment.

In the first step he invited you to imagine a person, Jones, who has free will, and who acts freely and who satisfies all the conditions you think necessary and sufficient for moral responsibility. You may imagine Jones in one of the scenarios van Inwagen describes, faced with a choice to speak or be silent, to try to rescue the child or go for help, to resign his chairmanship or to lie, and to imagine that Jones deliberates and decides, for his own reasons, in favor of one of his contemplated alternatives, and then successfully acts on his decision.

In the second step you are invited to add to the story the existence of a powerful being, Black, who takes a great interest in what Jones does, including how he deliberates and decides. You may fill in the details however you like, but you must imagine that Black has the power to interfere with Jones in a way that ensures that Jones does exactly what Black wants him to do.

By lucky co-incidence, Jones did exactly what Black wanted him to do. He even deliberated and decided the way Black wanted him to deliberate and decide. So Black remained on the sidelines and only watched.

Free Will: The Ultimate In Nonsense Free Will: The Ultimate In Nonsense
Free Will: The Ultimate In Nonsense Free Will: The Ultimate In Nonsense
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