What on Earth is free will?

Almost every philosopher and belief-pundit has had a crack at the question of whether humans have free will. It is a pretty wide-spread belief, among both theists and atheists alike. There’s a huge quantity of dense text on the subject spanning several centuries. This post however, will be accessible and fun. Simply picture your most groovy, over-enthusiastic schoolteacher and you’ll get the idea.

For any religion with a judgement theme free will is a particularly thorny issue. It’s hardly fair to judge non-free beings according to some rules they were unable to obey. However, with an omnipotent, omniscient being in the frame, how can free will be preserved? If a god made you and everything around you and knows exactly what you’re going to do – how can you do anything else without making him wrong? As far as I can tell, The Bible is strangely lacking a direct discussion of free will; some would say it even denies free will entirely. However, later theologians realised the problems and tried to patch up the holes. The Catholic Encyclopaedia acknowledges the issues in its article on free will.

But God possesses an infallible knowledge of man’s future actions. How is this prevision possible, if man’s acts are not necessary? […] Further, God’s omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe. How is this secured without infringement of man’s freedom?

The article goes into some history, but their case for free will finishes up with an “Ethical argument” and a “Psychological argument”. The ethical argument states that since moral ideas about justice and responsibility are near-universally accepted, free will must be real. I think this merely argues for the near-universal belief in free will, not free will itself.

Similarly, the psychological argument does not prove what it claims:

Consciousness testifies to our moral freedom. We feel ourselves to be free when exercising certain acts. We judge afterwards that we acted freely in those acts.

This only demonstrates the perception or illusion of free will. We’re no closer to showing whether humans truly have free will.

Meanwhile, Buddhism is pretty vague on free-will, citing the interconnectedness of all things and giving the implication that humans are partly free.

More secular philosophers have argued in terms of determinism – the idea that events in the universe are in theory predictable, given enough information – and whether this scuppers free will. Hard determinists, such as Baron d’Holbach took the view that since the universe was deterministic, no one could be free from that determinism. Determinism is far from certain, but I don’t think it is the real issue. Surely random events beyond a person’s control would be no more helpful to free will than deterministic ones?

I think Arthur Schopenhauer (He of the surprised hair, right) got a little warmer when he said,

“A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.”

But this week’s Bridging Schisms “I wish I’d written that” prize* goes to Galen Strawson, who explains in simple terms why the idea of free will is nonsensical. It is best summarised with the title of his interview in The Believer (which I highly recommend) – “You cannot make yourself the way you are”.

Galen Strawson argues that to be responsible for one’s actions, one must also be responsible for one’s mental state. You might think in some cases it’s possible to get yourself into a particular frame of mind, to beat an addiction or get some work done, but this must be the result of some previous mental state, which in turn was brought about by yet another previous state and so on. As you can’t will yourself out of nothing, Strawson argues, free will does not exist.

This is a somewhat unusual viewpoint – the majority of people seem to believe in some kind of free will, both religious and non-religious writers have said as much – but I think it makes sense.

Professor Strawson is the first to admit that the lack of free will has some unsettling consequences for “ultimate responsibility”, which he carefully differentiates from everyday moral responsibility. We cannot be ultimately responsible for the way we are nor therefore, for the choices we make as a result of the way we are. That might sound worrying – how can we hold people responsible for their actions if they have no ultimate responsibility? Isn’t it necessary that a civilised society holds people responsible for their actions? I don’t think we should abandon an idea because we do not like the apparent consequences of it. We should abandon ideas only if they are incorrect.

In practice however, I don’t think the lack of free will or ultimate responsibility has huge implications for society and justice. There are still good reasons for laws and punishments. For a start, laws can influence the choices people make because of the penalties they would incur. Whether or not people are truly free, discouraging them from committing violent acts is a good thing. If there’s any change in attitude that the lack of free will might bring about, it could be in shifting our focus from punishment of offenders to protection of would-be victims. Throwing a serial-killer in prison still looks like a good option because it could prevent further murders.

So it is reasonable to hold individuals morally responsible as a good way to influence behaviour and to improve society. The lack of free will or ultimate responsibility doesn’t mean you have an excuse for neglecting your homework – no matter how groovy your teacher!

* – the prize is a link to his website.

4 thoughts on “What on Earth is free will?

  1. I think you are trying to define free will quite broadly, which is great. Your question is, are we free to do as we wish at all?

    Christianity’s posture, I think, is whether God allows us to do as we please, a much narrower viewpoint than yours, which does without the idea of God.

    If you ask me, the right answer usually is a combination of all the conversations on the topic. But, in my opinion, free will is seriously limited by our values, our upbringing, our worldview, our morals, and what not.

    By the way, I like what that guy you quoted said, “A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.”

    But I think he was talking about WOMEN. Have you ever met one that knew what she wanted? I must confess that I don’t know what I want.

  2. Thanks Lorena,

    I think not knowing what one wants may affect men to a similar degree, perhaps we have the illusion of knowing what we want!

    (Language in Schopenhauer’s time was probably always gender-skewed – “man”, “he”).

  3. Schopie wasn’t a big fan of the ladyfolk, mind:

    “Woman is by nature meant only to obey”

    “Men are by nature merely indifferent to one another; but women are by nature enemies”

    and my personal favourite:

    “Only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex”

    He did feel that women were “of more sober judgement” than men, but also characterised them as being overly sympathetic and weak.

    Not a big hitter for the Women’s-Lib movement, really.