Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Free will
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Free will

Free will is the philosophical doctrine that our choices are, ultimately, "up to us". Consequently, an unfree action must be somehow "up to" something else. The phrase "up to us" is vague, and, just like free will itself, admits of a variety of interpretations. Because of this vagueness, the usefulness of the concept of free will is questioned by some. We can ask several logically independent questions about free will.

Table of contents
1 Determinism vs. indeterminism
2 Moral responsibility
3 Compatibilist theories of free will and the could-have-done-otherwise principle
4 The science of free will
5 In theology
6 See also
7 External links

Determinism vs. indeterminism

]] Determinism holds that each state of affairs is necessitated (determined) by all the states of affairs that came before it. In other words, what happens next is completely fixed by what came before and could not be otherwise. Indeterminism is the denial of determinism, and implies that some events were not necessitated by the previous states of affairs. In other words, what happens next is not completely fixed by what came before. The idea of determinism is sometimes illustrated by the story of Laplace's demon, who knows all the facts about the past and present and all the natural laws that govern our world, and uses this knowledge to see the future, down to every detail.

]] Some philosophers hold that determinism is at odds with free will. This is the doctrine of "incompatibilism." Incompatibilists generally claim that a person acts freely (has free will) if and only if the person is the sole originating cause of the act and the person could actually have done otherwise. This kind of free will is incompatible with determinism. If determinism is true, and everything that happens is completely determined by the past, including events that preceded our births, then every choice we make would ultimately be determined by prior events that were not under our control. Our choices would be just another outcome determined by the past. So if determinism were true, then we would be trapped by the past and free will would be an illusion. "Hard determinists", such as d'Holbach, are those incompatibilists who accept determination and reject free will. "Libertarians", such as van Inwagen, are those incompatibilists who accept free will, deny determinism, and instead believe that indeterminism is true. (This kind of libertarianism should not be confused with the political position of the same name.)

]] Other philosophers hold that determinism is compatible with free will. These "compatibilists", such as Hobbes, generally claim that a person acts freely if and only if the person willed the act and the person could (hypothetically) have done otherwise if his or her will had been otherwise. They often point to clearcut cases of someone's free will being denied -- rape, murder, theft, and so on. The key to these cases is not that the past is determining the future, but that the aggressor is overriding the victim's desires and preferences about his or her own actions. The aggressor is coercing the victim, which is what nullifies free will. Determinism does not matter. What matters is that our choices are the results of our own desires and preferences, and are not overridden by some external (or even internal) force. For many compatibilists, being free means acting from motives that one doesn't mind acting from. To be a compatibilist, one needn't endorse any particular conception of free will (one need only deny that determinism is at odds with free will), but the positions canvassed here are typical of compatibilism.

Moral responsibility

We generally hold people responsible for their actions, and will say that they deserve praise or blame for what they do. However, moral responsibility is believed by many to require free will. Thus another important issue is whether we are ever morally responsible, and in what sense.

Incompatibilists tend to think that determinism is at odds with moral responsibility. After all, how can you hold someone responsible for an action that could be predicted from the beginning of time? Hard determinists say "So much the worse for moral responsibility!" and junk the concept -- Clarence Darrow famously used this argument to defend the murderers Leopold and Loeb -- while libertarians say "So much the worse for determinism!" This issue appears to be the heart of the dispute between hard determinists and compatibilists; hard determinists are forced to accept that we often have "free will" in the compatibilist sense, but they deny that this sense of free will truly matters -- that it can ground moral responsibility. Just because an agent's choices are uncoerced doesn't change the fact that determinism robs the agent of responsibility.

Compatibilists often argue that, on the contrary, determinism is a prerequisite for moral responsibility -- you can't hold someone responsible unless his actions were determined by something (this argument can be traced to Hume). After all, if indeterminism is true, then those events that are not determined are random. How can you blame or praise someone for performing an action that just spontaneously popped into his nervous system? Instead, they argue, you need to show how the action stemmed from the person's desires and preferences -- the person's character -- before you start holding the person morally responsible. Libertarians sometimes reply that undetermined actions aren't random at all, and that they result from a substantive will whose decisions are undetermined. This move is widely considered unsatisfactory, for it just pushes the problem back a step, and further, it involves some very mysterious metaphysics.

Compatibilist theories of free will and the could-have-done-otherwise principle

Many claim that, in order for a choice to be free in any sense that matters, it must be true that the agent could have done otherwise. They take this principle -- van Inwagen calls it the "principle of alternate possibilities" -- to be a necessary condition for freedom. For instance, if a scientist puts a machine in Bob's brain that makes him kill the President, his action was not free, for Bob couldn't have done otherwise. Incompatibilists often appeal to this principle to show that determinism cannot be reconciled with free will. "If a decision is completely determined by the past," they ask, "how could the agent have decided to do something else?" Compatibilists often reply that what's important is not simply that the agent could have done otherwise, but that the agent could have done otherwise if he or she had wanted to. Moreover, some compatibilists, such as Frankfurt or Dennett, argue that there are clear cases where the agent couldn't have done otherwise, but that the agent's choice was still free: what if Bob really wanted to kill the President and the machine in Bob's brain would only kick in if Bob lost his nerve? If Bob went through with it on his own, surely the act would be free. Incompatibilists claim that the problem with this idea is that what Bob "wanted" was determined before Bob was conceived. More sophisticated analyses of compatibilist free will have been offered. A free action may require not only liberty from external coercion, but also liberty from internal conflicts. Compulsive behaviors and the actions of the insane are thus not free. Moreover, our common sense conceptions of free will also demand the possibility that an agent could act rationally or irrationally with equanimity. In either case, what we mean by free will could be that an agent can claim ownership of his or her will despite external or internal influences.

The science of free will

Throughout the history of science, attempts have been made to answer the question of free will using scientific principles. Early scientific thought often pictured the universe as deterministic, and some assumed that it was simply a matter of gathering sufficient information to be able to predict future events with perfect accuracy. Most current scientific theories are deterministic, almost by default: it is difficult to write the mathematics otherwise. Even most interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest that the total universe is deterministic.

Like physicists, biologists have also frequently addressed the question of free will. One of the most heated debates of biology is that of "nature versus nurture". How important are genetics and biology in human behavior compared to culture and environment? Genetic studies have identified many specific genetic factors that affect the personality of the individual, from obvious cases such as Down's syndrome to more subtle effects such as a statistical predisposition towards schizophrenia. However, it is not certain that environmental determination is less threatening to free will than genetic determination.

It has also become possible to study the living brain and researchers can now watch the decision-making "machinery" at work. A seminal experiment in this field was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, wherein he asked subjects to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he watched the associated activity in their brains. Libet found that the brain activity leading up to the subject flicking their wrist began approximately one-third of a second before the subject consciously decided to move, suggesting that the decision was actually first being made on a subconscious level and only afterward being translated into a "conscious decision." A related experiment performed later by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone involved asking subjects to choose at random which of their hands to move. He found that by stimulating different hemispheres of the brain using magnetic fields it was possible to strongly influence which hand the subject picked. Normally right-handed people would choose to move their right hand 60% of the time, for example, but when the right hemisphere was stimulated they would instead choose their left hand 80% of the time (recall that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere for the right). Despite the external influence on their decision-making, the subjects continued to report that they believed their choice of hand had been made freely.

In theology

The theological doctrine of divine foreknowledge is often alleged to be in conflict with free will. After all, if God knows exactly what will happen, right down to every choice one makes, how can one's choices be free? God's already true or timelessly true knowledge about one's choices seems to constrain one's freedom. This problem is related to the Aristotelian problem of the sea-battle: tomorrow there will or will not be a sea-battle. If there will be one, then it was true yesterday that there would be one. Then it would be necessary that the sea battle will occur. If there won't be one, then by similar reasoning, it is necessary that it won't occur. This means that the future, whatever it is, is completely fixed by past truths -- true propositions about the future. In Christian theology, God is described as not only omniscient but omnipotent, which would seem to imply that not only has God always known what choices you will make tomorrow, but actually chose what you would choose. That is, by virtue of His foreknowledge He knows what will influence your choices, and by virtue of His omnipotence He controls those factors. This becomes especially important for the doctrines relating to salvation. Most Christians find ways of avoiding the conclusion that God predestines who will be saved and who damned, but Calvinists embrace it. Arminians believe that humans always have free will, but God's prevenient grace is always calling them.

Some philosophers believe that free will is equivalent to having a soul, and thus that (at least some) animals don't have free will.

One possible response to the problems of an omniscient God and free will is "open theism." This position holds that God does not know the future because, quite simply, the future does not exist. That contrary to science fiction, the future is not "out there," waiting for us to live through it. And so, with this position one can espouse a God who knows everything there is to know, including all the millions of possibilities/alternatives that the future holds, but he does not know the future because the future, not existing, is not knowable.

In the case of a divine prophecy, it is not that God knows all the future, but that he knows that he will bring this or that to pass, and so, as the all-powerful God, that much is indeed certain and determined.

A further problem with Calvinism is that the Bible is clear that "God is not willing that any should perish." Of course, Calvinism's "double predestination" (i.e., some predestined to heaven, others to hell) falls prey to this scripture, along with scriptures that indicate that one can have their name removed from the Book of Life.

A wholistic view of scripture seems to indicate that some events are predetermined...and some are not. This permits God to predestine some to salvation, without predestining anyone to hell. That is, some are free to choose, and while their choice may take them to hell, it would not be because God preferred it in the sense of forcing it to happen.

See also

External links