Chapter 8:  The Case Against Free Will




Traditionally, “Free Will” is one of those things that is supposed to separate human beings from everything else in the universe.  Human beings have free will, it is said, and nothing else does (except, perhaps, for God).



Morality:  It is often assumed that the possession of free will is a necessary condition for moral evaluation.  Nonhuman animals do not have free will, it is said, and this is why it is meaningless to speak of their actions as being “right” or “wrong”.  But, human beings can freely choose their actions, and so are subject to moral evaluation.


The Problem of Evil:  As we have seen, free will is a popular (and incomplete) response to the Problem of Evil.  Why would a benevolent god allow evil to exist?  Because God gave human beings free will, and the exercise of free will in finite, imperfect beings inevitably leads to evil.


Robots:  The notion of free will is also invoked to challenge the idea that a robot or computer can truly be said to make decisions:  Computers are just automatons that slavishly follow instructions…their decisions are made for them by their programs.


Free will is said to be extremely valuable.  Many people would say that life would not be worth living without it.  So…what exactly is free will?


Roughly, having free will is a matter of having control over one’s actions.  This seems to imply that free will requires that our actions are not determined by outside forces.




Fatalism and Determinism


Are there facts about the future?  Consider the proposition that the Yankees will win the World Series next year.  No one knows for certain whether this proposition is true.  But, in general, whether something is true doesn’t depend on whether anyone knows it.  Fatalism is the idea that the proposition about the Yankees--as well as every other proposition about the past, present and future—has already been settled.  There is a fact of the matter—right now—as to whether the Yankees will go all the way next year.  Of course, we won’t know what that fact is until next year, but it has already been settled and nothing that is going to happen is going to change it.


If Fatalism is true, then it would seem that free will does not exist.  After all, if all facts about the world (including past, present and future) had already been settled before we were born, then it is hard to see how we could have any control over our actions.


Ancient theologians considered this problem in the context of God’s omniscience:


The Argument From God’s Foreknowledge 


1)  Because God knows everything, they argued, God knows everything that will happen in the future. 


2)  But then God must know every action that we will take. 


3)  If that is the case, then there is nothing that we can do differently (if we were to do something differently, that that would contradict the idea that God knew what we were going to do).


4)  In other words, our every action and choice has already been settled in advance.


5)  Therefore, we have no free will.


While the argument above assumes the existence of an omniscient God, Fatalism leads trouble for free will regardless of whether God is in the picture.  (Instead of formulating the problem in terms of God knowing the future, we can formulate it in terms of there being facts about the future).


Naturally, people are inclined to deny Fatalism.  “The future is not set”, people say.  But Fatalism is supported by a closely related doctrine:




“To say that a system is deterministic means that everything that happens within it is the result of prior causes, and that once the causes occur the effects must inevitably follow, given the surrounding circumstances and the Laws of Nature.”  (PP, p. 102)


While fatalism says that the future is settled, determinism tells us why it is settled.  The future is settled because it has been determined by causes that will bring it about.



          Examples of deterministic systems:


· A billiard table (or, for that matter, any system that can be described by Newtonian physics)


                    · A computer (or any other predictable machine)


Are there examples of non-deterministic systems?  Certainly, there are things that we can’t predict, such as the weather (although meteorologists have gotten better at this).  But does this mean:


A.  The weather is not a deterministic system.




B.  We simply don’t have enough information about the causes of weather and the exact initial conditions to enable us to accurately predict future weather.




In general, determinism doesn’t entail predictability.



The Argument from Sufficient Reason              


1)  Take some arbitrary event, E.


2)  If E had no cause sufficient to bring it about, then it wouldn’t have happened.


3)  But E did happen.


4)  Therefore, E had a cause sufficient to bring it about.


5)  Since E is arbitrary, we may safely conclude that all events have causes sufficient to bring them about.


6)  It follows that all of our actions are caused by prior events.


7)  It also follows that the prior events leading to our actions were caused by other prior events, and so on…


8)  Therefore, everything we do is the result of causal chains extending backward in time long before we were born.


9)  Therefore, everything we do is caused by forces over which we have no control


10)  If our actions are caused by forces over which we have no control, we do not act freely.



11)  Therefore, we never act freely.


In addition to general philosophical arguments, we can consider various theories and evidence regarding what causes human actions.


Genetic Determinism


Genetic determinism is the idea that our genetic makeup determines all of the important facts about ourselves:  Not just what we look like, but also our personalities, our talents and shortcomings, virtues and vices, and so on.  People are disturbed by genetic determinism for a couple of reasons.  First, it would mean that a person’s life will be largely determined by his or her genes, and there is little the person (or anyone else) can do about it.  This doesn’t appear to leave much room for free will.  Second, people find it hard to reconcile genetic determinism with the idea that “all men are created equal”.  Moreover, there is the worry that it will lead to people being  treated differently depending on their genetic make-up, regardless of how the person has actually behaved.  For example, if a person is believed to have genes that will make him prone to violent behavior, then it might be suggested that the person be carefully monitored by the authorities and given mind-altering drugs that suppress violent tendencies.  We normally think that such measures would be justified only if the person had already committed violent crimes; it offends our sense of fairness to treat an innocent person this way.  Yet, if genetic determinism were true, then wouldn’t it be foolish to pretend otherwise?  Suppose that you believed in genetic determinism and you were hiring a babysitter.  And suppose that an applicant has genes that you believe lead to violent behavior.  Would you hire this person?


Environmental Determinism


Another extreme view is that all of the important facts about ourselves are determined by our environment.  The idea is that while certain basic features of our bodies have a genetic basis (e.g. our species, our eye color, etc.) our personalities, our talents and shortcomings, virtues and vices, and so on, are a product of the way we were raised and the sorts of experiences we have had.  This was, roughly, the view of behaviorist psychologists in the 20th century.  According to the behaviorists, the way that we behave is determined by prior conditioning.  We do the things that we been rewarded for and avoid the things that we have been punished for.  Environmental determinism may not offend our sense of equality and fairness in the way that genetic determinism does, but it doesn’t leave any more room for free will, either.


Nature and Nurture


Today, it is generally accepted that both genetic determinism and environmental determinism are false.  It is said that human beings are a product of both genetics and environment.  But both of these are forces beyond our control.  We do not choose our ancestors, and we do not choose the world we are born into.  If our choices are a function of genes + environment, then it appears that we have no free will.


Essentially, this was Clarence Darrow’s defense of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, the teenage boys who kidnapped and murdered a younger boy named Bobby Franks in 1924.  (See PP, 99-101)


Free Will and Neurology



The experiments of Jose Delgado:


· Showed that you can cause movements of the body by stimulating specific parts of the brain.  For example, a monkey could be caused blink, move its arms, or even to get up and walk around.


· It works on humans, too.


· The subject experiences the movements as though they were voluntary actions.  Human subjects will even come up with reasons why they were doing it, despite the fact that the action was caused by an outside electrical stimulation of the brain.


In one subject, electrical stimulation of the brain produced “head turning and slow displacement of the body to either side with a well-oriented and apparently normal sequence, as if the patient were looking for something.”  This was repeated six times over two days, confirming that the stimulation was actually producing the behavior.  But the subject, who did not know about the electrical stimulation, considered the activity spontaneous and offered reasons for it.  When asked “What are you doing?” he would reply “I am looking for my slippers,” “I heard a noise,” “I am restless,” or “I was looking under the bed.”  (PP, p. 104)



The experiments of H. H. Kornhuber:


·  Confirm that the characteristic brain activity responsible for bodily movements begins up to one-and-a-half seconds before the person is consciously aware of having made any decision to move.  A technician watching an electoencephalograph can know that you are going to move your finger before you do.


What the experiments suggest is that free will is just an illusion borne of ignorance.  We believe that we are in control of our actions because we are not aware of their true causes.



Chapter 9:  The Debate over Free Will



9.1.  The Determinist Argument



1)  Everything we do is caused by forces over which we have no control.


2)  If our actions are caused by forces over which we have no control, we do not act freely.



3)  Therefore, we never act freely.



This is just the last three lines of the Argument from Sufficient Reason, given earlier.  The first premise of the Determinist Argument (premise 9 of the Argument from Sufficient Reason) is supported by two sets of considerations.  One set of considerations is general and philosophical in nature, and that is what the Argument from Sufficient Reason is about.  The other set of considerations is particular and scientific, concerning the specific causes of human actions.  We looked at these in Chapter 8.  However the premise is supported, if true, it looks to be bad news for free will.  How can human action be free if everything we do is caused by forces over which we have no control?


9.2.  The Libertarian Response



Libertarianism*:  Human actions are not subject to the laws of cause and effect that govern physical objects.  Our actions are not causally determined.  Instead, we have the power to choose one way or another regardless of what has happened in the past.


*this should not be confused with the political philosophy of the same name


The Argument from Experience


1)  Direct experience is the best evidence that we can have for anything.


2)  Therefore, if a theory conflicts with our experience, then we are justified in rejecting the theory.


3)  We have direct conscious experience of being free to make choices.


4)  The theory of Determinism conflicts with that experience.


5)  Therefore, we are justified in rejecting Determinism.




·  2 does not follow from 1.  A theory might be supported by a variety of evidence, including many observations, logical inferences, and other theories.  When taken together, the evidence for a theory can be so powerful that it calls some of our experiences into question.


For example, you may have a vivid experience of flying to the moon in your pajamas.  But then, you weigh this experience against the theory that you were dreaming.  The theory conflicts with your experience, but you accept it anyway, and rightly so.


·  We experience what we believe to be freedom, but this could be a misconception on our part.  Perhaps the distinctive feeling that we have when we make a choice is just that—a feeling.  It doesn’t necessarily signify anything about how our action is or is not caused.  This is plausible; after all, how an action is caused is something external to the action itself.  How could we possibly tell whether an action is caused by outside forces simply by the way it feels?


The Argument That the Universe Is Not a Deterministic System



Quantum theory (the physics of sub-atomic particles) contains laws that are irreducibly probabilistic.


The laws of quantum theory do not say “Given X, Y must follow.”  Instead, they say “Given X, there is a certain probability that Y will follow.”  Thus the Laws of Nature may tell us that under certain conditions a certain percentage of radioactive atoms will decay, but they do not tell us which atoms will decay.  The fact that a certain percentage will decay may be determined, but the fact that a particular atom will decay is not determined.  (PP, p. 120)



If true, then this would seem to undermine premise 2 from the Argument from Sufficient Reason:  some events happen not because there is a cause sufficient to bring them about, but merely because there was a cause that had a probability of bringing them about.  If the Argument from Sufficient Reason is unsound, then maybe there is hope for free will after all.


But there are a number of problems with using quantum theory to support the possibility of free will:


·  Even if the universe is probabilistic at the sub-atomic level, it might still be deterministic at the macro level.  A computer’s behavior is determined by its inputs and its program, despite the tiny size of its circuitry.  Why think that human beings are any different?  The implications of quantum uncertainty for human behavior, and macro-events in general, are so small as to make no real difference.


·  What if quantum uncertainty did make a big difference to our actions, so that it was common that random events at the sub-atomic level resulted in our doing one thing as opposed to another?  This would still not support the idea that we have free will.  If our actions are random, this doesn’t mean that we are in control of them.  Quantum uncertainty would just be another force that is beyond our control; after all, if quantum phenomena are irreducibly probabilistic, then clearly our will cannot make them turn out one way as opposed to another.


The Argument That We Cannot Predict Our Own Decisions



1)  If human behavior is causally determined, it is in principle predictable.


2)  But a prediction about what someone will do can be thwarted if the person whose behavior is being predicted knows about the prediction and chooses to act otherwise.


3)  Therefore, not all human actions are in principle predictable.


4)  And so not all human actions are causally determined.


          Here’s another way of putting the argument:  If an action of ours really has been determined in advance, then there is nothing we can do about it, whether we were told about it ahead of time or not.  But, if we are told what we are going to do next, we know that we can do otherwise, just by choosing to do something else.  Therefore, our actions are not determined.


As good as this argument sounds, it is flawed.  Being told about a potential future action is itself something that can affect what we will choose to do.  If you are the sort of person who will try to thwart a prediction about your action, then this would have to be taken into consideration by anyone trying to predict what you will do.  The result:  Outside observers might still be able to predict your future actions, but only if they don’t tell you what the actions are.  They might tell you, “You will do X”, even while they know that you will do Y, partly as a result of being told you will do X.  So, contrary to the argument, our ability to thwart predictions does not show that our behavior is unpredictable. 


Think about it this way:  being able to predict someone’s behavior means being able to accurately say what the person will do given all of the inputs/causes that the person has been exposed to.  If you tell someone that she is going to do X, then this is one of the inputs/causes that must be considered.  It might just turn out that there is no X such that the person told she will do will actually do X.


What the argument does show is that it is impossible for us to know what we will do in the future:  any suggestion that is made about what we will do can cause us (deterministically!) to do otherwise.


9.3.  The Compatibilist Response



Compatibilism:  Free will and determinism are compatible.  We can have freedom even if determinism is true.


How?  Compatibilists offer deflationary accounts of free will.  The idea is that we should not “inflate” the notion of free will by including metaphysical implications that human beings cannot satisfy.  Instead, we should look at the actions that we believe to be free, compare them with the actions that we believe to be un-free, and come up with an analysis on this basis.


Check out the lists of actions on page 125…


Apparently, the difference between the un-free actions and the free actions is simply this:  un-free actions are things we don’t want to do and are forced to do, whereas free actions are things we do based on our own desires without being coerced.


The basic idea of Compatibilism may be summed up by saying that “free” does not mean “uncaused.”  Rather, it means something like “uncoerced.”  Thus, whether your behavior is free does not depend on whether it is caused; it only depends on how it is caused. (PP, page 125)




Free Will as Involving Determinism



Suppose that determinism is false, and that your actions are not caused by prior events.  Instead, they just happen.  Arguably, this is impossible.  But if it were possible, it would mean that a person’s actions would be chaotic and totally unpredictable.  This is a recipe for insanity, not freedom.  This leads to the idea that free will actually requires determinism.


Think of what self-determination means in the context of international relations.  A group of people or a nation wants self-determination when it wants the right to determine its own future, rather than being coerced by oppressive governments.  This certainly doesn’t mean that nations want to lie outside of the network of causes and effects in the universe!  Perhaps something analogous is true of individuals:


Free will as self-determination:  My actions are free when they are determined by me—by my own desires and my own personality.


The Problem with Compatibilism


The “problem” is this:  Even if an action is caused by my own desires and personality, it is also true that my own desires and personality were themselves caused by outside forces beyond my control that were set in motion long before I existed.


Is this really a problem?


Answer (A):  Yes, it’s really a problem.  Our actions aren’t really self-caused if our desires and personality are caused by outside forces.


Answer (B):  No, it’s not a problem.  We just have to accept that free will isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  If the immediate cause of an action is our own desires and personality, then that is sufficient for the action to be free.  At any rate, it’s the only kind of freedom we can have.


Thought experiment:  Suppose you are a subject in one of Delgado’s experiments.  Without your specific knowledge, he causes you to walk across the room and turn on the television, then sit down on the couch and begin watching it.  You experience this as a voluntary action, and you actually have the desire to watch television, even though you did not have this desire prior to the electrical stimulation of your brain.


Would the compatibilist say that you acted freely in getting up to turn on the television?


9.4.  Ethics and Free Will


[I haven’t written this up yet]