I’m Free




I’m Free


Philosophy has saddled itself with the phrase “free will”, asking such questions as whether free will is possible, whether it is compatible with determinism (and indeterminism), and what its nature is. Is it conceivable that the phrase itself is responsible for the seeming intractability of the problem? Consider the sentence “I have free will”: it suggests that I possess a specific attribute or faculty whose name is “free will” (or “freedom of the will”). But can we not paraphrase the sentence as follows: “I’m free in the exercise of my will”? Here we predicate freedom of a person while speaking of that person’s will (we could also say, “I’m free in the way I act”). Those experts on the subject of free will The Rolling Stones have the following lines in their song “I’m Free”: “I’m free to do what I want any old time” and “I’m free to choose what I please any old time”. They predicate freedom of a person (not of his or her will) and talk about wanting and pleasing—any old time. Maybe if we focus on this style of freedom talk we will see things more clearly.

            We have other phrases of the form “free F” where F is a type of thing other than a person: “free speech”, “free assembly”, “free thought”, “free love”. Take free speech: are we to suppose that there is a special attribute or faculty named “free speech” which people possess? Surely attributions of free speech mean something like this: “I’m free so far as my speech is concerned”; or (following the Stones) “I’m free to say what I want any old time”. I’m free to say what I want because no one is preventing me saying what I want—no one is interfering with my speech desires, making me say things I don’t want to or stopping me saying things I do want to. Possibly, too, I’m free of interference from within myself in the form of verbal compulsions or tics or some such: I can say what I reallywant, not what some disruptive inner demon makes me say. This is the familiar idea of freedom from constraint or interference. Would anyone wish to say there is a metaphysical problem about free speech?  Would anyone wonder whether free speech is compatible with determinism? Would it nullify freedom of speech if acts of speech were lawfully caused by the speaker’s desires? I don’t think so. One might have philosophical issues about speech, even quite deep issues, but there is no particular problem about what freedom in such a context amounts to. Language and its use are profound and difficult topics, but freedom of expression is just a matter of being free from certain constraints (not including causation by desire). If a philosopher were to puzzle herself by wondering what the nature of the faculty of “free speech” consists in, postulating special kinds of causation or no causation at all, we would think she had got herself onto the wrong track—we might even reach for the dreaded phrase “pseudo problem”. There are not two types of speech, the free kind and the unfree kind, considered independently of the question of outside (or inside) interference—with the free kind said to belong to mature humans and the unfree kind to belong to infants and animals. The vocal performances of whales, dolphins, and children are no more lacking in freedom of speech than ordinary adult human utterances—there is no special faculty named “free speech” that they lack and we possess.  [1]

            A suggestion thus asserts itself: so-called free will is just the sum of all such individual freedoms—all the things an agent is free to do because she is free from certain constraints. There is no more to the notion than that, and this is apparent from the paraphrase in terms of what a person (or other agent) is free to do. You don’t need some remarkable faculty called “free will” to be free; you just need to be able to act as you desire, please, see fit, approve, etc. Similarly there are not two types of love, the free kind and the unfree kind, considered as emotional states; there is just freedom from interference with respect to your love life. We should not reify these nominal phrases, positing a special entity with a puzzling nature. If all action were free from interference, we would not need the locution “free will”; we would simply speak of “the will” without modification. The will is trivially free insofar as it is not constrained: “free will” a pleonasm. The will doesn’t change according to whether the agent is free or not—with some agents having one kind of will and others another kind; talk of freedom is just a way to register the absence of interference. Thus there is nothing puzzling or mysterious about the freedom of the will, though doubtless there are puzzles and mysteries about the will per se.  [2] Animals are free to do what they want and choose what they please any old time (though we often take away their freedom). They don’t possess an inferior grade of will that lacks in the quality of freedom, any more than a human prisoner possesses such a degraded will. The phrase “free will” is a logically misleading expression, leading us to postulate a special kind of faculty with a distinctive inner nature—as it might be, decision without any antecedent desire. According to some views, free will requires indeterminism in decision-making, any other kind being deemed not genuinely free. Animals are thought to make only deterministic decisions governed by the laws of nature, while adult humans can transcend laws of nature and dabble in indeterminism. It is the supernatural soul that makes our will free, leaving animals (and certain humans) to languish in volitional bondage. But surely this is all mythology: animals have as much freedom as we have insofar as they can act without constraint according to their wishes. There is no sharp metaphysical dichotomy here. It may be that different species have different kinds of will, more or less sophisticated, but they don’t differ with respect to their freedom. Many animals may have more freedom than humans from the point of view of constraint.

            It would be bizarre to suggest that I lack freedom of speech because my speech acts are determined by what I want to say—that is precisely what freedom of speech is! Likewise it is bizarre to suggest that I am not a free agent because I always act according to my desires—indeed that my desires cause my actions. An individual is free if her actions are appropriately linked to her desires; there is no need to bring in a special mental faculty cryptically labeled “free will”. There is no such faculty; there is simply the faculty of will operating in varying circumstances, rendering the person free in some and not free in others. If I lose my freedom to act in a certain way, say by being imprisoned, I do not lose some kind of metaphysical essence, rather like losing consciousness; I merely cannot exercise my will freely, i.e. as I would wish to exercise it. Freedom is an entirely extraneous affair not a matter of the inner nature of a specific human faculty.  [3] There is really no such thing as “free will”, though humans are generally free.  [4] I am free, but it is a kind of category mistake to suppose that my will is free. For what kind of property is that—what is the attribute designated by “free” in “free will”? There are open doors and closed doors, but there are not two intrinsically different kinds of door—the open kind and the closed kind. Similarly, there are confined animals and free-range animals, but there are not two intrinsically different kinds of animal. There is no metaphysical puzzle about the nature and possibility of the faculty of freedom of range in contrast to confinement—the phrase “free-range” is not the name of a special faculty inherent in some animals but not in others. Likewise, there is no intrinsic difference between the operation of my will when I am externally constrained and its operation when I am choosing as I please—it is the same old will operating in different circumstances. To invoke a phrase of the British vernacular, to be free is not to be “buggered about”—made to depart from what one feels like doing.  [5]This has nothing to do with fancy faculties for flouting the laws of nature. When a man is released from captivity he may exclaim, “I’m free!” but he doesn’t announce that he has just got his faculty of free will back, as if he was just a mechanism while in prison. His will was always free, if we are to insist on talking that way, since he always had the power to act on his desires, even if he could not exercise that power for the duration. Nothing in his psychological make-up changed while imprisoned: he didn’t turn onto a mere machine when he walked through the prison gates.

To be sure, people can be more or less able to control their impulses, more or less able to regulate their desires, but this is not a matter of possessing a special faculty of free will in contrast to a volitional faculty lacking in freedom (“unfree will”): wills can differ in their nature without falling into one or other of these two artificial metaphysical categories. Certainly, we should not entertain such extravagant ideas as that volitional indeterminism can somehow emerge from determinism in evolution or individual development. There can be no such thing as an inherently unfree will; for every will, properly so called, has the possibility of desired action built into it. This is the natural home of the concept of freedom; the traditional phrase “free will” misleadingly suggests a metaphysical foundation for freedom that simply doesn’t exist.  [6]


  [1] This is not to deny deep differences between the two kinds of vocal performance—in particular, when it comes to stimulus-independence: but that is not a question of whether the performer is exercising his or her freedom of speech, i.e. speaking according to desire. We should not confuse what is called “stimulus-freedom” with freedom of speech.

  [2] I would cite the nature of mental causation as one such puzzle, along with the general mind-body problem.

  [3] That is, extraneous with respect to desire: but there can be internal factors, psychological and physical, which interfere with acting on one’s desires, such as compulsions and brain pathologies. The tendency to think of ordinary desires as somehow analogous to such disruptive internal factors is one source of confusion in discussions of free will.

  [4] I hope I am not being too optimistic here; you know what I mean.

  [5] I recall Kingsley Amis once remarking that his life hadn’t been all that bad because at least he hadn’t been buggered about too much in the course of it. He hadn’t had his freedom thwarted. He could do as he pleased, any old time.

  [6] This paper complements my paper “Freedom As Determination” which argues that freedom entailsdeterminism and is not merely compatible with it. The present paper diagnoses one source of resistance to that kind of position. This seems to be one of those rare instances in which philosophical confusion arises from a form of words—but words from philosophical language not ordinary language. The words “free will” look like a name of some attribute or faculty (compare “consciousness”), but when we examine how we use the word “free” that impression dissipates.

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