Origins of the Free Will Problem





Origins of the Free Will Problem



In its modern form the problem of free will is supposed to arise from the scientific discovery (or perhaps scientific presupposition) that determinism is true. It is a tenet of modern science (at least of the Newtonian kind) that every event in nature is the result of universal laws that allow of no exceptions, and this uniformity is supposed to rule out the existence of free acts. If so, the absence of free will is an empirical discovery, because it is an empirical discovery that determinism is true. If physics had turned out differently, we would not have had a reason to deny the existence of free will. In earlier times the threat to free will came from theology in the form of God’s omniscience: if God has complete foreknowledge, then he knows everything a human agent will do; but then there is no free will. Again, this reason to deny free will issues from considerations extrinsic to the concept of free will, in certain facts about God’s nature. If theology had been different, there would not have been a reason to deny free will. We can also imagine another sort of empirical argument for denying free will, viz. that the unconscious, as conceived by Freud, is seething with passions that compel us to act as we do, so that nothing we do is free from such internal coercion. According to this argument, we are forced to act as we do by an unconscious agency that intrudes on our conscious deliberations, robbing us of our freedom. We have the illusion that we are free, as we do under the scientific and theological arguments just mentioned, but in fact we are not—and this is a scientific discovery of psychoanalysis.

            Now I am not concerned here with whether these arguments are sound, or with whether their premises are true—universal determinism, divine foreknowledge, and the all-powerful unconscious. I mention them in order to distinguish them from another type of argument against the possibility of free will, namely that it is inherent in the concept of free will that we are not free. This is what might be called an intrinsic argument against free will, one that stems from the concept itself not from ancillary considerations of an empirical or factual nature. I think this is the more important argument philosophically, but again that is not my primary concern; I wish merely to distinguish the two sorts of argument, as well as to assess the cogency of the intrinsic argument. But first I want to articulate that argument so as to bring out its structure. I also want to note how extraordinary it would be if such an argument were successful.

            There are two components to the concept of free will as we have it, singly necessary and jointly sufficient. The first is that free actions are in some way responsive to desires and other psychological states: we act as we do because of our desires (etc.). There are many ways this responsiveness relation can be characterized but let me simply say that actions are determined by desires, where this does not imply the doctrine of determinism—given the desire (etc.) the action follows.  [1] This property is enshrined in the following proposition: if two individuals are exactly alike in their psychological states, they must act in the same way. An action is not free if it violates this principle, since then it would just be random in relation to desire—as when two psychologically identical individuals with a desire for ice cream act in the one case by buying an ice cream and in the other by tying their shoelaces (say as a result of a nervous spasm). This component of the concept captures the necessary condition that an act is free only if it is in accordance with the agent’s wishes. Thus we could say that the concept of freedom includes “desire-determination”. The second component is that a free action is one that has alternatives: the agent did a certain thing but he could have done otherwise. He had a genuine choice; his particular course of action was not forced on him. He did not act under duress, being given no alternative to what he did. I went to the movies but I could have stayed home and watched TV; no one made me go to the movies against my will. I wasn’t given an offer I couldn’t refuse, either by man or nature. This also is a necessary condition of freedom—that I had alternatives. Call this the “alternatives requirement”. Then we could plausibly claim that desire-determination and the alternatives requirement are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for free action.

            Now we know how the anti-freedom argument will go: these two components are said to be inconsistent with each other. The concept of freedom is contradictory because it combines an insistence on determination with an equally strong insistence that the agent could have acted otherwise. But if the act was determined (fixed, caused by, controlled by) a desire, then it did not admit of alternatives–contrary to the second component. Let us pause to take in how remarkable that conclusion is: we are familiar with philosophical arguments that purport to show that certain concepts harbor hidden contradictions (truth, vague concepts, the concept of a set), but it is another thing to contend that a familiar concept involves a direct contradiction in its very definition, as plain as the nose on your face. Somehow human beings have fashioned a concept that is manifestly contradictory, and yet they have failed to notice this fact. Such stupidity! Such insanity! I mean, what the…  The argument is telling us that our very conceptual scheme, not something arising from an extrinsic fact of physics or theology or psychology, contains a blatant, glaring, and embarrassing logical screw-up. It’s as if we had and used the concept of a “smountain”, where something is a smountain if and only if it is both a very large heap of rocks and also a very small heap of rocks. According to the standard argument, free actions (so-called) involve both determination and the absence of determination: but nothing could ever satisfy those contradictory conditions. Therefore the will is not free and no one ever acts freely.

            As I said, this is an extraordinary result: common sense is grievously contradictory. And on a very important matter too, since moral responsibility hinges on the possibility of free will—you would have thought we would be more careful about making our concepts coherent! We condemn people to severe punishment relying on a concept that is transparently contradictory. This is appalling: but it is good that philosophy exists to expose the conceptual bankruptcy of the whole thing. And the trouble does not stem, forgivably, from an empirical discovery that casts freedom into doubt, or from arcane theology, but from the very concepts we employ every day. This must surely be cause for human shame, wringing of hands, reparations, etc. Thousands of years of obvious conceptual confusion!

            Or perhaps the argument is wrong. Some have contended that one or the other component of the concept is dispensable: desires don’t in any way determine actions, or they do but there is no need for the existence of alternatives. Others have contended that both conditions are necessary but are really compatible upon deeper analysis. I am with these contenders, these reconcilers, but I won’t enter into a detailed defense of that position here. What I will do is offer some sketchy remarks about the notion of being able to act otherwise that I hope will ease the pressure to suppose inconsistency in the concept.

            The first thing to understand is that “I could have done otherwise” does not mean that it is metaphysically possible for two agents to be exactly alike psychologically and yet act differently, still less that they could be exactly alike physically and yet act differently. I have no such thoughts when I reflect that I have alternatives. If I survey my options for what I will do this afternoon—go to the movies, stay home and watch TV, practice my golf swing—I am not contemplating all the ways I can go against my desires and other psychological states; I am enumerating my desires and wondering which one is the most important to me today. I am reviewing my possible choices. If someone forced me to select one of the options, then I would have no choice; but if no one does, then I do have a choice—I have alternatives. This is not a matter of some remarkable kind of metaphysical modality but merely an expression of the fact that it is my desires that count not something alien and inimical to them. The paradigm freedom-destroying agency is someone forcing you to do what you have no desire to do. Freedom is acting on your desires not on someone else’s desires under conditions of duress. But in addition there are many other kinds of freedom-destroyer: not just real threats but perceived threats, internal compulsions like phobias and obsessions, unconscious biases and motivations, motor dysfunctions, insanity, brain washing, hypnosis, epilepsy, cowardice, etc. All these can interfere with the agent’s considered judgment about what it would be best to do.

The concept of being able to do otherwise is a portmanteau concept, collecting together disparate conditions and causal factors. It is imprecise and context-dependent. To say that someone acted freely is to rule out any of an open-ended list of possible disruptive factors; and there will be questions of degree here—how much the agent’s freedom was compromised. But there is no suggestion that universal determinism excludes freedom or divine foreknowledge: when I think of myself as free to act in a certain way I don’t think of myself as unpredictable by God or as hovering above the web of causal laws that govern the universe. I have much humbler matters on my mind. The mistake is to interpret a practical portmanteau concept as a unitary metaphysical concept. To be free is not to escape the causal net or God’s all-seeing eye but to act as you see fit—to do what you want when you want. Neither God nor Newton can take that away from you.

            That is a familiar compatibilist line and I don’t propose to elaborate and defend it further. My main point is that the concept of freedom is not inherently contradictory because it does not imply anything contrary to desire-determination. So our conceptual scheme as it relates to human behavior is not riddled with logical error. The two components of the concept of freedom are not in tension with each other but complement each other. We misunderstood the “grammar” of “I could have done otherwise”, as Wittgenstein would say; and indeed it does have the appearance of a modal claim analogous to “the particle could have gone in a different direction”. But it occurs in its own “language game” and carries no metaphysical punch: that is, its actual meaning is given by the range of things that rule out freedom as ordinarily conceived. But this is consistent with allowing that some extrinsic considerations could rule freedom out: we might not be as free as we fondly suppose. Determinism and divine foreknowledge don’t do this, as compatibilists have long urged, but we can imagine other types of threat, as with the Freudian argument mentioned earlier. Suppose it turned out that human action is largely or wholly governed by unconscious passions that we have no control over; thus I am subject to compulsions of which I have no conscious knowledge. Then it would be plausible to maintain that my actions are not free, or not as free as I thought: I thought sending a birthday card to my father was a free act of kindness, but actually I had a hidden motive that made me select a card that would hurt him deeply; or I play tennis with him not in order to enjoy a game together but to relish (unconsciously) the opportunity of beating him. This really would undermine my freedom, because it would sharply limit the desires I can act on: in the end I am always compelled to act on patricidal desires stemming from my unresolved Oedipus complex, not from other desires I might have. It is as if my unconscious operates as an external agency bending me to its will—I am a puppet not a puppeteer. That would count as a scientific discovery that undermines free will, and it does so within the terms stipulated by the concept. Here incompatibilism would be indisputable. So it is not that the concept of freedom is necessarily immune from skeptical attack—despite being internally perfectly coherent. But the attack has to be of the right form; in particular, it must cast doubt on the idea of genuine alternatives that an attribution of freedom requires. I can undermine a specific attribution of freedom by pointing to external interference or to inner compulsion; well, I could also do this more globally, even to the point of contesting any attribution of freedom. We are not guaranteedto be free. And this is a matter of common sense not sophisticated science or theology or metaphysics. However, and fortunately, no such empirical threat actually exists, since the Freudian picture is not to be believed on empirical grounds—and even Freud didn’t contend that human acts are never free because of the malign effects of the unconscious. The same goes for the idea that we are all so massively brain-washed that none of our actions correspond to our own authentic desires: we really desire such and such, but because of propaganda we never do such and such, instead doing what we don’t really desire to do. In principle that could be so, in which case our freedom would be limited to non-existent, merely an illusion of freedom (but do we really never want to eat?). However, there is no good reason to suppose that this is the situation in which we find ourselves: we actually do have real desires that we act upon without impediment, external or internal. So we are free (maybe some people more than others).

            Potential threats to freedom can arise from various sources, some more persuasive than others. Philosophically the most interesting potential threat arises (supposedly) from the content of the concept itself, which does not depend on contingent facts of the universe. But (a) it is extremely unlikely that so deeply embedded and universal a concept could harbor the kind of contradiction some philosophers have suspected, and (b) it turns out that the alleged contradiction can be defused by paying careful attention to the actual way the concept of alternatives is employed. Still, it is somewhat surprising that the concept should be as problematic as it has proved to be—so prone to misunderstanding. It is not as if the anti-free will argument immediately strikes us as absurd; on the contrary, it is only too easy to be caught up in it and find it hard to escape its grip. The concept of free will is understandably misunderstood. The free will problem is a paradigm of philosophy because it can easily seem as if a part of common sense is riddled with confusion and error but on reflection is not—it is hard to see what lies before our eyes. Why should our concepts be so confusing, so liable to misunderstanding? What is wrong with us that we can’t gain a clear understanding of our own clear concepts?


  [1] This doesn’t imply the doctrine of determinism understood as the thesis that every event falls under strict laws.

2 replies
  1. Dermot O’Keeffe
    Dermot O’Keeffe says:

    May I say first of all that my recently discovering this site has been such a pleasure.

    I don’t understand your interpretation of being able to do otherwise. It sounds like a denial of exactly that.

    If it were demonstrable that my every desire (including their unequal weighting) were merely a function of suggestion, genetics, environment etc., and that my life trajectory were entirely rigidity fixed, I cannot see how the apparent jostling of desires amounts to freedom.
    If a prison first hypnotised me to want to break rocks, and then allowed me to do so, I don’t think I would be free.

    As I grow older, and perhaps old, I recognise that much of my life has been the product of factors I would now eschew.
    One could quote Sophocles…

    Everyone knows the methodological problem of Rawls’ original position.
    Where do these preferences and values originate?

    I think libertarians imagine they are the captains of their soul and that they can decisively shape their lives.
    There really is a conceptual problem with that scenario, I think.
    We can do as we want but we can’t want as we want, as Schopenhauer famously said.

    So to me, compatibilism does a certain amount of violence to intuitive ideas of personal freedom.

    The freedom on offer is, to me, the freedom to be a happy conscript.

    I look forward to reading your other papers on this site , on freedom.


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