On Free Will I: Executive Summary

Over the ages, the question of whether we have free will has engaged, confronted, and puzzled philosophers probably more than any other issue, and untold numbers of papers, conferences, books and debates have been expended on tackling it. It is no surprise that so much philosophical ink has been spilled on this question, because it is in a sense the question upon which all other questions depend. If there is no free will, and thus no moral responsibility, it seems we might as well shut down the churches, throw open the prisons, and eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. (Or not. After all, if there is no free will, the concept of what we might or should do is meaningless; in such case, no one could do anything other than what they actually do.)

However, despite the lack of anything approaching consensus, through the ages one position has received considerable acclaim. That position is dualism, the belief that there is some kind of magical, irreducible mind-stuff, distinct from the matter and energy we encounter every day, that animates us and confers upon us our rational and sensory faculties. Advocates of this mind-stuff usually assert that only by this means could we hope to possess free will, that any account of how our minds work that does not include something other than matter and energy obeying physical laws must perforce deny some important or desirable quality of our nature.

This is the first post in a five-part series that will critically analyze this hoary wisdom, showing that it is well-intentioned but mistaken. Mind-stuff is not only unsupported by the evidence, it is unnecessary. Free will is not as difficult to come by as the dualists think. In fact, free will is completely compatible with materialism, the position that all that exists is made of matter and energy, and for this reason the philosophical stance combining the two is usually called compatibilism. That is the position I will be defending.

But before we can lay a foundation, we must first clear away the debris, and so the next post in this series will critically examine and debunk dualism in all its varieties. What these doctrines all amount to is a plea that we not look too closely, an attempt to mark certain areas as off-limits for philosophical inquiry, lest we incautiously rush in and find something that Man Was Not Meant to Know, something that will forever shatter our tenuous but necessary belief in choice and moral responsibility and send us shrieking into the night.

I reject this cowardice disguised as modesty. There may be truths that humanity was not meant to know, but I have yet to come across any, and I see no reason to believe that this is one of them. I have always found it a far superior plan to first find out what is true and then build our happiness around that, rather than deciding what we want to be true and then living as if it was. The latter course of action almost invariably brings catastrophe, when our illusions collide with a Nature that cannot be mocked; the former course gives just as much if not more potential for happiness, I have found, and often brings with it unexpected benefits as well. If some philosophers choose to leave these areas unplumbed, then I will simply have to take the candle of inquiry from them and stride full into the darkness to see what there is to be found; and this is just what I intend to do.

Once the foundation is set, Parts III, IV and V will build upon it. Each of these three will confront a perennial fear raised by dualists against compatibilism, dismantle it, and offer a positive alternative that shows how a purely physical account of the mind can still provide the important aspects of free will. These three hobgoblins are as follows:

  • If materialism is true, there is no free will because there is no genuine unpredictability to our thoughts and deeds. A sufficiently knowledgeable observer could perfectly predict – or perfectly control – our every action.
  • If materialism is true, there is no free will because there is no genuine choice. Whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise, and there is only one possible future regardless of what any of us do.
  • If materialism is true, there is no free will because there is no moral responsibility. Each person’s actions are determined by forces beyond their control, and thus it is pointless to blame or praise, reward or punish, anyone for any act.

So that my readers may breathe a sigh of relief, I will reveal my conclusions ahead of time. Yes, we do have free will; we do have the ability to make genuine and meaningful choices, we genuinely are not fully predictable by any outside agent, and we genuinely are morally responsible for our choices, and none of these things require the existence of a Cartesian theater or a dualist ghost in the machine. In this case at least, the common beliefs about free will are happily true. All I intend to do is show how such phenomena could arise in the clear light of reason, without recourse to miracle or mysticism; and though this quest may require us to discard a few common assumptions, we will see that they are not and could not be of any value in giving us the kind of free will we think we want.

(Note: I am greatly indebted to Daniel Dennett, whose laudably fearless works on this topic – particularly Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves – gave me the confidence to plunge into it for myself, and helped me enormously to clarify my own thoughts. Many of the conclusions in what follows were arrived at with his guidance.)

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    I will be very interested to hear how you approach the issue of responsibility from a compatibilists point of view. I too am a compatibilist who has been deeply influenced by Dennett’s books but in all honesty his positive account of responsibility is lacking to put it mildly.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    Without jumping in ahead of time, I’d offer this suggestion:

    Why not assume that everything in the universe follows certain indisputable rules. Every single atom, each quark or electromagnetic wave (depending on your persuasion :-P) ‘will’ behave in a certain way because if you modelled every thing else in the universe with perfect accuracy, there would only be one possible outcome. In that scenario, it is clear that the required modelling is impossible. Not just practically impossible, but theoretically impossible, because such a model would be required to be entirely separate from (and greater than) the universe to avoid modelling itself, meaning that the universe was ‘part of’ some even greater model you’d also need to take into account. Agh! Hence, even if you do accept the original assumption (hotly disputed I’m sure, I have no way of guessing whether it is ‘true’ or not) then free will can quite happily exist because the universe is by definition inherently unpredictable.

    To me, asking if free will exists is a bit like asking if we live in a 3D world. We clearly do, even if at the same time we clearly don’t.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I’ve never fully understood the question of “Do we have free will?”. It’s an inherently contradctory question. For one thing, it’s impossible to physically tell. We can guess and assume, but it’s impossble to measure. But beyond that, simply asking the question is meaningless; if there is no free will, then you are not asking in the tradition sense of the word, you are simply following programming. Knowledge is useless. Asking is useless. Basically, the question is meaningless if it’s a yes. It’s like another old question; can we prove that anything exists? The answer is no, we can’t prove it, but if nothing exists, so what? If we assume it does exist, we can live, but if we assume life is an illusion, then we may as well die. It is self-defeating to ask.

    I will be interested in seeing the conclusions you come too, however. I have never read Dennet or many other philosophers directly on this question, so I am curious to see what the sides have to offer.

  • Quath

    I would like to understand what is meant by “free will.” Does a cat chosing to eat over sleep exercising free will? Is a computer turning on its fan to cool down showing free will? Is a bacteria chosing to invade a cell expressing free will?

  • Gene

    I gotta say, I’m keen on seeing where this goes. I’ve read a lot of what Ebonmuse has had to say at his site, and most of it, I’ve agreed with. However, I’ve been a rock-solid determinist since I first learned about chaos theory back in high school. Granted, there may be a core self which makes choices, but it’s my contention that that self is itself an amalgam of external determinants.

    Or maybe I’m wrong…

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Hmm…I think this was actually the same topic that prompted me to first talk to Adam directly. That seemed to be what I took away; something like a quantum state in us, at the very basic level, that is actually random, or at least unmeasureable. That’s not how it was put, but that’s how I took it; that there is an ultimate ground state beyond prediction or understanding. That’s really a good enough answer for me, but let’s see what else comes about. We’re waiting eagerly Adam!

  • Montu

    Dude, you’re messen’ with my karma! Throwing all my chakras outta alignment! :-p This will be really interesting, and will probably make me re-think some more things, as well. I just figured out what determanism is reacently, and I was coming to terms with my life being one big “because I said so,” and now you’re offering the belief that free will is possible. Great. Now I’m going to have to hole myself up in my room, scratch away at my notebook, and figure out which is true. I can’t wait!! ^_^

    Yes, I’m a young atheist, still trying to figure out what all that means, and that’s why I’m glad this site is here, as well as Ebonmusings. The challenge is great!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    A few remarks:

    In that scenario, it is clear that the required modelling is impossible. Not just practically impossible, but theoretically impossible, because such a model would be required to be entirely separate from (and greater than) the universe to avoid modelling itself, meaning that the universe was ‘part of’ some even greater model you’d also need to take into account.

    You’re getting ahead of me. :)

    I’ve never fully understood the question of “Do we have free will?”. It’s an inherently contradctory question. For one thing, it’s impossible to physically tell. We can guess and assume, but it’s impossble to measure.

    I don’t think any additional measurements are needed. I would argue that all the evidence we need to determine whether we have free will or not is already in; it’s merely a matter of interpreting it. Free will is nothing mystical or elusive, in my view, and moreover is not that hard to come by.

    Does a cat chosing to eat over sleep exercising free will? Is a computer turning on its fan to cool down showing free will? Is a bacteria chosing to invade a cell expressing free will?

    Part IV will, I hope, address the question of what it means to choose. I believe most of the ambiguity on this issue has to do with an imprecise definition of what that term has historically meant.

  • Mike K

    According to British philosopher Galen Strawson, free will is a ‘want’ that we have acquired rather than something that actually exists. He argues that the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. But he admits it’s not practical to live like that. His reasoning goes something like this:

    (1) You do what you do in the circumstances in which you find yourself because of the way you are.

    (2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are at least in certain mental respects.

    (3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are (you can’t be causa sui, you can’t be the cause of yourself, you can’t be truly or ultimately self-made in any way).

    (4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

    If he’s right, then the matter of our free will is as nebulous and vaporous as the holy ghost. It will be most interesting to see how you tackle this problem Adam.

  • Wilfred

    Ehm, I’m sorry, but you seem to be confusing materialism with determinism. The indeterminism of quantummechanics already saves you from the first two hobgoblins.


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