Free will

In a recent post, baralbion raised some philosophical questions which interested me. I decided to have a shot at responding to them on an occasional basis.

The first one is this:

Every event is the result of a preceding event. For every result there is a cause. There is no free will.

This question – whether we have free will or whether we are subject to determinism – is a big one and debate on the topic shows no sign of reaching any resolution. A determinist – one who believes that we have no free will – can always argue that whatever we do, say or think is the effect of some cause or causes and that we have no choice in the matter. Even the fact that we believe something is merely the effect of some cause or causes. It is an argument that the determinist cannot lose.

The argument goes something like this*: everything is the effect of some cause therefore our actions, words and thoughts are also the effects of some causes and therefore we do not have free will. The difficulty is that while most of us agree that this is true of the physical world – and perhaps even of the simpler organisms – we feel that our minds are different, that we are reflective, decision-making creatures, that our minds somehow escape the laws that apply to dead matter and that we therefore possess, at least to some extent, free will. The problem is proving it.

And no trivial problem this turns out to be. We haven’t the space to pursue the subject in depth but here are a couple of ideas. Some people propose that “I” am not my brain-body combination but my “soul”. My soul exists in some unspecified relationship to my body, storing my memories and the attributes that form my personality – everything that makes me me. Not being physical, it neither depends on the body nor perishes with the body when this dies. More importantly for our argument, it is not constrained by the physical laws of cause and effect that apply to brute nature. It is a free agent and therefore has free will.

Well, if the soul is not affected by the laws of physics, how does it “acquire” my thoughts, memories, knowledge, etc.? How does it feed these back into my brain when needed? How, in short, does the soul “drive” the body if there is no physical interaction? Why, if an injury to my brain removes part of my memory, is the soul’s memory similarly afflicted: shouldn’t it remain immune? If not, what is the point of it, anyway?

Some people have picked up on the fact that there appears to be indeterminism at the sub-atomic particle level. If particles can act unpredictably, they suggest, why cannot the mind also do so? Firstly, it is not obvious how processes at the micro level can scale up to the macro level. For example, just because particles go around spontaneously decaying into smaller particles doesn’t mean that human beings go around spontaneously decaying into smaller human beings. But even if the sub-atomic level somehow affects us “up here”, how does that help us: just because an event is unpredictable doesn’t mean there is choice involved in it. Indeterminism would simply act as one more cause of things over which I have no control.

The more deeply you go into the topic, the gloomier the situation becomes. Bodies (including brains) are physical systems; physical systems are subject to the laws of cause and effect; therefore the human body and brain are subject to the laws of cause and effect; therefore there is no free will. Not a glimmer of hope.

In fact, there is just one glimmer, as far as I can see. This takes the form of a paradox: why, if there is no free will, do we spend so much time debating whether there is free will?

Few people would today disagree with the proposition that we human beings are the result of a process of evolution and that evolution has given us the characteristics it has because these are useful to the way we live or, putting it another way, if we were not successful organisms, our race would not survive. Admittedly the pace of evolution often leaves things have finished or leaves in place features that are no longer useful (e.g. the human appendix) but I can see no obvious reason why evolution would endow us with the capacity to debate whether or not we have free will if we do not have free will. That seems a very odd effect to have arisen as a result of past causes, especially as the debate is itself (according to determinists) deterministic. The only way it would make sense to me is if we really did have free will and evolution has necessarily had to let us know this.

It’s not much to go on, I agree. Will we ever get to the bottom of it? It’s hard to see how, since the determinist can always argue that whatever conclusions we draw are drawn because we have no option but to draw them. And yet, and yet…


*For a competent account of the free will v determinism debate presented amusingly but rigorously for the layman, see Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher at the end of the Universe.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Free will

  1. baralbion says:

    A clear exposition and an ingenious attempt at making the free will case. But it’s not just free will we have the capacity to debate but lots of other things as well. In any case I think it would be just too convenient if free will turned out to be an incidental by-product of our evolution. Compatabilists believe that determinism and free will can exist side by side, but I’ve never been able to follow the argument.

    Defenders of free also have to consider whether other animals might have free will. If humans have free will, I don’t see why other primates couldn’t. Until Darwin most people found it difficult to accept that humans were not at the top of the tree. Some still have that problem.

    No, it’s as you say: one thing just leads to another. Of course, if there is no free will, the implications are alarming. Is there then any justification for either reward or punishment?

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Reward and punishment is one issue raised by the free will question and so is religion: most religions assume that man needs saving and that salvation is achieved by the individual striving or at least by making a choice. If we have no choice, then this idea is delusion and the whole notion of salvation a cruel sham. Interestingly, Calvinists believe that whether we are saved or damned was already decided long before we were born and that we can do nothing to alter the verdict, a view that fits perfectly with determinism.

    An alternative to free will as commonly conceived might be the view of some scientists that while the past is completely explicable once it has happened, the future is unpredictable. This “unpredictable determinism” might give us the illusion of free will without the reality.

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  3. baralbion says:

    I think the point in your last paragraph is absolutely right. To say that the future is determined is not to say it is predictable.

    At least, not yet. Take the case of tossing a coin. The result is unpredictable because we can’t possibly take account of all the factors that influence the result. But what if we were able to toss the coin endless times in a controllable environment and were able to exert exactly the same force on the coin each time we tossed it and maintain precisely the coin’s mass? Would we not then be able to predict the result with 100% accuracy? Same might go for everything else. We can’t predict the future because we don’t know the nature of the billions of variables.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    “Prediction” is in some instances very accurate. For example, the movements of the planets of the solar system are known so well that their ephemerides (their positions plotted against time) are issued years in advance. So accurate are these that unexpected deviations in the movements of the then known planets led to the discovery of Neptune. Similarly, eclipses of the sun and moon and eclipses and transits of the satellites of the planets are accurately predicted many years ahead while the failure of periodic comets to keep to their predicted schedules has allowed the discovery of “non-gravitational effects” that cause these deviations.

    Yet indeterminacy enters the system somewhere because not everything can be predicted as accurately. Social trends, for example, which surely ought to be as predictable as the motions of the planets if we have no free will, are notoriously difficult to predict. Some would allege that free will enters as a disturbing factor. Or perhaps determinism ensures that we can predict some things but not others.

    Another glimmer of hope for “free-willers” is the criticism that has been levelled at the concept of cause and effect. The first thing I read on this was an essay by Bertrand Russell where he shows that the concept is far from solidly grounded. The argument runs something like this: if A is the cause of B, then whenever B is present, A must also be present; whenever A is present B must also be present and A must in some sense “precede” B. If ever A or B occur alone, then the causal link cannot be asserted.

    It is in fact difficult to find examples of alleged cause and effect that meet these exacting standards. Just one example: we allege that pulling the trigger causes the gun to fire but how often does it happen that the trigger is pulled and the gun does not fire?

    Does this mean that if some A in the human-body system is a cause of response B but sometimes fails to cause B this could provide an entry for free will? I think not, since we would have to prove that the failure of the “trigger” to “fire” the response was provoked voluntarily by the subject. This takes us back to the original problem without solving it.

    Moreover, despite the doubts over cause and effect, science continues with great success to use the language of cause and effect to improve its description of the world though this is by no means proof of the truth of the concept.

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  5. baralbion says:

    A further point. Our personalities are determined by nature or by nurture or by a combination of both. However you view the degree of the contribution of each, our personalities are laid down well before we reach adulthood and our personalities determine our adult behaviour. So why should we be punished or rewarded for behaviour determined by events over which we have no control?

  6. SilverTiger says:

    This view has of course been used more than once in court in defence of an accused. Courts are not usually sympathetic to it, given the prevailing view that we are masters of our own actions (though the French justice system does admit a special category called “crime passionel”).

    Whether we do have free will or not is unprovable because once an action is performed it becomes part of the past and we cannot change the past. If I went to the pub instead of weeding the garden I cannot prove that I could have stayed at home and weeded the garden instead.

    Maybe a foundation should offer a substantial prize to anyone who can devise an experiment that would show whether we have free will.

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