June 02, 2013

Free Will

I come from a devout Jehovah's Witness/Catholic household (doesn't that sound like an exciting mix!) and am myself implicitly atheist. Despite this though, I remain quite interested in theological questions. After much soul-searching, I have finally found myself prepared to embrace a world absent divinity, but nevertheless keep my heart open to the alternative.

Firstly, I want to thank you for doing what you do, because you are perhaps the most refreshingly clear thinker I know who is easily come across on YouTube. People today are not clear-minded, and movements like new atheism and the people one is generally surrounded by (at least in my neighborhood) will absolutely pollute the mind. Even as an atheist, though, I was brought to euphoria the day I watched you debate Sam Harris. Despite what was for me an unsettling conclusion, your argument was so crisply delivered, I could not help but after joyously reflect, "I was wrong! And I know why!" In all the arguments I've engaged in others with, people tend to reason so murkily that regardless of who is "right", the arguments they offer are so fraught with fallacy that their position is not logically comprehensible, thus leaving their opponent either frustrated or confused rather than intellectually up built.

As for my question, it concerns the nature of free will...what is it? Everywhere I have looked for arguments defending the existence of free will, I seem only to find it argued that free will has not been ruled out by determinism or that the concept is necessary for some social reason. To my surprise, it seems no attempt has ever been made to actually describe what a choice is. Whatever it is, at the least it can be said to be an event that can influence physical events, do you think? If the nature of choice admits at present no description whatsoever, how can one be held accountable for the event of a choice they make when, fundamentally, they literally have no clue what happened?

Furthermore, on a more personal note, the thought that my actions originate from some ethereal and unintelligible source robs my actions of any genuine meaning, in the sense that there is no meaningful way to understand what I have done.

Thank you very much for your time!


United States

I’m so pleased to receive your generous comments, Sebastian! By making one’s premises clear, we can at least identify clearly on which points we disagree, so as to have a fruitful discussion.

Everyone acknowledges that we have at least the illusion of free will. I take it that my sense of freely choosing is not mere appearance only, since if it were, nothing I think or do is of any significance whatsoever. Even the decision to believe in determinism would be meaningless, no more significant than having a toothache. Since freedom of the will is a necessary condition of the meaningfulness of my life, I may as well assume that I do have it. After all, if I do not have free will and my life is meaningless, who cares?

So I think that determinism is incompatible with free will, but that determinism has not been demonstrated to be true. So what does it mean to have free will? Some thinkers have said that it is the ability in causally identical situations to choose either A or not-A. It seems to me, however, that this so-called Principle of Alternative Possibilities is not a necessary condition of willing freely. I’m persuaded by illustrations like that given by Harry Frankfurt to show that freedom does not require the ability to choose other than as one does. Imagine a man whose brain has been secretly implanted with electrodes by a mad scientist. The scientist, being an Obama supporter, decides that he will activate the electrodes to make the man vote for Obama if the man goes into the polling booth to vote for Romney. On the other hand, if the man chooses to vote for Obama, then the scientist will not activate the electrodes. Suppose, then, the man goes into the polling booth and presses the button to vote for Obama. In such a case it seems that the man freely votes for Obama. Yet it was not within his power to do anything different!

Such thought experiments have been criticized on the grounds that no one could know what the man was going to do before he actually attempted to do so; hence, his free decision must be aborted by the activation of the electrodes. But while this objection seems cogent against human examples of prevention or intervention, it occurs to me that if God has middle knowledge and so knows what a person would freely do in any set of circumstances God might place him in, then the objection has no force. Suppose, for example, that had God known that Pontius Pilate would not send Jesus to the cross, He would not have placed Pilate in such circumstances. In that case, Pilate did not under the circumstances have the ability to let Jesus go. Yet he freely sent Jesus to the cross, since nothing determined him to do so.

This suggests that what is critical to free will is not the ability to choose differently in identical circumstances but rather not being caused to do something by causes other than oneself. It is up to me how I choose, and nothing determines my choice. Sometimes philosophers call this agent causation. The agent himself is the cause of his actions. His decisions are differentiated from random events by being done by the agent himself for reasons the agent has in mind.

This understanding of free will has relevance to the case of God Himself. Jesus, being divine, was impeccable (could not sin). Therefore, there was no possibility of his yielding to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. Yet he resisted sin freely because nothing external to him determined his choices. Like the man with the electrodes implanted in his brain, Jesus could not have chosen to sin, but he freely resisted sin. Again, God cannot choose to do evil, yet He freely does the Good because nothing outside Him determines Him to do so.

So, to return to the case of human agents, certainly a free choice influences physical events, most obviously in the case of basic actions in my own body, like freely lifting my arm. We are not causally determined to make all the choices we make; rather many choices are up to us and are therefore free choices. We are held accountable for such choices because they are not the result of random brain events but are undertaken for reasons which we weigh and act upon.

I’m not sure what you mean by “some ethereal and unintelligible source,” but if you are referring to God, I agree that if God secretly determines my every thought and action, then I am but a puppet whose actions are meaningless. But a God endowed with middle knowledge of what persons would freely do in any set of circumstances God might place them in can be provident over human affairs without infringing on human freedom.