Free will

3.3 Some background

From the inside, or from our own subjective point of view, it seems to us that we do act freely. But are we, in fact, free?

This is a metaphysical question, which has important consequences for our conception of our own nature and for morality. How can we hold others and ourselves morally responsible for our actions, if we do not act freely?

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with existence. Some of the questions it ranges over are:

Questions about human beings
  • What is the mind?
  • What is the relation between the mind and the body?
  • What is a soul?
  • Do humans have souls?
  • Can the mind or soul survive the death of the body?
  • Is human behaviour free or determined?
Questions about the physical world
  • What is the nature of Nature?
  • What are space and time?
  • What is a natural law?
  • What is causation?
Questions about God
  • Does God exist?
  • What is the nature of God?
  • What is the relation of God to moral right and wrong?

There are of course further metaphysical questions in each branch of philosophy, but these questions will do for the moment!

The question of free will is a metaphysical question because it addresses the nature of human existence: whether it is determined or free. Are human beings subject to deterministic laws, or are there aspects of human beings which escape these laws?

The following are the three main positions in the free will debate:

Incompatibilism/hard determinism maintains that freedom is incompatible with the truth of determinism, and that determinism is true. Hence we are not free. This position is called ‘hard determinism’ because it insists we do not have free will because we are determined.

Incompatibilism/libertarianism maintains that freedom is incompatible with the truth of determinism, and denies the determinist premise that all events have a cause. In particular, some human actions are not subject to causal necessity.

Compatibilism/soft determinism maintains that freedom is compatible with determinism and accepts the determinist's premise that every event has a cause, but argues that the notion of choice can be preserved in the face of determinism. This position is called ’soft determinism’ because it allows we have free will despite the fact we are determined.

The cause/reason distinction

One way of initiating your enquiry into this topic is via the distinction between a cause and a reason. In English we use the word 'because' for both:

(1) The window broke because it was hit by a brick.
(2) Minerva repaired the window because it had been broken.

'Because' in (1) indicates a cause; in (2) it indicates a reason. In (1), given the impact of the brick on the window, it couldn't but have been shattered. In (2) there is not the same inevitability: we can imagine that Minerva may not have repaired the window in spite of its being broken. Causes are deterministic, reasons are not. If reasons compel us to act in a certain way, it is because they appeal to our rationality and not because they determine us to so act, as a natural cause determines its effect. Given a cause, its effect cannot but happen; given a reason, the agent must accept it as a reason and be prepared to act upon it as a reason for the action it recommends to follow.

Causation is not unproblematic, but we won't go into that here. Any form of determinism must rely on an understanding of causation as a necessary relation between cause and event. That is, given a cause, the event cannot but follow.

Human actions do not seem to be governed by the same kind of necessity. When I cross the road in order to get to the newsagent to buy my daily newspaper, I take myself to be operating freely. That is, I take myself to have the choice of doing otherwise. But if my action is caused in the strict sense of that word, I could not have done otherwise and my feeling of freedom would be only an illusion.

Freedom – or the possibility of doing otherwise – plays a central role in our practices of holding people responsible for their actions. Responsibility, however, is a moral notion, which we broach in unit 5, where we shall also consider when something should be considered to be an action as such. Here, I wish simply to draw your attention to one way of understanding a clear-cut example of the relation between action and freedom.

One clear class of actions are those where there is an intention that informs the action. Intention makes all the difference between my kicking someone and a knee-jerk reflex, even though both may have precisely the same consequence in inflicting damage. Both of these acts are sourced in me, but the first is sourced in my intention, and the second is sourced in an aspect of myself over which I have no control. Only the first is clearly also an action, whereas the second is more like a natural event or happening, brought about by a mechanistic cause.

The crucial distinction here is between something which is intended and something which is caused. Or rather, what is at issue in this debate is whether this is a genuine distinction.

Determinism (or at least hard determinism) claims that there are no genuine actions, but only happenings brought about by mechanistic causes. If determinism is true, we are not really agents, and all our talk about actions, intentions and responsibility is empty. For the determinists we are all in the position of the knee-jerk kicker, all the time, and we never really act for reasons. When I choose to cross the road so that I can get to the newsagent to get my paper, I take myself to be acting for a reason, but I'm not really.

If determinism is true, there is a deep schism between what we take ourselves to be and what we really are. The self-awareness and self-consciousness that are central to the way in which we relate to and understand ourselves, and which cannot but give us a sense of ourselves as agents, as the authors of our actions, are deceptive and misleading. This is Schopenhauer's argument.

Similarly our practice of holding ourselves and others morally responsible for our actions is deeply challenged by determinism.