Free Will and Free Choice

Author: Jonah Nagashima
Category: Metaphysics
Word Count: 997

An auctioneer opens the bidding on a painting. A moment later, your hand raises.

Now, consider three backstories:

  1. You had no intention to bid, but a spasm caused your hand to raise.
  2. You don’t value the painting, but someone put a gun to your head, telling you to bid “or else.” Wanting to live, you raised your hand.
  3. You wanted the painting, and so you raised your hand to bid.

Were any of these bids made on your own free will? Were they free choices?[1]

This depends on what free will is and whether or not we ever have it.[2] This essay surveys the major positions on these issues.

forking paths

1. Determinism

Suppose that the fundamental physical laws determine every event such that, at the moment of the big bang, it was already settled that you’d read this essay because the laws and initial conditions of the world necessitate that you’d do so; given their presence, it was guaranteed that you would.

This describes physical determinism, which is a kind of determinism, the view that every event is necessitated by prior events: current and future events must happen as they happen.[3]

Alternatively, if indeterminism is true, then not everything is determined: some things that happen aren’t necessitated by prior events; there’s some chance in the picture.[4]

Either free choice is compatible with determinism (“compatibilist” theories of freedom) or it isn’t (“incompatibilist” theories).[5] Let’s explore both options, starting with incompatibilism.

2.1. Incompatibilism: Libertarianism

Libertarians believe that free will is incompatible with determinism and argue that we have free will. Let’s motivate both, starting with incompatibilism.

Two incompatibilist theories of free will are these:

(A) a free choice is one where the person is able to choose other than what she, in fact, chooses: she didn’t have to do what she actually did;[6]

(B) a free choice is one where the person is the ultimate source of her choice.[7]

Story (3) provides some support for these theories: we might say that you freely bid on the painting because you could have refrained from bidding or because you were the sole source of the choice to bid.

These theories are incompatibilist theories: having free will in these senses is incompatible with determinism. If determinism is true, events that happened long before we were born are the ultimate source of our choices, not us, so we lack free will according to theory (B). And, if determinism is true, the past necessitates our choices, making it impossible that we do anything other than what we actually do, so we lack free will according to theory (A).[8]

Libertarians[9] accept theories of free will like these. They argue, however, that we sometimes do have free will, often in the senses of (A) or (B), and so that shows that determinism is false: sometimes we can do other than what we actually do and we are the ultimate source of our choices.

A worry. Libertarians say that free choice requires indeterminism, but indeterminism doesn’t seem hospitable for free choice. Consider backstory (3) again: if this action is not determined, then you could’ve had the exact same desires and reasons for bidding and refrained from bidding. Indeterminism then seems to introduce randomness, which looks inhospitable to free will, as the muscle spasm example (1) suggests: the spasm wasn’t a freely-made bid. Explaining why undetermined actions aren’t ultimately random is a challenge for libertarians.[10]

2.2. Incompatibilism: Hard Determinism

Hard determinists agree with libertarians that free will is incompatible with determinism, but deny that we have free will. They agree that free will requires something like (A) or (B) but argue that, since our world is deterministic, nobody has free will: nobody can do other than what they actually do and nobody is the ultimate source of their actions.[11]

A concern. Many think that we are morally responsible for our actions only when we act from our free will. So hard determinists have the challenge of explaining what justifies practices like punishment and reward, and praise and blame, if we lack free will.[12]

3. Compatibilism

Consider some compatibilist theories of free choice:

(C) a person chooses freely when she acts in accordance with her own desires and values;[13]

(D) a person chooses freely just when the source of her choice is responsive to reasons.[14]

Backstory (3) was a free action on either of these theories because you did what you wanted to do or what you had reason to do. Backstory (2) we could judge as not free, since you bid because of coercion and someone else’s desire for the painting, not your own. We could say, however, that you freely chose to avoid being shot, since you didn’t want that!

These judgments are compatible with your action’s being determined. If determinism is true, then your will, values, and desires are determined. But you can do what you want to do, act on your own reasons, and yet be determined to act that way. Proposals (C) and (D) then are compatibilist theories of free will: actions can be free and determined. This would be welcome news should we discover that our world is deterministic: our freedom wouldn’t hang on the falsity of determinism.[15]

A problem. Suppose that a covert manipulator subtly manipulates Eleanor into having certain desires, which determine Eleanor to choose in certain ways, based on reasons she’s responsive to, all of which are conducive to the manipulator’s ends.[16] Would Eleanor be acting freely? It seems doubtful, since she isn’t the source of her actions – the manipulator is. Furthermore, because of the efficacy of the manipulation, Eleanor is unable to do other than what she in fact does. Theories (C) and (D) however, imply she chooses freely. Not great. Compatibilists thereby either need to amend their theories or explain why this kind of manipulation doesn’t undermine freedom.[17]

4. Conclusion

Each theory above attempts to answer the question of whether we have free will. Which overall position we should accept depends both upon what free will is and what we, and the world, are like.[18]

Notes

[1] Some argue that a free choice is one made of one’s own free will, taking the will to be most fundamental. See Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will for arguments for this position. We’ll address both here, given the close relations between the will and choices.

[2] What something is, or how it is accurately defined, and whether something exists are distinct questions. E.g., we can ask what witches are, what the definition of a witch is, but deny they exist. Atheists argue, “The concept of God is this . . ., but I think that God does not exist.” Eliminativists about race say, “Races are this . . , but races do not exist,” and so on. So, to define something, or explain what it is, does not commit one to claiming that the thing in question exists. So, the questions of what free will is and whether actually we have free will are distinct.

[3] Physical determinism is one kind of determinism. Another kind of determinism is theological determinism, which comes in varieties. Suppose God exists and infallibly knows the future from the creation of the world. If so, then it seems that God’s knowledge determines that future. Or suppose instead that God willed before the creation of the world that you’d read this essay, and that everything God wills must come to pass: could you avoid reading this essay? For discussion, see Attributes of God by Bailie Peterson. A related, but distinct, view is fatalism, the view that, very roughly, present truths about the future determine that future or make that future inevitable. You might think that some of these types of determinisms, but not others, rule out free will.

[4] Indeterminism is consistent with some events or actions being determined: indeterminism simply denies that all events are determined.

[5] There is also the question of which theories of free will are compatible with indeterminism, which relates to the worry for libertarians below.

[6] See Peter van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will for such a view.

[7] Eleonore Stump develops such a view in chapter 9 of Aquinas, and Robert Kane develops such a view in his The Significance of Free Will.

[8] Peter van Inwagen provides a detailed argument for this claim in chapter 3 of An Essay on Free Will. See also further developments by Alicia Finch and Ted Warfield in “The Mind Argument and Libertarianism.” Kadri Vihvelin provides a compatibilist reply in “How to Think About the Free Will/Determinism Problem.”

[9] This view has no relation whatsoever to the political theory called libertarianism.

[10] See chapter 3 of Neil Levy’s Hard Luck more a more careful statement of the problem and see chapters 6-7 of Helen Steward’s A Metaphysics for Freedom for an incompatibilist reply.

[11] Derk Pereboom’s Living Without Free Will defends a view he calls “hard incompatibilism” that agrees with hard determinism’s conclusion that we lack free will, but comes at it in a different way. Rather than hold that determinism is true and that is why we lack free will, they argue that we lack free will for other reasons, e.g., that we lack evidence that any of us satisfy the requirements in (A) or (B), or that concerns about moral luck give us reason to think that nobody has the kind of free will required for moral responsibility.

There are few explicit defenses of hard determinism, although many incompatibilists fear that they might end up becoming hard determinists since, for all we know, physicists could announce tomorrow that they have discovered that our world is deterministic. In light of worries like these, Manuel Vargas makes an alternative proposal in Building Better Beings: we should acknowledge that we have some incompatibilist intuitions, but we should revise those intuitions in light of the fact that we lack evidence we have the kind of free will incompatibilists want.

[12] For discussion, see Free Will and Moral Responsibility by Chelsea Haramia. Here we have focused on whether free will is compatible with determinism (and indeterminism) or not, with compatiblist and incompatiblist theories of free will, but there are distinct, but very much related, questions of whether moral responsibility is compatible with determinism (and indeterminism) or not, with compatiblist and incompatiblist theories of moral responsibility. And there are still further questions about the relationship between moral responsibility and free will: many think that we are morally responsible only when we act on free will, but some argue that moral responsibility does not require free will.

[13] Gary Watson’s “Free Agency” and Susan Wolf’s Freedom Within Reason develop theories in this vein. So does Harry Frankfurt in The Importance of What We Care About, although he focuses on coherence between a person’s actual desires, and the desires she wishes to have: when they match, a person identifies with her desires.

[14] See John Marin Fischer and Mark Ravizza’s Responsibility and Control for a such a view, and Dana Nelkin’s Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility for a proposal in a similar spirit.

[15] Although the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics (the Copenhagen interpretation) is indeterministic, some live competitors, like the many worlds interpretation or the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation, are deterministic. For discussion, see Quantum Mechanics and Philosophy III: Implications by Thomas Metcalf.

[16] Coercion involves an unwilling subject, but here we can suppose that our subject did not will one way or another prior to the manipulation.

[17] For discussion, see Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility by Rebecca Renninger. See also chapter 4 (especially pages 110-117) of Derk Pereboom’s Living Without Free Will for a fuller statement of this kind of problem, as well as Kristin Demetriou’s “The Soft-Line Solution to Pereboom’s Four-Case Argument” and Tomis Kapitan’s “Autonomy and Manipulated Freedom” for compatibilist responses to this worry.

[18] Thanks to Andrew Chapman, Nathan Nobis and Chelsea Haramia for helpful comments which improved this essay.

References

Demetriou, Kristin (2010). “The Soft-Line Solution to Pereboom’s Four-Case Argument.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88(4): 595-617.

Finch, Alicia and Ted A. Warfield (1998). “The Mind Argument and Libertarianism.” Mind 107(427): 515-528.

Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza (1998). Responsibility and Control. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, Harry (1988). The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kapitan, Tomis (2000). “Autonomy and Manipulated Freedom.” Philosophical Perspectives 14: 81-104.

Kane, Robert (1998). The Significance of Free Will. Oxford University Press.

Levy, Neil (2011). Hard Luck. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nelkin, Dana (2011). Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pereboom, Derk (2001). Living Without Free Will. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Steward, Helen (2012). A Metaphysics for Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stump, Eleonore (2003). Aquinas. New York: Routledge.

van Inwagen, Peter (1983). An Essay on Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vargas, Manuel (2013). Building Better Beings. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vihvelin, Kadri (2011). “How to Think About the Free Will/Determinism Problem.” In Michael O’Rourke, Joseph Keim Campbell and Matthew H. Slater (eds.), Carving Nature at Its Joints, 314- 340. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Watson, Gary (1975). “Free Agency.” Journal of Philosophy 72(8): 205-220.

Wolf, Susan (1990). Freedom Within Reason. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Essays

Free Will and Moral Responsibility by Chelsea Haramia

Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility by Rebecca Renninger

Attributes of God by Bailie Peterson

Quantum Mechanics and Philosophy III: Implications by Thomas Metcalf

Moral Luck by Jonathan Spelman

Possibility and Necessity: An Introduction to Modality by Andre Leo Rusavuk

Revision History

This essay, posted 12/24/18, is a revised version of an essay originally posted 4/3/2014.

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About the Author

Jonah is a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University (M.A.) and Biola University (B.A.), and has interests in metaphysics, especially the metaphysics of free will. http://philosophy.ucr.edu/jonah-nagashima

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