Free will

Free will is the philosophical doctrine that holds that our choices are ultimately up to ourselves. The phrase "up to ourselves" is vague, and, just like free will itself, admits of a variety of interpretations. Because of this ambiguity, the utility of the concept of free will is questioned by some. Several logically independent questions can be asked about free will.


Determinism vs. indeterminism

Determinism holds that each state of affairs is necessitated (determined) by the states of affairs that preceded it, an extension of cause and effect. Indeterminism holds this proposition to be incorrect, and that there are events which are not entirely determined by previous states of affairs. The idea of determinism is sometimes illustrated by the story of Laplace's demon, who knows all the facts about the past and present and all the natural laws that govern our world, and uses this knowledge to foresee the future, down to every detail.

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Some philosophers hold that determinism is at odds with free will. This is the doctrine of incompatibilism. Incompatibilists generally claim that a person acts freely (has free will) only in cases where the person is the sole originating cause of the act and the person genuinely could have done otherwise. This kind of free will is (at least allegedly) incompatible with determinism. If determinism is true, and everything that happens is completely determined by the past (including events that preceded our births), then every choice we make would ultimately be determined by prior events that were not under our control. Our choices would be just another outcome determined by the past. So if determinism were true, then we would be trapped by the past and free will would be an illusion, under the theory of incompatibilism. "Hard determinists", such as d'Holbach, are those incompatibilists who accept determinism and reject free will. "Libertarians", such as Thomas Reid, Peter van Inwagen, and Robert Kane are those incompatibilists who accept free will, deny determinism, and instead believe that indeterminism is true. (This kind of libertarianism should not be confused with the political position of the same name, and is thus sometimes known as voluntarism for this very reason.)

Other philosophers hold that determinism is compatible with free will. These "compatibilists", such as Hobbes, generally claim that a person acts freely only in the case where the person willed the act and the person could (hypothetically) have done otherwise if they had decided to. In articulating this crucial proviso, Hume writes, "this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and in chains". Compatibilists often point to clearcut cases of someone's free will being denied — rape, murder, theft, and so on. The key to these cases is not that the past is determining the future, but that the aggressor is overriding the victim's desires and preferences about his or her own actions. The aggressor is coercing the victim and, according to compatibilists, this is what nullifies free will. In other words, determinism does not matter; what matters is that our choices are the results of our own desires and preferences, and are not overridden by some external (or even internal) force. To be a compatibilist, one needn't endorse any particular conception of free will (one need only deny that determinism is at odds with free will), but the positions canvassed here are typical of compatibilism.

Furthermore, it is often held that the phrase "free will" is, as Hobbes put it, "absurd speech", because freedom is a power defined in terms of the will, which is a thing—and so the will is not the sort of thing that could be free or unfree. Some compatibilists argue that this alleged lack of grounding for the concept of "free will" is at least partly responsible for the perception of a contradiction between determinism and liberty. Also, from a compatibilist point of view the use of "free will" in an incompatibilist sense may be regarded as loaded language.

Moral responsibility

We generally hold people responsible for their actions, and will say that they deserve praise or blame for what they do. However, moral responsibility is believed by many to require free will. Thus, another important issue is whether we are ever morally responsible, and if so, in what sense.

Incompatibilists tend to think that determinism is at odds with moral responsibility. After all, how can you hold someone responsible for an action that could be predicted from the beginning of time? Hard determinists say "So much the worse for moral responsibility!" and discard the concept — Clarence Darrow famously used this argument to defend the murderers Leopold and Loeb — while, conversely, libertarians say "So much the worse for determinism!" This issue appears to be the heart of the dispute between hard determinists and compatibilists; hard determinists are forced to accept that we often have "free will" in the compatibilist sense, but they deny that this sense of free will truly matters — that it can ground moral responsibility. Just because an agent's choices are uncoerced, hard determinists claim, does not change the fact that determinism robs the agent of responsibility.

Compatibilists often argue that, on the contrary, determinism is a prerequisite for moral responsibility — you can't hold someone responsible unless his actions were determined by something (this argument can be traced to Hume and was also used by the anarchist William Godwin). After all, if indeterminism is true, then those events that are not determined are random. How can you blame or praise someone for performing an action that just spontaneously popped into his nervous system? Instead, they argue, you need to show how the action stemmed from the person's desires and preferences — the person's character — before you start holding the person morally responsible. Libertarians sometimes reply that undetermined actions are not random at all, and that they result from a substantive will whose decisions are undetermined. This argument is widely considered unsatisfactory, for it just pushes the problem back a step, and further, it involves some very mysterious metaphysics. See Ex nihilo nihil fit

Compatibilist theories and the could-have-done-otherwise principle

Many claim that, in order for a choice to be free in any sense that matters, it must be true that the agent could have done otherwise. They take this principle — van Inwagen calls it the "principle of alternate possibilities" — to be a necessary condition for freedom. The literary critic Isaiah Berlin made much the same point.

The claim is that, for example, if a criminal puts a machine in Bob's brain that makes him kill a stranger, his action was not free, for Bob couldn't have done otherwise. Incompatibilists often appeal to this principle to show that determinism cannot be reconciled with free will. "If a decision is completely determined by the past," they ask, "how could the agent have decided to do something else?" Compatibilists often reply that what's important is not simply that the agent could have done otherwise, but that the agent could have done otherwise if he or she had wanted to. Moreover, some compatibilists, such as Harry Frankfurt or Daniel Dennett, argue that there are stark cases where, even though the agent couldn't have done otherwise, the agent's choice was still free: what if Bob really wanted to kill the stranger and the machine in Bob's brain would only kick in if Bob lost his nerve? If Bob went through with it on his own, surely the act would be free. Incompatibilists claim that the problem with this idea is that what Bob "wanted" was determined before Bob was conceived. In Elbow Room, Dennett presents an argument for a compatibilist theory of free will.

The philosopher John Locke also took the view that determinism was irrelevant. He believed, however, the defining feature of free will to be that we are free so long as we have the ability to postpone a decision long enough to reflect upon the consequences of a choice.

More sophisticated analyses of compatibilist free will have been offered, as have other critiques.

William James, both philosopher and psychologist, gave the label soft determinism to the position nowadays known as compatibilism, and complained that soft determinist formulations were "a quagmire of evasion under which the real issue of fact has been entirely smothered." But James' own views were somewhat ambivalent.

He didn't believe in incompatibilism as formulated above, i.e. he didn't believe that the indeterminism of human actions was a requirement of moral responsibility. In his classic work Pragmatism, (1907) he wrote that, "Instinct and utility between them can safely be trusted to carry on the social business of punishment and praise" regardless of metaphysical theories. But he did believe that indeterminism is important as a "doctrine of relief" -- it allows for the view that, although the world may be in many respects a bad place, it may through our actions become a better one. Determinism, he argued, undermines that meliorism.

The science of free will

Throughout the history of science, attempts have been made to answer the question of free will using scientific principles. Early scientific thought often pictured the universe as deterministic, and some thinkers believed that it was simply a matter of gathering sufficient information to be able to predict future events with perfect accuracy. While not mechanistic in the same sense as classical physics, most current scientific theories are also deterministic, by necessity — it is a basic assumption of all scientific endeavours that the future can be predicted. It is also difficult, if not impossible, to write the mathematics for a non-predictive science.

On its face, quantum mechanics only predicts observations in terms of probabilities. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics may suggest that the universe, when viewed as a single system, is nonetheless deterministic, as there is no outside entity capable of making observations. It is far from clear, however, that microscale interpretations of quantum mechanics can be applied to large systems in this way, and whether quantum mechanics ultimately describes a universe governed by laws of cause and effect or by chance is hotly debated both by some physicists and philosophers of science. Other interpretations are non-deterministic and many physicists find attempts to "interpret" quantum mechanics to be pointless. See positivism.

The leading contemporary philosopher that has capitalized on the success of quantum mechanics and chaos theory in order to defend incompatibilist freedom is Robert Kane, in The Significance of Free Will and several other writings.

Like physicists, biologists have also frequently addressed the question of free will. One of the most heated debates of biology is that of "nature versus nurture". How important are genetics and biology in human behaviour compared to culture and environment? Genetic studies have identified many specific genetic factors that affect the personality of the individual, from obvious cases such as Down's syndrome to more subtle effects such as a statistical predisposition towards schizophrenia. However, it is not certain that environmental determination is less threatening to free will than genetic determination. The latest analysis of the human genome shows it to have only about 20,000 genes. The information content of which is but 2 or 3 megabytes (despite junk DNA, which may really have almost no information content), implying that nurture may be more important than genetic determinists used to claim.

It has also become possible to study the living brain and researchers can now watch the decision-making "machinery" at work. A seminal experiment in this field was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, wherein he asked subjects to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he watched the associated activity in their brains. Libet found that the brain activity leading up to the subject flicking their wrist began approximately one-third of a second before the subject consciously decided to move, suggesting that the decision was actually first being made on a subconscious level and only afterward being translated into a "conscious decision", and that the subject's belief that it occurred randomly was only due to their perception.

A related experiment performed later by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone involved asking subjects to choose at random which of their hands to move. He found that by stimulating different hemispheres of the brain using magnetic fields it was possible to strongly influence which hand the subject picked. Normally right-handed people would choose to move their right hand 60% of the time, for example, but when the right hemisphere was stimulated they would instead choose their left hand 80% of the time (recall that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere for the right). Despite the external influence on their decision-making, the subjects continued to report that they believed their choice of hand had been made freely. Libet himself (e.g. Libet, 2003: 'Can Conscious Experience affect brain Activity? ', Journal of Consciousness Studies 10, nr. 12, pp 24 - 28), however, does not interpret his experiment as evidence of the inefficacy of conscious free will — he points out that although the tendency to press a button may be building up for 500 milliseconds, the conscious will retains a right to veto that action in the last few milliseconds. A good comparison made is with a golfer, who may swing the club several times before striking the ball. In this view, the action simply gets, as it were, a rubber stamp of approval at the last millisecond. Also, for planning tomorrow's activities or those in an hour millisecond offsets are insignificant.

Neurology and psychiatry

There are several brain-related disorders that might be termed free will disorders: In obsessive-compulsive disorder a patient may feel an overwhelming urge, e.g., to wash his hands many times a day, and he will recognize the desire as his desire although out of control. In Tourette's and related syndromes patients will involuntarily make movements (tics) and utterances. In alien hand syndrome (also called Dr. Strangelove syndrome, after a popular film) the patient's limb will make meaningful acts without the intention of the subject.

Determinism and emergent behaviour

In emergentist or generative philosophy of cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology, free will is the generation of infinite behaviour from the interaction of finite-deterministic set of rules and parameters. Thus the unpredictability of the emerging behaviour from deterministic processes leads to a perception of free will, though free will as an ontological entity does not exist.

As an illustration, the strategy board-games chess and more so Go are rigorously deterministic in their rules and parameters, expressed in terms of the positions of the pieces or entities in relation to other entities on the board. Yet, chess and Go with their strict rigour and rules, generate more moves and unpredictable behaviour than any other games in existence. By analogy, emergentists or generativists suggest that the experience of free will emerges from the interaction of finite rules and deterministic parameters that generate infinite and unpredictable behaviour.

Dynamical-evolutionary psychology, cellular automata and the generative sciences, model emergent processes of social behaviour on this philosophy, showing the perception of free will being external to causality as essentially a gift of ignorance or as a product of incomplete information.

In theology

The theological doctrine of divine foreknowledge is often alleged to be in conflict with free will. After all, if God knows exactly what will happen, right down to every choice one makes, how can one's choices be free? God's already true or timelessly true knowledge about one's choices seems to constrain one's freedom. This problem is related to the Aristotelian problem of the sea-battle: tomorrow there will or will not be a sea-battle. If there will be one, then it was true yesterday that there would be one. Then it would be necessary that the sea battle will occur. If there won't be one, then by similar reasoning, it is necessary that it won't occur. This means that the future, whatever it is, is completely fixed by past truths — true propositions about the future. (However, some philosophers hold that necessity and possibility are defined with respect to a given point in time and a given matrix of empirical circumstances, and so something that is merely possible from the perspective of one observer may be necessary from the perspective of an omniscient.)

In Christian thought

In Christian theology, God is described as not only omniscient but omnipotent, which some people, but not most, (Christians and non-Christians alike) believe implies that not only has God always known what choices you will make tomorrow, but actually chose what you would choose. That is, they believe, by virtue of His foreknowledge He knows what will influence your choices, and by virtue of His omnipotence He controls those factors. This becomes especially important for the doctrines relating to salvation and predestination. Proponents of the opposing view would make the point that knowledge of a future happening is entirely different than causing the event to happen. The definition of predestination varies among Christians. Many hold that it does not imply that God chose certain people to receive salvation and the rest have no chance of salvation, but rather, He knows that not everyone will choose salvation, and He specifically knows who will and who won't. The Bible says of God, "...God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:3-4, NIV). Calvinists, however, embrace the idea that God chose them and only them for salvation. In its purist form, Calvinism is an extreme version of theological determinism. One of the strongest defenders of this theological point of view was the Puritan-American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards believed that indeterminism was incompatible with our dependence on God and hence with his sovereignty. He reasoned that if our responses to God's grace are contra-causally free, then our salvation depends partly on us and therefore God's sovereignty isn't "absolute and universal." Edward's book Freedom of the Will defends theological determinism. In this book, Edwards attempts to show that libertarianism is incoherent. For example, he argues that by ‘self-determination’ the libertarian must mean either that one's actions including one's acts of willing are preceded by an act of free will or that one's acts of will lack sufficient causes. The first leads to an infinite regress while the second implies that acts of will happen accidentally and hence can't make someone "better or worse, any more than a tree is better than other trees because it oftener happens to be lit upon by a swan or nightingale; or a rock more vicious than other rocks, because rattlesnakes have happened oftener to crawl over it." (Freedom of the Will, 1754; Edwards 1957-, vol. 1, 327).Arminians believe that humans always have free will, but God's prevenient grace is always calling them. Mormons believe that God has given all humans the gift of free will (or free agency in Mormon terms) and has also predestined or foreordained everyone to do certain things in life, including to return to his presence. Whenever an individual chooses to stray from the commandments of God, by their own free will, their predestination may be annulled.

Some philosophers believe that free will is equivalent to having a soul, and thus that (at least some) animals do not have free will. This is also the position of Jewish philosophy, which stresses that free will (Hebrew: bechirah chofshith) is a product of the intrinsic human soul (neshama); see further below.

In Jewish thought

Free will is discussed at length in Jewish philosophy, firstly as regards God's purpose in creation, and secondly as regards the closely related, resultant, paradox.

The traditional teaching regarding the purpose of creation, particularly as influenced by Jewish mysticism, is that "This world is like a corridor to the World to Come" (Pirkei Avoth 4:21). "Man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God, and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence… The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world..." (Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, Ch.1 ( Free will is thus required by God's justice, “otherwise, Man would not be given or denied good for actions over which he had no control” [1] ( It is further understood that in order for Man to have true free choice, he must not only have inner free will, but also an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists. God thus created the world such that both good and evil can operate freely [2] (; this is the meaning of the Rabbinic maxim, "All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven" (Talmud, Berachot 33b).

In Rabbinic literature, there is much discussion as to the contradiction between God's omniscience and free will. The representative view is that "Everything is foreseen; yet freewill is given" (Rabbi Akiva, Pirkei Avoth 3:15). Based on this understanding, the problem is formally described as a paradox, beyond our understanding.

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows everything that will happen before it has happened. So does He know whether a particular person will be righteous or wicked, or not? If He does know, then it will be impossible for that person not to be righteous. If He knows that he will be righteous but that it is possible for him to be wicked, then He does not know everything that He has created. ...[T]he Holy One, Blessed Be He, does not have any temperaments and is outside such realms, unlike people, whose selves and temperaments are two separate things. God and His temperaments are one, and God's existence is beyond the comprehension of Man… [Thus] we do not have the capabilities to comprehend how the Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows all creations and events. [Nevertheless] know without doubt that people do what they want without the Holy One, Blessed Be He, forcing or decreeing upon them to do so... It has been said because of this that a man is judged according to all his actions.” (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Teshuva 5:5 (

Although the above represents the majority view in Rabbinic thought, there are several major thinkers who resolve the paradox by explicitly excluding human action from divine foreknowledge. Both Saadia Gaon and Judah ha-Levi hold that "the decisions of man precede God's knowledge" [3] ( Abraham ibn Daud, Maimonides' critic, holds that in regard to human acts, God limits his omniscience as well as His omnipotence. Gersonides holds that God knows, beforehand, the choices open to each individual, but does not know which choice the individual, in his freedom, will make. Isaiah Horowitz takes the view that God cannot know which moral choices people will make, but that, nevertheless, this does not impair His perfection. See further discussion in the article on Gersonides.

The existence of free will, and the paradox above (as addressed by either approach), is closely linked to the concept of Tzimtzum. Tzimtzum entails the idea that God "constricted" his infinite essence, to allow for the existence of a "conceptual space" in which a finite, independent world could exist. This "constriction" made free will possible, and hence the potential to earn the World to Come. Further (according to the first approach), it is understood that the Free-will Omniscience paradox provides a temporal parallel to the paradox inherent within Tzimtzum. In granting free will, God has somehow “constricted” his foreknowledge, to allow for Man’s independent action; He thus has foreknowledge and yet free will exists. In the case of Tzimtzum, God has “constricted” his essence to allow for Man's independent existence; He is thus immanent and yet transcendental.

See also: Negative theology; Divine simplicity; Jewish principles of faith

See also

External links

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