More on free will

by Neil Rickert

Coel Hellier has laid out the case against free will in his post Lacking “free will” does not negate moral responsibility.  Since he expresses his case very clearly, this will be a good way for me to indicate where I disagree.  I’ll respond in a pseudo-dialog, as if I am debating with Coel.

Before I start the dialog, let me briefly state my own view.

People use the expression “free will” in ordinary conversation, as a way of telling others about their decision making.  And since the use of this expression does seem to work in communication, it is reasonable to say that “free will” is a meaningful expression.  Language terms get their meaning from the way that they are used.  So it is reasonable to conclude that we actually do have free will, and that the disagreement is over what “free will” actually means.

Some people take “free will” as implying the ability to violate the laws of physics.  That seems far too strong.  On the other hand, perhaps the compatibilist version of free will is a bit too weak.  We tend to use “free will” when talking about decisions that we make.  Perhaps what we really mean is that we are taking moral responsibility for those decisions.  In spite of the title of Coel’s post, he unfortunately says only a little about moral responsibility.

Now to the pseudo-dialog:

In essence that dispute is simply about semantics, with both sides agreeing on the physical reality.

Yes, I agree that the debate is largely about semantics.  However, I am not so sure about that “agreeing on the physical reality” part.  In particular, my view of scientific laws seems a bit different from that of many people.  I see laws as structural, rather than as descriptive.  That is, the role of laws is to structure the science, rather than to describe reality.  On this, my view is somewhat similar to that of Nancy Cartwright (see here).  Many people seem to conclude “because scientific laws are deterministic, therefore reality is deterministic.”  I do not believe that is a valid inference.  I doubt that science can ever settle the question of determinism.  On balance, I doubt that reality is deterministic.

To illustrate this, consider a laptop computer which looks at the type of a computer file and “chooses” the most appropriate program to open it with.

One could justly declare that, in such uses, the word “chooses” is purely metaphorical, since the computer’s actions are entirely determined by its programming. However, for everyone except those arguing for a supernatural soul which over-rides physics, all other “choices”, by humans or other intelligent animals, must be equally metaphorical, since they are also determined by the prior state of the system.

I agree with you on the computer.  That is, I agree that the computer doesn’t really make choices, though it is sometimes convenient to talk as if it did.  But there is something wrong with concluding that people don’t actually make choices.

Firstly, it is wrong from a semantic point of view.  The meaning of the word “choice” is particularly about the kind of choices that people make.  And even if people have no more ability to make choices than do computers, the word “choice” still properly applies, so its ordinary use when talking about people cannot merely be a metaphor.

Secondly, the analogy between people and computers seems wrong.  Choosing by a computer is very different from choosing by a person.  For one thing, the computer does not take moral responsibility for its choices, while we do.  For another, the computer is making purely syntactic decisions, while we are making semantic decisions.

Dennett’s argument is that humans have evolved a sufficiently complex range of responses to any situation that it is sensible to regard them as autonomous agents making “choices” of their own “will”.

I am inclined to view the compatibilist version of “free will” as ringing hollow.  Dennett makes a persuasive argument, but not persuasive enough to convince me.

Coyne’s objection is that this is a “re-definition” of the traditional and still-popular conception of “free will” as residing in a dualistic soul which over-rides physics. And this is a fair complaint, except that Jerry would then have to argue for the eradication of the words “choice”, “will”, “freedom”, et cetera, from the language. Unfortunately, so steeped is the English language in traditional dualism, that we don’t have available words that would clearly make the distinction.

I don’t agree with that.  It seems to me that a lot of people talk about choices without any implied assumption of substance dualism.

Perhaps I have not studied enough philosophy, but it is my impression that philosophers don’t adequately deal with choosing.  They like to frame everything in terms of logic, in which case the only choice we would be making is whether a proposition is true or false.  But that’s no choice at all, since the truth value of the typical proposition does not depend on my decision.  However, if I am sitting at a restaurant, deciding what food to order, it does not seem to me that I am investigating the truth condition of a proposition.

We have evolved anger and tears because of their effect on other people (and also, perhaps, on ourselves); we have evolved notions of justice, of ostracisation, of punishment, of atonement, because of how they affect relations between humans. And that depends only on the (entirely determined) reactions humans have to how other humans interact with them.

Now that brings up another issue.  In a deterministic world, I don’t see that evolution is possible.  You could only have ID (intelligent design), and it would ID of the front loading variety, where the whole design was laid out at the beginning of time.  If we cannot make choices, then natural selection cannot make choices.  So it seems strange for evolutionists to insist on determinism.

Maybe there’s a case that quantum randomness makes a sufficient break from a rigid determinism to allow evolution to occur.  But, in that case, it presumably makes a sufficient break from determinism to allow the kind of choices that we consider to exemplify free will.

7 Comments to “More on free will”

  1. “…my impression that philosophers don’t adequately deal with choosing.”

    I agree, but for different reasons. They already impose the dualist notion of free-will on the choosing. But any automata can make a choice, when it comes to a decision point in its logic. Real free-will may be defined to inlcude choosing, but choosing does not require a free-will, kuts a mechanism.

    So, this still leaves open the question of what our choosing consists of – is it real free-will, or is it physics in action? Food choices do not contribute to the argument, any more than that other classic “I could have chosen otherwise”, which too already presupposes free-will.


    • I have no doubt that we make choices and have free will. But then I am going with Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. We use the terms “choice” and “free will” in our language, and we seem to use them effectively for communication. So that we have choice and free will seems clear. But exactly what we mean by that is far less clear. That’s what philosophers should be examing, instead of imposing an a priori meaning that has apparent dualist implications.

      But any automata can make a choice, when it comes to a decision point in its logic.

      The question here is whether the automaton is making the choice, or its programmer is making the choice. And that’s one of the things that philosophy has failed to settle.


  2. “The question here is whether the automaton is making the choice, or its programmer is making the choice. And that’s one of the things that philosophy has failed to settle.”

    I don’t think the distinction matters. If we have no free-will then the automaton is merely programmed by another automaton (the human programmer). To say the automaton is programmed by a programmer is to imply something different about the programmer, and in this context that implication is the very free-will we are debating.

    But, thinking about the automaton, it’s making choices when the programmer isn’t present, in response to current inputs and its own internal state. Where there are numerous independent programmers involved, that have not colluded in the complete system, then they clearly have not made choices for the automaton but only provided some inputs. The behaviour of the automaton can be so far removed from the original programmer that the automaton appears to have a life of its own. Ask any owner of a Windows computer.

    Surely you know anyway that a program is merely data, just more external inputs. In a sense a computer is programmed first with it’s hard wired chips, then its bios, then drivers, OS, apps, … Isn’t this somewhat like a developing brain. A human infant’s brain behaviour (its program) isn’t solely determined by its hard wring (DNA) but by its external programming too. When a child is indoctrinated into a religion what’s the distinction here between program and data, so program=data. Alternatively, when an animal grows up in a wild environment where there are no human programmers to program it, isn’t the environment still program=data? So the distinction between human programming and environmental programming and data is not significant.

    I think your problem is your conception of ‘choice’.


  3. I think philosophy is very clear about the distinction between the free-will of dualism that is independent of the physical world, and the natural world in which human brains make decisions. It’s the vague notions that are wrapped around the latter that seem to be causing most of the problem – notions like ‘choice’.


  4. “In a deterministic world, I don’t see that evolution is possible. You could only have ID (intelligent design), and it would ID of the front loading variety, where the whole design was laid out at the beginning of time. If we cannot make choices, then natural selection cannot make choices. So it seems strange for evolutionists to insist on determinism.”

    I don’t see any justification for this view. In what way does determinism prevent evolution? The universe still plays out, and ‘evolves’ (in the tradition meaning of the word) and allows for ‘evolution’ (biological). More on that here.


    • This may come as no surprise to Ron (having shared our views with each other in Dr. Klemm’s “illusion of free will” rebuttal) — but I agree with Ron here. Evolution is defined as “change over time”. Even in a completely deterministic universe (ontologically, not epistemologically of course), if “change over time” occurs which we see every day, discover with bacteria in short time scales, and have uncovered via anthropological, archaeological studies, etc., then evolution exists, period. The stipulation would have to be made whether or not we could have “random” evolution occur or not. No, we could not have “random anything” occur in a purely deterministic universe, but we can still have deterministic (non-random) evolution. Neil, I think that you are just unfamiliar with how the scientific community defines evolution (generally). Evolution can ALSO occur “randomly”, through quantum randomness, or seemingly random changes occurring through the mechanism of “genetic mutation”. One could argue that the “mutation” is occurring in a probabilistic manner via copying errors during DNA replication or this seemingly “random mutation” may even be completely determined via the laws of physics — but it just appears random to us due to our lack of knowledge or acquisition of said knowledge. Regardless, evolution can exist in both a deterministic or indeterministic universe, simply because all we need to observe is “change over time”.
      As for your other points, “free will” would violate the laws of physics if we negate the causal chain that physics implies exists. If we define “free will” as the ability to make a choice unconstrained by outside factors (even a tiny degree of freedom here is all we need), then we are saying that the causal chain (outside factor that provides zero freedom), governed by the laws of physics, can’t exist. This implies that the laws of physics are violated in a profound way. Even if we ignore the physics argument, we can look at the basic definitions of the terms “free” and “will” to prove that it can’t exist. In order to “will” something, there has to be some deterministic consistency between one’s thoughts, actions, relative to their previous reference frame (experiences and genes) — otherwise one’s thoughts and subsequent actions would be chaotic and “will” would not exist. However, in order for this deterministic consistency to exist, it can’t be free. It is governed by the experiences and genes that one had no control over. We couldn’t control the genes that we were born with, nor where we were born, nor the indoctrination set upon us by our parents, teachers, friends, etc., to get us to have the frame of reference that we have. Since our “will” is dependent on this frame of reference (just as a computer is dependent on it’s programmer), it can’t be “free”. If it is “free” in any way, it would have to be chaotic, not bound by deterministic laws, and thus random. Randomness also provides no room for “free will”, because we can’t have “random will”. Cut and dry, that it is.

      Peace and love Neil,


      • Even if we ignore the physics argument, we can look at the basic definitions of the terms “free” and “will” to prove that it can’t exist.

        This is where you go wrong.

        Natural language is not a logic system, and you cannot apply that kind of logical analysis. Words get their meaning from the way they are used. If ordinary people, talking about their ordinary lives, are able to communicate effectively when they use the term “free will”, then that term is meaningful and refers to something that exists.


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