Part 1: Framing the Question
1. As William James and Noam Comisky point out, we almost always start the debating trying to argue a person out of a belief in free will. In other words, belief in free will is natural, while believe in determinism is unnatural. Comisky also argues that answering the question “Does free will exist?” may transcend what humans are capable of fully understanding, as basic aerodynamics is beyond what a pig can grasp. Does the fact a pig cannot understand how planes work means planes don’t work? No, as it is not the case that a failure to explain the existence of free will necessarily means free will doesn’t exist.
Since belief in free will is a “natural belief,” it is not free will that has to prove it exists, but determinism that needs to prove itself. In many debates, free will is framed as needing to defend itself, but the exact opposite is the case. The onus rests on determinism to make its case.1
2. The majority of the socioeconomic order of America is erected on the assumption that humans are responsible for their actions and that free will exists. If free will doesn’t exist, the economy, political system, justice system — everything would need to change, for otherwise they would remain radically unjust. Thus, considering the consequences for if determinism is true, the arguments for determinism must be very strong. If the arguments are weak or only at best “equally strong” with argument favoring free will, then free will get the final vote.
3. When discussing “free will,” we are discussing “a will with options”; we are not discussing “total free will” (a mistake I think is often made). I do not pick my genes, my parents, where I am born, and the like — it’s impossible, but it doesn’t follow from this that I thus don’t have any free will at all.
To have freedom is to be unbound, but the only entity which is totally unbound is nothingness (or God). If I don’t exist in 3/4 dimensions of spacetime, I cannot walk or fly, but if I exist in 3/4 dimensions, I also don’t exist in 11 dimensions. If I don’t have a house, I’m not free to sit in the living room and watch Netflix, but if I have a house in Virginia, I don’t have a house in Florida.
Where there is freedom, there will be limits, so the existence of limits does not necessarily prove the nonexistence of freedom. In fact, limits are what make freedom possible and could be evidence of its presence. Thus, if determinism is to disprove free will, it must prove not so much limits, but external influences on a will that keep it from being free. Keep in mind that a will that influences itself is a free will.
Please note that if I am able to prove to you that in one circumstance external influences dominate the will, it would not follow that the will is so dominated in every circumstance. Considering the dire changes that will have to happen in society if determinism is real, external influences must be proven to dominate the will the high majority of the time, not just every now and then.
Also, it will need to be utterly clear that the external influences on a person are not possibly a result of choices that the person made. If I choose to cut off my arm, then afterwards it will look like I have lost degrees of freedom, but the loss of my arm will actually be an expression of a free choice. A restriction does not necessarily prove free will isn’t present or expressed at all: a choice to limit options makes those limited options expressions of a choice.
(Perhaps part of the problem is the phrase “free will” versus just “will.” It could be said that I am arguing for the existence of a meaningful “will,” not that the human will is totally free to do whatever it wants. But I do not think a will has to be God’s Will to be meaningfully free: meaning is possible in limits.)
4. If I pick up a spoon, walk to the mailbox, type on my computer — all of these are physical acts that could equally express free will or determinism. There is no physical act that must necessarily prove freedom or determinism. Everything that happens physically in the world is a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat that is “both” (potentially) an expression of determinism and an expression of free will. This being the case, there is nothing we can observe in the world that would necessarily prove free will or determinism, for whatever we observe “could be” equally a result of one or the other. Thus, an “empirical proof’ of freedom or determinism is impossible — a different kind of proof would be needed. (A “positive proof” is not possible, per se, only perhaps a “negative proof.”)
Even if I open your head and see a tumor that distorts your capacity to process human emotions (see Free Will by Sam Harris), I could not say for sure that this tumor isn’t in your head because of choices you made, and that thus you are to some degree responsible for the murders you committed. This hints at why the famous Libet experiment is flawed (even if you did prove free will was lacking in the choice to lift a finger — a linear action — this would not prove I lacked free will in choosing to be a nurse — a dynamic action).2
(Please note that if only an empirical proof can be strong enough to justify overturning the entire socioeconomic order, and such an empirical proof is impossible, then there will never be a reason to remake the socioeconomic order in light of determinism. The “natural beliefs” we hold thanks to our common life are the ones that should then stand.)
5. We all feel social pressures to do things, but social pressures are not the same as deterministic forces. Additionally, if I feel a pressure in America to do x, I do have the choice to leave America, and so if I don’t, I choose to suffer the social pressure (and thus the pressures become an expression of a choice). Granted, not everyone can leave a country, so not all social pressures are equally forceful to all people, but the main point is that we cannot from the mere existence of pressures say for sure that free will doesn’t exist. This would be a big leap, and keep in mind that we should only accept determinism if the arguments favoring it are strong.
The same logic applies toward inclinations: if I feel y inclination to do x, it would seem like I am not free to do x, but it would be assumptive to say that I did not choose to create y inclination inside of me. When I first decide to go to the gym, I might not want to go, but after going a long time, I can start looking forward to it. Thus, I freely chose to give rise to a condition in which I have an inclination to go to the gym. The deterministic inclination is then an expression of freedom.
Hence, proving the existence of pressures and inclinations will not be enough to disprove freedom anymore than proving the existence of limitations. They might be evidence of determinism, but it cannot be said for sure, and remember, we need a strong argument in favor of determinism to justify recreating the entire socioeconomic order.
Summary of Part 1
A. The onus rests on determinism to make its case, and the evidence it presents must be strong.
B. Determinism will not make its case by proving that “total will” doesn’t exist, because freedom is only meaningfully possible within restrictions (seeing as the only totally free entities are God and nothingness).
C. Determinism must prove that external influences dominate the will the high majority of the time and that these external influences cannot be a result of the choices of the restricted person.
D. An empirical proof for determinism or free will is impossible.
E. The existence of inclinations and pressures do not necessarily prove determinism. Furthermore, a restriction or lessening of options does not necessarily prove an inability to select options.
Part 2: Three Arguments for Free Will
1. If there exists knowing that is not “intellectual knowing” but “practical knowing” — as in ideas that we cannot fully grasp intellectually but we can grasp through lived experience — then the fact that people “naturally believe” in free will is evidence that free will is real. (see the work of Michael Polanyi for more).
According to Donald Livingston, David Hume argued that there were certain limits to rationality that required rationality to ultimately defer to a “common life” (for otherwise we would suffer dire consequences due to what Giambattista Vico called “the barbarism of reflection”). If this is the case and arguments favoring determinism are equally probable with arguments favoring free will, then “common life” must break the tie. This means we should assume free will is real, even if perhaps it ultimately is not.
If there is not a strong argument for determinism, and if at best it seems to be a draw between free will and determinism, we should live “as if” free will is true until we have strong reason to believe otherwise, seeing as “common life” and “natural belief” both favor it, and it could easily be the case that fully proving free will transcends what is humanly possible (as Noam Comisky suggests).
Remember, it is not free will that needs to defend itself, but determinism that needs to prove itself, and if determinism at best can only suggest it “might” be true, then it is intellectually responsible for us to believe in free will until strong new evidence compels us to believe otherwise.
2. The arguments from science favoring determinism are usually based on classical Newtonian physics, which are behind the times. Quantum mechanics and quantum indeterminacy suggest there is plenty of nondeterministic activity in the universe. Physical doesn’t favor determinism like most people think, but instead favors indeterminacy.
Please note though that Sam Harris is correct that randomness or indeterminacy does not necessarily prove freedom (though I do think it suggests it). Harris does not think the inability to predict ahead of time what something will do means that thing necessarily has choice over its action, and Harris is correct on this point. As watching someone do something isn’t the same as making them do it, so it follows that not watching someone do something doesn’t mean you know they’re free to do whatever they want. True, but it’s very important to note that the reality of randomness means we cannot from Newtown conclude that determinism is true. Perhaps at best we can say that science neither favors determinism or freedom, and frankly take science out of the debate. In many ways, I feel like this is what Harris does, and instead rests the majority of his determinism on phenomenology. However, I think phenomenology is at best a wash too (as will be expounded on).
The fact that determinism lacks a scientific argument in my eyes makes it impossible for determinism to present a strong argument in its favor. If this is true, since “natural belief” favors free will, there is a lack of justification for restructuring our entire socioeconomic order in light of determinism (even if it happens to be the case that God knows determinism is true). That said, Harris makes good points on advantages for emphasizing determinism over free will, and I try to address those below in a coda.
3. To restate an argument from “Words and Determinism” by O.G. Rose, if I ask you to go to the movies and you don’t want to go, you can feel anxiety. You are no longer free to exist in a world where you are not asked to the movies, and thus a world where you don’t have to risk hurting my feelings by saying no. It is in this moment where you feel something be taken from you, and what you feel taken feels like freedom. Thus, through its loss, you are given reason to believe in freedom (a “negative argument” versus positive).
Jean-Paul Sartre basically argues that anxiety and vulnerability are proof of freedom. Additionally, try telling a slave or prisoner that free will doesn’t exist (they shouldn’t be so upset, right?). It’s one thing to not believe in freedom when it doesn’t practically cost you a sense of freedom, and another thing to believe in determinism when you feel like your freedom has been taken. Arguably, determinism suggests privilege.
Both of these are phenomenological arguments, yet Sam Harris is convinced phenomenology favors determinism. He insists that if you pay attention to your mind, you’ll notice that you don’t have control over the thoughts that pop into your head or inclinations you feel. I think this is often true, but I don’t think it’s true all the time. I right now am choosing to think about my mother, and though the sudden thought to eat isn’t something I will, I do will the mental debate in my head between soup and a sandwich. And when I know I need to visit the gym, I fight the thoughts in my head telling me not to wake up early and go. At best, it seems some thoughts and inclinations are willed and developed, while other thoughts and inclinations aren’t, as sometimes my reactions to those inclinations are willed and developed, while other times they aren’t. It’s a mixture: phenomenology only suggests “total free will” doesn’t exist, but beyond that, it doesn’t prove determinism.
If we didn’t have any control over our thought, why is it that when we sit in an Algebra class that our thoughts tend to be about math? Why is that when we are at work our thoughts tend to be about work, or that on Mother’s Day we think about our Mom? Perhaps all this is environmentally stimulated or a coincidence, but it seems more probable that we have some role to play in what we think, and thus summon our thinking relative to our situation (as no doubt at the same time our situation inspires us to summon certain thoughts). Certainly, I can start daydreaming in math class, but not all thought is daydreaming, and the very fact I often recognize that I am daydreaming means I am aware that I can and should refocus my thinking on the class (suggesting control). If I had no control over my mind, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the case that when I went to do my math homework, I wouldn’t sit their thinking about the circus, daytime television, or countless other possible subjects, waiting patiently for a thought about the homework to pass through my mind, helpless. Unless focus is an illusion, focus suggests the possibility of mental control, though of course focus is not easy to develop.
Lastly and paradoxically, I think it is in a prison that the reality of free will becomes vivid, while it is in comfort and ease that the reality of determinism seems more present. Between the two, we have reason to believe “total free will” doesn’t exist, but that is not what I have been arguing for in this work.3
In this reflection, there are three reasons to believe in free will, and in my view, the strongest arguments for determinism are not clearly evidence for determinism. The onus rests on determinism to prove itself, since it flies in the face of our “natural beliefs” and would require a radical deconstruction and reconstruction of society.
If determinism is true, American society is unjust
If free will is true, reconstructing American society “as if” determinism was true would be unjust.
Perhaps determinism is true, but we don’t have strong reason to think such is the case (and keep in mind verification and certainty are mostly impossible, following Karl Popper).
Thus, it is rational for us to “act as if” free will exists (even if we are wrong), for at best we have equal reason to think it does versus does not.
That said, there is clearly truth to determinism, at least insomuch as we can say that humans lack “total free will,” and humans are certainly influenced by forces outside of their control. Perhaps instead of the term “determinism,” we need instead a new term like “directionalism” which suggests that humans aren’t fated but are influenced (even heavily). Do note that “direction” is something that humans can choose more so than something “determined,” thus leaving open uncertainty about which influences are in our control and which are not. For me, directionalism, with a practical emphasis on free will, seems to be the proper balance, but no doubt the debate will rage on about if we should choose determinism or be determined to choose.
1Perhaps the “common life” of Americans favors free will, but what about different societies where the “common life” favors determinism? This is a fair objective, but I don’t know of any societies that believe in determinism, only fate and destiny, which are not the same. It’s one thing to say that there is no way to escape the final Judgmental Seat, and another thing to say you have no control over picking up a pencil. Similarly, it’s one thing to say that everything you do depends on God, and another thing to say that God specifically wills for you to lift your feet when you walk exactly as you walk. This gets into differences between God’s “permissive will” and “specific will” (between “will” and “want,” per se), and ultimately what would be required is an entire separate work on theological considerations of free will. I attempt this here and there in Pensées of a Professor by O.G. Rose.
Simply put, I do not believe anyone “naturally believes” in determinism, even people who live in cultures that stress fate and determinism. “Natural beliefs” and “cultural belief” are not necessarily identical. Lastly, even if it could be argued that “natural beliefs” don’t always and everywhere favor free will, there are still other arguments favoring free will to consider.
2But what if I’m born with the tumor? Then you are not as responsible for your actions as someone who made choices that created the tumor, and if you could prove this of yourself, that should be taken into consideration. But it would not follow from this that everyone with a tumor in their heads would be similarly innocent. Furthermore, it would not follow from the tumor example that you couldn’t choose what you were going to eat tonight, and even if my emotional capacities were weakened by the tumor, it would still be possible for me to make choices within the bounds of the influences resulting from the tumor. Keep in mind that, again, we are not arguing for the existence of “total free will.”
This suggests the problem of responsibility, which you can read my views on in “On Responsibility” by O.G. Rose.
3Though, interesting to note, what will happen if a world is created with biotechnologies that make it possible for us to entirely engineer ourselves (and so change our genes, our neurological composition, etc.)? Then will “total free will” be possible? Very possibly, but I’m not sure if humans would handle the weight of the resulting responsibility very well. But unfortunately, once the technology exists, we have no choice but to choose to use it or not. And if we don’t use it, we will be someone “who chose not to use it” — technology always impacts “toward-ness.”
Coda: Responding to Sam Harris
Sam Harris speaks well, and for an alternative to my view, I suggest his presentation to “The Skeptics Society in California” (March 25, 2012). Thinkers like Sam Harris seem to argue that we don’t have free will and yet we still have choice. If this is correct, we both agree that people don’t have “total free will,” which for Harris means we don’t have “free will.” I agree that it might be better to say that “humans have will” versus “humans have free will,” but at this point it may come down to an emphasis debate. Should we emphasize human agency or the ways humans don’t have control over their lives? Or some kind of mixture between the two? “Choosing determinism” can be a dangerous game though…
No one who thinks seriously in the free will debate argues that we are totally free, only that our wills are free within us. We limit our wills, and though a prisoner is not free to leave a cell, in the cell, the prisoner has freedom. The question is if we restrict our wills so much that we should emphasize what is determined about them or what’s free about our wills. I would like to emphasize freedom; Harris would like to emphasize determinism.
Harris believes free will creates hatred, for if we believe evil people are responsible for their actions, we will not only want to punish them but also want to hate them. However, if a bear kills our child, we may hate the bear, but it’s not the same kind of hatred, because we understand an animal is just an animal. Harris believes we could feel this way toward people, and that this would be more humane and good for the world. Fair point, but isn’t there something dehumanizing about suggesting humans aren’t entirely responsible for their actions? Maybe, but Harris thinks we might be “too human,” which makes us more prone to hatred, vengeance, and the like. Harris also makes the example of a Holocaust survivor who did not take revenge on a Nazi who imprisoned him and tortured his family. For the rest of the survivor’s life, he felt guilty about it. Harris argues that had the survivor not believed in free will, the survivor would have been able to move on. Certainly, Mr. Harris makes strong points.
Harris wants to erase guilt from the world and believes free will is a theological hangover that mostly holds people down. He does not think that a lack of free will means we cannot punish people, in the same way that we are justified to a shoot a bear that attacks our children. The bear being dangerous is enough justification for killing it, as a psychopath being dangerous justifies our imprisonment of the psychopath. But we don’t have to hate the bear: Harris wants to keep punishment but remove the emotions. And certainly, if people have choice but not free will, there is still grounds for punishing people. Considering this, perhaps I’m wrong to argue that erasing free will entails a complete overhaul of the entire socioeconomic order. If we can still keep choice, perhaps all will be well, but I honestly struggle to understand how we can keep “choice” and not also keep “free will.”
Again, it should be noted that Harris is not arguing to erase all choice, just the idea of “total free will.” Harris and I are not on an entirely different page, and I do think it’s helpful for empathy and understanding to realize that people come from different backgrounds and don’t always have control over the forces that shape them. However, I see a problematic flipside: guilt also helps stop people from committing evil. When a Nazi feels bad about killing Jews, he might stop, but if he concludes that he’s simply an animal hunting pray, then why should he feel bad about what he’s doing? Mr. Harris may argue it is not the Nazi’s fault for exploiting “the determinism argument” to justify the Nazi’s behavior, and maybe it isn’t, but at the same time, it’s a risky possibility. Perhaps Harris should say the Nazi is responsible for choosing to use determinism to justify his actions, but who decides what we can choose and what we cannot?
If we don’t believe in free will but we still believe in choice, then who decides what falls within the realm of choice and what doesn’t? Perhaps Nazi A is responsible for choosing to justify his actions with determinism, while Nazi B is not responsible: same action, but due to different backgrounds, chemical makeups, etc., one Nazi is responsible while the other isn’t. How can we say one way or the other?
Deconstructing free will but keeping choice seems to open a can of worms, unless that is all Harris hopes to do is deconstruct “total free will,” which I can support. If Harris wishes only to argue that we should emphasize determinism over choice, I am much more sympathetic to his work. Perhaps the balance is that, when dealing with others, we assume determinism for their faults and choices for their successes, while when it comes to ourselves, we assume determinism for our successes and fault for our failures. Perhaps this would be the best orientation for spreading love and avoiding arrogance. I don’t know — debates on emphasis are always complex matters — but as long as Harris does not wish to entirely do away with free will or choice (only “total free will”), I am not entirely against his work. I don’t believe you should be either.