An Introduction To Free Will

We’re finally discussing one of my favorite philosophical issues in one of my classes: the free will problem. This is such an entertaining and engaging debate because pretty much everybody has a stake in it. Philosophers aren’t the only ones concerned with how the argument turns out (which unfortunately seems to be the case for so much of philosophy). If, somehow, a final consensus were to be reached on the issue, it could radically change the way we understand and operate within our world. Our current notions of accountability and responsibility (both legal and moral) are vital to the operation of our societies. If the foundations for either were to be weakened or perhaps undermined completely, the consequences would be palpable, to say the least.

So, in light of how potentially important and interesting the issue of free will is, I’ve decided to write my next few blogs on the subject. (This should be a nice break for any readers who don’t share my “radical” religious views that I have almost exclusively espoused here.) A large portion of my writing will mostly just be reviewing the discussions and readings from my class, which can serve a twofold purpose: 1) it shall be beneficial to my own understanding of the subject material, which will hopefully be reflected in my test score when our essay test comes around and 2) it will (hopefully) draw some more feedback from any of you who happen to be reading this. I really am interested in hearing what the nonphilosophers think about the free will issues. Sometimes hearing a fresh perspective that isn’t weighed down with previous knowledge of the historical arguments and philosophical problems can really shed light on difficult issues that may have gotten lost in the fog. So rather than beginning with a brief overview of the history of the free will debate, I’m going to just jump straight into the basics of the issue.

There are four main positions in the free will debate. Here is a chart that illustrates them nicely:

        Determined                        Not Determined




a.k.a Soft Determinism



a.k.a. Libertarianism



a.k.a. Hard Determinism



Hard Incompatibilism






     Not Free



(I have bolded the names that are typically used to describe these positions, and I will use these when referring to them in the future. Also, Hard Determinism and Hard Incompatibilism are very scarcely held positions in the free will debate, so I will not be discussing them here.)

The two most commonly held positions are Libertarianism and Compatibilism.  Compatibilism is the dominant position among those educated in the sciences and also nonscientists who have at least looked into the philosophical issues. It is the view that all of our actions are the result of a process or series of causally related events (in a causally closed world), yet this does not infringe upon our free will.  Compatibilism (as classically conceived) begins the attempt to reconcile free will and determinism by insisting that even though the facts of the past combined with the laws of nature are sufficient to determine only one unique outcome of any potential action in a situation, this does not mean that our actions are simply the result of the laws acting out as they necessarily must do. The laws may be unchangeable, but that does not mean that the facts of the past could not have varied. Had the past been different, then our current and future actions would have been different. So just because all of your current thoughts, intentions, desires, and beliefs that decide your future actions are the necessary result of the way the world happens to be, that doesn’t mean that all of your actions couldn’t have turned out differently. This is not yet free will, but it is the crack into which the compatibilists insert their wedge and do their work.

The next move by the compatibilists is to clarify what kinds of things would definitely take away our freedom. These factors consist of things that are external to oneself: constraint, coercion, and control. A constraint would be anything or anyone that keeps you from doing something that you want to do, e.g., being tied down when you want to walk away. Coercion is any case in which one is forced to act in a way that one does not want to act, e.g., being blackmailed. Control is very similar to coercion, except that it entails that whatever is doing the control is an active agent. So this would mean that one cannot be “controlled” by anything that isn’t an intelligent agent. One can be coerced to abandon one’s house when the lava from the nearby volcano approaches, but that doesn’t mean the lava is controlling one’s actions.

So absent any of the above types of conditions, one can still be free, so long as one is doing what one wants to do. It just so happens that what you want to do isn’t actually up to you. The Stoics had an excellent illustration of this idea. Imagine that you are a dog tied to a cart. The cart is ahead of you and it is rolling, and where it is rolling is not under your control. But as long as where the cart is headed is where you wanted to go anyway, then what you have is as good as any other conceivable kind of free will. So as long as nothing is forcing you at act against your will, one is still free, even though what you willed in the first place was determined, so say the compatibilists. (Keep in mind that this is the classical conception of compatibilism, and there are many new and improved versions that will likely be discussed in later blogs.)

And here enter the libertarians. Libertarians believe determinism is not compatible with free will because mere freedom from constraints and the ability to voluntarily do what one wills is not enough for true free will. They want to be able to control what they will as well. They term the compatibilist conception of free will as mere “freedom of action”, which they deem as only a part of the whole of free will. The libertarians deny that determinism is true, because that is the only way through which we could control our deeper “freedom of will” and not just our “freedom of action.”

The key idea behind standard libertarianism is that in any situation, we must have “the ability to do otherwise.” If determinism is true, for any situation (Sx) with a given set of facts about the past (Pf) and a given set of laws of nature (L) , then only one situation could result: (Sy). Libertarians want it to be such that (Sz) could result as well, given the same (Pf) and (L). Or to put it in what might be simpler terms, one should be able to either perform action A or refrain from performing action A, when the opportunity arises. This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). If one accepts this principle, then determinism clearly cannot account for any free actions. Some compatibilists have tried to reconcile the PAP with determinism by applying something called a “conditional analysis of can, could, or ability“. This, however, is a very tedious argument that no one but die-hard philosophers would find interesting or take seriously anyway, so I’ll do you all a favor and leave it out. Instead, I’m going to skip to what is perhaps the most famous of the arguments against the libertarian PAP: the Frankfurt-style examples, originally penned by none other than Harry G Frankfurt himself in 1969.

The Frankfurt-style examples attempt to show that the ability to do otherwise (PAP) is not actually required for free will. Consider this scenario:

Charles is incredibly furious with Bob (for whatever reason, make up your own). Charles is so angry that he has decided that he wants to murder Bob. Unbeknownst to Charles, however, before Charles decided to kill Bob, an evil neuroscientist implanted in Charles’ brain a special device that monitors his brain activity. This device is set to force Charles to kill Bob in the event that Charles decides to let Bob live instead. So now we have Charles, who is planning to kill Bob. Let’s say he is right behind Bob with a gun pointed to his head. The evil neuroscientist is watching and knows what is going on. (A) If Charles decides that he doesn’t want to kill Bob, the neuroscientist will activate the device and force Charles to kill Bob. However, (B) if Charles doesn’t back down or change his mind, the device does nothing and the neuroscientist does nothing, and Charles still kills Bob. In either scenario, Charles ends up killing Bob. Now what are you intuitions telling you about these two situations? It seems that in situation (A), Charles should not be blamed for Bob’s death, since he didn’t do it of his own free will, but was forced by the device of the neuroscientists. In situation (B), however, it seems that Charles did in fact kill Bob out of his own free will, and so should be blamed for it.

But perhaps issues of blame should be set aside for now. The key issue in this Frankfurt-style example is that Charles could not have refrained from killing Bob. He could not have done otherwise. But it seems that even though he could not have done otherwise, situation (B) still looks suspiciously like Charles acted of his own free will. If this is true, then the libertarian Principle of Alternative Possibilities fails as a necessary component of free will, and the libertarians must look elsewhere.

I could go on about other related issues, or go into more detail about the issues already presented (as I probably should), but I feel that this post has gotten lengthy enough already. So I’d like to open the floor for any questions or comments or arguments against any position presented. Perhaps I’ve misrepresented something here and you’d like to correct me, or maybe I didn’t explain it clearly enough and you want clarification. Whatever it is that’s on your mind after reading this, I’d like to hear it. Do you think either of the positions here are plausible? Did you already hold one of these views before reading this? Do you think any of this even matters? Let me know what you think, I’m interested.


* Note that the majority of the topics and arguments covered have been summarized or paraphrased from Robert Kane’s “A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will”, part of the Fundamentals of Philosophy Series, published by Oxford University Press in 2005. It is an incredibly readable book, and since Kane presents these issues and more in a manner far better than I ever could, I recommend that you get yourself a copy if you are at all interested in free will.


6 Responses to “An Introduction To Free Will”

  1. dylanrallen Says:

    I would say I am experiencing much more free will today than last week due to my being laid off. I ate ramen noodles for breakfast. If lexi was here, I don’t think I could have done that (coercion right?)

    • Heath Says:

      Actually, I think that would be the trifecta of constraint (since her presence would prevent it), coercion (since she would make you do something else), and control (since she is an intelligent agent). You officially have full freedom of action. Go forth and write a song about determinism. It’s time to live the starving musician life that you’ve dreamed of.

  2. Chelle* Says:

    I’m unsure as to whether or not this piece seems to be biased because of your own opinion; perhaps it is merely my lack of experience with this subject. I would like to know what your personal outlook is.

    Of dogs and carts:
    I don’t like the idea of compatibilism. If I made a decision and was only able to follow through with it because that was the will of someone/thing else and I became aware of that I would probably change my mind. I don’t enjoy having decisions made for me, regardless of whether or not I am in a state of blissful ignorance about it. If I were a dog tied behind a cart it wouldn’t matter, the cart would drag me with it but I would most definitely be unhappy about it. Unless I was feeling unusually spunky that day then I would attempt to chew through the rope and I win.

    I may be confused as to the difference between freedom of will and action. So I think you should just elaborate as opposed to me guessing and running the risk of being incorrect.

    Of Bob and Charles:
    Say Charles were to decide to distance himself from Bob for a while, just to be sure he is making the right decision. Would the neuroscientist be able to go as far forcing Charles to hunt Bob down and shoot him? Or could he only force Charles to make the decision if he chooses to directly put himself in the situation?

    I found it amusing that you felt this was refreshingly astray of your “radical religious views.” A friend read along with me and it sparked a religion-oriented conversation I think you would’ve enjoyed.

    • Heath Says:

      As far as bias goes, I’m very uncertain about whether I’m a libertarian or a compatibilist right now. Both sides seem to have a lot of problems that are hard to live with, most of which I didn’t even address in this post. So I don’t think it would have been possible for me to be biased. Although I guess I should admit that I do have an inclination towards compatibilism over libertarianism, but not necessarily the classical compatibilism presented here. Modern science generally indicates that determinism is true, and I am inclined to accept that. However, at this point, my strongest inclinations at the moment point toward hard determinism, meaning that there is no free will and determinism is true.

      Of your complaints about compatibilism:
      The great thing about compatibilism is that you aren’t really aware of the cart that is dragging you (or at least it doesn’t matter that it is). Because it could be the case right now that determinism is true and you don’t have any free will (hard determinism). But that doesn’t change the way you feel about your decisions and your voluntary control over them. And just so that we’re clear, compatibilism doesn’t entail that something or someone is controlling you, that is exactly the kind of restriction that the classical compatibilists have managed to avoid. Because even if everything that you want or everything that you will has been determined and was not up to you, you can still enjoy your freedom of action, because you are getting to do what you want/will. You just don’t have any control over what it is that you want/will in the first place. But it still feels phenomenologically the same as if you did. But the libertarians wanted more than just freedom from restrictions (freedom of action), they also want a deeper freedom of will, in which one can control the wants, desires, and wills that one brings to the table. It’s just a matter of stepping back and asking where everything came from at each stage. Stage 1 being the ability to act on one’s desires/wants (compatibilists stop here), stage 2 being the ability to choose what desires/wants one has (libertarians want at least this level of freedom, if not more), and stage 3 being the ability to choose what one chose in stage 2, and so on and so forth (yes, it becomes a nasty infinite regress, and I may end up writing a blog about how some philosophers have tried to deal with that one).

      Of Bob and Charles:
      No matter what Charles does, when the neuroscientist flips his switch, Charles will inevitably end Bob’s life, as the neuroscientist will then have complete control over Charles’ brain functions, and therefore all of Charles’ physical actions as well.

      And finally, I do think this post was completely free of my atheist bias. There have been religious/theological answers provided to the question of free will for all of the kinds of views that I have mentioned so far. So it should not be thought that these positions are incompatible with religious belief, nor that they require it. They are wonderfully neutral, in my opinion.

  3. Chelle* Says:

    I may now be completely confused. I really shouldn’t put more than a days time between these things. After that I can’t remember half of what I thought I wanted to say. Or what I wanted to know for that matter.

    I still don’t dig the compatibilism thing. I don’t like to be unaware of things. I would rather know exactly what was going on and be miserable about it than be oblivious. The very idea that it could be that way bothers me, alot.
    If no one/thing is predetermining my actions/wills then how could they be predetermined at all?

    Sorry Bob you’re screwed.

    I didn’t mean that you were pushing an atheist bias, clearly there was no mention of religious anything other than the disclaimer. Where my personal conversation spiraled afterward is what I thought was funny.

    • Heath Says:

      Determinism doesn’t require a determiner. Things just happen according to the laws of nature, in combination with how things just so happened to turn out (the facts of the past). Like in chemistry class, for instance. When I combine two chemicals, it is determined that when they meet, they will create a certain reaction, and only that one possible reaction. That is because a law governs how those types of chemicals react. When and where they will react is a product of the facts of the past, which aren’t necessarily the only way that things could have played out.

      So it’s not like there is one force that is determining everything, it is a whole combination of the laws of nature and the facts of the past that create only one physically possible future.

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