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.


Intelligent Design & The Supernatural

The Supernatural… It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot and gets used in a many different ways. Given my philosophical/scientific fixation, what I’m going to concern myself with here is the idea of the “supernatural realm”. So when I say “supernatural”, I’m using it in the same context as that most of the Western religions. Just so that we can all have the same mental imagery here, let’s try to visualize this as Heaven (and Hell, if you believe in that as well). God’s house, basically. It is that realm, completely distinct from our physical world, where any spiritual entities may reside, whether they be God, angels, demons, or  disembodied human souls. Also, let it be understood that I’m operating on the assumption that we live in the “natural realm”, where science operates to explain things in terms of mechanistic processes. 


William Paley, in 1802,  put forth perhaps the most famous version of the ‘Argument from Design’ (though he was certainly not the first to do so). It has come to be called the ‘Design Inference’ among today’s Intelligent Design advocates. The basic idea behind the argument is that in the same way that we can examine old artifacts from ancient cultures and conclude that they (the artifacts) had certain functions and were created by an intelligent agent, we can also note how much more incredibly complex the human body is, and how much more intelligent the designer of these (our bodies) must be. Upon examination of the impressive complexity of the human body (or perhaps life in general), we should infer the existence of a designer, or so the argument goes.

My question about the Design Inference is this: what kind of designer are we supposed to be inferring exactly? The Intelligent Design argument doesn’t describe anything specifically (and for good reason, since that mistake is the main reason why the creationists were destroyed in court). For all their “theory” cares, the intelligent designer could have been a super-advanced alien species from a galaxy far, far away…. But if you look at the members of the think tank behind Intelligent Design, it is pretty obvious which designer they have in mind: the God of Christianity. So although this argument could be used to argue for a non-supernatural designer, I shall only be concerned with those religious believers who reject “macro-evolution” and insist that a supernatural designer is required to explain the multitude of species. 

Now that we have an idea of what designer we are supposed to infer, we can focus my main question a bit more: how is it that we are supposed to infer something supernatural from artifacts in the  natural realm? The supernatural is by definition separate and distinct from the natural realm. But if this is the case, then how could the supernatural possibly interact with the natural? Once “something supernatural” enters the natural realm (say, to create new species), doesn’t that make it “something natural”? Science, by definition, operates and explains only in the natural realm. If science can be used to explain something, then that thing must be purely natural. So if the ID theorists want to use science to back up their claims, they have to accept that they are no longer arguing for a supernatural creator (who could arguably need no explanation of  his/her/it’s own existence), but they are now arguing for a natural creator who cries out for even more explanation than our own existence does. 

This question, it appears is hard for me to articulate in these terms, so allow me to pose an analogous question. Descartes is famous for his mind/body problem. He proposed that the mind was a separate thing from the body, and it was nonmaterial, whereas the body was purely material. The question then arose: how does the mind interact with the body, if the mind is, in fact, nonphysical? How does something that does not exist in space and time interact with something that does exist in space and time? In the same way, how can the supernatural, nonphysical and outside of space and time, make changes on the natural, physical and within space and time? 

Superstition and magic and conjuring was a major part of human life in our pre-scientific days. We would perform dances in hopes of inducing nature to grant us rain. This was due to a lack of scientific knowledge, knowledge that actually does some explaining. At that point in time, functionally speaking, there was no difference at all between complete ignorance of what was going on in the phenomenon of rain and proposing that it was the rain gods. Either situation has the same exact level of explanatory power: none. The choice is either recognizing our ignorance, or putting a cheap tuxedo on our ignorance, dressing it up as an explanation, and saying the supernatural gods did it. The major consequence of the former is a motivation to scientific understanding, or contentment without actually knowing anything in the latter. 

This is exactly what I say is happening when people, like the ID theorists, hijack science and try to use it to validate their own previously held religious beliefs. That’s just bad science, first of all, and also they are trying to make an inference that cannot possibly be made. You can’t speak about a realm or a god that is mysterious and separate from ours and then turn around and try to prove it via empirical means. They are arguing in a circle that destroys itself on the first rotation.

Opening Day: Atheism, Arguments, and Advocacy… and Aardvarks. And Apples. Other A Words.

Ok, so let’s consider this my first actual attempt at a blog on this site. It’s not gonna be much, but it’ll be more than that last piece of fail. I’d like to start by introducing some key issues that will undoubtedly come up again and again on this blog, and also at least one issue that I probably won’t come back to very often.

First, I’d like to say that I am an atheist. But what is an atheist? What is atheism? I’ll tell you. It’s NOT a religion. Atheism is to religion what bald is to hair colors. We have no creed, and only one rule: if one does not hold a positive belief in the existence of a supernatural creator, then one is an atheist. It is not the assertion that there could not possibly exist a god, only that we don’t believe that there is one. There are atheists who will go so far as to deny the existence of God as being impossible, and that position is called strong atheism. This position, while I would like to endorse, I cannot honestly do so, for I don’t think it is impossible that a god could exist. Although I do think it is in fact the case that god does not exist, I can’t rule it out completely any more than I can’t rule out the existence of undetectable teapots orbiting the moon. But nonetheless, I don’t see much evidence for the existence of either. So I choose not to believe. There is far more I could do to define and explain atheism, but for an introductory blog, I think this should be enough.

I’ve been public with the fact that I am an atheist for less than a year now (7-8 months, maybe?), but I have probably been an atheist for longer than that. It’s hard to tell when the switch was actually made, because it was a gradual thing over a long period of time. If you’d like to know more about that whole process, I have a three-part blog series on my myspace blog that goes into a bit of detail, so I won’t bother with it here. But anyway, the reason I’m putting this out up front is because I’m very open with my views, and they typically offend people. People very often have a problem with this. But I don’t think you should. No one should ever have a problem with anyone speaking their mind about anything. At best, they could end up being right and convince other people. At worst, they could be wrong and someone will correct them, and they will have learned something. And that’s what I want to do here. I want to convince and be corrected. I will of course probably offend any and all of you by what I say, but that is not my intention. My intention is to get at the truth, and if you think I’ve veered from it, show me where. I honestly just want to know the truth. It’s not about “promoting my atheist agenda” (whatever that might be), it’s about being open, honest, rational, and reasoning our way to the truth about reality.

I’ve had to hide who I truly am for far too long in my life, about many more things than just my religious views. I don’t think that was a healthy way to live. So I’ve put that in my past, and I think you should too. Don’t be afraid that you might offend me or hurt my feelings, because I don’t have any…. Okay, but seriously, don’t hold back. I don’t identify myself by my views on a particular subject, whatever it is. I think that’s why people generally have a hard time remaining calm in religious debates, because that’s how they define themselves. We’re not going to get anywhere as long as people keep doing that in debates. Detach yourself, at least momentarily, realize that you are more than just your religion, and speak your mind, and nobody else’s.

And finally, I’d like to do my part to help out a few people, by showing my support to anyone who is an atheist and has yet to identify themselves as such because of fear of the repercussions. Yes, it is undeniable that in this society there are certain consequences that one has to live with when one goes public with news like this. I hate that it has to be that way, but the only way to change this uncompromisingly prejudicial society is to make noise and show that we’re not going to be ignored and alienated and we’re not going to continue to let our rights be violated as American citizens (yes, we are citizens, despite what George Bush Sr. says). I know this probably isn’t going to reach anybody or help anybody come out as an atheist, but at least I’ll be able to say I tried to help. So here is a link to the OUT Campaign. Just remember, it’s okay to be an atheist. But more importantly, it’s okay to be who you are…. Unless you suck.   😉

Scarlet Letter of Atheism

P.S. Cheese is so freakin’ awesome. You know it. I know it. Let’s accept it, people.

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