The ‘Free Will Problem’

Posted on August 13, 2012 by

The purpose of this post is simple; to navigate through some of the different positions one could take regarding the ‘problem of free will‘. I’ve been asked by some to go over the basics, so, here it goes. I’ll define the major terms internal to the debate  to give readers a bit more context and substance when thinking about future (and past) posts. Hopefully, this  post will give those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology related to the topic a better understanding of what’s going on. I’ll start by briefly pointing out what the free will problem‘ is before moving on to the different positions one could take.

What is the Problem of Free Will and why should we care?

First off, what is free will? “Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives (SEP). Many philosophers define the concept  differently which only adds further confusion to the underlying problem, but, here are a few reasonable ways of defining it:

1. “Free Will is the power of up-to-usness” (Saul Smilansky 2001; Joe Campbell 2010). Meaning, that the actions we perform are in fact up to us in a robust way. The details are important and can be cashed out differently but they boil down to a similar view.

2. Free Will is being the source of our actions (Derk Pereboom 2001; Kevin Timpe 2008)

3. “We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents capable of influencing the world in various ways. Open alternatives, or alternative possibilities, seem to lie before us. We reason and deliberate among them and choose.” (Bob Kane 2005)

4. “An agent acts freely only when she is able to do other than what she does”. (Randolph Clarke 2003)

So, given your best interpretation of what free will is, why should we care? As Robert Kane has said “nothing can be more important than freedom to the modern age” (2005). But why? Well, when thinking about the concept of moral responsibility it becomes more salient. Free Will is intimately connected to concepts like responsibility, blame, praise, ‘just’ punishment, and the like (some argue that free will is central to notions of moral obligation, see Haji 2012 for more on this). It might be best to consider an example: Billy had a device implanted in his head over night. This device produces thoughts and ideas that lead to action. Justin is in control of this device, not Billy. Billy can’t even have a thought without it being controlled by Justin. Now imagine Justin implanting Billy with the thoughts to kill someone, and, erasing the thoughts to do otherwise via the device. When Billy kills someone should we blame him for it? Is Billy at fault or is Justin? Hopefully this example is starting to get you to understand the importance of free will. We normally assume that one has it. It underlies most of the above mentioned concepts. This is why we would blame Justin and not Billy in this example. Billy couldn’t have done otherwise, if he could have then we still might be inclined to blame him or hold him morally responsible, further, assume Billy is actually a nice guy, a guy who helped others all the time prior to Justin inserting the device in his brain.

We assume that Justin wasn’t forced or determined to implant the device in the first place and that’s why we have no problem blaming him for doing it. If this is true, then it seems that the concept of free will is important to our practices of blame, praise, and to ascriptions of moral responsibility. I should note here that all of these assumptions are contentious, I only bring them up to show why some find free will to be a concept worth discussing. So, why shouldn’t we think that Justin in the example or anyone for that matter does not have the sort of free will required for blaming, praising, and holding one morally responsible? There are a number of reasons, but, determinism seem to be the biggest threat (one of them anyway), or so many involved in the debate would claim. After all, if Justin isn’t to blame does this make him a puppet or someone going for “the ride” so to speak?

In his book ‘Free Will’, Joe Campbell describes the problem of free will as the ‘free will dilemma’. Here is what he sees the central problem to be:

1. If determinism is true, then no one has free will.
2. If indeterminism is true, then no one has free will.
3. Therefore, no one has free will.

Determinism (for more click here) is the claim that past events together with the laws of nature bring about all future events. In other words, all action is determined to go one specific way, there are no choices in acting other than the way one will act. Given the laws of nature and your past you can only act one way or make only one decision. Some say this isn’t a threat to free will because they think that the concept of free will is compatible with the thesis of determinism, these people are called Compatiblists.

Compatibilism (for more click here) is the claim that the theses of determinism and free will are compatible with each other (Mele, Campbell, Mckenna). There are different versions of compatibilism. For instance, J.M Fischer holds the doctrine of semi-compatibilism. Determinism is compatible with moral responsibility but not with regulative control which is required for free will.

Incompatibilism, (for more click here) on the other hand, is the theory that says; since there are no robust alternatives to any action you partake in (assuming the truth of determinism), and since alternatives are required to have free will (see definitions above), then the thesis of determinism is not compatible with free will, hence incompatibilism. This is an intuitive view, especially for those who are just coming into the debate (see Haji 2009 for more on why this might be).

Libertarians claim that incompatibilism is true but that we have free will (Kane, Clarke, Balaguer). Free Will skeptics claim (Pereboom, Strawson) that incompatibilism is true but that we don’t have free will.

Beyond these traditional approaches to the problem there is also the naturalist response and the revisionist response.

Naturalism is the claim that humans do not have contra-causal free will. They are Free Will skeptics, but a particular kind of free will skeptic. They only disavow the sort of free will espoused by dualists and those that think humans can transcend causal laws and explanations in their behavior. Click here for more on their position.

Revisionism (see Vargas 2007) is the claim that “what we ought to believe about free will and moral responsibility is different from what we normally think about these things”. In other words, revisionists claim that we are misguided by our initial intuitive ideas about free will and the revisionist aims to fix this. Some have argued that this is another form of compatibilism, I’d encourage you to read Vargas’ chapter and see for yourself.

I’ve given a very brief run-down of the problem of free will and have given some of the ways that philosophers have responded to the problem. Admittedly, I have not flushed out the details of any of these positions, that was not my goal (that’s a book length project). Neither have I argued for any particular position being more salient than any other (that will come later). However, I hope that this post at least illuminated some of the ways one could approach answering the problem of free will and why we should care about trying to do so in the first place.

Libertarian Accounts of Free Will” (2003) Randolph Clarke
Living Without Free Will” (2001) Derk Pereboom
Free Will” (2011) Joseph Keim Campbell
A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will” (2005) Robert Kane
Free Will: Sourcehood and Its Alternatives” (2008) Kevin Timpe
Four Views on Free Will” (2007) Fischer, Kane, Pereboom, Vargas
Conversation and Responsibility” (2012) Michael Mckenna
Incompatibilism’s Allure” (2009) Ish Haji
Reason’s Debt to Freedom” (2012) Ish Haji
Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem” (2009) Mark Balaguer
(SEP) refers to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy