Guest post by Danny Frederick
The traditional problem of free will arose out of theology. God was supposed to know everything, in which case He would have perfect foreknowledge. But if God knows beforehand what we are going to do, how can we be free either to do it or not?
In the Enlightenment, the problem arose out of science, specifically, the success of Newton’s theory. For here was a clear and (relatively) simple theory of the world, expressed in precise mathematical formulae, which made predictions about the motions of every kind of matter, whether large or small, whether on earth or in the heavens, whether solid or fluid; and the predictions were borne out by experimental testing. Furthermore some of the predictions were very surprising and counterintuitive, so people expected them to fail; yet they also survived testing. The theory was even used to predict the existence, size and orbit of a planet in the solar system which no one had previously known about; and when telescopes were pointed in the relevant portion of the night sky, there it was! Neptune was discovered. People could not believe that this theory could be false. It was generally accepted as firmly established truth. The success of Newton’s theory marked the transition from the open-minded and critical Renaissance to the dogmatic Enlightenment.
It is debatable whether Newton’s theory is deterministic, but it was taken to be so in the Enlightenment. It was thought that the physical world consists of atoms in space subject to Newtonian forces and that, if we know where all the atoms are at a particular time, we can, in principle, predict where they will all be at any later time just by using Newton’s laws. Since human actions involve physical motion, how can we be free to either perform or not perform any particular action? Plainly, we cannot: how a person’s body moves is determined by the position and momentum of atoms, and the forces that were acting on them, billions of years before we were born.
It was the acceptance of Newton’s theory, along with the interpretation of it as implying determinism, that led people either to deny free will or to try to show, with sophistical arguments, that free will and determinism were actually compatible, along the following lines: an agent can do as he chooses (and is thus free, in that sense), but his choice is determined.
Since the 1930s, we have had quantum theory, which has indeterministic laws. That, it might seem, solves the problem of free will. There is some spielraum for us to be able to influence physical events, and thus to act in the world, because physical events which are physically undetermined may, in some cases, be open to influence from mental acts of will. Unfortunately, the spielraum allowed by quantum theory is rather small: what we need is a conception of laws of nature as ceteris paribus and a theory of emergent evolution which permits higher, emergent, features, such as acts of will, to interfere with lower ones (‘downward causation’). Of course, that will not avoid determinism unless the acts of will are themselves undetermined. But that seems to generate a new problem. If our acts of will are undetermined, then they are random; but if they are random, we have no control over them; but if we have no control over them, then we do not act freely. As Hobart put it:
In proportion as an act of volition starts of itself without cause it is exactly, so far as the freedom of the individual is concerned, as if it had been thrown into his mind from without – ‘suggested’ to him – by a freakish demon… it is just as if his legs should suddenly spring up and carry him off where he did not prefer to go [“Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without it,” Mind 43 (169): 1-27 (1934)], available here.
However, that problem is a confusion because it fails to distinguish actions from mere events. A random event is one that we do not control. But an undetermined action is not simply a random event; it is an undetermined action. And an action is something that an agent does, something an agent controls.
Every action is an act of will; but some acts of will are not actions. The person who tries unsuccessfully to move his paralysed limb performs an act of will, but no action. An act of will becomes an action by bringing about a motion of the agent’s body. An act of will is under the agent’s immediate control at the time of its occurrence. That is, the agent does not perform an act of will by doing something else: he simply acts.
An act of will is essentially undetermined in this sense: there is no time before it occurs at which the total state of the universe at that time gives the act a probability equal to 1 or to 0. For, if the act of will, some time before its occurrence, had a probability of 1, it would be certain to occur, and if it had a probability of 0, it would be certain not to occur. Either way, its occurrence would not be under the agent’s control at the time of performance, so it would not be an act of will.
Acts of will are not entirely unpredictable, because they have a probability of occurrence between 0 and 1 and we may often know roughly how probable a particular action of an agent is. Indeed, most of our actions are habitual, so they have a high probability of occurrence, which makes us largely predictable. That enables us to plan moderately well in most circumstances. Further, there are things that we can do, such as offering incentives, that will raise the probability that a specific agent will act in a specific way, so we are able to influence, but not to determine, acts of will. For, an agent can always act against habits and incentives, because our actions are not determined. Even if there is a very high probability, say 0.95, that a particular agent will perform an act of will of a particular type, it is still up to the agent whether or not she acts in that way.
When my act of willing my arm to move brings about the motion of my arm, that act of will becomes an action of my moving my arm. The action is not the motion of my arm; and the act of will does not bring about the action. The act of will is the action in virtue of bringing about the bodily motion. Compare: when a woman produces a baby, she becomes a mother. The mother is not the baby; and the woman does not bring about the mother. The woman is the mother.
If I flip a switch by moving my arm, my act of will becomes an action of flipping a switch. If I intended to flip the switch by moving my arm, then my moving my arm and my flipping the switch are both intentional. If I intended to move my arm but flipped the switch by accident, my flipping the switch is unintentional. Unintentional actions are done ‘unknowingly,’ so they are not free actions. Intentional actions are free if performed by a critically rational agent, that is, one who can question and criticise his inherited views and habits and decide for himself how to act. So my one act of will might be both a free (intentional) action of moving my arm and an unfree (unintentional) action of flipping a switch. Non-human animals perform undetermined acts of will and some of their actions are intentional; but they do not have free will because they are not critically rational.
Contemporary philosophical writing on free will is confused. First, most contemporary philosophers seem to assume that determinism is true: they generally adhere to the view that human behaviour has a deterministic explanation, though the laws will not involve psychological terms such as ‘belief,’ ‘desire,’ ‘intention’ and such like, but rather descriptions in terms of neurophysiological events. In short, the old dogma that was a response to the astounding success of Newton’s theory is retained by contemporary philosophers. But Newton’s theory has been rejected as false since the advent of relativity theory in the early part of the twentieth century, and determinism is rejected in the most fundamental physical science (quantum theory).
Second most contemporary philosophers confuse action with bodily motion, though bodily motion of a special kind, usually distinguished by its causes (beliefs and attitudes, or intentions). But nothing can make a bodily motion into an action. Only an act of will can be an action. A bodily motion is not an act, though it may be brought about by one.
Third, most contemporary philosophers think that an undetermined act, even if it has a specific probability between 0 and 1, is a random event outside of the agent’s control, and thus not a free act. But that confuses an undetermined act of the agent with a random mere event outside of the agent.
Fourth, some contemporary philosophers maintain that agents determine their actions. But agents can do no such thing: agents act and their acts usually bring about bodily motions which in turn have other effects.