Dubious definitions of free will

Dubious definitions of free will
Everyday Philosophy

You hear a lot in apologetics about how if the materialist image of the world favoured by the likes of Richard Dawkins was true, there would be no room in reality for human free will. But why exactly is this? What’s the nature of the tension between free will and scientific materialism, and can it be resolved?

There are few different ways that materialism might pose a problem for free will, but the most notable one is physical determinism. Determinism is roughly the idea that what is going to happen in the future is determined in advance by the laws of physics. If determinism was true, then if you knew the exact physical state of the universe plus the laws of physics, you could predict what would happen next everywhere with perfect accuracy.

There are two major ways of thinking about free will, two different sets of necessary conditions for freedom”

Why is that a problem for free will? Well, ‘what would happen next’ would include all human actions: they would be just as much part of the closed, determined system as anything else. Why is that a problem?

To get an idea of the answer we have to ask another question. What would it be for human action to be free? What would be present if we were free, and absent if we weren’t? It’s not the feeling of freedom: we all feel like we’re in control of our actions – at least some of the time – but that feeling might be illusory. So what is it?

There are two major ways of thinking about free will, two different sets of necessary conditions for freedom. You can think about free will in terms of ‘sourcehood’, or you can think about it in terms of leeway.

A leeway theorist of free will believes that to be free, you have to have the ability to actualise different possibilities. If I freely chose to get myself a banana from the fruit bowl an hour ago, then it must have been the case that I had the power to do something else instead. If I had no option but to get the banana, then I wasn’t acting freely. To be free I must have ‘the ability to do otherwise’.

The prospect for this sort of freedom if determinism is true seems very grim. It seems like the definition of determinism that there is only one possible action available to me at any given time: the one the laws of physics have determined.

David Hume had a go at a leeway theory of free will that was compatible with determinism. We are free, he said, if we could have done otherwise had we wanted to. So if the police will arrest me every time I try to get a banana, I’m not free to get one. But if nothing would stop me getting a banana if I wanted one, then I am free: even if the laws of physics have determined that I don’t want a banana. This isn’t very satisfying: if David Hume had a mind control ray that could determine all my desires, it seems like he would be able to take away most of my meaningful freedom quite successfully. The freedom to follow my desires seems like a hollow thing if those desires themselves are completely out of my control.

The other account of what it is to be free, sourcehood, seems to fare better if determinism is true. A sourcehood theorist will say I am free if and only if I am the true source of my actions. To be free I have to be able to truthfully say that getting that banana was ‘up to me’, not to anyone or anything else.

Now if determinism is true there is an unchangeable sequence of cause and effect. But a defender of the compatibility of free will and determinism will say that just because human beings are parts of that chain, it doesn’t mean that their actions don’t come from them. My banana-loving nature may be determined by physics: but it’s still my nature, my character. The banana-grabbing that results from that character comes from me.

But we can begin to see why physical determinism makes the possibility of free will dubious”

So on a sourcehood theory am I free even if determinism is true? Immanuel Kant pointed out a problem: if everything about our character is determined by brute physical processes, it’s hard to say that we’re really the ultimate source of any of our actions. How could we be, if my reaching for the banana was set in stone before I was even conceived? It’s as though, he said, we looked at an arrow in mid-flight and said “it is the source of its own movement and direction” – completely ignoring the bow.

There is, of course, very much more to say.  But we can begin to see why physical determinism makes the possibility of free will dubious.