A Quick Primer on The Free Will Debate

One question philosophers, scientists and any sufficiently curious people have asked for centuries is this: do we have free will?

Our definition of free will has arisen out of our intuitive feeling for what free will means: the feeling that we are in control of our selves, and of our own destinies. It is the visceral feeling of agency and autonomy that each of us has. We make our own decisions, and for any decision we make, we feel confident that it would have been quite possible to have made a different decision if we had wanted to – i.e. we could have done otherwise.

What’s more is that this ‘free will’ we feel we have, also confers responsibility, and culpability onto us. We can be praised, or condemned for our actions – since we are the ultimate arbiters of our volition. Thus it is just that we have punishment and reward for volitional deeds.

But advances in our scientific understanding of the world have burdened us with what appears to be a deeply distasteful conclusion.

Specifically, the scientific notion that has destabilized our quaint, reassuring picture of free will, is determinism.

Determinism is basically the idea that the universe runs like a mechanical wind-up toy. Once it has been first set in motion, it follows a predictable causal pathway.

This idea of determinism was explicated as long ago as in ancient Greece – where some philosophers conceived of the universe as following this kind of causal roller coaster, with bodies moving this way and that according to the inflexible, immutable laws of nature.

And today, with our knowledge of physics, and our understanding that matter does indeed follow an underlying set of rules, or laws – determinism has been all but confirmed (there is, of course, the matter of ‘quantum indeterminacy’ – but this ultimately has no bearing on our claim to free will, so we can ignore it for the sake of argument).

According to our current model, if we could know the positions and states of every particle in the universe, then we could predict the states of those particles at any subsequent moment in time. Thus, in this sense, the future is determined.

The supposedly inescapable conclusion that many smart people are drawing is that free will cannot exist in such a universe of deterministic, mechanical laws.

A person cannot control the motions of the particles that give rise to the state of his brain. Thus his thoughts – which he believes himself the author of – are actually beyond his control.

So even in his freest moments – when he introspects upon his own thoughts, and contrives to act purely of his own volition, based on his own autonomy – all of this complex cognition is still just as mired in the laws of physics as the photons whizzing mechanically over his head – which is to say, they are not free at all.

Not only does this exculpate perpetrators of evil – since they are not responsible for their evil doings – it also absolves even the most modest person of his mildest achievements.

This, at least, is the claim of so-called Incompatibilists – who hold that free will is incompatible with determinism.

On the other side of the debate, sit the Compatibilists, who assert that determinism is not only compatible with free will, but essential for it.

They argue that it is a mistake to think that free will lies in the libertarian notion of freedom from the laws of physics, but rather, that it is a consequence of our cognitive, information-processing prowess.

In this sense, free will is not a binary phenomenon – where one either has it or does not – but something that sits upon a continuum, with greater levels of freedom emerging with greater cerebral functionality.

We humans, with our intricate forebrains that allow for complex reasoning and meta-cognition have far surpassed our animal brethren on this scale of freedom.

A bear is beholden to its instincts – falling upon a person to maul him to death out of an automatic, primal compulsion to kill and eat.

Yet a person need not succumb to his own atavistic urges, and can instead reflect upon his beliefs, values, and desires – using them to reason about his actions.

Thus the person has more ‘degrees of freedom’ with respect to the actions he is capable of performing, compared to the bear.

Yet this conception of free will does not satisfy Incompatibilists, who argue that, under this definition, the meaning of the term has been distorted beyond recognition, and denuded of its core components.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris provided an apt analogy for this state of affairs. He compared the traditional definition of free will to the fantastical underwater city of Atlantis – something miraculous, that we can all agree does not exist. Yet recent discoveries have revealed an ancient city off the coast of sicily – which many people have claimed is Atlantis.

This ancient city, he says, is the Compatibilist’s notion of free will – a realistic alternative that has many of the features of the traditional concept but, crucially, is devoid of the thing that people truly care about – namely, it is not an underwater city replete with advanced technology and treasure.

The Compatibilists retort that we are mistaken to care about some fantastical, libertarian notion of free will; it has no bearing on the things we truly care about, like volition, and moral responsibility, which we can still have in a deterministic world.

But the Incompatibilists hold fast. No matter how you look at it, they say, there is an inescapable fact of the matter: for any thought you have, that you feel was made of your own volition, you did not author the charges on the synapses in the brain that gave rise to it. This is the magic of Atlantis – it is what is truly important to the notion of free will – and it is a myth.

So who is right? Are both sides simply talking past each other, unheeding of the other’s definitions? Or is this an argument of substance?

I contend that there is a substantive difference between the two positions.

As I hope to demonstrate in this article, the Incompatibilist arguments are fraught with fallacies. They fail to carefully examine the concepts they use in their arguments, and as a result, they miss the fact that they are incoherent.

You do, in fact, have free will.

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