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The American University in Cairo
Prisoners of Freedom
An answer to the Question
"Do We Possess Free Will?"

Presented to:
Dr. Lambert Vincent Stepanich

Presented by:
Moataz Mohammad Attallah

Mel Gibson as William Wallace in the Scottish saga ‘Brave heart’

One may wonder why the majority of the philosophers who tackled the issue of free will, or human beings’ ability in controlling their actions, insisted in accompanying it with the words ‘problem’ or ‘delusion’[Check the sources]. The word ‘problem’ may induce some presuppositions about ‘free will’ that show it like a critical issue, that requires extensive learning before being able to deal with. Despite being frequently used in philosophy, referring to ‘free will’ as a ‘problem’ will be avoided in this essay. It is better for people with limited experience to deal with it as a concept rather than a problem. Particularly, free will has been an important concept, not only in philosophy, but also in physical sciences, psychology, and theology. However, philosophers and those who are involved in this concept still have not settled on a definition that all philosophers agree upon.

It seems that there is a tendency among philosophers to deny the existence of free will (Stace:108). They deny its existence based on their belief in determinism (or the principle of universal causation), physical sciences and psychoanalysis. The opponent party that believes in its partial or full existence bases its argument on the undeniable existence of morality and some facts related to psychology and human nature. In fact, belief in the existence of what we shall term "Levels of free will" seems the most tolerable one; which means that determinism and free will are in compatible positions. Thus, this compatiblist position has gained ground because it does not give a sharp yes or no answer. It moderately gives chance for human mind to think more about its freedom.

A conventional start would be to define what it means to have free will, then investigate its existence. But, is it really fair to define free will first, and then start confirming or denying its full or levels of existence based on the terminology? That would be just a presupposition, because as we said philosophers did not agree on one acceptable definition. Consequently, this approach would lead to what Stace   calls a "semantic problem"; by putting a wrong definition, and then searching for it, hence denying the existence of free will. It has happened before many times; so there is no need to repeat the mistake once more.

Therefore, following an unorthodox method, we will start by introducing various viewpoints for and against the existence of free will, each based on its definition of free will.  We will be presenting the argument and counter-argument to reach to the compatiblist perspective, hence the definition of free will that is mostly acceptable. However—temporarily we will use the very basic simple (philosophy-free) definition of free will. To say that a person has free will simply means that that person is equally capable of either doing action (A) or not doing it.

For any argument about the existence of free will to be valid, one has to go through certain concepts, based on which some philosophers confirmed or denied the existence of free will. There are three different thoughtways, yet intangibly related, which are: determinism versus indeterminism, soft and hard determinism, and the analysis of the concept based on psychology and natural science. These will be the three interrelated dimensions that will be tackled mainly in this essay. To include all the possible tracks, a fourth dimension is added, dealing with the concept of free will from a theological viewpoint.

  As a start, an important concept should be introduced, which is determinism. Determinism  is one of the main concepts that is used by some philosophers to reject the existence of free will—i.e. it is not determinism that denies free will. Determinism is defined as    the "Principle of universal causation." This means that since everything in the universe is determined by the laws of nature and everything has a cause, then any event will certainly happen provided that its antecedent conditions are fulfilled. In other words, we have no will to control an event because it will happen as long as its necessary and sufficient causes occur (Solomon: 469). Consequently, we have no free will. What is really necessary now to know is that determinism was established based on Sir Isaac Newton’s theories. Since human beings and their events are of "Physical Nature," therefore they can be equally "law determined," as Solomon argued.

Newton himself did not really think what it means to be free. Newtonian physics termed the falling body under the effect of gravity as "Free Fall." Consequently, it is reasonable to question the definition of freedom according to Newtonian physics, which defined the falling  of a body under the effect of gravitational forces as a free fall. The term "free" refers to the fact that the object is not acted upon except by one force, which is gravity. However still, this case is a typical example for a deterministic event; which can be ultimately predicted; both the position and motion of a body under free fall.  So, is it really free? As a result, we can "strongly" claim that determinists, who based their rejection of free will on physical sciences, suffer from a self-contradiction. They call a falling object to be "free," and they deny free will to human beings.

Now, think: do we really live in such a deterministic universe? Are all our actions "law determined"? Actually, dealing with human beings as just physical objects is unfair. Moreover, is it really wise to base our judgment and definition of free will on a physical law? In fact, what is not clear to the majority is that science itself is a source of freedom. It is the one that gives us a level of free will. Think about it this way; the more physical laws we discover, the more we are likely to have some control over our future. For example, were it not for the discovery of the DNA, we would have never had the option of gene therapy these days, and thus many people would  have been denied the option of "choosing" a better life.

Accordingly, it is not physical sciences that deny free will—though it is true that the determinists did not directly use physical science to deny the existence of free will. Still, it should be highlighted that even if determinism is rooted in physical sciences, it is physical sciences that gives us free will.

Everybody knows that the science of today is known to be statistical and probabilistic rather than deterministic. However, to be more accurate, the science of today is a mixture of both determinism and in-determinism [which is counter argument to determinism].  On the other side, philosophy of indeterminism is based on a claim that not every event in the universe is predictable 2. This means that it is not necessary that every event has its own sufficient causes. We base our generalizations on certain probabilities. For example, we know that a mother will care for its baby; but not all mothers will care for their babies. In Solomon’s term: "Most people in this circumstance would do that."
Modern physics confirmed that on the micro level, we can not determine both the location or the momentum of the elementary particles, which is know as Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. On the other hand, Newton's classical physics is valid on the macro level [planets and moving bodies]. So, where is the truth?
"Truth is out there."

Einstein strongly believed that the whole universe, dealing on micro or macro level, has just one simple equation that governs it all. He spent around 20 years searching for it with no result, and others followed him .  Still the existing scene is that both viewpoints work, or both concepts can co-exist because we did not reach to whether universe is deterministic or not. At least, we do have levels of determinism or indeterminism, to be accurate; deterministic macro and indeterministic micro.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning."
Albert Einstein

This may seem like a weak argument in our defense to prove the existence of levels of free will. As Solomon argued, human beings are not micro objects, and our free will does not mean randomness or spontaneity. Solomon mentioned an example that if a person falls from a plane, he will definitely fall the same way as a sack of potatoes does (Solomon:475). This is perfectly true [human being is not a micro object]. Thus, using indeterminism (based on science) to prove free will is unsatisfactory evidence, especially when free will is mistakenly defined as indeterminism.

However, extending Solomon’s example, we can say: but a human being can think, and change his fall to be different from that sack of potatoes. He can increase his fall area (like a parachutist), unfolding his arms and legs, increasing air resistance to his body, hence decreasing his velocity. He can look and find a lake or a sea, and float in air to fall in it, again by physics. Still, one may debate that even if he can control his speed or his location, he is governed by laws of nature. This is factual and no way to disprove it. But a human being is able to choose the course of action he wants physics to work it on him. It is necessary now to mention the outstanding Schopenhauer’s comment:

"We are free to choose what we will, but not to will what we choose."
Think about it and about the elaborated example, and you will taste a feeling of the existence of two unconfused levels of freedom. In the first level, we can choose the way physics will work on us, and in the second we are imprisoned by our previous choice. The paradox that our freedom on one level changes to a jailer on the other level unveils that we are prisoners of that freedom. 

One may wonder where philosophy is. Perhaps early determinists based their concepts on natural science and indeterminists followed them, but both did not forget tackling it within a philosophical context. The philosophical argument about determinism lead to a branching of determinism into hard determinists, who deny the existence of free will at all, and soft determinists, who believe in the compatibility of the determinism with free will.

Hard determinism was unforgiving with freedom. A "hard determinist" such as Paul Henri D’Holbach  believes that a human being does not posses free will, despite his uniqueness from all other physical objects and phenomenon. He says: "Man's life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth." He concludes that man’s actions are an output or "...a consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas, and of the notions....of his opinions, strengthened by examples, by education, and by daily experience." (Solomon: 470)

On the other hand, some "hard" indeterminists oppressed free will by saying that free will is nothing but indeterminism (Solomon:474). This returns us back to the verbal problem of defining free will. It again highlights the fact that there should be a place where both determinism and indeterminism can meet. This is the so-called Soft Determinism.

Soft determinists believe in the compatibility of both determinism and free will with its simple definition. Mill ,  who is an example for the compatiblists’ party, accepts determinism. Nevertheless, thinking that man has no responsibility over his actions, because he has no free will, is "...humiliating to the pride and even degrading the moral nature of man." (Solomon: 478) This seems very rational because claiming that man has no control over his character does not make sense. Yes, we have very  limited control over our experiences, education, circumstances and even environment; which are the factors that lead our actions.   However, free acts are not only determined by these factors. Desires, motives, psychological states and even voluntary physiological acts are controllable.  Mill believes that freedom means nothing but: "...acting in accordance with one’s own character, desires, and wishes." (Solomon: 480)

 This requires an example. Modern science and genetics have proved that some diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, or even some psychological traits, such as the tendency to commit suicide or even violence, have genetic origin. So, is it really necessary and inevitable for somebody with this  genetic origin to become diabetic for example? The answer is certainly not necessarily. It is well known that diabetes occurs because of the inability to consume glucose in blood. So, what if that person, knowing his genetic readiness, was able to control the amount of glucose he consumes? Then, we can say that he has the free will to control himself. Consequently, as Mill said, we can not deny determinism, nor reject the "necessity and inevitability" of it provided that its causes occur. However, these causes are still under human control. We can conclude that free will itself is the cause that that person did not become diabetic. On the other hand, if that person was in a stressed environment that he could not control, he would certainly become diabetic [levels of freedom]. What seems interesting about this context of free will is that it agrees with determinism and causation. However, it stresses the point that causes are controllable. Not only that, here the will is the cause that forced an event not to happen.

But from where do these desires and motives come from? Modern psychoanalysis, which was founded by Sigmund Freud, supposes that motives and desires ensue from the so-called "Unconscious." This unconscious is a container that has all the experiences and influences in the human being’s life and even before it [genetic].  In a nice analogy, John Hospers  describes the relation between the conscious life and the unconscious by saying: "The conscious life of the human merely a mouthpiece for the unconscious." (Hospers:127) Hospers and other psychoanalysts believe that it is the unconscious that controls one’s will. It is the "cause" of our conscious impulses and actions. Thus, truth is not out there; it is simply inside us. Considering this argument, Hospers concludes that we can not justify the responsibility  of human beings for their actions. He claims that in criminal actions, for example, the agent is not responsible. The agent is a "…victim of a neurotic conflict." (Hospers: 134) Finally, Hospers concludes that human beings do not possess free will; they are more like puppets in the hands of the unconscious.

Truly, Hospers’ argument is not very strong in spite of the fact that it appeals to the reader when he talks about experience and education influencing behavior. Hospers’ article was published in 1948; at the time when psychoanalysis and the Freudian psychology was still an argumentative issue. But now, after more than fifty years, the idea of the unconscious influencing behavior still can not be proved. Moreover, psychologists have found the whole issue of behavior more complicated. The human mind so far is still a mystery. Physicians and  cerebral anatomists believe in the spontaneity of the human brain; it is governed by lots of involuntary physiological functions. The Freudian theory, on the other side, puts two distinctions; between conscious and unconscious. Both study the human brain or mind, but the difference between them is like the difference between a hardware and a software engineer.  The first will open the PC to check what is wrong with it when it crashes down. The second will advise you to use certain software packages to return your PC normal. But none of them can candidly ultimately explain why it crashes down all of a sudden, because actually both were not present when it happened.

Hospers remarked that some psychoanalysts believe in the existence of "degree" of consciousness and unconsciousness. But that distinction between conscious and unconscious is not rational psychologically and even philosophically. Hospers mentioned a very intelligent analogy adopted by some psychoanalysts; they think that free will is inverse proportional to neurosis. In other words, there are degrees of freedom; not just absolute free will or no free will at all as other philosophers claimed. However, he opposed it by saying that most of the human behavior, under this criterion, will have no free will. As a counter argument for this, one can say that Hospers reached that conclusion based on his definition that included both the external and the unconscious forces. In other words, Hospers was searching for the absolute freedom, which is definitely impossible. Hospers himself mentioned that on the level of external compulsion, "…there are countless free acts."

We conclude that the human mind gives a degree of freedom. This is noticeably clear when making moral judgments. Man’s experience and the existing circumstances determine his decision. Selection is possible among several possible decisions. But, the selection must be among this set of decisions that come out of our experience. This returns us to Schopenahuer’s comment. But, if we assumed the existence of two agents with the same experience [like twins for example], still there is a possibility that everyone decides a different decision.

These arguments can not be considered "resolved" except after subjecting to theology. The question now is: did what we concluded about the absence of absolute free will; and its existence in accordance with determinism, contradict by any means the existence of  God? No one can deny the fact that  God’s will has power over everything and he knows what we will do and what will happen to us [predestination].

Considering this fact, some conclude that it is impossible to have free will. So, again where is the truth?
What made this concept looks paradoxical with what we concluded about the existence of free will is because we linked two events in two "different frames of reference"; or dimensions. It is exactly like saying that I am now motionless. Thanks to Einstein, the question that we should ask now is: according to which frame? When we compare our will to God’s will then we are comparing two incomparable quantities; nobody can deny that. However, we can compare our own will to others’ will or verify its existence in comparison to the existing causes in our world. But, increasing the camera focus to include this whole universe with its Mighty creator will lead us to nowhere!

Mill explains this by saying that even the religious philosophers, who supported free will still strongly believed in the divine predestination,  accepted the fact that if God knows our future actions to see in what way we used our freedom. In the Quran, Allah says what means: "Human Being is given the choice of one of the two roads," that is good and evil. Most religions agree that life is a divine test; if one follows true and does good deeds, he will be rewarded later. It is exactly the same concept of the test; if a student works hard, become psychologically and academically ready for an exam, he will definitely pass it. That would be clear to his teacher. One may argue why not  pass him without the exam? Exactly, the same question is raised; if God knows everything, and He knows who shall go to heaven, so why not send people directly without life. The student has the ability to choose between passing or failing; simply by studying.

Nothing remains now but finding a definition of free will. Still finding that definition is not easy. Accordingly, we will define it first by saying what it is not.

As we indicated before, the question of free will exists on two different levels; the free will of the first level changes to the jailer of the second one. To define free will within a philosophical context, we can say that free will is neither determinism nor indeterminism. It is not absolute freedom, which is free of effects imposed by antecedent conditions, by necessity, or by predetermination. It is not freedom of all sorts of control, practiced by heredity or environment. Emmanuel Kant said: "To think yourself free is to be free." I think it is TO THINK is to be "partially" free—one level freedom. Considering ourselves puppets in the hands of unconscious, nature, environment, heredity, etc.. means reaching to determinism. Remember the falling person example, if he stops thinking about what to do, he will have no free will at all. We conclude that there are two levels on which the question of free will can move. The upper level deals with the existence of absolute free will—based on this discussion, we can not achieve.

Levels of free will typical analogy is the selection between too many roads. We can select any one of them, we can act as we want throughout the road. However, not all of them lead to the same place, we do not know what might be deep inside them, and most importantly we can not add a new road!
What I am certainly sure about is that the issue will continue to be an argumentative issue, until one day we have better understanding of our selves first, then the universe as a whole. Maybe proving the existence of partial free will looks like Galileo’s attempt to prove that it is the earth that rotates around the sun. We all know that he was forced to say that earth does not rotate. But during the trial, he whispered to himself: "But it does rotate." So, "Free will does exist, on one of the two levels!"



  1 . Blatchford, Robert. The Delusion of Free Will.
  2 . D’ Holbach, Paul Henri. System of Nature.
  3 . Free Will. Encyclopaedia Encarta. 1997: Microsoft.
  4 . Hawking, Stephen. Brief History of Time. Great Britian,  The Bath Press, Avon: 1988
  5 . Hospers, John. Free Will and Psychoanalysis
  6 . Hospers, John. What Means this Freedom.
  7 . Mill, John Stuart. On Causation and Necessity.
  8 . Solomon, Robert C. Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated readings. 6th Ed.
  9 . Stace, W.T. The Problem of Free Will.

Very special thanks to Mona Amer for editing this paper.