Dr. Lambert Vincent Stepanich
Moataz Mohammad Attallah
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Considering this fact, some
conclude that it is impossible to have free will. So, again where is the
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.
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.
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.