I think many people are thoroughly confused by the problem of free will. I think the easiest way to understand is this: there is a metaphysical definition of free will and there is an ethical definition of free will. The metaphysical definition is that there exists a will that is uncaused and undetermined. The metaphysical debate is concerned with whether this is true or not. Now, the ethical definition of free will is an uncoerced, self-controlled will. This doesn’t mean that such wills are neceessarily undetermined. It is rather that one isn’t coerced by others or that one has the ability of self-control –”essentially a means by which one consciously decides to overrule subconsciously delivered impulses—an exercise of free will if you wish.” (Patricia Churchland) Not every animal is able to override their subconscious impulses through reason. Yes, even this rational process is determined by bio-chemical processes and physical constraints. So what? Like I mentioned already, this is something of which only rational animals seem to be capable, and it profoundly influences our ethical intuitions. Hence, the name– the ethical defintion of free will.

These two definitions do not necessarily conflict with each other. Even if one were a determinist, one could still acknowledge that human beings do have this peculiar ability to not eat ice cream when we’re on a diet. Of course, these two definitions do conflict if one believed in libertarian free will –the belief that the will is uncaused and undetermined. However, this is not where most of the conflict in the free will debate comes from –most thinkers are not libertarians! The debate actually mostly takes place between determinists.

So what is causing those on the same side to feud so much? Well, the contention is whether or not we ought to replace the metaphysical definition with the ethical definition of free will. Let’s call these two sides Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Sam Harris believes that the metaphysical definition is the one many people care about; therefore, it needs to be the one we use. This might ring a bell with those who grew up religious –particularly, the abrahamic religions. They do claim that free will is libertarian. We also see some manifestations of such definitions of free will from existentialists and even popular shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This seems to be a very plausible posotion, because it does indeed seem to be the case that the metaphysical definition of free will is the one we truly care about. So why does Daniel Dennet keep insisting that we must replace it?

Well, Dennet has a case. First, he believes that the metaphysical definition of free will –a will that is uncaused and undetermined– is meaningless. Why? Because it obviously doesn’t exist. It’s like arguing about whether unicorns exist or not. There is nothing to argue. The case is closed. Let’s move on. Let’s replace this stupid definition with an ethical definition of free will. Second, Dennett makes the claim that, if we probe deeper into our psychology, the one we truly care about is the ethical definition. Often the positions in which we claim to believe do not necessarily coincide with what we actually believe. For example, many pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder. Yet, when you ask them if the mother is a murderer for having aborted the baby, many of them believe that it is wrong to call the mother a murderer. When you probe deeper into one’s belief system, you often find more than what they seem to suggest in the surface. This just might be the case with free will. People might claim to be concerned with the metaphysical definition, but when we probe deeper they might actually care more about the ethical definition. There are clever ways to devise experiments to see if one truly cares about the latter or the former definition of free will. Rather than asking, straight ahead, do you believe in the metaphysical or ethical free will, we could ask them whether the consequences of either are troublesome or not. It’s better to do this because these terms are so loaded with biases and tribalism –like abortion– it gets in the way of seeing what people truly care about.

So who’s right? I lean more towards compabilism –also known as Daniel Dennett’s position. I think the metaphysical debate is fruitless. There is no God, there is no will outside the constraints of the physical world. Let’s move on. I know that this may sound deflationary, and that Sam Harris might be right in that people do truly care about the libertarian definition of free will even if it were false. Well, I wouldn’t be so hasty. Such claims ultimately are determined by empirical data. If it turns out that people care more about the metaphysical definition of free will, then we might just have to stick with it. If it turns out that we, in fact, care more about the ethical definition of free will, then Dennett is right –we should replace the metaphysical with the ethical.

Addendum: I forgot to mention the fact that the ethical definition of free will is used quite often in ordinary language. When one claims: “did you go  with him of your own free will?” This person is obviously not asking whether their friend was free from the laws of physics. They’re asking whether their friend wasn’t coerced by another person. I’m sure you can think of many other examples and that is evidence for the fact that the metaphysical definition of free will isn’t as overwhelmingly dominant as Sam Harris often makes it out to be. I don’t think such thought experiments are sufficient to conclude that the ethical definition means more to us. But they do hint at the unwarranted assumption that the metaphysical definition is overwhelmingly used – we actually use the ethical definition quite a lot.


26 thoughts on “On Free Will

  1. Causal inevitability is not a meaningful constraint. What you “inevitably must do” is exactly identical to you just being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose.

    Coercion, on the other hand, is a meaningful constraint. When the two Boston Marathon bombers were escaping, they hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist them in their plan to drive to New York to do further damage. The driver had to play along until he found an opportunity to escape at a gas station.

    The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” because he was forced to act against his will. His choices were subjugated to the will of the two bombers. This is a meaningful distinction when establishing moral or legal responsibility for criminal acts. And it does not involve anything supernatural or anti-causal.

    Nor will the ordinary religious make a different judgment from the ordinary secular person. Both will apply this ordinary meaning of free will in the same fashion. Research by Eddy Nahmias and others have confirmed this. For example, see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027714001462

    “Freedom from reliable causation” is an oxymoron. If we free a bird from its cage, do we say it is not “truly” free because it is not free of causation? No. And if the bird were actually free of causation, then what would happen when he flaps his wings? Nothing reliable!

    If one is free of causation then one can no longer cause anything to happen. The will becomes impotent because it can no longer implement any intent. So “freedom from causation” is a rather silly way to define free will.

    And if you have two definitions of free will, one that is meaningful and relevant, and the other that is irrational and impossible, why would anyone choose the irrational definition? It is a paradox. For more on that see my article, The “Illusion” Delusion, on wordpress.


  2. What you are calling the “ethical definition” is what I am calling the “ordinary definition”. Dictionaries typically carry two definitions of free will. For example:

    Free Will

    Mirriam-Webster on-line:
    1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
    2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

    Short Oxford English Dictionary:
    1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
    2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

    1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
    2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

    I believe that dictionaries carry the most commonly understood definition 1st. And that’s what I’m calling the “ordinary” definition. The 2nd definition is the philosophical one (what you’re calling “metaphysical”). Few people, other than philosophers or theologians think about the 2nd definition when they use the term “free will”.

    Most people understand, and correctly apply, the first definition. I usually spell out the first definition this way: “the ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.”

    Since most people already use the ordinary definition, it is unnecessary to qualify it with “ethical”. That’s sort of implied by the context of use (as when the driver was coerced against his will).


      • I’ve read his book. He was all over the place.

        I ran into the topic as a teenager in the public library when reading through some of the philosophy books. This was before Harris was born (I’m 70 now).

        Once I thought it through (and perhaps with some help from some of the Pramatists I was reading) I realized that what I inevitably do is exactly identical to me being me, doing what I do, and choosing what I choose. Universal inevitability is the most spectacularly useless fact in the universe.

        But the hard determinists have gone down the rabbit hole, imagining this and imagining that, and making up their own stories. First free will disappears, then responsibility, then praise and blame, then the self, until you’re pretty much left with nothing meaningfully human anymore. It’s all a big nonsense over nothing. The paradox is easily resolved (see my post).


    • Many people do not understand the distinction. Tell the congregation that God didn’t give you free will. Visit Sam Harris’s website and you will find plenty who do not understand the distinction.


      • The religious, like the rest of us, have to deal with the same reality that we do. It doesn’t really matter what they think about God or about having a soul unless they can demonstrate some practical application.

        For example, if you asked them why they made a choice, they will give you their reasons and how they feel about the issue. And that’s exactly the same thing that you or I would give to explain our choices.

        At the level of physical organization that we recognize as human existence, our reasons and our feelings are causes that determine our choices. Even God, if he existed, would choose his actions according to his own purposes and his own reasons, which means that even God’s choices are deterministic.


      • Misinformation is only meaningful if one attempts to employ it. Despite the Bible teaching faith healing, only a fanatic would resort to prayer without also taking their kid to the doctor. Despite the Bible teaching that with a mustard seed of faith you can move mountains, Christian construction workers still rely on bulldozers. 🙂


      • You are cherry picking examples. Christian faith, which is overly zealous in this country, does affect our views on climate change, abortion, evolution, and many important issues. Such misinformation is hurting us very badly, and we cannot ignore it.


      • Well you may have had a different experience than I.

        I grew up in the Salvation Army. When I asked my mother about evolution she quoted the verse saying “a thousand years is as a day to the Lord”, meaning that the mechanism of creation may have been evolution.

        At an SA Bible Conference we attended one summer, there was an officer who showed object lessons with a chemistry kit. He told us his brother had discovered a way to make a red dye out of gold that was used in early traffic lights. He got the idea from the Bible story of Moses turning the gold into blood — again suggesting a compatibility with science.

        I used to watch a program on TV called the Moody Bible Institute of Science, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I first learned of Einstein’s relativity and how a person traveling near light speed would experience slower time, such that when he returned to earth everyone else would have aged.

        Now I’m sure there are other preachers out there teaching against evolution and who view it as a challenge to their creationism. But I’m also confident there are plenty of church-going Christians who have no dispute with science, especially with global warming. And I’ve never heard any of that nonsense from the Methodist pulpit where I take my mother (95) to church.

        So I would suggest we try to stay realistic and avoid embracing prejudices against all believers, just like we would hope they would not embrace any prejudices about us.


      • I don’t know you. Nor have I accused you of being anything at all.

        Personally, I find the issue is greatly simplified by presuming perfect determinism, with perfectly reliable cause and effect, where everything that happens is causally inevitable. And I find that within this perfectly deterministic world, the object that is making my choices is actually me. And so long as my choices reflect my purposes and my reasons, then I am choosing and acting freely — free of any coercion from someone else.


      • And I am also a compatibilist. Every decision we make of our own free will is also inevitable. The two facts, autonomy and inevitability, are simultaneously true in every choice we make for ourselves. However, while the fact of autonomy is meaningful and relevant, the fact of inevitability is never relevant to any practical issue, because it always comes down equally on both sides, like a constant on both sides of every equation that can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the results.


      • Of course, it isn’t practical. This is why I hinted in the essay that people might indeed care more about the ethical or the compatibilist definition of free will. But that doesn’t mean that this libertarian notion of free will isn’t ingrained into many of those who are still trapped in their abrahamic teachings –which is a majority of this country.


      • Again, I wish to suggest that there is no practical difference between their free will and yours. Whether God gave them free will or not, whether they have souls or not, makes not a bit of difference to how the concept of free will actually operates on a daily basis.

        Ordinary determinism (a belief in the reliability of cause and effect) and ordinary free will (freedom from coercion, not causation) are both embraced and applied correctly by ordinary people. Once we get that straight, we can drop all these extraneous and very silly offshoots, like libertarian free will or compatibilism. We don’t need separate schools if we correctly define both determinism and free will.


      • It’s called “guilt by association” and it’s a prejudice. There is no causal link between believing people have free will from God and believing in retributive justice. The same guilt by association has been applied to blacks and Muslims.


      • It is logically possible to justify retributive justice within the framework of libertarian free will. If you’re a hard detreminist, it’s nigh impossible to justify retributive justice within that framework.


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