Free will

I recently got in an e-mail discussion about the philosophical problem of free will. Here are some notes on it.

In general I think Daniel Dennett has correctly described the issue in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves (of the two, I prefer the older Elbow Room). The issue is: given a materialistic universe, what does it mean to say that people have free will? The answer is: we are free to do as we choose to do.

At first glance it may seem that free will requires some sort of unpredictability or uncertainty, and it is far from obvious how that can be part of our actions. After all, our brains are just atoms bouncing around according to the laws of physics, so where does the unpredictability come in? However, this view of things is misleading, and I think one way to see this is to consider the issue of free will in Christian doctrine. Most people don’t have a real problem with believing in both human free will and an omniscient diety. Since God is omniscient, God knows what you will choose to do. But since God also gave you free will, this knowledge does not mean that your choice is not free. While there are obviously other issues with free will here, I think one can see by analogy that free will is not inconsistent with predictability in principle.

So in the materialistic universe, focusing on unpredictability is wrong. The important thing to ask is whether, when you make a choice, you can carry out that choice. In normal circumstances, the answer is yes. That is what it means to have free will: to be able to act freely. Metaphysical concerns about how your will can affect the physical world simply cloud the issue. (There are reasonable concerns about consciousness and making choices in a materialistic world, but I’m not going to tackle those here.)

Is it possible that we merely have the illusion of making choices? I’m not sure the question is even coherent. In order to make sense of it, we would have to explain how we are being fooled. It’s not enough to say that we are predictable: a predicted choice is still a choice. It’s only not a choice when it is forced by something outside ourselves. But what could that thing be? I think the question is really just a meaningless rathole.

In daily life the most important issue related to free will (insofar as free will is important at all in daily life) is whether we bear moral responsibility for our actions. I am only responsible for the actions which I choose to do, not for actions which I am forced to do or for actions which I have no control over. So free will is closely tied to responsibility.

I believe that the essence of moral responsibility is that if you understand the possible consequences of your act, or if you deliberately avoid thinking about the consequences, then you are responsible. Again I don’t think that metaphysical notions are required. While the topic of how our understanding works in a material universe is a complex one, the fact that we do understand things is undeniable, as is the fact that our understanding guides our actions. That is what makes us moral agents. (I should note that we can and do write laws which punish people for actions for which they are not responsible, because the results are better for society: “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with that, although I think that in general society runs more smoothly when the legal system approximates morality.)

Obviously I haven’t discussed how one can tell whether an act is moral or not. I’m just arguing that it is possible to have moral responsibility for actions.

This is all a bit sketchy, but the important points are: Can you make choices? Can you act according to those choices? If so, you have free will.

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