Here I will try to convince you that free will is real and not an illusion. I’ll argue that far from being exemplars of rationality and skepticism, the main arguments against free will make unjustifiable logical leaps and are naïve in the light of cutting-edge scientific findings.
Throughout the philosophical literature,8 resolving the question of whether or not we have free will has often revolved around two criteria for free will:
We must be the true sources of our own actions.
We must have the ability to do otherwise.
I argue that humans meet both criteria through two concepts: scale and undecidability. – Stuart T. Doyle (March 16, 2023)
We don’t usually hear skeptics arguing FOR free will. What’s changed?
You may also wish to read: How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?
52 Replies to “Skeptic argues free will is real”
This is a refreshing change
Yes, this is truly surprising. B.F. Skinner must be spinning in his grave. Maybe we’re not “meat robots” after all.
People who purposely walk over hot coals prove free will exists. Purely instinctual animals would never do that.
Here we have a materialist who has come to realize that free will must exist. So, what is his solution? As we will see, it is not rejecting materialism, instead, it is rejecting the general application of materialism, namely reductionism. So, he maintains the general claim of materialism, that is, everything consists of physical stuff, but he argues that certain special things should not be subjugated to that truth. Why not? Well, because if we do, then we can no longer understand them.
So, when we see the will as consisting of pure material parts, then we look at it wrongly. But if materialism is true, if the ultimate truth about the will is that it consists of nothing but physical stuff, how can it possibly be the “wrong” way of looking at it? And why is it that certain things reduce just fine to the physical and other things, such as the agent will, do not?
This “wrong scale” argument is such an incredibly stupid and transparent attempt to save materialism that it is almost unbearable to read.
If each molecule is unfree, then any number of molecules is unfree as a matter of basic logic. The scale of things does not make freedom. And if you conclude that free will must exist, and it cannot be explained from the physical level, then you must conclude that materialism is false. The conclusion that there is something wrong with reductionism *in this special case* does not make sense.
I was hoping that someone here would appreciate that Doyle’s argument depends on a version of emergentism.
Since “emergentism is bullshit” seems to be the party-line at UD, Doyle’s defense of “free will” (agent causation + unpredictable dynamics) won’t find a warm reception here.
You are right, here at UD there is little appreciation for materialists who claim that consciousness *emerges* from FSCO/I that their position cannot begin to hope to explain.
I happened to read this article earlier this morning – I thought it was quite entertaining.
The author just uses the notion of “undecidability” as mental sleight of hand to preserve his faith in consciousness-as-mechanical-deterministic-process, to wit:
“I am a system which analyzes its own inputs, character, and potential outputs; generates new outputs based on those analyses; and feeds those new outputs back into itself as inputs which affect the outputs, which affect the system’s character. I am an output of and an input for my own processing. Framing the human self-referential nature in this way brings us to the concept of undecidability.”
Naturally, searching for the word “value” finds no instances. And the the band plays on….
because it is impossible biologically to happen and if it did happen, it would destroy itself quickly.
Either way it is fantasy because of science and logic but fantasy seems to rule a lot of people’s beliefs. That’s why
ID is science+
Doubt must be an essential part of a meaningful experience.
Otherwise there would be no point in anything that is chosen. Thus, free will depends upon doubt.
Once again, the Bible provides evidence of determinism – even superdeterminism – in the story of Peter’s triple denial of knowing Jesus. How can we know that rejection of determinism and belief in our exercise of free will is not itself all determined?
Sversky at 9,
Bepp! No Bible scholar you are – as not said by Yoda. Still hung up on free will? God made you post it?
Free will does not depend on some “skeptic” approving it.
If there was anything to be observed it’s that determinism is dead as of the double slit experiment.
Jerry at 8,
My Nonsense Meter briefly went into the red. Do you read what you write?
“Thus, free will depends upon doubt.”
Do you make a free will decision because you doubt it will happen? That you doubt is the right choice?
I sure hope not.
“I will put my hand in the flames because I doubt it will hurt me.” Whew!
I think Sev is trying to compete with ba77 with how many time he mentions the Bible
I propose that a more abstract level offers us the correct viewpoint and allows for more clarity:
1.) If materialism is true, then both the agent & his will is matter.
2.) Matter obeys the physical laws.
3.) Matter is not free.
4.) Obeying the physical laws is not an act of free will.
5.) If materialism is true, then there is no free will.
~ Let’s end this mockery of philosophy called “naturalism.” ~
I find the term “matter” in these conversations quite perplexing. It carries the suggestion that philosophers have not updated their metaphysics since the beginning of the 20th century.
Perhaps Alex Rosenberg thinks of fermions and bosons as if they were tiny billiard balls colliding against each other, but Rosenberg is not a philosopher of physics or a physicist. His knowledge of physics is basically that of a relatively bright undergraduate who has done well in a few courses. And that’s certainly an accomplishment, but it’s no basis for a serious metaphysics.
It seems curious to me that on this argument, we end up basically defining freedom as “the violation of at least one law of physics”.
At any rate I’d like to see a bit more argument as to why the capacity to have done otherwise and the capacity to be the source of one’s actions involve the violation of at least one law of physics.
That is, I see the argument as being:
At this point, we need some further premise that will allow us to demonstrate that (5) and (6) are incompatible.
The essence of personal freedom is self-causation. Being directed by the laws of physics is not self-causation. If the laws of physics are open-ended, it can be the case that there is room for a free person to operate within its boundaries. If the laws of physics allow me to choose each letter that I type, then this post can originate with me, as opposed to being caused by physical laws and events long before I was born.
However, if physical reality indeed has an undetermined bandwidth to it, an ‘undetermined realm’ if you will, then a sharp distinction must be made between blind random non-teleological undetermined physical events and the chosen actions originating from a rational free person. The first has no relationship with freedom.
If the physical laws are the sufficient cause of the agent & his actions, then, as a matter of logic, there can be no other cause that is also the sufficient cause of the agent & his actions, such as the agent himself.
I think another Biblical example of determinism, which is also one of literature’s great tragedies, is the story of Judas Iscariot, a tragedy on par with Lear or Othello. A man doomed from birth to be remembered as one of history’s greatest betrayers and scapegoats. There are those that argue that Judas could have acted otherwise (the reek of the “counterfactual”) and the Romans would still have arrested Jesus eventually, but that is completely beside the point. The hand of the master puppeteer permeates this story…..
Seversky @9, Chuckdarwin @17
Two hard-nosed physical determinists share their sincere concern about the status of free will under Christianity ….
That’s helpful — so the real nub of the issue is agent causation, not necessarily freedom of choice. (I think it make sense to make an analytical distinction here, even if they are not really separable.)
So let’s see how this works:
Does that seem right?
In my view, yes. For instance, if one comes to understand a fundamental truth, such as “A=A”, “I exist” or “2+2=4”, then it cannot be said that there was freedom of choice. However, I would argue that if the person really understands the fundamental truth, makes the truth its own, and incorporates it into his worldview, then he freely understands the fundamental truth. That is, the understanding comes from the person, as opposed to a (horror) scenario where ‘understanding’ is imposed on the person by something other than the person.
Your premises and conclusion seem right to me. Perhaps the crucial thing is that a free person must be causally isolated in an important sense. If we can identify a sufficient cause for an agent action, that is situated beyond its control, then that action is necessarily not free.
The issue of free will vis a vis Christianity is a self-induced problem, as are most problems with Christianity, and relates to the nature of the Christian God. I think Nietzsche summed it up best:
Western monotheism, by positing a perfect God, one with absolute power, foreknowledge, and moral goodness, has created an insurmountable problem for free will–one no less problematic than “physical determinism.” Christianity has been fighting this problem from the very beginning without getting any closer to solving it. The great irony is that whether you subscribe to Christianity or “physical determinism,” you end up in the same place–LaPlace’s demon everywhere you look……
Because one entity knows what another will do, does not mean that this second entity is bound to do what it did.
Why is this coming up again? Hasn’t free will been debated to death here recently. It should have been over after 10 comments.
CD at 21,
You insult God? God will not be mocked.
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Nietzsche was just a man, without God’s knowledge. Why do you deny free will? Who made that post above? You or God?
There is no mockery of God, quite the opposite……
CD at 24,
Take a philosophy class on Nietzsche and then we can talk……..
“God is dead.” – Nietzsche
“Nietzsche is dead.” – God
If an omniscient and omnipresent being such as the Christian God tells you that something is the case then, assuming He doesn’t lie, that is the case. Being omniscient and omnipresent, He must know everything that exists to be known at any place and at any time. Whatever He claims is the truth is true. More specifically, if He tells you something will be the case then it will happen. Whatever our apparent experience of exercising free will, like Peter, we don’t really have a choice.
There are and have been a lot better minds than we have here who have been debating this issue for thousands of years. It’s hardly surprising we haven’t been able to crack it in a ew blog posts.
God tolerates those who make a mockery of the faith, apparently with impunity, for example, the Westboro Baptist Church, the prosperity gospelers, some of the televangelists, the Christian Dominionists, all those clergy who have fallen short of the moral principles of they espouse, and so on.
Seversky at 29,
You still think God is a man. Too bad.
You think God should just wipe out the Westboro Baptist Church? Again, your complete lack of Biblical understanding is showing. EVERYONE will be judged. Everyone. You seem to think that your worst of the worst example means anything?
Your “impunity” remark implies God should wipe out all those mentioned immediately. If you took one minute to understand the Bible, to read it, then God’s plan would be clear to you. Instead, you criticize God as if He were a man and that you’re smarter/better than He is. Example: “If I was God I’d just have those miscreants wiped out today.” Why? To show how much more efficient you are compare to God? That you would do better? “I can’t believe God would let all these really bad examples stay around.” You obviously don’t know the mind of God as explained in the Bible.
2 Peter 2:4
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;
“if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;
“if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
“and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked
“(for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard);
“then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,”
The version of God you are postulating is part of time. I believe the Christians are postulating a God that is not part of time. How such a being acts with those in time is certainly not understood.
Logic can tell us certain things but not everything. For example, it can say that the creator of the universe was eternal but what does that mean if there was no time before our universe. Logic cannot tell us just what that means.
But we are getting away from ID where we only know there was no infinite physical universe but cannot fathom an existence that is not time based. ID cannot answer certain questions.
Jerry at 31,
God sees the past, present and future. When Jesus was born, He had this ability but acted in normal human time. He experienced temptation. He did many good works. He was true God and true man. He rose from the dead.
God knows what will happen but He still performs miracles in present human time. The Bible illustrates things Jesus knew that no one else did. This did not infringe on the free will of others. Even though Peter was told what he would do, he denied he would do it then did it anyway. If Peter, and everyone else, were God’s robots then Peter would have heard the warning Jesus gave him and obeyed because, as a robot, he would have no free will. No choice.
You seem to get peeved easily, however, free will is the topic of this OP. You are free to exercise your free will and change the channel at any time……
The problem of “free will vs determinism” certainly took shape within the shadow cast by philosophically inflected ethical monotheism. Though arguably the problem is not just “free will vs determinism” but the very idea of “free will” as that idea took shape within Augustine’s wrestling with the problem of evil.
My preferred position would be begin by separating the idea of agent causation from the idea of free will, recognizing that the situation- and context-relativity of agency is no threat to agent causation, giving up on the misbegotten myth of libertarian freedom, and in other words both going back to Aristotle and Spinoza, and looking forward to neuroscience, and taking in along the way Dewey and his contemporary relevance.
I must be over the target with logic.
I had abandoned this OP except for the fact that I was reminded I am peeved. But sometimes it’s hard to ignore nonsense.
“Though arguably the problem is not just ‘free will vs determinism’ but the very idea of ‘free will’ as that idea took shape within Augustine’s wrestling with the problem of evil.”
I agree that the two themes are inseparable to Augustine. I would add further that Augustine argued that the consequence of Adam’s (original) sin was the complete loss of freedom not to sin which set the stage for Calvin’s notion of total depravity within a larger theology of complete determinism. It’s not by coincidence that these two theologians are connected at the hip. You also have to give Calvin credit for pulling no punches on the issue of determinism, although it is hard to see the attraction of such an extreme and harsh (some might say pathological) theology……
CD at 36,
Everyone has a tendency to sin, but looking at it from the purely rationalist perspective ignores the spiritual. Why is there Baptism or Confession?
“The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5). Christ commanded his disciples to preach the Gospel, draw people to faith in him, and baptize those who come to conversion. The Church does not neglect the mission she has received from Christ to ensure that all be baptized and reborn of water and the Spirit.
“By Baptism all sins are forgiven, Original Sin and all personal sins, and temporal punishment due to sin is removed. After one has been reborn in Christ, there is nothing to prevent one’s entry into God’s Kingdom.
“However, though all sins are removed, there remains, as an effect of Original Sin, the inclination to sin that is called concupiscence. This inclination to sin shows itself in what is sometimes referred to as a darkening of the mind and a weakening of the will, that is, the inability to know clearly the right or wrong of an action and/or the lack of strength to resist temptation and always to do the right thing no matter how hard this is. The effects of Original Sin need not harm us so long as we seek strength to resist them through the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of the Eucharist, prayer, a deepening spirituality, growth in virtue, and a wholehearted dependence on God.”
According to Spinoza, we are fully determined:
If Spinoza is right and everything traces back to causes before I was born, then this includes my beliefs. So, the idea that I hold beliefs because I understand them and not because something else compels me to hold them, must be a false notion. If Spinoza is right, then, in fact, I do not understand anything, no understanding is “mine”, and no understanding originates with me, since all my “understanding” is forced upon me by something else, by causes distinct from me. Even my false notion of understanding something is caused by something beyond my control …
If Spinoza is right we cannot rationally hold beliefs. This must include the belief in Spinoza’s denial of free will and, therefore, his theory is self-defeating.
Spinoza // follow-up #38
Again, S embraces strict determinism and argues enthusiastically against free will, so he will not be impressed by the following argument which shows that, if he is right, we are not in control of our thoughts.
1. If determinism is true, then all our actions and thoughts are consequences of events and laws of nature in the remote past before we were born.
2. We have no control over circumstances that existed in the remote past before we were born, nor do we have any control over the laws of nature.
3. If A causes B, and we have no control over A, and A is sufficient for B, then we have no control over B.
4. If determinism is true, then we have no control over our own actions and thoughts.
The hard-core determinist seems to have no problem with this. However, in my humble opinion “not being in control of one’s thoughts” doesn’t go very well with rationality … So, I would say that his theory is self-defeating.
Remember folks Chuck and Sev can’t help themselves…….. But everyone else can…..
In defense of free rational persons, I argue against all forms of determinism alike. However, theists have the option, not available to materialists, to claim that God *somehow* gave us free will. That said, God cannot perform what is logically impossible, and, in my view, it is logically impossible to create a free person. So, on a principle level, we agree.
I disagree with your assessment that Christianity’s problem with free will is “self-induced”, rather the problem is unavoidable if one rejects self-causation. In my view, only the concept of self-causation can ground free will.
Have you read much Jean-Paul Sartre? Based on what I’ve read from the Western canon, he’s the only philosopher who would allow for self-causation in the sense you seem to require.
I would not want to endorse Spinoza’s views in all respects — I think he goes too far. But I also think his views are less obviously wrong than you take them to be.
What Spinoza would absolutely insist upon is this: no finite thing can be the sole source of its own activity. (And I think this is where you would disagree with Spinoza, so you are right to think that your disagreement with Spinoza is at a fundamental level.)
But, a few other points about Spinoza to observe:
1. Spinoza’s determinism follows from his logical pantheism. In his view, the only thing that can be the sole source of its own activity is God Himself. He then argues that therefore nothing can exist that is independent from God, and hence all things exist only as aspects or parts of God.
2. Our comprehension of God is limited to our comprehension of two of His eternal and infinite properties: extension and thought. This means that for each finite thing that exists — a body — there necessarily exists a corresponding idea of that thing. This is wholly independent of what we happen to conceive of, imagine, know, believe.
3. We have “adequate ideas” insofar as our beliefs about the world are isomorphic with the “true ideas” that comprise the divine intellect, and “inadequate ideas” insofar as our beliefs about the world are non-isomorphic with the divine intellect.
4. Spinoza is also an extreme intellectualist about belief. He thinks that all truths are necessary truths. (The absence of contingency as a metaphysical category in his system is one of the major problems with it.) A good example is the old chestnut, “2+2=4”. He thinks that once one grasps the proof-theoretic foundations of arithmetic, one simply cannot help but accept that 2+2=4 is necessarily true. In other words, Spinoza would say that to see that something is necessarily true just is to accept it. He thinks there’s no room for the possibility that someone could say, “yes, I understand why that’s necessarily true, but I refuse to believe it anyway.”
If Spinoza is right, there is essentially only one being and only one actor. The free rational person is declared to be non-existent; reduced to a billiard ball. If so, what is there left to discuss?
I note that, if Spinoza is right, there is no such thing as “our comprehension.”
If Spinoza is right, none of that matters anymore.
If Spinoza is right, these ideas, and any other kinds of ideas that are forced upon us, we do not understand and are not “ours.” So, whatever.
If he is right, then whatever he believes or thinks does not stem from him. So, again, whatever.
Spinoza goes all the way, but what would the alternative look like? “We are 90% determined”? 50%? What would it mean to say that our understanding is 50% our own? I have a 50% understanding of that 2+2=4. Some things are gradual and other things are not.
And what would explain the unaccounted percentage? Self-causation? Isn’t that the one thing that needs to be avoided?
Thank you for the beautiful quotes from the Holy Spirit inspired scriptures! The arguments regarding free will and the nature of God are as likely to be accurate as three second graders arguing about differential calculus or quantum physics.
Especially telling, as you noted, is when people tacitly assume that (a) God is a man and (b) the God that created space and time is constrained by space and time.
While I respect Augustine, Calvin, Spinoza, and other intellectual philosophers, many of them fall into the trap of “binary superlatives.” Let me provide a silly example:
1. God is omnipresent in all of space, time, mass, and energy, and decisions made by all organisms . . . or God isn’t God.
2. God’s omnipresence is infinite–total and complete–rather than partial. Otherwise it’s not infinite.
3. Therefore I am God and you are God and my poodle is God equally. This makes everything and all consciousness co-equal.
This is complete absurdity! (argumentum ad absurdum)
Listen to what Isaiah writes in chapter 55 (KJV):
How is it unreasonable to believe that the God who designed all life and living processes (ADP-ATP cycle and DNA comes to mind), just might be significantly smarter than we are?
If it’s all right with you, I’d like to leave Spinoza aside for a moment here — much as I enjoy talking about his ideas! — in order to focus a bit more on what we mean by agent causation.
It seems to me that, on your view, agent causation only make sense as contra-causal determination: that agent causation requires that the agent (or some proper part of the agent?) is wholly independent of the entire spatio-temporal causal nexus.
Let’s call that the Independence Constraint, for the time being: it would be a constraint on a theory of agent causation that it accommodate that the agent (or some proper part of the agent) is wholly independent of the entirety of the universe.
(To speak colorfully, the agent is a hole in the fabric of being.)
Is this what you have in mind?
If so, I think it explains why you don’t like the idea of “naturalizing agent causation“. Would you say that on your view, agent causation is simply not the kind of thing that could be naturalized — and that “naturalized agent causation” is essentially a contradiction, like a square circle or wooden iron?
What is the difference between agent causation and self-causation, if there is one?
Querius at 46,
You’re welcome. When man limits himself by considering other men as the only possible source of knowledge, then he either excludes God or reduces Him to being nothing more than a man. The usual atheist accusations against God are presented: He doesn’t love people since a truly “loving” God would never send anyone to Hell. Or God has an ego problem since He requires praise and worship. Well, He’s God, and He made it all. So, uh, where’s the problem? The concept of love is also, I think, distorted. God does love us all as we are and gives us a free choice to choose Him. However, there are warnings if we do not choose Him. This is not a contradiction since God is made apparent by the things that are made: Romans 1:20
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
That is the truth that some deny or try to conceal, preferring to allow unguided processes to stand in as the God substitute. God does not lie.
I have to think about how to answer your questions. Meanwhile here are a few comments on the paper “naturalizing agent causality” that you linked to
“Not entirely” is problematic. Is my understanding of cogito ergo sum “not entirely” reducible to blind particles in the void? What would that mean? Only for 65% ?
This is not justifying agent causation, instead, this is naturalizing agent causation, which is impossible, and that’s precisely the reason why *emergentism* is invented.
At once dependent and independent of the physical. At once caused and uncaused. At once obeying the physical laws and not obeying the physical laws. Incoherent.
If your metaphysics is materialism, then, I agree, it is indeed “metaphysically impossible.”
To me, this has nothing to do with agent causation. This is all physical stuff encapsulated in a physical membrane. And now it is “free”? Now the laws do not determine what’s going on? Now an action can arise purely from the “agent”? Let’s get serious.
I have read several definitions of “agent causation”, and it seems indeed correct to say that it is generally understood as the agent being the self-cause of his actions.
PM1 @ 47
The agent is not a separate territory on a level domain. It is not the case that there are two territories where similar items and similar laws are in operation. The separation between the agent and the physical universe is dimensional rather than territorial. The world of the agent and the physical world are different in kind.
Let me put it this way: the agent is the creator of his inner world. Here, like a God, he rules over his aspects. Ultimately his will, his laws, and his understanding apply. This inner world, its laws, and the items have the agent as its first cause.
Let’s zoom in a bit and consider an aspect of the inner world of the agent: logical reasoning.
I would say that the operation of reasoning must be based on (logical) laws, as understood and enforced by the agent, that are “wholly independent of the entirety of the universe.” Here it is not enough to argue for ‘territorial’ distinction. It is not enough to say that the logical laws are not “entirely reducible” to the causal power of matter, or not “entirely determined” by the states of the environment of the agent’s physical body. The separation must be 100%. There is only reasoning in the inner world of the agent, and there is no reasoning at all in the physical world.