Freewill vs Determinism (An Incompatibilist Summary)
Freewill, in the sense that we have complete, unrestricted freedom regarding our decisions, used to be assumed true without so much as a single voice raised in opposition. Throughout ancient and medieval philosophy, even where philosophers acknowledged a certain mechanistic, deterministic tendency to our universe, the notion that human behaviour and thought could be determined was seldom, if ever, considered.
Upon reflection, this is quite understandable; one might even go so far as to call it natural (whatever that means). In ordinary circumstances, when we act we have no conception, not even a single inkling, that our behaviour might be anything but completely up to us, that is, completely free. Even when we actually take the time to think about how we deliberate, weigh alternatives and ultimately choose in favour of one, it seems almost impossible to concede that for some reason, the choice was not completely up to us as individuals and completely free. This notion lies right at the heart of our deepest, most instinctual convictions about life, humanity and reason; so deep that most of us can’t reconcile this experience with any other explanation.
And yet, there is one.
With the meteoric rise of scientific thought since the time of scientists like Galileo and Newton, science has steadily been (successfully) encroaching upon the domains of other disciplines, perhaps most notably in theology, but also philosophy. Much of what we used to speculate on became redundant to thought as science furnished us with definitive answers. Science, with its history of exactness, did not allow for any grey areas, everything was not just countable and measurable, but precisely so. As the exact world of Newton began to reveal its secrets one by one, it became increasingly clear that we live in a rigorous, deterministic universe. As humans became bolder in their questioning and even previously heretical ideas became if not acceptable, at least permissible, the nebulous, imprecise notion of freewill came under sustained attack.
The universe was deterministic, that much seemed clear, and humans were a part of that universe (now we weren’t even sure if we could take refuge in special, ‘divinely granted’ attributes), only different from animals, plants and rocks by degree. Fundamentally, we came from the same place, were all composed of the same material, could claim to be nothing more than the next rung on an evolutionary ladder, and should be subject to the same laws as everything else; that meant determinism.
And here we are today. Determinism, on the back of a cold, mechanistic, imminently predictable science, hasn’t relinquished its strangle hold, although quantum physics surprised (and is still surprising) everyone, but freewill, that theory that meshes so well (albeit it unclearly) with our experience, is far from rolling over and giving up the fight.
In this essay, I plan to outline the two major camps that philosophers fall into (within incompatibilism) and investigate some of the reasons that lend support as well as some of the problems. In conclusion, I will briefly consider whether the debate can even be answered and what this may mean for us.
Incompatibilists hold that freewill and determinism cannot be reconciled with each other. They believe that there is no way to account for freewill in a deterministic universe. This is a notion that probably meshes well with most of our natural instincts. It may even be thought (and there could be some truth to it) that it cannot be without a certain amount of philosophical sophistry that the two opposing doctrines find solace in each other’s company. But I digress…
Incompatibilists themselves fall into two opposing camps; one being the determinists (obviously favouring determinism) and the other being libertarians (favouring freewill).
Determinism is a powerful reductionist theory that is currently riding the crest of an outstandingly successful scientific wave still sweeping across the planet. The basic idea rests on an unbroken, necessary causal chain that started sometime (possibly by something) in the past and is relentlessly marching forward linking antecedent causes to future effects in a cold, mechanistic fashion.
This may seem like a depressing view of reality (and it is) but we aren’t studying philosophy because we want to discover how we would like things to be; we’re studying philosophy because we want to find out how things actually are. We are looking for knowledge, not sophistry to support our wishes.
The strength of determinism lies in the fact that we see it happening all around us in everything non-animal, all the time. Our entire scientific palace is built on a foundation of determinism. We throw a ball forward in the air and using precise mathematical formulae coupled with a complete knowledge of the situation (weight of the ball, force of the throw, strength of gravity, composition of the air, etc) we can predict with total accuracy where the ball will land. It is through processes like this that we are able to launch satellites into space with pinpoint accuracy to intercept comets and planets that are careening through space (at mind-boggling speeds) at vast distances from us, subject to multiple gravitational forces and a hundred other potential course or speed changing variables. The sheer magnitude of the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve these feats is staggering and yet we have done all this and more. How? Because the laws of physics are rigorously constant and imminently reliable. This constancy and unfaltering adherence to law are what governs everything we observe around us. If we understand the current state of the solar system (positions and velocities of the sun and planets) then we can predict with complete certainty the future state of the solar system at any time.
Determinism, in the mechanistic sense we observe in the universe, therefore has a clear structure that can be presented as a logical argument:
If we know the current state of any closed system at a time t0 and the laws which govern the system, then we can predict the state of that closed system (or any individual member thereof) at any time t0+n.
There are a few terms that I would like to expand on for clarity in the above clause. The ‘current state’ when we are talking about the solar system refers to the position and velocity of all of its constituents. This gives us all the relevant information we need to describe the entire system.
The ‘closed system’ is a vital part of the expression often used in physics, limiting what we are talking about to a system that has no influences from anything outside the system. If we are talking about the solar system (say, out to Pluto), then a stray comet from the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto would count as an external influence because we didn’t include it (it’s position and velocity at t0) as a member in our initial description of the state at t0.
The initial time, t0, at which we describe our system, although I have called it t-zero, need not necessarily be at the beginning or inception of the system. A full description of the system at any time will grant us the predictive powers we seek.
Along with the state of the system we must also know the laws which govern its members. For our solar system, these laws will include all of the physical laws especially gravity and those governing motion.
There is also an implicit requirement in our statement of determinism which I purposely left out for simplicity’s sake but which I am obliged to mention now. The whole analysis depends on the existence and operation of strict causality between two events such that one (preceding the other in time) can properly be called the cause while the other (occurring later) can be called the effect.
So far, so good. Determinism seems to govern the physical world (excluding animals) but can it be extended to include the animal kingdom? Passing over lesser animals and jumping straight to humans, what we are talking about is reducing consciousness to a mechanistic, purely physical process. Unfortunately, science hasn’t been able to answer this most fundamental question for us at this stage. Many believe it will never unravel the riddle that is consciousness, but I personally am hesitant in proclaiming something (anything) impossible. Almost everyone in the past who has ever denounced something as impossible has been proven wrong and for those who have been farsighted enough to preserve their integrity until now, the game isn’t over yet, science still has a long time to discredit them.
There is nothing mysterious about the behaviour of non-living objects. If you set an egg near the edge of a bench rolling, without a doubt, it will continue on in the direction you pushed it following the laws of physics unerringly, necessarily. If that path will see it drop over the edge then nothing can save that egg from scrambling itself on the floor, save your further interference, of course. There is no chance of the egg miraculously defying the laws of physics and halting its motion just before it reaches the precipice. The egg is a helpless bystander, forever destined to be a slave to its circumstances. The same thing can be said of plants. If we plant a seed in dirt and provide the appropriate nourishment and environment, it will grow; it has no choice in the matter. A seed can’t think to itself, “Hmm, there’s a dodgy guy out there always watching me, waiting for me to sprout. I think I’ll just wait here a little longer.” Provide a source of light and the plant will automatically lean towards it, no questions, no doubt. Complete certainty. Absolute necessity.
But animals, especially the human animal, provide a more complicated range of activity. Suddenly we can no longer accurately predict the entity’s movements and behaviour. Sure, put a piece of your friend’s favourite cake in front of him, tell him it’s all his, and sit back with the relative certainty that he will indulge, but even then, the outcome is by no means certain. Perhaps he just ate before you dropped in, perhaps he started a diet that morning, perhaps he doesn’t like the way you’re eagerly watching him the way we might imagine Ivan Pavlov watched his dogs. There is a difference between animals and non-animals that seems to affect the certainty and necessity with which actions follow from stimuli. Animals can surprise us, plants and non-living objects tend not to. This difference can be confidently located in the ability of animals to think and (in some cases) reason for themselves. Since the topic of this essay is freewill, let us herewith restrict ourselves to the kind of animals this mostly concerns, humans.
Humans are capable of reasoning and making decisions based on that reasoning. This, at first glance seems to place us outside the necessary, deterministic chain of cause and effect, it certainly seems that way when we consider the options open to us and select one of them. Barring specific circumstances, we feel no mysterious force of necessity propelling us inevitably along a certain path. We weigh our options as if we truly have a choice and then decide upon one, fully confident that, while this path may turn out to produce a result we didn’t want, we could have chosen another one if we had so desired. And yet, it seemed completely beyond question to Aristotle that the Earth was stationary while the planets and stars revolved around it. We must dig a little deeper than what just seems to be true.
Imagine that you knew all of the motives and desires acting on a person just before they made a choice. (Obviously such a thing is practically impossible, but it isn’t logically impossible and when constructing a thought experiment, that is the only thing that matters). If you knew these factors in such detail that you could assign numbers to them representing their relative strengths, then in theory you could quite accurately predict which choice he or she would make before they made it. Suddenly their behaviour loses its mystery and ability to surprise. It could, in fact, become necessary, although they wouldn’t see it that way.
Not only that, but what if you had a complete list of all attendant emotional inclinations and attitudes and beliefs and fears and so on, for all humans, in addition to a complete knowledge of every particle in the universe as per our definition above and a complete knowledge of the laws that govern the universe? If we assume that motives and desires and fears and so on, influence human behaviour with as much causal necessity as the laws of nature exert on inanimate objects, then it seems we are left with little option but to concede that, despite appearances, our behaviour is in fact, completely determined.
Libertarians dwell on the opposite end of the incompatibilism spectrum. They believe that human life is not governed by deterministic features and as such is unable to be predicted in the way that we can predict the outcomes of inanimate, physical processes.
The libertarian does not have the advantage of having the full weight of highly accurate and immensely successful physical theories behind it but it does have another advantage. Libertarianism meshes naturally and completely with our experience. As I mentioned earlier, when we are faced with a decision, any decision, we perceive ourselves as being totally free with regard to that decision. Not only do we appreciate this fact and revel in our freedom but we perceive this to be true even when it causes us angst and discomfort. How many times have we wished that we weren’t bridled with this freedom? We know that any choice is available to us, which one is the right one? Which one will make us happy? Which one will make us sad? And it isn’t just uncertainty that freedom torments us with, there’s also the knowledge that if we procrastinate just long enough we can find ourselves losing choices. Not only can we choose between a number of alternatives but we also have the ability to ‘not choose.’ Whether it stands before us as a blessing or a curse, freewill seems such a fundamental aspect of our realities that it is actually counter-intuitive to question it.
In specifically defending and advocating freewill, a large part of libertarian writings involve references to things like deliberation and the fact that we can choose from a number of alternatives, each being just as ‘choosable’ as any other. But there are also other movements attempting to find freedom through indeterminism and even in quantum effects. Although these points are not intended to be exhaustive they will serve for an introduction. Let’s look at each of these points in a little more detail.
Imagine you are presented with a choice, let’s make it a simple choice, say, trying to decide what subject to major in at university. All obstacles to your entry have been resolved; all you have to do is choose a major. At this point, you will probably consider a number of things, your interests, your natural aptitudes, what type of degree will lead to a good job after graduation, your parents’ expectations… and so on. Next, you will probably do something like carefully weigh up the above factors and see which one provides the strongest motivation, which one means the most to you. We can call this kind of action, deliberating, and it is something we do all the time.
Assuming that we do deliberate (and it certainly seems that way at face value) we are presented with a curious reason for believing that we have freewill. If determinism were true, would it be possible to deliberate? Would our deliberations have any effect? The fact that we can and do deliberate seems to indicate that we have some control over the choice we are about to make. If we didn’t, if our choice was predetermined, then deliberation would appear to be redundant. It is no use for a thrown ball to deliberate about where it will land. We all know that it can only land in one place and this place can be calculated with complete certainty. Whether the ball deliberates or not, it will end up in the same place. Can we say the same thing about humans?
If a determinist wants to maintain that deliberation is merely a part of the deterministic process then what they are actually saying is that there is no such thing as deliberation as we imagine it. The biggest problem facing that belief is that, just as with our experience of having freedom and not feeling constrained or restricted (or determined), it certainly seems as though there is such a thing as free, meaningful, deliberation. If determinism is to be true then the ability to deliberate must be an illusion.
Keeping our university major dilemma from above, let’s now shift focus a little from the factors we might deliberate on to the actual options in front of you. Let’s say you’ve narrowed it down to three options, an information systems major, a computer science major or an information technology major. These are all fairly similar and I’ve chosen them because of this similarity.
At this point you could choose any one of these three options; you can only choose one, but each of them seems eminently ‘choosable.’ If determinism is true then this ‘choosability’ is nothing more than an illusion because only one of them is actually ‘choosable’ and is deterministically certain. So the question is, do we have three options (as it seems) or do we only have the one?
When it comes to actually making the choice (if that is what we are in fact doing) a determinist might argue that if he had his sophisticated motive/impulse reading machine he would be able to determine all of the internal influences operating within you and predict your decision based on the various weightings assigned to those motives and impulses. But a deterministic theory would need to be based on rules; unchangeable, unalterable rules the same as those natural, physical rules which govern the universe. Gravity doesn’t apply here but not there, or at differing strengths for identical masses. This is because it is based on strict, calculable rules. Indeed, this is what makes it a law. For determinism to carry the same weight then it must also operate according to strict and necessary rules. We might imagine that this rule would be something along the lines of the motive with the highest weighting is the one determining motive. So, if it seems as if you have a free choice now, our determinist might argue that this is only because you were unaware of the relative strengths of your motives. If you were, you would immediately know which option you would (have to) choose. Such a law would be definable as a rational one. The motive with the highest weighting determines the case. But are humans always rational? Do we always take the rational option, i.e. the one that makes sense according to reason? A case can be mounted for the fact that humans are in fact, not rational creatures and the decisions we make are not always made according to a rational foundation.
Some people have sought refuge from determinism by appealing to indeterminism. This is a somewhat shaky premise because indeterminism, as in ‘a world where determinism is false’ does not actually give the libertarian what he wants. In the absence of determinism we may still find ourselves no freer than we were with its veracity. Indeterminism may lead to pure randomness which doesn’t advance our cause much or a world in which effects don’t deterministically follow causes.
The former will be discussed in a moment so I will restrict myself to the latter point for now. Determinism requires a world where effects follow causes necessarily and unavoidably. If we posit indeterminism then we find ourselves questioning the fundamental laws of causality nature. It is true that without causality, determinism quickly falls apart but freewill also suffers (possibly) fatal injuries. To obtain the kind of freewill the libertarian is seeking, our decisions must be free (as in not determined), but they must also lead to the results we desire, that is, the desired effects must follow from causes in a (deterministic) necessary fashion. We can’t eliminate the inevitable causality that the libertarian dislikes from determinism and then reinstate it so that our free choices can lead to causally related outcomes. In a very real sense, I believe that indeterminism creates more problems than it solves.
The advances made in quantum physics have also been welcomed by some libertarians as sounding the death toll for determinism. Unfortunately, I am even more sceptical about this than I am about indeterminism. Quantum uncertainty and the realisation that at the core of reality, events are fundamentally unpredictable and governed by probabilities rather than certainties has revolutionised our views about the world. Contradicting Newton’s clockwork universe, quantum physics has revealed that in the realm of the very small (subatomic small), nothing is determined with certainty. The body of quantum mechanics describes the most incredibly successful physical theory ever postulated. Over thousands of experiments it has never once been shown to be incorrect.
The problem is that it doesn’t describe certainties, it describes probabilities. Over a large number of trials, the results that quantum theory supplies are borne out with incredible precision; but only in a statistical sense. As a simplified example, imagine an experiment where the spin of an electron is measured by an experimenter. Now if he sets out to see if the spin is directed to the northeast, he will find that 85% of the time it is, but 15% of the time it is not. This statistical prediction is astoundingly accurate over a large number of experiments but obviously tells us nothing about the spin of a single electron.
We can also see evidence for fundamental uncertainty in the commonplace (although no less amazing) process of radioactive decay. Even before quantum physics burst onto the scene in the early twentieth century we knew that a quantity of radioactive material would decay (emit various particles) but it was impossible to know the exact rate of decay. This led to the coining of the term, ‘half-life’ which is the time period in which the expected amount of a substance would have decayed to half of its original amount. For example, radium has a half-life of around 1601 years. This means that if we take many bars of a set quantity of radium, on average, half of each bar will have decayed after 1601 years. This may not happen for the particular bar of radium you are holding (while wearing your radiation suit, of course) but as a general rule, we know it to be true.
The problem with these examples of natural behaviour is that while they are certainly non-deterministic, they are only so by way of pure chance. This helps to quell the notion that the world is deterministic and is entirely predictable if we just had the relevant information, but it does nothing to further the libertarian’s cause. The libertarian is not after random occurrences, she wants events neither subject to determinism nor the outcome of random chance. Even if, it can be shown that quantum effects take place within the human brain, all that would seem to do is infect human actions with a random quality. This is neither something we see in practice, nor something the libertarian desires. The libertarian wants her decisions to be enacted with the rigour and strictness of determinism but set in motion, by a thinking, reasoning being, not occurring according to the random and unpredictable appearance of a virtual particle in the brain which is just as far beyond the agent’s control as any theory of determinism.
Can the Debate Ever be Solved?
The freewill / determinism debate has been raging for centuries and is now no closer to a resolution than when the first curious person ever put the question to him or herself. This debate has all the tracings of an insoluble one. It seems unlikely that a knockdown argument will ever be produced by anyone in favour of either side of the debate.
It certainly seems as though we have freewill but the question has been raised and in light of the largely deterministic processes we see around us (of which, we represent just another one, albeit a highly intelligent one) freewill cannot necessarily be taken for granted anymore. However with no clear resolution on the horizon where does that leave us? Arguments will certainly continue to emerge in favour of one while refuting the other but if we will never know for sure, what is the point?
Well, philosophical thinking isn’t necessarily embarked on just to find answers. Sure, we look for them and a large part of our success is judged according to how likely our suggestions are to be correct, but I believe that the search for knowledge that is philosophy is not really about answers. It’s about understanding, and this need not be 100% certain. Often it cannot be. Many thorny problems in philosophy yield no right or wrong answers, they only yield opinions. And there is nothing wrong with this. Opinions furnish us with understanding and a lot of the time that is all we need, which is just as well because in philosophy a lot of the time that is all we can hope to find.
An understanding about what I consider virtuous and why, an understanding about what I consider the nature of time to be, an understanding about my alleged freewill; these all give me answers (even though they may only be provisional) to important questions. But then those answers may change and I will have a different understanding. That’s fine too. In a way, it is the search for knowledge that drives us. Fortunately there is no danger of that coming to an end anytime soon.
 It may also be possible to calculate the state (position and velocity) of the system at any time in the past, i.e. t0-n, but that is delving into a topic best dealt with outside this essay.
 I’ve also chosen to ignore the probabilistic difficulties that quantum phenomena present for now.
 This may be a big assumption for some, but the success of the physical sciences in annexing territory from disciplines previously thought to be beyond scientific reach, is making this assumption increasingly harder to deny.
 Bear in mind this isn’t a general ‘only one of them is choosable’ but a specific directive. We know that you will choose only one option but what I am saying is that the one you will choose hasn’t yet been determined, i.e. we can’t know for certain which one you will choose.
 Exactly what ‘spin’ describes is irrelevant to this discussion. Suffice it to say that it is a measurable property of a particle similar to other quantifiable properties like velocity or charge.
 Although scientific opinion at the time of writing seems to indicate that quantum effects are still too small to have any real impact within a macro scale object like the human brain.