The Inescapability of Free Will

How and why free will exists

Photo by Burst

With the rise of neuroscience, it’s become fairly common to claim that free-will doesn’t exist, that it’s an illusion and we should embrace determinism. For a good discussion of determinism and why some scientists don’t believe in free-will, check out John Dietrich’s piece.

Here, I’m going to briefly argue that determinism is mistaken and that the belief we don’t have free-will is a bullet that’s too big to bite. The determinist commits himself to living in a kind of schizophrenic state. I’ll also show that determinism likely stems from a metaphysical error.

Determinism lends itself well to a purely scientific view of the world. Perhaps this is why much of the popular literature defending determinism is written by scientists. According to the scientific picture of the world, everything is subject to the laws of physics, so everything that happens — including human action — could be predicted in theory. According to this picture, human action, like everything else, is part of a long causal chain that extends well beyond our selves.

This picture seems to leave no room for free-will since it entails that it’s not really up to us what actions we take. It’s up to the causal chain that precedes our actions. Now, I’m not denying the validity of the scientific worldview. I’m denying that it entails that free-will is an illusion, as so many claim.

First, we need to define free-will. The standard definition is this: Someone acts out of free-will if they could have acted differently. Now I want to show how not believing in free-will has some strange, unpalatable implications.

Imagine this: Zaid promises that he’ll help you move some furniture this weekend. The weekend rolls around and Zaid is a no-show. You end up having to hire help at the last minute, which you can barely afford. This is why you wanted his help in the first place. You find out that Zaid simply flaked out; he got caught up playing video games. You feel resentful toward Zaid, which is certainly warranted. You hold him accountable by blaming him for not keeping his word without a legitimate excuse. This also seems completely justified and reasonable.

But now imagine that you’re a determinist. You believe that Zaid couldn’t have acted otherwise. It would have been impossible for him to have kept his promise. If you’re a true determinist, then even though you feel resentment toward Zaid and blame him for breaking his word, you must also believe that this resentment and blame is not justified. You wouldn’t be justified in holding him accountable, since, he had no choice; he couldn’t have acted otherwise.

This is an extremely troublesome implication of believing that we don’t have free-will. If we don’t have free-will, then we are never justified in holding people responsible, blaming, or praising others. Nobody would deserve anything since all actions would happen out of sheer luck.

The assumption here is that justifiably holding someone accountable — whether by praising or blaming — requires that they could have acted otherwise. This is a reasonable assumption, and I think the burden of proof is on those who deny it.

So here’s the first problem with denying that free-will exists: to avoid being inconsistent, if you believe that free-will doesn’t exist you must also believe that the practices and emotions that are constituent of our moral lives — praising, blaming, holding responsible, feeling resentment, guilt, indignation, pride — are never justified. This amounts to denying an important part of our humanity.

The second problem stems from the fact that these moral practices are inescapable. The determinist believes we don’t have free-will, but he certainly acts like we do! In other words, we cannot help but hold each other and ourselves accountable for many of our actions. We cannot help but believe that we and others are responsible for many of the things we do and that our guilt is warranted when we wrong someone. To put it simply, we cannot escape regarding each other and ourselves as moral agents.

The determinist, then, must simultaneously hold two inconsistent beliefs in his mind: The belief that our moral practices are warranted — since this belief is inescapable — and the belief that free-will doesn’t exist. The mental world of the determinist splits. Hence, they inhabit a kind of schizophrenic state.

Photo by Chris Barbalis

Perhaps it’s unfair and presumptuous to assert that the determinist must believe that our moral practices of holding responsible are warranted. Perhaps the determinist could actually believe that holding accountable, praising, blaming, feeling guilt, etc. are never justified. Nevertheless, even if this is possible, I don’t think it’s possible to opt-out of engaging in these moral practices or feeling these moral emotions. The determinist gets caught up in a performative contradiction: he believes that free-will doesn’t exist and so that moral practices and emotions are never warranted, but he cannot help but act as if they are. And once again, he ends up living in a kind of schizophrenic state.

But how can we reckon our naturalistic view of the world with the existence of free-will? From the point of view of natural science, free-will seems to be a spooky, inexplicable entity. To answer this question, it’s helpful to draw on an analogy made by Dan Dennett.

Saying that free-will doesn’t exist is like saying money doesn’t exist. From the standpoint of natural science, money doesn’t exist. It’s merely an agreed-upon medium of exchange grounded on mutual trust; it’s a social construct. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that money doesn’t have any causal power. Money makes things happen! So it’s hard to deny that money doesn’t exist period.

The relevant mistake determinists make when they claim that free-will doesn’t exist is assuming that for something to exist it must be part of the fabric of nature. However, many things exist that are not part of this fabric, things like money, value, normativity, law, games, friendship, and — I would like to suggest — free-will. These things are social constructs. But just because they are social constructs doesn’t mean their existence is of a lower grade or is any less significant than natural entities.

The ontological status of social constructs is no less robust than the ontological status of nature. Recognizing this is how we save free-will while maintaining a scientific world-view.

A philosophy professor who works in practical ethics. @ryankhubbard

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