Here I’m going to present two ideas on free will. The first is that commonplace discussion on free will lacks a proper definition of free will and is therefore based on muddled thinking, and the second is that free will cannot exist without limitations to define its possibilities.
For the reader unfamiliar with the discussion, I shall provide an introduction on the subject. Those familiar with it may jump right ahead to the point, which starts in part 2. They will note that the ideas presented are quite basic in the compatibilist school of thought, but as I arrived to the conclusions by myself, I would like to walk the reader through my thought process nevertheless. I also do not identify as a compatibilist, but merely endeavor to show the obvious issue in just talking about free will without properly defining it beforehand – which does take the entertaining edge off the fiery debate. My second aim is to offer a solution not as to whether or not free will exists but as to how to possibly approach the extent to which it exists and what this means in practice.
Free will was already debated in the ancient Greece. Seeing as the subject has attracted the attention of philosophers such as Descartes, Schopenhauer, Hobbes and Spinoza, a dilettante such as myself can hardly hope to bring anything new to the discussion. However, seeing as the subject is of interest to people regardless of their education, I dare say that philosophy as a way of thinking is not a privilege solely reserved for the brilliant and the educated. Indeed, the very essence of philosophy requires that people create and produce philosophy on their own, and that the ideas become further cultivated through discussion.
So to paraphrase one of the greatest, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “As I’m also not interested in whether someone has said or written some of these thoughts before I did, I shall not cite any sources.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which I also haven’t finished despite the years it has spent on my bookshelf)
To begin with, there exists a wide range of philosophical positions regarding free will. Free will is usually defined in a lax way as the ability to choose one’s action unimpeded (Wikipedia). Proponents of free will usually take it as given and use it as a premise to defend notions of guilt and responsibility; ideas upon which much of our criminal jurisdiction and socioeconomic systems (laws and unwritten rules governing wages, criminal responsibility, the extent to which public healthcare is obliged to help an individual, etc.) are based upon.
This is an important part of the discussion; much of the argumentation behind the existence of freedom of choice is in a sense consequentialist – that if we do not accept the notion of free will, we would have to revise some very essential practices both individually and collectively. It is also intuitive to human beings to perceive themselves as free agents, which unfortunately has more to do with our tendency to rationalize our actions than with our freedom per se. All this shifts the focus of discussion, however, to ethics and psychology, instead of metaphysics. As my focus in this post is the latter, I shall not go further into the implications of our ideology.
On the opposite side of the discussion are usually determinists; people who take for granted that there are certain laws – physical or spiritual – which govern everything in universe both outside and inside ourselves, and which leave no room for individual freedom. Since everything that has happened or will happen is both eventual and necessary, there is not much sense to say that we were free to choose our actions all the same; we just always end up doing the exact things that were bound to happen either way. That sort of freedom would be illusory at best.
It is also worthwhile to ponder the implications of physics on free will. Many determinists will say that laws of physics – and, eventually, the neurochemical processes which are based on physical laws – undermine the idea of free will. Recently quantum physics has seemingly offered a refuge for those in favor of free will; as a certain degree of uncertainty seems to be not merely a result of measuring things but an intrinsic property of matter and space, there is a possibility that this uncertainty represents individual freedom. It is, however, extremely unlikely that this sort of quantum uncertainty has anything to do with freedom of choice. The problem is scale: neural interactions happen at a scale orders of magnitude larger than that where quantum effects become meaningful, so whereas quantum uncertainty might undermine determinism as a property of the universe as a whole, it probably doesn’t undermine determinism on the more macroscopic scale of things; that is, where actions of deciding take place. This is not the only issue, and I shall comment more on it later. It would seem that physical laws weigh in favor of the determinists, but as we shall see, things are not that simple.
What I have described above is something called an incompatibilist view on free will; the idea that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive.* There are, however, many who will say that this is not necessarily so. A philosophical tradition called compatibilism states, in essence, that free will is not an absolute, and that it should be taken as a measure of external pressures which direct the decisions we make. Bluntly: a child threatened with physical abuse cannot be said to possess the same amount of freedom to do as she pleases as does a powerful CEO on his day off. That is to say: there is no freedom in an absolute sense, but everything we are free to do manifests as relative to the things which restrict our actions. So we may be free to decide on which side of the bed we’ll sleep tonight, but we are less free to decide whether or not we’ll go to work today. We might decide not to go to work, but the external pressures which would probably make our lives more difficult at least in the short term make this path hard to take. Most of us would and will go to work even if we didn’t want to.
(*there is also the claim that not only is free will incompatible with determinism but that it is also incompatible with the lack of if; so that no matter what, there can be no free will. There are many ways to come to this conclusion, called hard incompatibilism, as are with the other points of view.)
So according to compatibilists, it doesn’t matter that much whether or not there exists an all-encompassing physical determinism which governs our every decision, but the point of interest is how much that determinism restricts our actions. The question is not whether we are free, but how free we are. Those who are heavily in favor of determinism will note that this still does not undo the fact that no matter how much apparent freedom an individual has, if everything has been decided beforehand, the rich and powerful individual is no more free to change their behavior than is the poor and powerless one. According to them, the compatibilist idea of degree of freedom is merely illusory.
Now, having been acquainted with the subject, one might already find themselves defending one position over the other. It is worth remembering that above the opposing positions over the existence of free will have been presented as caricatures, whereas in the literature it is often the subtleties over which philosophers disagree. Apparently opposing views may be complementary instead of exclusive and seemingly similar ideas may be quite far from another. However, as presented, I believe I have captured the essence of most of the everyday discussion over the existence of free will, as most people interested in the subject never have the time or the interest to read the thousands and thousands of pages of literature written. I belong among them, happily. However, that puts a great emphasis on others pointing out mistakes in their thinking, as they are not likely to entertain the thoughts so much as to find them out themselves. I will attempt to do my part of that here.
To the proponents of free will and to those opposing its existence in favor of determinism alike, I would like to present a question: of what exactly is the will to be free?
Is it classical determinism, that is to say, cause and effect? That would imply that somewhere in the human brain, laws of physics would become relative instead of absolute, but that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why should it be human brain, in particular, where we would observe this discrepancy, instead of, say, a tree or a rock? There are no different physical laws for different elements, so that cannot be it. Also, as presented above, quantum mechanical phenomena are much too quick, tiny and delicate to have much to do with deciding (Max Tegmark has actually calculated this regarding a certain theory of consciousness), and even if they did, the laws governing quantum mechanics would still imprison our minds, so that’s not it either. This is obviously begging the question.
Maybe it means to be free from external influences, but this is even worse. Not only does it imply that external things would have no effect on the human brain – something which can be proven wrong simply by noticing that we receive sensory information all the time – but also that internal influences are somehow ours to decide. That is not true in any way, as we are not free to choose our genetics or our elementary building blocks. From the moments of our conception, our fate as to how we will think and feel have in part been decided, and this effect is true throughout pregnancy, our infancy and in subtler ways through our entire lives. It also presumes an arbitrary border between an individual and their surroundings, which also, again, seems only to be looking for further questions.
Maybe it is to be relatively free from external influences in the compatibilist sense, where the will is defined as the will of a human being and the external influences as whatever it is that restricts their behavior in a way that makes sense from our human point of view. This, however, suffers from the issues already mentioned: it in no way takes into account the fact that we still have no idea how much we as sentient beings have control over our internal environments, it doesn’t define “the will of a human being” properly (*), it draws an arbitrary line between a human and its environment and worst of all, it doesn’t define the difference between being free from external influences and not interacting with environment at all. Our environment influences us every second, but we disagree over which parts of that influence are things restraining our free will. We might say that breathing low-quality air has less of an effect on our freedom than does someone telling us not to do something, but how do we know that? We have no consensus over how our environment affects our behavior, but a growing body of research implies that it does so in unintuitive ways.
(* is it the brain that is free? Is it the simulatory experience generated by the brain? How do we account for the effects of the other organs and musculature on the experiencing agent? If it means the whole of the human body, how do we define a leg or a spleen willing to do anything?)
There are, I am sure, various other ways to define the things of which a free will should be free, and I will gladly discuss whatever definition you have in mind – just leave a comment and I shall reply. I believe most of them still fall under the three categories I have treated above at least partly, as the logical issues underlying all of them are alike.
These problems are not unique to any single philosophical school of thought; indeed, it seems that various philosophers have different opinions over which of the aforementioned problems should even be considered relevant to the subject. I believe they all are, since there is not much point to talk about freedom in the abstract unless it is properly defined. Practically, of course, things are usually simpler; we accept some notion of intrinsic freedom and become upset when freedom is taken away from us – when talking about society, most people become compatibilists. When discussing metaphysics, however, we’ll pretend there’s no such thing as practice and admit that defining free will is problematic no matter how you look at it. And indeed, most of the time the commonplace debate eventually reduces to a disagreement over how free will should be defined.
If, then, we have no satisfying definition of free will in contrast to anything, it comes to mind whether we should abandon the concept completely. That is not to say that we should conclude that free will doesn’t exist, which would mean taking a stance against its existence; it is to say that there is absolutely no point in talking about the existence of something we cannot even properly define. There are, however, counterarguments to that. One is the perception that accepting some level of free will seems both intuitive to us and necessary to the juridical system; so there is practical value. Secondly it occurs to me that we rarely have proper, encapsulating and thorough definitions for much anything we talk about, say, what it is to love someone, what it is to be tired of something, what it means to want something and so on, yet we often talk about those things effortlessly, without much confusion. From that point of view free will is a description of an experience; however illusory, the feeling that I’m deciding to do this is there. In that case, there’s not much to discuss.
There are also other difficult, complicated questions such as the essence of a physical structure, what the basic substance of the universe is, what a number is, and so on. According to some people, these questions also lack proper definitions, but that is far from saying that we should abandon the concepts entirely; it just means we understand them too poorly to have yet defined them in a way that isn’t roundabout and self-referential. The assumption of free will might as well be one of those things.
Since it would be useful to have some kind of a definition of free will, I tried to think of one myself. Seeing as the main issue to me is the question of the essence of the limitations, I thought of an agent free of all kinds of limitations, encapsulating an infinite amount of possibilities, completely unrestricted. There’s no way to actually picture that, but what occurred to me was that this would be something that has no defining characteristics whatsoever; an entity made entirely of the possibility of everything yet the manifestation of nothing. Since it would reduce the amount of possibilities in other directions to manifest as something in actuality, such a being would ironically be deprived of the possibility of ever actually being anything; it would be unrestricted chaotic noise of would-have-beens, forever ineffable. So even in the absence of absolutely anything to limit it the freedom breaks down; there’s nothing to grab as the agent is literally all over the place in every possible meaning of the expression.
But what if we restrict this agent in some way? Say, we picture a dimension over which we restrict its movement. The dimension need not be physical, but it helps if we picture it like that; say, there exists a point in an infinite space and the being exists in some way relative to the point. These are all abstractions, so the space imagined may as well be n-dimensional – in my head, I picture a three-dimensional space. So there is the space, the point and the being (never mind that the being should also encapsulate the possibility of the space and the point being something different, as I shall return on that), somehow in relation to the point. The being might encapsulate the point. It might be located on a certain distance from it, or several distances, on different angles.
What is essential here is that now we have something concrete to talk about. We can picture the being to be free to take on any kind of a position relative to the point. We can picture it ripping the point apart (which, mathematically, would make no sense, but hey, this is a being made of infinite possibilities and all) and swallowing it. We can picture the being taking an infinite distance relative to the point – whatever comes to mind, but the point here is that the point – the degree limiting the agent’s freedom – is of utmost importance. Without it, all of this would again be impossible as the limitation would limit the possibility of there being no limitations at all.*
(*that may be the most redundant thing I have ever written)
So to talk about any meaningful degree of freedom seems to presume some limitations to that freedom. This is remarkable. We are not talking about limitations to freedom as a contrast to it – that would be excluding all the things we imagined before, another limitation to the agent – but as parallel to it, something along which the agent may now glide to do whatever it pleases. The limitation offers a surface to operate upon, along which to manifest all the infinite possibilities that still remain. Were we to take this limitation away, we would again force the poor entity into the impossible-to-define realm of possibilities where nothing manifests and everything is intertwined in a web of woulds and coulds. In this line of thought, limiting the agent’s freedom actually increases the amount to which it may manifest itself; the degree of concrete freedom.
Now, one might make the counterargument that actually the limitation increases nothing in the sense of freedom, and that my point that the possibilities manifesting would limit other possibilities just shows limitations of my imagination. What about the possibilities containing multitudes which contradict themselves like Walt Whitman does in his famous quote? Fine, let them contradict themselves without restricting the possibilities of them not contradicting; this agent is large and contains multitudes; it can contradict itself without contradicting itself. It seems that my idea of the agent being trapped in the possibility-space falls apart.
That, however, is of little importance insofar as we are talking about a meaningful way to define freedom of choice. It may very well be that a being encapsulating all possibilities must also encapsulate the possibilities which contradict one another and be also able to manifest them, as that also is a possibility. It may also encapsulate the possibility of not encapsulating anything at all, of not existing. All of this may be true at the same time, however illogical that is. We are not talking about a logical agent but an unrestricted agent. All the same, this tells us nothing at all about the freedom of the being, no matter how much we’d like it to. There’s a saying in physics that a theory that predicts everything predicts nothing at all, and this is much like that situation. We may say that the thought experiment’s being is free to qquahhilubong and feel smart about ourselves, but we have done remarkably little in defining freedom of choice.
All of that changes when we add even a single limitation; we have something we can actually visualize. We can talk about the agent in reference to the limitation, and suddenly the being becomes alive out of the infinite oceans of gladly-self-contradicting Babel’s library, it falls along the limitation and flies up beside it; dances on its surface and paints it with all the remaining possibilities written into it. The possibilities themselves are sterile to us; it is the limitations which breathe life into the agent and permit us to talk about what the agent is free to do.
So it is by a thought process such as this how I arrived at the conclusion that it is not the degree of freedom we want to look at when defining freedom of choice, but the degree of limitations present; but that alone is not enough, as we are wont to think of them as a contrast to the freedom. We need to understand that freedom is empty of any meaning whatsoever so long as it is not limited; absolute freedom permits nothing and steals the beauty of freedom as we understand it. Freedom of choice only has meaning in parallel to its restrictions, and that is the foundation of the logic we should pursue when talking about whether or not free will exists.
But have I actually said anything of value? It seems that I have merely been bouncing the perceptions of freedom and its limitations back and forth, criticizing other definitions of free will for a lack of concreteness and then offering a definition which is so abstract that it doesn’t even say anything about the nature of the agent itself.
I must point out that my objective was never to offer a thorough definition of free will. I restrain myself from participating in the debate about its existence for that very reason. What I have tried to do is to offer a method to define free will, not the definition itself. So the question is not what we should say about freedom of choice but how we should say it. “Agent X is free to do this or that” is an easy to understand statement and may be possible to prove right or wrong. “Agent X is free of external pressures” is a much more convoluted claim, which presumes several definitions and borders which I have already talked about.
As to whether I have offered anything practical for approaching the freedom of choice, I ask the reader to observe whether the freedoms mentioned are ever actually materialized. “He is free to travel abroad and change jobs anytime!” But does he ever do that; does he ever glide along his limitations to realize that? Do we actually have evidence that people in his position or with similar genetic makeup have the ability to materialize that possibility? If the person in question only ever glides in the same job and in the same country, we should be very careful in inferring possibilities which we have not yet proven to be there. That is to say: as there already are countless apparent limitations to our free will, it is not inconceivable that there are more under the surface and between the lines. It is, however, impossible, that we are absolutely free. Anyone thinking like that is free to try to exist and not exist at the same time.