I recently read Sam Harris’ book Free Will while on a recent business trip to LA. His book is short, but is absolutely worth the read. It got me thinking about a paper I had written more than a decade ago for a philosophy class I took at Portland State. This paper was on free will and whether or not we live in a deterministic universe and free will does not exist or the universe is non-deterministic and free will actually does exist (or at least to an extent). This essay is similar to what 22 year old Chuck wrote, but it’s been updated with new thoughts and reasoning (and stripped of incoherent claims, irrelevant information, typos, and some cringe).
For those new to the topic, the question of free will really boils down to whether or not we as individuals really possess power and control over our actions and decisions in our lives, unconstrained by physical or divine forces. Are we, as rational agents, able to choose a course of action from among various other alternatives? Or are our future actions and decisions already predetermined?
Philosophers have debated the question of free will for over two millennium. Rene Descartes identifies the faculty of free will with the freedom of choice as “the ability to do or not do something” and also goes so far as to declare that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained”. Shri Ramakrishna, a famous Indian mystic, gave an example of a cow in a pasture tethered to a long rope attached to its neck. He said that the cow feels it is free to roam anywhere, but the perimeter of the area which it can move is fixed and cannot go outside that perimeter. Shri Ramakrishna said that human beings are similar, that we have free will but the length of rope is governed by God.
Most mainstream religions believe that God has given man free will. These religions also firmly stake the claim that their god is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) – I’ll be using this definition of god as it’s the most common across all religions. If we’re operating under the premise that free will exists, a god must be incompatible. If there really is an omnipotent and omniscient god, then that god must know every action and decision I have made and will perform, every decision I have ever made and will make throughout my life, and every thought I’ve had and will ever have before I make them. If God knows what I will do an hour from now or even ten years from now, then how then can I do anything other than that? If I can do something that God does not know, then he is not omniscient, and if he is not omniscient, then how can he possibly be omnipotent? If one cannot do something that God already knows that they will do, then how could there possibly be free will? This is called theological determinism, one of many different varieties of determinism. It is therefore absurd to accept both the existence of god and free will as true – these concepts are incompatible with one another.
For every action there is a reaction. Determinism is the philosophical proposal that every event is causally determined by a chain of prior occurrences. This includes human behavior and cognition, as well as decisions and actions. Some determinists would argue that the universe is completely deterministic, and therefore free will is impossible since every event is causally determined by this unbroken chain of prior occurrences. From the moment of the big bang, a series of events occurred such as gravity, subatomic particles, the human species – all of these were inevitable to occur as a result of that initial cause (here we could go into ‘what caused the big bang?’ but I’ll save that topic for another day).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly interested in meditation. One of the topics Sam Harris discusses in his book ‘Free Will’ and ‘Waking Up’ is our thought processes. You might argue that “I have control over my thoughts”, but do you really? A common practice in meditation is closing your eyes and clearing your mind by focusing on your breath. Let everything go for the next 5 minutes and just focus on your breath. Assuming you’re not a seasoned meditator, after several seconds you’re inevitably going to start thinking about something such as what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, an important task you need to complete, or something that your partner did the other day. Where did these thoughts come from? Did you intentionally manifest them or did they appear in consciousness all on their own? I strongly recommend Sam’s book to dig deeper into this, but this is another example of how the concept of free will breaks down, even within our own minds.
Indeterminism is the philosophical position that argues that either 1) my will is free and that deliberate choices and actions are not determined by or are predictable from prior causes, or 2) that some forms of determinism is incorrect and that there are events that do no correspond to determinism. Therefore there are events that are either uncaused, or caused in a manner that the corresponding form of determinism does not allow.
An example of indeterminism has been described in terms of the following argument.
1. No event is necessarily caused at all
2. Some events are not necessarily caused
3. Some events are partially caused by case
4. All events can be caused by necessity or by chance
5. Necessity and chance are alternatively aging in what happens
6. The preservation is due to necessity, the new to the chance
Is it possible that long before we are consciously aware of making a decision, our minds have already made it. If that’s the case, do people actually make decisions or is every choice, even the choice to prepare for future choices, an unthinking, unconscious mechanistic process? In fact, there some studies done that can predict a choice or actions seconds before a person becomes consciously aware of it. If a hypothetical machine can, with 100% accuracy, predict which action I am going to make, what does this mean for free will?
I fall into the camp that rejects that free will exists, but I would expect some to misconstrue this rejection as an argument that we no longer have an obligation to take responsibility for our behavior. This is not the case – I believe that morality can exist in a deterministic universe. We still should continue to live as autonomous, rational, and moral agents. Am I saying violent criminals be set free? Of course not because they still pose a potential threat to society, but I do suggest that we view their violent actions in a different light and possibly not hold them 100% responsible and a victim of their set of circumstances.
Lets take a hypothetical violent criminal for example. Oftentimes their abnormal behavior can be attributed to one of two causes. Perhaps they were raised in an environment with a violently abusive or neglectful parent. In this situation, their violent environment they were raised in as a child has unsurprisingly created a violent adult. Or perhaps they were born with a genetic disorder which left them predisposed to have sociopathic and violent behavior. If you were born as this person, whether it was in an abusive childhood environment or a genetic predisposition to violent tendencies, you would be that person. We do not choose our childhood environment, nor do we choose our genetics (or resulting mental disorders). When we account for these factors, we can begin to predict a persons behavior. We are products of both our environment and our genetics.
I’ve touched on a few topics in this essay. To review, the concept of an omnipotent and omniscient god is incompatible with free will and therefore I reject theological determinism. Close your eyes and try not to think about anything in particular (or simply focus on your breath). You realize that thoughts seem to appear about of nothingness and that ultimately you make no decision as to what you think, from one thought to the next. In fact, within the last few decades science has been encroaching on this philosophical topic, even further reducing the possibility that free will exists. I still believe that humans remain morally accountable for their behavior, but perhaps when criminals receive their judgement, their previous experiences and mental factors such as the awful environment they were raised or perhaps their mental disorder they’ve been genetically predisposed to be taken into account.
Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.
Smith, Kerri. Brain makes decisions before you even know it. April 11, 2008
Rajvanshi, Anil K. Free Will, Evolution and Chaos Theory. August 4, 2007.
Indeterminism. The Information Philosopher. March 14, 2009.