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A Contemporary Theory of Free Will

“[T]he most tragic problem of philosophy is to reconcile intellectual necessities with the necessities of the heart and will”

                                    Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life


Before we begin it is important to outline what the three main stances on free will are:


Libertarian free will

The ambitious form of free will is commonly called ‘libertarian’ free will.  It is characterised as the ability to control one’s actions and actually do otherwise in exactly the same situation, with internal and external conditions held constant.  People naturally assume they have libertarian free will, and it has formed the basis of most of the ethical teaching and judicial system of the Western world.



Compatibilism is, roughly, the supposition that most people clearly have free will to some degree, such as the ability to deliberate and do as they wish.  The compatibilist insists that free will, moral responsibility, and their concomitant notions are compatible with determinism (or with the absence of libertarian free will).  On the compatibilist level of deliberating, choosing, and acting most people are basically free, such matters are within their control, and it is this that matters.  This form of compatibilism that takes into account all that compatibilism can require and provide, in terms of features of an agent and his actions is commonly called control compatibilism.  For ease, however, throughout the paper the term compatibilism will be used to denote control compatabilism.


Hard Determinism

The hard determinist takes the position that moral responsibility and desert are impossible.  The hard determinist says that on the ultimate level any choice made was not up to the person, who could, in the end, not form the sources of his motivation.  These sources are the basis for his ‘free’ choice on the compatibilist level.  In certain cases- such as if a man chose a criminal career-this absence of ultimate control is what matters and eliminates moral responsibility.  Hard determinism in this paper is distinguished from an even more absolute form that says everything in our world is completely determined, i.e. there is no role even for chance.  As modern science has shown there are undetermined events in our world that arise from chance* hard determinism here is limited to the concept defined above.


The question of free will undoubtedly belongs to the perennial matters of philosophy and this paper is a brief outline of a contemporary theory on the debate.  The thesis is disillusioning.  For free will, as it is traditionally conceived, things look pretty sober.  The notions that under identical circumstances we could do other than we actually do, that we simultaneously act for understandable reasons, and that we are ourselves the sources of our actions, are taken together as illusion.  The point can be argued not only philosophically but also from contemporary knowledge of how the brain works.  Indeterminism, although it exists in our external world*, for all we know scientifically, it plays no role in brain mechanisms.  Reason is not an instance floating about our brain, but a capacity due to certain brain mechanisms and involvement with the environment.  Self-determined behaviour is not a result of rational considerations; instead, we learn to make clever and socially responsible decisions with the aid of our emotions.  The implications for the concept of responsibility are serious: there is no ‘ultimate responsibility’ of the kind postulated by libertarians.  In a deterministic universe no one can be absolutely responsible for the kind of person he or she is.  The fact that there are also undetermined events in the world* does not change that.  Because no one, in any sense of the word, is responsible for any undetermined events.  Ultimate responsibility is a libertarian illusion.


In order that moral order does not break down it is essential, however, that the concept of responsibility is maintained.  The compatibilist form of control, even if an illusion is an important grounding for morality and the fundamental framework from which to work.  At the same time though, we must be aware of the injustices that arise from the truth of hard determinism and, in the end, the best approach is a dualist one, which combines the two contrasting perspectives.


The basic ethical intuition underlying the concern with free will is broadly, that people’s control over their actions is very important, at least with respect to matters such as moral responsibility, desert and punishment.  In an ethical discussion we use reason to justify what different people should have and the ways in which they ought to be seen and treated.  If such reason depends on factors over which those under consideration have no control, this is an apparent moral problem.  The most obvious example is blameworthiness: no one can deserve blame for what was not under their control.  The question of control, whether matters are up to us in some sense (‘up to usness’), is, according to this view, crucial for the proper moral assessment of people and most situations.  People ought to be ‘done by’ according to how they deserve; and how they deserve depends on how they have done, which in turn presupposes responsibility and freedom.  Thus, a degree of ‘up to usness’ is required, as it is a vital consideration for being properly blamed.  It requires that the person is claimed to be blame-worthy, and this “worthiness” must refer to fault based on choice, not to morally arbitrary factors not under the persons control.  Not only do we want rewards and sanctions to fit desert based responsibility but we also want to have a large range of actions; for which one can be held morally responsible.  Respect for people broadly requires concern with their choice or lack of it; with what is (and was) up to people and with what is (was) not.  In order that we have respect for people, we must then recognise the importance of ‘up to usness’.  This acknowledgement of control is not only vital for human flourishing but it is a concern for a central part of what makes us human.  It does imply however, a deep foundation for the wish for libertarian free will the unfeasibility of which has already been stated.  Much work has been done in discounting the validity of the libertarian notion of free will and we do not have sufficient time to prove this.  Instead I have brought forward what I think is the most important argument in favour and shown that it cannot be true.

The ‘argument from fatalism’ which claims that determinism, or lack of libertarian free will irrespective of determinism, entails a fatalistic attitude.  Fatalistic views imply that what people do or do not do does not matter, for the outcome will be the same in any case.  However, human effort often has clear effects on the world and no serious determinist would dream of denying this.  As the person acting does not, in general, know the future course of events, he can try to achieve what he wants, and the truth of determinism cannot reduce his efficacy in doing so.  The determinist would merely claim that the effort, and its outcome – which would generally not have occurred but for the effort- are themselves predetermined.  The fatalist cannot depict the person as in a position of overall helplessness concerning the achievement of his wants and it is only this sort of fatalistic conclusion that might have seriously implicated determinism.


The core foundation of this paper is that: even if we accept that there is no libertarian free will, we wish to live under a social order that requires people to be judged according to the paradigm of free will and moral responsibility.  In absence of free will, talk of desert and merit has a hollow moral ring.  But does the fact that something is not under a person’s control make judgement about what he does unjust? The notion of luck seems to be the key to answering the question.  A person can change his or her character, but not the original ‘self’ that can choose whether or not to make an effort to change.  In the end, even if we ‘freely’ do what we want in compatibilist terms, what we want, our desires and our beliefs, is not ultimately something we choose: in a deterministic picture there was no real opportunity for us to be people who do otherwise.  If in the end it is only our bad luck, then it is not morally our fault and how can we ultimately hold someone accountable for their unluckiness.  In some situations deciding by luck might be morally the best option, but we would then say that adopting the procedure was moral, not that the factor determining the outcome was moral.  Whatever pragmatic reason we give for our notions of desert and justice we must nevertheless recognise the fundamental unfairness and injustice that appear from common practices: the particular ways in which people so often become victims of the forces that have made them what they are.  Compatibilism is seen then as shallow when addressing desert and value, and the issue of injustice and victimisation.  Desert, whether it is of praise and blame, can only make sense on a shallow compatibilist level, where the underlying causes of the good and bad motives are not queried.  Ultimately people are not deserving; they simply are the way they have been made and hence, equal in value.  This hard determinist stance, however, which does not recognise this papers main contention – that we wish to live in a world that requires people to be held morally accountable – is simplistic and morally insensitive: we cannot treat people the same way regardless of how they act.  The problem with the hard determinist perspective is that it entails blanket universal acceptance and equality of value irrespective of action; it cannot provide criteria for differentiation and motivation.  Hence, it cannot form the basis of social order.  To repeat the core point; there is an ethical base for the libertarian requirement, even if it cannot be filled.  The ethical inadequacies of both the compatibilist and the simplistic hard determinist case draw us towards a dualism, from which to form a theoretical framework for making sense of moral and personal life in a world without libertarian free will.


There is good reason to be disturbed by the absence of libertarian free will.  Without it, people are often subject to the grave injustice of being punished for what is ultimately not under their control, i.e. for what just happened to be.  Nevertheless, there are also good reasons why we want to be seen as responsible persons who have self-control: who are able, if given opportunities, to choose, and are willing to live with the consequences of our choices.  By contrast, we would not want to pay the price if our ‘choice’ resulted from, say, kleptomania, or a brain tumour.  Even if there is no free will, it is reasonable to desire that compatibilist distinctions concerning control affect the way one is treated.  From the dualist approach many of the practices of a community based on such compatibilist distinctions concerning control would be in one way unjust, owing to the absence of free will which implies that our actions are – on the ultimate level – not up to us and that to hold us responsible for them is unfair.  The morally arbitrary, which is not within our control, is in the end what determines our fate, and this is unjust.  Nevertheless, working according to such distinctions might be just in another way, because they correspond to a sense of being “up to us”.  However deeply we might feel that all people are ultimately innocent, it is unconvincing from a pragmatic point to deny the difference between the control possessed by the common thief and that of the kleptomaniac and to ignore the moral inadequacy of social institutions which would fail to take account of this difference.  Thus there is a basis for working with compatibilist notions of fault and moral responsibility, based on the local compatibilist-level control, even through we lack the sort of deep grounding in the ‘ultimately guilty self’ that libertarian free will was thought to provide.


The dualist approach then, only grants the compatibilist that his distinctions have foundation from a pragmatic view and are partially morally required.  It does not go all the way to claim that the absence of free will is of no great moral significance and to deny that without libertarian free will even a vicious and compatibilistically free criminal who is being punished is in some important sense a victim of his circumstances.  The punishment for shoplifting might not seem a cause for moral concern to us but if we reflect upon the fact that so many people are made to undergo acute misery while the fact that they have developed into criminals is ultimately beyond their control: it is hard to dismiss this matter in the way compatibilist are wont to do.  Given the absence of libertarian free will, the appropriate notion of justice incorporates pity into the very fabric of justice.


The joint perspective on free will is far from simple.  In some cases it is clear that either the compatabilist or the hard determinist perspective is morally salient but very often both perspectives are important simultaneously and imply contrary judgements.  The clash of these two perspectives must result in serious disruption of our personal lives and much prized values, concepts, reactions and practices.  The fact that an adequate moral attitude towards the free will problem cannot fully take account of either of the stances creates dangers highlighting the role of illusion and this is what we turn to.


There is abundant empirical evidence of the general prevalence of illusion in human beings.  Some of the most interesting experiments involve split brain patients.  One example is: The command “Walk” is sent to the subject’s right brain and he complies.  The subject reports no conscious awareness of the command; the information never enters the left hemisphere, which in most people controls language and seems to dominate consciousness.  When it comes time to justify his behaviour, the left brain passes from professed ignorance into unknowing dishonesty.  Not privy to the real reason, his left brain comes up with another: He is going to get a soda, he says, convinced.  It seems that language is merely the ‘press agent’ for other parts of the mind; it justifies whatever acts they induce.  It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is to a large degree such a press agent- the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force.  The Darwinian anthropologist Jerome Barkow has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as we seem inclined to believe, a decision maker).” In other words, not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behaviour an illusion; it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims.


Illusion then is very much part of our lives.  It is necessary so the dangers that arise from the absence of ultimate level grounding for morality cannot be realised.  There is no real substitute for the framework of achievement, value and deserved appreciation based on free action.  Moreover, within that framework, a deep view not diverted by illusion will find itself face to face with darkness.  Illusion is crucial in pragmatically safeguarding the compatibilistic stance and is, by and large, a condition for the actual creation and maintenance of adequate moral reality.  We can see then that the illusion of libertarian free will solves the problem of taking a dualist approach.  If libertarian assumptions carry on their back the compatabilist distinctions, which would not be adhered to sufficiently without them, an illusion that defends these libertarian assumptions is just what we need.  The idea that, in the strict sense – anything a person did was the only thing that could have occurred but that they ought nevertheless to be justly blamed and punished for it – will seem grotesquely paradoxical to the common man or woman.  The situation may be even worse from the first person perspective.  Say that we want a man to blame himself, feel guilty and even see that he deserves to be punished.  Such a person is not as likely to do all this if he has internalised the ultimate perspective, according to which, in the actual world, nothing else could in fact have occurred.  The pragmatic validity of the compatabilist distinctions is unlikely to overcome the practical salience of the ultimate perspective in such a situation, unless illusion intervenes.  Illusion not only functions in motivated resistance to threats of our beliefs, but also offers a positive view underlying our attitudes and practices.  By allowing us to have ‘workable beliefs’ illusion allows us the advantages of the libertarian picture together with the mitigating element, without full awareness either of the incoherence of the libertarian picture or of the contrariness of the compatibilist and ultimate perspectives.


The conclusion that is painted, is that, to some extent the human situation can be likened to people taking after ants – for we see people running around, largely unaware of the predetermined nature of their lives and its implications, operating instead, under indefensible assumptions about morality and self-respect.  If you do not take comfort in this view perhaps you can find solace in chance.  Indetermined events need not be located in the brain in order to decisively influence our mental states.  The future is not determined.  In addition, if the absence of libertarian free will troubles you then be thankful we have illusion.  After reflecting on this paper and perhaps even accepting its premise, you will immediately continue your lives assuming that each choice you make is free and that you are ultimately in control.  Such is the strength and necessity of illusion in our lives.



* Modern science points to the fact that at the quantum level there are indetermined events.  On the macro level, many systems of our world are chaotic where chaotic systems are non-linear; they exhibit feedback and are extremely sensitive to changes in constraint and initial conditions.  The importance for indeterminism is that chaotic systems exhibit bifurcations.  These are points of instability, at which the further behaviour of the system takes either of two directions.  In terms of chaos theory, two trajectories are “possible,” each leading to a different place, distant from the other in phase space.