Freedom exists, and the will exists too; but freedom of the will does not exist, for a will that is directed toward its own freedom goes nowhere.” . . . One had to admit that he could not have chosen his words better, to muddy the waters and to sow mental confusion.

~ Thomas Mann in Mario and the magician (translated by JIK)

The question of free will is fundamentally religious rather than scientific. In Judaism, insistence on the freedom of the will is as close as you can get to what deserves to be called a doctrine. Another one is that G-d is omniscient. For millennia, the Jewish sages wracked their minds over the glaring contradiction between the two. Thoughtful minds in Islam and Christianity also troubled themselves over the same question. With Judeo-Christian-Islamic commitments, there is no clean solution to this problem. The typical approach is to endorse some kind of compatibilism. God’s omniscience entails determinism, and if determinism is accepted, the definition of free will must bend until it fits.

The Jewish Encyclopdia is a good source in this matter. It begins with an unbent & clear-headed definition of free will as “volition [that] is self-originating and unpredictable.” It ends with a reference to the Zohar, which “repeatedly asserts the principle of free will, and solves the problems of omniscience and providence by adopting the Aristotelian view that God has a knowledge of universals only, and not of particulars.” The Zohar is characteristically bold. It begins with free will and bends determinism around its edges. This Aristoteles-Procrustes hypothesis may work for religion, but not for science. Shall we hold that determinism is true for universals, but not of particulars? If we do, we are taking the libertarian point of view that the will is totally free in an otherwise deterministic natural world. Free will is then something apart from nature, which is what religious moralists always want you to believe. But this argument never rises above the level of assertion, that is, the level of religious doctrine.

Not every voice was libertarian. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes the conclusions of Judah ha-Levi (1075 – 1141 c.e.) and Hasdai Crescas (1340 – 1410 c.e.), which sound quite modern. “Following the doctrine of the Stoics on this subject, Judah ha-Levi distinguishes between principal and secondary causes. To the first belong the immutable laws of nature, which proceed directly from the first cause; to the second belong natural causes, which are traceable to the first cause through a series of linked causes. Man's freedom is the last link in the chain of secondary causes, and is also traceable indirectly to the first cause. The act decided upon being thus an effect of the secondary cause, free will, which presupposes alternatives, comes into play; but as it is indirectly traceable to the first cause, man's freedom of choice does not limit the freedom of divine providence.” Ha-Levi’s free will anticipates contemporary compatibilism. The will can cause behavior but is itself caused by earlier events.

With Crescas this position is even clearer. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that “according to him, the law of causality is so universal that human conduct can not escape its operations. Man, unconscious of the cause, may believe his choice is a free one, but in reality it is not, because there exists always that which determines his resolution. Still the Torah teaches freedom of choice and presupposes self-determination. Crescas, therefore, concludes that human will is free in certain respects, but limited in others. Will acts as a free agent when considered alone, but operates by necessity when regarded in relation to the remote cause; or will operates in freedom, both per se and with regard to the provoking cause, but it is bound if analyzed with reference to the divine omniscience. Man feels himself free; therefore he is responsible, and must be rewarded or punished. The praise or blame attachable to good or evil actions is proportionate to the willingness of those by whom they are performed.” (emphasis added)

This is the conclusion that contemporary moralistic psychology has reached as well. Man thinks he is acting freely, and that is why he is morally responsible and must suffer the consequences. An epistemic freedom of the will has replaced the ontological one, thereby begging the moral question. Why is it that the belief in free will constitutes responsibility, when we tacitly agree that this belief is an illusion? Try this illogic on actual behavior. Would you hang Peter for his belief that he killed Paul, when you know that he did not? Basing moral judgment knowingly on an illusion is the cruelest form of punishment I can imagine.

When people claim they had no choice or were compelled to do what they did, they speak the truth. With moralism, though, we regard them as unrepentant and thus even more deserving of punishment. Is it not back-assward?

Now what?

After nearly obsessive blogging, my mind is reaching an equilibrium state with an attitude that I find coherent. Libertarian free will is a myth that does more harm than good. It is a breeding ground for moralism and self-righteous vengeance. When on the face of it the libertarian doctrine grants people freedom, it actually oppresses them. There is, however, intentional action, agency, volition, and what have you. Intentional action is caused by antecedent conditions, as is everything else in the world, and so it is part of the grand causal network, just as ha-Levi & Crescas said in the Middle Ages and as Malle & Monroe are saying today. I share with my colleagues the view that conscious, intentional action is not epiphenomenal to the “real” causes of action. Sometimes, consciousness is epi-phenomenal but it is certainly not so by definition. A decade ago, Dan Wegner (2002) argued that conscious will as such (i.e., always) is an illusion. At the time, I argued that there is plenty of room for conscious intention to be part of the causal chain (Krueger, 2003). I have not revised my opinion, but I see things now in a different context.

What is most urgently needed, I think, is that we stop referring to consciously intended action as a matter of free will. It is a terrible misnomer because the will is not free. What studies of intentional action show is the power of the will. Not the free will; just the will. The ultimate puzzle is why nature has seen fit to invent consciousness and self-consciousness for this particular link of its great causal chain. Could not everything unfold as it does without conscious intention being in there, being caused, and causing in their own right? Apparently not. As a determinist I am inclined to think that if it (conscious intention) is there, it must be necessary. By definition, if consciousness is limited to certain links in the chain, the links before it do not have it and consciousness must self-consciously consider itself to be uncaused and thus free. But a perceptual illusion ought not become scientific (or religious!) doctrine just because everyone agrees. Indeed, the higher the agreement, the stronger the illusion.

An Epimethian thought


Xerxes had the waters of the Hellespont whipped after a storm destroyed the bridges he had built to take his army to Greece and punish the Athenians. This strikes us as archaic and irrational. That he had the engineers beheaded strikes us as merely draconian. Arguably, though, Xerxes was being rational. He delivered punishment coherently as in neither case, weather or mind, determinism had not been proven. Hence the hypothesis of free choice and responsibility remained afloat. No?

Krueger, J. I. (2003). Wanted: A reconciliation of rationality with determinism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26, 168-169.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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