Does free will exist?
The question of whether free will exists has been of interest to philosophers for more than two millenia. Over the last few years, the free will question has also grabbed the attention of psychologists and neuroscientists. There’s been a spate of articles claiming that science has demonstrated that free will is nothing but an illusion, or, conversely, that neurobiology lends support to the claim that we are free, morally responsible agents.
Either of these views might turn out to be correct. But in philosophy (as well as in science) it is important to be right for the right reasons, and this is precisely where many of these treatments of the free will problem fall down. To anyone versed in the relevant philosophical literature, these scientific discussions of the free will problem are often achingly naïve.
This is unnecessary. Scientists don’t have to be philosophically unsophisticated. Indeed, the better a scientist’s grasp of philosophical theories and methods, the more likely she is to do good science, because she will be sensitive to the subtle conceptual issues and uninterrogated assumptions that play a role in her empirical work.
In this and in my next few blog postings, I’m going to set out the so-called free-will problem and consider the main options for addressing it. Think of it as Free Will 101—a very basic introductory course for anyone interested in the controversy about freedom of the will and who wants to make an informed assessment of scientists’ claims and counter—claims about it.
The free will problem is usually set out as a question about whether freedom is possible in a deterministic universe (later on we’ll see that this is something of an oversimplification).
Here’s the idea. Leaving aside the special case of quantum events (we’ll consider these later on), it looks like everything that happens has a cause. Things don’t just happen for no reason—something always makes them happen. We all rely on this assumption in our practical dealings with the world. For instance, when you slip your key into the ignition of your car and turn it, you have every reason to be confident that this action will cause your car to start, and if you car doesn’t start, you have every reason to assume that its failure to start has a cause as well (for instance, that the battery went dead, and that this was caused by your having left your headlights on all night).
The thesis that everything that happens is caused by previous events is known as determinism. Let’s consider some of its implications….
That’s roughly the deterministic picture of the universe. Would freedom be possible in such a universe? And if freedom exists, does this mean that our choices somehow escape the deterministic web? We’ll begin to explore these questions in my next blog posting.