Free Will 101: Part Three

Nobody has free will. Suck it up.

Posted Aug 02, 2012

Is it possible for free will to exist in a deterministic universe? Can freedom exist in a universe in which everything that happens, including everything that happens in every human mind, is caused by prior events in accord with exceptionless and inviolable laws of nature?  

That’s the way that philosophers have traditionally set out the free will problem. As I explained in my last posting, many philosophers (and virtually everyone who is not philosophically educated) answer this question with a resounding “No!”  People who hold this view are called incompatibilists, because they believe that determinism is incompatible with freedom.

There are two kinds of incompatibilism. For now, I’m only going to discuss one of them. It’s called hard determinism.

A person who is a hard determinist accepts the premise that if the universe is deterministic then there’s no free will, and also accepts that the universe is deterministic. This leads her to the conclusion that free will is, at best, an illusion. In other words, she reasons as follows:

  1. If the universe is deterministic, then there’s no free will.
  2. The universe is deterministic.
  3. Therefore, there’s no free will.

The idea is that for your choice to be genuinely free, it’s got to be up to you. It’s got to be possible for you, the chooser, to select one course of action amongst alternatives. But hard determinists say, “Look, if everything that happens is the result of iron-clad laws, then any choice that you make is just one more domino falling in that long row of dominos stretching back to the beginning of time.  Although you may believe that might have chosen differently at any given point, that’s just an illusion. None of your choices, or anyone else’s, are free.”  

Another way to put the same point is to say that, contrary to appearances, nobody ever really chooses anything at all. They just seem to make choices (later in this series we’ll see that what’s at stake here is how we should conceive of choice).

The doctrine of hard determinism has a way of freaking people out. It makes people uncomfortable.  There are a couple of reasons for this. One has to do with the time-honored notion of human autonomy. If hard determinism is true, doesn’t that mean that we’re caused to do everything that we do? Doesn’t it mean that we are nothing more than puppets of the forces of nature?

The short answer is, “No, it doesn’t.”

To explain why, I need to take a very brief detour through the philosophy of cause and effect.  Imagine that right now a brick is hurled through the air, strikes a window, and shatters it. Now, answer the following question: What caused the window to shatter?  

If you answered by saying “The brick,” as most people do, you wouldn’t be quite right. When the brick was lying around outside, minding its own business, it didn’t cause anything to shatter. It was the brick striking the window that caused the window to shatter—or, more precisely, it was the brick’s striking the window that caused the window’s shattering. Now, this might sound like a word game, but it isn’t. There’s a world of difference between a brick and a brick’s striking a window.  

This distinction is important for how we think about causes and effects in general. It shows us that causes and effects are events, not objects. Causation occurs when something happens that makes something else happen. Only happenings (events) can be causes and only happenings (events) can be effects. 

Think carefully about this and you’ll understand why it’s inaccurate to say that hard determinism implies that prior events cause us to do what we do. Saying “Prior events caused me to make a certain choice” conjures up an image of nature holding a gun to one’s head. But prior events can’t, strictly speaking, cause a person to do anything at all. All that they can do is cause events in people’s minds. So, from a hard determinist perspective, it’s wrong to say that prior events caused me to choose x. That would be to say that prior events coerce me into making a certain choice.  But it’s perfectly OK to say that prior events caused my choosing x. Causation isn’t the same thing as coercion!

Another concern about hard determinism has to do with the issue of responsibility for one’s own behavior. We need to start by getting clear about what’s meant by “responsibility.”

If someone says that a tornado was responsible for destroying their home, this is just a fancy way of saying that the tornado caused the destruction of their home. This causal notion of responsibility is totally different from what we mean when we say that a person was responsible for an automobile accident because she was texting while driving. In cases like this, we mean that the person behaved in a blameworthy way. To be morally responsible, a person has to be the sort of being that is worthy of praise of blame. Tornados, porcupines, and babies are not morally responsible, but cognitively mature, psychologically intact adults are.

Probing a little more deeply, we can ask what it is that makes a person a morally responsible agent. One very attractive answer is that people are morally responsible for their behavior only if they are able to rationally choose between alternatives. This entails that we are morally responsible only if there are alternatives open to us. But hard determinists insist that there aren’t any options—nobody could have chosen anything other than what they chose, just as no domino in a row of falling dominos has any choice about whether it’s going to fall.

So, hard determinists tend to regard moral responsibility as an illusion. In reality, nobody has options, and nobody is deserving of praise or blame. As the philosopher Bruce Waller (who, by the way, is not a hard determinist) put the point in his recent book Against Moral Responsibility:

"Just deserts and moral responsibility require a godlike power—the existential power of choosing ourselves, the godlike power of making ourselves from scratch, the divine capacity to be an uncaused cause—that we do not have. Moral responsibility is an atavistic relic of a belief system we (as naturalists) have rejected, for good reason." (p. 40)

The hard-determinist take-home message is a hard one to swallow. Free will is a fairy-tale and nobody is morally responsible for their behavior. Suck it up.