Dmytro Taranovsky
November 27, 2002
Essay for 24.00: Problems of Philosophy

Existence of Free Will

Existence of free will is often argued from introspection. Freedom means choice. Since I chose to write this paper and I could have chosen otherwise, I am free in writing this paper. However, to establish that I could have chosen otherwise, proving that I felt that I could have chosen otherwise is not enough: One must also prove that my choice is the original cause of my motives to write this paper.

According to compatibilists, your action is free if the immediate cause of the action are your thoughts, there is no coercion, no duress (physical or mental), and your thoughts satisfy a certain condition on freedom, which varies depending on the compatibilist. If that is used as definition of freedom, then my writing this paper is free.

Unfortunately, if determinism is true, then the compatibilist freedom is merely an illusion of freedom. In evaluating freedom, we are not interested in counter factual conditionals unless the agent was free to make the conditional true. If a person is being shot, then the person would have been unharmed if he had stopped the bullet. Nevertheless, the person is not free not to be harmed because he was not free to stop the bullet.

According to determinism, my actions today are determined by what had existed a million years ago. Thus, if what happened a million years ago is held fixed, it is (according to determinism) impossible for me not to write this paper. I could only choose not to write this paper by changing what occurred one million years ago, and that is impossible. One can argue that there are some possible worlds in which the past is different and I am not writing this paper. However, we are restricted to this world, freedom of choice means freedom to choose in this world, where the past is unalterable. Existence of possible worlds in which what happened one million years ago was different is irrelevant. Moreover, the only way to show existence of possibilities is through choices and randomness, so if the world is deterministic, there is no evidence that the world can possibly be anything but what it is; deciding what is possible would be a matter of convention and not reality. In a deterministic world, choosing to do otherwise is as impossible as choosing for 2+2 to equal five: Under no circumstance does any person has any choice.

Rejection of determinism, however, is insufficient for free will. Mere randomness does not amount to freedom since it is indistinguishable whether the randomness is generated now or one million years ago. Postulating a free agent is not sufficient either, because of the following argument: Suppose that whenever you act, you act a particular way solely because of the way you are except for the external factors or randomness. At this moment, you cannot change what you are at this moment since at any given time you are what you are at that time. The external factors are also what they are--they can change with time, but we are analyzing them at the time you make the choice. If an outcome is random, you cannot choose it either. If you had chosen to act otherwise, then since your choice is based solely on yourself, external factors, and randomness, these factors would be different from what they are. Since you cannot change these factors, you cannot choose to act otherwise. For a choice to be genuine, both outcomes must be possible for this actual world instead of just in other possible worlds in which you, external factors, or random results are different. Both outcomes must be possible in the set of worlds where the factors you cannot control (such as whether you have wings) are what they are in this world. Otherwise, the alternate choice would mean that you can choose and control the factors you cannot control. Since choosing differently is contradictory, you do not have choice.

Instead, your (free) choice must be the original cause of your action. The fact that your choice is not caused in an ordinary way does not mean that it is random: The universe as a whole could not have been caused by something; it exists (just like you choices) in an out of itself. If God exists, then the original cause for much of the universe is the will of God, and the original cause for the rest are the free choices of men.

You consider many aspects of your choice, such as the most probable consequences, and the dangers and rewards for you and the society. External factors affect your consideration. Sometimes you proceed randomly. But in the end you are the one to choose, being the supernatural being that you are. The concept of choice is fundamental, so it is not subject to explanation or understanding in terms of the more basic concepts. You can choose according to your dispositions and random factors or you can choose against them; it is up to you. You are the person you choose to be.

Now that the meaning of free will is clear, it remains to prove that sometimes people make choices. By definition, if you have choice, you can act one way and you can act differently. It is universally agreed that sometimes I should do something or should not do something. Word 'should' has meaning only in the context of choice: If it is impossible for you to choose to fly, then the claim that you should fly to save yourself is either meaningless or false. If terrorists cannot choose not to kill people, then the claim that they should not kill is as false as the claim that they should undo the deaths of the people they killed. There would be nothing wrong with terrorism just like there is nothing wrong with priests not bringing dead people into life. If free will does not exist, then nothing is wrong.

Since terrorism is wrong, free will exists. I am sure that victims of terrorist attacks will agree that terrorism is wrong. A philosopher (unless he is a victim) might resist, claiming that determinism or absence of free will is logically true and that we should not judge terrorism to be wrong since such a judgment is logically incoherent. However, if free will does not exist, then the claim that we should think logically is false, so his argument would be unpersuasive--the philosopher cannot claim that we should accept the transitive the rule of logic without contradicting his conclusion (nonexistence of free will is incompatible with word 'should'). The philosopher cannot argue that something is wrong with argument "2+2=5, so free will exists" since if free will did not exist, there would be nothing wrong with that argument, for there would be no reason to prefer propositional logic over the logic used in the argument. A reason to prefer propositional logic would imply choice between different claims, and such choice is impossible without free will. Preference of knowledge over ignorance is meaningful only in the context of propositional logic and choice.

Thus, free will along with propositional logic form the basis of human knowledge. If some statement contradicts to free will, that would be a problem of that statement and not of free will. Much of our common sense is contradictory. Paradoxes are solved by removing false common-sense assumptions. One paradox is that of logical determinism: Since we cannot change the future, we cannot choose anything but the future, so we cannot make choices. However, if free will is impossible unless there is P such that "P will happen tomorrow, but it was false yesterday that P will happen tomorrow," then such P exists and we can change the future. If free will means that until we make a choice, both possibilities are equally real and neither is the actual future, then so be it.

Since free will requires that to some extent some intelligent and responsible free choices are made ex nihilo (out of nothing), this is what happens. If this contradicts our basic beliefs on causation, then our beliefs are wrong and should be modified: Free will is on par with propositional logic, which supersedes all other beliefs. Of course, to a large extent human choices are based on prior events, which is why training and advising people is so valuable. Forethought is crucial both because it influences choices and because choices occur disguised in thought. Human thought is very rich, and choices are hidden in the complexity and drama of thought.

A skeptic might argue either that we know nothing or that all that we think we know is wrong. However, word 'know' is a very useful one, and attempts at defining it are convoluted. If a skeptic logically concludes that we know nothing, then the word 'know' was defined too narrowly and should be redefined to fit with its common use. We cannot supply ordinary justification to everything, since something, (such as certain aspects of logic) cannot be justified without invoking circular arguments. Instead, human beings must choose what to believe and propositional logic along with free will is the only practical choice since it is the only choice that allows practical decision making. Accordingly, we have no practical choice but to believe the basis of knowledge; we have no choice but to accept it as true and dismiss the skeptical complaints, for any meaningful discussion of the complaints would be based on what we accept as the basis of knowledge.

Arguments against free will are valuable in that they force us to reconsider some of the basic assumptions that we make. However, they are ultimately unpersuasive since, in the end, human ability to make choices is the basis of knowledge. Some philosophers sincerely claim that free will does not exist, but their views are contradictory, for as human beings they believe in freedom.