Willfully Free from Free Will




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Debates over the definition, validity and intelligibility of free will have always been an important feature of philosophical discourse. Modern scientific advancements have breathed new life into these discussions with overwhelming evidence suggesting an undeniably close relationship between the mind and the brain. Using the common, intuitive definition I will argue that we can conclusively say that there is no such thing as free will, and therefore there is no such thing as moral responsibility ontologically. I will first discuss the problem of the “ghost in the machine” and it’s various implications, then I will express an even deeper problem with the notion of free will as a subjective experience. Finally I will examine the Compatibilist approach, explain why it fails to provide both an intellectually and morally satisfactory depiction of free will and express the consequences of my conclusions.

Before we proceed, I think it is important to define my terms so as to avoid confusion or contradiction. A belief in free will consists in the belief that we, as human agents, are the conscious authors of our thoughts and actions. This notion depends entirely on the causal efficacy of our thoughts – I had a desire to buy a bottle of water, so I bought a bottle of water. This primacy of agency is prevalent throughout most popular definitions of free will, though there are some people (like Compatibilists) that would disagree. I will present my arguments from this perspective because I think that there are some very important consequences that arise from the exhaustive exploration of this train of thought. There are other definitions that assert the auxiliary idea that free will is essentially the ability to do other than what one has chosen to do, and while I personally subscribe to this theory it is not a necessary premise of my argument.


Determinism, as described in this paper, refers to the belief that given a certain state of affairs (s) at a certain time (t), all following states of affairs (s1…sn) at all corresponding times (t1…tn) are inevitable, i.e. causally necessary. In other words, all events are causally determined by prior events, which are governed by natural law. As above, it is not necessary to accept determinism as I have described it in order for me to establish the truth of my argument against free will.

The problem of the “ghost in the machine” is essentially the problem of mental causation.[1] This problem, in turn, boils down to a contradiction between two apparently valid observations: Mental phenomena appear to be causally efficacious, and the physical world is causally closed. The former suggests that our beliefs and desires have the ability to move physical objects, for instance our hands and legs, and the latter represents the causal completeness of physics (hereafter C.C.P.): the idea that all physical events have a sufficient physical explanation. The C.C.P. is the fundamental feature of science; it is the assertion that no supernatural phenomena are necessary to have a causally complete explanation of reality. The issue at hand is that if all events, (for instance the movement of our hands and legs) are causally determined by physical events (neurological activity), not only is the idea of a mental cause superfluous, it is impossible; how can some non-physical substance like “the mental” interact at all with physical objects? Thus the paradox of the “ghost in the machine” is born. I would like to suggest that the illusion of mental efficacy is the product of an ancient misunderstanding.

Consider a car driving down a road on a sunny day, and the shadow it casts. An uninformed observer might notice that every movement of the shadow corresponded to a movement of the car, and they might validly, if erroneously, infer that the shadow was causing the car to move, when really it was just a byproduct.[2] This is the fundamental conceptual mistake at play in the collective global consciousness; the mind, whatever it is, does not control the body – it is a shadow of its activity, an afterglow if you will. This is a critical conclusion to draw, because it collapses free will from within by removing the concept of agency altogether. If there is no mental causal power due to the C.C.P., we can never be the conscious authors of our thoughts, and therefore we can never be free.

Imagine a serial killer at loose in a major city. He is the most horrendous serial killer in human history, as his crimes are replete with excessive violence and brutality and he has taken hundreds of victims. If we take a careful look at his behaviour, however, we cannot hold him morally responsible from a purely technical perspective. Every crime committed by this serial killer was caused by events that were completely out of his control. He was born with a certain biochemistry that burdened him with a sadistic disposition and perhaps he was born to parents who tormented him terribly or to a country wherein suffering and abuse ran rampant. In any case, environmental factors and the biological facts of his natural composition were the direct determinates of his actions. This wide web of causality engulfs the entirety of behaviour and therefore dissolves the basis for blame and responsibility[3].

In order to elucidate this point, I will draw on a thought experiment proposed by the neuroscientist Sam Harris. There is a mad scientist (M) who implants a microchip into a person (P)’s brain, so that he can control P’s every movement, desire, thought and so on and so forth. This chip represents a deterministic universe. M then activates the chip and proceeds to force P to go on a murderous rampage. It appears painfully obvious that we could not reasonably hold P morally responsible for these actions – he as an agent was not in control of his own behaviour, he had no say in the matter. Now consider a second chip that functions slightly differently – this chip randomly determines actions for P to fulfill, and therefore P’s behaviour is completely based on chance and probabilities; this represents an indeterministic universe. So in this case, with this second chip, it was equally possible that it would have compelled P to go to the store to buy a magazine but instead it randomly determined that he should go on the aforementioned murder spree. Once more, it is blisteringly clear that P is no more responsible for his actions under the influence of this second chip. We can safely conclude that due to the hammer blows suffered by agency at the hands of the C.C.P., moral responsibility, from a purely rational standpoint, simply does not exist in either a deterministic or an indeterministic universe.[4]

Oddly enough, the problem of free will goes even deeper than this. The general supposition is that we at least retain some degree of subjective free will – it feels as if we are free, even if rational investigation leads us to believe otherwise. However, if we inspect this feeling closely, we will find that this is a baseless assumption. To draw once more from Sam Harris, I could suddenly begin writing about the various pleasures of snowshoeing. To the reader, this would no doubt be the source of great confusion but the truth of the matter is that is happening all the time in everybody’s mind: thoughts simply appear randomly in consciousness. In fact, as I type, I don’t even know how I am going to finish this sentence; I am simply borne upon a network of subconscious neural activity that offers up word after word to my conscious mind until we finally reach a period. I do not at any point choose to consider these words, and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to turn my gaze inwards to examine the mechanisms that do. This raises a very important question: if you cannot choose what your next thought is, and don’t know what it will be until it is selected for you, where is your freedom of will?[5] It is quickly becoming an unambiguous truth that all conscious creatures are completely controlled by forces external to the mental agent. The phrase “I did it because I felt like it” can be used here to illustrate the point. As demonstrated in earlier paragraphs there is no rational explanation for mental causation, so assuming that the “I” in question refers to a conscious agent, this statement is patently false. In other words the speaker in question here is incorrect in asserting that he, as a mental agent, did anything; a more accurate statement could read something along the lines of “my body did it”. Furthermore, the fact that this person “felt like it” was and always is completely out of his control. The thoughts and desires that cultivated this feeling were not selected by this person; they were the product of neurological activity, which was the product of some other neurological activity which was the product of some external physical stimulation and so on and so forth, all within the C.C.P.

Compatibilist reasoning acknowledges the truth of these observations, and agrees that in the aforementioned sense, free will cannot exist. The Compatibilists are eager to reconcile this fact with the belief that people are still morally responsible for their actions, and in order to do so they propose a new definition for what constitutes free will: the ability to act as desired free of constraints – if somebody willfully brings about her conduct she is morally responsible. Under this classification somebody who “did it because she felt like it” was in fact exercising her freedom of will. This definition (which I consider to be a summary of the strongest Compatibilist positions) eschews metaphysics altogether and attempts to derive a more practical connotation, one that could be put to use in legislature or in a courtroom, or even just in day-to-day moral transactions. The problem with Compatibilism is that it fails to recognize that there are two distinct conceptions (with two distinct definitions) of Free Will at play here, and thus two distinct terms are necessary to discuss them. This is the mistake that people like Hume[6], Frankfurt[7], Dennett[8] and many others make.

For the purposes of this paper I will distinguish between the two by referring to the former as Technical Free Will (being the conscious authors of ones thoughts and actions) and the latter as Practical Free Will (the Compatibilist approach). The failure to differentiate these concepts has serious moral implications. In logic, it is always necessary to have distinct names for distinct objects; if one object is called “a”, no other object can be called “a”. This rule exists for a reason – consider the following conditional premise: if Unicorns do not exist everybody should be nice to one another. The Unicorn in question here refers to the mythical horse that is born with a horn; this is definition one. The mistake the Compatibilist makes is equivalent to acknowledging that Unicorns cannot exist in this sense, and proceeding to commandeer the name Unicorn to mean a normal horse with a horn on its head; this is definition two. Due to the failure to find a separate term to describe this horse, it is apparent that Unicorns do exist, insofar as it is possible to strap a plastic horn to a horse’s head, and therefore the Compatibilist could validly conclude that being nice to one another is not in fact necessary. Evidently, this error in logic is the result of an imprecision in naming ones terms; the mistake is the confused product of the conflation of definitions one and two. While this sounds trivial, it has very serious moral consequences.

Following through with a rational exploration of the non-Compatibilist definition of free will, we can conclude that nobody is technically responsible for his or her actions, insofar as he or she is not in control of them; therefore the only appropriate response is compassion. The aforementioned serial killer, for example, had no choice in his crimes. Imagine Jane, a family member of one of his victims, who has finally managed to hunt him down. When Jane is just about to get revenge, she is surprised to find the mad scientist waiting for her. He tells Jane that the serial killer had a chip in his brain controlling his thoughts and actions, and that if this chip were removed, the serial killer would be a changed man who would never dream of hurting a fly. Given the two options: 1. Kill the serial killer or 2. “Cure” him of his psychopathic behaviours and tendencies, it is absolutely obvious, given all previously drawn conclusions that the only moral choice would be to “cure” the serial killer; to punish him for actions out of his control would be callous, cruel, unfair and obtuse. In this way we can see that in a certain, technical sense, the moral transgressor suffers from a mental affliction that is out of his control; within each crime there are two victims, for the perpetrator also suffers – he is victim to his composition and resulting disposition. This means that it is a moral necessity to do everything we can to help immoral transgressors rather than excessively punish them. Although this is no easy task – Jane would certainly struggle to overcome the primal reflex for vengeance – a rational discourse about agency-based free will provides a cool drink of compassion to quench the barking and bubbling thirst for blood. If globally adopted, this mindset (one that emphasizes pity and understanding) would undoubtedly lead to significant moral progress for mankind; no longer would a judge lock a 13 year old boy in jail for life out of a desire to severely punish him for his mistakes – in this case the penal system would strive to rehabilitate the child, for his own sake as well as society’s.[9]

The difficulty with the Compatibilist approach is that a failure to distinguish between definitions of free will inevitably leads one to discard and neglect this profoundly important conclusion. The Compatibilist would say that this serial killer did have free will (based on the Compatibilist definition) and therefore he should be dealt with appropriately. This is not to say that the Compatibilist could not be compassionate, just that she would not necessarily feel morally obligated. Compatibilism recognizes how important it is to retain a sense of moral responsibility in a practical sense – this is the pillar around which the entire legal system is structured, but by redefining the term “free will” the Compatablist blinds himself to some imperative insight. If a distinction were made between Technical Free Will and Practical Free Will, it would be possible to retain the moral responsibility necessary for legal authority and the likes, but it would all be fundamentally textured by an incessantly compassionate disposition. This, I think we can agree, would be for the better.

Technical free will does not and cannot exist – this becomes clear with rational inspection and introspection. Practical Free Will does and must exist – this is clear from experience. By separating these terms, we may preserve the profound commandment of compassion that concluded the investigation of the former while maintaining the grounds necessary for moral responsibility in the practical world, as demanded by the latter. At the end of the day, there’s nothing quite so nice as the serene sensation of the raw, icy air affectionately nipping your skin, and the accompanying crunch of each quietly crafted new step as you dance across the frosted landscape on a brand new pair of snowshoes.

[1] Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. 1949. Print.

[2] Luisa Dalla Chiara, Maria. Structures and Norms in Science. 2. 1995. 324. Print.

[3] Harris, Sam. Sam Harris on “Free Will”. 2012. Video. Youtube. Web. 2 Dec 2013.

[4] Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape. 2010. 217. Print.

[5] Harris, Sam. Sam Harris on “Free Will”. 2012. Video. Youtube. Web. 2 Dec 2013.

[6] Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 1748. 159. Print.

[7] C. Dennett, Daniel . Freedom Evolves. 2003. Print.

[8] G. Frankfurt, Harry. Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. 1971. 8. Print.

[9] Crimesider Staff, . “Christian Fernandez, 13-Year-Old Fla. Boy, Faces Life in Prison for Allegedly Murdering His 2-Year-Old Half-Brother.” Crimesider (2012): CBS News. Web. 2 Dec 2013.