Free Will: What’s Wrong, and How to Fix It

We hear a lot of talk these days from people suggesting that free will is just an illusion, and that our lives were predetermined before we were born. Is this true? Well, no, it isn’t. Scientists and philosophers who make these claims have fallen for a hoax. They have been deluded by a complex paradox. But perhaps we should start from the beginning…

What’s Free Will About?

In 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers set off home-made explosives at the Boston Marathon, killing several people and injuring many others. They planned to set off the rest of their devices in New York city. To do this, they hijacked a car, driven by a college student, and forced him at gunpoint to assist their escape from Boston to New York.

On the way, they stopped for gas. While one of the brothers was inside the store and the other was distracted by the GPS, the student bounded from the car and ran across the road to another service station. There he called the police and described his vehicle. The police chased the bombers, capturing one and killing the other.

Although the student initially gave assistance to the bombers, he was not charged with “aiding and abetting”, because he was not acting of his own free will. He was forced, at gunpoint, to assist in their escape. The surviving bomber was held responsible for his actions, because he had acted deliberately, of his own free will.

A person’s will is their specific intent for the immediate or distant future. A person usually chooses what they will do. The choice sets their intent, and their intent motivates and directs their subsequent actions.

Free will is when this choice is made free of coercion and undue influence. The student’s decision to assist the bombers’ escape was coerced. It was not freely chosen.

Coercion can be a literal “gun to the head”, or any other threat of harm sufficient to compel one person to subordinate their will to the will of another.

Undue influence is any extraordinary condition that effectively removes a person’s control of their choice. Certain mental illnesses can distort a person’s perception of reality by hallucinations or delusions. Other brain impairments can  directly damage the ability to reason. Yet another form may subject them to an irresistible compulsion. Hypnosis would be an undue influence. Authoritative command, as exercised by a parent over a child, an officer over a soldier, or a doctor over a patient, is another. Any of these special circumstances may remove a person’s control over their choices.

Why Do We Care About Free Will?

Responsibility for the benefit or harm of an action is assigned to the most meaningful and relevant causes. A cause is meaningful if it efficiently explains why an event happened. A cause is relevant if we can do something about it.

The means of correction is determined by the nature of the cause: (a) If the person is forced at gunpoint to commit a crime, then all that is needed to correct his or her behavior is to remove that threat. (b) If a person’s choice is unduly influenced by mental illness, then correction will require psychiatric treatment. (c) If a person is of sound mind and deliberately chooses to commit the act for their own profit, then correction requires changing how they think about such choices in the future.

In all these cases, society’s interest is to prevent future harm. And it is the harm that justifies taking appropriate action. Until the offender’s behavior is corrected, society protects itself from further injury by securing the offender, usually in a prison or mental institution, as appropriate.

So, the role of free will, in questions of moral and legal responsibility, is to distinguish between deliberate acts versus acts caused by coercion or undue influence. This distinction guides our approach to correction and prevention.

Free will makes the empirical distinction between a person autonomously choosing for themselves versus a choice imposed upon them by someone or something else.

So, what’s all the fuss about? Why are some people today questioning free will, or calling it an “illusion”?

What’s Determinism About?

All human science rests upon the faith that the causes of events are reliable and thus might be discovered, studied, and understood.  With knowledge of the causes of an event, we might predict, avoid, reproduce, or otherwise control it. For example, knowing that a virus causes polio, and that the body can be primed to attack that virus by vaccination, we have controlled the occurrence of polio in nearly all the world.

Determinism is logically derived from the presumption of reliable cause and effect.  Determinism notes that each cause is itself an effect of prior causes, such that a chain of causation can, at least in theory, be traced back to any prior point in history. If every event is reliably caused by prior events, and these prior events were themselves reliably caused by earlier events, then every event is “causally necessary” and inevitably will happen.

Assuming perfectly reliable cause and effect, every event, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing right now, were “causally inevitable” from any prior point in eternity.

Wow! That sounds ominous. But what does that mean, in practical terms? Well, not a whole lot. To say that something is “causally inevitable” means nothing more than that it came about by normal cause and effect — something that we are all familiar with and that we all take for granted.

For example, when I press the “H” key on my keyboard, I expect to see an “h” in the text that I am typing. If my keyboard did not reliably produce the letters I expected, but instead produced random letters, I could no longer control what I was typing. I would need a new keyboard. My ability to control what I am typing requires reliable cause and effect.

Not only does the keyboard need to be reliable, but my hands and fingers must behave reliably as well. If I had uncontrolled tremors in my hands then my fingers might not reliably press the right keys. Or, if I had a mental illness or injury that affected my ability to think rationally, then that too could diminish my control over what I was typing.

In fact, all of our abilities, to do anything at all, require reliable cause and effect. To put it simply, without reliable cause and effect, we could not reliably cause any effect. We would have no freedom to do anything at all. Also, without reliable cause and effect, we could no longer predict the outcomes of our actions, and would no longer have any control over what we do.

Because reliable cause and effect is a prerequisite to both our freedom and our control, any discussion of freedom and control already subsumes a world of reliable cause and effect.

It is important to note that determinism doesn’t do anything. Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can cause events to happen. And determinism is neither an object nor a force. It is simply a comment, an assertion that the behavior of the objects and forces is reliable, and thus theoretically understandable and potentially predictable.

Three Causal Mechanisms

Natural objects behave differently according to their organization. For example, atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are gases until you drop their temperatures several hundred degrees below zero. But if we reorganize them into molecules of water, we get a liquid at room temperature that we can drink.

There are three broad classes of organization that affect the behavior of natural objects:

  1. Inanimate objects behave passively in response to physical forces.
  2. Living organisms behave purposefully to satisfy biological needs.
  3. Intelligent species behave deliberately by calculation and reason. And that’s where free will emerges.

We, ourselves, happen to be natural objects. Like other natural objects, we cause stuff. The Sun, by its physical mass, causes the Earth to fall into a specific orbit around it in space. We, by our choices and our actions, cause trees to be felled and houses to be built to keep us warm in Winter.

We are living organisms of an intelligent species. Like all living organisms, we cause events in the real world as we go about meeting our biological need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As members of an intelligent species, we can imagine different ways to pursue these goals. We consider how different options might play out, and then choose the option that we feel is best.

Causal necessity/inevitability does not replace us. It is not an inevitability that is “beyond our control”. Rather, the concept incorporates us, our choices, and our actions, in the overall scheme of causation.

Universal causal necessity, while being a logical fact, is irrelevant to any practical issue. While we can readily apply the knowledge of specific causes and their specific effects, there is nothing one can do with the general fact of universal causal necessity.

After all, what can you do with a fact that is always true of every event, that cannot distinguish one event from another, and which cannot be altered in any way? Nothing. It makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation; it can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

For example, if causal necessity is used to excuse the thief for stealing your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who cuts off the thief’s hand.

But what about our freedom? Does causal necessity constrain us in any meaningful way? Well, no. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, choosing what we choose, and doing what we do. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

Then, what about free will? Does determinism constrain our ability to choose for ourselves what we will do? Nope. It is still us doing the choosing. Only specific causes, such as the guy holding a gun to our head, can compel us to act against our will.

So, determinism poses no threat to free will. It is not a guy holding a gun to our head.

And that again begs the question: What’s all the fuss about?

What the Fuss is All About

Everyone, every day, observes reliable cause and effect. Everyone, every day, observes people deciding for themselves what they will do. So, it would be paradoxical if these two objective observations somehow contradicted each other.

A paradox often involves a subtle hoax, based upon a believable, but false, suggestion. The “Determinism Versus Free Will” paradox is loaded with false suggestions. Here is the first:

Deception #1 – Bait and Switch

The initial deception goes like this: “If everything I do is causally inevitable, then how can it be said that my will is free?”

Did you notice what just happened? The definition of free will just got switched from a choice “free of coercion and undue influence” to a choice “free of causal necessity”.

The correct answer to the deception is that there is no such thing as “freedom from causal necessity”. Causal necessity is logically derived from the presumption of reliable cause and effect. So, what does it mean to be “free from reliable cause and effect”? Well, for one thing, you could never reliably cause any effect, which means you would no longer have any freedom to do anything at all.  Every freedom that we have requires a world of reliable causation.

So, freedom from causation is an irrational concept. One cannot be “free” of the very mechanisms by which all of our freedoms operate. And because it is irrational, it may not be used as the definition of anything. Yet this irrational definition of free will is the one that is used in the philosophical debate!

The bait-and-switch question itself, like a Chinese Finger Trap, is a hoax. And yet many scientists and philosophers have fallen for it. The cure is simple. Don’t be tricked into substituting an irrational definition for one that is operationally meaningful and relevant.

Deception #2 – What We Will Do Has Already Been Determined

Predetermination suggests that something other than us has already caused what we will to do. Is that true? No, it’s not. If our deliberate action is one of the necessary causes of an event, then the event will not occur without our own deliberation, our own choosing, and our own action. Prior causes cannot leapfrog over us, to bring about the event without us.

Consider this: If our choice is causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity, then which point should we choose as the cause? After all, there are an infinite number of such points in time. For convenience, many people use the Big Bang. But what is the Big Bang’s interest in what I should have for lunch today?

To be meaningful, a cause must efficiently explain why an event occurred. To be relevant, a cause must be something that we can do something about. The Big Bang is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause of what we choose to do.

The most meaningful and relevant causes of our deliberate choices are found within us. Our choices are causally determined by our own interests and concerns, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic dispositions and life experiences – and all the other things that make us uniquely “us”. We, ourselves, are the final responsible cause of our deliberate actions.

When someone commits a crime, we want to know why. What was the thinking that led them to that choice? What might we do to change how they think about such choices in the future? These questions lead to rehabilitation programs: counseling, addiction treatment, education, job training, post-release follow-up, job placement, and other practical steps that give the offender new options and better choices.

Social conditions can also increase criminal behavior. Poverty, unemployment, racial inequities, drugs, ineffective schools, lack of after school activities and youth programs, and other factors contribute to a higher rate of criminal behavior. Intelligent risk management would lead us to address these contributing factors as well.

But the individual still requires correction. Rehabilitation presumes free will. The goal of its programs is to release a person capable of making better choices on their own, autonomously, of their own free will.

In summary, if our choosing is one of the necessary causes of the event, then our role cannot be bypassed, or overlooked, or called an “illusion”. It’s really us, and we’re really doing it.

Failures in Academic Philosophy

There are many other deceptive suggestions that reinforce the paradox. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) has an article on “Free Will” [1] that demonstrates several more.

The SEP authors correctly state that free will is used to convey “a significant kind of control over one’s actions”. And that is consistent with free will as described above. Both coercion and undue influence impair our normal control over our choices.

Then they set the table for debate, by raising three questions about free will:

  1. “does it require and do we have the freedom to do otherwise”
  2. “does it require and do we have…the power of self-determination”
  3. “is it necessary for moral responsibility”

The answers are simple:

  1. Free will means we choose for ourselves what we will do. Choosing always begins with (a) at least two real possibilities and (b) the ability to choose either one. This ability to choose either option is the freedom to do otherwise.
  2. “Self-determination” is self-evident in that we, ourselves, are doing the choosing.
  3. When it is our deliberate choice to commit a wrongful or illegal act, then we are the meaningful and relevant cause of the harm done, and we will be held responsible.

Pretty simple, right? But philosophy has a way of wandering away from the practical and the obvious. For example, in the section, Ancient and Medieval Period, the SEP authors are looking for “philosophical reflection on choice-directed control over one’s [own] actions”.

They note that Plato poses moral choices as contests between our reasoning and our base desires. And that Aristotle credits this history of choosing with the formation of our character. As we habitually choose “well” (or choose “poorly”), our character becomes more “virtuous” (or more “vicious”).

But the SEP authors choose “poorly” when they begin sucking us into the “vicious” paradox. On Aristotle, they comment:

“One might worry that this seems to entail that the person could not have done otherwise—at the moment of choice, she has no control over what her present character is—and so she is not responsible for choosing as she does. Aristotle responds by contending that her present character is partly a result of previous choices she made.”

There are three deceptions subtly introduced in that short paragraph. It is suggested that “she is not responsible for choosing as she does” for three reasons: (a) because her character, not her, is in control (deception #3), (b) because her character has already been determined by prior causes even though they involved her own prior choices (#4), and (c) because she will inevitably do one thing, it must be true that she “could not have done otherwise” (#5).

Deception #3 – Splitting “Me” in Two

The next deception suggests that she and her character are two separate entities, such that it is her character, and not herself, that is in control. The truth, of course, is that her character is an essential part of who and what she is. So are her genetic dispositions and her life experiences. So are her beliefs and her values, and all the other things that make her uniquely her. These things are integral to who she is at the time she makes her choice. To suggest that she exists separate from these things, and is being controlled by them, would be an ironic dualism. The truth is that whatever these things together decide, she has decided, and whatever they choose, she has chosen. There is only one, single, complex entity, and it is herself. She is doing the choosing.

Deception #4 – Shifting Causation to Prior Causes

The next little hoax suggests that we cannot call something a cause if it has prior causes, because those prior causes are the real causes. But is that true? Well, no. You see, every prior cause also comes with its own prior causes. So, if we say that a cause is not real if it has prior causes, then every prior cause would cease to be a real cause! The buck would pass backward from prior cause to prior cause all the way back to the Big Bang (and beyond, depending upon your cosmology) with no “real” causes to be found anywhere along the way. The notion, that something with prior causes cannot be a real cause itself, is clearly absurd.

A true cause must be both meaningful and relevant. To be meaningful, it must efficiently explain the occurrence of the event. To be relevant, it must be something that we can potentially do something about, either to predict the event, avoid it, produce it, or otherwise exercise some control over it. The Big Bang is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause of human events. Nor is the fact of universal causal necessity/inevitability.

The most meaningful and relevant cause of a deliberate act is the act of deliberation that preceded it. The history of social influences that created that pattern of deliberation can also be meaningful and relevant when explaining criminal behavior in a society. When correction is called for, it would be short-sighted to deal solely with the individual’s correction without also dealing with the social causes. However, both the individual and the society will require correction to minimize future harm. That’s simple risk management.

Deception #5 – Confusing “Can do” with “Will do”

The next false suggestion is that, because she will choose only one option, the one that best suits her at that moment, she “could not have done otherwise”. The error here is a conflation of the concept of “can do” with the concept of “will do”.

This error ignores the contextual difference that separates these two concepts. At the beginning of the choosing operation we must have at least two real possibilities, for example A and B. And we must also have the ability to choose either one: “I can choose A” is true and “I can choose B” is also true (even if “I can choose both A and B” is false). At the end of the operation, we have a single choice, setting a single intent, expressed as a single “I will”, that directs our subsequent actions.

Whenever we speak of what we “can do” or “could have done”, our context is the beginning of the choosing operation. And whenever we speak of what we “will do”, our context is the end. At the beginning, we can choose either A or B. The fact that we will choose A does not contradict the fact that we could have chosen B. Each fact is true in its own context. Thus, it is common practice to interpret “I chose A, but I could have chosen B” as a true statement.

Continuing with the SEP article on “Free Will” …

The SEP authors continue with the Stoics and Epicureans. These two introduce the concept of natural law. The authors point out that the Stoics did not take the view that natural law replaced us as the cause of our choices. They provide an example:

“Chrysippus ably defended this position by contending that your actions are ‘up to you’ when they come about ‘through you’—when the determining factors of your action are not external circumstances compelling you to act as you do but are instead your own choices grounded in your perception of the options before you.”

So, Chrysippus also defines free choice as the absence of external coercion. Had he taken other undue influences into account, such as mental illness, then he would have echoed the original definition: free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion and undue influence.

The Epicureans, on the other hand, appear to presage the quantum indeterminacy issue in their “atomism”. The SEP authors note of the Epicureans:

“They held that all things (human soul included) are constituted by atoms, whose law-governed behavior fixes the behavior of everything made of such atoms. But they rejected determinism by supposing that atoms, though law-governed, are susceptible to slight ‘swerves’ or departures from the usual paths.”

Deception #6 – It’s All Just Physics

Epicurus’s “atomism” introduces the next deceptive suggestion: that the “laws” of physics are sufficient to explain all events. But the laws of physics cannot even explain simple things like why a car stops at a red light. Between the red light hitting the driver’s eyes and his foot pressing the brake pedal, you’ll find the biological motivation to survive and the rational calculation that the best way to do this is to stop at the light.

The “laws” of physics are never broken, they are just incomplete. This event cannot be explained, for example, without referring to the “Laws of Traffic”, which you will not find in any physics textbook. To explain why the car stopped at a red light, you’ll need all three causal mechanisms: physical, biological, and rational.

A bowling ball placed on a slope will always roll downhill, because an inanimate object has no purpose and no reason. But put a squirrel on that same slope and he will go in any direction that he expects will lead to his next acorn. His behavior is not controlled by gravity, but by an innate purpose to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And, if you put humans on the same spot, they will fell trees to build houses, hunt for food, raise families, build a community, and eventually form a nation.

To recap: The behavior of physical objects will vary according to how they are organized. The behavior of inanimate objects is different from the behavior of living organisms. The behavior of intelligent living organisms is different from that of non-intelligent species.

For the sake of determinism, we will assume that each of the three causal mechanisms is perfectly reliable in its own domain. And that every event that ever happens is the necessary result of some specific combination of physical, biological, and/or rational causation. The car’s driver, in our example, is a living organism motivated to survive. The intelligent species has created traffic laws to make driving safer. The driver calculates that things will turn out best if he stops at the red light, so he applies the brakes. That explains why the car stopped at the light.

Physics is quite adequate to explain why a cup of water flows downhill. But it has no clue as to why a similar cup water, heated and mixed with a little coffee, hops into a car and goes grocery shopping.

Deception #7 – The Solution is Indeterminism

In modern times, the Epicurean notion of atoms subject to “indeterministic swerves” is mirrored in the suggestion of quantum indeterminacy. Unfortunately, causal indeterminism, if it exists anywhere, reduces our ability to understand, predict, and control the event, because the event has no reliable cause (if the cause is reliable, then the event is deterministic). Ironically, causal indeterminism does not increase our freedom at all, but instead reduces it, by limiting our ability to control events.

The concept of “causal indeterminism” is impossible to imagine, because we’ve all grown up in a deterministic universe, where, although we don’t always know what caused an event, we always presume that there was a cause.

To give you an idea of a “causally indeterministic universe”, imagine we had a dial we could use to adjust the balance of determinism/indeterminism. We start by turning it all the way to determinism: I pick an apple from the tree and I have an apple in my hand. Then, we turn the dial a little bit toward indeterminism: now if I pick an apple, I might find an orange or banana or some other random fruit in my hand. Turn the dial further toward indeterminism, and when I pick an apple I may find a kitten in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or a glass of milk. One more adjustment toward indeterminism and when I pick an apple gravity reverses!

If objects were constantly popping into and out of existence, or if gravity erratically switched between pulling things one moment to pushing them the next, then any attempts to control anything in our lives would be hopeless. In such a universe,  we could not reliably cause any effect, which means we would not be free to do anything. Fortunately, that does not appear to be the case.

We, ourselves, are a collaborative collection of deterministic mechanisms that keep our hearts beating, and enable us to think and to act.

So, let’s move on.

No, It’s Not About Religion

In the Section, 1.2 Modern Period and Twentieth Century, the SEP authors list the many modern philosophers who have weighed in on the imaginary problem.

But first, the authors spend a little time exploring free will from a religious and theological perspective. As a Humanist, I view free will and moral responsibility as secular issues. The arguments between theists and atheists over the existence of the supernatural are irrelevant to the issues of determinism and free will.

Next, the SEP authors point out that the idea of causal necessity (“the idea that every event must have a reason or a cause”) and the idea of natural law (“the physical world is one in which all physical objects are governed by deterministic laws of nature”), seem to suggest that something other than us is in control. Which brings us to another deception:

Deception #8 – Delusion by Metaphor

The “laws of nature” are a metaphor for the reliable behavior of natural objects. In the SEP article on “Causal Determinism”, in section “2.4 Laws of Nature”, Carl Hoefer describes it this way:

“In the physical sciences, the assumption that there are fundamental, exceptionless laws of nature, and that they have some strong sort of modal force, usually goes unquestioned. Indeed, talk of laws “governing” and so on is so commonplace that it takes an effort of will to see it as metaphorical.”

The force of gravity causes the Moon to fall into a circular orbit about the Earth. The Moon does not consult the “law” of gravity to decide what it will do next. The “laws of nature” simply describe and predict what the Moon will do and where it will be at a given point in time. It is the mass and inertial force of the Moon itself that is causing it to move as it does in relation to the Earth. The Moon is just doing what an inanimate object of that size and mass naturally does.

When it comes to human behavior, we too are just being us, doing what we naturally do. The “laws of nature” that apply to us, such as those described in the Life Sciences and the Social Sciences, are not an external force acting upon us. They can be used to describe, explain, and in theory even predict what we will do. But the doing, the choosing, and the controlling, is still us.

A close relative of delusion by metaphor is deception by figurative speech:

Deception #9 – Deception by Figurative Speech

In conversations with “hard determinists” (also known as “free will skeptics”), we often hear claims like this, “since it was inevitable that you would choose A rather than B, you never really had a choice”. This is an example of “figurative speech”. Figurative speech is deceptive due to an implicit, but missing, “as if”.

You can spot figurative statements by asking yourself, “Is this literally true?” Figurative statements are always literally false.

For example, even when it is inevitable that you will choose A rather than B, it remains literally (actually, objectively, and empirically) true that at the beginning you have two options: A and B. And it will literally (actually, objectively, and empirically) be you that does the choosing.

We also hear these pseudo-determinists suggest that we are just “puppets on a string”. The problem with that analogy is that there is no puppet master to be found. Causal inevitability is not an entity with a will of its own, forcing its will upon us. The motives behind our choices are located within us. And the operation of choosing, when neither coerced nor subject to undue influence, is performed by us, and not by any other object in the physical universe.

Deception #10 – Misinterpreting Neuroscience

Experiments by Benjamin Libet and others reveal that there is unconscious brain activity that precedes one’s awareness of choosing in some very simple decisions, such as deciding when to push a button. The fact that the choice is being made prior to conscious awareness is used to suggest that our unconscious mind is in the driver’s seat, and that our conscious mind is just along for the ride.

Those making such claims seem to forget that, prior to that unconscious activity, the experimenter had to explain to the subject what to do and the subject had to interpret and internalize these instructions before they could perform the task. Both the explaining and the interpreting required conscious awareness.

After that, it didn’t really matter whether the conscious or unconscious areas of the subject’s brain were determining when to push the button. Both parts were serving the same person and the same conscious purpose.

Consider a college student who chooses to study for tomorrow’s exam. Her intention to do well on the exam motivates and directs her subsequent actions. She reviews the textbook and her notes, deliberately priming the neural pathways in her brain to recall the facts and concepts when reading the test questions tomorrow. This is a clear case of top-down causation, where the consciously chosen intent causes physical modifications within the brain. (The brain is modifying itself via the rational causal mechanism).

Neuroscience helps us to understand how the mind operates as a physical process running upon the infrastructure of the central nervous system. It helps to explain what we are and how we work. But it cannot suggest that something other than us, other than our own brain, our own memories, our own thoughts, and our own feelings is controlling what we do and what we choose. The hardware, the software, and the running process are us.

Deception #11 – The Presumption of Authority

It is odd that the “Determinism Versus Free Will” hoax has continued for so long. The SEP authors tout that the issues “have been taken up in every period of Western philosophy and by many of the most important philosophical figures”. That’s disappointing, because this is a rabbit hole we’ve fallen into by our own careless thinking. And once anyone noteworthy falls for it, the bait-and-switch question is taken seriously by others of note. Taking the question seriously is the trap.

Consider, for example, Albert Einstein. In an interview with the “Saturday Evening Post” back in 1929, he said this: “In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will.” And then, a few lines later, he adds this, “Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” [2]

On the one hand, Einstein insists that free will and responsibility do not exist. And then he turns around and suggests that he must act as if they do exist. The position is incoherent.

None of the three SEP articles, on Causal Determinism, Free Will, and even Compatibilism, offers us the key for resolving this unnecessary riddle.

For example, in the SEP article on Free Will, in section 1.2 Modern Period and Twentieth Century, you’ll find another example of the bait-and-switch question. They say that if “all physical objects are governed by deterministic laws of nature, how does contingency and freedom fit into such a world?” The question falsely suggests that “real” contingency and “real” freedom must “surely” be “free of reliable causation”. But, as we’ve already discussed, “freedom from reliable cause and effect” is an oxymoron. So, their question is nonsense.

Contingency is rational causation. It is based on conditional (e.g., “if x then y, else z”) logical operations. It is part of the practical operation of choosing. Choosing is a deterministic process that inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice.

The choice is deterministic. It will be causally necessitated by some specific combination of rational, biological, and physical causation. For example, the accuracy of the mental function may be impacted by biological conditions, such as lack of sleep, chemical stimulation, or general mood. It can also be altered by physical events, such as a stroke or transcranial magnetic stimulation. But, generally, it is a simple matter of reasoning, of our thoughts and feelings about a given issue, and how we expect things to turn out if one option versus another is chosen. And this makes the process deterministic.

In summary, every choice we make of our own free will also happens to be deterministic. It will be causally necessary/inevitable from any prior point in eternity, and yet it will still be our choice, and ours alone. No prior cause will make this choice for us.

And that is how the “Determinism Versus Free Will” paradox is resolved.

Meaningful and Relevant Freedom

Before closing, it may be helpful to discuss possible versus impossible freedoms. As we discussed earlier, “freedom from causation” is logically impossible. Two other impossible freedoms are “freedom from oneself” and “freedom from reality”. It would be irrational to insist that any use of the term “free” implies one of these impossible freedoms.

“Free will”, for example, cannot imply “freedom from causation”. Because it cannot, it does not. Free will refers to a choice we make that is “free of coercion or undue influence”. That’s all it is, and all it needs to be for moral and legal responsibility.

Every use of the terms “free” or “freedom” must either implicitly or explicitly refer to a meaningful and relevant constraint. A constraint is meaningful if it prevents us from doing something. A constraint is relevant if it can be either present or absent.

Here are a few examples of meaningful and relevant freedoms (and their constraints):

  • I set the bird free (from its cage),
  • The First Amendment guarantees us freedom of speech (free from political censorship),
  • The bank is giving away free toasters to anyone opening a new account (free of charge),
  • I chose to participate in Libet’s experiment of my own free will (free of coercion and undue influence).

Reliable causation is neither a meaningful nor a relevant constraint. It is not a meaningful constraint because (a) all our freedoms require reliable causation and (b) what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. It is not a relevant constraint because it cannot be removed. Reliable cause and effect is just there, all the time, as a background constant of reality. Only specific causes, such as a mental illness, or a guy holding a gun to our head, can be meaningful or relevant constraints.

If you’re currently a “free will skeptic” or a “hard determinist”, I hope this essay may finally release you from the Chinese Finger Trap.

Marvin Edwards


[1] O’Connor, Timothy and Franklin, Christopher, “Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[2] “The Saturday Evening Post”, Oct 26, 1929, “What Life Means to Einstein”, An Interview By George Sylvester Viereck.

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