Free Will for the Determinist

Let’s begin by assuming a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. Every event is causally necessitated by prior events. Each of those prior events was in turn reliably caused by earlier events, forming a chain or network of prior causes.  This applies to all events, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts and feelings we’re having right now.

Included among the events in the causal chains are the following:

1. Each of us will inevitably encounter problems or issues that require us to make a decision. There will be two or more options and we cannot proceed until we choose what we will do.  For example, “What will I have for breakfast this morning, pancakes or eggs?”.

2. We will inevitably consider how choosing each option will likely turn out. For example, “Fixing pancakes will require more work, but I had eggs for breakfast yesterday and the day before, so I’m likely to enjoy the pancakes more than the eggs this morning”.

3. We will inevitably choose the option that seems best to us at that time. For example, “I will fix pancakes this morning”.

4. Finally, our inevitably chosen intent (“I will fix pancakes”) motivates and directs our subsequent actions (actually fixing and eating the pancakes).

Each step in this operation was causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity.

Oh, and we happen to call such events instances of “free will“.

We call it “free will” because it was an autonomous choice, made by us, to suit our own purpose (to have breakfast) and our own reasons (Eggs again? No, pancakes today!).

The term “will” refers to our specific intent for the future. It may be the immediate future as in “I will have pancakes this morning” or a more distant future as in “my last will and testament”.

The term “free” refers to the fact that it was chosen freely by us. No one was holding a gun to our head, forcing us to do his will rather than our own. No one hypnotized us. No one having authority over us had commanded us to eat something other than what we wanted to eat. No brain tumor or mental illness was altering our normal thinking process.

It was us. We did it. We decided the question of “what will I do?” for ourselves. The decision-making equipment was located in our own brain, not in any past object or event. 

The Big Bang, although definitely a link in the causal chain, had no interest in our choice. The Big Bang had no brain with which to decide anything. The decision could not be made until the equipment to make decisions arrived.

Nor did causal necessity make the decision for us. Quite the opposite. It was inevitable, from any prior point in eternity, that it would be us that encountered the issue, considered our options, and made the choice for ourselves.

Was our choice deterministic? Of course it was. Every event that ever happens is reliably caused by prior events. But not all prior causes are equally meaningful and relevant to our understanding of what “caused” a current event.

Understanding the Big Bang, or even the concept of causal necessity, is not going to enlighten me about why I chose to fix pancakes instead of eggs this morning. The most meaningful and relevant cause of any deliberate act is the act of deliberation that precedes it. And that is something that I did.


For more details on the free will paradox, see “Free Will: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It“.

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