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Free Will

Original text: Free Will

Summarized: 8 minute read

1. Major Historical Contributions

1.1 Ancient and Medieval Period

Plato posits that the human soul consists of rational, spirited, and appetitive aspects, and that the wise person strives for inner justice, a condition in which each part of the soul plays its proper role.

Aristotle argues that a person’s character shapes how she acts, and that this character is partly a result of previous choices she made, which in turn are a result of her perception of her circumstances and her relevant beliefs, desires, and general character dispositions.

The Epicureans, Stoics, and Academic Skeptics debated whether human actions and lives are determined by natural laws or whether they are free to choose their own actions based on their perception of the options before them.

Alexander of Aphrodisias, the most important Peripatetic commentator on Aristotle, maintains that a person’s character is independent of external shaping factors.

Augustine’s thinking about the will was influenced by his early encounter with late classical Neoplatonist thought, and his adult Christian conversion, which resulted in a positive account of the will that echoes Plato’s notion of the soul’s inner justice.

Thomas Aquinas agreed with Aristotle that humans are hardwired to will certain general ends ordered to the most general goal of goodness. Aquinas’s account of will as rational desire seems to indicate that we will only do what seems to us on balance to be good, even if it is not unqualifiedly good or uniquely satisfying the end we wish to fulfill. Aquinas’s theory of action is discussed in detail in Donagan (1985) and Stump (2003, ch. 9).

John Duns Scotus held that the will is a libertarian organ, and that there are two fundamental ways things can seem good to us: as practically advantageous to us or as according with justice.

1.2 Modern Period and Twentieth Century

Early modern philosophers worried that free will seems difficult to reconcile with what we know about the world. For some, the worry was primarily theological, for others metaphysical, and for others scientific.

Despite many disagreements about how to solve these worries, there were three claims that were widely, although not universally, agreed upon: that free will has two aspects, and that moral responsibility must be an aspect of free will.

Classical compatibilists argue that the contrary of freedom is not determinism but external constraint on doing what one wants to do. They also argue that an agent self-determines her action just in case her action is caused by her strongest desires or preferences at the time of action.

A second step was to argue that any attempt to analyze free will in a way that putatively captures a deeper or more robust sense of freedom leads to intractable conundrums, and that the classical compatibilist analyses of the freedom to do otherwise and self-determination are insufficient for free will.

Libertarians claim that self-determination requires the agent to cause his own actions, but compatibilists claim that free will actually requires determinism.

Spinoza’s Ethics is an important departure from the above dialectic. He endorses a strong form of necessitarianism, contends that there is no room in such a world for divine or creaturely free will, and denies that the nonexistence of free will has the dire implications often assumed.

Disputes about free will are often a function of underlying disputes about the nature of moral responsibility. Hobbes responded to this charge by endorsing broadly consequentialist justifications of blame and punishment.

2. The Nature of Free Will

2.1 Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Free will has traditionally been conceived of as the power to control one’s choices and actions. An agent’s choices and actions are up to her in two senses. There is widespread controversy over whether freedom to do otherwise and self-determination are required for free will, and if so, in what sense. Many philosophers seek to resolve this controversy by appealing to the nature of moral responsibility.

There are different species of moral responsibility, such as moral responsibility as answerability, moral responsibility as attributability, and moral responsibility as accountability. The necessary and sufficient conditions for licensing the relevant kind of responses toward the agent differ among the species.

The central notions in this definition are praise, blame, and desert. The majority of contemporary philosophers have followed Strawson (1962) in contending that praising and blaming an agent consist in experiencing reactive attitudes or emotions directed toward the agent.

As we understand desert, if an agent deserves blame, then we have a strong pro tanto reason to blame him simply for doing wrong. However, this reason can be outweighed by other considerations, and it might be best to forgive him unconditionally instead.

2.2 The Freedom to Do Otherwise

The freedom to do otherwise is a modal property of agents, but it is controversial just what species of modality is at stake. A plausible understanding claims that the relevant modality is ability or power, but this claim is ambiguous.

The Simple Conditional Analysis is a way to reconcile determinism with the freedom to do otherwise, but it only tells us when an agent has the ability to do otherwise, not when an agent has the ability to choose otherwise.

We often fail to choose to do things we want to choose, even when it appears that we had the ability to choose otherwise. The Simple Conditional Analysis* assumes that we always choose what we most strongly desire, which is implausible.

There are some agents who clearly lack the freedom to do otherwise and yet satisfy the conditional at the heart of these analyses. For example, an agoraphobic may well choose to go outside if he desired to go outside.

Simple conditional analyses of the ability to do otherwise fail to show that this ability is constitutive of the freedom to do otherwise. Agents need a stronger ability to do otherwise than characterized by such simple conditionals.

The Categorical Analysis gets the right verdict in Luke’s case, because there is no possible world in which he suffers from his agoraphobia and yet chooses to go outside. If the Categorical Analysis is correct, then free will is incompatible with determinism.

The Categorical Analysis is a virtue in that it spells out clearly the kind of ability appealed to in its analysis of the freedom to do otherwise. However, the Categorical Analysis is also subject to criticism for being too restrictive or strong.

Lewis maintains that the weak ability is consistent with three propositions, but the weak ability seems to be too weak.

Lewis’s account of Luke’s agoraphobia fails to explain why Luke lacks the ability to go outside because Luke is able to go outside only if he chooses to go outside and is not able to choose or cause himself to choose to go outside.

Lewis’s argument doesn’t seem to establish that the Categorical Analysis is too restrictive, because he doesn’t point out a principled difference between the two cases. However, some recent work has attempted to fill this gap by appealing to the metaphysics of dispositions.

Lewis defines an S-complete cause as having all the intrinsic properties relevant to its causing, though perhaps omitting some events extrinsic to its causing. Vihvelin’s analysis appears to be restrictive enough to exclude agoraphobics from having the freedom to do otherwise.

The new dispositionalist claims have received some serious criticism, with the majority of the criticisms maintaining that these analyses are still too permissive. The Categorical Analysis, and thus incompatibilism about free will and determinism, remains an attractive option for many philosophers.

2.3 Freedom to Do Otherwise vs. Sourcehood Accounts

Some have tried to avoid the lingering problems for compatibilists by arguing that the freedom to do otherwise is not required for free will or moral responsibility. They claim that Frankfurt-style cases show that moral responsibility does not require the ability to do otherwise.

Fischer argues that if Jones decides to vote for Clinton on his own, he is morally responsible for his decision. He also argues that freedom and responsibility are functions of the actual sequence.

Frankfurt-style cases are hotly contested. According to a criticism, if the connection between the indicator and the agent’s decision is deterministic, then Frankfurt-style cases cannot convince incompatibilists that the ability to do otherwise is not necessary for moral responsibility and/or free will.

If Frankfurt-style cases are successful, they show neither that free will and moral responsibility do not require an ability to do otherwise in any sense nor that compatibilism is true. Instead, they show that the Consequence Argument raises a powerful challenge to the cogency of compatibilism.

Proponents of Frankfurt-style cases often maintain that the ability to do otherwise is not necessary for free will or moral responsibility. We believe that this conclusion overreaches. In Frankfurt-style cases, agents lack the ability to do otherwise in the all-in sense, but they still have the ability to do otherwise in certain weaker senses, and compatibilists still think that the ability to do otherwise in some senses is necessary for free will and moral responsibility.

2.4 Compatibilist Accounts of Sourcehood

In this section, we will assume that Frankfurt-style cases are successful, and we will consider two prominent compatibilist attempts to construct analyses of the sourcehood condition. One of these attempts is the reasons-responsiveness model, which is developed by John Martin Fischer. Fischer and Ravizza argue that moderate reasons-responsiveness consists in two conditions: reasons-receptivity and reasons-reactivity. In the present context, weak reasons-reactivity is what is at stake, where a mechanism brings about an alternative action in response to a sufficient reason.

Fischer and Ravizza offer a novel theory of freedom and responsibility that focuses on mechanisms. They argue that an agoraphobic agent is not morally responsible for refraining from going outside because his agoraphobia mechanism is not moderately reasons-responsive.

The second main compatibilist model of sourcehood is an identification model, which lays stress on self-determination. The classical compatibilist analysis of self-determination implies that compulsive actions are self-determined, but most contemporary compatibilists concede that this result is unacceptable.

Many compatibilists have developed identification accounts of self-determination, in which agents are said to be identified with a subset of their motivations, rendering these motivations internal to the agent in such a way that any actions brought about by these motivations are self-determined.

The distinction between internal and external motivations allows identification theorists to enrich classical compatibilists’ understanding of constraint, while remaining compatibilists about free will and determinism. Addictions and phobias seem just as threatening to free will as broken cars and broken legs.

A goddess creates a zygote in Mary in some deterministic world. She knows that a zygote with precisely Z’s constitution located in Mary will develop into an agent Ernie who, thirty years later, will murder Jones as a result of his moderately reasons-responsive mechanism and on the basis of motivations with which he is identified.

Many judge that Ernie is not morally responsible for murdering Jones even though he satisfies both the reasons-responsive and identification criteria. Compatibilists reply that there is a relevant difference between manipulated agents such as Ernie and agents who satisfy their account.

2.5 Libertarian Accounts of Sourcehood

Libertarians are united in thinking that compatibilist accounts of sourcehood are insufficient, but they are divided concerning which further positive conditions may be required for an agent to exercise free will and moral responsibility.

Libertarians have three main options for understanding sourcehood or self-determination: non-causal libertarianism, event-causal libertarianism, and agent-causal libertarianism. Non-causal libertarians contend that exercises of the power of self-determination need not (or perhaps even cannot) be caused or causally structured.

Most libertarians endorse an event-causal or agent-causal account of sourcehood, which maintains that exercises of the power of self-determination consist partly in the agent’s bringing about her choice or action. However, they disagree on how to analyze an agent’s bringing about her choice. To fully explain their account of self-determination, event-causal libertarians must specify which mental states and events are apt, and what nondeviance consists in. This has proven to be a difficult task.

Event-causal libertarians contend that self-determination requires nondeterministic causation, in a nondeviant way, by an agent’s reasons. Under the causation of probability model, an agent’s reasons do not cause his decision, but rather there being a certain antecedent objective probability of his decision occurring. Libertarians believe that self-determined actions must be caused, and therefore they accept the probability of causation model of nondeterministic causation.

Agent-causal libertarians maintain that self-determination requires that the agent herself play a causal role over and above the causal role played by her reasons. Some agent-causal libertarians deny that an agent’s reasons play any direct causal role in bringing about an agent’s self-determined actions.

Agent-causal libertarianism seems to capture an aspect of self-determination that neither the above compatibilists accounts nor the event-causal libertarian accounts capture. It reduces the causal role of the self to states and events to which the agent is not identical.

Many have argued that agent-causal libertarianism is obscure or even incoherent, because the idea of agent-causation is not reducible to causation by mental states and events involving the agent. Other objections concern how to understand the relationship between agent-causation and an agent’s reasons, and the empirical validity of the theory.

Some philosophers have questioned the distinction between event- and agent-causation, arguing that all causation is object or substance causation, and that the dominant tendency to understand ‘garden variety’ causal transactions in the world as relations between events is an unfortunate legacy of David Hume’s rejection of substance and causation.

3. Do We Have Free Will?

Most philosophers take free will to be a near-universal power of mature human beings, but there have been free will skeptics in both ancient and modern times.

3.1 Arguments Against the Reality of Free Will

There are several arguments against free will, including the a priori argument that free will is incompatible with causal determinism, and the empirical argument that human beings lack free will. The most radical a priori argument is that free will is impossible.

There have been numerous replies to Strawson’s argument, including those by Mele (1995), Clarke (2003, 170 – 76), and indeterminists, who argue that the agent’s antecedent state is not the complete causal source of the choice that is made. Mele and O’Connor suggest that freedom and moral responsibility come in degrees, and that some choices reflect more freedom and responsibility than others.

A second family of arguments against free will contends that nondeterministic theories of freedom entail either that agents lack control over their choices or that the choices cannot be adequately explained. These arguments are variously called the ‘Mind’, ‘Rollback’, or ‘Luck’ argument.

The quantum revolution of the early twentieth century has made the ‘clockwork universe’ image at least doubtful at the level of basic physics, and the idea that everything we do is pre-determined by the past is also being challenged empirically.

If we assume that the antecedent probability of some physical component of an action occurring is 0.32, then if the action is free while not violating the statistical law, it would have to be freely chosen close to 32 percent of the time.

Clarke (2010) questions the assumption that free agent-causal choices should not conform to physical statistical laws, and O’Connor (2009a) challenges the more general assumption.

Pereboom and others point to evidence that we can be unconsciously influenced in the choices we make by a range of factors, including ones that are not motivationally relevant. Some philosophers see this evidence as reason to favor a more modest free will agnosticism.

3.2 Arguments for the Reality of Free Will

If one is a compatibilist, then evidence for free will requires that we are effective agents who for the most part are aware of what we do and why we are doing it. If one is an incompatibilist, then evidence for free will requires that our behavior is causally undetermined.

Philosophers have long claimed that we have introspective evidence of free will in our experience of action. Some philosophers claim that our belief in the reality of free will is epistemically basic, but it is controversial whether this evidence supports an indeterministic theory of human free action.

4. Theological Wrinkles

A large portion of Western philosophical work on free will has been written within an overarching theological framework, according to which God is the ultimate source, sustainer, and end of all else. Some thinkers draw the conclusion that God must be a sufficient, wholly determining cause for everything that happens.

A good God would choose to make His existence and character less than certain for human beings, for the sake of preserving their freedom. He would also maintain an ‘epistemic distance’ from them, lest they be overwhelmed by His goodness or power and respond out of necessity.

Traditional Christian theology maintains that humans in heaven are free, but what sort of freedom is in view here, and how does it relate to mundane freedom?

The freedom of God is a significant inner constraint on His freedom, since God cannot lie or be in any way immoral in His dealings with His creatures (appearances notwithstanding). However, the core metaphysical feature of freedom is being the ultimate source, or originator, of one’s choices.

The majority view in the history of philosophical theology is that God could have willed otherwise, but there have been noteworthy thinkers who argued the contrary position, along with others who clearly felt the pull of the contrary position even while resisting it.

One might challenge Leibniz’s reasoning on this point by arguing that there is no uniquely best possible Creation, or that there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds.

William Rowe (2004) argued that the thesis that there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds shows that there could not be a morally perfect Creator, and Norman Kretzmann (1997, 220 – 25) argued that there is no plausible account of how an absolutely perfect God might have a resistible motivation.

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