Definition: free will

I was listening to a skeptical podcast – the Legion of Reason, out of Calgary – and the topic of free will reared itself. It’s a fascinating topic, because (as in this case) many people who agree with me about atheism, humanism, and loads of related social positions disagree very firmly about the appropriate attitude to free will.

I would like to clarify and expand on what I have said recently on this blog about free will. First, though, I thought I would start by exploring the definition.

Like my previous definition posts, I will present how I see it free will, and point out some of the ways that people differ.

First, note that the term “free will” is made of two words. So let’s start with a simple definition:

Free will is the unconstrained (free) exercise of one’s intention to act (will).

No problem so far. But what counts as a constraint?*

This is where people differ. For me, unconstrained means that, when I have a desire to act (whatever the reason for or source of that desire), I am able to follow through.

When I want to stand up, I can. I am not tied down; I am not too weak.

When I want to go bungee-jumping, I can. I do not have a subconscious aversion preventing me from taking that last step; I do not have overly-protective parents hiding my keys to keep me from driving to the jump site.

Constraints can take the form of physical bonds, financial shortfalls, or even irresistable psychological compulsions (addiction is an interesting area for examining edge-cases in free will).

Other people – the “libertarian free will” crowd – consider that any reliable causal predictor of a decision is an intolerable constraint, undermining freedom of will. The most popular expression of this is the claim that determinism undermines free will. That is, if the universe really does operate according to immutable, universal laws of cause-and-effect that completely determine the behaviour of everything in the universe, then everything we do is physically “constrained” to a single possibility (whether or not we can ever know that possibility in advance).

I find this position odd for two reasons: the “chain-link” and the “character”.

First, even if my actions are determined in advance, it may still be the case that my intentions (part of the physical universe) are the proximate cause of my actions: I stood up because I wanted to stand up. Sure, I may have wanted to stand up because my bladder was full, which was because of all the tomato juice I had consumed earlier, which was because of that unfortunate incident with the skunk, and so on and so on to the beginning of our clockwork universe. But the immediate reason I stood up was because I chose to. It was an exercise of my will. My will is a crucial link in the great causal chain that led to the event. To me, the idea of freedom is how that link that is my intention relates to the link that is the outcome, not how it relates to all the other links.

Second, it baffles me that mere predictability is considered a defeater for free will. Just because someone can guess what I’m going to do does not make me less free. If my child cries out in pain, I run to help them. That behaviour is predictable. In fact, part of being a good parent is letting my children know deep down that I will react that way. Does that mean I am not exercising my free will when I choose to help them? Of course not. Is my obedience to traffic laws a subjugation of my free will? No, it’s an expression of it. I try to cultivate a character that leads me to behave well. This entails being predictable in a wide range of situations.

I know that there is some psychological monitor inside all of us that doesn’t like the idea of any constraint – real, practical, or metaphysical – on our behaviour. When I hear libertarian free-will advocates declaiming, I often have to step back before I see again why their arguments fall flat. But it bugs me that so few people seem to see that the aspects of freedom which are important to them in daily life do not depend on libertarian free will. It bugs me that they never seem to see the conflict between virtue – the development of a character that consistently chooses to follow predictable patterns of virtuous behaviour – and this idea of completely acausal decision-making. I think my approach above not only captures my own aesthetic preferences regarding the definitions of free will, but also the way we tend to apply the concept to our real lives. We are not worried about whether some unknowable causal chain irrevocably caused us to want to do what we did, but rather whether we were able to do what we intended.

I think the above works, regardless of whether one sees the “will” as part of the physical world (materialism) or existing in some separate realm (dualism). I also think it is essentially independent of the question of whether a god exists or not.

Though I’ve looked at free will in this way for several years, I don’t know if I’ve ever articulated this particular position. So I would like to know if you can see any obvious holes in the compatibilist position I am promoting here. Do you? If so, please let me know!

On the other hand, are there any other compatibilists out there who agree with my position? Or libertarians who find the above arguments thought-provoking?

Any theists or folks familiar with theological approaches to free will? What do you think? My impression is that most theists are libertarians, but I have heard that Calvinists and perhaps some others are determinists, and so may have some sort of compatibilist approach to free will. Or they may just deny that we have free will.


* I may address what is meant by “intention to act” at a later date, or in the comments if people want to bring it up. For now, I’ll just assume it’s fairly obvious.


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3 Responses to “Definition: free will”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Some time ago I read a book called “The Mind and the Brain” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It proposes a kind of libertarian free will on the basis of quantum physics, which I didn’t buy at all. I thought I’d share this interesting sentence from the book, quoting Thomas Clark: “To assert a belief in free will is to … recognize the mind as ‘more or less a first cause, an unmoved mover’”. This crystallises for me why I can’t accept it. Arguing for free will in this way puts the mind outside of natural laws, like the concept of God, and so contradicts the statement elsewhere in the book that “consciousness and the mind… are legitimate areas of scientific inquiry.”

    We are able to reflect on our own thoughts, and, through effortful attention, deliberately reprogramme our brains – the choice to develop character as you describe. The way I see it, that choice is fully determined by the existing brain structure and the ideas that were input, and not by some completely independent first-cause action of the individual. But I like your definition of free will which seems to be compatible with this while still elevating the mind to a level of agency that reflects how we feel. I think it would be a lot more easily accepted by most people 🙂

    On a slight tangent, the book I read above also puts consciousness into quantum theory through the effect of the observer, who, making a measurement, causes the wave function to collapse. Eugene Wigner is quoted as saying: “The laws of quantum mechanics cannot be formulated… without recourse to the concept of consciousness”. I’m not sure what I think about that.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Sarah, thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like you share my feeling about what is important in a definition of free will.

    On the quantum connection, you need to be careful about loose interpretations of the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics. What I think Wigner is pointing at in the quote you share is probably the same that Deepak Chopra and other wags have done.

    There is this strange (from our perspective) effect when dealing with quantum phenomena, where observing something can seem to affect how it turns out. This is due to the apparatus interacting with *something* – an observer, an inanimate block, whatever. Anything that the experimental particles could interact with would produce a similar effect; it is our physicality, not our consciousness, which is important here.

    If you are interested in reading deeper, I recommend looking at Eliezar Yudkowski’s quantum physics sequence on the Less Wrong website.

  3. Sarah Says:

    Thanks for the link, I’ll have a read when I get a chance. I studied physics at undergrad, but I’d never thought about whether consciousness was an essential factor in the observer effect. It doesn’t seem likely, but I just remember it was all pretty weird, counter-intuitive stuff, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

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