On the Nature of Free Will and Volition

October 14, 2002

The debate between free will and determinism is one of the most ancient in philosophy and has led to many misconceptions about what the various positions are.  For this reason, before I go into explaining just what free will is, I have to cover what it is not. The major positions on the nature of volition can be described as determinism, indeterminism, and self-determinism.

Determinists claim that the nature of the universe is such that it is governed by certain universal scientific laws, so that each action is caused by a specific prior cause, and human action is no exception. They claim that the human mind is also governed by these rules such that no alternative course of action is possible to humans other than the specific and unique set of prior factors that caused that human action to be made. Thus, human choices are not “free” because they are determined ahead of time by whatever environmental, social, genetic, biological and any other unknown factors caused such choices to be made.  Accordingly, men cannot be held morally responsible for their actions, since they have no more control over the causal chain of events in reality than anyone else.

One example of an argument for determinism is a man who must choose randomly between two eggs laid in front of him. He thinks that he chooses an egg randomly, but the determinist would say that the choice is actually because of some unknown factor – for example because one egg is minutely closer to him. Besides, the determinist would argue, when the man chooses to pick one egg, could he randomly choose to do something else? Could he choose instead … to kill himself? To jump of a cliff? No, the state of his mind is clearly not such that he would not act in this way, and the same goes for his choice of one egg and every other action: they are all determined by whatever prior factors that caused them to happen.

The determinist would say that whether the human mind operates by random firing of neurons or strict logic is irrelevant: both are governed by specific prior causes, and even if science could show that human choices were caused by random firing of neurons, the choice would not be “free” because it would not be “chosen,” independent of prior factors. In fact, to the determinist, free will would not be possible under any condition: if it was caused by prior causes all choice would follow the strict laws of causation, and if it was independent of any prior causes it would have to be random, and hence not “chosen” in any meaningful way.  A skeptic could argue that just as one does not know what side a coin will land on when flipped, we do not know what people are going to decide ahead of time – but the determinist would reply that just because we do not know all the aerodynamic and structural factors that affect which side a coin will land on, does not mean that the flip is truly “random” as given enough information, would could determine the outcome of a flip ahead of time – and likewise for the choices made by a human mind, which we would be able to predict given enough information on its workings.

The classic reply in favor of free will to adopt some sort of indeterminism: that is claim that free will involves some sort of exception from the rules of causation. Traditionally, God has played this role, providing some sort of mystical “staging ground” for choice to occur.  Rene Descartes took a more extreme position and argued that the mind exists on a separate plane from the body, and more recently, quantum physics and chaos theory have provides excuses to “escape” causation and allow a possible for “free” choice to occur.  Both of these notions are nonsense. If a human choice is independent from any prior factors grounded in causation then it must be random, and randomness is in no way a “choice.” Whether God or quantum physics is the excuse, it is not viable to claim that human choice is independent of prior cause, and yet not completely random.  As Baruch Spinoza said, “'it makes no sense to view God as the cause of all things and, at the same time, to believe that humans possess a free [will].”

The self-determinist position rejects both of these views.  Affirming free will does not involve a rejection of causality in favor of a magical mechanism for human choice, but an affirmation of the process of volition that is the process behind all human choice. The self-determinist position rejects both the notion that any supernatural forces are involved or that any other cause of action is possible other than that which is determined by whatever laws, known and as yet unknown governed the workings of the universe. No “alternative world” where different choices were made is possible because the mind is not excused from the same rules that govern all other matter. Rather, “free will” refers to the uniquely human process of volition that allows multiple courses of actions to be considered and evaluated and one selected.

Human beings are thus unique in an important way: the process of volition, which makes them different from both inorganic matter as well as other forms of life, and allows for caused, yet free choices to occur. This definition of “free will” is not arbitrary but implied in the notion of “will” itself.  When men commonly refer to human “choice” they are not rejecting causality but referring implicitly or explicitly to this process of volition.  Volition is “free” in the sense that each individual must independently choose to think, as the choice to think or not is the primary choice and source of volition. This choice is not random, and certainly not independent of physical laws, yet it is a process unique (as far as we know) to human beings. The choice to think is not “free” in the sense that it is independent of prior cause but free in the sense that every individual must choose for himself to think or not, and suffer the consequences of his choice. Animals do not have such a choice: their actions are automatic and governed by instinct.  For example, when a dog misbehaves, we punish it not because we hold it responsible but to change its action, but when a human acts in an immoral way, we hold the person as morally responsible: as culpable for their basic choice: to think or not. In other words, humans have a unique ability to project what the world be like given various courses of action (or inaction) and choose a course of action that leaves the universe in a more desirable state than the one prior to their action.

The skeptic will claim that human thought is not fundamentally different from a car: after all, we turn a key and the car either starts or not, depending on whether reality is such that the process of causation leads to an engine starting or to the battery being dead. In the same way, the determinist will claim, the human mind will either make the right or wrong choices, depending on what prior state it is in. However a car and a human mind are fundamentally different: the ignition process is a rigid mechanical chain, whereas human thought (when one chooses to think) involves a process of evaluation and conceptualization, (creating “models” of reality) which considers multiple possible avenues of action and allows for an evaluation of the consequences of each choice. To claim that starting a car’s engine is the same as choosing to think is to claim that a car can evaluate whether it is low on gas, and then decide to start or not depending on a variety of such factors. Of course a human may design such a car, but the evaluation to include such a feature still rests with the human, not the car.

The objective definition of free will then, rejects both the mystical mind-body duality and the strict physicalism of post-modernism. It holds that the nature of the human mind is unique in that it allows due a process of volition, by which arises from the structure of our brains and is readily apparent by introspection. As Leonard Peikoff says, “A course of thought or action is 'free,' if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances." Of course only one course of action is always actual, but nevertheless numerous courses of action are considered and evaluated in the process of thinking.

While the evidence of free will is readily apparent to introspection, one can only analyze the roots of decisions to a certain level. Decision making is not an infinite regression of choices, but is based on a fundamental choice – to focus. On other words, our fundamental choice is to focus (and think) or not (and remain in a daze) and the choice must be accepted as a given, readily apparent by introspection, but not derived from any other choices, as there can be none. The implication of free will is that individuals can be held morally liable for their actions, because unlike animals, they have the ability to rationally consider the implications of all their actions instead of acting on their urges or whims.

While the determinist position generally accepts the possibility of thought, it rejects the possibility of true choice, negating the possibility of more responsibility. However the determinist position is contradictory and cannot be logically held. By saying that humans should “pretend to have free will” the determinist accepts that all human thought requires choices to be made between various possible choices. (Possible to the mind considering them, that is.) He implicitly accepts the correct definition of volition while rejecting its logical consequences. The determinist cannot even argue that he knows his position is true – after all, he is only arguing for it because of prior environmental factors, not because it is independently true or false.  In short, in arguing for determinism, the determinist implicitly accepts the opposite of his position.