Free Will vs. Determinism v2.0

November 25, 2002


The debate between free will and determinism stems from the apparent conflict between the universal rule of causality found in nature and the apparent ability of men to choose between multiple courses of action in order to lead to the most desirable outcome.  Inorganic matter such as chairs, stones, and planets, blindly follows whatever forces affects it, and non-human organisms act for their survival alone, but human beings seem to be an exception to nature’s rule by their unique ability to ponder about how to go about their life and which values to live by.  Determinists reject the idea that any of these choices are freely chosen however, and claim that a man is no exception to nature’s law because he and his choices are nothing more than the product of his environment. Decisions, they usually claim, are simply a product of conflicting environmental influences duking it out.  A proper understanding of the nature of volition however, can reconcile the apparent conflict between free will and causality, and soundly reject the position that man is merely a product of his environment.

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 so 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.

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. 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. 

The classic reply in favor of free will to adopt some sort of indeterminism: to 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, exempt from causality, that allowed choice to occur.  Rene Descartes took a similar position by arguing that that the mind exists on a separate plane from the body, and more recently, quantum physics and chaos theory have provides scientific 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 reality then it must be random, and randomness is in no way a “choice.” A man who acts randomly is mad, not “free.”  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. 

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 human decisions violate or are independent of whatever laws, known and as yet unknown govern the workings of the universe.  No “alternative world” where different choices were made is possible because the brain itself is not excused from the same rules that govern all other matter. Rather, “free will” – as I see it – refers to the uniquely human process of volition that allows multiple courses of actions to be considered and evaluated and one selected.  Hence, the process of volition does not involve a separate realm of uncaused thought and decisions, but the specific process of human thought and decision-making.

Free will is “free” in the sense that the human mind has the ability to consider multiple decisions and choose particular outcomes.  In reality, only one choice and only one decision is actually made – the hardware of the brain allows no uncaused, truly random or causeless factors to enter the process – but from the perspective of the person making a decision, multiple decisions are possible, and multiple outcomes are considered.  It might be said that the process I have just described is really just an illusion of free will since in actuality only one decision was actual after the consideration.  However the term “free will” does not refer to either uncaused or random actions (for then it becomes useless) but to our ability to evaluate multiple courses of actions, consider different outcomes, and then select the action most likely to leave the world in a more desirable state than if we had selected a different action or none at all.  


While we do not yet understand the specific physical process by which we make decisions, the evidence of our own ability to choose between multiple outcomes is readily evident by introspection.  We can easily observe the fact that we can consider different factors, evaluate different possibilities and come up with original choices and decisions.  Unlike inanimate objects, human actions have both a purpose and a goal, and unlike an animal’s actions, they arise from the choice to pursue certain goals and values, rather than the automatic guidance of instinct.  The result – the creation of human civilization and peaceful interaction between individuals in society stands as a testament to human originality, creativity, and more fundamentally, the choice of some values over others.


A better understanding of the distinction between human choice and the interaction of non-volitional matter can be gained my examining the fundamental requirements for an intelligence.  Suppose that a human brain or a sentient mind was somehow transferred onto a computer.  Would that very complex computer program have free will?  It would not base its decisions on randomness or act without a cause, but if it were able to conceptualize and independently choose between different ideas and decisions, it would in fact have free will.  Free will then, is not dependent on random neurons or some other otherworldly trait of the human brain, but the ability to independently consider and choose between different alternatives.  An intelligent computer may “think” by varying the charges on electrical circuits while humans think by firing electrical charges between axons and dendrites, but they will both be able to conceive of the concept of a thunderstorm and decide that it is better not to be outside or on a non-grounded line when lighting strikes.  In both cases, they will use their particular means of thought to reach decisions about which alternative scenario (golf course or inside, non-grounded line or a heavy-duty surge protector) will provide the most desirable outcome.  Thus, the ability of both sentient computer programs and sentient human beings to create original ideas rests in the (so far) uniquely human ability to create concepts out of sensory inputs, relate the concepts to one another, and reach the conclusions about the nature of reality that are necessary for our survival.


While the decisions reached by the human mind and the artificial intelligence are limited by their particular hardware, the software program and the human mind can function independently of hardware they run on.  By “independent,” I do not mean independent of causality, but rather able to perform conceptual analysis that is not strictly limited to the hardware it runs on.  For example, I cannot multiply large numbers in my head any more than a computer can feel tired or excited, but I can write out the solution on paper, and a computer can emulate the biological influences of a human. The function of one’s mind is not limited to the particular nature of the brain, giving humans the ability to discover new relationships and understanding among old concepts. 


Objections to volition often rely on downplaying the difference between human volition and other organic and inorganic matter.  Some determinists argue that humans are no different from animals – they act on whatever goals they believe necessary for their survival.  However, man is unique in his ability to choose the values he lives by if he decides to live at all.  Animals do not have such a choice: their actions are automatic and governed by instinct.  When we interact with animals, we do so only by force or reward, not by reason, and when we punish them, it is only to alter their behavior, not to carry out justice.  For example, when a dog misbehaves, we punish it not because we hold it responsible but to change its habit, 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.  Humans can choose what to live for, how to live, and even whether they should live at all.

A more basic argument against free will is the comparison of a human mind to inanimate matter, such as 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, which considers multiple possible avenues of action and allows for an evaluation of the consequences of each choice. A car that could think would be able to 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.

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 itself contradictory. By saying that humans should “pretend to have free will” the determinist accepts that all human thought requires choices to be made between various choices. By arguing that his position is a true statement about reality rather than simply the product of various influences, he implicitly accepts the correct definition of volition while rejecting its logical consequences. The determinist cannot 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.