Free Will: An Exercise

I do not know if free will really exists. I’m agnostic about it. Likewise, if you are honest, you do not know whether or not free will exists.

Here as promised in the last blog is an exercise – a kind of thought experiment – that might help to clarify our thinking.[1]

The exercise begins with the admission that I do not know if free will exists. If it does exist, then I do not know how it can be reconciled with what would appear to be the biochemical causation of all the thoughts in my mind. And yet, I do not see myself as a set of biochemical responses, as if I were an external observer of the input and output. I am somehow in the midst of those responses – such is the extent of my ignorance.

One thing I might be able to decide, however, is whether or not I believe in free will. Indeed, I might choose to believe in free will, if I think that such a choice seems justified. Justification of the belief does not require proof of the fact of free will, but only a clear sense that believing is preferred to withholding belief.

With that preamble, the following four alternatives can be presented:

  1. I believe in free will, and it exists.
  2. I believe in free will, and it does not exist.
  3. I withhold belief in free will, and it does not exist.
  4. I withhold belief in free will, and it exists.

The actual choice, of course, is whether to believe (Alternatives 1 and 2 accepted together) or to withhold belief (Alternatives 3 and 4 together). Listing four rather than two possibilities should help to clarify the decision.

Alternatives 1 and 3 can be dispensed with rather quickly, since in each belief accords with reality, and so belief is justified. The balance of decision hinges upon an adequate apprehension of Alternatives 2 and 4. Only if one of these appears justified, and the other not, can one make an overall determination about whether belief is preferable to nonbelief, or vice versa.

The second alternative is – I Believe in Free Will, and It Does Not Exist. There are two ways to look at this proposition. One is to set up the hypothesis that belief in free will is harmless, even if that belief does not accord with reality. The evidence favoring this hypothesis is that people appear to assume free will in the daily course of life and even in the midst of such major nonphilosophical decisions as choosing a spouse or a career. Conversation and other communication between persons also appear to assume an ordinary belief in free will. Practically the only fields in which free will seems to be denied are philosophy and psychology, and latter often makes therapeutic use of the patient’s belief in her free will. The fact that belief in free will is so prevalent does not necessarily mean that it is really, noumenally true, but it may mean that the belief is at least harmless.

On the other hand, some might argue that belief in free will actually can lead to harm, because such a belief presupposes belief in the human soul – a spiritual entity – and all the harm ascribed to religion may then be recalled. This argument is a rather indirect one and probably can be countered on several points, including the notion of exactly what is meant by a “soul,” but I prefer to leave it to you to decide at leisure. Suffice it to say that the hypothesis of the harmlessness of belief in free will is not as self-evident as it initially seems.

There is another way of looking at Alternative 2, a way which is considerably more attractive to me. It is to suggest that if free will does not exist, then all of my beliefs can be none other than what they are. It follows that my belief in free will, like all other beliefs, is justified in the same way that anything at all is justified in a world without free will. It simply happens. Just as there is no use in wishing “it might have been” or in hoping “it might be” in such a world, so also there is no meaning in saying “I choose this over that,” as if alternative courses of life exist as possibilities to choose among, because choice and consequently the alternative possibilities of choice are denied. Thus there is no value to be preferred in one happening as compared to any other. Everything that happens is real and has the same value of reality; all else is unreal and has no value at all. The key is to recognize that belief in free will is itself a happening. If it happens, therefore, it has value, and so is justified.

Objection: There is more than a trace of circular reasoning in this argument to justify belief in free will. For justification – and the word is used here in the sense of preferring any particular belief over an alternative – absolutely depends upon the existence of free will. Then that concept of justification is applied to the question of belief in free will. The result is inevitable – and meaningless.

Answer:  I plead guilty to the commission of circularity, but not to the meaninglessness of it. Basically I said that if human beliefs cannot be chosen, then no single belief can be justified to a greater extent than any other. In this manner, the definition of justification was linked to the definition of free will. In fact, both are linked to my own concept of personhood, the definition of “I.” Nevertheless, this linkage of definitions and the consequent circular reasoning do not make my belief in free will meaningless. They only make the initial suspension of that belief, the feigning that an honest question was being asked, suspicious. My belief in free will has meaning because it is a continuing habit – a personal truth. It is axiomatic for my life, and the criticism of circular reasoning does not apply to axioms. This may become more clear if we continue with the exercise.

Proceeding with the exercise:  The fourth alternative is – I Withhold Belief in Free Will, Yet It Exists. The task in this case is to determine whether a lack of belief in free will can or cannot be justified, if indeed free will exists and is operative. Strangely, this fourth alternative seems much more puzzling to me than the second. It is relatively easy (though suspicious) to posit that free will may not exist, but I find it extraordinarily difficult to pretend that I do not believe in it.

The first impulse is to say that the fourth alternative is tragic. Indeed it amounts to a disavowal of responsibility for our own actions. Arthur Schopenhauer, as we see in a later blog, suggested, but did not claim to prove, that the innate sense of responsibility, which he felt to be present in all human beings, might represent a demonstration of free will.[2] A proof of free will based on the innate sense of responsibility, if ever achieved, would actually make it acceptable to positivists by satisfying the requirement of universal and abiding agreement of reasonable people. Schopenhauer’s suggestion of an argument along these lines is probably the best available. However, neither he nor any person can be sure that all people actually share the sense of responsibility to which some persons give testimony.

I raise the possibility that certain persons may have so meager a sense of responsibility, that to argue from responsibility to free will is futile. At least, we cannot know what constitutes the sense of responsibility in all people. Does this claim tend toward elitism or toward a doctrine of the elect? That is something to be discussed elsewhere, not here. For the present, we should simply recognize an element of uncertainty that thwarts Schopenhauer’s suggestion. Free will is not a demonstrable fact. Disbelief in free will might indeed be tragic, but we cannot honestly call it stupid.

But is a lack of belief in free will even tragic, if free will indeed exists? Our tendency to think so may be due mostly to religious undercurrents stirring beneath the surface of conscious thought. Religious issues – the existence of the soul, God’s approval of our choices, rewards for choosing good and rejecting evil – can strongly supply emotions that drive our thinking. The point to be made here is that a belief in free will, stripped bare of spiritual and afterworld trappings, does not seem nearly so loaded with the potential for victory or tragedy as it does with those accessories added.

Seeing then that belief in free will is a question for personal decision, and proposing to consider it apart from the burden of eternal destiny, what becomes of our viewpoint on the fourth alternative? Let me offer this for your consideration:  Belief in free will itself becomes a matter of personal choice. If free will really does exist, then it follows that the choosing of all our beliefs is real. This includes the choosing of belief in free will. If this is the case, then the fourth alternative cannot be discredited. One can indeed choose to disbelieve in that which makes choosing possible. Lack of belief in free will can be justified on the basis of the very existence and operation of free will, and not merely in spite of these.

That is the exercise. I have demonstrated nothing, except that the available evidence does not compel a person to either belief or nonbelief in free will. You must decide for yourself, must discover the answer your own heart would give. Something in the discussion might have struck a chord of recognition and resonance in your mind. If so, accept that chord as valid. Look at the alternatives again.

  1. I believe in free will, and it exists.
  2. I believe in free will, and it does not exist.
  3. I withhold belief in free will, and it does not exist.
  4. I withhold belief in free will, and it exists.

It might be that the fourth alternative seems a horror and the second merely a happy delusion. These responses would suggest that believing in free will could indeed become a continuing habit – a personal truth – for you. Moreover, this belief is justified. On the other hand, you may be troubled most of all by an undertone, a recurring echo in the background of the discussion that says repeatedly, “I cannot know.” To which the mind adds its chosen premise, “If I cannot know, then I shall not believe.” This too can form a continuing habit, a personal truth, and can be justified.


Next post:  Clara and Luther

Previous post:  Pragmatic Free Will for Individuals and Groups

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Header image: CC0 Public Domain Pixabay from Farmgirlmiriam

[1] I am slightly modifying this exercise from an unfinished book I wrote around 20 years ago, hopefully to be presented in full at some future time.

[2] Schopenhauer, A. On the Freedom of the Will. Transl. Kolenda, K. London, Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 93-95.


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