A question-and-answer format may summarize free will most simply. We’ll start with some general questions first and then recall very briefly what has been contributed by specific thinkers over time.
What is free will?
My (our) free will in a negative sense is the agency by which my (our) decisions veer one way or another undetermined by all the blind forces of this world, in which determination (= causation) is considered to be a process that engages only the combinatorial effects of quantum physics including the role of random chance.
My (our) free will in a positive sense is the agency by which my (our) decisions are determined by connection with some kind of responding decision-maker in me (us) yet apart from this world, according to the same description of the world just provided.
Does free will exist?
This question divides into two aspects, which are the ontologic and the epistemologic.
As a bare ontologic question, a question of being, “Does free will exist?” has no satisfactory answer. But that is a defect attributable far more to ontology per se than it is to free will considered within the domain of ontology.
The epistemologic question – Does free will exist as part of the theory of knowledge? – must be answered affirmatively in the context of pragmatism. To answer the question negatively is readily recognized as making a choice, and this choice once recognized defeats the negative answer.
The dodge for modernists on this question is to move the question away from the realm of individual decision-making and also away from the realm of limited-group (less than all) decision-making and into a supposed realm of universal decision-making. This universal realm might be the perfect realm of rationalism which is supposed to engage reality itself, modeled on mathematics, or it might be a wannabe perfect realm in which agreement is required and compelled via the admittance of only public and shareable information – and this, of course, is the realm of scientific positivism.
But does the question of the existence of free will really belong either in the realm of rationalism or in the realm of scientific positivism? Rationalism fails because it is founded upon arbitrary axioms and because, as shown by Kurt Gödel, it cannot form a complete system without entailing contradiction.
Scientific positivism has the semblance of ever increasing completeness and correctable consistency, but it is less than universal. Scientific positivism is the joint effort of those who make the dual decision (1) to agree to agree and (2) to dismiss as groundless for meaningful decision-making everything particular and immediate in this world passing through time and space. Positivists form a limited group (less than all) who together make this dual decision which is groundless according to their own rules. Their groundless initial decision infects every further decision made by this limited group. Thus scientific positivists, in effect, do not escape free will as operant in decision-making, but merely move decision-making to their own magnificent, but still limited group, less than all, defined as those who make the dual decision to agree to agree and to disregard all else.
Let positivists cease forever to intimate that answers based solely on science have value for humankind apart from human choice. Then the rest of us could begin to recognize a fiber or two of integrity in their position and grant their position more thought and further response. Otherwise their pronouncements on the worthlessness of unscientific choices arrive with a gust of acrid air, a rotten smell of self-delusion or even hypocrisy, and a choking sense of totalitarian control from the group who agree to agree.
Does free will exist? Free will is functionally necessary for decisions to be made. To answer this question of the existence of free will, whether affirmatively or negatively, is to make a decision. Even the option to ignore the question is a decision. Of course free will exists!
What are the axioms, the simple fundamental truths, upon which free will must be based?
This question is ontologic rather than epistemologic. As such the question contains an error. It is not true that free will must derive from axioms.
Can free will be studied scientifically?
No. This is the same answer positivists will give, and they are correct. Free will deals with immediacy and particularity, and those cannot be studied scientifically. However, the publicly demonstrated, reproducible consequences of free will decisions in any given area of human or even animal life are appropriate for scientific study. Recognition of this fact bears upon psychology, medicine, sociology, jurisprudence, government, and especially economics.
Isn’t free will too strange, too unfamiliar ever to become a practical and useful concept?
A person’s will is recognized by common sense, by law, by medicine, by economics, and by almost every practical endeavor of humankind whether individually or in common cause. The will is denied only by certain kinds of philosophy and is sometimes, but not always ignored by some human sciences such as psychology and sociology.
The free will decision appears to arrive by fiat. It can’t be studied as to its source or its sufficient reason.
Is there anything else we might recognize that similarly arrives and presents itself so bluntly without explanation? Yes – two things. 1. The world. 2. My (our) place in it.
Heidigger calls the latter dasein. Tournier would call both of these unique facts, along with la personne or the will. For there is no explanation as to why anything should exist at all.
To those who would answer that God is the reason that the world exists and we in it, let me answer that there remains no human explanation as to why God should exist except to say just as bluntly – God is the reason God exists.
Therefore, free will is not so strange or unfamiliar, unless somehow the world itself and our place in it become disorienting to the point of nausea. Those who would pursue the question so intently should perhaps read Sartre.
Does my will become more free when guided by the understanding of what is truly good?
Like the question of the existence of free will, this question about choosing and good has two aspects. One must distinguish between the philosophical question and the religious question.
The philosophical question about the relation between choosing and good dissolves in tautology. Choosing and good are simply two terms for the same notion. A person chooses the good over the bad. However, the good is defined simply as that which is chosen, and the bad is defined simply as that which is rejected.
Aristotle said as much at the beginning of his Ethics:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and every pursuit, is thought to aim at some good….
In an early blog in this series, the second clause of this sentence was recognized as error. Here is the second clause:
and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.
“Some good” in the first clause makes sense, because it stands for some particular and changeable good which is the aim of every choice made in art, inquiry, action, and pursuit. There is no logic for extending “some good” of the first clause to “the good” of the second clause. The latter is universal good, familiar to Aristotle and his teacher Plato but not at all consequent to the notion expressed in the first clause.
The religious question concerning choosing the good is quite different. The second clause of Aristotle’s sentence above discloses a religious assertion as it deals with an assumed coherence of “that at which all things aim” and thus with ultimate, universal value. Likewise, for theists like Augustine, the good represents what God chooses, and that is a perfectly appropriate position for a theist.
Are there grammatical restrictions on the understanding of free will?
Free will can only be understood with first-person grammar or by mutual acknowledgement with second-person grammar. This is not so much a problem, as long as we recognize that every sentence whatsoever is first-person in its origin, and most sentences are directed toward some person or some group.
I attached first-person language to the negative and positive definitions of free will proposed at the beginning of this blog. Yet we are so accustomed to philosophizing in third person that I am afraid it is currently impossible to remain consistently with first-person and second-person grammar. Schopenhauer put great emphasis on the Subject to whom Object is presented, and he identified Subject with “I,” but he made no further grammatical distinction.
At risk of denying Schopenhauer, duly considered, let me propose that the will does not exist, but my will, your will, and our will do exist. The latter are in fact more frequently encountered in common speech.
By what possible mechanism could free will function?
This is an ontologic and completely unnecessary question. Yet it is true that our thinking often advances on the basis of models, so the question may be rephrased –
Is there a model to guide our thinking and help us understand how my will or yours works, so that we might optimize its use and make better choices?
The most common model is a religious one which states that each of us has an eternal individual soul in which resides the will. This model does not go back to Hebrew or Judaic religion, but more to Persia. Plato also suggested that each person has an eternal individual soul, although the Greek conception of the soul was rudimentary. Christianity and Islam seem to have adopted the Persian and Greek ideas, but I shall not claim real understanding of what these religions say. If Eastern religions in Asia recognize the individual soul at all, they recognize it as a temporary state only.
In classical modern philosophy dating back to the time of Descartes, the soul or the mind as the source of choosing was often connected with the life-force that animates the body. In this model both the source of choosing and the source of animate life were equally mysterious, and therefore they seemed to make a good combination. Subsequently the life-force was found to be based on chemistry and physics. Even after that, as the example of Paul Tournier writing in the mid-20th century shows, they tended to be connected with each other until quite recently. Yet by the latter half of the 20th century most thinkers and scientists, rejecting the life-force as illusory, likewise rejected the idea of free will.
Schopenhauer postulated that the will exists “outside of all time.” He connected it neither with an eternal individual soul nor with any kind of physiologic life-force.
To me the model that works best is the black box, which is a very useful concept in electronics. I believe that this is compatible with what Schopenhauer vaguely described.
An electronic device, which may be far too complex internally to evaluate from fundamental considerations, can be represented schematically on paper as an opaque black box, the internal structure of which is hidden. The black box is usually illustrated with two wires poking out on the left side – the input terminals – and two wires poking out on the right side – the output terminals. Since one electrical signal requires two wires, it is clear that this black box possesses one input port and one output port.
The remarkable thing about a black box is that its actual internal structure is entirely irrelevant to the problem at hand, which is the characterization of its electronic response. Rather than trying to break the box open to see what’s inside, one simply applies a variety of test signals to the input and then measures and characterizes the resulting output signals. After this exercise is carried out a number of times, an “equivalent circuit” can be drawn, with inductors, capacitors, amplifiers, and other simple electronic components schematically arranged between input and output terminals so as to give the same response – that is, the same output signal in response to any given input – as that actually observed. Once the equivalent circuit is known, the electronic responsiveness of the device is considered to be fully characterized. One can insert the device into larger electronic assemblies, confident that its operation and interaction with other devices can be predicted on the basis of the equivalent circuit.
The cardinal principle of a black box is that its actual internal structure is irrelevant. It is fully known on the basis of its responses. To make the black box applicable to our question about free will, we only need to generalize from the simple example of one input port and one output port, and give it a multitude of inputs and outputs. Each of the multiple outputs depends upon the actual pattern of input signals impinging upon the device.
The free will operator in the mind (strictly speaking, my mind or our minds conjoined) is just such a black box. Its input consists of a multitude of sensations and memories. Its output is the free will decision or a series of such decisions.
Notice that the content of the black box becomes known only by testing it. So the human will becomes known only as it is tested in the course of life.
Mathematically, of course, this is simply a multivariable function, or a set of such functions with multiple outcome variables. I still like to think of it in terms of the electronic black box, which can represent a real device employed in real electronic circuits.
Should we call it “free will” or “the will”?
Schopenhauer said that free will is inherently contradictory and an illusion. However, by this term he referred to the notion that up until the moment of decision the outcome is entirely undetermined – that is, it is determined neither in the physical world nor in any transcendent/timeless realm at all. I agree with him. That kind of free will is contradictory and illusory. But my usage of the term free will is different.
To me free will means that the outcome of decision is determined not entirely in the physical world, but is determined at least partly in the black box that stretches out of and into the physical world. This is what Schopenhauer meant by his term die Wille, or the will.
Why free will, then, why not simply the will? My problem with the will as a useful term is mostly a problem of language, specifically the English language. Because will is employed in verbs signifying future action, the will (unqualified) is simply a difficult term to insert into clear sentences. Free will seems better, as long as it is understood as described in the previous paragraph. Free in this context means that the black box in some way belongs to me or to us, and therefore the responses are mine (ours), are nonrandom, and are at least partially free from the external influence of others and of blind forces.
Is free will associated with the individual human person, or can it be associated with groups of people, with some animals, or even with animal-human groups?
Strictly speaking, free will is not associated with any of these, because it is associated with first-person expression only, and the question uses third-person terms. Nevertheless, as already admitted, philosophers often speak loosely in third-person terms. I believe that free will can be ascribed not only to myself as an individual, but also to groups in which I participate.
I think also that my dog and I together in the field in autumn can enjoy free will. Moreover, in the sense of reciprocally acknowledging free will in meeting you – second-person interaction – free will can be acknowledged in an individual human, in an individual animal such as a pet or ape or dolphin, or in groups of humans and animals, even mixed groupings. There is no reason to say that it cannot be recognizable in this way.
What have we learned from Albert Camus and other existentialists?
As humans we make their own goals, decide what is good for ourselves.
What have we learned from Paul Tournier?
La personne, in whom lives the will, has a discontinuous existence. Moreover, la personne can dwell in a group of people, not merely in individuals one by one. La personne as described by Tournier is an excellent model for the free will operator.
What have we learned from Augustine?
The world is not a zero-sum game. It is not true that for every good thing there is an equal and opposite bad thing. (Energy, as we learned long after the time of Augustine, can neither be created nor destroyed. But goodness is not like energy.) Augustine taught us that evil amounts to choosing a lesser good when a greater good is available. What is good is always what is chosen. But choosing can go awry.
What have we learned from the poet of Job?
We are born, grow up, struggle for food and basic necessities, and die in a wilderness far removed from the order that might otherwise negate our freedom. We ask why this happens and we ask for justice, and our asking is yet another free act commended by the judge.
What have we learned from Arthur Schopenhauer?
Much more than can be summarized briefly, but just a few thoughts: Ethics, the philosophy of identifying and choosing what is good, is foremost in GSOT because it is based in the will. Or the will is foremost because it leads to ethics, an equivalent statement. Metaphysics, which rests at the source of every causal chain, also dwells in the will. Subject and object are recognized through the same will recognized inside and outside.
What have we learned from Lev Nikolayevitch Tolstoy?
The good is to be found in the usual activities of individual, family, and societal life, wherever a person’s will or a mutual will of two to millions may choose to find the good. The good is also to be found in the great unfinished work of the human family responding to God’s purpose, as individuals connect in solidarity, harnessing individual will to strain for the good of all.
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Featured image: Black box integrated circuit. From Pixabay | shotput, CC0 Public Domain.