Free Will?

If you’ve ever spent time inside the ontologically arid box where atheists and religionists debate the issue of free will, you have probably been left gasping for air. Oxygen is in short supply and it makes thinking clearly difficult. While the stakes fall well short of life and death, you’d never know it. Free will is of course difficult to reconcile with an omnipotent God, yet free will is essential to a theological worldview anchored in choice. Moral agency stands or falls on the issue.

Knowing what is at stake for this class of religionists, some atheists think it important to argue against free will on reductionist-determinist grounds. This is the materialist playground in which one thing, whether atom or force, causes another both backwards and forwards. As far as I can tell, it’s the scientific alternative to turtles all the way down.

These debates can be tedious and dense in the extreme. In years past, I’ve occasionally put my head in the box to see if anything has changed. It hasn’t. The issue has not been resolved and neither side has convinced the other. But I’ll give the participants credit for their tenacity. Free will is like an infinite bone, to be chewed on forever.

For those not familiar with the basics of these debates, I recommend this Five Books interview with professor of philosophy Paul Russell. He does a fine job of summarizing and explaining the various positions. It takes a special kind of person to do this and devote one’s career to the subject. This makes Russell special, in a peculiar kind of way.

While reading the interview, I could not help but think how strange the world appears to those inside the artificially bounded box. Why so earnest? What is at stake? Is free will foundational?

In a famous passage from Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche took Kant to task for thinking he had solved a foundational philosophical problem:

It is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”–in effect, it is high time that we should understand that such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they still might naturally be false judgments! Or, more plainly spoken, and roughly and readily–synthetic judgments a priori should not “be possible” at all; we have no right to them; in our mouths they are nothing but false judgments. Only, of course, the belief in their truth is necessary, as plausible belief and ocular evidence belonging to the perspective view of life. (Section 11, Chapter 1 “Prejudices of Philosophers”).

In this critical interrogative context, synthetic a priori judgments strike me as being similar to free will. We should therefore ask: Why is belief in free will necessary?



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4 thoughts on “Free Will?

  1. jayarava

    There was a story doing the rounds a while ago which answered your question quite neatly. It seems that if you don’t believe in freewill you are more likely to cheat! (

    The general debate tends to ignore social psychology which puts limits on the extent to which we are individuals let alone moral agents with complete freedom. So as well as asking “why we need to believe in free will?” I would ask “how free do we need to believe ourselves to be?” We certainly don’t need to believe ourselves to be 100% free all the time.

  2. Cris Post author

    So that means Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are more likely to be cheaters? I kid of course.

    Your comment is apropos to something I was thinking about while working on this post. It occurred to me that I’ve never encountered the concept of free will (or anything remotely like it) in the hunter-gatherer record or animism literature. Given the richness of that record and literature, I do not think this omission can be attributed to an inability to conceive or cogitate the issues.

    Rather, I think it probably has to do with your (Durkheimian) point about social psychology: when living among a tightly knit group of actual and fictive kin, the very question of free will may be nonsensical. It’s just not an issue that would arise in that kind of setting.

    If this is the case, it may mean that the modern free will debate has less to do with foundational philosophical issues and more to do with particular social and historical conditions that prevail among Europeans and Americans today.

    Do you happen to know if this issue is debated in India or Asia?

  3. jayarava

    I know that one of my Sanskritist pen pals is interested in the question of free will. But she has a mission to link Western and Eastern traditions so I’m not sure which side the motivation comes from. As I understand it the issue of “free” will derives mainly from Christian discourse around the problem of evil: God might have designed and made the world and everything in it, but evil is not his fault because he gave humans free will.

    From the early Indian Buddhist point of view (ca 500 BCE – 1 AD) ‘will’ is a given – the traditional terms being cetanā (intention, volition) and saṅkhāra (volitional tendencies). But not all actions are consciously willed. For Buddhists only consciously willed actions have karmic consequences. In at least one text will (cetanā) and consequential action (kamma) are equated. Contrarily the Jains argue that all actions produce karmic consequences whether willed or not. And by karmic consequences here we mean consequences that contribute to one’s afterlife destination, which can be any of 6 “realms” of varying character and refinement; or in the best-case scenario escape from being reborn anywhere.

    Rebirth is seen as a terrible burden from ca. 500 BCE onwards in India or perhaps a little earlier in Brahmanical texts – though this is largely overlooked by Western rebirth enthusiasts. Brahmins aim for merger into the universal consciousness while Buddhists and Jains aim for a less well defined state of complete freedom. The post mortem state of the awakened cannot be described but the various metaphors make it clear that it is free of all suffering, trouble and misfortune, and in particular free of the awful necessity to keep being reborn. In other words Buddhists still want an afterlife but make it rather more abstract than most. At times it seems entirely abstract.

    However pre-awakening our will is never entirely free: we are constrained in different ways. For example being born in a human realm with human faculties comes with limitations on how we employ our will. We also develop habits of responding to stimuli (saṅkhāra) that limit the range of willed actions without religious exercises to break the habits. Indeed Buddhism characterises humans as caught in a web made of desire (the tendency to grasp at or after pleasant sensory experiences) with only the slimmest chance of breaking free. Buddhist practices are aimed at exploiting this tiny loophole.

    Interestingly as I write this my sense is of a contradiction. On one hand the view is that we get caught in the web of desire through exercising our will. On the other desire is seen as an almost automatic response to pleasure (i.e. with only the minutest application of will), that we can only break with sustained effort in religious exercises. I think there may be two different paradigms not quite fitting together here – I’m seeing more and more cracks in the facade of unity.

  4. Larry Stout

    If everything is caused, there can be no free will or independent agency. If what we think and do were not caused, it would bear no relation to ambient nature. People like to dodge the question, by making a false distinction between “cause” and “influence”, but if you think or do something because (note foregoing seminal word, always used to explain thought and action!) you have been influenced, then that has in fact caused you to think or do that something (in concert with a multiplicity of cryptic confluent causative elements, I think); whereas, if something purportedly “influential” did not cause you to think or do something, then it is neither cause nor influence. Augustine of Hippo invented the notion of “free will” in a vain (though influential!) attempt to cogently rationalize “evil”. Neuroscience continues to compile evidence discounting “decision” as some autonomous agency.

    I like Bertrand Russell’s statement on “free will”:

    “Exponents of free will maintain that a man can, by dint of will-power, prevent himself from becoming drunk, but they do not maintain that after a man is drunk he can say ‘British Constitution’ as well as when he is sober.”

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