Do we ever act freely?

24 August, 2021.

Do we ever act freely?

What exactly is the human will? Jonathan Edwards defined it as “ that which the mind chooses” (156). It is the decision-making faculty possessed by each mind. What is it to act freely? Libertarians traditionally believe that it’s: the ability to choose an action without constraint or cause. Hence the will is ‘liberated’ from imposition. The intrinsic desire to assert libertarian free will sprouts from two assumptions:

  1. I feel like I have a will, free from coercion

  2. Free will is necessary for personal responsibility.

The definition given supports these assertions while reaping tragic consequences. Liberation from constraint is also liberation from the laws of logic and causation foundational to scientific assumption. In this essay I will analyse the shortcomings of libertarian free will and demonstrate that causation is compatible with the feeling of freedom and personal responsibility.

Redefining the will

Initially, it seems we cannot hold both free will and the law of causation coherently. To suggest that the world operates in a causal manner, also implies that the human will operates under the same regime. This is contrary to libertarian belief which claims the will has no other cause, external to itself. The role of compatibilism is to reconcile universal causation and freedom, showing they are not contradictory, but ‘compatible’. There are several approaches to merging these two positions. A. J. Ayer argues that the free will problem stumbles due to its own connotations which conclude that causation inherently undermines free will. He claims that we have freedom, given nothing compels our choice. Ayer rightly suggests it is essential to define the will in reference to compulsion, not free choice. Involving this idea, Christian philosopher R. C. Sproul defines free will as the freedom to “choose according to our desires.” (187). This definition navigates the notion outlined by Ayer; freedom is defined by compulsion and is irrespective of universal causation.

The mechanics of the will – Reasons, Desires and Constraints

There are several principles which govern the way the will functions. Our will can be explained by reasons and desires. These overlooked assumptions eventually manifest internal constraints to the will.

(a) We observe that the will, the faculty of choice, is always motivated. There are two types of motivations/reasons – conceivable and inconceivable. Conceivable reasons are those which we actively recognize. Unnoticed reasons are called inconceivable reasons. These categories are necessary because although we always possess reasons, we are not always actively aware of them. For example:

When I eat, I am not required to actively recognize that I did it because I am hungry. My reason, hunger, is present but inconceivable at that moment.

Since there are reasons behind every action, what of the principle of randomness? Consequently, no action is random. An action verbally declared as to be without reason (a random action) appeals to another motive or reason. That new reason is to achieve an action without conceivable reason. Randomness is just an inconceivable reason. Therefore, all cases of action can be categorised as having either conceivable or inconceivable reasons.

(b) All reasons have one thing in common, they correspond to desire. Every reason I have aims to fulfill my desires.

Imagine I am hungry. The reason I may eat is because I desire to not be hungry. Here we see an a causal connection. In the case I am hungry, but do not wish to satisfy my hunger, my desire transforms. My new desire is to not eat despite hunger. The reason for this could be anything, conceivable or inconceivable. Here we see refusing food is not acting contrary to my desires, but according to my new ones.

It is impossible to act against my desires and I cannot do anything which I do not desire. I am always constrained to acting consistently according to them. This subjects my will to an inescapable bondage - desire.

(c) There are yet more constraints the will has, such as the physical world. When I try choosing something I cannot physically attain, I become painfully aware of my body’s physical limits. I cannot freely fly around, no matter how hard I will it. I simply lack the hardware. To possess the ability to do everything the mind desires is an impossibility reserved for God. I can, however, do everything I desire, given, I am physically capable of doing so. When I choose to wave my fist, the action follows these four assumptions: (1) I am physically able wave my fist. (2) I choose to wave my fist. (3) I have a reason to do so (4) That reason is (at least): I have a desire to wave my fist.

(d) There are natural and rational constraints to my will. Their presence demonstrates that freedom should not be measured according to constraint. It seems reasonable that I can do anything I desire given I am physically able. Yet, this non-malevolent common-sense assumption already clashes with the libertarian definition of free will. My will seems to have freedom to enact what it desires, while been rendered unable to enact what It does not desire. These factors radically contribute to the innate feeling most people have. Regardless of whether we do have free will, we possess the intuitive feeling of free will.

The Law of Causation maintained

I have the feeling of freedom, but is it an illusion? The law of causation states that every effect has a cause. In the case of every action (effect), there must be a corresponding cause, which I have defined as a desire. Therefore, it would be inconsistent for the will to be a transcendent faculty, without cause. Often libertarians dismiss the formidable law of causation, claiming that the will is an exception to it. If causation is to be maintained, everything, including the human will, must conform. To claim that everything has a cause means that my actions have a cause, which are my desires. I therefore must confess that my desires also have cause.

What is the causer of my desires? Many answers have manifested themselves namely nature, nurture, physics or God. Regardless of the true cause(s), these factors are must be external and are typically inconceivable at the moment the will acts. On the one hand, I am free to act according to my desires. On the other hand, I am removed from the freedom to choose my desires themselves. What I desire can be changed or set without my permission. As Arthur Schopenhauer states, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” (531). Contrary to the libertarian claim of self-determination (or immanent causation), I cannot use my desires to determine my desires. This claim is circular and fallacious. Our desires themselves must be determined by factors external to the human mind.

The ‘couldn’t have done otherwise’ objection

Since our desires are caused, why are we morally accountable for them? Where human responsibility is involved, the reason we intuitively claim ‘free will is a necessity’ is due to an argument called the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, or PAP for short. The basic argument follows:

  1. The law of causation states everything is determined by causes.

  2. Since I am subject to an uncontrollable external cause, even if I wanted to choose otherwise, I could not.

  3. I cannot choose otherwise. Therefore, I am not morally responsible for my actions.

The crux of this ‘I couldn’t have done otherwise’ argument was engaged by Harry G. Frankfurt who proposed that this conclusion cannot be true. He revealed a falsity in premise three. He demonstrates this using an argument to this effect:

  1. Jones wants to murder sally. One evening he plans to do it.

  2. The evil scientist Black hates Sally and wants her dead. He secretly implants a device into Jones brain, so that if Jones suddenly changes his mind about murdering sally the device will activate and cause Jones to do it regardless.

  3. Jones murders Sally. However, Black’s device never activates.

It is clear that Jones was fully responsible for Sally’s death; however, he could not have chosen otherwise. Frankfurt states, “If this is indeed the way it was, the situation did not involve coercion at all. The threat did not lead Jones, to do what he did.” (3). Moral responsibility must be more than freedom of choice. Its chief concern is with whether my desire is coerced to do something it does not want to do. Therefore, we ought not to dogmatically maintain the doctrine of the PAP, which fabricates misconceptions about responsibility.

Responsibility maintained

Am I just “kicking the problem upstairs” (Minton)? Although my will has been set without my permission, free will is compatible with responsibility since my will and desires are never violated or coerced. Since my will does not and cannot do what it does not want to do, it is never forced to do something contrary to my desires. The freedom most important to human beings is not the freedom to choose his desire, but to act according to them. My choices are not violated, establishing a meaningful sense of free agency necessary to reconcile accountability with external causation. The complete freedom to do what one desires is the best definition of free will and fits coherently with systems regarding justice. When I choose to commit ‘good’ or ‘evil’, I do it because it is my desire. I, therefore own full responsibility for my actions and am justified for any praise and blame.

Conclusively, I am not sovereign over the nature of my will. Despite this, freedom ought not to measure according to sovereignty or constraint. Truly, I cannot self determine my will and I am a slave to my desires. However, I am free to act according to my desires given my physical capabilities. In laymen terms “I am able to choose what I want when I want it.” (Sproul). This freedom is the essence of free will. We are responsible for our moral decisions despite constraint and causation. It is the absence of coercion that produces not only the feeling of freedom, but true freedom itself.

Works Cited

Ayer, A J. “Freedom and Necessity”. Philosophical Essays. London: Macmillan, 1969. 271- 284. Print.

Edwards, Jonathan. A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of the Will: Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. New York: Carter, 1881. 156. Print.

Frankfurt, Harry G. “Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility”, The importance of what we care about. 1998. 1-10. Print.

Minton, Evan. “Cerebral Faith”. 5 Arguments for the Existence of Free Will. 2017. Accessed 17 Sep. 2019.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Freedom of the Will. Oxford, OX, UK: Blackwell, 1985. 531. Print.

Sproul, R C. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Carol Stream, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 2013. 187. Print.

Sproul, R C. Can I Know God's Will? Ligonier Ministries, 2016. Print.