Ethics, Metaphysics

Why you wouldn’t miss free will

Determinism is the view that all things in the physical world are determined by previous physical causes, including human action. Two asteroids collide in space because they’re on a path that brings them together. Water falls off a cliff because gravity pulls it down. And you are reading this because some physical process in your brain has led you to browse the Internet and stumble across this article.

Determinism is the result of applying our scientific notion of causality to ourselves, which we intuitively believe to be somehow immune to the tides of causality. But determinism says that we’re a part of the system.

What, exactly, that system is, we’re not sure. It may be that everything has been determined since the beginning of the universe — the big bang set things in motion, and everything that has happened is simply further consequence of that event, or even an earlier one. It may be that things are determined by the quantum nature of the universe — if quantum mechanics is true, then there’s some element of randomness, but things are still determined by physical events. But both of these are forms of determinism.

So, no free will?

If determinism is true, there’s no free will. (The compatibilists will disagree with me — compatibilism tries to marry the ideas of determinism in the physical world and freedom of will in consciousness.)

In other words, the things you do have been determined by physical events, and, when you act, you could not have acted differently.

Why should I be OK with that?

If your will is not free then every action you make has been determined by something outside of yourself. You can’t choose what you’re going to do, or rather, you can’t choose to act differently than you do.

When some people encounter the possibility that we lack free will, they freak out. What they imagine is a situation in which they want to do something, but are unable to act according to their will. They imagine that they want to make one choice, but are forced into another.

This is not the consequence of determinism. If determinism is true, then, like actions, the will is determined. You’ll never will something you don’t want to will, because your desires, your thoughts, your will itself is the result of a physical process. It will never be the case that you will against your own will — this is a logical impossibility.

So, your actions will always correspond to your will. You may still err, experience internal compulsions, or be forced into things just as you would if your will were objectively free. But you’ll never be in the situation where you want to will something other than you will, or where you will one thing but act differently. You will never experience the force of determinism, because you will always feel that you are doing what you will to do.

As a result, you are OK with determinism, because if determinism is true, it has absolutely no bearing on what you want. You’ll always be able to act as you will to, exactly as you would if determinism were false and your will were “free” in the sense that it was undetermined.


Hard determinism says that all events, including your actions, are caused by a
chain of causality, like the movement of balls in a game of pool.

What about responsibility?

The biggest problem with the absence of free will is an ethical one. Here is where we have a problem coping with the lack of free will, because we have the notion that we must be responsible for our actions. If our actions are ultimately caused by things external to us, then it seems wrong that we should be punished for those actions, or that we should feel any guilt. If I were to steal money, unjustifiably, in a determined world, that theft would not be my fault, or not totally my fault, because my decision to steal, and my action to do so, was determined by some physical processes that I do not control.

There are two ways to deal with such a problem. The first is to point out that, even though I may not have chosen to unjustifiably steal because of a strictly internal decision, it is still my will to steal. My consciousness believes that, whether or not the idea originated with me, I chose to steal. Even if the desire to steal came from outside of me, there is no desire within me strong enough to have stopped me from stealing. So, even though perhaps I am not at fault for the theft as if I were an individual self-contained agent, there is no claiming that I am truly innocent, either. I stole because some physical process both made me steal and made me want to steal. It may not be my own choice that led to my moral corruption in this example, but nevertheless, I am a thief.

(I’ll clarify that this is just an example — believe what you will, I am not a thief.)

The second way to deal with this is by pointing out that whether it’s right or wrong, both my actions and the response of others are determined. The idea that we ought to do something else is pointless, because we will do what we will necessarily do. There are no alternative possibilities. If I am determined to commit a crime, I will commit it. If you are determined to punish me, then you will punish me.

That’s not to say that we do not influence each other. It would be an interesting world if everyone suddenly thought in this manner. If everyone suddenly believed in determinism, people may become apathetic. Economies may fall apart, the justice system may disappear, and anarchy would result. This may make people suddenly believe in free will again, since their actions obviously changed based on their belief.

But that would not actually imply free will. Rather, it would merely be the case that the determined system led us to that unorganized social state because of our determined attitudes. If we believe that morality is important we will behave according to morality, but not because we chose to believe that morality is important, but because we were determined to form this structure and follow it.

What about predictions?

Another possible consequence of determinism is that we could, in theory, make very accurate predictions about the future if things are perfectly determined by past events. For instance, if the universe is determined in the sense that classical physical causality carries forward, and that all events were determined way back at the beginning of the universe, then we would simply need the technology to know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe in order to predict the future, and essentially create prophecy.

I use the term “simply” very liberally. It’s obviously no simple undertaking to record such vast amounts of information, and we’re nowhere close to this — so you don’t need to worry about someone calling your every move before it happens anytime soon.

Even if we had such technology, quantum mechanics seems to make this fundamentally impossible anyways. According to quantum mechanics, the more we know about the position of a particle, the less we know about its velocity, and vice-versa. Therefore, if quantum mechanics accurately describes physical processes, then it’s impossible to predict the future even if it is determined. Again, it looks like determinism wouldn’t be such a big problem.

Convinced?

This may not have you embracing the idea that you do not have freedom. The idea that we have free will is generally an important concept to the way we think about ourselves, and the way our societies function. We value responsibility and choice as important features of the human experience, and the idea that these are merely illusions can be unsettling.

My point is simply that, even if this position (of determinism and incompatibilism) turns out to be true, you won’t miss free will. There’s simply no practical consequence, at least in the sense that there’s nothing you would miss about free will.

(Sorry for coming back suddenly with such a long post! One note that I will make about this account of determinism and free will — the effect of determinism on free will described here presupposes a physicalist response to the mind-body problem. That is, we’re assuming that consciousness is caused by physical events, and that the mind is not a separate ontological substance from the body.)

What do you think? If free will turned out to not exist, would you be disappointed? Why? — Am I missing something important?

PHOTO CREDITS: (1) stevendepolo / (2) Nic’s events / CC BY 2.0

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