The older I get, the less impressed I am by the hardy perennial of free will versus determinism. It seems to me now like one of those completely specious arguments that the Sophists supposedly used to dumbfound their dimmer clients.

One of their regulars, apparently went like this. Your dog has had pups? And it belongs to you? Then it’s a mother, and it’s yours. Ergo, it’s your mother!!!

If we can take this argument seriously enough to diagnose it, we might point out that ‘your’ is a word with several distinct uses. One is to pick out items that are your legal property; another is the wider one of picking out items that pertain to you in some other sense. We can, for example, use it to pick out the single human being that is your immediate female progenitor. So long as we are clear about these different senses, no problem arises.

Is free will like that? The argument goes something like this. Your actions were ultimately determined by the laws of physics. An action which was determined in advance is not free. Ergo, physics says none of your actions were free!!!

But there are two entirely different senses of “determined” in play here. When I ask if you had a free choice, I’m not asking a metaphysical question about whether an interruption to the causal sequence occurred. I’m asking whether you had a gun to your head, or something like that.

Now some might argue that although the two senses are distinct, the physics one over-rides the psychological one and renders it meaningless. But it doesn’t. A metaphysical interruption to the causal sequence wouldn’t give me freedom anyway; it might give me a random factor, but freedom is not random. What I want to know is, did your actions arise out of your conscious thoughts, or did external factors constrain them? That’s all. The undeniable fact that my actions are ultimately constrained by the laws of nature simply isn’t what I’m concerned with.

That constraint really is undeniable, of course; in fact we don’t really need physics. If the world is coherent at all it must be governed by laws, and those laws must determine what happens. If things happened for no reason, we could make no sense of anything. So any comprehensive world view must give us some kind of determinism. We know this well enough, because we are familiar with at least one other comprehensive theory; the view that things happen only because God wills them. This means everything is predestined, and that gives rise to just the same sort of pseudo-problems over free will. In fact, if we want we can get the same problems from logical fatalism, without appealing to either science or theology. Will I choose A tomorrow or not? Necessarily there is a truth of the matter already, so although we cannot know, my decision is already a matter of fact, and in that sense is already determined.

So fundamental determinism is rock solid; it just isn’t a problem for freedom.

Hold on, you may say; you frame this as being about external constraints, but the real question is, am I not constrained internally? Don’t my own mental processes force me to make a particular decision? There are two versions of this argument. The first says that the mere fact that mental processes operate mechanistically means there can be no freedom. I just deny that; my own conscious processes count as a source of free decisions no matter how mechanistic they may be, just so long as they’re not constrained from outside.

The second version of the argument says that while free decisions of that kind might be possible in pure theory, as an empirical matter human beings don’t have the capacity for them. No conscious processes are actually effectual; consciousness is an epiphenomenon and merely invents rationales for decisions taken in a predetermined manner elsewhere in the brain. This argument is appealing because there is, of course, lots of evidence that unconscious factors influence our decisions. But the strong claim that my conscious deliberations are always irrelevant seems wildly implausible to me. Speech acts are acts, so to truly believe this strong version of the theory I’d have to accept that what I think is irrelevant to what I say, or that I adjust my thoughts retrospectively to fit whatever just came out of my mouth (I’m not saying there aren’t some people of whom one could believe this).

Now I may also be attacked from the other side. There may be advocates of free will who say, hold on, Peter, we do actually want that special metaphysical interruption you’re throwing away so lightly. Introspect, dear boy, and notice how your decisions come from nowhere; that over and above the weighing of advantage there just is that little element of inexplicable volition.

This impression comes, I think, from the remarkable power of intentionality. We can think about anything at all, including future or even imaginary contingencies. If our actions are caused by things that haven’t happened yet, or by things that will never actually happen (think of buying insurance) that looks like a mysterious disruption of the natural order of cause and effect. But of course it isn’t really. You may have a different explanation depending on your view of intentionality; mine is briefly that it’s all about recognition. Our ability to recognise entities that extend into the future, and then recognise within them elements that don’t yet exist, gives us the ability to make plans for the future, for example, without any contradiction of causality.

I’m afraid I’ve ended up by making it sound complicated again. Let me wrap it up in time-honoured philosophical style: it all depends what you mean by “determined”…



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