Tuesday, October 20, 2015


A couple of times previously I have attempted to support my point of view that free will does not exist, that it is simply a powerful illusion.  So far, as far as I know I have succeeded in converting no one, zilch, to my position. Nevertheless, here I am making another effort at a persuasive essay in support of my view.

Free Will

In discussions regarding free will my focus has been on a fundamental, materialistic approach.  I would start by saying that, as far as we know, everything in the universe is driven by the same set of rules.  Our whole approach to understanding the world is to assume that, without exception, everything that happens—everything that we observe—obeys these same fundamental rules.  We don’t assume that one corner of the universe obeys a different set of rules than the remainder of the universe.  Each time we observe something that seems not to obey those rules, we seek an explanation that reconciles that observation with existing rules.  If we ultimately cannot find such an explanation, then we establish a new set of rules in such a way that everything still obeys these modified rules.  The transition from the Newtonian laws of motion to Einstein’s theory of relativity is a classic example of that.  This strategy has always worked and has been supremely successful in advancing our knowledge of the world.  It is fundamental to the scientific method.

Each person’s brain and nervous system are built from the same stuff—atoms, molecules, fundamental forces, and the laws that govern them—as everything else in the universe.  Does anyone question whether the composition of the human brain is fundamentally different from the remainder of the universe?  Analysis of nervous tissue reveals nothing—no matter, no forces, no rules—that are not found everywhere else.  Why therefore should we posit that the portion of the universe inside our heads is governed by a different set of rules?  Why should the activity of the brain not be just as thoroughly governed by the laws of nature as any other part of the universe?  To think otherwise is to believe that there is something, call it “free will,” that somehow intervenes in the human brain and modifies the operation of the laws that otherwise govern everything else.  There is no objective evidence to support such a position. 


The only evidence we have in support of free will is the feeling we experience that we are able to make choices that somehow override the operation of the laws of chemistry and physics that would otherwise govern the brain activity resulting in our behavior.  And while this internal feeling that we make free choices can be compelling, that is all it is, an internal feeling, one that is immune from objective confirmation or disconfirmation. 

Consider this:  Assume that we program a computer to play chess.  In a game against a human opponent the computer makes a choice of moves based on a set of criteria or heuristics that have been programmed into the computer’s software.  None of us (I hope) would argue that the computer uses free will in deciding what move to make.  In most cases a thorough examination of the computer’s programming would reveal the factors that went into its choice of moves.  And theoretically, at least, it would be possible to analyze the actual circuit pathways involved in the computer’s decisionmaking process.  In some cases the computer may be designed to make choices on a probabilistic basis in the sense that, given a particular set of conditions, it might be programmed to make one choice, say, 60 percent of the time and another choice 40 percent.  But certainly no one would confuse such a probabilistic choice with one involving free will.  

Well, all of this could be said as well for choices we humans make.  In short, we do make choices.  We are at a restaurant and choose the whitefish over the chicken.  That is a choice; it’s just not a choice based on free will.  


One of the arguments for free will is the notion that if we abandon the belief that individuals have free will then there is no justification for holding individuals responsible for their actions.  This is an argument famously used (generally unsuccessfully) by Clarence Darrow in defending individuals accused of criminal activity.  In other words, if we abandon belief in free will we also abandon belief in personal responsibility, and without the idea of personal responsibility we cannot justify the system of punishments and rewards intrinsic to our legal system.  

Well, first of all, either free will exists or it does not.  We cannot believe something is true or not simply because we are concerned about the consequences of having that belief.  More importantly, though, the idea of responsibility is not dependent on whether an individual has free will.  Rather, responsibility is a description of how the social order deals with individual behavior.  When we discuss whether an individual is responsible for his or her actions—for good or for ill—we are saying that we have identified the major causes for those actions and that such actions are to be (or not be) punished or rewarded.   

Take, for example, the case of a defendant who is accused of killing someone in an accident caused because the defendant was driving while intoxicated.  One could argue that the defendant knew that driving while impaired could lead to an accident and that he or she drove anyway in “willful” disregard of that knowledge.  Under this argument responsibility would rest on the knowledge that the defendant “chose freely” to drive while impaired.  Alternatively, one could argue that the defendant had a genetic predisposition to alcoholism or that he or she had failed to receive proper parenting in the need to act within the requirements of the law or in understanding the consequences of driving while intoxicated, and that for these reasons the individual lacked personal responsibility for his or her actions.

I believe both of these analyses miss the point.  Responsibility is not about the individual; it is about society.  Assigning responsibility and imposing penalties or rewards for personal actions is simply the way that the social order regulates behavior.  We mete out punishments for behavior for the various reasons we have a system of punishments: as a formalized retribution on behalf of the victim and his family, as a deterrent to others, as a “lesson” to be learned by the defendant, or simply as a way of keeping the defendant from repeating his or her offense.  (I’m not saying that these processes are effective; I’m only saying that they are the reasons that such sanctions exist.)  In short, responsibility is not about free will; rather, it is simply how we attempt to maintain the social order by responding to individual behavior.

© 2015 John M. Phillips

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