A Brief Defense of Free Will

by Tibor Machan

The Importance of Having Free Will

       This is not a common topic of discussion outside the discipline of philosophy and some other fields. Nevertheless, political economy is related to this philosophical problem in more ways than one. For example, if, say, a certain system of law is just, it is implied that we ought to implement it—even if only gradually, over time. If we claim that aggression is wrong, we implicitly hold that people ought to refrain from it. Indeed, even to say that some argument concerning any topic from logic to astronomy is unsound, we are claiming, implicitly, that one ought not to propose or accept it.
       But as the philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out, “ought implies can.” That means, in part, that only if it is possible to choose to do something can it be the case that it ought to be done. So the very meaningfulness of the advocacy of political ideals implies that free will exists. (The other meaning of “ought implies can” is that some objective standard of human conduct must be identifiable, otherwise one could never do what one ought to do.)
       Thus, clearly, it is of some value to explore briefly whether human beings have free will. In connection with the particular principles of classical liberalism, the issue of why respecting individual rights is vital and possible relates to the problem of free will. Individual rights need to be respected because we must have an area of personal responsibility within which to make our choices about our lives or wherein to initiate our own actions. The need for this kind of respect assumes, again, that human beings have free will, that they can make basic choices about their lives, initiate basic conduct, that can turn out to be right or wrong. Furthermore, requiring of people that they respect individual rights also assumes that they possess free will. Otherwise it would make no sense to require such respect from them: something they have no choice about cannot be something they morally ought to and can fail to do.
       But there is also the more familiar matter of the issue of personal responsibility concerning everyday conduct, those matters discussed daily in the home, in the press, and on the various media. Not only is there the issue of who is responsible for various good and bad things, but there is also the question of whether most of us are, as so many people seem to believe, in the grips of various forces over which we have no control. This or that addiction—to drugs, sex, violence, power, athletics, or work—is supposed to be our master, with ourselves merely puppets on strings moved about by them.
       Yet, only if we have free will does any talk of blaming our parents, politicians, the rich, bureaucrats and the rest make sense. But there are many people who believe that modern science, including, of course, all the social sciences, leave no room for such a thing in human life. Where does it stand, then, with the free will issue? It seems to me worth discussing this topic outside the confines of philosophy graduate seminars and encourage some thinking about it on everyone’s part. After all, it is a central feature of the political philosophy of liberty that individual citizens in society must not be thwarted in making choices for themselves, in initiating their own thinking and conduct. What does this come to unless they possess free will, the capacity to produce their own behavior?
       I want to argue that there is indeed free will. And I’m going to defend the position that free will means that human beings can cause some of what they do, on their own; in other words, what they do is not explainable solely by references to factors that have influenced them, though, of course, their range of options is clearly circumscribed by the world in which they live, by their particular circumstances, capacities, options, talents, etc. My thesis, in other words, is that human beings are able to cause their actions and they are therefore responsible for some of what they do. In a basic sense we are all are original actors capable of making novel moves in the world. We are, in other words, initiators of some of our behavior.
       The first matter to be noted is that this view is in now way in contradiction to science. Free will is a natural phenomenon, something that emerged in nature with the emergence of human beings, with their kind of minds, namely, minds that can think and be aware of their own thinking.
       Nature is complicated and multifaceted. It includes many different sorts of things and one of these is human beings. Such beings exhibit one unique yet natural attribute that other things apparently do not exhibit and that is free will.
       I am going to offer eight reasons why a belief in free will makes very good sense. Four of these explain why there can be free will - i.e., why nature does not preclude it. But these do not yet demonstrate that free will exists. That will be the job of the four reasons I will advance next, which will establish that free will actually exists, it’s not just a possibility but an actuality.

Nature’s Laws Versus Free Will

       First, one of the major objections against free will is that nature is governed by a set of laws, mainly the laws of physics. Everything is controlled by these laws and we human beings are basically more complicated versions of material substances and that therefore whatever governs any other material substance in the universe must also govern human life. Basically, we are subject to the kind of causation everything else is. Since nothing else exhibits free will but conforms to causal laws, so must we be. Social science is merely looking into the particulars of those causes, but we all know that we are subject to them in any case. The only difference is that we are complicated things, not that we are not governed by the same principles or laws of nature.
       Now, in response I want to point out that nature exhibits innumerable different domains, distinct not only in their complexity but also in the kinds of beings they include. So it is not possible to rule out ahead of time that there might be something in nature that exhibits agent causation. This is the phenomenon whereby a thing causes some of its own behavior. So there might be in nature a form of existence that exhibits free will. Whether there is or is not is something to be discovered, not ruled out by a narrow metaphysics that restricts everything to being just a variation on just one kind of thing. Thus, taking account of what nature is composed of does not at all rule out free will. Yet, simply because of the possibility that there is free will, there may still not be. We consider that a bit later.

Can We Know of Free Will?

       Now, another reason why some think that free will is not possible is that the dominant mode of studying, inspecting or examining nature is what we call “empiricism. “ In other words, many believe that the only way we know about nature is we observe it with our various sensory organs. But since the sensory organs do not give us direct evidence of such a thing as free will, there really isn’t any such thing. Since no observable evidence for free will exists, therefore free will does not exist.
       But the doctrine that empiricism captures all forms of knowing is wrong—many things that we know not simply through observation but through a combination of observation, inferences, and theory construction. (Consider, even the purported knowledge that empiricism is our form of knowledge is not “known” empirically!)
       For one, many features of the universe, including criminal guilt, are detected without eyewitnesses but by way of theories which serve the purpose of best explaining what we do have before us to observe. This is true, also, even in the natural sciences. Many of the phenomena or facts in biology, astrophysics, subatomic physics, botany, chemistry—not to mention psychology—consist of not what we see or detect by observation but that is inferred by way of a theory. And the theory that explains things best—most completely and most consistently—is the best answer to the question as to what is going on.
       Free will may well turn out to be in this category. In other words, free will may not be something that we can see directly, but what best explains what we do see in human life. This may include, for example, the many mistakes that human beings make in contrast to the few mistakes that other animals make. We also notice that human beings do all kinds of odd things that cannot be accounted for in terms of mechanical causation, the type associated with physics. We can examine a person’s background and find that some people with bad childhoods turn out to be decent, whole others crooks. And free will comes as a very helpful explanation. For now all we need to consider that this may well be so, and if empiricism does not allow for it, so much the worse for empiricism. One could know something because it explains something else better than any alternative. And that is not strict empirical knowledge.

Is Free Will Weird?

       Another matter that very often counts against free will is that the rest beings in nature do not exhibit it. Dogs, cats, lizards, fish, frogs, etc., have no free will and therefore it appears arbitrary to impute it to human beings. Why should we be free to do things when in the rest of nature lacks any such capacity? It would be an impossible aberration.
       The answer here is similar to what I gave earlier. To wit, there is enough variety in nature—some things swim, some fly, some just lie there, some breathe, some grow, while others do not; so there is plenty of evidence of plurality of types and kinds of things in nature. Discovering that something has free will could be yet another addition to all the varieties of nature.
       Let us now consider whether free will actually does exist. I’m going to offer four arguments in support of an affirmative answer.

Are We Determined to Be Determinists—Or Not?

       There is an argument against determinism to the effect that, if we are fully determined in what we think, believe, and do, then of course the belief that determinism is true is also a result of this determinism. But the same holds for the belief that there determinism is false. There is nothing you can do about whatever you believe - you had to believe it. There is no way to take an independent stance and consider the arguments unprejudiced because all various forces making us assimilate the evidence in the world just the way we do. One either turns out to be a determinist or not and in neither case can we appraise the issue objectively because we are predetermined to have a view on the matter one way or the other.
       But then, paradoxically, we’ll never be able to resolve this debate, since there is no way of obtaining an objective assessment. Indeed, the very idea of scientific or judicial objectivity, as well as of ever reaching philosophical truth, has to do with being free. Thus, if we’re engaged in this enterprise of learning about truth and distinguishing it from falsehood, we are committed to the idea that human beings have some measure of mental freedom.

Should We Become Determinists?

       There’s another dilemma of determinism. The determinist wants us to believe in determinism. In fact, he believes we ought to be determinists rather than believe in this myth called “free will”. But, as the saying goes in philosophy, “ought” implies “can”. That is, if one ought to believe in or do something, this implies that one has a choice in the matter; it implies that we can make a choice as to whether determinism or the free will is a better doctrine. That, then, it assumes that we are free. In other words, even arguing for determinism assumes that we are not determined to believe in free will or determined but that it is a matter of our making certain choices about arguments, evidence, and thinking itself. That’s a paradox which troubles a deterministic position.

We Often Know We Are Free!

       In many contexts of our lives introspective knowledge is taken very seriously. When you go to a doctor and he asks you, “Are you in pain?” and you say, “Yes,” and he says “Where is the pain?” and you say, “It’s in my knee,” the doctor doesn’t say, “Why, you can’t know, this is not public evidence, I will now get verifiable, direct evidence where you hurt.” In fact your evidence is very good evidence. Witnesses at trials give evidence as they report about what they have seen, which is introspective evidence: “This indeed is what I have seen or heard.” Even in the various sciences people report on what they’ve read on surveys or seen on gauges or instruments. Thus they are giving us introspective evidence.
       Introspection is one source of evidence that we take as reasonably reliable. So what should we make of the fact that a lot of people do say things like, “Damn it, I didn’t make the right choice,” or “I neglected to do something.” They report to us that they have made various choices, decisions, etc., that they intended this or that but not another thing. And they often blame themselves for not having done something, thus they report that they are taking responsibility for what they have or haven’t done.
       In short, there is a lot of evidence from people all around us of the existence of free choice.

Modern Science Discovers Free Will!

       Finally, there is also the evidence of the fact that we do seem to have the capacity for self-monitoring. The human brain has a kind of structure that allows us to, so to speak, to govern ourselves. We can inspect our lives, we can detect where we’re going, and we can, therefore, change course. And the human brain itself makes it possible. The brain, because of its structure, can monitor itself and as a result we can decide whether to continue in a certain pattern or to change that pattern and go in a different direction. That is the sort of free will that is demonstrable. At least some scientists, for example Roger W. Sperry—in his book Science and Moral Priority (Columbia University Press, 1983) and in numerous more technical articles—maintain that there’s evidence for free will in this sense. This view depends on a number of points I have already mentioned. It assumes that there can be different causes in nature, so that the functioning of the brain would not be a kind of self-causation. The brain as a system would have to be able to cause some things about the organism’s behavior and that depends, of course, on the possibility of there being various kinds of causes.
       Precisely the sort of thing Sperry thinks possible is evident in our lives. We make plans and revise them. We explore alternatives and decide to follow one of these. We change a course of conduct we have embarked upon, or continue with it. In other words, there is a locus of individual self responsibility that is evident in the way in which we look upon ourselves, and the way in which we in fact behave.

Some People Are, Some Are Not Determined

       There clearly are cases of conduct in which some persons behave as they do because they were determined to do so by certain identifiable forces outside of their own control. A brain tumor, a severe childhood trauma or some other intrusive force sometimes incapacitates people. This is evident in those occasional cases when a person who engaged in criminal behavior is shown to have had no control over what he or she did. Someone who actually had no capacity to control his or her behavior, could not control his or her own thinking or judgment and was, thus, moved by something other than his own will, cannot be said to possess a bona fide free will.
       Those who deny that we have free will simply cannot make sense of our distinction between cases in which one controls one’s behavior and those in which one is being moved by forces over which he or she has no control. When we face the latter sort of case, we still admit that the behavior could be good or bad but we deny that it is morally and legally significant—it is more along lines of acts of nature or God by being out of the agent’s control. This is also why philosophers who discuss ethics but deny free will have trouble distinguishing between morality and value theory—e.g., utilitarians, Marxists.

The Best Theory is True

       Finally, there what I have alluded to earlier, namely, that when we put all of this together we get a more sensible understanding of the complexities of human life than otherwise—we get a better understanding, for example, of why social engineering and government regulation and regimentation do not work, why there are so many individual and cultural differences, why people can be wrong, why they can disagree with each other, etc. It is because they are free to do so, because they are not set in some pattern the way cats and dogs and orangutans and birds tend to be.
       In principle, all of the behavior of these creatures around us can be predicted because they are not creative in a sense that they originate new ideas and behavior, although we do not always know enough about the constitution of these beings and how it would interact with their environment to actually predict what they will do. Human beings produce new ideas and these can introduce new kinds of behavior in familiar situations. This, in part, is what is meant by the fact that different people often interpret their experiences differently. Yet, we can make some predictions about what people will do because they often do make up their minds in a given fashion and stick to their decision over time. This is what we mean when we note that people make commitments, possess integrity, etc. So we can estimate what they are going to do. But even then we do not make certain predictions but only statistically significant ones. Clearly, very often people change their minds and surprise or annoy us. And, if we go to different cultures, they’ll surprise us even more. This complexity, diversity, and individuation about human beings is best explained if human beings are free than if they are determined.

Is Free Will Well Founded?

       So these several reasons provide a kind of argumentative collage in support of the free will position. Can anyone do better with this issue? I don’t know. I think it’s best to ask only for what is the best of the various competing theories. Are human beings doing what they do solely as the consequences of forces acting on them? Or do they have the capacity to take charge of their lives, often neglect to do so properly or effectively, make stupid choices? Which supposition explains the human world and its complexities around us?
       I think the latter makes much better sense. It explains, much better than do deterministic theories, how it is possible that human life involves such wide range of possibilities, accomplishments as well as defeats, joys as well as sorrows, creation as well as destruction. It explains, also, why in human life there is so much change—in language, custom, style, art, and science. Unlike other living beings, for which what is possible is pretty much fixed by instincts and reflexes—even if some extraordinary behavior may be elicited, by way of extensive in laboratories or, at times, in the face of unusual natural developments—people initiate much of what they do, for better and for worse. From their most distinctive capacity of forming ideas and theories, to those of artistic and athletic inventiveness, human beings remake the world without so to speak having to do so! And this can make good sense if we understand them to have the distinctive capacity for initiating their own conduct rather than relying on mere stimulation and reaction. It also poses for them certain very difficult tasks, not the least of them is that they cannot expect that any kind of formula or system is going to predictably manage the future of human affairs, such as some of social science seems to hope it will. Social engineering is, thus, not a genuine prospect for solving human problems—only education and individual initiative can do that.