Arguments for Free Will

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This is the the thirty-ninth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at some of the reasons people might have for thinking determinism is true, and they turned out to be not very conclusive if taken as arguments, but they are some of the motivation people have had for thinking in that direction. In this post, I'd like to look at reasons people have offered for thinking we have free will.

1. It just seems that we have free will. When we’re confronted with a choice, it seems as if what we choose is up to us. Our options seem open, and we choose one.

Is this a good argument? We can’t deny that it seems this way, but couldn't someone still deny that it is that way? Is it like knowing you're in pain? My feeling pain is the sort of thing that guarantees that I am in pain. Is seeming to be free like that? Or is it more like seeming to be on a flat earth that turns out to be spherical? Perhaps it's not that bad, but is it as obvious as knowing you're in pain? Given no other arguments, one might say this argument is inconclusive, since it shouldn't easily convince those who aren't sure if they are free.

2. Believing we’re free allows us to be consistent with our other beliefs. We deliberate, weigh options, and make choices. We wouldn’t do that if we didn’t believe our actions are under our control. You can’t decide not to be subject to the law of gravity. So what would be the point of weighing options if we’re not really free?

Does that mean we do have free will? Maybe these other beliefs are reasonable enough that we can conclude we have free will, or maybe it just means we should give up these other beliefs. But any reason to think we’re not free has to be pretty strong to get us to give up all these fundamental beliefs. So it’s reasonable to consider ourselves free.

This is a better argument than the previous one. It is some reason more than just going with how things seem. It really would be a radical adjustment of our lives and our other views if we starting thinking we aren't free, and that's worth avoiding if possible. Ultimately, however, this is just a pragmatic argument. It doesn't show that we are free. It just gives a reason not to stop believing we're free, and it's based fully on what's in our best interest, not on what's true or even what's likely to be true. So it's in the category of being a strong motivation to believe it, but it isn't really a strong argument for its being true.

3. We take ourselves to be morally responsible. Should we be held morally responsible if we aren’t free? Often we blame someone who should have done otherwise, or we congratulate someone who could have minded her own business but did an incredible thing instead. If we’re right to think these things, then we must be free. Maybe we’re wrong to think such things, but we do think them. If we were to believe we’re not free, moral discussions would be pointless, since these beliefs would be misguided.

Again, this is a strong motivation for thinking we are free. It would be such a radical change in our lives to give up moral evaluation (and even non-moral but normative judgments like admiring people or disrespecting people). That sort of change isn't worth it if we can help it. So we have a strong reason to prefer to continue to think that we're free. But is this an argument for the truth of free will or just a motivation for wanting it to be true? Again, it's a pragmatic argument that doesn't give us any indication that we really are free.

But of course if we have no indication that we're not free, then it's not as if there's some burden of proof to overcome. We already tend to believe in free will, and is it so bad to continue believing in it if there aren't any good arguments against free will? But this is an important "if". It turns out there are some arguments against thinking we're free, and it's difficult to put a finger on what's wrong with them. So the lack of good arguments for free will might turn out to be a problem if the arguments against free will are stronger.

Ultimately, these arguments will also depend on what it means to say we're free, and philosophers disagree strongly about what freedom even is. In the next post I'll begin separating out the possible sets of views on three different issues that come up.


Fascinating stuff Jeremy. Just a quick point / question - although I'm not sure I'll be able to explain it very well.

Most people will acknowledge that the choices we make with our "free will" are in some way affected by external factors that are out of our control - for example my "choice" of career rested in part upon certain opportunities that came my way during my upbringing and certain mental aptitudes I was born with. And yet some people (particularly in relation to "choosing" to become a Christian) argue that free will is only free will if no such influences come to bear - i.e. it is the choice you "would have made" even if those external factors were not present. Perhaps you're planning to say something about this in your next post on what it means to be free.

Yes, there are several accounts of freedom. The one you're probably familiar with in theology as the Arminian view is called libertarianism in philosophy. The Reformed/Calvinistic view (at least if it's faithful to the Reformers, especially Calvin) is a kind of compatibilism, which takes freedom to be compatible with being predetermined in some sense (with variations allowing for some kind of predetermination but not other kinds). There are also people who think the libertarian account is true about what freedom is but then think we don't have it because determinism is true, and they thus deny that wee are free. In theology, I consider that view one way to be a hyper-Calvinist.

That issue will be center stage for most of the next several posts, but I won't be discussing it in primarily theological terms, since the philosophical debate isn't about theology. I mentioned a theological reason why some people are inclined to something more like determinism in the last post, but hardly anyone in the philosophical literature thinks about that, because almost all Christian philosophers of religion are libertarians on this issue. Most compatibilists are not theists nowadays.

I haven't been assuming any account of what freedom is for this particular post, and thus the issue of what kinds of causes might be compatible with being free hasn't entered the discussion.

There is also another reason for thinking that you are free. You are creative, able to express yourself in words, art and literature. This includes all language, even the baser kinds. If we believe that some version of intelligent design theory is true, then we believe that no combination of the laws of nature and chance can produce this information. Neither can other system, whether deterministic or stochastic. Since such information is produced, we have free will. This argument can even be supported mathematically (see Dembski's No Free Lunch as well as his earlier works).

If intelligent design theory is accepted, then the only way to deny this argument is to state that God directly intervenes before every case of information generation and produces that information. This would mean that he alters the minds so that the information to create new torture methods is now available, and so on.

This isn't the place to debate ID arguments, but I'll register my view of them. I think cosmological constant ID arguments are pretty good but not conclusive arguments for a designer. That issue took up several posts earlier in this series. That sort of argument, however, involves no intervention in the world, since it's about the formation of the universe and not how things develop. I don't have a clue how to evaluate biological ID arguments, but they seem to me to have almost zero support among biologists, and the same goes for Dembski's mathematical stuff. I can't evaluate these myself, but I'll start giving them more credence if people who know the relevant subject matter start to be convinced by them. While I think biological ID arguments are regularly misrepresented by their opponents, I don't know if I can consider them convincing arguments at this point. I don't have anything in principle against them, but that doesn't mean I think they're good arguments, at least yet.

If intelligent design theory is accepted, then the only way to deny this argument is to state that God directly intervenes before every case of information generation and produces that information.

Not true. God's intervention throughout history in a way that violates the laws of nature isn't necessary for most intelligent design arguments. All that's required is setting up the laws ahead of time to produce the right result. Dembski admits this himself. See here. Given that, I can't see how a deterministic set of laws of nature couldn't produce the same result. It would be surprising (according to the ID argument) that you'd get this result, but the explanation for why we get the surprising result is that God set things up deliberately so that result would occur.

I guess the most sobering thing that I have been challenged by recently in this issue is the statement that our will is free in one sense but not in another,since it is impossible for us to choose to do something against our will.
I at first glance said that is not so, but then could not think of any occasion where it would be possible to perform any deed or refuse to perform without choosing to do so. The question was presented to me in this way, how did you get the will that you have?

Actually, Dembski does not say that. He says that intelligent design theory is all about detecting design in nature, even if there are a deterministic set of laws. However, he also says that every case of information generation cannot be explained by any combination of laws and chance. If the information is already present in the laws then there is no information generation. Proving that there has been information generation in biology together with the general principles of ID is the biological ID argument. If there has been, then nature is not a closed system, and intelligence of some kind is producing these effects.

In any case, I was not using biological ID arguments. I was applying design detection to human creativity. I do not mean any capacity human beings have to create. What I do mean is the actual creations of human beings. These creations show evidence of intelligent design. Therefore, they were not produced by any combination of law and chance. That means that human beings have free will. This is not a biological or cosmological argument. It takes facts about human creations (such as Plato's Republic), the foundation of ID in general and concludes to human free will.

I do admit that this is not a deductive argument. It is an argument to the best explanation. Human creations are clearly examples of complex specified information. They are the very examples Dembski uses to show what that is! The foundation of ID is based in mathematics and philosophy. Once one accepts these things, they do strongly imply something about human freedom.

Nothing you attribute to Dembski in your first paragraph is inconsistent with anything I said, so I don't know what your point is.

These creations show evidence of intelligent design. Therefore, they were not produced by any combination of law and chance.

That's the inference that Dembski himself insists does not follow. What he thinks it shows is that it almost certainly (but not absolutely certainly) wasn't produced by blind law and chance, by mere law and chance. What is shows, in other words, is that there is some design. The argument is technically silent on where that design comes from. He insists on this when he says that deterministic theistic evolutionists should be the ally of intelligent design people. He was sorely disappointed when they didn't get on board, despite his arguments that very little of the ID argumentation precludes deterministic evolution. It's undesigned law and chance that he sees as the enemy. The big tent was intended to include anyone who denies that, including deterministic theistic evolutionists.

By the way, are you going to continue this series, or is it done with?

I had all my notes saved on my computer, so I couldn't get back to it during the few weeks the computer was down, and I haven't managed to get the momentum back with this yet. The last few days I've been thinking about getting back to it but just haven't done it yet. I do intend to finish it, and it's possible the next post will be up today or early next week.

I really hope you do. Its been an incredibly informative series, and helped me formulate an argument on the inadequacy of atheism. Of course I don't want to pressure you, what you have done so far is amazing, and its been very helpful.

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