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.