Let’s Talk Free Will

“Two roads diverged in a wood” – Frost / Creative Commons

By Dr. James Fieser / 04.01.2011
Professor of Philosophy
University of Tennessee at Martin

A marketing company called Acxiom has collected detailed personal information on over 500 million consumers. Aside from the usual data such as your name, address and phone number, Acxiom knows your income, the kind of house you live in, car you drive, food you eat, pets you have, music you listen to, and even your exercise preference. With this information they group people into 70 different “life stage segments” and hundreds of additional sub-groups. Knowing what kind of person you are, Acxiom is able to predict the things you will buy in the future. As Acxiom itself words it, “households’ consumer behaviors are reflected in their shared life stage and similar socio-economic characteristics.” Acxiom then sells your consumer profile to other companies who target you to purchase their products – whether it is cat food or a treadmill. It may bother you to know that Acxiom is accumulating your personal information and passing it on to countless other businesses. But something even more sinister is going on: Acxiom presumes to know what you will buy even before you do. As unique as you think you are, your choices are shaped by socio-economic factors that make your buying behavior very predictable. From Acxiom’s standpoint, your conscious thinking process is irrelevant. What matters is the type of psychological machinery you have that pushes you towards some products and away from others.

The assumption behind Acxiom, and much of business marketing, is that our choices are determined by underlying psychological causes, and there is little place for free will. If a company cracks the code to those psychological causes, it will become rich. The issue of free will vs. determinism is among philosophy’s oldest controversies, and Acxiom’s consumer profiling is just a recent manifestation of what is at stake. Are our choices mechanically determined by prior psychological causes or can we break free from those constraints and make choices that are genuinely free?

Main Concepts

There are many ways of unraveling the notions of free will and determinism, but a good place to begin is with these two definitions:

  • Genuine Free Will: for at least some actions, a person has the ability to have done otherwise.
  • Determinism: a person never has the ability to have done otherwise.

While not all philosophers agree on the above definition of a “genuine free will,” it nevertheless offers one of the boldest conceptions of freedom. Key here is the “ability to have done otherwise.” Suppose that it is a hot summer day and your standing in front of the display case at an ice cream shop. You see the chocolate ice cream, and it appeals to you. You then see the vanilla, and that also appeals to you. As you consider which of the two to order, you think about how each might satisfy your immediate desire. You then make your decision and order the chocolate. Suppose now that time magically reverses five minutes, and there you are again standing in front of the display case and you have no recollection of your previous decision. All factors are exactly as they were the first time around—the store, the shoppers and your psychological framework. Would you have the ability to make a different decision and order vanilla instead of chocolate? The notion of genuine free will maintains that, yes, you could select vanilla this second time around. You have an ability to initiate a genuinely free choice that is independent of the causal forces of your mental framework. By contrast, the notion of determinism holds that you could not choose differently. If the setup is exactly as it was the first time, then events will unfold in exactly the same way: you’ll order chocolate. As defined above, the notions of genuine free will and determinism are incompatible: you cannot consistently endorse both at the same time.

The freewill and determinism debate is a narrowly defined issue. Other topics in philosophy are similar to this, but when we do not distinguish them properly they can muddle the issue. One such notion is political freedom, which is easy to confuse with free will. The idea behind political freedom is that we have the right to be free from constraints that others might place on us. For example, my political freedom is violated if you kidnap me and chain me to the wall in your cellar. My political freedom is violated if the government punishes me for speaking my mind. But the debate between free will and determinism usually involves the possible constraints within my own psychological makeup, not the possible constraints that others place on me through brute force.

A second point of confusion involves the notion of fatalism, which is sometimes mistaken for determinism. Fatalism is the view that some event will happen regardless of what you do to stop it. Suppose, for example, that you are fated to buy chocolate, and you try to avoid that destiny. You thus order vanilla. When the cashier hands you your ice cream cone, though, there is a scoop of chocolate in it, not vanilla: the cashier mistakenly scooped from the wrong bucket, fulfilling your destiny. You then place your order again and watch carefully as the cashier scoops it from the right bucket. When you go outside and take a bite of it, though, you discover that it is not vanilla, but white chocolate: the cashier again mistakenly scooped from the wrong bucket. No matter what you do, you are fated to order chocolate. Fatalism assumes that there are different paths that we can attempt, but all end exactly the same. Determinism, though, is different: there is only one path of action that we can follow, and that path is constrained by rigid and predictable laws.

One last point of clarification. The actions that we perform are of different types. The most obvious ones involve physical actions. The act of you buying a scoop of ice cream involves you speaking your order to the cashier, paying for it, and taking the ice cream cone in your hand. But free choices would also include voluntary mental thoughts and feelings. For example, after hearing the evidence about a man charged with murder, you can choose to believe either that he is guilty or not guilty.  Similarly, if someone dents your car you can choose to get angry or remain calm. What is at issue with all of these choices — physical movements, beliefs, or feelings – is whether they result from free choice or prior determining events.

The Case for Determinism

It is a tough job to prove either the free will or the determinist position. In fact, it may be impossible to prove either with certainty. What we would need to do is watch you order chocolate ice cream, then reverse the hands of time, then see if this time you acted differently. Perhaps we would have to do this a hundred or a thousand times before we could say for certain that you are or are not capable of acting otherwise. But since we cannot reverse the hands of time, advocates on both sides of the issue must resort to other proofs for their respective positions. We begin by looking at the determinist’s main arguments.

The Argument from Materialism

PsyPost / Creative Commons

Determinists usually ground their position on a basic point: the physical world operates according to rigid and predictable laws. Since humans are physical in nature, our choices are thus constrained by those laws. Suppose that your air conditioner breaks at exactly 3:00 PM. Time then reverses five minutes. As events move forward this second time, would the air conditioner break again at 3:00 PM? Surely it would: its physical mechanisms would operate under exactly the same natural laws that made it break the first time. This view was stated dramatically by eighteenth-century French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace: if I knew all the forces that animate nature, knew the exact position of everything in it that exists, and had unlimited calculating ability, I would be able to accurately predict everything that will happen in the future. We of course will never come close to performing the task that Laplace describes. His point, though, is that everything unfolds mechanically in a world governed entirely by natural laws.

The main question now is whether human beings are constrained by rigid natural laws similar to the way that air conditioners are. The contemporary theory of mind-body materialism boldly answers yes. Conscious human minds are the product of physical brain activity, and nothing more. This position is at the heart of the following argument for determinism from materialism:

  1. Human choices are exclusively a function of brain activity.
  2. Brain activity is constrained by rigid natural laws.
  3. Therefore, human choices are constrained by rigid natural laws.

Just as air conditioners operate according to rigid natural laws, human consciousness, according to determinists, is also a function of physical mechanisms that also operate under the constraints of natural laws. The laws in our case are biological rather than the more mechanically-oriented laws that govern the construction and operations of air conditioners. Nevertheless, they are rigid natural laws.

How might an advocate of free will respond to this argument? French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) challenged premise 1 in the above and argued instead that human choices are the product of non-physical spirit-mind, not the function of brain activity. His position, called mind-body dualism, is that human beings are part physical body, and part non-physical spirit. The physical part of us is what we see when we look in the mirror. The spirit part of us involves our conscious minds and, for Descartes, constitutes our true nature as human beings. It is as though I have a spirit bubble that is connected to my body, which prompts my body to move which ever way my spirit-mind directs it. According to Descartes, our physical bodies are indeed constrained by natural laws. They are made of physical stuff that obey the rigid laws of physics and chemistry, just like any other physical object on this planet. If a nerve in my arm is stimulated, it will mechanically make my arm move. But our spirits, he argues, are not constrained by natural laws. Spirits reside in a non-physical realm, are made of non-physical stuff, and are beyond the domain of the laws of physics and chemistry. In this non-physical realm, Descartes continues, our spirits have unbounded freedom, and it is our spirits that are ultimately behind the free actions that we perform. If time reversed five minutes, your spirit could indeed select vanilla the second time around, rather than chocolate. Descartes’ version of dualism, then, accepts the rule of physical laws in the physical world, but embraces free will as an element of human spirits.

Determinists have two responses to Descartes’ position on free will. First, why assume that spirits have free wills? For all we know, there may be rigid laws that govern how spirits operate, just as physical laws govern the operation of physical things. While we might conceive of human spirits that can choose freely, we can just as easily conceive of a spirit drone that acts as it is programmed. Maybe within your spirit-mind there are causal forces that prompt you to select the chocolate ice cream over the vanilla, and that will not change no matter how many times we turn back the hands of time. The problem is that spirits are by nature beyond the realm of scientific inquiry, so, even if they exist, we cannot even investigate whether they are constrained or unconstrained by special laws of the spirit realm. The idea of free-willed spirits is pure speculation.

Second, and most importantly, at this point in the history of science, Descartes’ theory of dualism is outdated. The disciplines of biology, psychology and sociology today all assume that my consciousness is a function of my brain activity, and my brain, in turn, follows rigid laws of nature. If you want to know why I make the choices that I do, you look at how my brain operates, not at some spirit-bubble that is grafted to my body. There indeed still are some diehard defenders of Descartes’ dualism who insist that free choice is imbedded within our spirit-minds. Nevertheless, the debate between free will and determinism today takes place within the arena of mind-body materialism. Within that arena, the argument for determinism from materialism looks compelling.

But as compelling as the argument from materialism is, it is not conclusive. The principle reason is that the theory of materialism rests on an assumption that cannot be proven with certainty, namely, that the entire universe, including human beings, involves only matter operating according to fixed laws of nature. That is, the universe is a “closed system” in the sense that it does not interact with or receive input from any alleged thing that is either immaterial or breaks laws of nature. This is an important assumption that is at the heart of science itself: the questions that science seeks to answer will always be confined to matter and laws of nature. But this is still an unprovable assumption. Consider again LaPlace’s demon: if we knew all the forces that animate nature, knew the exact position of everything in it that exists, and had unlimited calculating ability, we would be able to accurately predict everything that will happen in the future. What test could we conduct that would ever prove this? There is none. What LaPlace is suggesting is just another way of expressing the assumption that the universe is a closed system. This does not mean that we should doubt this assumption. On the contrary, it is one that has served us very well since the scientific revolution. But it is an assumption that comes with restrictions, and potentially eliminates a lot of philosophical notions, including the concept of genuine free will. Perhaps the best advice is to accept the assumption, but proceed with caution.

The Argument from Predictability

Torture Museum / Creative Commons

While the argument from materialism may be the strongest weapon in the determinist’s arsenal, some defenders have offered a more modest argument from predictability that does not rest on assumptions about materialism and the stuff that a human person is composed of. The contention is that the predictability of human choices shows that they are determined by rigid natural laws. Here is an example from David Hume. Suppose that you are about to be executed. Your head is on the chopping block, the executioner approaches and raises his ax. What are the odds that, in a last minute exercise of free will, the executioner will change his mind and let you go? No chance at all. The executioner’s decision to bring down the ax is as fixed and predictable as is the separation of your head from your body, and your death.

Less dramatically, we see this kind of predictability in people at every moment throughout the day. Laborers, store clerks, teachers, accountants, all do what is expected of them in their jobs. Imagine, in fact, what life would be like if human behavior did not fall into predictable patterns. Farmers might decide to stop growing food and we would starve. People at the gas company might quit their jobs some winter and we would all freeze. Employers might not pay workers and we would be homeless. In fact all social institutions that rely on cooperative efforts would be at risk. Short of some national crisis, we rarely think seriously about these possibilities since we have grown so accustom to the predictability of human behavior. But when we do reflect on how we are, it makes us look like machines that are constrained by laws of physics, biology and psychology. The predictability argument for free will, then, is this:

  1. Human choices are predictable.
  2. Predictability is an indicator that choices are constrained by rigid natural laws.
  3. Therefore, human choices are constrained by rigid natural laws.

But defenders of free will criticize that people are not 100% predictable. Some farmers in fact decide to stop growing food while others do not. Some workers quit their jobs for no clear reason, while others carry on. Some employers do not pay their workers, while other employers do. In fact every cooperative institution contains people who make quirky decisions. Just look at your own lives, the free will advocate asks. Are your actions really that predictable? Even if you typically choose chocolate ice cream, sometimes you choose the vanilla instead. Sometimes you prefer an action movie, other times a romantic comedy. Where is the predictability?

Determinists have a response. Even when someone’s actions are off a little, such as someone who quits his job for no clear reason, we can find some pattern if we look hard enough into his surrounding circumstances. In fact, if I hear that Sam abruptly quit his job, I will assume that he did it for a reason that makes sense to me, such as conflicts with his boss, increased work load, or bad health. By anticipating reasons like this, I am assuming that Sam’s behavior can be fully accounted for and, if I knew his complete history to begin with, I might have predicted that he would quit his job. Even if you occasionally opt for vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate, people tire of eating the same food and naturally go for some variety. If I knew what your threshold was for tiring of chocolate ice cream, I might be able to accurately predict your purchase of vanilla. This is precisely what Acxiom tries to do with all consumer choices. With enough information about human motivation in general and your socio-economic background in particular, they will find the precise consumer niche that you fall into, which will allow them to more accurately predict what you will buy.

Scientists from many disciplines also propose prediction indicators of human behavior. They tell us that there is a genetic basis for sexual orientation, violent behavior, shyness, and even liberal vs. conservative political preference. They tell us about social influences that impact our choice of careers, hobbies, food preference and religious affiliation. Even climate and geography have profound influences on our choices. Scientists and organizations like Acxiom are far from the point of predicting every action that you and I will perform on a given day. But the better they get at predicting people’s behavior, the more reasonable it seems that people’s behavior is determined.

So, should we accept the argument for determinism from predictability? Like the earlier argument from materialism, this one also looks compelling, but it is still not conclusive. Yes, there is a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence that human behavior is uniformly predictable, but this evidence is incomplete and will probably always remain incomplete. It is challenging enough to accurately predict the behavior of lower animals which are driven by inflexible instincts. But our human behavior, by contrast, is governed much less by instinct and arises from vastly more complex set of social conditions. Perhaps LaPlace’s demon might know every factor relevant to human behavior and could thereby accurately predict what each one of us will do. But it is unlikely that even an army of social scientists with supercomputers could be as successful as LaPlace’s demon. Again, the best advice may be to go ahead and accept that human behavior is fundamentally predictable, but proceed with caution.

The Case for Genuine Free Will

We turn next to arguments for genuine free will, which, again, is that, for at least some actions, a person has the ability to have done otherwise. Let’s look more closely inside the human mind to understand precisely where this “ability to do otherwise” might be located. There’s no question that at least part of the human decision-making process involves a rigid chain of cause-effect connections. Our brain activity is programmed with genetic predispositions, memories from life-experiences, and these all combine to supply us with a wide range of motivations. One motive drives me towards chocolate ice cream, another towards vanilla, and yet another set of health-conscious motives drives me towards the tofu-berry sherbet. The determinist takes the view that, as my various motives compete with each other, I will be forced to act upon which ever motive is the strongest at that time. If my motive to select chocolate ice cream is more overpowering, that is what I will select. No matter how many times the hands of time are reversed, I will always select chocolate since the desire for chocolate is the strongest motive in my mind each time that moment of action replays.

However, the free will advocate sees our final decision-making process differently. Yes, my various motives mechanically pile up within my mind, and some are stronger than others. But I am able to thoughtfully pick through my competing motives and freely select one over the others, even one of the weaker ones. In essence, I have the ability to break the rigid chain of motives in my mind and act as I choose. Even if my strongest motive at the moment is to select chocolate ice cream, I can resist this and select vanilla if I want. If time reverses and my motives line up again exactly the same way, this time I can select the healthier tofu-berry, even if I do not particularly like that flavor and it is the very weakest motive at that moment. This element of the free will position is often called “agent causation”. That is, I (the “agent” performing the action) have a special causal ability within my conscious mind to redirect the purely mechanical forces of my motives. We will examine five common arguments in support of this view.

The Feeling of Freedom

Photo by Daniel Oines / Creative Commons

The first argument for genuine free will is straight forward: at least sometimes when I perform actions, I have a feeling of making a genuinely free choice. Throughout the day there are thousands of small decisions I make: what to eat, what to wear, what to read, who to talk to. As I navigate through this ocean of choices, I typically feel very much in control of what I do. When I decide to order chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, it feels like the choice is within my control and I could have done otherwise. Sometimes I even consider very methodically the pros and cons of each option, and select the one that I want. With ice cream, I might weigh factors such as health content, cost, or which item I will enjoy more. Not only do I evaluate these factors, but I feel as though I am in control of how much priority I give to each factor. Sometimes health matters more to me than taste, other times taste more than health. Throughout this process, the very last thing I feel is that I am robotically programmed to select the options that I do. The argument from the feeling of freedom, then, is this:

  1. Sometimes when I perform actions I have a feeling of freedom.
  2. This feeling of freedom is the result of making genuinely free choices.
  3. Therefore, sometimes when I perform actions I am making genuinely free choices.

But as persuasive as this argument seems, it does not settle the issue. Imagine that I attended a hypnotism demonstration and am selected as a volunteer subject. The hypnotist puts me under and says this: “When you wake up, every time you hear the word ‘water’ you become very thirsty and get a drink from the water fountain in the hall.” He snaps his fingers, says the word “water” and off I go. At the time I am thinking, “Wow, I am really thirsty; I think I will duck out for a quick drink from the fountain.” It seems to me that my choice is completely free, but it is clearly not: the hypnotist has programmed me to perform that specific task.

What is happening, according to the determinist, is that I am conscious of only a small amount of my mental processes, most of which take place at a deeper level than I can consciously experience. It is something like a mug of beer that bubbles away creating foam on top; the foam is what we are aware of, and the bubbly liquid beneath is what we are not. The real decision making process takes place below the surface, and what we consciously experience at the higher level is irrelevant. A recent psychological experiment makes this point. People were connected to electroencephalogram machines and asked to perform specific actions. The people reported a conscious triggering of their actions a quarter second before the actions occurred. However, the machines spotted a unique brain activity a half second before the action. The point is that the conscious feeling occurs after the brain already initiates the action. The brain first unconsciously sets the course of action, only after that the conscious feeling of choice emerges, and then finally the action itself takes place. In a sense, we wrongly give the conscious mind credit for decisions that the brain has already made unconsciously. Interpretations of this study are controversial, and it may apply to only simple spontaneous decisions, such as whether to choose chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla. More complex decisions that involve planning, such as choosing which car to buy, might involve a different type of cognitive mechanism which is not yet testable for underlying deterministic influences. Nevertheless, this experiment may help show that, with many decisions that we make, our conscious feelings of freely chosen actions are only illusions.

Moral Responsibility

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A third argument for genuine free will is that moral responsibility requires that we freely choose our actions. Consider two different situations in which burglars break into a house and steal jewelry. In the first situation a man named Joe thinks up the idea, plans the details, and then carries it out. In the second situation, a man named Bob is kidnapped and brainwashed with mind-altering drugs into carrying out a burglary. Morally speaking, we would judge Joe’s and Bob’s conduct differently. Joe is morally responsible for his actions because he freely chose to perform the action himself. Bob, on the other hand, is not responsible since he had no choice in the matter: he was implanted with an irresistible impulse to carry out the crime. Here is the point: according to the determinist, none of our actions are freely chosen; they’re all irresistible impulses like Bob’s, which we have no control over, even Joe’s action. This means that, if determinism is true, we are not morally responsible for any of our actions. The fact is, though, that we do hold each other morally responsible in many situations, which means that we do have free wills. The specific argument is this:

  1. If I am morally responsible for my actions, then I must have genuinely free control over those actions.
  2. In many situations I am morally responsible for my actions.
  3. Therefore, I must have genuinely free control over those actions.

The determinist has a response. The idea of “moral responsibility” is a rather vague term and in most cases what we really mean is that we are justified in punishing people for their conduct. We want to punish Joe for his act of burglary, for example, and that is what’s at issue. There are several reasons why we might want to punish Joe, and most of these are perfectly compatible with determinism.  First, we might want to put him in jail to keep him from burglarizing other homes. It does not matter if Joe is predetermined to burglarize because he was raised in a bad environment, or he has the “burglary gene” or whatever. He’s a nuisance that we want to get rid of. We also might want to put him in jail as a means of reforming him – essentially reprogramming him to not burglarize. Further, putting Joe in jail is another way of expressing our vengeance and anger at what Joe did. While vengeance and anger are not the noblest reasons for punishment, they are undeniable elements. Whether we punish Joe to keep him off the street, reform him, or vent our anger, all of this is compatible with the view that Joe’s act of burglary was determined. Yes, Joe may have been predetermined to burglarize, but we are nevertheless justified in punishing him. Even under determinism, we can distinguish between Joe’s and Bob’s situations even though, at bottom, they both act from irresistible impulses. We recognize that Bob was victimized when being kidnapped and brainwashed, and this will give us sympathy for him. Rather than throw him in jail, we will want to de-program him through more gentle means. Our reaction to Joe, though, will be different: he was not victimized like Bob, and thus we will feel morally justified in punishing Joe by putting him in jail. In this way, the determinist can make sense of the notion of moral responsibility without the assistance of the idea of free will.

Human Dignity

Portrait of Pico della Mirandola, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, 15th century / Uffizi Gallery, Florence

A fourth argument is that the idea of human dignity rests on the ability to make free choices. What would life be worth if all my actions are mechanically pre-established? I would be no different than animals that cannot act beyond their instincts. Worse yet, I would be no better than a mechanical robot that is restricted by its programming. The uniqueness of human existence hinges on our ability to break free of constraints and build our own distinctive worlds. The Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) argued that your dignity as a human being consists precisely in the fact that “You may freely and honorably mold, make, and sculpt yourself into any shape you prefer. You can degenerate into the forms of the lower animals, or climb upward by your soul’s reason, to a higher nature which is divine.” The choice is yours to become what you want, and that element of dignity is the product of free will. In contemporary times, Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) built his entire philosophy around this point. His there, called existentialism, is the view that people are entirely free and therefore responsible for what they make of themselves. In the following, Sartre explains the unbreakable link between human dignity and free will:

This theory [of existentialism] alone is compatible with the dignity of man, it is the only one which does not make man into an object. All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object – that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone. . . . What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of humanity.

Materialistic determinism, according to Sartre, reduces people to the level of objects, and is incapable of giving us our uniquely human dignity. Rather, our dignity requires the capacity to act freely and take responsibility for it. The argument from dignity, then, is this:

  1. If I act with human dignity, then I must have genuinely free control over those actions.
  2. In many situations I act with human dignity.
  3. Therefore, I must have genuinely free control over those actions.

Does human dignity demand the ability to make truly free choices? According to the determinist the question once again rests on an especially vague term, in this case, what we mean by “dignity” and what counts as a dignified life. Suppose that you jotted down all the actions that you made in a single day from the moment you awoke in the morning until you fell asleep at night. The list may contain upwards of 100,000 actions. The vast majority of your actions, though, would be the result of routines that you’ve mastered, and not the product of unique choice. We have morning routines, work routines, socializing routines, educational routines, meal routines, entertainment routines, and evening routines. Even the free will advocate would admit that much of our behavior throughout the day occurs when we are running on autopilot. Suppose, now, that you go an entire week running only on autopilot. During that time you work hard at your job, are loving to your family, and decent to other people, and all the while acting from sheer habit. Could I accuse you of being an undignified animal or robot? Certainly not. Your conduct during that time might even exemplify what we mean by human dignity. Suppose next that you went your entire life on autopilot, without making a single choice of the sort that free will advocates cherish. As a child you are imprinted with routines from your parents, and you carry those with you through life. Even when you add new routines, you do so while on autopilot by mechanically adapting routines that you already have. Throughout this time your behavior is as virtuous as can be. Could I accuse you of living a sub-human existence? Again, certainly not. The point is that there is enough merit in our autopilot existence to give us dignity, even if free will does not exist.

Personal Transformation

A photograph of William James in 1903 / Houghton Library at Harvard University

A fifth argument for genuine free will stems from our ability to radically transform our lives in crisis situations. Let’s grant, for the moment, that we are fundamentally creatures of habit. As William James says, the vast majority “of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night.” For each experience we are presented with, we have an automatic and standard response. But, as mechanical as we are with our reactions, do not we all at least occasionally experience major events that defy our habitual programming and force us to break new ground? This is especially so with traumatic situations of suffering and conflict? In these cases, we feel helpless to the overwhelming forces outside of us, and in that state of despair we break free of our ordinary habits and explore new ways of looking at the world. Here’s an example. Joe was an avid outdoorsman and he lived for the weekends when he could go hunting, fishing, hiking, or camping. On one excursion he fell from a ten-foot elevated hunting platform, broke his back and became paralyzed from his waist down. His identity as an outdoorsman was instantly taken away from him, and for weeks all that he could think about was dying. But after a few months he made the conscious decision to accept his condition and try to move beyond it. He enrolled in college, acquired new skills and interests, and essentially redefined his identity.

Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) calls these life-transforming experiences boundary situations, which he describes here:

I must die, I must suffer, I must struggle, I am subject to chance, I am entangled with guilt. These fundamental situations of our existence we call boundary situations. That is, they are situations that we cannot alter or change. . . . In our ordinary lives we typically avoid them by closing our eyes and living as if they were not there. We forget that we have to die, forget our guilt, and forget our vulnerability to chance. . . . In boundary situations, however, we respond by either covering them up or, if we really grasp them, we respond through despair and recovery: we become ourselves by transforming our consciousness of being.

For Jaspers, we typically go through life ignoring our deep vulnerabilities. But in boundary situations we are forced to confront them, and, in that state of crisis, human freedom gives us the opportunity to transform ourselves. In short, yes, we live in a mechanically-determined world, and are even part of it. But when overwhelming situations arise that challenge our identities, we reshape ourselves through the exercise of genuine free will. The argument for freewill from boundary situations, then, is this:

  1. If there are special circumstances in which we can dramatically transform beyond our purely automatic and habitual life activities, then in at least some circumstances we have a genuinely free will.
  2. There are such special circumstances, such as with boundary situations.
  3. Therefore, in at least some circumstances we have a genuinely free will.

The key problem with this argument concerns premise 1 and whether transforming one’s life in a crisis situation really requires genuine free will. Consider how a clinical psychologist or mental health therapist might treat someone experiencing a boundary situation like Joe’s. First, the therapist would probably identify his case as an “adjustment disorder”, that is, a situation in which a major stressful event outside of his control triggered feelings of sadness and hopelessness to the point that his normal daily routines felt overwhelming. Typical stressful events are job loss, relationship conflict, terminal illness, and death of a loved one. For Joe, it was a major disability. When we cannot remove the stressful event, then we must develop new coping strategies that reshape our patterns of thinking.

For defenders of free will such as Jaspers, these coping strategies involve genuinely free choice.  But clinical psychology makes no such assumption, and, like other social sciences, it assumes determinism. On this view, people are stimulus-response machines, where therapy is the stimulus that results in emotional recovery. In Joe’s situation, he was coached to find new social networks, learn new skills, and avoid reminders of his previous life-style. Exercising free will was not one of his therapist’s recommendations. Clinical psychology and its deterministic model may not have the story completely right. But it does offer a plausible alternative explanation for how people in crisis situations can break old habits and form new ones, without relying on free will.


The figure represents the development of an electron-positron pair plasma at the focus of two counter propagating intense laser pulses. / Wikimedia Commons

A sixth argument for genuine free will stems from the principle of indeterminacy which was discovered by physicists in the early 20th century. When investigating the way that electrons zip around the nucleus of an atom, physicists realized that they could not determine with certainty where an electron would be at any given moment. It was not because their scientific equipment was too primitive. Rather, it is because the electrons themselves are by nature indeterminable. It is as though electrons exist in a cloud of potentiality around a nucleus, and their specific locations in space become actualized only when we take measurements of them. An electron is “indeterminate” in the sense that, prior to measuring it, no standard causal law calculation can be preformed to designate its exact location at a particular time. The best that we can do is to calculate the probability of where it might be at that point in time.

“Aha!” says the free will advocate, “there are uncaused events in the physical world, which are unconstrained by precise natural laws. This is the basis of our unconstrained free choices.” The general argument from indeterminacy, then, is this:

  1. If electrons are indeterminable, then some natural events are not determined at the micro-level.
  2. If some natural events are not determined at the micro-level, then some actions might be the result of genuine free will.
  3. Therefore, if electrons are interminable, then some actions might be the result of genuine free will.

There are two ways in which subatomic indeterminacy might bolster the theory of free will. First, the principle of indeterminacy rewrites the book on how the physical world around us operates. We can no longer say that the world is just a giant cause-effect machine with each link in the causal chain obeying rigid laws. There’s a break in that chain at the subatomic level, and that entitles us to consider the possibility of breaks in the chain other places, particularly with free human choices. Second, it could be that the indeterminacy of electrons themselves trigger a chain of bio-chemical reactions in my body that result in a freely chosen action. For example, when I select chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, my thoughts and neurological activity build upon deeper and deeper biochemical events, which might ultimately trace back to the indeterminacy of electrons.

But the determinist is not convinced. It is true that the indeterminacy principle compromises the most extreme versions of determinism, since the determinist can no longer say that all events in the physical world have prior causes guided by standard natural laws. Nevertheless, the free will advocate’s excitement may be premature for two reasons. First, even if things are indeterminable at the level of subatomic particles, the physical world is still governed by rigid natural laws at higher levels of chemical molecules and biological cells. Chemists have confidence that the substances they work with follow strict chemical laws. Biochemists have the same confidence that the living cells they study follow strict biological laws. At these higher levels, the causal machinery of the world is intact, regardless of what happens at the subatomic level. Whatever choices we make as human beings, these originate within our brains, which follow chemical and biological laws. The indeterminacy of electrons does not just jump up to these higher levels. It is true that some biologists have recently suggested that aspects of animal biology might draw on subatomic phenomena. For example, European robins might have a quantum detector that enables them to sense tiny variations in the earth’s magnetic field, which guides them on their 2,000 mile migratory paths. But much of this is speculative, and in the case of free will, clear evidence would still be needed to show how electron indeterminacy alters the normal chemical operation of a neuron in the human brain.

A second problem with the indeterminacy argument is that it does not allow for the type of human choices that free will advocates need. The indeterminacy of electrons is a random thing, but genuinely free choices cannot be random: they are thoughtful and meaningful actions. If I am deciding between buying chocolate ice cream and vanilla and I randomly flip a coin to decide, that is an arbitrary action, not a free action. If in fact all of our actions were indeterminate in the way that electrons are, we would have nonstop spasms and convulsions, not meaningfully chosen actions. Rather than selecting either the chocolate ice cream or vanilla, I would start quivering like I am having a seizure. Thus, subatomic indeterminacy is no real help to the free will advocate.

The Freedom of Action Alternative

Harry Frankfurt, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University

So far the case for genuine free will looks pretty weak. At the same time, though, it is difficult to abandon the concept of free choice which we so regularly rely on in our daily lives. We have just seen how it is an important component of theological doctrine. It also seems to be at the heart of personal responsibility, artistic creativity, true friendship and scores of other human values, all of which involve breaking free of restrictive social expectations. Can we just throw this away and surrender to the idea that we are only pre-programmed robots? Even determinists recognize that ideas of freedom are embedded in our thinking and that we all use the notion of free choice in ordinary conversation.

Perhaps the solution is to come up with a different definition of freedom that is more compatible with determinism. Consider the definition of genuine free will that we have been working with so far

  • Genuine Free Will: for at least some actions, a person has the ability to have done otherwise.

This is an extreme position that requires us to defy known laws of nature when acting freely. That is, if I could reverse the hands of time and act differently the second time around, I would have to break free of the causal chain of events that led up to my action the first time. That is an unrealistically high standard to set for any theory. But there are alternative notions of freedom that are more modest, and aim to fit neatly with determinism. These are sometimes called “compatiblist” theories since they try to reconcile some concept of freedom with determinism. This stand in sharp contrast to the rival “incompatiblist” theory of a “genuinely free will” that we have been examining, which that is inherently in conflict with determinism.

A popular compatiblist approach among many philosophers is a weaker conception of human freedom known as freedom of action:

  • Freedom of Action: at least some human actions are caused by factors inside of us.

According to this concept, I draw a circle around myself and say that if an action originates from causes within that circle, such as my DNA or my brain activity, then that action is free. I ultimately am the source of that action, and not some force outside of the circle that is imposing itself on me. The action is free because it is mine. When I select chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, that choice emerges from inside of me given how I am. This rather modest conception of freedom does not require that I have the magical ability to have done otherwise. It also fully accepts the theory of determinism and is completely compatible with it. Even though my actions are determined, I can still take comfort in the fact that the decision process is uniquely mine, and is generated by mechanical psychological processes within me specifically.

Free vs. Unfree Actions

The biggest challenge for defenders of freedom of action is to tell us precisely how our free actions differ from our unfree actions. If all actions are ultimately caused by laws of nature, what exactly is the point of distinction between the free and unfree ones? There are two common explanations offered by advocates of freedom of action. The first is that we should assume that most of our actions are free – including those done while on autopilot – since they originate from within us. The only exceptions are restrictions that seriously impair our normal actions. If I am sitting in a wheel chair paralyzed from the neck down, I cannot choose to get up and walk around. If a robber makes me hand over my wallet at gunpoint, I cannot reasonably choose to keep my wallet in my pocket. If I am a heroin addict, I cannot reasonably choose to give up my next fix. Returning to the earlier example of the two burglars, we would all normally say that Joe freely chooses to burglarize houses, but poor brainwashed Bob does not burglarize by choice. What is the difference between the two? The answer is that Joe burglarizes freely since there are no serious constraints on his actions. Bob’s burglarizing activities, though, are not free since his actions were seriously impaired through brainwashing.

A second explanation of how free and unfree actions differ was offered by American philosopher Harry Frankfurt (b. 1929). He asks us to distinguish between two kinds of desires that we have. Take, for example, a conflict that many dieters face. I may have a strong desire for ice cream and go buy some, but at the same time I may resent the fact that I have that desire and cannot control it. In Frankfurt’s terminology, I have a “first-order” desire competing with a “second-order” desire:

  • First-Order Desire: a basic desire for a thing (desire for ice cream)
  • Second-Order Desire: a desire to have a desire (desire to not desire ice cream)

Free actions, according to Frankfurt, are those in which our first and second order desires line up, whereas unfree actions occur when first and second order desires conflict. Thus, the dieter’s purchase of ice cream would be unfree since the first and second-order desires conflict. Non-dieters, though, may desire ice cream, and desire to have that desire. For them, the purchase of the ice cream would indeed be free. It is important to keep in mind that even “free” actions, as Frankfurt describes them, are still determined. Even if my first and second order desires line up, as when I desire to desire ice cream, the cause of my desires at both levels strictly follow mechanical laws of nature.

Frankfurt’s theory has the advantage of helping us distinguish between the free choices that humans make, and the not-so-free ones made by animals. Some higher animals such as chimpanzees may have decision-making processes that resemble ours. Still, we would like to think that human choice is qualitatively better than the choice of a lower animal like a chicken. Defenders of genuinely free will had a simple solution: humans have “the ability to have done otherwise,” and chickens do not have that ability. But what solution can determinists offer regarding freedom of action? According to Frankfurt, having second-order desires is a uniquely human thing. Animals like chickens do not go on diets, and then resent the fact that they desire to gorge themselves with chicken feed. Their desires are limited to first-order ones.

What should we think of the freedom of action alternative? Even if we can make general distinctions between free and unfree actions as Frankfurt suggests, is it really a viable conception of freedom? “Oh, come on now,” criticizes the advocate of genuine free will, “the concept of freedom of action is not really freedom at all. It is only a flimsy consolation prize for determinists who are desperate to hold onto the term ‘freedom’. Ultimately, you still think that you are a robot that is determined by biological programming, and there’s no freedom at all in that.” Yes I am a programmed robot, the defender of freedom of action admits, but I am a robot that feels strongly about my individual identity. All of my actions are indeed determined by my genetics, my environment, and my brain activity, but at least it is my genetics, my environment, and my brain activity. Because of this I can say that I am not merely a puppet being controlled by outside forces; I am not merely a cog in the larger machinery of the universe. Instead, my choices are the result of my own history.  There’s nothing flimsy at all about linking the concept of freedom to my feeling of identity.

Thus, the success of the freedom of action alternative hinges on whether we can meaningfully see ourselves as programmed robots while at the same time have strong feelings of identity. The determinist has no problem doing this, but the advocate of genuine free will would still find this problematic.

Genuine Free Will and God

The issue of free will and determinism is interesting in its own right and has commanded the attention of almost every major philosopher. With religious believers, the issue of free will has an extra theological significance and we turn next to four such issues: (1) the relation between free will and divine foreknowledge, (2) the relation between free will and divine goodness, (3) the relation between divine fate and free will, and (4) whether there is free will in heaven.

Free Will and Divine Foreknowledge

Vyasa grants Sanjaya divine vision / Wikimedia Commons

Religious believers commonly say that God is all-knowing, and this ability to know everything includes foreknowledge, which is the capacity to know something before it happens. A major conceptual problem with foreknowledge, though, is that it seems to conflict with human freedom. If God knows everything that I will do even before I am born, how can any of my actions be free? Suppose that at midnight tonight I will eat either an apple or a banana; I haven’t yet decided which. If I am truly free, then God himself won’t know what I will do until I actually make the choice myself. How, then, is it possible for God to foresee my choice when the time hasn’t come for me to freely make it? If he foresees that I will select the apple, then the truth of that option is already fixed on the timeline, and I am not free to select the banana. The argument is this:

  1. If God foreknows what I will choose at midnight tonight, then at midnight I must choose that action.
  2. If at midnight I must choose that action, then at midnight I cannot freely do otherwise.
  3. Therefore, if God foreknows what I will choose at midnight tonight, then at midnight I cannot freely do otherwise.

It is not that divine foreknowledge physically forces me to select the apple rather than the banana. Instead, divine foreknowledge is an indicator that the outcome has already been determined by the nature of the cosmos itself, and the mere existence of divine foreknowledge conflicts with the existence of a universe containing beings who make free choices. To be precise, it is not necessarily the foreknowledge of God that creates the problem, but the foreknowledge of anyone, even a wizard or soothsayer. If anyone can foresee my future actions, then this reveals that my actions cannot be free but instead have already been determined by a chain of causes in the universe.

The ancient Stoic philosopher Cleanthes examined this problem, and in frustration concluded that God simply cannot foresee future free choices. The best that God can do is calculate future events based on the prior causes that lead up to them. By knowing every physical fact about the earth and every law of physics, God could mentally project the outcome of any physical event, such as, for example, the eruption of the volcano on Mount Vesuvius. God is essentially like LaPlace’s demon. But with genuinely free choices, there is nothing in nature that causally leads up to a person’s decision such as, for example, Brutus killing Julius Caesar. Thus, according to Cleanthes, God could not know in advance that Brutus would freely choose to do this.

Later philosophers were not content with Cleanthes solution and the restrictions that it placed on God’s knowledge, and thus tried to find some better way of reconciling divine foreknowledge with free will. The most popular solution involves tweaking yet another divine attribute, namely timelessness. There are two ways in which we can think of God as being timeless. First, there is a weak sense of timelessness as endless temporal existence. On this view, God existed at every moment on the timeline in the past, and God will exist at every moment in the future. He moves through time along with you, the earth, and every other temporal thing. This weak sense of timelessness in fact creates the problem of divine foreknowledge since it means that God knows the future by peering down the timeline with a future-telescope and seeing what will ultimately take place.

By contrast, the strong sense of timelessness is that God exists outside of time, and the very concept of time does not apply to him. Plato picturesquely describes time as a “moving image” of eternity, which the creator deity imposed on finite things:

The nature of the ideal being is everlasting, but to give this attribute in its fullness to created things is impossible. Accordingly, [the creator] resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the universe, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity. This image we call time. [Timaeus, 34]

Following Plato, we might say that God is in a privileged position outside of time, which allows him to look down on the entire “moving image” of the historical timeline in a single glance. This strong position offers a possible solution to the problem of foreknowledge. On this strong view of timelessness, it is misleading to talk about God “foreseeing” future events since it makes it seem like God is himself moving through the timeline like we are. Instead, God knows my future free choices because of his privileged position outside of time, not because he can peer into the future with a future-telescope. Within that “moving image” of historical time, I make free choices throughout my life, and, God, who exists outside of that “moving image” of time, sees all of my free choices instantaneously.

The problem of foreknowledge and free will as we have discussed it is principally an issue for theologians who accept by faith that there exists a God who is outside of time. But the issue has important non-religious implications too, and not just for wizards who believe they can transcend the timeline and see its entirety in a single glimpse. Einstein famously said “physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” The true universe, he believed, exists as a single reality with no past, present or future, much like how Plato describes the creator being outside of time. What if astrophysicists centuries from now could crack the code of time’s relativity and foresee future events. The problem of foreknowledge and free will would again arise, and the theological solution that we discussed here could be repurposed to that end.

Divine Determinism and Divine Goodness

Assume for the moment that human behavior is fully determined according to rigid bio-chemical laws. We have no genuinely free wills, and hence we lack the power to have done otherwise. In spite of whatever feeling of individuality I may have, I am only a small piece of a physical world with causal connecting links that extend billions of years into the past. When I buy a scoop of chocolate ice cream, that decision is the result of motives that were bio-chemically imprinted within my brain by my environment – such as the influence of my parents. The very existence of my parents, in turn, rests on a complex set of causes pertaining to their parents. This, in turn, rests on the history of the human race, life on earth and the origin of the cosmos. According to the religious believer, God is at the beginning of this elaborate chain of events. He creates the raw material of the universe, devises the laws by which they operate, and sets in motion a continually-cascading sequence of events that mechanically unfold throughout time and result in me purchasing a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Further, as an all-knowing being, God would be fully aware of the outcome of this cosmic chain of events. In short, my act of purchasing chocolate ice cream is ultimately caused by God.

If all human acts were as innocent as buying ice cream, then God’s ultimate role in causing human actions would be no big deal. But that is not how it is. We very often do vile things, such as enslave, rape, kill, and even wipe out entire races of people.  Just like my purchase of ice cream, all of these actions would trace back to God as their originator. Even Hitler’s conduct was initially set in motion by the grand architect of the universe, and, at the tail end of an elaborate chain of events, Hitler robotically carried out God’s programming. The problem here is that we assume that God is a perfectly good being, but if determinism is true, then God seems to be responsible for all human evil. As Augustine states it,

We believe that all things that exist are from the one God. But there is a troubling problem: If sins come from souls which God has created, and those souls are from God, how that sins are not immediately traced back to God? [On Free Choice, 1.2.4]

The argument against divine goodness from determinism, then, is this:

  1. Evil human actions are determined by a necessary causal chain of mental and physical events.
  2. This chain ultimately traces back to God who is the creator.
  3. Therefore, God is responsible for evil human actions.

The problem is compounded if the believer holds that God punishes people for their evil conduct, either in this life or the afterlife. If Hitler’s evil conduct was the result of how God programmed the world, it does not make sense for God to then punish Hitler.

Augustine and other theologians maintain that the only satisfactory solution to this problem is to deny determinism and embrace genuine free will. By inserting free will within the natural sequence of causal events, there is a gap that keeps us from tracing causes back to God. For all we know, God set the wheels of the cosmos in motion to culminate with a paradise on earth, but, when the chain of causes and effects finally reached the level of human choice, we freely imposed our own plans on human activity. God may have intended Hitler to be a gentle artist, but Hitler, of his own free choosing, went into politics to unleash his evil plan. The critical point is that once God created creatures with free wills, then those creatures, and not God, are responsible for the suffering they cause. If Hitler performs an act that is truly free, then God cannot force him to willfully choose to act benevolently, and never malevolently. To do so would contradict the very notion of a free choice. Once Hitler is created with free will, it is then up to him, not God, how he uses it. It is then impossible for God to guarantee that a free creature will always use her free will for good purposes.

So does human free will get God off the hook for the evil actions that we perform? Maybe not. When we commit evil, we do not usually do so from arbitrary choice but rather from excessive desire. Augustine himself maintains that excessive desire is the cause of adultery, murder, blasphemy and any sin whatever. The natural next question is why desires are so overpowering? That is, why did God create us in such a way that certain desires and drives become irresistible impulses? Hitler’s hatred towards non-Germans and his desire for domination were unquenchable obsessions. Couldn’t God have dialed down the desire for domination in human nature just a little, and maybe switched off the xenophobia gene completely? This would in no way compromise our free will, but instead give us a fighting chance to exercise that free will more responsibly. We cannot here explore the many answers by theologians to this question, but consider a brief thought experiment. There is talk among scientists about radically redesigning the human genome to create a species of humans that would be better suited for colonization of outer space. They are in a sense playing God in the development of a new earth inhabited by modified humans. If you were a consultant for these scientists, would you recommend genetically toning down our worst human impulses to make this new species of humans less prone to commit evil? Your answer here may reveal the extent to which free will absolves God from the evil actions that we perform here on this planet.

Divine Fate and Free Will

The three Moirai (Fates). Relief, grave of Alexander von der Mark, by Johann Gottfried Schadow. Old National Gallery, Berlin

We saw earlier that determinism and fate are different concepts: with determinism there is just one path to follow and one outcome, but with fate there are two or more paths to choose from where each path has the same outcome. Divine fate plays a role in many religious traditions, and a vivid example is in Homer’s Odyssey. In that story, the hero Odysseus blinds a one-eyed cyclops, and the god Poseidon, outraged by Odysseus’ action, fates him to be lost at sea for ten years. No matter how hard Odysseus tries, he fails to return home. Technically speaking, fate is not logically incompatible with genuine free will in the way that determinism is. For, when Odysseus attempts to get home by one route, at that moment he has the power to attempt any number of alternative routes. The problem is that, while Odysseus can make genuinely free will choices, they are completely ineffective for achieving his goal of getting home.

Fatalism is not as popular now as in the past, and, in our modern way of thinking, we would say that fate had nothing to do with Odysseus’s failure to get home, and it was just coincidental that each of his attempts failed. Similarly, for 25 years I have been trying to visit China, but any number of family obligations have prevented me from doing so. I do not think that fate is conspiring against me, and I can give perfectly rational explanations for each failed attempt. Nevertheless, many religious believers hold that God has a special plan for each of us, and one way or another that plan will come about. Your divinely appointed destiny may be to marry a particular person, or to get a particular job, or to go through a particularly difficult experience. Though you may attempt to evade God’s plan, it will ultimately come about. On face value, then, divine fate appears to be compatible with genuine free will. But we will next look at two arguments to the contrary, both from ancient Greece.

The first criticism of the compatibility between divine fate and free will is what ancient philosophers called “the lazy argument.” Return to Odysseus who is fated to be lost at sea, despite his efforts to the contrary. If all his attempts are futile, why should he even bother trying? Odysseus would be better off just lounging peacefully on some island for ten years, and setting sail for home after that. I would have been better off just waiting for God to drop my future wife into my life, rather than putting out the effort to find her. The Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) presents it this way. Suppose that I am fated to have an illness. It makes no difference, then, whether I see a physician or not since I will have that illness no matter what. Thus, I may as well not bother going to the physician and just stay home. Stated more formally, the lazy argument is this:

  1. If major events in my life are fated, then they will occur no matter what I do
  2. If those evens will occur no matter what I do, then I should just do nothing
  3. Therefore, if major events in my life are fated, then I should just do nothing

According to Cicero, if we adopt fatalism, then “we must remain in absolute idleness, and abstain from all action whatever” (On Fate). The point of the lazy argument is that fate makes free will actions pragmatically futile in a way that should discourage us from taking any action. Technically speaking, however, this does not show that fate is logically incompatible with free will, since it still is within my power to perform actions even if they do not lead to a different outcome. It may be pointless or irrational for Odysseus to attempt to return home early, but the possibility is still open for him to freely try to do so none the less. The lazy argument only shows that free will actions are senseless when our lives are fated, not that such actions are impossible.

The second criticism of the compatibility between divine fate and free will is offered by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus (279-206 BCE): the larger web of causes that leads to a fated event becomes so complex and far reaching that there is little if any opportunity for a genuine free choice. According to Chrysippus, when fate decrees a particular outcome, it also decrees the path to that outcome. If I was fated to marry my wife, then I was co-fated to go to the party where I first met her. If I was fated to get my job, then I was co-fated to acquire the right credentials and apply for that job. This all makes sense: if you fail to put out the appropriate effort, then your destiny cannot be fulfilled. But if we push this reasoning a little further, it becomes clear that fate is no longer what guides me to my outcome, but, rather, determinism does. For, if attending the party and marrying my wife were both co-fated, then there was only one path that led to marrying my wife, and any other possible effort would have been a dead end, such as signing up with an online dating service. Further, if both the party and the marriage were co-fated, then I had no genuinely free choice in either of those decisions, or the thousands of other co-fated events surrounding them within the vast web of interconnected causes that led to my marriage. There was also my decision to go to that party rather than another, to first speak with her at the moment that I did, and nurture the relationship along for the next few years. All of these events need to integrate with the other future fated chains of events in my life, such as the birth of my children, and the fated chains of events of everyone else that overlap with my life. As this web of causes extends further and further in every direction, the fate of every event is locked together, and genuine free choice is not an option. In short, co-fatalism collapses into determinism.

Free Will in Heaven

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that God created humans to have genuine free wills. Now, once God creates me with free will, he cannot guarantee that I will use my free will to do only good and never evil. My choice to do an evil action is up to me, and God cannot force me to do otherwise. This is a key assumption in the famous “free will defense” to the problem of evil, discussed in a previous chapter. That is how free will works while we are alive on earth, but when we die and presumably go to heaven, do we retain our free will there? It could be that upon entering the afterlife God strips us of our free wills and makes us obedient drones who will never do evil again. But Augustine and other theologians think otherwise and hold that we will indeed have our free wills intact in heaven. This creates an obvious problem: if there is freedom in heaven, then we might freely choose to commit evil up there, just as we do down here. This means that there is no guarantee for any of us that heaven will be truly “heavenly”. The argument is this:

  1. Continued existence in a heavenly realm involves retaining a free will.
  2. God cannot guarantee that free creatures will always act benevolently.
  3. Therefore, God cannot guarantee that free creatures in a heavenly realm will act benevolently.

The type of evil that might arise depends on what heaven is like. Suppose, for example, that the afterlife involved a community of free agents with new bodies. If those bodies were capable of experiencing physical pain, then they would be vulnerable to physical suffering which other free agents might impose on them. Suppose instead that heaven consisted of only spiritual or mental entities. In comparison to God’s infinite greatness, our condition would be that of finite mental entities with limited mental qualities. These mental vulnerabilities, then, could possibly be exploited by free creatures to produce mental suffering. This might involve the suffering that results from deceit, degradation, malicious taunting, and competition.

To guard against possible malevolent actions of other free creatures, suppose that God isolated each person from everyone else. Even then, the isolated person, as a free agent, would have it within his power to be self-destructive and inflict himself with suffering. If the individual could experience physical pain by means of possessing a new body, then physical masochism is a possibility. If he exists as only a mental entity, then voluntary self-degradation could result in mental suffering. It is difficult to explore the complete range of heavenly configurations to show that none exclude the possibility of suffering. However, it is sufficient to see that realms containing free creatures with finite abilities will be ones in which suffering is at least possible.

Augustine attempted to solve this problem by arguing that, while we retain free will in heaven, the sinful desires that we experience on earth will no longer have control over us in the afterlife:

We should not suppose that because sin will have no power to delight them [i.e., the redeemed], free will must be withdrawn. On the contrary, it will be even more truly free, because they are set free from delight in sinning and can take constant delight in not sinning. [City of God, 22.30]

Let’s examine three possible explanations for why we might resist sinning in heaven. First, perhaps by the time we get there we will have developed the right kind of virtuous habits from our experience here on earth and be more successful at resisting sin. Residents of heaven consist only of people who were believers on earth and thus have had prior screening on earth. This would assure that all inhabitants of heaven are team players. Although not a full guarantee, this would provide good reasons for expecting residents of heaven to act morally. However, this solution assumes that believers on earth are fundamentally different kinds of people than nonbelievers, and have a special set of virtues. This, though, is an empirical question about the respective virtues of believers and nonbelievers, and little indicates that believers are more moral, less malicious, and more trustworthy than nonbelievers.

A second reason why we might resist doing evil in heaven is that in the immediate presence of God we will lose interest in the lure that sins provide. Unlike with life on earth, in heaven we would see God face to face and not reject his goodness. This solution is especially strong when heaven is understood as the absorption of the individual into God, as with the Hindu Atman-Brahman. Here, the individual would be identified with God so that the free will of the individual would be the same as the free will of God. God’s goodness would be our goodness, and God’s free choices would be our free choices. If God is eternally happy, then we too would be eternally happy. But that is Hinduism, and traditional Western religious traditions do not look kindly on the idea of individual believers being absorbed into God, either in this life or in the afterlife.  Instead, God is transcendent, wholly other, and distinct from his creatures. On this way of thinking none of God’s creatures, either in this life or the next, can experience God directly. Even in heaven, we would still have only an incomplete and imperfect understanding of God, and our understanding of him could never go beyond our own limitations. Our incentive to imitate God’s goodness, then, would be restricted by our limited capacity to fully comprehend God, as is the case on earth. Thus, even seeing God face to face would not provide a virtual guarantee that we will be good.

A third possible explanation considers whether we have been approaching the whole issue in the wrong way with an overly earth-like view of heaven. That is, the discussions so far have presented heaven as existing in time and involving human-type interaction and human-type thoughts. When interpreted in these ways, it is not surprising that the concept of heaven might mirror the evils on earth. The true nature of heaven might be so other-worldly that earth-like descriptions are completely misleading. For the sake of argument, however, let’s suppose that there was an other-worldly depiction of heaven that allowed us to retain our free wills yet never sin. A consequence of this possibility is that the present world is not the best possible world that God could create which contained free creatures, which has been a major assumption by theologians for millennia. This then creates an even greater problem for the theologian.

Does It Matter?

So far we have seen that we cannot definitively prove either that we have or do not have genuine free will. It also looks like no definitive answer will come any time soon if it ever does. At this point we should ask whether the issue even matters. Whether we have genuine free will or not, each day we try to make the best choices that we can and that is what is important. Even if some divine being announced the answer to the world and permanently settled it, this would still probably not change how we conduct our ordinary lives. It would indeed be interesting to know, but we would still behave the same. So, after 2,000 years of philosophically wrangling over the issue, maybe we should set it aside.

While the question of free will itself may not matter, it is connected with a larger issue that certainly does, and that is a tension within our society between scientific value and humanistic value. On the one hand, we can look at the world from a strictly scientific perspective as a closed system in which everything about the world, society and individual people is explained in purely mechanical terms. Think about this like an automobile repair manual, which is essential for explaining how your vehicle operates, all the parts that make it up, and how to fix it. Science brings us an endless series of such manuals for everything that we see, including ourselves, and it is clear that this brings enormous benefits for human civilization is plain. On the other hand, we can look at our existence in the world less scientifically and more in terms of what matters to us. Just as an auto repair manual does not explain all of the wonderful things that you can do with your car, science itself does not tell us what we find valuable in life.

We see this tension between scientific vs. humanistic values reflected in the arguments concerning determinism and free will. On the science side, determinists emphasize the importance of understanding the biological mechanics of human nature, and they warn us not to be misled by speculations that human minds might exist apart from human bodies. Determinists also emphasize the importance of recognizing that human nature is fundamentally predictable, and they warn us not to be misled by speculations that our thoughts and actions are completely unbounded. On the humanistic side, free will advocates emphasize the values of morality, dignity, active engagement, and personal transformation, and they warn us that all of this can be lost if we restrict our ideas of human nature to biological mechanics. German philosopher Immanuel Kant deeply felt this tension. He argued that when the world is viewed scientifically, there is no free will, and everything happens in accord with laws of nature. Yet, when viewed humanistically, we need free will to explain human values. For Kant, there is no choosing one side over the other, and both conclusions are the outcome of independent and equally inevitable reasoning processes. So too is the tension inevitable.


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The example of the executioner is from David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Section 8.

The experiment regarding the conscious feeling of freedom is discussed by Benjamin Libet, “Do We Have Free Will?” in Robert Kane, ed., Oxford Handbook on Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 551-564.

Cicero’s discussion of the lazy man argument is in On Fate.

Karl Marx’s discussion of praxis is in 1844 Manuscripts.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s discussion of human freedom is in On the Dignity of Man (1486).

Jean Paul Sartre’s discussion of human freedom is in Existentialism as a Humanism (1946).

William James’s discussion of human habit is in Talks to Teachers (1899), chapter 8.

Karl Jaspers’s discussion of boundary situations is in Introduction to Philosophy (Einführung in die Philosophie1950), chapter 2.

Harry Frankfurt’s account of first and second order desires is in “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 67, 1, 1971.

Cleanthes account of divine foreknowledge is presented in Cicero On Fate.

Plato’s account of time is in Timaeus, 34.

Augustine’s view of free will and divine goodness is in On Free Choice, 1.2.4.

Augustine’s view of freedom in heaven is in City of God, 22.30.

Originally published by Dr. James Fieser from Great Issues in Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Martin.