Free will, is it a meaningful term?

Free will is a foundational belief for any religion which has human perfection as the primary reason for the universe’s existence. Without freedom to choose, the very concept of perfecting oneself is meaningless. Reward and punishment has no place in a deterministic world view, as there can be nothing more unjust as treating people differently based on involuntary actions.

Free will must therefore be an nonnegotiable tenet of a religion like Judaism, which proclaims, “And thou shalt choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:15), and which is very clear about reward for the good, and punishment for the wicked. But it is not an exclusively religious motivation that drives people to believe in free will, for many secular people find freedom of choice a too basic human quality to let go of. After all, the very notion of justice has no meaning without the freedom to choose. Without free will the inbuilt anger and hate that we feel towards wrongdoers, is entirely unjustified, and if we let go of the idea of free will, we will have to rethink our whole justice system, and we will have to justify our treatment of criminals.

Even in our personal lives, the idea of determinism sounds scary to many. The possibility that our whole life might be predetermined for us, and that we have no actual control on our decisions and actions, is indeed a scary one. We see miserable and unsuccessful people around us, and the thought that that might as well have happened to us, or that it still can, without us having any way to overcome it, is truly frightening. It is therefore totally understandable why people would passionately want to hold on to their freedom, and strongly oppose anyone who wants to question it.

However, reality does not always seem to care about our feelings, and it has its own callous way of existence which is entirely ambivalent to how we would like it to be, and in philosophy and science we have to make our ideas fit in with reality and not the other way round. So we need to examine the notion of free will, define it, and see whether or not it stands up to criticism.

Instead of using the term “free will”, I would like to use “libertarianism”, as compatibilists have redefined free will to fit in with determinism and I do not want to get entangled now with the question of hard determinism versus compatibilism. 

I would like to define libertarianism as, “The philosophical position that we initiate our choices freely, and that we are therefore accountable for them.”

And its opposite, determinism as, “The philosophical position that our choices are a part of long chains of cause and effect or a result of randomness, and that we are therefore not accountable for them.”

The notion of free will is that at certain points of choice we could have chosen differently to what we have chosen. That results in two claims. Firstly it means unpredictability, and that should the situation be rewinded to the exact same conditions that it was during the first choice, we are not guaranteed that the outcome would be the same. Secondly, that the change in outcome is not due to randomness, but due to the individual in question, who can be held responsible for them.

The first condition mentioned clearly violates determinism by definition, but is compatible with, or indeed identical to, indeterminism. However, the second claim is incompatible with indeterminism too, as we shall yet see.

I would first like to make the case for determinism, and then I would like to show that even if determinism is not accepted, there is still no room for free will.

Indeterminism is the claim that there can be two absolutely identical situations, and yet they might have different outcomes from one another. The problem is obvious: if situation A produced B then B is the natural progression from A, for otherwise why did B happen. If B is the natural progression from A, how can A2 (the second event), which is completely identical to A, produce anything other than B?

Two identical events must therefore produce identical outcomes, and any variation in outcome must be due to a corresponding variation in the situation. This obviously leaves no room for free will, as every ‘choice’ is predetermined by the conditions, and is theoretically predictable should all the variables involved be known.

Now, according to indeterminism, which claims that sub-atomic fluctuation can arise out of mysterious randomness not having been caused by anything, it is indeed possible to have two events with the exact same circumstances which nevertheless have different results due to a different combination of random fluctuations. This would mean that the first requirement for libertarianism, that rewinding the clock could result in a different choice, is met. However, what remains to be explained is how this random variation is initiated by, or related to, me.

In order for this choice to be seen as mine it has to be related in some way to the essence that is me, perhaps my consciousness. It is not enough that the random fluctuation took place in my brain, for that would not yet make me responsible for it considering that it is random. Therefore, indeterminism has nothing to do with libertarianism.

Libertarianism is therefore a different claim altogether. It can no longer be explained in physical terms, since physical phenomena are either caused by other physical phenomena, or uncaused at all. Libertarianism is a claim of creation ex nihilo. A choice is free because it is consciously being created out of nothing by the person making the choice.

This claim is no longer a philosophical claim. The problem of creation ex nihilo is not how something comes out of nothing, for that can be asked of indeterminism too. It is a far greater problem, and the very claim is inherently incoherent, not only not understood. If a choice is made without anything causing that choice other than myself, which is the only way a choice can be described as free in this context, then the question, “why have I done it” is meaningless, since there is no why. If I can give a reason for why I chose A rather than B, then that reason caused me to make that choice. The only answer that can be given to this question is, “because I chose to”, but this answer is meaningless since that is the very question being asked: Why have I chosen so?

Libertarianism then is the claim that my choices are initiated by my free will for no reason whatsoever. For no reason whatsoever I sometimes choose to do A rather than B and other times B rather than A. Can I be expected to have chosen otherwise? Well, there was no reason why I chose what I chose, it was a completely irrational choice not based on any reasoning, so how could I have been expected to choose otherwise? Can I be held responsible for my choices? Well, once again, if my choices are based on nothing, then why should I want to choose A rather than B or vice versa? Why is it more admirable to choose A for no reason than choosing B for no reason? How can I be told what to choose if my choices are anyway meaningless?

Do I myself know what I am about to choose right before I actually make that choice? Well, if a choice is something uncaused by anything other than the choice itself, then I myself cannot know what that will be before the choice is actually made. I find out what it is whilst I make it, meaning that I, as a person, am completely disconnected from my choice up until the point where I actually make it. In what way then is the freedom of the choice actually relevant in any meaningful way? In what way is it my choice rather than yours? In what way is working towards becoming a better person helpful if the choice is anyway divorced from my prior experiences (if it is not, it is not free)?

A choice is therefore either a result of cause and effect and random fluctuations, or a meaningless initiation by something referred to (for no clear reason) as me. Combining these and saying that it is a combination of prior causation and of choice, is not helpful at all either. As far as the choice is caused or influenced by prior phenomena, it is not free, and as far as it is initiated by me, it is meaningless. That is, after eliminating all the aspects of the choice that are due to prior causation, we are left with the essence that can be said to be free, but that part of the choice, between the two or more options that are left over to choose from, is meaningless, as the choice is made for no reason whatsoever.

Since people are not free and cannot be held accountable for their choices, we must abandon our view of the social structure which entails concepts like good and bad, judgement and justice. People who commit bad things are not bad people, but people who commit bad things. They should not be judged, nor hated, but seen as victims of the causes that brought them to commit these crimes. Society does not have to change much on a practical level, since we should still lock up people who cause unstable societies in the same way that we lock up the dangerously mentally ill. Based on utilitarian principles, locking up wrongdoers is bound to increase happiness in the world despite causing pain for the individual being locked up, and it is therefore justifiable to turn the perpetrator into the victim of their behaviour rather than having others suffering from it.

However, we must stop harboring hard feelings towards those who hurt us, considering that they were not free to do otherwise. Would we be upset with someone whose fingers were forcibly put on the trigger and pulled, killing a loved one of ours? That is exactly how it is with all bad behaviour although it is not as obvious. It may seem frightening at first, but is actually very relieving once one gets used to the concept, as one can put away all hard feelings and see the world with positive spectacles. Hate is an irrational feeling, and compassion, love and sympathy are the only feelings that we should be feeling towards our fellow sentient beings.




Occam’s Razor Explained

The function of every explanation is to to take something complex and describe it in simple terms. Gravity is the most classic example. If we are going to describe the actual observed phenomena of gravity we will have to describe every instance of objects being attracted to each other, which is extremely complex. We will have to describe the apple, the moon and earth. We will have to mention my apple, your apple and our neighbours’ apples, the apple of my front garden tree and back garden tree, of the top branches and of the lower branches. It is a never ending endeavour.
The explanation for these phenomena – gravity – doesn’t necessarily have to explain it in an ultimate sense, but simplify it. So gravity (leaving out relativity for now) is the equation which helps us describe all of these phenomena in the directly-proportionate-to-mass-and-inversely-proportionate-to-the-square-of-the-distance law.
Why is gravity a good explanation for the diverse phenomena observed? Is there any evidence for it? The answer is that that is the function of an explanation: simplifying complex phenomena, and in this case that is exactly what gravity is doing.
One may still ask why is simplicity better than complexity? Why is the shorter answer more true than the longer one? And the answer is once again that it is about the questions being asked and the answers given. A complex explanation is one that leaves us with many unanswered questions in the form of the many assumptions that have to be presupposed in order to explain the phenomena, whereas the simple answer is the one that leaves us with very few questions, due to the minimum number of assumptions that have to be made.
Going back to the case of gravity. All observable cases of attraction between bodies, without the law of gravity would require an endless amount of explanations, which means that there will be an endless amount of assumptions and unanswered questions. So let’s say I formulate the following law of “falling apples”: Apples on trees are attracted to the ground. Then I go on to formulate the law of “falling oranges”: Oranges on trees are attracted to the ground, and so on. I am left over with an assumption about apples, an assumption about oranges, and about every other body in the universe, which means that I am left with billions of unanswered questions in the form of unexplained assumptions.
However, if I suppose a universal law of gravity, all I am left with unexplained is the assumption of attraction between bodies. So out of an endless amount of questions I am left with one!
Now, imagine that someone prior to Newton would come along and formulate two laws, one of terrestrial gravity and the other of celestial gravity. The first law explains why things on earth are attracted to it, and the second law would explain the motion of the planets. This would have obviously been a massive breakthrough, since it reduces the diverse, inexplicable phenomena to just two assumptions.
Along comes Newton and formulates the Universal Law of Gravity. Occam’s Razor would suggest that Newton’s explanation is more likely to be true, and the reason is now well understood. In the first model of gravity we are left with two unanswered questions, whereas in the second one we only have one question. The second explanation is objectively more true because it leaves fewer parts of the question unanswered.