Objections and Responses

Past and present debates incorporate many objections to free will with corresponding replies.

CHOICE AND CHANCE. Free will itself is not compatible with having duties and being responsible because free choices are by definition uncaused and indeterministic, which means that they are mere uncontrolled chance events or accidents.

But, say free willists, chance events do not satisfy many conditions that define responsible free choices. They do not involve deliberation, knowledge of alternatives or of right and wrong, desires, dispositions and intentions, or the subjective experience of selecting or trying. When free choices are made, these conditions bring about inclinations without necessitating a particular choice. These conditions are the very essence of self-control and self-causation, not of chance.

UBIQUITOUS CAUSATION. Because all events have causes, free choices and all effort-makings have causes. There are no exceptions to deterministic causation.

Free will defenders respond that the very concept of causation is ambiguous, not clear and distinct. Free originative choices can be uncaused or "contracausal" in one sense, yet caused in another. Free choices have necessary causal conditions such as knowledge, desires, and (if moral) a sense of right and wrong; in their absence, free choices cannot occur. But these are not sufficient causal conditions in whose presence only one outcome must occur. Only with respect to sufficient causal conditions are free choices uncaused. With respect to necessary conditions, they are caused. The philosophical options are more complex than simple indeterminism, which denies the relevance of all causal considerations to free choice, versus determinism, which affirms the rigid causal determination of all choices. Partisans of free will may adopt libertarianism, which affirms that existing causal conditions limit but do not necessitate choices that cannot occur in their absence.

Some proponents of free will claim that self-creative choices are made by an enduring substantive self that is exempt from normal event-causation (Chisholm; O'Connor). Others hold that choices are made by events within that stream of consciousness that constitutes personal selfhood (Edwards, 1969; Kane, 1985, 1996, 2002). Still others claim that agency causation is not so radically different from event causation (Clarke).

CAUSATION BY STRONGEST MOTIVES. Experience shows that all our choices are determined by the strongest desires or sets of cooperating desires belonging to our settled character.

In response, free willists argue that experience actually shows that effort-making and self-creative choosing occur only when character, dispositions, and desires are in conflict and prevailing inclinations are not settled in advance—only when given motives are not sufficiently powerful to resolve motivational conflict. Free choices function to resolve conflicting motives when none are sufficiently powerful themselves to overcome their competitors. Sometimes choice boosts an inclination that is in conflict with others and makes it the strongest. Usually our choices are completely determined by our strongest inclinations, but even then we are indirectly responsible for them if our earlier choices and efforts helped to create them.

THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE OTHERWISE. Being able to choose otherwise is merely hypothetical, not categorical or absolute. Even on deterministic grounds, we can choose or could have chosen otherwise if our desires, dispositions, character, or other conditions are or were otherwise. This is quite sufficient for responsible choice.

On the contrary, free willists respond, hypothetical conditions are still incompatible with the deep and ineradicable intuition that we are responsible only if our choices and efforts originate with us; if they originate in heredity and/or environment, these, not we, are responsible for them and the actions that issue from them. Complete determination is incompatible with individual responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness.

THE SCIENTIFIC WORLDVIEW. Free will is incompatible with what natural science tells us about the universe and about ourselves.

Free willists reply that Newtonian science had no place for free will because it regarded everything, including human choices, as completely determined and absolutely predictable, given existing facts and natural laws; but this worldview is now obsolete. Quantum physics recognizes indeterminateness and unpredictability within the depths of nature, including human brains. Random quantum events are themselves not within our control, admittedly, but they make room for creative self-control, just as Newtonian physics excluded it. On a more macroscopic level, modern brain scans reveal indeterminate, unresolved conflicts within and between different regions of the brain that are resolved when "executive control" is exercised (Posner and DiGirolamo).

Objections and replies to problems of free will are almost inexhaustible, and every response seems to generate another round of objections and responses. Free will and philosophical issues relating to it have been debated for over 2,000 years and will be, perhaps, for thousands more.

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