The Existence of Free Will:
An Argument For and Against
This paper explores the concept of freewill and various types of arguments surrounding the topic. It does so by examining the methods by which various schools of thought come to conclusions regarding free will. The free will theodicy serves as a doctrine for the religious. They believe that God created humanity with free will for the purpose of making its moral choices more relevant. This use this to justify the suffering of the innocent in the world. Science serves as a tool for establishing personal viewpoints regarding the existence of free will or the lack thereof. Determinists cite cause and effect as the controlling force for all humanity’s fate and utilize Conway’s Game of Life as an example. Empirical instances and scenarios are explored wherein it is established that free will is not made available in somecases. Finally, the true ambiguity of the the question is explored via examples of alternatives to life as an agent who believes she is free, perceives it.
Religion and the Free Will Theodicy
One who subscribes to the Free Will Theodicy believes that a monotheistic deity granted free-will to mankind on the grounds that it is necessary for an individual to have to voluntary option to behave in a manner either consistent or inconsistent with the moral guidelines set forth by said deity. Upon completion of life, the degree to which individuals actively chose to behave in manner distinguished as “moral” would determine whether or not they would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife as a consequence. This, the free will theologians argue, warrants the suffering of the innocent. They believe that such suffering is an unfortunate byproduct for the greater good. By allowing mankind to make it’s own judgments and decisions, it is perceived that humanity is given the authentic opportunity to accomplished a life lived morally.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
The consistency of this viewpoint, based on various God enforced interventions in scripture, can be disputed. However, many believers respond with the adage “God works in mysterious ways”.
Richard Schoenig argues against this viewpoint by stating that among a selection of worlds wherein freewill, suffering, and afterlife retribution varies, the world as believers of the free will theodicy see it, is the least desirable choice. This makes a contention for a deity who is not one or more of the following: all powerful, benevolent or logical.
However, the perspective of free will theodicy is appealing tosome as it places direct accountability on individuals for their own actions, as A.C. MacIntyre (1957) states for the following reason:
The discovery of casual explanations for our actions, preferences and decisions shows that we could not have done other than [sic] we have done, that responsibility is an illusion and the moral life as traditionally conceived a charade. It makes praise and blame irrelevant, except in so far as we discover these to be casually effective and while the moral judgment of agents might retain some points, those of spectators and critics would be pointless. (p. 29)
In other words, a person may fear that an agent who has acted immorally can relinquish themselves of any personal accountability. She was destined to behave in this manner and therefore it is not her fault; she was a mere pawn in a predetermined fate. But although the concept of a benevolent deity who maintains a policy of a world wide “honor system” for all of humanity may seem more ideal for a subscriber of the free will theodicy, simply wishing for a reality does not make it so. Like many religious views, this perspective is based on scripture and intuition.
Science as an Explanation for or Against Free Will
Certain individuals attempt to find an answer to major questions by scientific means. Bodily functions such as the human heart beat, and blinking, all tasks necessary for life though mostly undertaken with little or no acknowledgment from their owner, serve as an example for how a human could operate without personal intervention or choice. However, in order to make the argument more compelling, it would have to be taken further than that. No one is under the illusion that standard bodily functions are voluntary, but it is quite natural to feel that personal choice is so.
They argue that factors such as past experience, evolution, glandular reactions, etc could potentially account for every action made by every agent. Every decision made by an agent is an effect to a previous cause. Nicholas Rescher (2014) argues against recent work in neuro-physiology that he believes “strongly counter indicates the doctrine of free will” by stating “the crux of freedom lies in what one tries to do rather than in what one achieves, which-often as not-is something outside one’s control” (p. 78) citing John Locke’s man who stays in a room by choice not knowing all the doors are barred as an example. MacIntyre holds specific beliefs regarding which branch of science the source of per-determined outcomes of behavior are hidden. “It is not the physical sciences which should arouse the apprehension of the anti-deterministic, but psychology and the social sciences” (p. 28). He cites Freud’s theory that early childhood experiences influences adult behavior. This line of reasoning follows strange behavior is merely reactive based on what the agent perceives as best suiting their needs at the moment (regardless of whether it actually does) rather than voluntary.
This position can be disputed, however, citing the randomness of certain actions of many people and that repeatable actions are merely indicative of an agent operating on the assumption that they are doing what is in their own best interests. “If however, we say, as science does say, that cause and effect means a succession in time which can be repeated, then, as certainly, consciousness is not caused and there is free will” (Merrill, 1918, p. 293) as opposed to a meaningless succession of events. [Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
Yet, once could state that erratic and unpredictable behavior is often a predetermined outlier and is not foreseen by most observers as they are not privy to all the facts about the variables leading up to the erratic behavior. Mental illness and mood disorders are often cited as being one such unpredictable factor. “It is sometimes held that for an action to be voluntary it must be uncaused. With respect to uncaused actions, some philosophers have taken the position that since all occurrences are caused, including human actions and choices, nothing is ever the outcome of a free choice” (Lazerowitz,1984, p.7). This is where philosophy begins to trend toward determinism.
Determinism and Science
Determinism is a favored explanation of the scientifically inclined to argue against the concept of free will. It is the philosophical position that for every event there exist conditions that could cause no other event. This follows a line of thought that every instance in the knowable universe is a piece of an infinite chain reaction and, much like gelatin settles into and replicates a preestablished mold, the results of every action are already predetermined regardless of any individual’s ability to predict said results.
Conway’s Game of Life. Conway’s game of life, invented by British mathematician John Conway, is often cited as an elegant microcosm of preexisting conditions serving as the cause for human behavior and resulting events. The rules for Conway’s game of life are as follows:
The player (there is only one) places an initial distribution of checkers on an infinite checkerboard; one checker per square. The squares are called cells and the initial distribution is called a population. This terminology reflects one of the original objects of the game- to simulate biological evolution. Cells are live if they contain a checker and dead if empty. The population evolves in time in discrete time steps known as generations, according to a simple set of rules, applied simultaneously. The rules determine the fate of each cell according to the number of live cells in its eight neighboring cells. If a cell is empty and exactly three of its eight neighboring cells are alive, the cell itself will be born- a checker is placed there. If a cell is alive and two or three of it’s eight neighboring cells are also alive, nothing changes-the cell survives. A live cell dies (i.e., the checker is removed from the board) in two situations. If a cell is alive and four or more of its eight neighboring cells are also alive, the cell dies (from overcrowding). A live cell also dies from isolation, if it has less than two live neighbors. (Yossi, 2012,147-148)
Yossi’s description of the game played via checkers could be (and has been) executed via digital means to make the process of moving through multiple generations take place over a faster period of time for the purposes of extended study. See image:
Figure 1: Conway’s Game of Life
Because the board is infinite and the rules are complicated upon casual observation, one may not be able to predict the results of the game at the end of the ensuing one hundred generations. However, that does not make the results any less predetermined. A subscriber to determinism could argue that various factors are their own unfolding Conway’s Game of Life. Though one could easily predict situation A leading to situation B, it is difficult to have foresight into what resultant scenario could take place down the line. This, in conjunction with an infinite number of cause and effect scenarios taking place would cast the illusion of random occurrence.
Empirical Instances of Lack of Free Will. Empirical data to prove a lack of free will in an individual’s actions can be (and has been) provided. The primary piece of evidence deterministic point to when attempting to provided such data is an agent acting against their own self interest: whether it is through violent coercion, psychological manipulation, genetics, a lobotomized frontal lobe, etc. As a means of making this point, A.C. MacIntyre offers the following example:
If as a result of post-hypnotic suggestion, a man walked out of the room, producing as he did so a reason for so acting, what would be crucial would be to observe his reaction if we offered him a better reason for staying in the room. If, no matter how good the reasons we offered him, he persisted in leaving it, we should have to say his behavior was wholly casually determined; but, if the adducing of reasons could change his behavior, we should have to say that the hypnotic suggestion was not a sufficient condition per se of his walking out of the room, but was only sufficient in the absence of a good reason for staying in the room. To say this would be say that in fat the suggestion did not determine his behavior apart from his own rational processes. (38-39)
One wishing to argue against this position may posit that the circumstances posed in the previous examples are extreme. Moreover, a series of voluntary choices must surely have led up to his being hypnotized in the first place and what of the hypnotist and the others in the room who have the fortunate position of not being hypnotized? Just because in a brief instant, free will is not accessible to the hypnotized individual, does not mean that free will does not exist. It could theoretically exist for everyone in existence outside of the hypnotized man outside of that brief pocket of time in which he was hypnotized.
On the other hand, the fact that free will might exist, does not inherently mean that it does. To extend the scenario further, suppose the hypnotist had been hypnotized to conduct every single action in his life, including hypnotizing the man. Now suppose that everyone who had been witness to the events described above had been involuntarily hypnotized. Suppose all this had been done without consent or knowledge. Would there be any way to prove that this mass hypnosis had taken place? Potentially, but acquisition of that knowledge would require a long series of specific actions and discoveries by one or more individuals who had been hypnotized to take those actions and make those discoveries. Hypnosis, in this instance, could serve as an allegory of any number of influences: genetics, intelligent intervention, fate, etc.
While there are ways to give real world examples of an agent’s proven inability to act voluntarily, there is no true way to unequivocally prove that any individual’s actions or the results of said actions were not predetermined. “The fact that the problem remains unsolved suggests that perhaps the consciousness of free choice is not vouchsafe at all” (Lazerowitz, p. 4). And while the results of scientific inquiry may inform one’s philosophical standpoint, it can never truly reveal all the mysteries of metaphysics; to explain the nature of being with hard data is where the question of being travels from the classification of philosophy to science.
The True Ambiguity of the Free Will Question
Barring an extreme discovery or sequence of events, it is doubtful that anyone will ever know if free will is truly granted to humanity. Though Nicholas Rescher argues that the fact humans are mistaken some of the time does not mean that humans are mistaken all of the time and has qualms with the assertion that free will is the product of deliberation, his approach needs a broader interpretation. For the assurance one feels that they are the maker of their own destiny is mere intuition that cannot be qualitatively proven. In response to Rescher’s assertion, one could make the case that it is possible for humans to be mistaken all of the time. Consider sight; those with functioning eyes see shapes and colors. These shapes and colors are how the brain perceives them, but is that their true state of being? One can look at a red apple and interpret it’s redness as a pivotal point to it’s being; it makes it appear ripe and, being an appetite stimulant, it can induce hunger. Throughout one’s entire interaction with the apple, they would not consider that the redness of the apple is merely how their eyes are perceiving it based on the light it absorbs or reflects. Constant mindfulness of how the brain processes and perceives the light traveling through retinas is not necessary for one to live their life and for one with a more poetic perspective of such things, it may inhibit their inability to enjoy the apple. So it is with the question of free will.[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
The possibilities for the answers to the mysteries of free will range from the straightforward cause and effect explanations to the more fantastical explanations. Rescher’s experiences have led him to believe that the majority of them fall to the latter. “Free will deniers often claim that it is something mysterious and supernatural, requiring a suspension of disbelief regarding the standard view of natural occurrence subject to the principle of causality” (p.79). It can be inferred that the individuals to which he refers include believers of psychics, astrology. fate, etc. However, this does not account for all free will deniers. The aforementioned determinists. for example, include many non-theists, skeptics and nihilists who would be hard pressed to express beliefs in anything remotely supernatural.
Whether or not there is an intelligence behind a predetermined series of events remains unseen. Given cart-Blanche to speculate and a healthy imagination, one could list a long series of scenarios that, though scientifically unlikely, cannot be completely disproved: the entirety of one’s life being a computer simulation or a long fever dream, controlling diety(s) paving paths where every move and every event is decided based on their whims, living in a fiction, etc. These are fancies one cannot prove, but that does not make them untrue as that would also be the case were they true.
It could also be predetermined, that though there is no free will, humanity will never learn that free will does not exist. Were this the case, the knowledge or lack thereof wouldn’t effect the outcome of anything as whatever happens would have happened regardless. Some individuals would need the illusion of free will to perceive life as satisfying and worthwhile and they may be predetermined to live in that illusion and live happy lives or they may be predetermined, though some series of preset circumstances, not to live in that illusion and live unhappy lives or whatever number of infinite possibilities for which such people could have been predestined.
The only concrete fact in regards to free will is that it is safe to assume that humans have no clue as to it’s nature or existence and that is what makes it a topic for philosophy.
Conclusions and Future Discussion
Like most metaphysical topics, the question of free will is one that has been discussed and debated for nearly as long as humans have had language and there is still no concrete answer. Some people turn to theology and the concept of God for the answer; their answers lie primarily within prewritten text and intuition. The more scientifically minded turn to study, inquiry, and data for answers regarding this question. They design complex proofs, algorithms, and games as a method of testing and expressing their beliefs. This provides a genesis for a personal theory, but once again, this falls to personal preference and intuition as the question as to whether every action any one takes is voluntary or not is impossible to measure scientifically. Like many philosophical inquiries, the most prudent conclusion one can come to is no conclusion.
This does not mean, though, that discussion of the subject is pointless. If one falls into the category that needs to believe one way or the other in order to live a fulfilling life, discussion could serve the very practical purpose of reaffirming and strengthening one’s life view. In this way, it is necessary and entertaining to be aware the of all potential viewpoints. Like the soreness of muscles after they have been given a work out, dissenting opinions offer the opportunity to challenge and strengthen one’s life view.
Merrill, A. (1918). Free Will. The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods,15(11), 293-293.
Lazerowitz, M. (1984). Free Will. Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana De Filosofía, 16(48), 3-17.
MacIntyre, A. (1957). Determinism. Mind, 66(261), 28-41.
Rescher, N. (2014). Evidentiating Free Will. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 28(1), 79-106.
Schoenig, R. (1998). The Free Will Theodicy. Religious Studies, 34(4), 457-470.
Yossi Elran. (2012). Retrolife and The Pawns Neighbors. The College Mathematics Journal,43(2),
In that case, however, one may assert that it was their predetermined fate to hold the agent accountable for her own actions and it was also a matter of fate that she would face the unpleasant consequences.
After all, how many people are there that could, even if they wanted to, stop their own heart from beating on command?
This is excluding, of course, extreme examples such as an entirely full board or an entirely empty board wherein the results would be obvious (i.e. complete extinction).
This is in reference not to actual hypnosis, but a theoretical magical hypnosis that grants the hypnotist complete control over the hypnotized.
After all, a character in a novel may say they have free will and would be written as truly believing and feeling as if they had free will, but would be totally incorrect. They only exist as they are written on the page and every action they take and every outcome is reliant entirely on the whims of the author.
Though it could be predetermined that one’s life view is strengthened or weakened via intense philosophical discussion.