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On Free Will I: Executive Summary

Over the ages, the question of whether we have free will has engaged, confronted, and puzzled philosophers probably more than any other issue, and untold numbers of papers, conferences, books and debates have been expended on tackling it. It is no surprise that so much philosophical ink has been spilled on this question, because it is in a sense the question upon which all other questions depend. If there is no free will, and thus no moral responsibility, it seems we might as well shut down the churches, throw open the prisons, and eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. (Or not. After all, if there is no free will, the concept of what we might or should do is meaningless; in such case, no one could do anything other than what they actually do.)

However, despite the lack of anything approaching consensus, through the ages one position has received considerable acclaim. That position is dualism, the belief that there is some kind of magical, irreducible mind-stuff, distinct from the matter and energy we encounter every day, that animates us and confers upon us our rational and sensory faculties. Advocates of this mind-stuff usually assert that only by this means could we hope to possess free will, that any account of how our minds work that does not include something other than matter and energy obeying physical laws must perforce deny some important or desirable quality of our nature.

This is the first post in a five-part series that will critically analyze this hoary wisdom, showing that it is well-intentioned but mistaken. Mind-stuff is not only unsupported by the evidence, it is unnecessary. Free will is not as difficult to come by as the dualists think. In fact, free will is completely compatible with materialism, the position that all that exists is made of matter and energy, and for this reason the philosophical stance combining the two is usually called compatibilism. That is the position I will be defending.

But before we can lay a foundation, we must first clear away the debris, and so the next post in this series will critically examine and debunk dualism in all its varieties. What these doctrines all amount to is a plea that we not look too closely, an attempt to mark certain areas as off-limits for philosophical inquiry, lest we incautiously rush in and find something that Man Was Not Meant to Know, something that will forever shatter our tenuous but necessary belief in choice and moral responsibility and send us shrieking into the night.

I reject this cowardice disguised as modesty. There may be truths that humanity was not meant to know, but I have yet to come across any, and I see no reason to believe that this is one of them. I have always found it a far superior plan to first find out what is true and then build our happiness around that, rather than deciding what we want to be true and then living as if it was. The latter course of action almost invariably brings catastrophe, when our illusions collide with a Nature that cannot be mocked; the former course gives just as much if not more potential for happiness, I have found, and often brings with it unexpected benefits as well. If some philosophers choose to leave these areas unplumbed, then I will simply have to take the candle of inquiry from them and stride full into the darkness to see what there is to be found; and this is just what I intend to do.

Once the foundation is set, Parts III, IV and V will build upon it. Each of these three will confront a perennial fear raised by dualists against compatibilism, dismantle it, and offer a positive alternative that shows how a purely physical account of the mind can still provide the important aspects of free will. These three hobgoblins are as follows:


  • If materialism is true, there is no free will because there is no genuine unpredictability to our thoughts and deeds. A sufficiently knowledgeable observer could perfectly predict - or perfectly control - our every action.

  • If materialism is true, there is no free will because there is no genuine choice. Whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise, and there is only one possible future regardless of what any of us do.

  • If materialism is true, there is no free will because there is no moral responsibility. Each person's actions are determined by forces beyond their control, and thus it is pointless to blame or praise, reward or punish, anyone for any act.

So that my readers may breathe a sigh of relief, I will reveal my conclusions ahead of time. Yes, we do have free will; we do have the ability to make genuine and meaningful choices, we genuinely are not fully predictable by any outside agent, and we genuinely are morally responsible for our choices, and none of these things require the existence of a Cartesian theater or a dualist ghost in the machine. In this case at least, the common beliefs about free will are happily true. All I intend to do is show how such phenomena could arise in the clear light of reason, without recourse to miracle or mysticism; and though this quest may require us to discard a few common assumptions, we will see that they are not and could not be of any value in giving us the kind of free will we think we want.

(Note: I am greatly indebted to Daniel Dennett, whose laudably fearless works on this topic - particularly Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves - gave me the confidence to plunge into it for myself, and helped me enormously to clarify my own thoughts. Many of the conclusions in what follows were arrived at with his guidance.)

Other posts in this series:

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