What is Free Will?

A reader writes in with this question:

What is free will? I know, it sounds like a dumb question. But here lately, I’ve been really struggling to figure out what freewill actually entails. I mean, how can the will be free? Experience shows that we always take the course of action that seems best at the time. Decision-making seems to be kind of like a moral algebra. Why couldn’t this be modeled in a, for lack of a better term, “mechanical” sense?

Not only is this not a dumb question, it is one of the most profound question philosophy can address, and one which philosophers have yet to answer.

First, let us establish definitions and common notions, so that we do not confuse ourselves with ambiguities.

  1. It is the common experience of all men that they make decisions, evaluations, and judgments: men think.
    1. This thinking process in some few cases is automatic or effortless: the solution to the math puzzle leaps out at you, and is intuitively clear. Artists speak of inspirations, by which they mean: full-blown ideas simply leap into their awareness from who-knows-where. The obvious thing about thoughts and decisions of this kind is that they are effortless. It is as if something behind the stage machinery in your mind is helping you solve the problem and make the decision for you.
    2. All men also have experience with difficult decisions, where they are called upon to make a judgment on incomplete information. A judge in his chambers must weigh and balance the niceties of the law, and the jury must ponder imponderables, and decide how much weight to give the testimony of the various witnesses and physical evidence. A lad must decide whether to enlist in the military, and follow the drum, or stay and work the family farm, and follow the plough. The obvious thing about thoughts and decisions of this kind is that they are difficult, and require much thought and effort to achieve.
    3. All men (except for the young, or perhaps the Elect) have experience with temptation. Eve recoils before she tastes the fatal apple, urged on by the serpent’s guile; Hamlet hesitates before the awesome sin of slaying a king and a kinsman; Lancelot repents his love for Guinevere, which is both faithlessness to his best friend, and treason to his king. The drunkard, hating himself, buys one more drink he knows he should not; the gambler puts his rent money in the kitty; the wrathful man heeds the dark urge that tells him hate is pleasing; the slothful man hears the whisper that tells him to stay abed. The obvious thing about thoughts and decisions of this kind is that they are opposed: we know what is what is right, and we do what is wrong.
    4. There are cases where the passions are right and the reason is misled, and a man would be better advised to follow his heart and ignore his head. A man who forswears his one true love because she comes from an ignoble family with no dowry makes a decision that would cause Cupid to weep. The mere presence of one or two cases like this makes all the other cases more difficult, and suspect. We are not angels or even computers: our reasoning powers themselves are unreliable, warped by passion, limited by ignorance, prone to error. There is more latitude in the human condition for arbitrary decisions or fanciful decisions than if we were a perfectly logical race, Vulcans or Houyhnhnms.

  2. All men have experience with reactions that are animalistic or thoughtless: tears come to the eyes at a bee-sting. A vile smell induces vomiting; a savory one makes the mouth water. The sight of Catwoman in her skintight body-stocking provokes an erection (or maybe that is just me). The obvious thing about reactions of this kind is that they are reactions, not actions. At no point do I sit and reason with myself, “This is a vile smell. Weighing one thing against another, I think it wise, in the long run, to vomit.
  3. There are vital processes in our bodies that seem perfectly mechanical or vegetative. When the physician strikes below your kneecap with a rubber hammer, willy-nilly, your leg jumps. This is not contested ground: even the strongest willed stoic cannot control this reflex. You cannot, by taking thought, add one cubit to your stature. A growing boy cannot, by taking thought, stop growing; you cannot, merely by willing it to stop, stop the action of your heart.

Let us adopt these terms: sphere #1 is the sphere of human action. Let us call this the “reason”. Sphere #2 is animal reaction, passions, urges, appetites, instincts. Let us call this the “passions.” Sphere #3 is vegetative or automatic processes. Let us call his “biology.”

The case of reasoning (sphere #1) breaks down into several cases: (a) inspired or intuitive reasoning (b) deliberation (c) temptation (d) sound instinct.

What confounds the matter is that pure examples of temptation and pure examples of deliberation are rarely found in nature. Usually the mental process of making a decision involves some mixture of (b) and (c). To make matters even more confusing, some people, perhaps all people, are “unreliable narrators” when it comes to reporting their mental processes: many a man who gives into temptation will invent from reasonable sounded excuse to justify his behavior, or not admit his true motives, even to himself.

Again, case (d) and (c) are difficult to untangle, and temptation will, as if guided by deliberate malice, present itself to us as if it were case (d). Even in hind sight, the one can be confused with the other.

The most obvious thing about the human condition, the thing that makes human nature human, is that conflicts that arise between the first and the second sphere, between the reason and the passions. The conflict is the source of our poetry, politics and philosophy. Sermons, speeches, and love letters alike speak of it.

The most interesting thing about the second sphere is that it is contested ground: a man by the pursuit of a virtuous habit can sometimes train himself, must as a horseman trains a horse, to react not as his animal nature would have it, but as his reason would have it. There are men who can train themselves not to flinch at pain. There are men who can resist temptation.

If you have raised children, you know the main point of educating the young is to build character, that is, to train them in a habit of virtue such that their reason can overcome their passions.

Indeed, the most obvious thing about a baby is that he cries and cannot be reasoned into ceasing to cry; a child can be threatened with punishments or bribed with obvious pleasures (like candy) into ceasing to cry, depending on his degree of learned self-control, or in other words, on his character; a man of low character can be talked into a course of action by an appeal to his self-interest; but you must reason with him, because a spanking or a lollypop has insufficient power to overthrow his reason; a man of high character (something quite rare these days, I am sad to say) who is too courageous to be threatened, and too temperate to heed bribes, can only be reasoned into or out of a course of action. You must appeal to his sense of justice or not at all.

The faculty by which the reason overcomes contrary passions has several names, but for now, let us call it “the will”. When the will has power to overcome the passions, we call this “willpower.” Another word for this power or efficacy is “virtue.”

  1. When the reason overcomes contrary emotions of fear, the virtue involved is called “Courage.”
  2. When the reason overcomes the appetites that are excessive or lead to excess, we call this virtue “Moderation.”
  3. When the reason overcomes the animal appetites for food or sexual pleasure or the learned appetite for intoxication, we call this “Temperance.”
  4. When the reason overcomes self-interest and all selfish vices (anger, pride, sloth, greed, envy) so that one’s reason is untouched by partisanship or self-centeredness, so that in turn a sense of fairplay dominates, so that in turn one is objective in making judgments, we call this “Justice.”

The point of raising the young is to instill virtue and build character. We all it “virtue” when a single example of the willpower allows the reason to overcome contrary passions. We say a man has “good character” when repeated examples of virtue show that the virtue is habitual with him.

Now the issue becomes muddled. In normal speaking, we do not distinguish between the contest between the reason and the passions and the outcome of the contest There are two distinct and perhaps opposite meanings of the word that must be distinguished.

  1. When the “will” is whatever we finally decide (even if the decision is a weak-willed one) we say we willed it: Hobbes, indeed, defines the “will” as merely the final outcome of the contests or operations in the thinking, no matter what they are. For Hobbes, and man who resists temptation and a man who surrenders to temptation both alike are said to have “willed” the outcome of their deliberations.
  2. When the reason is fighting the appetites we say we “will” only what reason commends. When apologizing for giving in to temptation, we speak, perhaps metaphorically, or perhaps literally, of the passions as if they were an outside force that invades and overbears the reason. We speak of the reason as the “self” and speak as if something outside the self conquered us. When we say “I could not help it; I tried to resist, but I could not” the “I” in that sentence refers to the reason.

In the first way of speaking, there is no such thing as temptation, and any conflict between the reason and the appetites is called deliberation. Indeed, in the first way of speaking, there is nothing but a war between appetites as the contest between cannibal snakes in a snake pit, and whichever snake is strongest and overcomes and eats the others remains, and commands: and the last appetite to survive the contest is said to be the “will”.

This is contrary to common experience: Hobbes speaks this way dishonestly, merely to make his point, not because his terminology clarifies a matter in dispute. Indeed, it is a way of silencing dispute. It is an easy and shameful trick: you merely define your terms so that you can ignore the reality your opposition wants to talk about. If you want to know why Hobbes is not a philosopher who strongly influenced later thinkers, or convinced many men of his political program, it is because of this: his logic flew in the face of common experience.

And yet the second way of speaking contains an element of dishonesty as well: when a guilty child or prisoner in the dock excuses his misbehavior by saying “I could not help it; I tried to resist, but I could not”, we recognize this as a mere excuse.

A man is responsible for his own behavior in the same way a horseman is responsible for his horse. If a rider cannot control his mount, and his mount is startled and tramples Aunt Begonia’s prize Petunias, or even Aunt Begonia herself, the law would hold that man to be negligent.

Even had the rider no control of his horse, he should have trained the horse, and should have kept control, lest he pose a danger to his neighbors.

In a like fashion, a child who could not resist the lure of an unwatched cookie jar, or a murderer who could not resist slaying his wife and her lover after dwelling for many days on the image of her in his arms, is responsible for controlling his impulses, even if, in this case, the impulse proved to be cyclopean in strength.

To extend this metaphor slightly, the Hobbesian way of speaking of the will is to speak of the horse and rider as a centaur, as if there is no division or distinction between the higher and lower nature in man.

Each way of talking contains an element, let us call it, a temptation, to be dishonest: and yet we cannot reject either.

We need the first way of speaking if our laws and moral judgments are to have any meaning at all. If one man is not responsible for his actions, he is insane: if no man is responsible for his actions, we are all insane, and law and order is impossible. A criminal is merely a machine whose input labeled “appetite” has a greater kinetic energy, or more mass, than the contrary impulse labeled “conscience or fear of consequences” has less impulse or less mass. When the two masses collided, by a Newtonian law, the greater overcomes the lesser, and the resulting vector pushes the criminal toward his crime. In this way of thinking, criminals are not responsible for their murders any more than a sack of grain falling from a loft is responsible if it hits Zeke the farm hand and kills him.

We need the second way of speaking if we are to make any allowance for weakness of Fallen Man. Without an understanding of the bifurcate nature of man, the moral instruction both from parents with children and courts of law with prisoners would be pitiless and inhuman.

Hobbes reasons quite logically from his false premise: if all deliberations of man are merely deliberations, and if there is no such thing as a virtuous or vicious deliberation, no such thing as willpower or weakness of the will, then it becomes a non-issue, a matter of no import, to overbear the courage of the weak by threats. Hobbes deduced that the threat of violent death at the hands of others was a sufficient warrant for the surrender of all natural rights and liberties to the sovereign power. Without going through all his steps, let us merely take for granted that this axiom leads logically to consent to a tyranny, no matter how oppressive, where the subjects have no valid basis for resistance, rebellion, or complaint.

To sum up: if we accept only the first way of speaking (“will” means whatever the end result of mental deliberations or conflict with temptation might be), then we reject all law and moral law, and man becomes merely a clockwork, his thoughts merely wheels and gears. If we accept the only second way of speaking (“will” means the reason, which sometimes prevails over contrary passions, and sometimes fails; and the will is called strong and virtuous if it has the habit of prevailing) we are tempted to excuse men from all responsibility for their own acts.

Here we can no longer be philosophers, but must be poets. Which of the two slightly or grossly inaccurate metaphors we use, depends on the circumstances in which we use them. We must rely on the good will and honesty of our audience to understand the circumstances and not to misunderstand the words.

The common experience of mankind leaves us with a mystery. In some ways, human consciousness is a unity: “my’ reason struggles with “my” passions and the result of the struggle is what “my decision” is. In some ways, human consciousness is a duality: “my” reason wars with the passions of the flesh, and it is as if I stand by helplessly watching myself choose the base and wicked path. Both are the truth: neither is the whole truth.

How can the human consciousness (or, indeed, anything at all) be at once a unity and a duality? Why does man war in his own spirit against himself? How can a man know what is right and will what is wrong? Here we come to a central mystery of human nature. We know that these things must be this way, because common observation confirms it, and out speech would soon turn to nonsense if we spoke about the issue in any other way: but we cannot (or, at least, I cannot) penetrate the mystery of how and why it is this way.

It is like the sunlight. No one can stare at the sun, lest he be dazzled; but by means of the sunlight, we see the daily objects around us. Likewise, the paradox of human consciousness and the war of our higher and lower natures is a dazzling paradox: but by means of this paradox, the ordinary objects of thought and moral reasoning we encounter every day are illumed. We would be in the dark if we ignored either aspect of the question.

Let us therefore recoil (at least for now) from these philosophical puzzles and return to common sense observations.

Now, once we grant the common sense observation that unlike animals, men do, in fact, make decisions, and deliberate (sometimes taking great pains and care in their deliberations) and that, unlike animals or children below the age of reason, they can be seen to overcome their animal natures and follow their reason against their normal inclinations, it becomes merely nonsense, the blabbing of meaningless words, to conjure away this observation by some sort of verbal formula that equates a successful contest of the willpower against the passions with an unsuccessful one.

I say again (the point bears repeating) that no matter what properties the mental act “do not resist temptation” has in common with the act “resist temptation”, the moral and practical quality of the two acts is the opposite. To equate the acts merely devalues and dishonors the act of resisting temptations. (And this is Hobbes’ rhetorical purpose).

To muddle matters further, we use the same terms and metaphors for referring to internal temptation as to external coercion. Indeed, the central metaphor we all use to describe temptation is that it is an externally applied force, as if the Devil is overpowering us, or as if our glands and hormones are physically interfering with our thoughts.

Nevertheless, we must distinguish between a powerful and internal temptation (such as my allure for Catwoman, or, to pick a less personal example, Lancelot’s allure for Guinevere) and an externally applied threat (such as Catwoman’s henchman telling a bank guard to open the vault, or be gunned down). In the eyes of the law, the guard’s trespass and breach of faith is excused on the grounds that his will was not free: he did not freely choose to open the vault, because there was a gun to his head. A court of law would excuse his crime due to the mitigating circumstances. In the legal sense of the term, his will was not free.

Now, Hobbes and all the modern nihilists who follow him, wish to have tyrants hold guns to people’s heads, and wish to rob those people of the character and virtue needed to resist coercion in the face of a death threat: and so they use terminology and metaphors to downplay or abolish the distinction between the guard unable to resist the gun, and, Lancelot unable to resist the romantic allure of Guinevere. The fact of the matter is that Guinevere did not in fact hold a gun to Lancelot’s head and force him into adultery with her. His will, in the legal sense of the term, was free.

If we follow the Hobbesian terminology, however, Lancelot merely decided to commit adultery, and the bank guard decided to help the crooks rob the vault, and both are legally and morally obligated to act in consistency with those decisions. Hobbes holds that contracts made under duress are valid, as if a man who cracked under a death-threat has some sense of honor, moral obligation, or pragmatic reason, to continue, once the threat is removed, to honor the word he gave his captors.

Having said this, let me now address your points:

Q: How can the will be free? Experience shows that we always take the course of action that seems best at the time. Decision-making seems to be kind of like a moral algebra.

A: I can only report that this is not my experience. Only deliberation (see 1b, above) seems to fit into this category. Temptation (see 1c, above) does not seem to fit into this category. Since I never encountered an irresistible temptation, one that I fought and lost, until I was in my late thirties, it is also my experience that many young people, and all pagans, never encounter the strength of temptation, and so they mistake it for deliberation. It is not until you fight these self-destructive or self-demeaning impulses that you see how “external” they appear. To use a metaphor, you might think you were a centaur, until the day you tried to rein in the horse, and it threw you from its back.

Q: Why couldn’t this [free will] be modeled in a, for lack of a better term, “mechanical” sense?

A: Because the model would be grossly inaccurate. An engineer need not take into account the curve of the earth, because his calculations only deal with a small part of the earth’s surface: but it would be nonsense for the pilot of a ship sailing to another hemisphere to use a flat-earth model. Likewise, the mental actions involved in deliberation that can be described in a Newtonian metaphor (impulse A was weightier than impulse B) involve a metaphor that becomes nonsense when speaking of human action in a legal or moral sense.

Hobbes speaks of mental actions as a clockwork, and the final passion once the machine has run as the “will”: but my own testimony of the deliberations I myself has seen in my own mind rarely lend themselves to this mechanistic metaphor.

The rare exception must be mentioned. The only time in my life my mental process seems mechanistic is when I am faced with an utterly arbitrary and appetitive decision, e.g., deciding what to eat in a restaurant, when there is no reason to prefer one to the other. I envision one food or the next, and passively wait to see which appetite is stronger, and go with that. That is like measuring two masses and going with the weightier. If there is a reason for the reason to intervene, such as if thrift or concern for diet urges something other than what the appetites urge, something more than a merely mechanical process is involved: I put my mental thumb on the scale, so to speak. I deliberately interfere with my own deliberations and attempt to talk or force myself into a particular outcome.

Q: But it seems that if making choices is just an automatic thing, you couldn’t really hold others accountable for their actions. I mean, it’s not like they could’ve done otherwise. But this is absurd!

A: Correct. The absurdity here is that if no one is responsible for their actions, then my mental act of holding someone responsible is allowed. If someone tells me it is irresponsible for me to think a false thing, I will answer that no one is responsible for the content of his thoughts: my robot brain has been programmed to reject determinism. I have no choice but to believe in free will.

Of course it is even absurd to talk of the matter at all. If all decision making (including speech) were an automatic action, we would not speak of it. It would merely happen, and we, assuming we existed at all, would merely be passive spectators. All deliberation would be a vegetative or automatic action, like the jump of a leg when the physician hammers your knee, and we could no more influence the outcome of our actions than we could, by willpower, add a cubit to our stature or quell the heart from beating.

Q: What is free will?

A: Every word exists to distinguish itself from other things that are alike it.

The legal meaning of “free will” refers to actions or contracts made when not under coercion: signing a contract when a literal gun is pointed at your head, as opposed to signing a contract of your own free will. The philosophical meaning of “free will” refers to deliberate action as opposed to animal reactions.

The clearest definition I ever heard on the matter come, of all places, from a treatise on economics. This is from Ludwig von Mises’ magisterial HUMAN ACTION:

Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary.

Conscious or purposeful behavior is in sharp contrast to unconscious behavior, i.e., the reflexes and the involuntary responses of the body’s cells and nerves to stimuli. People are sometimes prepared to believe that the boundaries between conscious behavior and the involuntary reaction of the forces operating within man’s body are more or less indefinite. This is correct only as far as it is sometimes not easy to establish whether concrete behavior is to be considered voluntary or involuntary. But the distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness is nonetheless sharp and can be clearly determined.

The unconscious behavior of the bodily organs and cells is for the acting ego no less a datum than any other fact of the external world. Acting man must take into account all that goes on within his own body as well as other data, e.g., the weather or the attitudes of his neighbors. There is, of course, a margin within which purposeful behavior has the power to neutralize the working of bodily factors. It is feasible within certain limits to get the body under control. Man can sometimes succeed through the power of his will in overcoming sickness, in compensating for the innate or acquired insufficiency of his physical constitution, or in suppressing reflexes. As far as this is possible, the field of purposeful action is extended. If a man abstains from controlling the involuntary reaction of cells and nerve centers, although he would be in a position to do so, his behavior is from our point of view purposeful.

[… ] Action is not simply giving preference. Man also shows preference in situations in which things and events are unavoidable or are believed to be so. Thus a man may prefer sunshine to rain and may wish that the sun would dispel the clouds. He who only wishes and hopes does not interfere actively with the course of events and with the shaping of his own destiny. But acting man chooses, determines, and tries to reach an end. Of two things both of which he cannot have together he selects one and gives up the other. Action therefore always involves both taking and renunciation.

To express wishes and hopes and to announce planned action may be forms of action in so far as they aim in themselves at the realization of a certain purpose. But they must not be confused with the actions to which they refer. They are not identical with the actions they announce, recommend, or reject. Action is a real thing.

I have nothing to add to this aside from the definitional comment that, when I speak of free will, I mean human action as opposed to animal reaction.

Q: How, and in what way, is the will free? What do we mean by the word “free?”

A: Animal reactions are determined by non-deliberate causes. The bell rings; Pavlov’s dog salivates. The bull sees a red flag; he charges. The dog and the bull do not weigh several courses of action and select the best. They are conditioned by their past. Human action is influenced by the future, that is, by anticipations, dreams, conclusions, expectations, extrapolations. Our acts seek ends. The dog and the bull are not free to do other than they are inclined by nature or trained by man to do. We are.

A man can be talked into vegetarianism. A dog must eat meat, because that is his nature. A man in heat can take a vow of abstinence. A dog in heat must mate, because that is his nature. When we speak of free will, we are speaking of an ordinary and common sense observation: men are not dogs.

If a dog or a bull kills a man, it may be killed as a dangerous beast, but it cannot be executed, because it cannot be blamed. It acted only as its nature or training dictated. We humans need not follow the dictates of our nature. We can be educated, but cannot be trained, not in the real sense of that word. We can be tried and executed if we kill a man, but it would be an insult to the human dignity of a murderer to put him down like a dog merely because he was dangerous.

We treat children and madmen with less dignity than we treat adults exactly because their wills are not free: they are not responsible for their actions. A child can be ordered not to do something an adult can do, merely because it is dangerous, or a madman locked up because of the danger he poses, but we do not blame children or madmen for acts they cannot help. When you see yourself doing an act you honestly cannot help, you are not free to choose otherwise.

By “free” we mean that we are bound by the chains of morality. Men are free because we cannot escape the moral consequences of our actions.