Could Free Will be an Illusion?
0. At regular intervals we find in the popular press articles about how free will is an illusion or 'a trick the brain plays on itself.' On one and the same day some years back two different readers referred me to two different articles on this theme. One was positively awful, the other merely bad. So I reckon it is time to revisit this topic.
1. Could freedom of the will in the strong or unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense be an illusion? I will assume that free will and determinism are logically incompatible and that every version of compatibilism is false. Compatibilism is a shabby evasion, “the freedom of the turnspit” as Kant derisively put it. Determinism is the thesis that, given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. When I seriously deliberate, however, my deliberation behavior manifests my belief that there is more than one possible future, and that it is partially up to me which of these possible futures becomes actual. There is the possible future in which I hike tomorrow morning and blog in the afternoon and the equipossible future in which I blog tomorrow morning and hike in the afternoon. And which becomes actual depends on me. I am tempted to say that the indisputable fact of deliberation presupposes and thus proves the reality of free will. For to deliberate is to deliberate in the conscious conviction that the outcome is up to the one deliberating. In the case of a morally significant choice, the sense that the outcome is up to me includes the sense of my moral, and not merely causal, responsibility for the outcome. So if it is the case that freedom of the will is an illusion, then people are never morally responsible for what they do or leave undone. But then moral responsibility is an illusion as well.
2. But then someone objects: "The sense that it is up to you what happens is illusory; it merely seems to you that you are the ultimate source of your actions. In reality your every action is determined by events before your birth." The objector is not denying the fact of deliberation; he is denying that the fact of deliberation entails the reality of free will. He is claiming that the fact of deliberation is logically consistent with the nonexistence of free will. The claim is that when one deliberates, one only seems to oneself to be deliberating freely, and that all the processes involved in deliberation have causal antecedents that necessitate them.
One mistake that popular writers, including philosophically inept scientists, sometimes make is to claim that on determinism, no one ever makes choices. But of course people make choices; what the determinist denies is that people make free choices.
3. To evaluate this objection, we first need to ask what could be meant by 'illusory' in this context. Clearly, the word is not being used in an ordinary way. Ordinary illusions can be seen through and overcome. Hiking at twilight I jump back from a tree root I mistake for a snake. In cases of perceptual illusion like this, one can replace illusory perceptions with veridical ones. Misperception is corrected with further perception. Something similar is true of other illusions such as those of romantic love and the sorts of illusions that leftists cherish and imagine as in the eponymous John Lennon song. In cases like these, further perception, more careful thinking, keener observation, life experience, 'due diligence' and the like lead to the supplanting of the illusory with the veridical.
But if free will is an illusion, it is not an illusion that can be cast off or seen through, no matter what I do. I must deliberate from time to time, and I cannot help but believe, whenever I deliberate, that the outcome is at least in part 'up to me.' Indeed, it is inconceivable that I should ever disembarrass myself of this 'illusion.' One can become disillusioned about many things but not about the 'illusion' of free will. For this ‘illusion’ is integral to my being an agent, and being an agent is part and parcel of being a human being. To get free of the 'illusion' of free will, I would have to learn to interpret myself as a deterministic system whose behavior I merely observe but do not control. I would have to learn how to cede control and simply let things happen. But this is precisely what I cannot do. Nor do I have any idea what it would involve.
So here is my first argument, call it the Semantic Argument:
a. A meaningful and 'newsworthy' claim to the effect that it has been discovered that free will is an illusion must use 'illusion' in its ordinary sense, otherwise one is engaging in word play.
b. Illusions in the ordinary sense of the term can be seen through and corrected.
c. The 'illusion' of free will cannot be seen through and corrected.
d. The claim that free will is an illusion is a meaningless claim.
"But perhaps free will is a special sort of illusion, one that cannot be seen through and corrected." My challenge to a person who makes this move will be: Explain how living under this illusion differs from the reality of being a free agent!
At the very least, the objector owes us an explanation of what it means to say that free will is an 'illusion' given that ‘illusion’ cannot mean what it ordinarily means.
4. Now for an Epistemic Argument. It would be nice if one could 'switch off' one's free agency and go on automatic. Many choices, after all, are painful and we wish we could avoid them. Sophie's choice was agonizing because she knew that it was up to her which child would remain with her and which would be taken away by the Nazi SS officer. Now which is more certain: that Sophie knows that she is a free agent morally responsible for her choices, or that she knows that she is a wholly deterministic system and that the sense of free agency and moral responsibility are but illusions? (Let us grant arguendo that there is some sense of 'illusion' according to which the claim that free will and moral responsibility are illusions is not pure nonsense.) The answer ought to be obvious: the former is more certain. One is directly aware of one's free agency, while it is only by shaky abstract reasoning that one comes to the view that free will is an illusion. Sophie is directly aware that it is 'up to her' which child she surrenders to the SS thug. This is the source of her agony.
My Epistemic Argument:
a. We are directly aware of our libertarianly-free agency, our freedom in the unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense.
b. This direct awareness trumps, epistemically speaking, the proposition that all of our mental and physical processes are causally necessitated by events antecedent to our births.
c. One is justified is believing that one is libertarianly free despite one's having no explanation of how this is possible given the (macro) determinism of nature.
5. Now for a 'Bad Faith' consideration. We are not free to be free agents or not. We didn't decide to be free. It is an essential attribute of our humanity. Thus we are "condemned to be free" in a famous phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre. The sound core of the Sartrean exaggeration is that being free is constitutive of being human. No doubt I can try to view myself as a mere deterministic system pushed around by external forces, but that is a mode of self-deception, a mode of what Sartre calls mauvaise-foi, bad faith. Determinism is "an endless well of excuses" as I seem to recall Sartre saying deep in the bowels of Being and Nothingness. Being free is constitutive of being human. Better, it is constitutive of being a person. If determinism is true, then, strictly speaking, there are no persons.
6. An argument from the Impossibility of Existential Appropriation. Connected with all of this is the impossibility of existentially appropriating the supposed truth of determinism. Suppose determinism is true. Can I live this truth, apply it to my life, make it my own? Can I existentially appropriate it? Not at all. To live is to be an agent, and to be an agent is to be a free agent. To live and be human is not merely to manifest a belief, but an all-pervasive ground-conviction, of the falsity of determinism. Determinism cannot be practically or existentially appropriated. It remains practically meaningless, a theory whose plausibility requires an exclusively third-person objective view of the self. But the self is precisely subjective in its innermost being and insofar forth, free and unobjectifiable. No one lives or could live third-personally. While it is easy enough to reduce others to deterministic systems, thereby depersonalizing them, I cannot do this in my own case. I cannot depersonalize myself. It is practically impossible. Granted, it is theoretically possible to view myself from the outside as merely another deterministic system, but then I am abstracting from my agency, an abstraction that deserves to be called vicious inasmuch as I am as much an agent, a doer, as I am a thinker. I am not merely a spectator of my life, although I am that; I am also the agent of my life. I observe life's parade, but I also march in it.
Indeed, I am a doer even as a thinker: I decided to think about this topic, and then write about it; I had to decide whether to write this for Substack or for my personal files, with my computer or with paper or ink; at every step I had to decide whether to continue or break it off, etc.
7. The mother of all oppositions. The ultimate root of the problem of free will is the amazing fact that we are at once both objects in a material world caught in its causal net and also subjects capable of knowing and acting upon that world. We can, and are justified, in viewing ourselves objectively, externally, and in a third-person way despite the fact we live, know, and act in an opposing first-person way. This object-subject opposition is the mother of all oppositions and perhaps the ultimate conundrum of philosophy.
If we look at the self from a third person point of view, then determinism has no small plausibility, for then we are considering the self as just another object among objects, just another phenomenon among phenomena subject to the laws of nature. But the third person point of view discloses but one aspect of reality, leaving out the first person point of view, when it is the latter from which we live. We are objects in the world, but we live as subjects for whom there is a world, a world upon which we act and must act. Subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable.
We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere? No philosopher has ever explained this satisfactorily. What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them.
Let us say that a philosopher is a Unitarian if he thinks he can unify these opposing points of view and aspects of reality by elimination or reduction of one to the other. My suggestion is that we cannot achieve a satisfactory Unitarian view. All indications are that the problem of free will is simply insoluble, a genuine aporia, and that we ought to be intellectually honest enough to face the fact. It is no solution at all, and indeed a shabby evasion, to write off the first-person point of view as illusory. Especially when one goes on to live one's life as if free will and moral responsibility are not illusions! Have you ever praised or blamed anyone and felt justified in doing so? Do you praise and blame deterministic systems?