What does it actually mean to say that human beings possess free will? Does it just mean that there are no constraints put on us by others, or does it mean more than that?
For the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that, when people say they have free will, what they mean is that they are the final authority on which pair of socks they put on in the morning. They really do face the possibility of deciding between two equally available options.
Okay, so now that we know what free will means, we are somewhere along the way towards working out whether we have it. Let’s assume that we do. What does this mean? Well, put simply, that the the cause of my decision was me, and that I was not forced by anything else outside of my control.
So you might be thinking, of course I am the final authority on which hot beverage I choose in the morning! There is nobody standing with a gun to my head forcing me to choose coffee; I just feel like drinking coffee. Well then let us look at what is so problematic with this version of events.
Free Will & The Non Physical Mind
Firstly, let’s get one thing clear. Either the ‘me’ (or ‘soul’ or ‘self’) that is choosing between coffee and tea is physical or it is non physical. Whichever you believe is unimportant, as I shall discuss both, but for now let’s assume the the self is non physical.
In order to understand this argument I should first lay out the Law of the Conservation of Energy, which states that there has always been, and forever will be, a constant amount of energy in the closed Universe, as it can neither be created nor destroyed. Of course, the Universe is physical, and so we must conclude that the soul lies outside of this Universe. No problems so far…
Now, for the non physical soul to cause things to happen in the physical universe, it must causally affect them – in other words, it must inject them with energy (without an energy transfer there is nothing to realise the effect). This, as we know, is not just conceptually a very challenging thing to imagine. It breaks the unbreakable Law of the Conservation of Energy. Therefore, given that this law holds at all times, a nonphysical self can never be the source of any free will. If you believe that we have a soul in the traditional sense, you now believe in a deterministic Universe, right? If not, leave a comment below as I’d love to hear your thoughts on this line of argument!
Never fear Free Willies, for there is still the possibility of a physical self being the cause of my actions! Remember here what we said earlier. In order to be free my decision must not have come from anything or anywhere outside of myself.
Free Will & The Physical Mind
Okay, so we have retreated to the concept of a physical, but free, mind. There’s another scientific law known as the Law of Cause and Effect, which might find fault with this idea. The law is very simple. It states that for every effect there is a definite cause and, likewise, for every cause there is a definite effect.
What this means is that everything in this Universe is caused, and every cause is itself and effect caused by a previous cause. There is nothing that is the cause of its own existence and there is no such thing as an uncaused cause. Therefore, given that the constituent parts of the self are physical, they are in turn caused. Something caused my preference for coffee, which in turn caused my deciding to drink coffee. The cause of my decision to drink coffee this morning was entirely based on the cause of my preference for coffee (maybe the smell of coffee beans). This meas the cause of my decision to drink coffee was external to myself, i.e. the decision was not my own.
Here you may say well hold on there! Of course the outside world is able to influence our decisions – it does so all the time! I prefer eating bread to chicken because of the fact that chickens have to suffer so that I can eat them. Reality influences my decision but the decision is still freely mine!
Ahah! You’ve fallen straight into the trap which has led so many people to trip up. The question is no longer whether it was me that decided to choose coffee (regardless what influenced me). The question is whether or not I was utterly free to choose tea. I put it to you that the decision to drink coffee was entirely mine. However, the fact that the things which caused the conditions in me conducive to my choosing coffee have already happened means that there’s simply no way for me to rebel against the unwavering law of cause and effect and choose tea. The path was laid out in front of me with nowhere to go, and all I had to do was walk down it.
I hope you can see here that this is not freedom – this is nothing like freedom. Therefore there must not be any way for a physical self to be called free. But wait a minute? Didn’t we just say that there’s no way for a non physical self to be called free either? What does that leave us left with?
Oh yeah, that’s right – we’re left with the only possibility being that neither non-physical nor physical selves can be the rightful arbiter over our actions. Legitimate freedom then, in the sense that we wish to use the word today, is an illusion.
Take a moment to think about the wide ranging and severe consequences of what determinism might mean. This conclusion calls into question the very nature of morality, of punishment, of justice – of why we even bother.
What do you think about this argument? Have I convinced you? Leave a comment below as I’d love to hear your views! Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the next article coming up, in which I discuss the idea of a deterministic Universe, and what that means for us all.
In the meantime, why don’t you check out The Philosphere on Twitter?