Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Free Will: A Conceptual Framework

Free will, if it exists, is a property of agency. It is something that agents, in virtue of their constitution, can exhibit that non-agents cannot. Furthermore, free will may be the most morally, spiritually, and existentially important property of human agency.

It has occurred to me that I might like to look at some recent papers on the topic of free will on this blog. Those papers tend to assume that the reader is familiar with the ins and outs of the contemporary debate on this issue. I don’t like to make those kinds of assumptions, partly because you never know who might be reading a blog, and partly because reacquainting oneself with the basics of an issue is always worthwhile.

This post offers a conceptual framework for analysing the contemporary debate on free will. The framework comes in three sections. The first section examines the nature of free will as a property of agency; the second section considers the intellectual significance of the debate; and the third section outlines some of the positions one can take up in this debate.

1. The Nature of Free Will
No one would deny that the term “free will” is ambiguous. A lot of conceptual baggage has been attached to those two simple words over the years. This is one reason why the debate over free will (even in the philosophical literature) can be so frustrating: different authors apply different meanings to the term and often end up talking past on another.

In an effort to cut through some of that confusion, I like to appeal to a model of free will that I first came across in Henrik Walter’s book The Neurophilosophy of Free Will (he took it from somewhere else). Walter’s contention is that when we talk about the property of free will, we are talking about a decision-making capacity with three components:

  • (i) Alternativism: this is the capacity to (meaningfully) choose between different possible futures. In other words, if X must choose whether to eat an apple or an orange, and if X chooses the orange, it must still be possible for X to choose the apple.
  • (ii) Intelligibility: this is the capacity to act from intelligible reasons. In other words, X does not simply choose among possibilities at random, X chooses in accordance with reasons, intentions, desires and beliefs.
  • (iii) Origination: this is the capacity to be the originator of actions. In other words, X is not simply a passive receptacle through which external causal forces exert themselves but is, in some sense, the active originator of causal forces.

There are two main advantages to thinking about free will in this way. First, by focusing on three elements, this model helps to avoid the pitfalls associated with thinking about only one of the elements. For example, most discussions of free will are preoccupied with the concept of alternativism. But a popular objection to this preoccupation is that an agent with alternativism and nothing else might amount to little more than a random choice-generator. This would not be the kind of morally salient choice with which we are concerned. The extra ingredients of intelligibility and originations are needed for that.

Second, this model is flexible enough to encompass the diversity of positions that exist on the nature of free will. The flexibility stems from the fact that each of the three components can be subjected to strong, moderate or weak interpretations.

For example, a strong version of alternativism might contend that the agent must have been able to realise different possible futures in the exact same circumstances as obtained at the moment of their original decision. A weaker version might argue that sensitivity to changes in circumstances is all that is required. In future entries we will consider the respective merits of such interpretations.

Because one can have different interpretations of the three components, one can think of this model as describing three dimensions along which different theories of free will can vary. It might be the case that weak interpretations do not deserve the label “free will”, but this is something that can be worked out after the different positions have been described.

2. Intellectual Significance
Why do people bother writing and debating the concept of free will? What’s at stake in this debate? I suggest that there are three separate issues to worry about (I think I’m taking this from something Patricia Churchland said, but I can’t be too sure):

  • (i) The Metaphysical/Ontological Issue: this is concerned with the reality or non-reality of the different conceptions of free will. The most widely debated ontological issue is the impact of causal determinism on the possibility of free will.
  • (ii) The Moral Issue: this is concerned with the type of free will that is necessary for moral responsibility.
  • (iii) The Existential Issue: this is concerned with the existential impact of the different metaphysical conceptions of free will. For example, one might ask: if all our choices are causally determined, is practical reason somehow futile or meaningless?

Discussions of free will tend to blend these issues in different ways. This is understandable since how you resolve one of them will affect how you resolve the others. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping them distinct at the outset.

3. Different Positions on Free Will
After over two thousand years of sustained philosophical debate, one can imagine that numerous stances and positions have been identified on both the nature of free will and the moral and existential issues associated with it. It would be difficult to do justice to all of these positions, but thankfully most of the conversation tends to gravitate towards the following:

  • Libertarianism: this is the view that strong interpretations of all three components of the will are needed in order for there to be a meaningful sense of free will.
  • Incompatibilism: this is the view (usually associated with libertarianism) that either (a) free will is incompatible with causal determinism or (b) determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.
  • Hard incompatibilism/determinism: this is similar to the above. The addition of the adjective “hard” connotes a positive endorsement of the fact that the world is causally determined and that moral responsibility is impossible. Regular incompatibilists tend not to have that positive endorsement.*
  • Compatibilism: this is the view that either (a) free will is compatible with determinism or (b) moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. In order to avoid confusion, John Martin Fischer suggests that the latter position be termed semi-compatibilism.
  • Agent Causation: this view is a little harder to characterise. Put most simply, agent causationists are primarily concerned with the origination component of free will. They argue that agents cause their actions (or will their actions) in a manner that is distinct from ordinary event-event causation. In other words, they argue that agents are exempt from ordinary causal processes.

So there you have it, a conceptual framework for discussing free will. I will refer back to this post in future entries on this issue.

* "Positive" is meant here in the sense of "believes it to be true" and not "believes it to be a good or desirable thing".


  1. Can't stay away can you? :)

    Thanks for the brainfood.

  2. Nope.

    I decided to take a break from my thesis for Christmas week. For some reason, I decided to write blog posts to fill the gap.

  3. Is there some confusion around 'sensing the choice being made' and 'thinking you made the choice?'

  4. I dunno. Did I use those phrases somewhere in the post? or are you talking about the use of those phrases in general?

  5. Those phrases in general. Could we even know the difference?

  6. Well I guess that's something that comes up in the different interpretations of the famous Libet experiments. Libet was trying to get the subjects to sense the moment at which they made the choice to flick their wrists. Of course, Libet found that this moment occurred after the set of brain events that triggered the wrist flick were set in motion. So you don't actually sense the moment at which you made the decision and merely think you were in control after the fact.

    The distinction you are talking about also comes up in Daniel Wegner's work on conscious will. He seems to suggest that psychological ownership over our actions always occurs after the decisions to act have been made. If I recall correctly, his hypothesis is that the psychological processes and the behaviour-inducing processes share a common origin (somewhere within the nervous system) but ultimately branch into different systems.

    I think I agree with Dennett's interpretation of the Libet-style experiments. He argued that there is a fallacy in assuming the self would be located at a specific moment in space and time and would be capable of sensing itself acting. A truly naturalistic conception of selfhood would have to acknowledge that the self is something that is distributed over space and time.