Thinking about Free Will: The Dilemma of Determinism and The Problem of Randomness

I’d like to offer a sketch of why randomness doesn’t directly undermine free will. Free will has a lot of bad press as of late. Popular authors such as Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne outspokenly deny free will, with much of the internet’s philosophical and scientific communities doing the same. Most of the reasons offered in favor of their position reduce to The Standard Argument Against Free Will or The Dilemma of Determinism.

1. An agent’s action is either determined or not determined
2. If it is determined, then it could not have been otherwise, therefore not free.
3. If it is not determined, then it is random, therefore not free.
4. Therefore, necessarily, an action is never free.

The initial threat to free will has always been the notion of determinism. Determinism being the thesis that the past and the laws of nature necessitate one exact future. So if determinism obtains, then every causal event that does occur must have happened exactly as it did. From here it’s not that hard to see how this could be a threat to our ordinary sense of free will. Almost all of us feel as if we could have done otherwise for the majority of the decisions we make, but if this is merely an illusion, it’s difficult to say in what sense our actions are free.

Now as intuitive as premise 2 may be, most philosophers deny it. The denial of premise 2 amounts to a position known as compatibilism. Sadly, most of the popular critics of free will casually dismiss this option with no serious treatment. Compatibalism is a well respected and defended position, and a naive dismissal of it’s viability is little more than admission of not taking the problem seriously.

Personally, I think premise 2 is true, but this is not what I’d like to focus on here. Let’s return to premise three “If it is not determined, then it is random, therefore not free”. If our actions are undetermined, then there’s no fact of the matter about what we will do. And if there’s no fact of the matter, then it’s hard to see what sense that decision was really ours. J.J.C. Smart offers an amusing summery of the issue,

“Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug.”
(Atheism and Theism, 2003, p.63).

Two confusions arise here:

1. Conflating wholly random events with not wholly determined events.

2. Conflating free will with moral responsibility.

Contrast receiving a result from a truly random number generator, where the possible outcomes are 1-6, with getting a result from the same machine but with an infinite number of possible outcomes. In one sense, the outcomes of each round are equally random, but in another sense they’re not. The difference comes in the constraint of possible outcomes. I believe this is the right way to think about the randomness problem in free will. In terms of cognitive constraint.

Say I go to the store and I only have enough money to buy one bottle of gas station wine. I see they have four different kinds, but reject the Chardonnay and Burgundy because I believe they taste like ass. This leaves me with the Pinot Noir or the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both sound equally desirable, so I don’t really have much of a reason to prefer one over the other. After a moment of deliberation, I decide that I can’t resolve the conflict, so I just grab the Pinot and make my way for the counter. I’m stipulating in this example that I genuinely could have done otherwise. This means that some level of randomness was involved. Either way, I think it would be difficult to argue that this decision wasn’t free. It was free even if it was random because it was performed by a rational agent, with beliefs and desires that constrained which options were genuinely possible.

An objection naturally arises at this point, “That’s all well and good for buying bumb wine, but what about when the decision is morally loaded? For example, say some ne’er-do-well from down the street steals your prized chicken, and given your psychology you have equally good reasons/desires to punch or not punch this guy in the head, and it’s a matter of luck which you do. Or even worse, what if the possible options are murder or not murder, can we really hold this person responsible if the outcome is contingent on luck?”

I concede that this is a really important and troubling issue, but I think it’s a confusion as well. The problem mostly resolves itself once you separate the problem of free will from moral responsibility. For example, think about a toddler sitting at a table looking at a vase. After staring for a while, the kid knocks the vase over. Let’s say indeterminism took place in his brain in such a way that made it so he could have genuinely done otherwise. So yeah, he was free in the sense discussed above, but is he morally blameworthy for performing the act? Most of us are going to be hesitant to attribute something that strong to child in virtue of his limited cognitive capacities and lack of opportunity for moral growth. The same holds for animals. If this is the case, then you can be free in a substantial sense without necessarily being a morally responsible agent.

If the cases presented above are sufficiently persuasive that randomness does not by itself undermine free will, then I believe we are left with a few important questions:

1. Do we have free will?

2. What exactly makes one morally responsible?

3. If free will isn’t sufficient for moral responsibility, is it necessary?

4. If free will isn’t necessary, then why should we care about it?

These questions are beyond the scope of what I aimed to do here. And my treatment of the randomness issue oversimplifies the complexity of the problem. Either way, given the contemporary popular arguments, I think we have little reason to think that indeterminacy by itself is any sort of substantial threat to the possibility free will.

If you’d like to learn about more about the free will issue, the first book to grab would be Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Robert Dolye’s site, is also an invaluable resource.
Here are a few others:

Elbow Room – Dan Dennett
Free Will – Mark Balaguer
Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy – Robert Doyle
Free Will as an Open Scientific Question – Mark Balaguer
Living Without Free Will – Derk Pereboom
Persons and Causes – Timothy O’ Conner

  • montjoie1095

    That is really well done. I wonder about the murder/not murder scenario and what it means that the person in the position to murder/not murder made a slew of decisions that put him in that place where this was a decision he had to face. In other words, there is a strong flavor of determinism, but it is due in part to his prior free choices.