Deep Dive 1.0: Are we free?

When reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, readers often recognize that Lennie Small is not morally responsible for the death of Curly’s wife when he accidentally snaps her neck because Lennie has significantly diminished mental capacities. He did not intend to kill her, and he did not realize that his actions could be so deadly. In fact, it’s clear throughout the novella, that Lennie doesn’t quite understand what death is. Conversely, when Lennie’s friend George Milton murders him, it seems obvious that George intends for Lennie to die and that (had he been an actual man and not one who was determined by Steinbeck’s storytelling) he could have done otherwise. While some view George’s action as justified or as an act of mercy, most still nonetheless contest that he could have chosen not to kill Lennie, and, as such, he bears the moral responsibility for Lennie’s death. There is an obvious difference in the intentions of Lennie and George, but what is less obvious is the origin of those intentions. To be held morally responsible, one must be responsible for their actions and what they intended. If they are not, there may be a reason to think that George is no more morally responsible for the death of Lennie than Lennie is for the death of Curly’s wife.

Ever since I read Thomas Nagel’s A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy during my senior year of high school, I have been plagued by the question of whether humans possess free will. At the time that I read Nagel’s work, I identified as a Christian and, by default, accepted free will as a fundamental element of my faith. By freedom, I meant what most people mean and what philosophers call libertarian free will which is that freedom of the will is the ability to have done otherwise in a given situation. If people lack that type of free will, many believe that would undermine justifications for holding people to account for their actions. Not all Christians feel that a lack of freedom undermines their faith. Some ascribe to theories of predeterminism, but often, even those people feel as if individuals somehow deserve guilt derived from their actions. Our society (sometimes poorly) attempts to set itself up to deliver punishments for actions that are “bad” and rewards for actions that are “good” because people deserve punishments and rewards. A lack of free will may not undermine the need to provide punishments and rewards, but it would undermine the notion that people deserve them.

My initial forays into the subject have led me to think freedom, so construed, is an illusion. In the strict sense, I identify as an incompatibilist. Roughly, incompatibilists believe that the notion that prior causes determine the actions of individuals is inconsistent with the free will defined above. Compatibilists think that while the universe is determined, there remain varieties of free will worth considering. Philosophers like Dan Dennett fall in this camp. This idea’s significance strikes at the heart of the way many understand the world, the way they relate to each another and, to a significant part, in the way they justify responses to the actions of others.

Certainly, it will be the case that this deep dive into the subject will be quite shallow, and I will likely fail to elucidate any solutions to the free will query, but that is not the purpose of this venture. Rather, I hope to explore deep into this subject matter, attempting to set aside preconceived notions and to arrive at clarity that can help frame my worldview. I seek not to be right and further justify my rightness, but to discover rightness wherever it may be. In that hope, I will dig into the following essays/texts during the next two months:

“Freedom and Resentment” by P.F. Strawson
“Is Determinism Self-Refuting” by Joseph M. Boyle, Jr.
Hard Luck by Neil Levy
Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel Dennett
A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought by Michael Frede
“An Argument for Incompatibilism” by Peter van Inwagen
“Freedom” by Thomas Nagel

I attempted to choose works that both challenged and bolstered my current thoughts on free will. I hope to test these works appropriately and develop critical responses to them. Deep dives will be posted each Wednesday with most of them being between 1000-1500 words. I will appreciate your responses to my thoughts as I dig through this topic.

5 thoughts on “Deep Dive 1.0: Are we free?

  1. A Teenager’s Dilemma

    I was a teenager in the public library, reading about the determinism “versus” free will paradox. The idea that everything I did was inevitable bothered me, until I ran across this thought experiment:

    Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

    No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

    Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?


    Determinism asserts that objects and forces within our universe behave rationally, reliably, and predictably. By “rationally” we mean that there is always an answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”, even if we can’t find that answer.

    This means that we may, by observation and experiment, discover the causes of events that affect our lives. And, by understanding their causes, we may predict and even control these events. For example, by understanding the causes of specific diseases, we can successfully avoid, treat, or cure many illnesses.

    Willful Objects

    It is important to note that determinism does not actually do anything. It is not itself an object or a force, but rather a belief that the behavior of objects and forces is reliable. Only real objects and forces actually do things.

    Objects include everything from the smallest quark to the largest galaxy. Most objects are inanimate. They behave passively, interacting according to the laws of physics.

    Living organisms, on the other hand, behave purposefully. From the amoeba to the porpoise, each life form seeks what it needs to survive, thrive, and reproduce. We could call these built-in drives a kind of “biological will”. Most species act upon these drives instinctively. The natural laws that govern living organisms are discovered by the life sciences, including biology, genetics, and physiology.

    Intelligent species like our own can behave deliberately. An evolved neurological system enables imagination, evaluation, and choosing. We can imagine different ways to accomplish our purpose and choose the one that seems best. To understand the behavior of intelligent species requires the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, and ethology.

    Yes, Virginia, They Are Compatible

    When a person decides for themselves what they will do, according to their own purpose and their own reasons, we call the deliberation process free will. This distinguishes it from cases where a person is coerced, or unduly influenced (e.g. hypnosis, brain tumor, authoritative command), to act against their will. In those cases their will is subject to the will of another, or to the undue influence, and it is not free.

    Our choices are never uncaused. If you ask someone why they chose A instead of B, they will gladly give you their reasons. For an intelligent species, reasons are causes. So a choice that we make of our own free will is also the result of reliable cause and effect. Our choice is, at least in theory, predictable by anyone with sufficient knowledge of how we think and feel.

    Both facts, autonomy and predictability, are simultaneously true. There is no conflict between (a) the fact that it was you and (b) the fact that you were behaving predictably.


  2. I suppose that you will answer this as I go through subsequent posts, but when you say “My initial forays into the subject have led me to think freedom, so construed, is an illusion” it would be interesting to know why (what led you to that conclusion). I’m always a bit suspicious when some posits a view with the argument that it is an illusion because what very often, inevitably ends up happening is that this makes it impossible to disprove or convince the advocate of this view to the contrary because any argument plays into the “it’s an illusion” framework. It resembles trying to have an argument or discussion with a conspiracy theorist, any denial of their position just provides further evidence for the “truth” of their claims.

    I’m not in any way saying that we can never be deceived by our senses, but if you are in any way an evidentialist or believe that our knowledge of reality/truth is based primarily on our senses, this illusion hypothesis will present immediate challenges to your epistemology.


    1. I think the “it’s an illusion” concern is a valid one. To be more precise, I think the illusion is that people are morally responsible in a deserving sense. I think this is the case because I think that while we like to believe that we make ourselves, it’s not clear that it is the case. Furthermore, I believe that most people believe that they could have done otherwise in any given situation, and I don’t think that is the case. No matter how many times one rolls back the clock, the person will continue to do the same thing over and over again. There is no Groundhog Day.

      As to the specific problem of relying on the senses, I agree that there are significant epistemological issues to consider. I think that I would argue that knowledge of reality/truth is based primarily on our senses when our senses are properly orientated. What one means by being properly orientated can be complex, but I can, as best as possible, try and account for known errors in perception and I can utilize something like the scientific method to try and “fix” my perception when necessary.


      1. I think we need to have operational definitions of what it means when we say things like, “he deserves” this or that treatment, or “he could have done otherwise”.

        If we are speaking of a child who has done something wrong, we would say “he deserves to be corrected and to be shown a better way”. Part of this “showing a better way”, would be reviewing what was wrong with what he did, the unnecessary harm he caused, and what he “could have” done differently to produce a better result.

        That is the normal operational context of “could have”, “should have”, “would have”, and other language designed to re-examine a prior decision.

        No one has ever encountered a real life situation where we actually reset Time to a prior point.

        Now, it is probably a fact that everything that happens is always causally inevitable. And it is fine to acknowledge that fact. The problem we run into is when we try to draw implications from that fact as to whether any other facts are indeed facts.

        For example, we have two real life scenarios, one where a person decides for himself (of his own free will) what he will do, and another where someone else puts a gun to his head and forces him to do something against his will (his will is not free, but is subject to their will).

        In both of these scenarios, what happens is will always be causally inevitable. But we still need to make the distinction between them to determine where the responsibility lies for what he does. If he acted of his own free will then the responsibility is his. If he was forced against his will then the responsibility is with the man holding the gun.

        The fact of causal inevitability does not remove the necessity of making this distinction between someone acting of his own free will and someone being forced to do something against his will.

        To suggest that causal inevitability must remove this distinction would be a mental error, if not a mental illness.


      2. “I think this is the case because I think that while we like to believe that we make ourselves, it’s not clear that it is the case.”
        I think it’s important here to use adverbs like “entirely” or “solely”. This speaks to the idea that we are a product of a lot of different things and that we do not choose things in a vacuum. How we behave and how we choose is a function of genetics, upbringing/past experiences, needs, wants/desires, environment, etc. The nature/nurture is a false dichotomy. I think that most would agree that the bases for our choices are not solely functions (perhaps we could use the word “determined by”) of our want/desire that is somehow independent of anything else.

        “Furthermore, I believe that most people believe that they could have done otherwise in any given situation, and I don’t think that is the case. No matter how many times one rolls back the clock, the person will continue to do the same thing over and over again.”
        In fact, in articulating this, I think that the problem is that we are placing the want/desire at the root of our choices in the same category as everything that shapes that want/desire. Beyond that, there are often competing wants/desires.

        Perhaps it is better to say that what we want/desire is a product of our genetics, upbringing/past experiences, environment, etc. but that we all know that we can and sometimes do chose contrary to what we want/desire in the moment. If we didn’t or couldn’t do this, then a lot of use would never get through school!


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