Agency and Freewill in Metaphysical Naturalism

In the last two parts of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” there was an aspect in each discussion that suggests we live in a deterministic universe.

A vs. B Theory of TimeIn my article about cosmology and time, I discussed the B-Thoery of time, which holds that all time is equally real, so that the past exists in the same moment as our present, and our present exists in the same moment as the future. This theory of time explains how our universe did not “begin” ex nihilo, but has always existed in four permanent dimensions, with time simply being the fourth dimension of space. This approach to time is useful for countering the apologetic cosmological argument, but it also leads to the conclusion that our universe is fully determined. After all, if the future already exists in the same moment as our present, then the future must already be determined.

brain-leftIn my article about human origins, I also discussed Mind-Body Physicalism, which holds that our minds are purely physical objects. As such, mental states are either identical to physical states or are supervenient upon physical states. Today we can map the human brain and even locate the very parts of the brain that control our thoughts and actions. In fact, we can even identify activity in the brain that takes place before we ourselves are aware of it. When we see a face, our brains show activity a fraction of a second before we recognize seeing a face at all. The physicality of our brains thus leads to the conclusion that they are causally determined, just like any other arrangement of matter in our universe.

If we do live in a deterministic universe, as the discussion above suggests, then it should be a slam dunk case that no Freewill exists. Right? Well, not exactly…

Although in popular culture the idea of Freewill has been inseparably associated with Indeterminism, professional philosophers do not see it that way. In fact, 55.7% of professional philosophers adhere to a view known as Compatibilism, which maintains that causal determinism is fully compatible with Freewill. In contrast, only 16.7% of philosophers agree with Incompatibilist Freewill, which maintains that Freewill must require an indetermined universe. 14.7% of philosophers identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 12.9% argue that there is no Freewill.

The numbers do not change drastically among philosophers who specialize in Philosophy of Cognitive Science, except that the view of Incompatibilist Freewill is even less commonly held! 52.5% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science hold to Compatibilist Freewill (about the same percentage as the professional philosophical community as a whole), and a substantially smaller proportion — 7.4% — agrees with Incompatibilist Freewill. 14.8% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 25.4% argue that there is no Freewill.

Since Compatibilism is, by a large margin, the dominant view of agency and Freewill among the professional philosophical community, anyone interested in metaphysics, theism, or naturalism should take it very seriously. Compatibilism will be the view of agency and Freewill that I will defend in this metaphysics series.

At the heart of the question of whether Freewill exists is the philosophical question of what constitutes agency. Determinism is an evident feature of our universe, as discovered by science. The one exception may be the Quantum Indeterminacy of sub atomic events, but even quantum events adhere to probabilistic determinism, so that random fluctuations in quantum mechanical events do not undermine macroscopic determinism. On the large scale, in which we humans live, think, and interact, determinism still holds.

Furthermore, as philosopher Michael Tamir argues in “Freedom, Consciousness, and Indeterminism: Exploring the Incompatibility of Quantum Mechanics and Freedom of Will,” even if quantum mechanical fluctuations had a randomizing effect on the neural activities in our brains, it would still not constitute a coherent form of Freewill. After all, even if random fluctuations in quantum mechanical events could effect my behavior and make it truly unpredictable (even in principle), how would that mean that I was the one in control? Saying that random unpredictable processes control our behavior would only entail that our behavior is random and unpredictable, the exact opposite of what we normally mean by a conscious choice.

FreewillHence, even beyond the issue of Determinism versus Indeterminism, the philosophical question of what constitutes agency and meaningful Freewill still remains. This is a metaphysical question, which must be answered by philosophy. For our own purposes, however, the first question on the diagram to the left— “Determinism?” — may be answered in the affirmative [1]. On the macroscopic level in which our minds think and interact, events are causally determined. Since that is the case, the next question must be answered: is there Freewill, or Hard Determinism and thus no Freewill?

Typically, when we talk about Freewill, we mean being able make the choices that you want when presented with multiple options. So, for example, when I go to an ice cream parlor, I am presented with multiple options of which ice cream to choose from. Let’s say this parlor has just “chocolate” and “vanilla” to keep things simple. Suppose that I choose the vanilla ice cream (yes, I am one of those plain vanilla people). Since vanilla was the ice cream that I desired most at the time, I therefore chose it out of multiple options. Therefore, I had the Freewill to choose the vanilla ice cream, right?

From an incompatibilist view of Freewill, the scenario above does not necessarily involve free choice. After all, I may have chosen vanilla because I desired it most at the time, but what influenced my desire for vanilla? What if my chemical composition naturally inclined me towards vanilla? Or, what if I had fond childhood memories of always getting vanilla from a local parlor in my childhood hometown? We could move the goal post back further: what if my parents had never moved to my childhood hometown? What if I had grown up in different conditions that caused me to favor chocolate ice cream instead? In that case, I would have chosen chocolate, but I chose vanilla because I grew up under a different set of circumstances. So, how am I deciding things at all? Am I not just being passively influenced by my environment?

The objections in the previous paragraph are commonly raised as problems for Freewill existing in a deterministic universe. But notice the subtle change in the definition of Freewill between the previous paragraph and the one above it. Typically, when we talk about Freewill, we mean “being able to do what you want to.” However, the questions raised in the previous paragraph assume a different understanding of Freewill. They assume a definition of Freewill that means “being able to break free from all causal circumstances.” Hence why I allegedly did not have a “choice” in getting vanilla ice cream, since a sequence of causal events led up to me making that decision.

This latter understanding of Freewill is the one advanced by Incompatibilists who argue that there is Freewill, but that it cannot exist in a deterministic universe. To provide an example of the incompatablist view of Freewill, I will use the descriptions of apologist JP Moreland, who argues in favor of the position. Moreland (The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, pp. 47-48) argues that, in order to have true Freewill, one cannot be influenced by a causal sequence, but must be free from all antecedent causes, in order to act as a “first mover” in all of our choices. Here is how Moreland describes it:

“A first mover is not subject to laws in its initiation of action. Since such an initiation is a first, spontaneous action, not caused by a prior event, it amounts to the absolute origination of initiatory movement … The circumstances within (e.g. motives, desires, reasons) and outside (environmental conditions) the agent at the time of action are not sufficient to determine that or fix the chances of the action taking place. Given those circumstances, the agent can either exercise or refrain from exercising his/her active power, and this ability is the essential, causal factor for what follows.”

Two things need to be observed here regarding Moreland’s claims:

1) Human minds and decisions are not determined by simple causes, but are emergent properties from complex and chaotic causes. When we make choices, it is not like one domino falling on another domino, where we can determine a subsequent event from an antecedent event. Rather, humans choices are shaped by numerous lower order properties that emerge into higher order properties, which have complexities and characteristics not found in the lower order properties. So, when I choose to get vanilla ice cream, it is not like there is a simple switch in my brain between “chocolate” and “vanilla,” which can merely be flipped to change my choice. Rather, numerous lower order properties shape decisions which are too complex to be determined by simply studying the lower order properties themselves.

2) Freewill is more about a distinction between internal versus external causation, than it is about breaking free from causation entirely. Moreland skips over a very important distinction when he states:

“The circumstances within (e.g. motives, desires, reasons) and outside (environmental conditions) the agent at the time of action are [both] not sufficient to determine that or fix the chances of the action taking place” [emphasis is my own].

Clearly circumstances within the agent at the time are far more important to the question of Freewill than those outside. Consider an example: suppose that I take a gun and shoot a person with it, because I am angry at that person, hate them, and wish to see them dead. Now consider a different scenario: suppose that someone walks up to me on the street, grabs my arm, places a gun in my hand, forces me to point the gun at a person, and then forces me to pull the trigger. Of the two scenarios, the first represents internal causes shaping my actions, and the second represents external causes shaping my actions. Clearly, any court of law would recognize the difference when assigning blame and responsibility. When we do something because of internal causes (e.g. motives, desires, reasons), these causes are far more relevant to the question Freewill than external causes that are completely extraneous to our character.

In arguing against Moreland, therefore, I will argue for a compatibilist view of Freewill, which maintains that agency is compatible with determinism and is manifested through being able to make the choices that are based on one’s motives, desires, and reasons. In contrast, Moreland (In Defense of Miracles, pg. 102) argues:

“No description of our desires, beliefs, character, or other aspects of our makeup and no description of the universe prior to and at the moment of our choice … is sufficient to entail that we did it.”

To assess which view provides a more coherent understanding of Freewill — Compatibilism or Incompatibilist Freewill — I will evaluate each according to Moreland’s own criteria. Moreland (In Defense of Miracles, pg. 138) argues that there are four conditions which are necessary for any adequate theory of Freewill: 1) the ability to act, 2) control over the act, 3) reason to act, and 4) we must be the cause of our actions.

1) Ability:

The first condition is that, in order to be “free” to act, I must be “able” to act. First, something needs to be said here about what things were are able to do. In a deterministic universe, I will make only one choice (i.e. the choice I want to make at that moment), but this does not entail that there are no other possible choices. To return to the ice cream example, I would certainly be “able” to choose chocolate ice cream, if I so desired. I can pronounce the word and select the flavor, just as I did with the vanilla. The only reason why I will not make that choice is because I do not want to. But that does not mean that selecting the chocolate ice cream is like asking me to do something that is impossible, in the sense that me flying in the sky would be impossible. The chocolate ice cream would not be chosen, simply because I did not want to choose it, whereas the ability to fly is something that I am incapable of, even if I desired to do so.

In contrast, Moreland argues that “no description of our desires, belief, character, or other aspects of our makeup” can sufficiently be the cause of our choices. Who or what then makes the choice? Supposedly, I am the one who makes the choice as the “first mover” of the action. But, we cannot say that my feelings, my morality, or my character caused the decision. What part of me, then, did cause the decision? If the choice truly had to break free from all causal sequence, then nothing could determine which choice was made. If nothing determines my choice, how then am I the one who is able to make the decision?

Consider another way of looking at: suppose that we could rewind time back to before the moment where I made the choice for vanilla ice cream (or, if one wishes to avoid the paradoxes of time travel, suppose that there is an identical alternate universe where I am presented with the exact same choices and circumstances). In a deterministic universe, if I were to go through the same moment in time again, I would make the same choice again. But what would happen in an indeterministic universe? If I simply chose the vanilla again every time, then how would that by any different from a deterministic universe? If, on the other hand, we kept rolling back time (or observed multiple parallel universes), and I chose chocolate sometimes and vanilla other times, then how could we say that I had a choice? The difference in the decision would then be random.

2) Control:

In order to make a choice, I must also be the one controlling the action. Here the distinction between internal and external causation, which Moreland conflated earlier, becomes important. Being in control of an action means that only the internal causes within me are making it happen. If, in contrast, some external cause forces me to act, then we would agree that I was not in control of the decision. So, in other words, in order to be in control of your choice, the cause of it must come from your internal motives and character, and not from some external imposition.

How do we account for control under Moreland’s conception of Freewill? If no internal antecedent causes could influence me, then I would have to act as the first mover or initial cause. But, if we really remove all antecedent internal causes, then what part of me is left to control the decision? If I cannot be influenced by the feelings, motives, or beliefs within me, then what makes the choice? Once again, the choice would appear to be random and not what we normally mean by control.

3) Rationality:

In order to be free to act, I must have a reason to act. Here, once again, internal causation does an excellent job explaining my action. If, after thinking about and deliberating on a decision, I come to a set of reasons for my action, and then make it, we would agree that I freely made the decision. Deliberation and rationality, however, require antecedent causes. It requires that I not only make a decision in one instant, but also have a causal sequence of internal meditiation and reasoning that leads up to my choice of making the decision in that moment.

Here, Moreland’s Incompatibilist Freewill runs into problems once again. If my reasons shape my actions, then how am I breaking free from all antecedent causes? How can I define my reasons apart from my internal circumstances? Moreland (In Defense of Miracles, pg. 138) claims that, under Compatibilism, “states within persons cause later states to occur” and “persons as substances do not act.” But this is merely to confuse terms. States within a person could be the very definition of a person as a substance. In contrast, if no state within a person can constitute their substance, then what does? Once more, the outcome would appear to be random.

4) Cause: 

Moreland’s last condition is the one that he has the best chance of defending under an incompatibilist view of Freewill. If a person is the “first mover” of his or her decision, then no antecedent cause can be identified as influencing that decision. In that sense, we would be able to identify a single, indivisible cause — namely the decision of the person or “first mover” in that particular moment. But, stripped of all antecedent influences, it is hard to see what aspects of a person’s character or volition shaped that decision. Sure, the person may have been the “first mover” in making a choice, but without antecedent causes, the choice itself would be random.

Under Compatibilism, rather than argue that there must be a “first cause,” one can instead identify the proximal cause. Sure, if my parents had never given me vanilla ice cream as a kid, maybe I would not choose the vanilla ice cream at the parlor. But that does not change the fact that it is my desire for vanilla ice cream, at the moment of my decision, that causes me to act. Furthermore, Indeterminism does not really solve the problem of altered timelines. Changing past events could change outcomes just as much within an indeterministic universe. If only one previous event were different, I may never have even gone to the ice cream parlor that day at all. In contrast, if one argues that, in order for a person to truly have Freewill, he or she must act the same, regardless of circumstances, are we not then just looking at another form of (albeit fatalistic) Determinism?

The more straightforward way to assess causation and responsibility (and the way that we actually do it in real life) is to base responsibility on the proximal cause for an action. If that action was caused by the internal states and intentions of the person who did it, then we can say that the person as an agent “chose” to commit the action.

Determinism is NOT Fatalism: 

Often when people think that Determinism entails that there is no Freewill, they confuse it with Fatalism. Fatalism is the view that events will turn out a certain way, no matter how hard we try to stop them. In contrast, Determinism is the view that events happen for antecedent reasons. When those antecedent reasons involve my own internal desires, beliefs, and motives, then I am part of the chain of causation. This is how I am able to make choices and determine outcomes — the very opposite of Fatalism, which would entail that I could never determine outcomes through my choices.

What about my choices in the future? Under the B-Thoery of time, all of my choices in the future have already been made. But, I am the one who is making them in the moment that they occur. Block time only entails that tomorrow is equally as real as today. I am making my actions today, just as I will make them tomorrow.

Why, then, do we feel any anxiety or uncertainty about the future? While the future may already exist, that does not mean that we know what it will be. Under a block view of time, it is helpful to think of the future as a stretch of road that lies beyond a mountain. We might not not be able to see the part of the road that lies behind the mountain, but it certainly does exist and does not simply pop into existence the moment we get there. In the same way, all time exists at once, but we are not yet at future links in the chain of causation. When we get there, our choices will be the same as we make them now.

The-Minority-ReportBut, if the future is determined, then could someone make a machine to predict our choices, as in Minority Report? While this may be conceptually possible, it is important to consider what such a machine would actually entail. Being able to predict people’s future actions based on the present would only mean that you know that person very, very well. It does not entail that the person has no ability to make their choices. Furthermore, as was discussed above, human minds and decisions are emergent properties, meaning that they are not simply the same as lower order principles. In order to ever really be able to predict the future, we would have to know an unfathomable amount of variables.

As naturalist philosopher Richard Carrier (Sense & Goodness Without God, pg. 97) explains:

“In theory, if we could know every fact (the position and momentum of every particle, stuff like that), we could predict every event of the future with absolute precision, even our own choices. Of course, such knowledge is not likely ever to be possible, especially given what we know about Quantum Mechanics. And even if we ever acquired such knowledge, any process that could compute it all (using any instrument inside the universe) would have to be slower than the universe itself, and thus could never succeed in predicting the future in advance, even in principle — except by accepting some degree of imprecision or limiting predictions to very isolated causes.”

What, then, is actually Freewill? 

In this article I have defended the view that Freewill is simply being able to do what you want when presented with multiple options. You may ever only make one choice out of these options, but that is simply because the choice is only being made once. So long as it is the internal causes within you that determine your action — such as your feelings, beliefs, and motives— then you can reasonably be identified as the agent who makes the choice.

Most professional philosophers hold to the view of Compatibilism, which maintains that Determinism is compatible with making free choices. After all, it is the feelings, beliefs, and motives within us that determine the decisions that we will make. In contrast, removing all antecedent causes makes Freewill far more confusing and incomprehensible. If there are really no antecedent causes, then nothing can determine our decisions. If nothing determines our decisions, then how are we then ones in control? If, however, there are antecedent causes, such as internal states within us that cause our actions, then we are back to Determinism again.

Are we humans, then, truly capable of deciding who and what we will become in life?

Based on everything that we are able to do, can control, have reasons to do, and are the cause of doing, then “yes.” A causal chain is what enables these conditions, rather than that which inhibits them. Of course, we cannot alter past causal chains before us to change the circumstances that we were born in and presently face. But, such a notion is silly and incoherent anyways, since, even if we could choose to change the past, so that we would act differently, the sequence of events that led up to us choosing to change the past would not even exist. In the real world, we only get one timeline, but on that timeline we make choices in the only way that it is coherent and sensible to make a choice, namely through antecedent causes.

For this reason, Determinism is not only compatible with Freewill, but is, in fact, the only order of events that can allow for any coherent and meaningful sense of Freewill to exist in the first place. Otherwise, our choices would be purely random, to which agency or responsibility could not be assigned in any meaningful sense at all.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] The term “Libertarianism” on the chart depicted in image 3 does not refer to the political party or economic ideology, but rather to Indeterminist Freewill. Libertarian Freewill is the view that Freewill exists but is incompatible with Determinism. I have simply referred to this form of Freewill as “Indeterminist Freewill” to avoid any confusion with the political party or economic ideology.


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