Saturday, June 17, 2017



A different approach to the Free Will problem

D. R. Khashaba

Scores of learned books and papers have been written on the so-called ‘free will problem’. Thus the erudite create problems where there are none, keeping themselves busy with intractable logical puzzles. The whole mess is a bundle of confusions and sophisticated nonsense. Outside academic circles no one ever suspects the existence of such a problem.

The pseudo-problem of free will arose from the fiction of determinism – the earlier theological determinism and the modern physical or causal determinism – and is compounded by the confusion of free will with freedom of choice. The term ‘free will’ in itself is a pitfall for there is no such thing as a Will that wills; there is only willing, as Thomas Hobbes rightly saw (Leviathan, Part I., chap.VI). (I append a note on the so-called logical determinism.)

Let us leave theological determinism to theologians to crack their heads on since it clearly arises from the fiction of an omnipotent and omniscient God. Next let me dispose of causal determinism in a few words. Causal determinism is a scientific theory. Scientific theories are either (1) descriptions of observed phenomenal regularities, or (2) interpretations of phenomenal happenings. In either category the theory must be of a high level of generality and is necessarily transitory, subject to revision at any time. The so-called Laws of Nature can never be of perfect accuracy or absolute certainty. There is always room for novelty and for surprises. But even if the theory of causal determinism were flawless, the problem would be how to reconcile that with our unquestionable experience of free activity, not the other way round. Scientists would have to correct their account to allow for freedom of action rather than philosophers having to find excuses for defying the so-called Laws of Nature.

The confusion of free will with freedom of choice is responsible for most of the quandaries involved in the putative problem. Choice is a consequence of our imperfection. We have to exercise choice because we are imperfect being in an imperfect world. Choice is always determined by antecedents but those antecedents include our beliefs, principles, values, and ideals, and even our tastes and whims. Thus while choice is always necessarily determined it is in full agreement with our autonomy. For good or for ill, my choice is the choice of the person I am. The dubieties and nuances of the experience of choice are grit for the psychological mill, not for the philosopher.

When we act spontaneously without premeditation, even in simple banal acts, we are free. When I take up my cup of coffee it is not because neurons in my brain make a certain motion but because I want (‘will’) a sip of coffee. When I turn a corner and see my granddaughter coming from the opposite direction and I open my arms and embrace her I act freely: whatever the accompaniments of cells, glands, and neurons in my body may be, that is not the cause of my action; the cause is my love of her.

The problem of human freedom is a moral problem not a logical puzzle. When we are clear in our mind about our values, priorities, and principles, as Socrates would say, or when we have adequate ideas, as Spinoza has it, then we are free moral agents. This is the gist of the grossly misunderstood and much maligned ‘intellectualism’ of Socrates. In the spontaneity of moral acts and of intelligent creativity (in poetry, art, philosophy) we are at the highest level of human freedom.

There is nothing problematic in all of this. There is of course the moral problem: Why are we most of the time enthralled by fake values, false aims, foolish desires? Why are even the best of us only by fits and starts rational human beings? This is the problem true philosophers wrestle with. Socrates was all his life trying to help people clear the confusions, obscurities, entanglements, and falsehoods in their mnds, to help them be free and live and act as rational human beings who know that all their value and worth is in having a healthy soul. It is ignorance, as Socrates well knew, that denies us freedom, not causal determinism.

D. R. Khashaba

June 17, 20`7

APPENDIX: Professor Kevin Timpe delineates logical determinism thus:

“Logical determinism builds off the law of excluded middle and holds that propositions about what agents will do in the future already have a truth value. For instance, the proposition ‘Allison will take the dog for a walk next Thursday’ is already true or false. Assume that it is true. Since token propositions cannot change in truth value over time, it was true a million years ago that Allison would walk her dog next Thursday.” (Kevin Timpe, “Free Will”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This is so blatantly absurd that only learned scholars can take it seriously. To have a truth value a proposition has to relate to an actually extant state of affairs. Propositions about the future do not relate to an objective state of affairs. Aristotle rightly said that propositions about the future are neither true nor false. I will not waste more time discussing such nonsense.

Posted to and


Post a Comment

<< Home