Free will: the argument against (part 1 of 5ish)

Let’s start with some popular versions of what I call “the main type of argument” against free will. Here’s Jerry Coyne, from the conference called Moving Naturalism Forward:

(stolen from Anthony Cashmore) Free will is defined as the belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

Jerry Coyne, Free Will and Incompatibilism: Jerry Coyne et al – YouTube, at 2:00

There are two words there that are doing a lot of work: “unavoidable” and “consequences”. The “unavoidable” becomes both more and less clear, in different ways, when Jerry comments on the “stochastic laws of nature” part of the definition.

My definition used to be: If you put yourself in the same situation in the same universe with every molecule in the same place, free will would mean that if you come to a decision point you could make more than one decision. But then I realized that quantum indeterminacy if it acts on the neuronal level could make you make a [conscious and] different decision.

ibid., at 2:22

What gets less clear after this explanation is why the word “unavoidable” is appropriate. when it is hypothesized that human behavior might be different even putting yourself in these highly restricted conditions. And worse, the “same universe with every molecule in place” includes all of you. If something flows from you, that seems an especially poor reason to call it unavoidable. But what gets more clear, I think, is why a non-stochastic (deterministic) view is thought to make behavior “unavoidable”. Genetic and environmental history, after all, can be traced back before you were born. And the universe before your birth doesn’t include you. So let’s forget about stochastic laws of nature at least temporarily, and just get clear on the basic argument, assuming that the laws of nature are deterministic. We will use the scientific meaning (not, say, a theological meaning) of determinism:

Determinism requires a world that (a) has a well-defined state or description, at any given time, and (b) laws of nature that are true at all places and times. If we have all these, then if (a) and (b) together logically entail the state of the world at all other times (or, at least, all times later than that given in (a)), the world is deterministic.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

So we’ll assume now that our universe is deterministic in this sense, and formalize the argument against free will. If we need to see if it generalizes to the case of stochastic laws (teaser: we won’t need to), we can check that later. We can interpret the phrase “consequence of genetic and environmental history” (from Cashmore and Coyne) as the logical entailment mentioned in the definition of determinism. And we can add two plausible premises: the state of the past before your birth is for you unavoidable, and the laws of nature are unavoidable. (To save words later, “the past before your birth” is abbreviated “the distant past”.)

Here’s how we’ll understand “unavoidable”: “Alpha is unavoidable for you” means “For every action A you could take, if you did A, alpha would (still) be true”.

The argument we get is the Consequence Argument, a famous (infamous?) argument in modern philosophy. The original formulation was by Peter van Inwagen, but that relied on an inference rule which was invalid. A better version was later constructed by van Inwagen, David Widerker and Alexander Pruss. It goes like this:

(1) The distant past state of the universe, together with the laws of nature, together logically entail your action now.

(2) The distant past state of the universe is unavoidable (for you).

(3) The laws of nature are unavoidable.

(4) If a proposition X expresses a fact unavoidable for you, and X logically entails Y, then Y is also unavoidable for you.

(5) Therefore, your action now is unavoidable for you.

The argument so formulated actually makes premise (4) a tautology, and I want to continue assuming for the sake of argument that (1) is true. But premise (3) is controversial and (2) even more so. We’ll take them up in the next part.


Pruss, Alexander 2013. Incompatibilism Proved, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 43/4: 430–437

Van Inwagen, Peter 1983. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Widerker, David 1987. On an Argument for Incompatibilism. Analysis, 47/1: 37–41.

4 responses to “Free will: the argument against (part 1 of 5ish)

  1. We have no free will based on its definition stated here. However, it is not the only definition in town. I believe we have the kind of free will that allows us to make choices (most of the time) and take moral responsibility for the consequences (most of the time). I call it “everyday free will” and it is best described by Daniel Dennett, Sean Carroll, and Christopher List. Free will’s domain belongs in human affairs, not in fundamental physics. I’m not saying that human affairs don’t depend on fundamental physics — clearly they do. Just that human affairs is a different domain of description.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Two things have always seemed evident to me in the free will debates.
    1. The mind is a system that exists in this universe and its operations progress according to physical laws, whether or not they’re ultimately deterministic.
    2. Social responsibility remains a useful and coherent concept.

    Much of the rest is people with different definitions arguing past each other.

    Liked by 1 person

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