A Defense of Libertarian Free Will

Free Will

In this essay, I will argue that libertarian free will presents a more promising theory of human action than hard determinism. This follows from the fact that we have no affirmative reason for believing in an essential component of deterministic theories of human behavior, namely natural laws. Furthermore, both intellectual and practical concerns strongly motivate us to posit the phenomenon of free choice, the existence of which would contradict determinism and confirm libertarianism. Beyond this, common objections to the libertarian theory of will rely upon logical fallacies and, subsequently, should not be persuasive to careful thinkers. These concerns demonstrate that we ought to reject determinism and embrace libertarianism.

There are few matters more central to our lives than our decisions and actions. Though things such as choice and behavior might seem quite familiar, they are the subjects of many puzzling questions. Perhaps the most important of these is the question of whether or not we are in control of our own actions. Though there are various nuanced responses to this query, the debate largely reduces to one central dichotomy; either rational beings are capable of selecting behaviors from multiple genuinely possible options or they are not capable of doing so. If the first proposal is correct, logical persons are true agents, the ultimate originators of at least some aspect of their own behavior. If the second proposal is correct, they are pawns of either deterministic laws or random chance. Those who wish to affirm the first proposal would likely defend a form of libertarian free will by explaining human behaviors in terms of free choice. Those who wish to affirm the second proposal would likely defend some form of determinism by explaining human behaviors in terms of physical laws.

Those who embrace hard determinism claim that there is only one possible future that can follow from a particular present state of affairs. For example, if Susan is presented with options A and B, and Susan picks B, a determinist would argue that Susan picking B was the only outcome that was ever truly possible and that, given the laws of the universe, Susan could never have done anything other than pick B. This outcome necessarily followed from physical laws such as momentum, gravitation, and conservation. Any appearance of free will was merely an illusion.

It is not surprising that many people find this view tempting. After all, it seems to follow quite directly from one of the core presuppositions of the scientific worldview. For, scientists assume that everything in the world is governed by regular natural laws and that these laws can be abstracted through observation. It is clear that Susan falls under the category of everything in the world. Hence, if the scientific worldview is correct, it follows that Susan is governed by regular natural laws that can be abstracted through observation. This basic scientific outlook is prevalent in intellectual circles and is embraced by many who occupy prestigious positions. However, there is no clear reason to suppose that a view that is socially lauded is any more likely to be true than a view that is not socially lauded. Therefore, if there are reasons for concluding that this element of the scientific paradigm is incorrect, absent contrary evidence, we should reject this particular claim. I believe that such reasons exist.

The first of these reasons emerges from the mere practical necessity of believing in events that are not governed by external deterministic laws. One cannot possibly live one’s life on the assumption of determinism. In countless situations, one is simply compelled to choose between options. When one is considering the options of attending one of two colleges, one cannot merely defer to the proscriptions of external laws and previous events. Such deference would itself constitute a decision. When faced with alternatives, one simply must assume that one is actually able to actualize different futures. This applies to intellectual endeavors. Consider any metal activity. For example, imagine that you are asked to form an opinion regarding the truth of determinism. In effect, you are being asked to choose between assenting to the proposition, “determinism is true,” and assenting to the proposition, “determinism is false.” While you are evaluating the evidence and arguments for each position, you must implicitly assume that you are an agent capable of choosing either option. Even a committed hard determinist, locked in a fierce debate with an interlocutor, must make decisions regarding which arguments she will employ and how she will formulate them. As a result, I cannot see how an individual can affirm determinism without implicitly or explicitly contradicting herself. Positions that do not force us into contradictions tend to be more reasonable than positions that do force us into contradictions. Libertarianism, the belief that persons may do otherwise by choosing to pursue one of several actually possible courses of action, does not impress inconsistency upon us; whereas, hard determinism does. This indicates that libertarianism is more reasonable than hard determinism.

What is more, it is generally more reasonable to explain events in terms of things we have experienced than it is to explain events in terms of things we have not experienced. Illustratively, if we hear the sound of galloping, it is possible that this sound can be attributed to the running of a unicorn. However, it is more reasonable to assume that a horse’s running produces the sound. This is because we have experiences of horses but not of unicorns. Now, it is, of course, conceivable that our experiences of horses were mere illusions and were, in fact, produced by unicorns in disguise. Nevertheless, this does not appear to be the case, and, in the absence of contrary evidence, we should assume that things are the way that they seem. Therefore, if we seem to have no experiences of unicorns and all the events that might be explained by unicorns can be explained by things we do seem to have experienced, then, we should assume that unicorns do not exist.

Likewise, as Hume has shown us, we have no immediate experiences of natural laws. When one sees one billiard ball imparting its motion to another, one never actually perceives the causal mechanisms or governing laws at work. Instead, one merely observes the constant conjunction of contact and motion. Subsequently, we may conclude that we have no experiences of actual deterministic physical laws. In contrast, we do seem to experience acts of will. An individual is able to distinguish between occasions on which she seems to be in control and occasions on which she does not seem to be in control. For example, if someone loses her temper, she notices the absence of the experience of being in control. If people are able to notice the absence of a particular thing, they must in some way be able to perceive the presence of that thing. Thus, it appears that rational beings have an intuitive immediate grasp of their own will much in the same way they have an immediate understanding of their own consciousness. Consequently, we may conclude that we do have experiences of free will but do not have experiences of deterministic causal laws. Therefore, if we are able to explain events in terms of acts of will, without referencing mystical entities such as natural laws, we ought to do so. If we decide to explain the events that constitute human behavior in terms of acts of free will, as I believe we should, we will have adopted the libertarian position.

A common objection to this view asserts that the concept of free will is in some way incoherent or confused (Block). This is typically formulated as follows: If the states of a thing are determined, it does not have libertarian free will. If the states of a thing are undetermined, it does not have libertarian free will. By the law of the excluded middle, the states of each and every thing must either be determined or undetermined. Therefore, nothing has libertarian free will. Though this argument is seductively clever, it makes a key mistake by committing the fallacy of equivocation. In one point in the argument, the term, “undetermined,” is used as a synonym for random. At another crucial point in the argument, undetermined is used interchangeably with the phrase, “not determined.” Of course, everything must either be determined or not determined. Furthermore, it is clear that a universe in which everything was either determined or random would leave no room for free will. However, the fact the something is merely not determined does not necessarily imply that it is the product of random chance. No one who did not already reject the notion of libertarian free will would accept the assertion that any indeterministic system must also be a random system. Subsequently, to rely upon this premise in an argument against libertarian free will is to beg the question.

Ultimately, we must assent to one theory of human action or another. The points made above clearly demonstrate that libertarian free will is superior to its primary competitor, determinism. It does not force us into contradictions and is compatible with the ordinary presuppositions of human behavior. Beyond this, its component elements are made clear to us through experience. Libertarianism is not only supported by a strong affirmative case but is also capable of withstanding criticism. Hence, it is evident that belief in libertarian free will is the most reasonable position.

Works Cited

Block, Ned. Interview by Robert L. Kuhn. Www.closertotruth.com. PBS, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.