Do we have control over our actions? If we do, what sort of control and to what extent? Free will is the power to act without the constraint of necessity or fate. It is the ability to act at one's own discretion. For centuries, people have wondered how freedom is possible in a world ruled by physical determinism. Reflections on free will have been confined to philosophy until half a century ago, when the topic started also to be seriously investigated by neuroscientists. Today, there are several irreconcilable positions about the existence of human free will.
Yes, people have free willShow moreShow less
Individuals determine their own actions without any interference from outside forces.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will, a significant kind of control over one’s actions. People are largely free to act or not to act in a certain way. Belief in free will is called Libertarianism.
William James wrote in 1890 that the “sting and excitement of life comes from our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.”
Libertarian thinking seems to runs counter to what we know about the physical world – that one event leads to another event. To account for this, Libertarians make the distinction between event causation and agent causation. Many Libertarians concede the world itself is deterministic as, with event causation, no physical event can occur without being caused by a previous physical event.
However, they argue that there is also agent causation. An agent – a being propelled by a mind – can start a whole chain of causality that wasn’t caused by anything else. Humanity are that one special being in the whole universe whose mysterious nature permits making choices that is free of the rigid determinism that governs the rest of the universe.
Many philosophers struggle with Libertarianism. With the rest of the universe controlled by laws of physics, what makes humans different to everything else?
[P1] Individuals have the free will to commit actions not caused by anything else.
Rejecting the premises
[Rejecting P1] This contravenes laws of physics.
Bricklin, J. (2015) The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time:William James's Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment. SUNY Press: New York.
Overbye, D. (2007) Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t. The New York Times.
Panza, C. & Potthast, A. (2010) Ethics For Dummies. London: John Wiley & Sons
Tierney, J. (2011) Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/science/22tier.html