With the UK’s Sentencing Council releasing new sentencing guidelines this week, the question of whether or not we have free will looms large. To this question, most philosophers fall in to one of four groups: those who believe that we have complete, unconstrained free will (sometimes referred to as ‘libertarians’); those who believe that in so far as all of our actions are determined by prior events, we are not free (‘hard determinists’); those who believe that all of our actions are caused by randomness and are therefore not free (‘indeterminists’); and those who believe that although constrained by prior events, we are nonetheless free (‘compatabilists’).
The question of free will causes such a stir amongst philosophers because the possession (or lack of) of free will underlies many of our most basic and systematic belief systems. How we organise civic life, the level of resentment we feel towards others, whether or not lying is wrong – all of these rest on assumptions that each of us possess a capacity to freely choose our actions.
Given that two out of the four dominating theories of free will argue that we do not possess it; how is it that we – both individually and culturally – assume that we do? Our assumption isn’t one of degrees of freedom – freedom in some but not all circumstances – but an assumption that, irrespective of mitigating circumstances, we are morally responsible for all of our actions – however benign or abhorrent.
But if each of action b must follow from action a (neuron x fires so I choose the chocolate ice-cream over the strawberry ice-cream); or if each action is caused by the random throwing of dice, then there is no room for free will or agency or moral responsibility. If either of these theories are true (and only one could be), then how we live our lives – and expect others to live theirs – is based on a false premise.
In order to justify how we live our lives – how we view ourselves and others, the institutions that we build and endorse, – we must possess a capacity for free will that still leaves room for freely chosen action even when factors like determinism and randomness are accounted for. Person a is about to be sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence for stealing cars. Is she morally responsible for her actions? Is she deserving of our disapprobation and punishment? If her stealing the car was the result of a chain of prior events, beginning at her birth, then there is an inevitability to her actions that leads no room for free will. If, on the other hand, her stealing the car was the result of a random firing of neurons in her brain, then there is another inevitability to her actions that, again, leaves no room for free will.
But if, in spite of the prior events leading up to the moment when she stole the car, and in spite of the make-up of her brain chemistry at that moment, she could choose to do other than she did, then she has free will. If this is the case, then we might ask what sort of thing free will is? If it is not the effect of a cause, as we think of everyday objects like one billiard ball striking another, and it is not the effect of randomness, like the process that guided the composition of you or I, then what, exactly, is it?
One answer is that free will is an illusion. Like our sense of self as a thing persisting through time (something that we can disprove through introspection alone), our sense of freedom could also be an illusion produced by consciousness. Even so, it would still be true to say that we have free will in so far as it feels, universally, as though we do, and so our arrangement of personal and civic life would justifiably continue in the same way that we justifiably act in ways that cater to our future selves, even though we can claim no identity to our future selves.
Or else we could answer that free will is the stuff of metaphysics (‘after’ or ‘beyond’ physics) that we haven’t yet acquired an answer to (or even a means of knowing how we would answer). Free will is undeniably a derivative of consciousness and we can’t yet explain that, so why not hold off trying to answer what exactly free will is until we know what consciousness is? If and until that time comes, we are left to speculate the truth of the immediate and elusive phenomenon that all of us at least feel like we possess. The stakes are high: our assumption of free will might work for the majority, but for those who fall from grace, the consequences can be life-long.