The Practical Argument for Free Will

Richard Chappell discusses a practical argument for free will:

1) If I don’t have free will, then I can’t choose what to believe.
2) If I can choose what to believe, then I have free will [from 1]
3) If I have free will, then I ought to believe it.
4) If I can choose what to believe, then I ought to believe that I have free will. [from 2,3]
5) I ought, if I can, to choose to believe that I have free will. [restatement of 4]

He remarks in the comments:

I’m taking it as analytic (true by definition) that choice requires free will. If we’re not free, then we can’t choose, can we? We might “reach a conclusion”, much like a computer program does, but we couldn’t choose it.

I understand the word “choice” a bit differently, in that I would say that we are obviously choosing in the ordinary sense of the term, if we consider two options which are possible to us as far as we know, and then make up our minds to do one of them, even if it turned out in some metaphysical sense that we were already guaranteed in advance to do that one. Or in other words, Chappell is discussing determinism vs libertarian free will, apparently ruling out compatibilist free will on linguistic grounds. I don’t merely disagree in the sense that I use language differently, but in the sense that I don’t agree that his usage correspond to the normal English usage. [N.B. I misunderstood Richard here. He explains in the comments.] Since people can easily be led astray by such linguistic confusions, given the relationships between thought and language, I prefer to reformulate the argument:

  1. If I don’t have libertarian free will, then I can’t make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions.
  2. If I can make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions, then I have libertarian free will [from 1].
  3. If I have libertarian free will, then it is good to believe that I have it.
  4. If I can make an ultimate difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, then it is good to believe that I have libertarian free will. [from 2, 3]
  5. It is good, if I can, to make a difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, such that I believe that I have libertarian free will.

We would have to add that the means that can make such a difference, if any means can, would be choosing to believe that I have libertarian free will.

I have reformulated (3) to speak of what is good, rather than of what one ought to believe, for several reasons. First, in order to avoid confusion about the meaning of “ought”. Second, because the resolution of the argument lies here.

The argument is in fact a good argument as far as it goes. It does give a practical reason to hold the voluntary belief that one has libertarian free will. The problem is that it does not establish that it is better overall to hold this belief, because various factors can contribute to whether an action or belief is a good thing.

We can see this with the following thought experiment:

Either people have libertarian free will or they do not. This is unknown. But God has decreed that people who believe that they have libertarian free will go to hell for eternity, while people who believe that they do not, will go to heaven for eternity.

This is basically like the story of the Alien Implant. Having libertarian free will is like the situation where the black box is predicting your choice, and not having it is like the case where the box is causing your choice. The better thing here is to believe that you do not have libertarian free will, and this is true despite whatever theoretical sense you might have that you are “not responsible” for this belief if it is true, just as it is better not to smoke even if you think that your choice is being caused.

But note that if a person believes that he has libertarian free will, and it turns out to be true, he has some benefit from this, namely the truth. But the evil of going to hell presumably outweighs this benefit. And this reveals the fundamental problem with the argument, namely that we need to weigh the consequences overall. We made the consequences heaven and hell for dramatic effect, but even in the original situation, believing that you have libertarian free will when you do not, has an evil effect, namely believing something false, and potentially many evil effects, namely whatever else follows from this falsehood. This means that in order to determine what is better to believe here, it is necessary to consider the consequences of being mistaken, just as it is in general when one formulates beliefs.


4 thoughts on “The Practical Argument for Free Will

  1. There have actually been a number of studies showing that “telling people that free will is an
    illusion leads people to cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively” (See Dr. Eddy Nahmias article in this pdf: ).

    There is a “no free will” exception to moral and legal responsibility. When the Boston Marathon bombers were escaping Boston, they hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist them in their escape. The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the criminals because he was forced to act against his will.

    If determinism is used as an excuse to claim that nobody ever has any free will, then the special exception gets applied to all cases, and nobody is responsible for anything they do. So it is not unexpected that a person who believes he will not be held responsible would behave worse than someone who would be held responsible for their actions.

    When free will is correctly defined as a decision that one makes for oneself, free of coercion or undue influence, a definition that nearly everyone recognizes in cases like the hijacked driver, then free will clearly does exist.

    It is only when free will is given the added requirement, of being “free from reliable causation”, that it conflicts with determinism.

    And likewise, it is only when determinism is viewed incorrectly as a constraint forcing us to act against our will, that determinism conflicts with free will.

    (a) Without reliable cause and effect, we cannot reliably cause any effect, and thus would have no freedom to do anything at all.

    (b) The direct prior cause of our choice is a mental process called “choosing”, where multiple options are reduced to a single choice.

    (c) Choosing is an empirical event that occurs within our own brains, thus it is an unquestionable product of ourselves.

    (d) The fact that choosing involves unconscious as well as conscious processes does not change the fact that all of these processes are “us” in the act of “choosing”.

    (e) What we inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. This is not a meaningful constraint. However, coercion and undue influence are meaningful constraints.

    (f) The idea that determinism is itself a force of nature is false. Only actual objects and forces can cause things to happen.

    (g) We are physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. When we choose to do something, we are also forces of nature.


  2. I’m actually a compatibilist myself, so certainly didn’t mean for my argument to be interpreted as ruling out this position! I don’t think the argument works for specifically libertarian free will, because it’s an open possibility that the relevant sense of “choice” is compatibilist in nature, and that compatibilism is true, and hence that we ought to believe precisely this (and not libertarianism).


    • Thanks for the correction. I edited the post to indicate that I had misunderstood you.

      Still, my understanding of compatibilism implies that even when you make a choice, that particular choice was physically necessary, and the opposite choice physically impossible. Do you understand this differently? If so what is the difference from libertarian free will?

      If you agree with that, I am curious how you would respond to the argument for libertarian free will by comparison with the smoking lesion:

      If libertarianism is false, then everyone who believes it, believes it with physical necessity. Consequently choosing to believe in libertarianism has an upside, namely the possibility of being right, but no downside, because no one will fall into the situation of falsely believing that libertarianism is true, except people for whom it was physically impossible to avoid that situation.

      That seems the same as saying that smoking has an upside (namely the benefit of smoking) but no downside because no one will get cancer except people who were definitely going to get it on account of the lesion.

      If you answer that the possible falsehood of the belief should be considered a downside because you had the compatibilist option of choosing not to believe in libertarianism, then getting cancer should be considered a downside because you had the compatibilist option of not smoking, which would have ruled out cancer (in the 100% correlation case.)


      • There are certain words which have meaning only in the context of our imagination. A “possibility”, for example, only exists in the mind. And it operates within the context of mentally making a choice. Each choosing process begins with more than one possibility. Once we’ve chosen that possibility it becomes our choice. Once we actualize that possibility it is no longer referred to by the word “possibility”, at least not until the next time we consider making a new choice.

        There is only one inevitability. But this fact has nothing to do with any possibilities. For example, it does not make any possibility an impossibility. The fact that one of the possibilities should turn out to be the inevitable choice does not change the nature of the other possibilities. They never were impossibilities, nor would they become impossibilities, because one of them may be selected the next time we make this choice.

        The mental process of choosing always begins with imagining two or more possibilities. There is an evaluation, perhaps a mental scenario of how we expect things to turn out if we choose this rather than that. And then based upon the relative value assigned, we choose the one that seems best.

        This mental process plays out deterministically according to how we think and feel about each of our possibilities.

        The fact that multiple options were considered and reduced to a single choice is empirical evidence that the mental event of choosing took place. And if we trace the prior causes of our choice, we will find that the most relevant and meaningful prior causes was the mental process that just took place in our heads.

        This matter of context is especially important for understanding “I could have done otherwise”. The context of “could have” is again a mental event taking place in our imagination. We are reviewing a past act or decision (usually when things didn’t work out as we expected) to play out some of our other possibilities in our minds, to see what we might do differently next time. It is how we learn from our mistakes.

        Again, the fact of the single inevitability has no place in this context of going over scenarios in our minds. It has no impact upon the fact that “we could have made a different choice”, because all that really means is that we had more than one possibility at the time.

        So I go into this restaurant with a hard determinist waiter.
        I ask him, “What possibilities do I have for my main course tonight?”
        He says, “You only have one real possibility”.
        I say, “Okay, what is that?”
        He says, “I don’t know until you tell me your choice.”


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