Theory on framework issues

Sunday, December 19, 2010

10.1. The what, how, and why of "free will": A metaphysical digression—Part 1. What is "free will"?

The Libet experiments can reinvigorate the free-will debate—now deadlocked and dull—if applied to clarify concepts, not merely refute opponents. In the current standoff, almost every philosopher and scientist rejects libertarian free will, the doctrine that willful acts produce physically unpredictable outcomes, but the scholarly majority wants its physicalism and its free will too. This compatibilist maneuver to have both turns the question of free will’s existence into a jejune debate about words; but unfortunately, free will’s inherent ineffability condemns determinists to rejecting what they can’t define. These essays fill the gap.

Compatibilists equate the exercise of free will with voluntary behavior, as when I move my arm because that’s what I want to do. According to the desiccated compatibilist definitions, free will is comprised of the ability to behave voluntarily, notwithstanding that volition is cortical matter physically causing chemical events. Although it’s hard to describe an alternative, this position seems obviously wrong; a science fiction story can quickly show why. Imagine an intelligent species that directly experienced the causal path between brain and arm, as we might experience the causal connection between pain and object causing injury. Such beings would perform the action voluntarily, but would this tempt anyone to call it “free”? Unfortunately, the answer is affirmative. While the thought experiment can allude to the distinction between voluntary and freely willed behavior, a compatibilist would answer the question, “Yes, that is an example of free will.”

Determinists can concede that volition is one meaning of free will but insist on another meaning, origination, the sense that you are your behavior’s source. Although origination separates determinists from libertarians—by the lights of both—compatibilists circumvent the issue by limiting the manifestation of free will to voluntary behavior. That they’ve gotten the better of the argument, despite their evasiveness, must be admitted, because origination is nebulous, unsuited for creating a clear counterpoint to volition. Free will, the agent’s contribution to the event, the umpf we give an act seemingly making it occur, seems ineffable except by the vaguest allusion. Intuitively, we feel we will freely in a sense distinct from mere volition—most everyone thinks they know this other free will—but unsupported mass intuitions truly deserve little respect.

My trick defines the experience of free will by its cause instead of its experiential quality, much as the ineffable red patch observable in your mind’s eye can be defined as the physical reception of an object reflecting certain long light waves. With a difference. If we define the free-will experience by its cause—as we can define the sensation red by its external cause—then, if the definition posits a demonstrably nonexistent entity, it undermines the doctrine of free will, including its compatibilist version.

Recall that Libet found that subjects perceived the act of deciding, the initiating event of the free-will experience, later than the actual decisionthis demonstrated neurologically. Determinists see that misplacement of the subjective experience of deciding disposes of libertarian free will. But who believes in libertarian free will? Since they haven’t described the experience of free will, these scholars haven’t refuted compatibilism.

My small contribution is to articulate a definition of free will:

Free will is the (mis)perception that experienced deciding causes behavior.

This project relies on Fritz Heider’s classic psychological experiments as much as on Libet’s neurological studies. Heider showed that despite the abstractness of the concept of cause, temporal precedence and spatial contiguity produce the direct, noninferential perception of causality. (An animated demonstration lets you experience the direct perception of causality.) This sense of a causal connection, resulting from associating perceived decision with act, is the sense of free will.

Attributing the free-will experience to a unique cause frees determinists from the vexation of defining it experientally, since it explains the experience by an invalidating mechanism: if the experience of deciding regularly precedes an act, it will seem its cause. Determinists, therefore, can demonstrate a sense of free will distinct from voluntary control.

Next part: How free will?


  1. This is a bit premature. You need to check out Dennet's reponse to Libet.

  2. If your point is an empirical critique of Libet, in 10.2 "How free will?" ( ), I contend that my argument depends on Libet's conceptualization rather than his empirical findings.

  3. You are offering a theory under the guise of a definition

    1. To put this in context, you disagree with the definition. You maintain "Conscious volition is not the same as free will." (Overcoming Bias comments.)

      The definition is an attempt to articulate an intuition. "Free will" has multiple senses. My problem is to articulate the sense that should be denied. To say that isn't the sense you care about isn't a substantive disagreement. On the other hand, you might be saying that I misarticulate an actual intuition, or there is no corresponding intuition there at all, that there is no sense in which we seem free but are not - ultimately an empirical question, but I'm betting that people overwhelmingly would assent to having this intuition of freedom.

    2. You are misarticulating an actual intuition. The actual intuition is true, and the misarticulation is false, so in that sense you rightly deny it.

      We do not have an intuition that conscious deciding as such (namely as conscious) is the cause of our actions. We have an intuition that we can be conscious of deciding, and that our deciding is the cause of our actions. But this is like subjectively feeling hunger and concluding that we have the desire to eat. When we go and eat, the subjective feeling is not the cause of our action, but rather our desire to eat is the cause. But the subjective feeling is indeed how we know that we have the desire.

      In the same way, conscious deciding is how we know that we are making a decision, and the decision is the cause of our action.

      In that way, our intuition is true, but your misarticulation of it is false, as you say.


Blog Archive

About Me

Joshua Tree, California 92252-2141, United States
SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.