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Do some persons have more free will than others?


To: Luisa K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will as the opportunity to exercise choice
Date: 29th May 2009 10:42

Dear Luisa,

Thank you for your email of 21 May, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, on the topic of Free Will.

I liked the way that you attempted to relate the philosophical problem of free will to your own situation and to the situation of the people that you work with. It is a good question to ask how it can be that people who apparently have little choice with regard to the possibilities for living their lives can be said to have 'free will'. Yet at the end of your essay you say, 'there is free will in every act we do, from the standing up in the morning to going back to bed at night' and I think this is the important point. Free will is the capacity to exercise choice. This capacity can remain the same, while the range of available choices alters. If you are rich, you may have more 'freedom', for example, you can take a holiday anywhere you like without worrying about the cost. But this is not greater 'free will' in the sense of a capacity to exercise choice.

But that begs the question whether in fact all human beings do have the same capacity to exercise choice. Could it be that some persons have a greater capacity to exercise choice in any given situation than others? Having more knowledge is one way (because you are more aware of the possibilities that the given situation presents). But let's suppose that this is kept constant too. Then the only thing that distinguishes, say, Sally and Harry, is that Sally is mentally more flexible than Harry, more able to break away from past patterns of behaviour, or the conditioning of parents, school, society etc. So, in a situation where both Sally and Harry have the same knowledge, Sally has more real choices than Harry, simply by virtue of her character, her 'psychological makeup'.

I am interested in this aspect of freedom, by virtue of which we can say that some persons, in themselves, are in a sense 'more free' than others. But I am also interested in the metaphysical problem of freedom: the challenge presented by the philosopher who argues that no human being has 'free will', even to the smallest extent. This is the argument which considers the hypothesis of determinism, and the alternative hypothesis of indeterminism (or, rather, a universe which is not wholly deterministic) and concludes that free will is impossible either way.

When you mention determinism and indeterminism in your essay, it is in the context of knowledge of the future. However, the primary meaning of 'determinism' relates rather to 'what comes from behind'. The entire history of the universe has led to this point. On the determinist view, there is only one thing that can happen next, whatever that thing is. If you ran the history of the history of the universe again from the Big Bang, it would be the same in every respect, with no possibility of deviation. Well, if that is true, then every decision you have ever made was already 'decided' when the Big Bang banged. The only sense in which you have 'free will' (e.g. to decide when to get out of bed) is not knowing what the course of events leading up from the Big Bang necessitates.

On the indeterminist view, by contrast, if you ran the history of the universe again, there would be many deviations because not every event is necessitated by a prior cause. Would that give freedom? The problem is that 'not necessitated by a prior cause' means that an action can't be the result of an intention or a desire. In other words, you can only be 'free' when you do things completely at random, without thinking beforehand. That's not the kind of 'freedom' most people would want.

If, as you say, 'we knew beforehand what consequences our choices would evoke' that would only imply lack of freedom if you knew everything, down to the last detail. If you had a God's-eye view of your own existence, lying in bed in the morning, you would 'know' exactly what time Luisa gets up, because you would know everything about her. But if you know exactly when Luisa will get up, you can't make the 'decision' to get up. All decision, all deliberation, is taken away -- a frightening prospect. However, this view of the problem leads to a useful definition of 'free will' which is compatible with determinism, namely, that we have 'free will' insofar as we are not aware of all the things that we will do.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel refers to this as the 'penumbra of ignorance'. Human beings are to all intents and purposes 'free' (that is to say, they have a 'free will' which is compatible with determinism) provided that they have a penumbra of ignorance regarding their future actions.

The 64 thousand Dollar question is, Is 'compatible' freedom what we want? Are you happy with the thought that every move you make is necessitated by the way the Big Bang banged? Or, if that seems too remote, by the total physical state of your body ten seconds ago? If not, then what is the alternative? We've seen that denying determinism doesn't give the kind of freedom we want (because we don't want our 'free' acts to be merely random deviations).

-- I have to confess at this point that I don't know what the alternative is. It is one of the unsolved problems of philosophy.

All the best,