philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Free Will

by D.R. Khashaba

This is an abridged version of Parts I and IV of "Free Will as Creativity", available on my Web site I hope that readers who find that the following pages make sense will consider it worthwhile to read the fuller account where I develop the position outlined here through comments on Kant's 'Critique of Practical Reason' and on a number of papers by some prominent contemporary thinkers.

1. Historical Survey

The so-called free-will problem is a spurious problem. It need not have arisen but for two unjustified assumptions (or two classes of assumptions). The ancient Greek philosophers did not raise the problem since they had no reason to question the reality of the experience of free will. Even the deeply rooted and widely accepted notion of Fate did not radically contradict the experience of free will. Fate (or the Fates) could plot a person's fortunes and the caprice of the gods could bring about the undoing of an individual but they did not work on the will of that person. Prometheus could maintain his integrity and his dignity in the face of mighty Zeus.

For Socrates and for Plato the problem was, What sways the decisions of a human being: reason, or emotion, or desire? But in all cases the final arbiter was the person herself. To them, that a rational being acts freely was self-evident. Socrates' examination of akrasia in 'Protagoras', Plato's distinction between volition and intention in 'The Laws', Aristotle's discussion of intentional and unintentional acts in the 'Nicomachean Ethics', all relate to the problem of choice, not to the problem of free will as it was later posed, first by Christian and Islamic thinkers with reference to the ideas of predestination and divine foreknowledge, and then by modern philosophers with reference to the scientific concept of causal determinism. Neither Socrates nor Plato nor Aristotle finds any reason to question the reality of the freedom of the will. For them to be free is to act intelligently and not be swayed by desires and aims unillumined by the light of reason.

The Atomists of classical times (Democritus, Leucippus, Lucretius) apparently did not pay much attention to any possible repercussions of their theories on the question of human freedom. Plato at 'Laws' 967a ties the postulate of physical necessity with atheism, not with any scepticism concerning free will. In any case Epicurus, who adopted the physics of the Atomists, was confident we can control our fortunes.

The Stoics believed that all that happens is providentially directed, but they did not see that as precluding the freedom of a human being to live in harmony with the divine will.

On the other hand, theism does not merely hold that "God is the cause of the operation of everything which operates." (Thomas Aquinas.) That would not preclude autonomy as understood by Spinoza. But theism maintains further that God has decreed beforehand all action that will ever take place. That clearly makes human beings sheer automata on a par with the animals of Descartes. Theists exert themselves to prove that God's foreknowledge does not determine the deeds of human beings, but they also positively affirm that all we do is foreordained by God.

From the seventeenth century onwards, the debates about free will and predestination, originally raised in the theological arena, were given new life as a result of the mechanical determinism of Hobbes and Descartes and the metaphysical necessity entailed in Leibniz' pre-established harmony and Spinoza's pantheism.

Hobbes (1588-1679) was a consistent materialist. Taking his stand on the naturalistic and materialistic attitude of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), he was perhaps the first among moderns to give clear expression to the idea of causal determinism. If all there is in the universe is matter in motion, then free will can be nothing but an illusion. And Hobbes is still very much with us today. As long as we find reality in what is given in the phenomenal world, Hobbes' conclusion is inescapable. Only if we find reality in the mind can we find room for free will.

Descartes (1596-1650) and Spinoza (1632-77) were mathematicians and carried the idea of mathematical necessity into metaphysics where it does not belong, just as Plato was inclined to do at times; but Plato was a far profounder thinker and had the audacity to be inconsistent when his philosophical insight demanded it. As mathematicians, Descartes and Spinoza maintained that, given the set-up of the world at any given moment, the outcome for all time was determined. Leibniz too was a mathematician, but, like Plato, dared to be inconsistent, though at times he was inconsistent in the wrong place, motivated not by insight but by fear of the Church.

Spinoza equates freedom with understanding; he titles the Fifth Part of his 'Ethics' "Concerning the Power of the Intellect or Human Freedom". For him the important consideration is not whether in behaving we are determined or free, but whether we are passive or active. For, for him, all that comes to pass is necessitated. But the more understanding we have of ourselves and of the world, the more of perfection we have in ourselves, and the more free we are in the only sense in which a finite being can be free. This is a noble conception of freedom, and the only one compatible with strict causal determinism. Spinoza could not go beyond that, fettered as he was by his acquiescence in that postulate.

Spinoza accepted without demur the consequences of the causal determinism he thought incontrovertible. Leibniz (1646-1716), who was by no means less intelligent or clear-headed than Spinoza, would have done the same. But Leibniz was not a heroic man; he was not prepared to face the ostracism and drudgery that were imposed on Spinoza in consequence of his beliefs. So Leibniz juggled with words to show that there can be predetermination without necessity. As Bertrand Russell puts it: "Leibniz recognized... that all psychical events have their causes, just as physical events have, and that prediction is as possible, theoretically, in the one case as in the other. To this he was committed by his whole philosophy, and especially by the pre-established harmony. He points out that the future must be determined And with this, if he had not been resolved to rescue free will, he might have been content. The whole doctrine of contingency might have been dropped with advantage. But that would have led to a Spinozistic necessity, and have contradicted Christian dogma." (Bertrand Russell, 'The Philosophy of Leibniz', 1900, Sect. 118.)

It is odd that Hume (1711-76), who was the first to shatter the idea of causation as a law of nature, should yet be seen by causal determinists as a champion of their cause. For, ironically, while empiricists proudly announce themselves descendants of Hume, they choose to forget that he showed all our pretensions to knowledge to be nothing better than pious dreams. In 'An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding', Section VIII, Of Liberty and Necessity, Part I, Hume argues that there is as much uniformity in human character and human behaviour as is to be found in nature. He calls this necessity. Since people — among them philosophers — when observing regular succession in nature suppose that there is a force which necessitates that the 'effect' should follow the 'cause', by the same token, when we observe regularity in human behaviour, we should regard that as necessity. This is good as far as it goes, and though it sits uneasily with the rest of Hume's philosophy, let us concede it to him. Where does it take us? Only to the point that all human activity is sufficiently 'caused', which does not conflict with the view that principles and ideals can be effective factors in determining human activity. By itself, Hume's argument does not entail or support predetermination.

2. Causal Determinism

The classic statement of the postulate of causal determinism was formulated by Pierre Laplace (1749-1827) in his 'Philosophical Essay on Probabilities':

"We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes." (Quoted in Carl Hoefer's important article "Causal Determinism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

The sanguine effusion of Laplace was in full tune with his age and time. This was the logical outcome of the Cartesian version of rationalism. In more recent times, mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers of science have made it more difficult to display such exuberant confidence. However, for the purposes of the present essay, it does not matter whether determinism be taken at this high pitch or in any toned-down version.

Determinism rests on two postulates:

  1. Everything that happens is subject to the 'universal laws of nature'.

  2. Everything that happens is theoretically predictable, being the outcome of causes which are in turn caused by antecedent causes.

Both these assumptions are useful scientific fictions that can never be anything other than that. They are as certain and as reliable as any human knowledge can be and no more. Here for once we will find Plato and Hume speaking with one voice. All the astounding achievements of our civilization are based on these postulates. But they cannot permit us to make any absolute judgements. And I strongly contend that they are not relevant to philosophical positions which are concerned solely with subjective reality. (See my "Philosophy as Prophecy" and "Excursions into the Dialogues of Plato: II. Knowledge and Reality".)

Scientists and philosophers of science are hotly debating questions relating to determinism and causation. My position is that whatever theory be found most satisfactory in these areas will have relevance only in the domain of observable objective phenomena. However much power we may possess to control, influence, or predict the sequences of these phenomena, we do not thereby gain understanding of what makes things do what they do. Most scientifically oriented minds are firm in the conviction that once we are master of the steps that ensure the coming about of a thing, we have understanding of that thing. That may be what we mean by understanding in common usage. If medical scientists come to know how to control the development of a malignant growth, no one will cavil with calling that understanding. But clear thinking would profit by our using distinct terms for that kind of knowledge on the one hand and philosophical understanding on the other hand.

To our modern minds, to say that science has no say in any given question is far worse than blasphemy, because in the modern mind science is equated with rationality. I contend that that is a serious error leading to serious consequences. Science deals with phenomena objectively given to the mind, and regardless of whether or not we acknowledge that those phenomena are to any extent influenced or modified by the mind, in our scientific proceedings we can only deal with those phenomena in so far as they are regarded as independent of the mind. Even when science proposes to deal with subjective experience and with the activity of the mind, it can only do so by objectifying that experience and that activity and transforming them into given phenomena.

That scientific procedure is a method that has given humankind power over nature. I do not have to recount its gifts; every schoolchild can do that. But it is a power that comes at a price. It is by its very nature excluded from access to the reality of living experience and of the activity of active thought. When the mind dives in its own living waters, it exercises a rationality of a different order.

I will sum up my approach to the problem of causation in a few naive claims which, I maintain, are meaningful and significant despite their naivete.

There is no instance in nature of A, simply as A, being the cause of B. If A develops into B or grows into B, then A is a living or a dynamic system (whole); there is always in system-A something over and above all that any reductionist inventory of the constituents of an A fictionally congealed in a moment of time can discover.

To say that a combination of factors A+B+C = X is patently false except where X is nothing but a token for A+B+C, that is, except where the statement is strictly tautologous. Where X is in any sense different from A+B+C, we have a creative development that the sum A+B+C cannot explain. I maintain that this is so even in the case of 1+1+1 = 3. 3 is not 1+1+1 but a new form, a new idea; in fact, a creation of the mind that can be found nowhere in the world except where a living mind confers it on the world.

Thus I see not only all intelligent purposive activity but all becoming as an original flowering of its antecedents. I find creativity as self-evidently assured as the reality of freedom in our subjective reality, which is the only reality we know. And accordingly I can only suppose that creativity is an original feature of ultimate reality in the same way as I find intelligence and goodness essential dimensions of ultimate reality. And if that is so, then causality and determinism must be kept in their place as scientific hypotheses useful in dealing with the phenomenal world but with no say in the metaphysical sphere, which is concerned with the world of reality, the only reality we know, the reality of ideas.

In an important article on Causal Determinism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Professor Carl Hoefer states that philosophers of science now "mostly prefer to drop the word 'causal' from their discussions of determinism." He quotes John Earman to the effect that not to do so is to "seek to explain a vague concept determinism in terms of a truly obscure one causation." So it would seem that scientists, philosophers of science, and professional philosophers who confidently and unqualifiedly proclaim that determinism has been proved or refuted do not represent the best of science or the best of philosophy.

3. The Compatibility-Incompatibility Debate

The Compatibility-Incompatibility controversy is fuelled by the acceptance, common to both parties, of causal determinism as an incontrovertible postulate of science. Once that is admitted, all the arguments are nothing but tautology on the one side and evasion on the other side. In a theoretically closed system, where every happening is causally determined by the previously obtaining set-up, Incompatibilism regiments and deploys the forces of heaven and earth to assert that what is determined cannot be undetermined, and Compatibilism has no resort but to seek clever forms of words and equations that seemingly do not contradict the 'truth' of causal determinism.

Kant (1724-1804) is the greatest of Compatibilists. In a footnote to a passage in the Preface to the 'Critique of Practical Reason' Kant writes, "The union of causality as freedom with causality as rational mechanism, the former established by the moral law, the latter by the law of nature in the same subject, namely, man, is impossible, unless we conceive him with reference to the former as a being in himself, and with reference to the latter as a phenomenon the former in pure consciousness, the latter in empirical consciousness. Otherwise reason contradicts itself." (tr. T. K. Abbott, p.16.) This establishes a pact of non-belligerence between empirical science and morality, a policy of live and let live. (The empiricists have never honoured the pact!) But unless we realize that causal determinism is not and can never be anything more than a working hypothesis that cannot claim absolute validity, then the reconciliation between causal determinism and freedom cannot be any deeper than Kant makes it. Only when we realize that all becoming is creative, is freedom firmly and securely established. Then all the arguments of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism are seen to be beside the point.

4. Choice

Many of those who concern themselves with the philosophical problem of free will see the problem as revolving around the question whether it is true to say that, in a given situation, a person could do otherwise than s/he does. This, in my view, is not the crux of the problem of free will. That question is a psychological not a philosophical one, and the yes or no to it depends on the level of motivation at which we choose to stop. Discussions are thus mainly, often exclusively, engrossed in the examination of the intricacies of the psychology of choice and deliberation. This befuddles the issue.

Choice and deliberation follow from the circumstance that we have the power to objectify our desires, inclinations, aims, and so on, and to constitute of ourselves an arbiter over and above the desires, inclinations, and aims. We are no longer passively moved by those motives but can bring one motive, ideal, or value, to work on the others. Still this capacity to deliberate and exercise choice is not the freedom that constitutes our true worth as human beings.

Farah, my granddaughter (2 yrs 5 m.), is crying. She wants to go downstairs to play with the neighbour's children. "I want to play," she cries. Of course all the time, except when sleeping or feeding, she does nothing but play. When she takes up one of her toys or goes to her swing, she does something she wants to do, but we may regard that as a first-level desire. But now, crying "I want to play", she has the idea of a possibility that is not at the moment actual. This we may regard as a second-level desire. Here we have a higher plane of autonomy. Of course this is still a far cry from moral autonomy. But I think we must recognize that here we already have an ideal sphere that has a role in moulding action. I will not say that it affects or influences the act; it does not act from outside; it is not a separate thing; it, along with other factors, acts itself out in the act. I call that a plane or stage of autonomy.

One point that I have to make clear and insist on is that although we habitually think of the will as a faculty that can be distinguished from the totality of the person, we should never forget that this distinction is a theoretical fiction. We can and do distinguish the will just as we distinguish desire, emotion, memory, etc. Such distinctions are the stuff of thought. But they are fictions. It is the whole person, the person as a whole, that acts, thinks, deliberates, decides, and so on. Wherever I speak of the will, we might replace the word will by mind or soul. Where such substitution makes no sense, there must be something wrong with the original statement.

Let it be said at once that, even within the scope of deliberation and choice, to say that the will is undetermined is not to say that the act of the will is uncaused. The act as an actual happening must be sufficiently justified. To say that the will is undetermined is to say that the will (which here can be equated with the mind or soul), even when subjected to external pressures, acts in fulfilment of its own constitution.

Thus free will is not in any sense "the operation of an uncaused cause", and it would only make for confusion to take that to be the meaning of spontaneity. A person, with all her/his aptitudes, motives, goals, ideals, is a natural product of preceding natural processes, including 'spiritual' influences which, coming from outside the person, are so far objective and natural.

We all know that it is no compliment to any person to be characterized as unpredictable. A person whose acts are unpredictable is either a shallow thing driven by every whim and every puff of circumstance, or is a vicious, wily, scheming rogue. An honest, virtuous person's acts are always consistent with her/his character and principles.

5. Responsibility

Equally with the question of choice, I regard the discussion of responsibility as an intrusion into the metaphysical problem of the free will. The discussion of responsibility is on one side a psychological question and on the other side a legal or politico-social question. In both these aspects it is of course a fit subject for philosophical investigation in a wider sense of the term philosophical; what I am denying is that it is of any relevance to the strictly metaphysical problem of the meaning of free will.

A person who, under compulsion, does a wrongful deed, may be legally exonerable, and yet may be held to be morally responsible, because s/he has weighed the consequences of doing and of not doing and has chosen to do, when s/he could have chosen to die, for instance, rather than do the deed. But if someone bodily much stronger than I am clasps my hand to a gun, points it, and presses my finger to the trigger, this would not be an act of mine any more that if I fell from a high building and in falling crushed and killed an unfortunate person that happened to be standing below. In both these cases, the event, as far as I am concerned, takes place on the physical plane, not on the plane of my subjective reality.

6. Conclusion

I maintain that the Determinism and Free Will 'problem', which many thinkers have declared intractable, is a pseudo-problem, engendered by raising a scientific hypothesis — which (1) is uncertain and unverifiable, and (2) in any case has no relevance to philosophical inquiry — to the status of a first principle. This error is closely linked to the prevailing Empiricist outlook, which sees 'reality' in the phenomenal world and not in the mind. The pseudo-problem is further confounded by the identification of freedom with choice. But above all, the proper understanding of the metaphysical problem of free will is hindered by the common static conception of reality, which fails to recognize creativity as an ultimate principle. To me, creativity is the essence of free will.

The properly philosophical question relating to free will is simply this: What is free will? And it is answered not by any objective observation or experimentation; not by any subjective analysis; but, starting from an acknowledgment of the reality of spontaneous, purposive activity, philosophical thinking creates notions in the light of which that reality is found to be intelligible.

Plato spoke of the endless battle between the Gods who find reality in the mind and the Giants who find reality in the perceptible world ('Sophist', 245e-246e). Around the seventeenth century Europe had a re-birth, and, with the eyes of a new-born babe, was all taken up by the surrounding world. Even the Rationalists, who were all for subjecting everything to reason, were too busy exploring the outer world with their minds to pay much attention to the inner reality of those minds. The Empiricists completed the banishment of the mind, and it was only natural that Dr Johnson should refute Bishop Berkeley with his foot. Kant came to the rescue and reinstated the reality of God, the soul, and the free will in the inner citadel of Practical Reason. But the world-oriented habit of mind was too strong. It was felt that unless those realities could be objectified and re-discovered in the outer world, their reality would be compromised. That is the root of the problem. (See my Must Values Be Objective?.)

For a solution to the problem we have to go back to the teaching of Plato: What we find in the mind is the whole of reality; what is outside the mind is a mere shadow, and all 'knowledge' relating to the shadows of the phenomenal world is, strictly speaking, opinion and conjecture. Our minds, our will, our purposive activity are the reality we know directly, immediately, self-evidently. Turning our eyes away from this reality to the outer world, we are inevitably engrossed in all the interminable quandaries that have kept and are keeping philosophers busy.

But Plato's articulation of his ideal world leaves something to be desired. We are liable to be left with too static an impression of the intelligible Forms. Yet the reality we know in ourselves is not static; it is creative. It is in creativity that we find freedom. And creativity is a reality we know in ourselves, as immediately and self-evidently as we know the reality of our minds. If the hypotheses of our objective sciences find it difficult to accommodate the idea of creativity, so much the worse for those hypotheses. That only shows they are too narrow, too shallow: in their defence it has to be said that they have to be narrow and shallow if they are to serve their purpose. But that is no reason why we should belie the inner self-evidence of our moral and creative experience.

Free will is the autonomous affirmation of the reality of intelligent being in creative activity. An act of love is spontaneous, free, and creative. An act of artistic creation is spontaneous, free, and creative. The antecedents of the act are sufficient to the intelligibility of the outcome, but the outcome was not contained in them; the act brings into the world something new. My creative intelligence is my reality, my freedom, my dignity, my whole worth. This is not a proposition that has to be proved: this is a vision that has to be lived, and when lived shines in the self-evidence of its reality. If we find this difficult to believe or even to conceive, it is only because we have lost the innocence of the inward vision.

© D.R. Khashaba 2003

Web site: