Do we determine our own free will? Causality and physics from our pop philosophy guru. By Lisa McLellan
There is no such thing as free will…as far as we know. Don’t believe me? Read this and prove me wrong!
It is widely accepted that we can explain why any physical event has happened by citing some other prior physical event. The sum of these prior events will make the first event inevitable.
For example we can work out the trajectory of a snooker ball by looking at the speed and direction of the cue ball that hit it, and the angle at which the two hit. The way the cue ball moved can also be worked out from the force and angle with which the snooker cue hit it. So once we have done this, we need do nothing further. We will have explained fully the cause of the event in question – accidentally potting the black, for instance.
We are physical beings. It seems that the movement of our bodies should be determined by the laws of physics as surely as the movement of a snooker ball. My hand is typing this as a result of certain movements in my muscles – and this movement is caused by certain neuronal firings in my brain – all physical.
But were those neuronal firings ultimately caused by me? As neuronal firings are physical events they are bound by the laws of physics. So if we can always explain one physical movement with reference to the movement that came before it (Physicists say yes we can) – then they must be caused by some other physical event. Perhaps other neurons firing somewhere else in my brain. Did I cause those neurons to fire? If I am the ultimate cause of my action then we must find a point in the chain of events at which something was solely caused by me. If we accept the principle of physical things having physical causes – the causal closure of the physical – then this is an impossible task.
So are our actions really just physical reactions…
If we want to believe we do have free will we have to prove that causation is not all physical. We must establish that there may be times a choice turns up between reacting one way and another – where neither option is impossible or unavoidable by the laws of physics and the current state of affairs.
Now we have to say that the option we chose was solely dependent on our will and nothing else.
Establishing this would be significant progress, but the battle would still not be won…
Do I choose my choices?
We must establish that our will is caused by ourselves and is not pre-determined by some other factors. If it is then we are left with a pretty muddy sense of free will. Compatibilists argue that our choices are caused by our mental states. Our mental states might be pre-determined by our past, our genetics, the laws of nature – making it impossible for us to act differently. They are, however, in a significant sense, our own mental states. Because our mental states are ours, the compatibilists argue, we can say we act of our own free will.
Unfortunately for compatibilists, this does not really help us with the problem of responsibility. If what I do is pre-determined by my genetics, the laws of nature, and the experiences that I will inevitably have, then can I really be held responsible for my actions? Can I be held responsible for something that was bound to happen even prior to my being born? Intuitively one would guess not. For this reason, many people think that a compatibilist free will is not really free will at all.
It’s up to you!
What do you think – do you accept that we have genuine free will? If so, do you reject the principle of causal closure of the physical? What actually links the mental – beliefs, desires, values – and the physical – neuronal firings, muscle movements? Or do you take a compatibilist view that all actions might be pre-determined but it doesn’t really matter because we own our mental states?