Can we, sometimes, make free choices? Obviously, a lot rides on what we mean by free choices. Mark Balaguer has recently formulated a helpful definition in his book Free Will (MIT, 2014): a choice is the product of my free will if it is (1) not random; (2) not predetermined by prior events; and (3) made by me (75-76). Our moral and legal realities certainly presuppose we can make free choices in this sense. People are blamed, held responsible, and punished based on what they freely choose to do. People who are incapable of choice are not morally accountable and should ideally be helped rather than punished. These are well-entrenched cultural realities.
But some argue we have no free will at all. Balaguer also offers a helpful summary of the two most popular arguments against free will:
- “The random-or-predetermined argument against free will Our decisions are either caused by prior events or not caused by prior events. If they are caused by prior events, then they’re not the products of our free will because they’re predetermined by prior events. And if they’re not caused by prior events, then they’re not the products of our free will because they happen randomly, and it makes no sense to say that we have free will if our choices just randomly appear in our brains.” (32)
- “The scientific argument against free will There is strong scientific evidence (from psychology and neuroscience) that supports the claim that our conscious decisions are completely caused by events that occur before we choose, that are completely out of our control, and indeed, that we’re completely unaware of.” (32).
Balaguer goes on to argue that both these arguments fail to show that free will doesn’t exist. But he doesn’t then go on to claim we know free will exists. Rather, he says it may exist and calls for a skepticism and intellectual humility as we move forward with the debate and our understanding of the human brain.
Now we could certainly look at the above two arguments in more detail, consider all the objections, and the objections to those objections. We could also consider some arguments for the existence of free will and ask whether Balauger’s skepticism is warranted. But I would like to take a different approach here and ask: is there something about the very fact that the two arguments above are arguments that allows us to argue for free will? This approach takes the form of a self-referential argument showing that if one presents an argument for determinism, that is, a set of premises from which a conclusion is derived, then free will is presupposed and thus the argument is self-refuting. Why? Because the very presentation of an argument to another rational agent for consideration seems to entail critical thinking or the activity of seeking the truth by rationally assessing arguments for competing claims. And this process, in turn, seems to presupposes a norm or guiding directive of rational controversy that implies free will. As we will see in some more detail, this basic norm prescribes that those interested in an issue unconditionally accept one of two coherent possibilities (in this case free will or determinism). Such a prescription presupposes that critical thinkers have the ability to choose the option which is prescribed to them or not. And this ability requires free will. Thus one who offers an argument in defense of determinism for rational consideration would, on the one hand, be claiming there is no free will and, on the other hand, would need to accept that the norm of rational controversy implies there is free will insofar as rational agents are asked to choose from among coherent alternatives. This would be a self-refuting position.
This self-referential approach is not particularly popular these days. But I think it is very powerful and needs to be brought into the debate more often. So let’s see how such an argument works in general before moving to specific examples.
In their excellent yet sadly overlooked book Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame, 1976), Joseph M. Boyle Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olag Tollefsen (hereafter BGT) provide a helpful description of the basic self-referential argumentative strategy: “The simplest case is one in which it is possible to show that someone is being inconsistent, according to the criteria for consistency which he accepts. A less direct approach takes the form of drawing out the implications of a position, applying these implications to the position itself, and concluding that the position is self-refuting” (41).
BGT point out that many attempts to offer a self-refuting argument against determinism have sought the less direct approach by trying to demonstrate that, on the one hand, a determinist must maintain that any belief in determinism or free will is the necessary outcome of prior or antecedent causes and, on the other hand, that the argument he or she presents is to be accepted according to rational criteria such as logical validity and soundness. But when we take these implications and apply them to the determinist argument itself, we seem to have an inconsistency: the antecedent causal factors that necessitate one believing in determinism or free will leave no room for rationally assenting to a conclusion because it logically follows from premises that are true. It appears one would be determined to believe what one believes and rational assent would have nothing to do with it. To be sure, one may come to believe various truths despite being determined. But those who employ this self-referential argument against determinism think “the correspondence between one’s knowing the truth of a proposition and the causal factors which determine one’s belief is accidental. Thus, if determinism is true, it is never possible to ascertain whether any statement—including the statement of determinism—is true” (42). Many impressive thinkers have taken this approach: Paul Weiss, A. E. Taylor, Lionel Kenner, Malcolm Knox, Norman Malcolm, and J. R. Lucas have all argued that the determined beliefs would leave no room for the logical assessment of reasons. However, this less direct approach is often thought to fail since the antecedent determination of one’s beliefs need not exclude logical thought. Consider this passage from Adolf Grünbaum:
“More generally, both true and false beliefs have psychological causes. The difference between a true or warranted belief and a false or unwarranted one must therefore be sought not in whether the belief in question is caused; instead, the difference must be sought in the particular character of the psychological causal factors which issued in the entertaining of the belief; a warrantedly held belief, which has the presumption of being true, is one to which a person gave assent in response to awareness of supporting evidence.” (Free Choice, 43)
The point is well taken. Why can’t it be the case that the consideration of the evidence is itself an antecedent cause that determines one to believe a truth? And can’t we say that this kind of antecedent cause, far from being blind compulsion, can be a form of determined rationality? Many philosophers say yes. As a result, what BGT propose is to avoid the less direct approach to self-referential argumentation and try, as we saw above, to take a more direct approach and “show that someone is being inconsistent, according to the criteria for consistency which he accepts.” What they claim to discover is a self-referential argument against determinism that avoids appealing to premises the determinist is bound to reject. Here is their overview of their argument (take note that “Sfc” names the proposition that someone can make a free choice; “Nfc” names the proposition that no one can make a free choice; “PNfc” stands for “proponent of the view that no one can make a free choice”; and “PSfc” stands for “proponent of the view that someone can make a free choice”):
“The PNfc cannot rationally affirm his position without offering some grounds for it. He has opponents who are not merely ignorant of facts nor merely without insight into logical necessities. The considerations which the PNfc adduces in favor of his position must be relevant to the issue and must have argumentative force. The PNfc, then, must assume some norms by appeal to which he can, if challenged, show the relevance and the argumentative force of the grounds he adduces for the position he defends.”
These norms might be, they suggest, simplicity—determinism should be accepted because it is simpler than a vision of the world in which free will exist—or intelligibility—perhaps those who argue for free will are proposing a thesis that makes the world less intelligible. However, they claim to discover a far more fundamental shared norm, namely, one which prescribes unconditionally between two open alternatives. And free choice is a necessary condition for the fulfillment of this norm:
“A PNfc maintains that his position is more reasonable unconditionally, and that everyone ought to be reasonable enough to accept Nfc. Yet he cannot maintain that Sfc is impossible, for it is a coherent possibility. Thus the PNfc’s affirming of his position depends upon some prescription which directs persons interested in the issue to accept one of two coherent possibilities and which directs with unconditioned normative force. Such a prescription presupposes that persons to whom it is given can choose the option which is prescribed although some one might not choose it. In other words, the norms to which the PNfc must at least implicitly appeal when he tries to show that one ought to accept his position have no force unless one can accept it although one need not accept it. Thus, the normativity the PNfc needs to justify his own position and to exclude Sfc as less reasonable presupposes that some human persons have a capacity to choose freely, for no one can accept the PNfc’s demand that he be reasonable—a demand which is unconditional and yet can be rejected without logical absurdity—unless he can make a free choice.” (5)
It is crucial to note that the form of self-reference this argument employs is not semantic self-reference – the kind of self-reference that leads to nonsensical contradictions like the Liar Paradox: “this sentence is not true” (if it is true it is false, if it is false it is true). Nor are they employing a form of set-theoretic self-reference such as asking whether the set of all sets that are not members of themselves is a member of itself: it will be a member of itself if one assumes that it is not; it will not be a member of itself if one assumes it is (Russell’s Paradox). Rather, the form of self-reference they are employing is performative. A proposition “is falsified by its own performance if and only if the performance has a property such that the statement that the performance has this property and the statement of the proposition itself are inconsistent with each other” (155; also see 133). For example, if x presents an anti-free will argument for rational consideration then we can (1) formulate a proposition that describes the act of presenting this thesis for rational consideration – “x is presenting an anti-free will thesis for rational consideration” – and then note that (2) the content of the thesis, namely, that we have no free will, is inconsistent with this description insofar as the very act of presenting it for rational consideration implies a norm the fulfillment of which implies free will. BGT argue that this performative form of self-reference allows them to avoid contradiction.
Now BGT assert that our effort to reason in accordance with norms is a datum, something we find, something given in rational controversy. This datum logically entails free will. But this datum is a contingent fact that might be an illusion insofar as the normativity that logically entails Sfc doesn’t by itself entail the truth of Sfc (173). They explain:
“Thus, the rationality norm requires us to suppose that Sfc is true unless there is reason to reject the phenomenon of the normativity of rationality norms as illusory. Might the phenomenon be an illusion? Yes. The phenomenal normativity fails to demonstrate that Sfc is true because one can accept the normativity as phenomenon and yet affirm Nfc without contradicting himself.” (173)
But if one believes argumentation and its governing norms are not illusions then one would contradict oneself if one tried to rationally deny Sfc. For such a denial would entail those norms of rationality that presuppose one’s opponent can choose the option prescribed. Thus we see the self-referential aspect of the argument: if one argues against free will then one refutes oneself since free will is implied in the very norms of rational controversy that all rational agents, free will believers and determinists alike, share. I think this is a powerful argument since very few people think the phenomenon of rational controversy is an illusion.
There is a profound passage in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo (98c) which nicely illustrates these issues. Socrates is talking about how disappointed he was when he found out that Anaxagoras didn’t include any intelligent, purposeful direction of matter in his cosmology. Rather, he tried to get intelligence and purposeful direction from the configurations of matter alone. What Socrates wants to underscore is that human motivations and choices are not reducible to matter in motion: we act in accordance with reasons not only causes; we often justify our choices with arguments instead of just explaining them with cause and effect analyses. Socrates also clearly thinks there is a normative dimension to reasoning when he speaks of choosing the “better and more right” course of action and claims that anyone who disagrees with him is engaging in “a very careless and idle mode of speaking”. And lastly, we can see a strong emphasis on the “I” which we saw was an ingredient in Balaguer’s account of free will: the me doing the choosing. The existence of a self capable of choice might help us avoid the dilemma posed in the first premise of the argument against free will formulated by Balaguer above, namely, that our decisions are either caused by prior events or not caused by prior events and therefore random. Perhaps there is another alternative: decisions are the vehicles of our purposeful free will and are therefore neither determined nor random. In any case, here is the passage from Plato:
“What expectations I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher [Anaxagoras] altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking.”
Apparently, Socrates considered alternatives, chose what he considered to be the best alternative, argued in defense of it, and convinced some that he was innocent and failed to convince others. As result, he is being put to death for his actions. Can we really explain this process, a process with which we are all familiar, if we are not free to choose possibilities of action which we then justify successfully or unsuccessfully to other rational agents in accordance with some normative criteria? To be sure, we need certain physical causes in order to think at all: we need a body, an environment, and so on. But if the above self-referential argument is sound then these necessary conditions are not sufficient since free will would also be implied in the act of reasoning.
For Descartes’ and Sartre’s argument for freedom from the experience of doubt, go here.
 Translated by Jowett; read Plato’s Phaedo here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1658/1658-h/1658-h.htm