Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Free will: Philosophy vs. Physics

August 28 2016

“[W]e always implicitly assume the freedom of the experimentalist… This fundamental assumption is essential to doing science. If this were not true, then, I suggest, it would make no sense at all to ask nature questions in an experiment, since then nature could determine what our questions are[1], and that could guide our questions such that we arrive at a false picture of nature.”

— Anton Zeilinger

For there to be any such thing as knowledge, it must somehow be justified, and to do that we rely on method. In other words, we are entitled to regard an idea as true, only when we have reached the idea through legitimate method. The name we give to this method is reason – we may regard an idea as true, when we come to it through the policy of following reason. This of course doesn’t doesn’t give us omniscience; it is just the best that we as fallible human beings can do[2].

So philosophy says to all human beings: follow reason, for if you do not, then your ideas will be a sham and your ethical standing will be without foundation[3]. The pragmatist might reply “But my ideas work! That’s how I know that they are ‘correct’.” – No, you have made the judgment that they “work”, and that your explicit ideas and the method behind them are truly the cause of them “working”. You assume that because something “works”, then that makes that something legitimate in some sense, but you have not justified this assumption.

But what good is the advice to follow reason if you are predetermined to be an incorrigible fool? Implicit in giving you a direction is the idea that you can choose to follow it. A hardheaded[4] determinist might argue that my encouragement was the determining factor, that they didn’t actually “choose” at all, but merely reacted to my advocating “follow reason”, and thereby, became rational; i.e. adopted a more or less constant policy of choosing to be rational at every juncture. But then they’d have turned this into a mere semantic game. The actual point is that if you characteristically decide to follow reason, then you are worthy of bringing in whatever ideas you find to the philosophic table; if not, then you might as well be a yapping dog, because by your own choice your utterances are meaningless.

In other words, by “free will”, the rational philosopher is not making a metaphysical statement, nor is he making a prescription about the science of consciousness; rather, he’s observing that for statements to be meaningful, the person uttering them must have made the decision to follow reason. This is not an isolated decision, but a habit sustained by an active will, a will to be rational, which is something that implies commitment and integrity. Free will for a rational philosopher then is more a perspective that conveys such necessary requirements of sane discourse, than it is specifying to a scientist how consciousness works.

To dispute this kind of free will is to pull the rug out from under yourself: if the determinist admits to lacking the capacity to follow reason, then they have no way of sustaining their intellectual integrity, and so nothing they conclude is of any relevance to anyone, except perhaps as a kind of entertainment. In order for their statements to have meaning, they’ve got to commit to making sense, and we designate the capacity to so commit as free will.

If the hardheaded determinist retorts that they shouldn’t be excluded from rational discourse, because they happen to have been predetermined to follow reason, then they are essentially arguing that they are right, not through their own choice to follow a proper method, but automatically. How very convenient for them to be automatically right, but how very inconvenient to have what they have come to regard as true look exactly like the reductio ad absurdum of a religious zealotry that stubbornly refuses to doubt itself, and that arrogantly divides humanity into those who are born to be automatically right and those who are born to be automatically wrong.

The final protest I imagine the hardheaded determinist might make is to object that the notion of free will I’m using here (the capacity to decide to follow reason) isn’t free will at all, or at least, not as he defines the term. I’m inclined to suspect that something psychological is at work in this sort of objection. Perhaps this determinist is uncomfortable regarding the close historical association of religion and free will, and so is afraid of using the concept at all? Fear is not a legitimate argument, of course. In any case, I’m unaware of any good argument for why we shouldn’t use the term “free will” (or volition) to refer to the fact that we can choose to follow reason, or not.

The foregoing observations mark the end of the subject qua philosophy. The rational philosopher does not specify the nature of the universe that enables us to make the above kind of choice, he merely observes that only a nature that would enable it – namely, one that permits the moral choices that vivify intellectual integrity – could possibly be rationally studied. In other words, if reality were really as the hardheaded determinist says it is, then by virtue of being right he would have exempted himself from actually knowing that he was right.

  1. Such would constitute an unconscious cherry picking.

  2. See The Roots of Philosophy from Books.

  3. See Metaethics from Books.

  4. By “hardheaded” I mean any determinist who believes that determinism has any bearing whatsoever on the field of ethics.

  5. An earlier version of this article contained polemics against certain determinist errors, but because these errors can in principle multiply without limit, I have decided to remove them. Perhaps I will revisit these later, but they are more germane to the philosophy of science than to the fundamentals of philosophy.