Re: "Free Will Theorem"

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 09:30:36 -0700 (PDT)

Stathis Papaioannou writes
> Here is my definition: a decision I make is "free" when I feel that I could
> have decided otherwise.

Is the question of "free will" just a matter of definitions? Definitional
arguments are sterile and have no meaning. If I define "free will" to be
a 14 pound bowling ball, then there, I've proven that free will exists.
But it's not a very useful approach.

It is important to understand that there is more to the free will problem
than just definitions. Before trying to define away the problem, it is
necessary to clearly state it and understand it. The page I pointed to,
<>, goes on to do so in
the very next paragraph after the one I quoted:

: 1.5 The Free Will Problem
: If we are to understand compatibilism as a solution to the free
: will problem, it would be useful to have some sense of the problem
: itself. Unfortunately, just as there is no single notion of free will
: that unifies all of the work philosophers have devoted to it, there is
: no single specification of the free will problem. In fact, it might be
: more helpful to think in terms of a range of problems. Regardless, any
: formulation of the problem can be understood as arising from a troubling
: sort of entanglement of our concepts, an entanglement that seems to lead
: to contradictions, and thus that cries out for a sort of disentangling. In
: this regard, the free will problem is a classic philosophical problem;
: we are, it seems, committed in our thought and talk to a set of concepts
: which, under scrutiny, appear to comprise a mutually inconsistent
: set. Formally, to settle the problem - to disentangle the set - we must
: either reject some concepts, or instead, we must demonstrate that the
: set is indeed consistent despite its appearance to the contrary.
: Just to illustrate, consider this set of propositions as an historically
: very well known means of formulating the free will problem. Call it the
: Classical Formulation:
: 1. Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise
: than she did.
: 2. Actions are events.
: 3. Every event has a cause.
: 4. If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.
: 5. If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent
: of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that
: she did.

If you google on 'free will problem' you will find other
definitions and analyses which are similar. Here is one from
the religious perspective, where these problems originally arose,
often in the context of God's omniscient knowledge of the future,

: The question of free will, moral liberty, or the liberum arbitrium of the
: Schoolmen, ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical
: problems of all time. It ramifies into ethics, theology, metaphysics,
: and psychology. The view adopted in response to it will determine a man's
: position in regard to the most momentous issues that present themselves
: to the human mind. On the one hand, does man possess genuine moral
: freedom, power of real choice, true ability to determine the course
: of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail
: within his mind, to modify and mould his own character? Or, on the other,
: are man's thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions,
: all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances? Are they all
: inexorably predetermined in every detail along rigid lines by events of
: the past, over which he himself has had no sort of control? This is the
: real import of the free-will problem.

Another one, from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

: ... [I]n many human beings, the experience of choice gives rise to a
: conviction of absolute responsibility that is untouched by philosophical
: arguments. This conviction is the deep and inexhaustible source of the
: free will problem: powerful arguments that seem to show that we cannot
: be morally responsible in the ultimate way that we suppose keep coming
: up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we continue to
: believe that we are ultimately morally responsible.

Maybe we don't like this way of formulating the problem, but if we are
going to continue to debate it, we ought to at least state what the
problem is.

Hal Finney
Received on Wed Apr 13 2005 - 13:26:56 PDT

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