Re: "Free Will Theorem"

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Thu, 14 Apr 2005 22:48:50 +1000

Hal Finney writes:

>Stathis Papaioannou writes
> > Here is my definition: a decision I make is "free" when I feel that I
> > 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.
>: 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.
This is more or less the point I was trying to make: philosophical
discussion leads to "a troubling entaglement that seems to lead to
contradictions". I return to what I called a definition but I should
probably have called a description of the basic phenomenon we are

A decision I make is "free" when I feel that I could have decided otherwise.

Is this OK as a starting point, before we start analysing what it all means,
and regardless of what the ultimate conclusion is going to be? I'm not
saying anything controversial yet; I'm simply describing under what
circumstances I get this "free will" feeling, whatever that is.

Now, a philosopher comes along and tells me that in fact, I am mistaken. I
could not actually have decided otherwise, because my brain was following a
script predetermined by the laws of physics. Or, just as bad, I could have
"decided" otherwise, but it would have been due to random events in my
brain, and thus it have no more been my "decision" than if I had been
enslaved to the outcome of a coin toss.

First, I might point out that the philosopher is putting words in my mouth.
I never claimed that my cerebral decision-making processes were not random
or not deterministic. All I claimed was that I get the free will feeling
when I *feel* I could have decided otherwise. I may not know much about
physics or philosophy, but I certainly know how I feel! If I learn that my
brain is actually based on an old poker machine, that is interesting, but I
still feel the way I feel.

On the other hand, I might aknowledge that my feeling of freedom is not
actually consistent with the particular interpretation of the term "freedom"
the philosopher is trying to foist on me. In other words, if "freedom" means
"not bound by determinism or randomness", then I could not possibly be free,
simply because there is no third alternative to determinism or randomness!
In this case, I would have to admit that my "free will" feeling is something
quite peculiar, with no correlate in the real world. Fine: let's say this is
what it is. My subjective experience of free will remains unchanged, my
behaviour remains unchanged, and my attitude towards other people (also
exercising this strange, non-free, non-random, non-deterministic free will
thing) remains unchanged.

--Stathis Papaioannou

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Received on Thu Apr 14 2005 - 10:03:37 PDT

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