On Free Will

Human beings have this powerful feeling that they are agents who can make decisions that are at least to some degree free.  If they make a certain decision they feel they could have chosen otherwise.  In other words, they chose one path instead of another.  But in order to choose something it needs to be a live option.  A live option is one that could have been chosen over against another.  For instance, say I’m trying to decided what to do next.  I ponder whether to go for a walk or watch television.  Now deciding which to do is a complex mental process with lots of factors in play.  There are neural states of affairs, memories, hormonal influences, emotional values as well as outside factors such as time, weather, other commitments, etc.  So the brain goes through this complicated process and I eventually decide to go for a walk.  So, was watching television a live option?  Well, if given all the preceding factors in the mental processes it was inevitable that I would choose to go for a walk, then did I freely decide?  This question has been debated for centuries.  Is free will real or just an illusion?

Now, this feeling that we freely make decisions seems very important to people.  They rile at the claim that they are merely automatons, just doing what they do and couldn’t do otherwise.  There is something about being a free agent that seems psychologically essential to us.  This is why, I think, the debate over free will is so passionate and despite little progress being made over the centuries remains a persistent, nagging question for many.  I’ve followed this debate for decades and the same old approaches to the issue still continue to be showing up in writings, videos, speeches, and conversations.   Some of the most prominent thinkers on this subject still find it intractable, including one of the foremost philosophers on free will, Peter van Inwagen (https://youtu.be/9uRTjfhIf4M?t=1332).  In this essay I want to examine why this persistent intractability may be the case and a possible avenue to make progress.


While much has been written about free will, three of the most common approaches to the issue are incompatibilism, compatibilism, and libertarianism.  I won’t go into detail on these positions. If the reader is interest in that there are numerous resources in writings and on the internet to get into the details. So, I’ll just summarize my take on the essential elements of these positions.

Essentially incompatibilism says that events are determined by the current state of affairs and causes that occur either out of necessity or chance (determinism or indeterminism).  For this position neither determinism or chance can afford a common sense understanding of free will.   If determinism is true then where is there any freedom? Things just occur based on prior history and are inevitable.  If there are indeterministic events in play (say quantum events) they just occur without our control so there is no freedom in that either.  This is the automaton scenario where we just do what we do, much like a thermostat that “decides” to turn the heat on or off.

The compatibilist position essentially says that while there are  deterministic and indeterministic elements in play, we are still free if there is no outside coercion at work to force us to a make certain decision.  Metaphorically, if you don’t have a gun to your head to force you to do something, then you are free to decide for yourself.  Some may find this appealing because it claims there is “free will” but for others it is just a semantic play on words.  According to this position, we are still automatons but if nothing outside the automaton forces a certain decision then there is free will. For many this approach doesn’t cohere with the innate feeling we have about being free agents.

Then there is the libertarian free will position.  Contrary to the other two, this approach affirms that we “could have done otherwise”.  How that is possible is vague. Some posit a soul or mind that can be causally efficacious in the stream of events and those causes are not bound by determinism or indeterminism.  This position usually affirms the natural constitution of reality i.e. there is material stuff that does what it does according to natural law, but there is something else in play as well.  So this “other” is something added that is in some sense “outside” natural order, whether it be an independent mind or supranatural cause.  This seems to present a dualistic view of reality where there is the natural and something else that is, in some sense, independent.  From there are innumerable metaphysical efforts to speculate on what that “something more” is.  Philosophy does this as well as theology.  I’ll touch on those efforts later. While this position does offer some assurance that free will is real, it is also usually dismissed, out of hand, by most prominent thinkers on the subject because it seems to posit something beyond the scope of typical empirical investigations. There is a sense that if you can’t collect hard data on something, it must be illegitimate.

So here we are.  The debate goes on with little to show for it.  There is still a persistent sense in people that they are free agents but intractable issues still remain.  While an indisputable position may be forever illusive, I think there can be a reasonable approach to the issue that affirms free will and is also friendly to empirical investigations.

The Problem

The reason, I think, that there has been no progress in offering something that affirms our common sense feeling of free will is what I would call a “you just can’t get there from here.”  The ontology (the way things are fundamentally) that is most often employed just won’t allow for something suitable.  So what is that flawed ontology?  I call it a “svabhava” ontology.  Now, I’ve talked about this in other posts (What Constitutes Reality)  and On Svabhava so I’ll just summarize that here.

The reason I use the term svabhava is that it probably represents the first prominent materialists in history.  In the Indus Valley (circa 600 BCE) in what is now know as India there was a group of philosophers of the Charvaka school.  They essentially posited that reality is constituted through the self-nature of things:

But we cannot accept this objection as valid, since these phenomena [fire,water, air] can all be produced spontaneously for the inherent nature of things. Thus it has been said—

“The fire is hot, the water, cold, refreshing cool the breeze of morn; By whom came this variety? from their own nature it was born.”

They also posited an early form of atomism:

They held that all of existence can be reduced to the four elements of air, water, fire and earth.  All things come into existence through a mixture of these elements and will perish with their separation.

This line of thinking may have made its way into early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist, atomistic thinking emerged most notably by Democritus. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to the predominant view in science and culture.

In this view reality is constituted by small entities that have self-natures that have no purpose and no intent.  They just do what they do based on their self-nature or what science would call their intrinsic properties. Today those properties would include things like mass, spin, charge, etc.  Then there are the supposed laws of nature that include the forces (weak, strong, electromagnetism, and gravity) which are commonly thought to be invariant and non-intentional.  So what we end up with could be described as a clockwork universe where the elements in it just follow their intransigent natures and the laws that apply to them.

For decades this whole process was thought to be deterministic.  For a long time Newton’s laws were thought to provide a complete description of how things worked.  Necessity (law) was the determinative paradigm.  With the advent of quantum mechanics that had to be modified.  In quantum mechanics (in the standard model) there is a level of indeterminism at the fundamental levels.  A particular quantum event cannot be predicted.  Only a probability can be assigned to it.  Over the aggregate of many events a statistical model be constructed to affirm the validity of quantum probabilities.  This has been verified over multitudes of experiments.  So with quantum mechanics another causal description had to be added to the mix, namely chance.  Now some may object to the idea of chance but over the aggregate the statistical models look random. So although the actual cause of a particular quantum event remains a mystery, statistically it could be called a chance event.

So what we end up with in all this is a constituting model of reality where there are entities with self-natures operated on through chance (quantum indeterminism) and necessity (law).  It turns out that this has become the dominant view of reality by most philosophers and scientists.  According to this view we live in an autonomic universe that is still a clockwork with some chance thrown in.  It operates entirely non-intentionally.   And we as human are just another autonomic system among others.  With this in tow can there be any notion of free will that honors our innate feelings of being free agents?  If not, then perhaps the problem is with the putative model that has been adopted. Maybe this why there has been no progress over the decades.  Perhaps there can be another model that offers some consilience with our sense of freedom but that is also friendly with empirical investigations.

An Alternate Model

The problem is with how events are characterized.  If everything occurs because of chance or necessity then we are left with an autonomic universe. But what if the chance and necessity characterization isn’t accurate?  Is there an alternative model that isn’t in conflict with empirical investigations?  I think there is.

What what do we know?  We know that we live in a universe where not just anything goes.  There are statistical distributions to events.  In quantum events there is a statistical distribution of events that can be predicted probabilistically.   Any particular event cannot be predicted but over the long run events behave according to a statistical model.  Even at the macroscopic level things also behave according to statistical models.  So what does this mean?  It must mean that statistical distributions are conducive to life.  Somehow there are constraints within reality that shape all the processes in the universe, including ability to produce life.

So fundamentally why do certain events happen when and where they do?  Turns out that science doesn’t know.  In the standard model of quantum mechanics specific events “just” occur. It is unknown what is causing a specific event.  If it was known then it would be predictable.  Then even at the macroscopic level there is a thing called emergence.  In emergence, properties emerge at certain collective levels of things.  For instance, when enough metal particles get together the aggregate becomes rigid.  This could not be deducted from the properties of the particles.  It just occurs when there is a large enough collective.  Why this occurs is unknown.  There are many other examples of emergent properties occurring in nature as well.

What this picture reveals is that the processes in nature occur within certain constraints that provide stability and a certain predictability but where the ultimate cause is known.  So what is their source?  In the svabhava view they come from the self-natures of the “little” things and the “laws” of nature.  But with the advent of quantum mechanics the svabhava view falls away. Here’s how Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp states it:

An important characteristic of this quantum conceptualization is that the substantive matter-like aspects, have dropped out. The theory is about: (1) abrupt events, each of which is tied to an experiential increment in knowledge; and (2) potentialities for such events to occur. Events are not substances, which, by definition, endure. And the potentialities have an “idea-like” character because they are like an “imagined” idea of what the future events might be, and they change abruptly when a new event occurs. Thus neither the events nor the potentialities have the ontological character the substantive matter of classical physics. Yet the predictions of quantum mechanics encompass all of the known successes of classical mechanics.

Other prominent physicists agree with this assessment.  So if reality is not constituted by particles having intrinsic properties and some properties emerge when there is a collective where does that leave us?  It leaves us not knowing for certain how to characterize how reality comes about.  What is the ultimate cause of reality and how can it be characterized?  What if the characterization of chance and necessity is incorrect?

Perhaps there is no such thing as chance and necessity in how reality is constituted. Perhaps every event is intentional.  What this would mean is that there is intentionality inherent in everything that happens.  It also means that this intent operates within certain constraints, as indicated by the statistical nature of what happens. This fundamental intent creates regularities that can be characterized, to some extent, by science.  But it could also means that there is no such thing as intransigent law.  Things happen within constraints that make life possible but it also leaves open the possibility for purposeful shaping of reality within those constraints.  This does not mean some sort of “violation” of natural law (such as in “miracles”) because there is no law to be violated.  It does however mean that whatever purposeful shaping of reality that occurs, occurs within the life giving constraints. An important point to make here is that none of this overrides what empirical science can characterize.  This intentionality occurs within the valid statistical models that have been shown to work.  However, this intent would seem to rule out many of the miraculous stories found in the wisdom literature because those would not honor an intentional commitment to a stability that is required for life.  “Miraculous” changes could disrupt other life giving parts of reality as well.

To illustrate a way that all events and processes could be completely intentional I’ll summarize a metaphor (full post here). Say a juggler is juggling 8 balls in the air.  The juggler intentionally controls the flights of the balls and their pattern.  There is an orderliness and structure to it that the juggler maintains.  But the juggler can also make intentional adjustments to create something slightly different, or something new.  I say slightly because if the juggler changes things too abruptly the juggle fails and the balls fall.  There are limits to how much can be changed and still maintain the juggle.  Now, everything here is intentional.  Both the stability of the juggle and innovative changes occur by intention.

So, how does this address the free will issue?  First it offers an alternative view of reality where intentionality is ubiquitous.  It’s not the automaton view because everything is intentional.  However, more needs to be said to wrap all this up.

It’s one thing to say that intentionality is fundamental to how reality is constituted but how does that apply to the person?  To be free, the person has to “own” some of that intentionality.  It’s not enough that reality over all is intentional.  A person would need some personal intentionality.  This is where theology comes into the picture.

God, by definition, is ultimate reality and as such God is also ultimately free.  If God were contingent then whatever God was contingent to would be more ultimate.  So, God could be thought of as the ultimate “could have done otherwise”.  This means that the intentionality inherent in reality is of God’s choosing.  So God has “free will” but what about us?

For us to be also be free we would need to personally participate in that freedom. This is where the aspect monist ontology of the Divine Life Communion comes in.  If everything is an aspect of the Divine Life, then each aspect participates in the intentionality of that Life.  However, as aspects (parts of the Divine Life) there are constraints to that freedom. Whereas God is ultimately free in God’s depth, in God’s life there are constraints, as we see in the reality of this life.  The constraints also apply to each part of God’s life in varying degrees.  A rock is highly constrained.  But as complexity becomes greater there are more options available. Freedom becomes more complex.  Human beings can have some freedom but it is also constrained by their form of life.  They are subject to both the regularities on reality but also have some degree of novelty available.  Human beings accrue their freedom from God but only within limits they experience.

Once the autonomic view and with it chance and necessity is abandoned free will can be real.  Human beings participate in God’s freedom. They can make choices within the constraints that are part of being human in the world.