By Mathew Goldstein
Free will can be a confusing and complicated topic and some people are intellectually or emotionally invested in the notion that we have free will. For these reasons I have hesitated to write about it. Yet there is a wrong perspective regarding free will that merits being debunked, all the more so because it is commonly held. That wrong perspective is that we all have a supernatural, contra-causal, libertarian, free will. Will and choice are not synonyms and conflating the two is a primary cause of confusion.
Choice occurs whenever there are alternative courses of action and we select one, inclusive of selecting taking no action when that is an available option. We can characterize our choices as “free” when there is no disproportionate coercion intentionally directed against any of the choices, notwithstanding that our available choices are always limited and/or constrained and often entail tradeoffs. So lack of coercion is all we need to establish that we have meaningfully significant, albeit incomplete/limited/compromised, free choice. We sometimes have more than enough choices, even too many choices. We all have freedom of choice. Free will is different.
Free will is a claim that the choices we make when we are free to choose are not inevitable. Defined thusly, free will, if it existed, would be a strictly libertarian phenomena that, unlike all other known phenomena, evinces an other-worldly absence of a causal constraint (it is contra-causal). Some people may think this distinction between free choice and free will is a meaningless distinction. While this is far from the most important issue that humanity confronts, it is still a meaningful distinction. Compatibalists do a very good job of arguing, correctly in my view, that free choice is all we need and all we really want if we consider the question more carefully. They defend free will anyway by redefining it as free choice (which is why they are called Compatibalists). I am not going to do that.
Some compatibalists argue that, even though in principle our future behaviors can be predicted in advance, in practice that will not happen, or will happen only to a limited extent, because of the immensity of the practical obstacles and maybe also the uncertainty principle in physics ruling out our having complete knowledge altogether even in principle. They then link this unpredictability to free will. However, insofar as free will is defined as being dependent on our being unable to predict the future it becomes a product of our unavoidable ignorance and as such is otherwise not a phenomena meaningfully distinct from free choice. Fermions do not have free will because of the uncertainty principle, neither do we. Nor do we obtain an additional degree of freedom from ignorance. Poetic language is sometimes our best option for communicating effectively. We exercise free will poetically. Yet there is also value in precision and clarity that is lost when we communicate poetically. Accordingly, this discussion retains the traditional definition of free will as libertarian in the strong sense that renders it different from free choice.
If we lack free will than the story of a deity punishing serpents and humanity for the first reproducing human pair choosing to eat apples at the behest of the former makes no sense. Not that a talking serpent, a first human couple, eating an apple generating an ability to discern bad versus good behaviors, etc., makes sense even if we did have free will. But that story doubly makes no sense given that the choices people make are inevitable. This is because there is no logical justification for such perpetual retribution against humanity because two people made a bad free choice given that no human could do other than what they freely choose to do.
The notion that we freely make choices and at the same time the decisions we make are inevitable is somewhat contradictory, which contributes to an unwillingness to accept that we lack free will. What does it mean to have choices when the choices we make are inevitable? It means that we are choice deciding and selecting biological/metabolic machines. The choices we make go a long way towards defining who we are as individuals. Humans are one living animal among many animals, plants, and single cells, confronted with, and freely selecting among, alternative possible actions. Humans uniquely have the capacity to be aware of this, but our additional self awareness and reasoning capabilities are not evidence that we are otherwise distinct and operate very differently from the rest of the universe. The universe may operate stochastically, it may operate deterministically, it may operate both ways, but as far as we have been able to determine, everything operates mechanically (which is one of the defining characteristics of naturalism).
We no more will our choices/decisions/behaviors than we will the weather. Both are inevitable and outside of our control. The difference is that we are each the agents/actors behind our choices/decisions/behaviors and we are thusly self-responsible for our choices/decisions/behaviors while we have no such self-responsibility for the weather.
Another source of confusion is the notion that justice requires free will. That notion is rooted in an unrealistically idealistic notion of justice. We have a practical need to discourage misbehaviors. It follows that we have a need to punish bad behavior for the purpose of discouraging bad behavior. Against some bad behaviors there is a need to protect ourselves by removing the bad actor from the rest of the community. A lack of free will does not equate to a lack of need to protect ourselves from bad actors. We organize to protect ourselves from bad actors by acting against the transgressors who harm others. We are ourselves one person who is similar to other people and this is a reason we are justified in prioritizing human life over other life. Humanity depends on other life and our planet’s ecosystems more generally, so we also cannot safely disregard the rest of life. We do this because it makes for a better life for ourselves and for the rest of humanity. Justice is as much, if not more so, pragmatic, as it is idealistic.
Justice, to be meaningfully realized, has to be rooted in the facts. Facts come first, there is an always present need to be careful to distinguish what is true from what is false to accurately achieve our goals. Free will (defined as contra-causal and libertarian) is inconsistent with a current science based understanding of how the universe works. Accordingly, vengeful retribution is unjustified and incompatible with justice.