Jun 222015

free-will-vs-determinismThe free will debate is almost always classified/labeled as a debate between “free will vs. determinism”. This confuses many into thinking that if determinism is incompatible with free will (which it is), people just need to show that determinism isn’t necessarily the case and automatically the possibility for free will opens up. In other words, when someone argues against free will, so many people will revert to the idea that perhaps the universe isn’t deterministic, the negation of such becoming their free will savior. The idea that indeterminism can help grant free will is, in philosophical circles, called libertarian free will (not to be confused with the economic/politic position). Those who, on the other hand, accept determinism and still think free will is possible are called compatibilist, and most do this through a problematic definitional shift of the term “free will”. This article isn’t really addressing compatibilism (I’ve written much on this, especially criticisms of Daniel Dennett’s position), rather, it’s about how some people revert to a libertarian notion without really knowing they are doing so.

If you want to address how the word “free will” needs to be defined, read here:

This article will assume the more common semantic of free will and focus on the “vs. determinism” part that causes problems.

The debate is most often posed as “free will vs. determinism”, and such is sort of a false dichotomy. In other words, though it may be true that if the universe is deterministic that such rules out free will, it isn’t at all true that if the universe is not determinism that free will is ruled in. It isn’t even true that such a lack of a deterministic universe opens up a “possibility” for free will. This means that the label “free will vs. determinism” is insufficient for the free will debate. This is why I label myself as a hard incompatibilist rather than a hard determinist. It addresses more than determinism.

Rather than focusing just on determinism, a better label for the free will debate might be “free will vs. determinism or indeterminism”. Historically, a whole lot of free will skeptics of the past took on a more hard determinist position against free will. Hard determinism means that they think the universe is deterministic and that free will and determinism do not work together. Then came quantum physics in which the deterministic nature of the universe has been questioned in light of indeterministic interpretations and the fact that a deterministic interpretation would need to be “non-local”, a counter-intuitive idea of instantaneous action at a distance.

Today, the debate between deterministic, indeterministic, and agnostic interpretations of quantum mechanics is alive and well. The problem is, if we frame the free will debate simply as “free will vs. determinism”, then indeterminism does appear to, at the very least, open the free will door. Many philosophers today, however, tend to address both determinism and indeterminism for free will, so it’s much better to label such as “free will vs determinism/indeterminism”.

But even if we did this, the words determinism and indeterminism tend to cause great confusions in regards to how these words are being used. We really have to clear up these muddy words, which I attempted to do here:

The very fact that we need to clarify these words to such an extent means the very framing of the debate using such terms muddies the water about the debate. Since the debate has a long history of being described as “free will vs. determinism”, I doubt this will get resolved any time soon, so I’d settle for “free will vs. determinism/indeterminism” contingent on how such words are being used.

A closer classification might be “free will vs. how events can happen” because the very reason free will is incoherent is due to such being incompatible with the two “possible” ways in which events can come about, either via a cause (causal) or not via a cause (acausal). We can define determinism appropriately as all events being causal, and indeterminism appropriately as some events also being acausal, and those words then fit and can be used. Both possibilities render free will impossible. Unfortunately people tend to be all over the place with their understanding of words such as determinism and indeterminism, often equating them to whether or not we can know or predict a future output, rather than whether or not such was “determined by causes”.

In other words, the words “causal events” and “acausal events” tend to have less ambiguity than words such as “determinism” and “indeterminism”, and indeed it is these words that are the most relevant for the debate.  If every event is causal, then that can be pitted against the free will ability people feel they possess, and if there is a mix of both causal and acausal events, then that can be pitted against such free will as well.

We can also understand that there is no middle ground between an event being causal or and event being acausal. These two things are in opposition: if an event has a cause that led to it, it doesn’t not have a cause (it isn’t acausal), if an event doesn’t have a cause (is acausal), it’s not a causal event. Now it might be that another event arises from events that were causal and acausal, in which case that event is causal (stemming from both an antecedent causal and an acausal event), but any combination of the ways events can happen need to all be assessed in regards to what they mean for free will.  And as it turns out, free will is incompatible with every way events can happen.

There are other things that can be assessed in light of free will as well. For example, different conceptions of time or no-time as well as causal directions within time (forward, back, etc), natural vs. supernatural causation, superpositioned states and causality, mental causation, various quantum interpretations, and on and on. There is much more than just assessing “determinism”. As it turned out, there is no “possibility” that allows free will to magically become logically coherent. Even the most phantasmagorical consideration of some supernatural, outside of space-time, mechanism, cannot help the coherency of free will. In my book Breaking the Free Will Illusion I go through just about ever possibility I can imagine, none coming up on the side of free will.

So perhaps rather than “free will vs. determinism” the debate should ask about any logically coherent concept surrounding how events (such as conscious decisions) can happen. And such isn’t tied explicitly to a deterministic framework, determinism is just one part of a much larger picture.  At the very least include indeterminism in with “free will vs. determinism/indeterminism” or switch those over to “free will vs. causal and/or acausal events” or just generalize such to “free will vs. how events can happen”. I don’t really care so much as long as we stop assuming that with a rejection of determinism comes an opening for free will, because it doesn’t.

What do you think? Keep the label “free will vs. determinism” and if not then free will vs. what? What word can address all of the things that free will is actually pitted against for the debate? If you have a suggestion for how such should be labeled, leave me a comment.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  6 Responses to ““Free Will vs. Determinism” – Do We Need a Better Label?”

Comments (6)
  1. ‘Trick,

    It may come as no surprise that my solution was to coin the term Non-Free Willism. (NFW). I had no choice but to do this, when I realized how inadequate the label Determinist was regarding my view on humans not having anything close to a Free Will. So if some tells me that I am a Determinist, I correct them, saying, “No, I am a Non-Free Willist” (because I have no way to know just to what degree the universe is deterministic).

    • Yeah, in regards to what to call myself, I sometimes use hard incompatibilist, free will skeptic, and even afreewillist. I never use the word “determinist” and correct people on such quite often.

      Thanks for your input Steve.

  2. I think both of your suggestions: “free will vs determinism/indeterminism” and “free will vs. how events can happen” are both far more accurate than the current title of the debate. We should adopt these new titles when having debates about it.

  3. I, too, have never liked the phrasing “Free Will vs. Determinism”, for exactly the reasons you point out. I guess that’s why I never phrase it as “free will vs. xxx”. Instead I say, “Neither determinism nor indeterminism can give us free will, and those two options exhaust all the possibilities.” (Excluding backwards time travel and being able to change the laws of physics.)

    • Exactly. I’d argue that backward time travel ability would be as detrimental to free will, and that such doesn’t really escape determinism or indeterminism even if a change can be made in which a new timeline (or adjusted timeline) is created. Changing the laws of physics also cannot help unless such can be adjusted in a way that allows logically incoherent things. 😉

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