June 14, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

The Discovery of Free Will

Humanity has a great history of exploration and discovery. Great landmarks of civilization include Columbus discovering the Americas and Amundsen reaching the South Pole ahead of Scott. We can also think of Faraday explaining electricity for the first time, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the discovery of penicillin. Some of our top priorities are discovering health cures, for cancer and HIV/AIDS for instance. But these are not the only discoveries that matter and some of the most important ponderables remain shrouded in mystery. As big a story as any of the above would be the discovery of free will.

 My original PhD topic was the free will versus determinism debate. We are in a world in which every event seems to be governed by laws of nature. What happens is made to happen by causal processes and human beings are captured in this web as much as any physical thing. If that is true, how do we have any free will? I cannot decide to break the law of gravitational attraction nor any other scientific law and my brain must be governed in the same way as all other processes in the universe. But if I have no free will, how can I have any responsibility for anything I do and any right or wrong that I produce? These questions matter profoundly.

In order to tackle such issues with any authority, I realised back in 1992 that I had to understand more about the key concepts in play. I had to learn more about metaphysics in particular. What are laws of nature? What is causation and what are events? There are other metaphysical notions that come into play: properties and dispositions, for instance.

My plan, those 20 years ago, was to learn a little more metaphysics so I could tackle free will and provide a decisive statement upon it.  That was ambitious. Philosophers have pondered how we could have free will for thousands of years and there is still no consensus. But once I started working in metaphysics, I thought that it was both a lot of fun and also full of many serious and significant questions in its own right. To settle what a dispositional property is, or a law of nature, is a big enough task in itself. I eventually acquired enough expertise that I was made Professor of Metaphysics, and the initial problem of free will that originally motivated me was almost completely forgotten. Until now.

Lately, I have been thinking about free will again, armed with all the metaphysics I knew I lacked back then. There are three basic positions philosophers have held. The determinist thinks that we are entirely enslaved by laws, our every move and thought mapped out and in-principle predictable: if only we knew all the facts. A libertarian thinks that we have free will in the full sense: we are able to make free decisions as minded agents irrespective of physical laws. And there is a third position called compatibilism, which states that even if all our actions are determined, having free will is compatible with there being determinism.

When I commenced my PhD, I was a determinist. Once I stopped worrying about free will so much, I became a compatibilist, which for reasons I won’t go into is the most popular position among contemporary philosophers. More recently, however, I have also doubted the truth of determinism anyway. Even theoretical physicists seem to allow that some events in our world are indeterministic: either occurring by pure chance or being uncaused altogether.

The problem for the libertarian is that even if determinism is false for the above reason, that doesn’t gain us free will either. The issue would be whether we are slave to deterministic laws or slave to pure chance. If some random stuff happens in my brain, that doesn’t give me free will. What is needed, then, is a positive account of what free will consists in and how a human being, or any other creature, could have it. Such an account would be the Holy Grail of this debate.

I was always sceptical that any such account could be forthcoming. But my mind has changed. In the past few months I’ve started to think that we could get a positive philosophical account of free will in the fullest sense, where we are able to make free decisions for which we then have responsibility. But to explain such a theory, we need the correct accounts of causation, agency, powers and laws. Some of the groundwork is there but the pieces have not yet been put together in the right way, at least as I see it. Libertarianism can sometimes be an implausible position: if it asserts that we can break the laws of nature, for instance. So it is vital that our account of freedom has a credible metaphysics behind it.

This is very exciting to me as a philosopher. It’s the start of a new project, and an important one that matters to everyone. If I can play a part in discovering the right solution I will die a very happy man. It would also mean that my original 20-year old plan to return to the problem of free will, despite being completely ignored in the interim, will have come to fruition after all.

Posted in MetaphysicsPhilosophy