The definition of free will

Just the definition, nothing more. Is there a common definiton we all can agree upon? Many years ago I encountered someone, who insisted that “free will” is simply the internal freedom to be able to come to a decision, and it is not relevant or important that the decision could be carried out. He argued that “free will” should not be confused with “freedom of action”. When I heard that the first time, I was almost speechless from the astonishment. But since then I saw the same argument again.

Needless to say, I contend that “free will” cannot be separated from “freedom of action”.

Objections:

  1. What good is to have the freedom to come to a decision which cannot be carried out?
  2. If only the freedom of decision matters, then one can say that the free will of a rape victim is not curtailed. Someone even might say that she has the freedom of “fighting back” or “lay back and enjoy the experience”.
  3. If a criminal kidnaps you family, and threatens to kill you children, unless you follow the orders he gives you, then your free will is not touched. You have the freedom to giving in, or resist and thus condemn your children to torture and death.
  4. Moreover, if you give in to the demands, and your free will was not curtailed, then you acted on your own volition, and as such your are responsible for all the actions you take.
  5. Finally, If only the freedom of “will” matters, then God could safely interfere and prevent all the planned atrocities, after all the “will” was free, only the action was prevented.

Needless to say that I hold this view ludicruous and absurd.

The definition I propose is simple. There are the following necessary conditions:

  1. There is an aim or a goal that the agent wills / wishes / desires to carry out.
  2. There are at least two possible ways or means to carry out that wish. (Principle of Alternate Possibilities - or PAP).
  3. The Locus of Decision (LoD) rests with the agent. IOW, it is the agent who makes the decision. (No brainwashing)

The Stanford Encyclopedia plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/ says:

“Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.

Clearly indicating that the action is inseparable from the will.

That is all. Your thoughts? Is it possible to come to an agreement?

I think there must be little point in possessing free will in the absence of freedom of action. All that would mean would be that I would be free to inwardly rail against that which I was compelled, by circumstance, to do.

The definition of free will, as such, that I have found to be prevalent in philosophy (according to my limited and amateur reading thereof!), is a strange kind of freedom that consists in the ability to make any logically possible decision in any given circumstances, regardless of prior influences or motivations. This is the kind of free will - contra-causal free will - that is claimed to be required if we are to be justified in blaming people for their transgressions or rewarding them for their achievements.

This seems to be the kind of free will upon which most religionists insist, particularly if they are trying to circumvent the problem of evil - in response to which the existence of human freedom of choice (and action resulting from such choice, importantly) is offered as justification for why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god would allow the existence of evil in a world that could have been made perfect according to said omnimax god’s nature.

The way I see it is we are either a beings of making choices or highly sophisticated robots.

The more one studies the implications of both these ideas, however, the more it has to be asked - what is the difference? What is the value, what is the qualitative difference between a mechanism that makes a choice based upon input from the external world and…a mechanism that makes a choice based upon input from the external world?

The critical element in this regard is “moral free will”. And in the case of Christianity, there is the business of “free will” in being “called” by God - “You didn’t choose me” said Christ to his apostles, “I chose you.” They could respond, but that was all. When Christ said, “Follow me” to the first disciples, and to us, He didn’t give them, or us, a road map - all He said was “trot along behind me”.

How much choice are we given in that?

When I get up tomorrow, I’ll have some choices for breakfast. We normally just have cereal, but I could change that if I wished - bacon and eggs, toast, a boiled egg or whatever.

But Sputnik, our dog, hasn’t got that luxury - he’s getting what we give him. He can refuse to eat it, but he won’t be getting anything else.

But it’s a trivial example of free will in action. The only contra-causal actions in play are whether we have the necessary supplies in our fridge - if we haven’t got any bacon, then that’s out, unless I want to make a trip to the shop.

But even in this scenario, there’s a causal factor - if I want to have bacon, and I haven’t got any, I have no choice about making a trip to the shop.

So I’m bound by physical constraints of one sort or another - my need for food, and steps I might have to take to get it.

That is why God is the only Free Being - He doesn’t need anything or anybody, so He is completely free with His decisions, as there are no causal agents which bind Him. Even spiritual beings are bound by their relation with Him, so they are not completely free.

Much of our life is taken up with choices bound by constraints - work, money, sex, duty, road rules, health breakdowns, etc.

In most cases, I am only free to make moral choices - will I go to work? Should I save my money or waste it? Should I try to seduce that married woman? Will I obey the road rules?

And in all cases, there’s a causal agent at work. I need the money from work to live. I’ve got a sex drive, which was given to me whether I wanted it or not. To get from A to B, driving for me is the only practical method in most cases.

So I’m only free to make a choice in a causal environment. Choices made in any other way are nothing more than day dreaming, or hypothetical situations, which make no actual claim on my conscience.

My debating this point here is a point in fact - if I didn’t have a computer, and if cleverer people than me hadn’t set up Catholic Forums, and if Serious hadn’t asked a question, “The definition of free will”, I wouldn’t be writing this. For me to make the choice to write now, a number of pre-emptive causes needed to be in operation.

Therefore, my only choice in most cases is “How will I respond to a situation?”

Will I write on this topic, or ignore it, and go and do something else?

In doing so, I am FORCED to make a choice, and I believe it is these forced choices that we are finally judged on, mainly in the moral sense. I don’t God cares much what I have for breakfast, but I think He might be annoyed if I cook all the bacon for myself, and leave none for my wife.

The question of “faith” or “choosing God” is a bit trickier. If Christ claims that we don’t choose Him, but He chooses us, then He’s the prime mover, and all we can do is respond. But what if He doesn’t choose us? Did we really then have any “free will”?

In my next post, I might point out why I have an issue with this.

In my last post, I indicated I have a problem with the issue of “free will” when it comes to “choosing God.” I have a particular personal experience to explain this.

First of all, I have said often enough on this forum, that the night my father died, he appeared in my room. He started with an apology, we argued and conversed, and finally he gave this absolutely terrifying scream, and then disappeared.

I think he’s in Hell. But during the exchange, at one stage, he blurted out, “I always was doomed! I didn’t really have any choice”. An atheist at the time, I snapped back, “That can’t be right!” To which he replied, “Oh, it’s right, all right. You can see that from here.”

So while on the one hand he was saying he “always was doomed”, on the other hand, he was saying it was “(morally) right. You can see that from here.”

A bit later on, he admitted, “I was WILLING” (to act as he did, and thus condemn himself).

That was in January 1979, and I still remember some of the things we said, the way he materialised near the door, the way I could both see him and see through him if I chose, the clear features that were his, and in particular the terrible scream just before he disappeared.

In 2005, I did a bit of part time cab driving, mostly at night, and got sick of the drunks too.

But one night, I was in the suburb of Nundah, which is where he died. When he appeared, I was in another suburb called Yeronga, quite some distance away.

Anyway the mere fact I was in Nundah reminded me of the incident with my father, and so I asked God for a “sign” if there was truth in what was said. I got back this feeling I should know better than to ask for a “sign”, but I asked anyway.

Sometime later that same night, I was queued up on a cab rank in the city, when a bloke walked up, swaying a little bit from too much booze, hopped in the back, and just said, “Nundah!”

I said “Whereabouts in Nundah?” He replied, “Just drive and I’ll tell you where to go.”

So off we went. And ended up at a house directly across the street from the very same block of units where my father died.

I’d got my “Sign”. As far as I’m concerned God organised that.

But I hadn’t taken any conscious effort to bring it to pass, other than asking for it. I drove as the cab radio and traffic required, my customers placed their calls as they required, the radio operator did his or her job as required, and the bloke who finally just happened to get in my cab at the very time required for the “Sign” to happen did so by his own choice, as far as I know.

Yet somehow God was able to override all those causal choices to bring about His response.

How free are we?

We’ve had this debate, on your definition and the reasonableness of your objections as stated. However, let me add two considerations. First, you quote the the Stanford page on free will. In the second paragraph of that article, it states: “Philosophers who distinguish freedom of action and freedom of will do so because our success in carrying out our ends depends in part on factors wholly beyond our control. Furthermore, there are always external constraints on the range of options we can meaningfully try to undertake. As the presence or absence of these conditions and constraints are not (usually) our responsibility, it is plausible that the central loci of our responsibility are our choices, or ‘willings.’”

Clearly, there’s a disagreement here, but the notion that ‘freedom of action’ and ‘freedom of thought’ is one that’s in play – it’s not just some backwater ‘religionist’ notion. (It’s interesting, though, that it seems that non-theists tend to argue against the distinction; I wonder whether one’s conclusions on religion are determinative of which view on free will they take …?)

Second, in response to your take on the definition you provided:

No – ‘course of action’ is the area of concern: free will deals with choices that are about actions. They’re not about any other kind of choices. If the definition were as you assert, the sentence would have said “‘Free Will’ is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to execute a course of action from among various alternatives”. It could have said “execute” or “do” or “undertake” or any other action verb, if the definition necessarily implied acting; it didn’t – it simply said “choose”.

Oh – btw, Serious … just to make sure we’re on the same page:

your definition of ‘free will’ is choice plus action? Not one or the other, right?

And, since constraints on action violate your notion of free will, then you’re saying that free will isn’t something that humans inherently have, but only accidentally and occasionally: I might have free will today, but if I’m put in prison, I lose it. When I get out, I have free will again, but if I’m injured and black out, I lose it again.

Correct?

Thanks!

I did not say anything along those lines. Errors are not the exclusive domain of the religiously inclined philosophers.

Sure, because “choose” incorporates the ability to carry out that choice. Can I meaningfully choose to have a chocolate ice cream, if there is only vanilla flavored available?

Yes, 100% correct. Let’s call the number of available options (to carry out) the “degree of freedom”. The number of “desires” is only limited by the person’s imagination.

We never have full freedom to do whatever we happen to want / will / desire to do. There are always physical and psychological constraints on our degree of freedom. Insofar as these constraints do not take away ALL of our options, it is not a big deal, our freedom is somewhat diminished, but not gone.

Example: suppose, you usually you have the option of going to work by car, by bike or by walking (degree of freedom = 3). If your car breaks down, your freedom is somewhat diminished, because one of your options is not available (degree of freedom = 2). If both your car and your bike are inoperational, then you have no choice - you must walk to work (as long as you wish to keep your job) (degree of freedom = 1). If you would happen to break your leg (hopefully not), then your degree of freedom is zero, you MUST stay in bed. As long as your degree of freedom is two or higher, you have a meaningful free wiil. If the degree becomes one, you are forced to take that particular option, and as such you are not free any longer. If your degree is zero, then you are unable to do anything. Clearly there is no freedom there.

This is why to equate free will with the freedom to “want to do something” is incorrect. We are always free to “want” something, therefore our “free will” (your definition) can never be taken away, unless someone can totally brainwash you.

Now, these were physical constraints. The hypothetical woman being raped has no freedom, since she is physically prevented from carrying out her desire. Whether that physical force is a force of nature, or the superior strength of the attackers, is not relevant.

But there are also phychological barriers or constraints. The person being blackmailed is not physically prevented from acting as he would wish to do. But the ramifications of his diagreement prevent him from doing what he wants to do.

At this point either we agree on this definition (choice + action), or we do not. If we do, all is well. If you still disagree, please comment on the question I posited before: “If only our inner choice is what matters, and the ability to carry out that choice does not curtail out free will, then God can remove all the ability to carry out those choices he disapproves, and we still have full free will. As such, the so-called free will defense cannot be used when the “problem of evil” is being investigated.”

I agree with this definition.

A person who is born with muscular dystrophy, and is in a wheelchair has zero free will to run the Boston Marathon. An infant has zero free will to write a book.

Serious:

You’ve inserted a word which skews the meaning of your proposition, despite that you said, “and it is not relevant or important that the decision could be carried out.” Can you see the difference? There is nothing that we can conceive that we cannot carry out. Rather, a decision such as, 'I decide to fly," can be carried out. At least, for a few moments until the ground catches up with you. Now, if one chooses not to jump - even though he decides to fly - he has made another free choice.

  1. If only the freedom of decision matters, then one can say that the free will of a rape victim is not curtailed. Someone even might say that she has the freedom of “fighting back” or “lay back and enjoy the experience”.

Or, “laying back and keeping her life?”

  1. If a criminal kidnaps you family, and threatens to kill you children, unless you follow the orders he gives you, then your free will is not touched. You have the freedom to giving in, or resist and thus condemn your children to torture and death.

You sure have a predilection for adding words as your propositions evolve!

  1. Moreover, if you give in to the demands, and your free will was not curtailed, then you acted on your own volition, and as such your are responsible for all the actions you take.

Yep.

  1. Finally, If only the freedom of “will” matters, then God could safely interfere and prevent all the planned atrocities, after all the “will” was free, only the action was prevented.

Yes He could.

Needless to say that I hold this view ludicruous and absurd.

Groundless, or maybe I should ask, What ‘view’?

The definition I propose is simple. There are the following necessary conditions:

  1. There is an aim or a goal that the agent wills / wishes / desires to carry out.

Good, except it needs to be wider, e.g., there could be plural goals.

  1. There are at least two possible ways or means to carry out that wish. (Principle of Alternate Possibilities - or PAP).

Good, except it needs to be wider e.g., one can desire to possess a thing without having considered any “ways or means.”

  1. The Locus of Decision (LoD) rests with the agent. IOW, it is the agent who makes the decision. (No brainwashing)

Hmmm. What about the aberration of coercion? What about the decision between two goods?

Otherwise, not bad! :thumbsup:

God bless,
jd

Sair:

So if a person decides to play the lottery and wins, but then, for no apparent reason-in-the-universe, decides not to go and collect it - ever, is that an example of “contra-causal” free will? OTOH, if I desire to solve a financial problem by taking another’s life for his money, this is not ‘contra-causal?’

This seems to be the kind of free will upon which most religionists insist, particularly if they are trying to circumvent the problem of evil - in response to which the existence of human freedom of choice (and action resulting from such choice, importantly) is offered as justification for why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god would allow the existence of evil in a world that could have been made perfect according to said omnimax god’s nature.

Not at all! Most ‘religionists’, as you call us (just to be a tad shy of disparaging), don’t precisely know why God does what He does. Except that, we see trillions of examples of His “goodness,” vs. a very finite number of examples of supposed badness, and reason that an Omnipotent God could rain an infinity of all sorts of eternal terror upon sentient beings, and doesn’t. And, furthermore, there are living examples of people who have gone through terrible ordeals only to have come out the other side perceiving a greater good, at least where they’re concerned, and have confided in us about them.

God bless,
jd

Sair:

Clever.

God bless,
jd

The original abuse of mans’ free will was said to be an act-an act expressing disobedience of God. So our free will could be said to be the freedom between options: to choose good over evil, life over death, God’s will over our own, after coming to see the perfection of and need for His.

I did not ask that. I only asked if the concept of “free will” incorporates the freedom of action", or not.

OK, like I said OS is said to be a free act expressing a free choice.

Well, then, this ends the so-called “free will defense”. If God can prevent the atrocities of free agents, then the only defense against the “problem of evil” remains the “greater good” defense, which has its own problems. But that is another story.

Serious:

You didn’t ask me “How?” You merely jumped to a conclusion that was preferred.

God bless,
jd

OS would be the original sin? Yes, of course it would have been. However, I do not agree that only the morally charged decisions “matter”. As long as one has a red and a blue tie, and decides to wear one of them, and there is no external force (like a wife ;)) to make that choice for him… he has free will. Moreover, in my personal opinion, that is the only type of “choice” a sensible creator would allow his creation to have. But again, that is a different issue for a different thread.

Why should I ask you further? You are a big boy, and your reply did not push the 6000 character limit. Since you stopped where you did, it implied that you are done with your reply.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.