Free Will Sara S.
December 17, 2001
Free Will

Wanting Freedom

``Nowhere Man please listen, you don't know what you're missing. Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.'' - Lennon/McCartneys

In this paper, I wish to discuss why we want free will and to examine and describe the kinds of freedom which we are interested in having. Before delving into this topic, it is worth briefly defining a few terms for clarification purposes. I will describe free will in more detail later, but roughly speaking, free will is the freedom to do as one wills, the ability to decide or choose. According to G. E. Moore, the ``free'' in free will refers to the fact that one is free to choose and could have done otherwise. Determinism, for Peter Van Inwagen, refers to the claim that at any given instance, like the present moment, there is one, and only one, possible future. Inevitability is often used informally to refer to predictability, although it actually means impossible to prevent, or literally unavoidibility.

It is often believed that determinism implies inevitability and contradicts free will. If every moment in time is determined by a previous moment in time, it seems that the future might be set in stone, that all outcomes are inevitable, that one cannot avoid or make choices. The problem of free will is to explain the paradox of how such moral notions as duty and responsibility can be made meaningful if all our actions are determined. This, however, need not be a problem; compatibilism, the belief that determinism and free will (and evitability) are compatible, is a commonly-held position.

In order to explain how the apparent contradictions between determinism and free will can be resolved, it is important to understand the motivation behind the metaphysical problem of free will and to clearly define what free will is. What kind(s) of free will should we want? Why do we want free will?

We are uncomfortable with the notion that things just happen to us. We want to say that we cause events; we want to say that we make meaningful choices and that we matter. As rational beings, we want to be able to be held accountable for our actions. We need morally significant free will in order to be held accountable. For the notions of praise, blame, responsibility, and morality itself to make sense, we must be able to choose our own actions. Without free choice, we cannot be held responsible for our actions nor hold others responsible for theirs.

In addition to morally significant free will, we also want nonmorally significant free will. Nonmorally significant free will can be divided into two sub-categories, which I will refer to as personally significant free will and socially significant free will. Personal significance has to do with being in control of one's actions, and having an identity based on one's actions, rather than being an impersonal, mindless robot. Socially significant free will involves our participation in society and how we are perceived by others.

The desire to have ``the power to be [the] ultimate creator[s] and sustainer[s] of [our] own ends or purposes'' (Kane, 15) has both moral and nonmoral implications. Nonmorally significant free will may be seen to differ only subtly from morally significant freewill. The need to have a sense of a purposeful self is closely related to the desire to be a morally responsible agent. If one can be said to cause a particular event, then one can construct an identity based upon doing an action and one can be accountable for it. Furthermore, one must be, as William James says, the author of an act to assume responsibility. Although these two kinds of freedom are clearly similar, I blieve they are worth considering separately, because, at least at first glance, it seems that we may have reason to want free will even if it not morally significant.

Many people find the prospects of determinism and/or inevitability frightening. I believe much of this discomfort stems from an intuition that a deterministic world would be one in which we would have no control, a world in which we could not do things but rather in which things would happen to us. In such a world, nothing would be avoidable. We would be unable to make choices or change the course of action. One fear is the fear of nihilism, that determinism renders our thoughts, actions, and existence meaningless. Another primary concern is that we would be unable to be held responsible for or hold others responsible for their actions.

Instead, we want it to be the case that we ``could have done otherwise''. We want the ability to make choices, to avoid possible outcomes, and to imagine alternative paths and other worlds. We want to be decision-makers who determine what we do. This control, it seems, is required for our existences to have meaning.

The kind of freedoms that we want can be described as follows: We do not want to be playthings, puppets, or pawns. We do not want to be completely controlled by Big Brother, a Blind Watchmaker, or our biology. We prefer to be neither possessions nor property. We do not want to be managed, manipulated, or merely used as means for the ends of another. We do not want to be programmed to pursue the purposes of others. We want to be educated about possibilities, not be brainwashed by propaganda. We desire knowledge, a naturalistic narrative, and non-nihilism.

We want the freedom to have identity, to be individuals with a sense of self. We want to live our own lives, to be the authors of our actions, and to make meaningful motions. We do not want our actions to be either robotic or random. We demand to be the deciders of decisions, to choose and challenge choices, and to make changes. We want to entertain and encourage evitability or avoidability.

We want to be social creatures who are valued and validated by our culture and community. We want to be full-fledged, rational, reasoning, and reflective members of society. We want our actions to be judged justly, accepted, and approved. We want to be able to be held accountable for actions under our causal control. We want to require responsibility from others in moral matters.

It seems that most of the time when we say we want free will we mean that we want morally significant free will. Morally significant free will is desired as a means to moral responsibility and accountability. We want to hold others responsible for their actions. We do it all the time. An event occurs and we immediately look for a cause, for an explanation. We want to understand why something happened, we want a reason beyond ``it just happened''. We want to find an author of the action and attribute the action to the author. But we are motivated by more than just a need for an explanation. We want to hold people responsible, to praise the authors of good deeds and punish the authors of bad deeds. This reinforcement serves a purpose for both the responsible agent and for society as a whole. Good behavior is encouraged, while bad behavior meets disapproval. Culpability may act as a behavior modifier, a deterrent.

Although not as obvious, it seems that we also want to hold ourselves responsible for actions that we can be said to have caused. Our identity, our sense of self, is shaped by this accountability for our actions. We want to be praised when we think praise is due, and we also are willing to be blamed when blame is due. Above all, we are, and want to be, social creatures, and if this is the price we must pay to be members of society, we are eager to pay it. We want to live in an orderly and well-maintained society, and as such, will sacrifice and make the effort to learn and change based on the feedback of others. We want to be morally responsible agents who belong to such a society.

Being able to be held responsible is a privilege, and one with which not everyone is endowed. Only rational beings have the freedom to be held responsible in any morally significant way. This requirement limits moral responsibility to humans, and only to a subset of people. Children, for example, are not considered responsible for their actions until they come of age. Similarly, those who are labeled as insane are not considered culpable for their actions. Instead, we feel that these people lack the knowledge and/or ability to assess alternatives and arrive at rational decisions. Those who are uneducable cannot be held responsible. They could not have avoided their actions, so they cannot be held resonsible for them. To praise, blame, and otherwise attribute responsibility to them for such actions would undermine the notion of the morally significant free will that we want and are privileged to have.

In addition to morally significant free will, I believe that we desire nonmorally significant free will. It is not just because we want to be held morally responsible that we object to being pawns. The idea that we are not in control of ourselves is unsettling. A world in which we are puppets, acting at the will of a puppet master pulling strings, is a deeply disturbing world for us. We do not want to be controlled or used by a puppet master; we want to be masters of or own destinies, acting for our own purposes and ours alone.

Nor do we want to be products of a Blind Watchmaker, inhabitants of a universe that, though now unattended, was set in a fixed path at some point in the past, much as we can set a pendulum in motion or run a computer program and be confident of its output. We are no happier with the possibility that our lives are entirely up to fortune or chance, and that we cannot alter the random course of action. We do not want to be Nowhere Man.

We want authorship for our actions, and we want this in part because we want to have an identity. Our construction of the self is based on the actions that we have caused. We want to take pride in our actions, and in order to do so we must exhibit some control over our actions and our environment. We want to maintain a sense of dignity and self-sufficiency.

We also need a sense of purpose. Without personal identity, projects and purpose, and the ability to strive to fulfill our projects, our lives have no meaning. Finally this points to a kind of freedom worth wanting. We want freedom from nihilism, from the belief that our lives and actions are meaningless. We want to be meaningful members of society.

Perhaps this meaningful existence that we desire is really a morally significant existence. Though this is likely the case, it seems that we want such an existence not solely for moral reasons. We want to be social creatures who have a well-defined place in society. Assuming moral responsibility is only part of societal membership.

Either way, the question still remains whether determinism is compatible with both morally significant and nonmorally significant free will. I believe that it is. Nonmorally signficance appears to fall out of the morally significant variety of free will, a kind of free will that has already been shown by others to be compatible with determinism. There is no reason to fear determinism, then; we can still have the varieties of free will worth wanting in a universe that has determinism.

In fact, we want to live in a world with a kind of determinism, self-determinism, where our past actions affect our present actions and our present actions contribute to our future. Only in such a world can we have causal authorship for actions and be held responsible for them. If our previous selves help to define our later selves, then we are our self-authors, our own makers and masters. We are directed by many external factors, including nature and nurture, but we still possess the important freedom to avoid certain outcomes, the freedom to have our actions count, the freedom to be creators.

Much as Martin Luther was determined, or resolved, to act as he did, we are determined, and equipped, to avoid. Our avoidance tool is knowledge, particularly self-knowledge. The ``free'' in free will, then, also refers to the freedom to live, study, and alter our own lives. Rationality, the ability to doubt, access to self-knowledge, and the ability to share intelligence within a community are all necessary preconditions.

This freedom provides our lives and our actions with the potential to make a difference. Such freedom gives us a much-needed sense of authorship and identity. This authorship enables us to have moral responsibility that our society requires, that we require. If we have this freedom, it seems that we are in control of ourselves, that our actions are purposeful and our existence meaningful. Then we are free to do what we want to do; we can take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

Where does such freedom come from? The freedom that we want is a freedom that only a combination of knowledge and the ability to make changes can give us. It is a freedom that we already have, that we have acquired slowly, in fact have made for ourselves over the course of millions of years. It is the freedom of self-awareness, of consciousness. This is the freedom to learn from the past and shape the future.


Angles, Peter A., ed. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992.

Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room. Cambridge, Mass: MIT University Press, 1984.

Dennett, Daniel C. Draft of forthcoming book on free will.

FSF. ``The Free Software Definition''.

Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sanger, Larry et. al. ``Free Will and Determinism''. wiki/Free_will_and_determinism.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 2.51.
On 6 Jan 2003, 23:50.