In this essay, I will argue that free will
is incompatible with physical determinism. This is due to the fact that the power
of free will in a physically determined world is impossible. I will maintain
that the tension between free will and physical determinism is due to the
reason that the ability to act at one’s own discretion, such as: making
choices, thinking for yourself and to some extent being morally responsible for
your actions (which is the definition of free will this essay will focus on)
cannot coexist with physical determinism.
As physical determinism assumes, the
initial conditions of the universe, the laws of physics and predetermined
events, determine everything that happens. It then follows, that all our decisions
are beyond our control because they were pre-existing before they have taken place.
So, free will is undeniably conflicting with physical determinism because free
will requires external determined forces and the likes of continuous chance and
randomness (which goes beyond the physical laws) in order for human freedom and
free choices to be made.
The challenge from physical determinism is the
‘consequence argument’ this is as follows:
P1 (Physical determinism) Assuming physical
determinism, our actions are the logical consequence of facts beyond our
P2 If our actions are logical consequences
of facts beyond our control, then our actions are beyond our control.
We do not have free will.
The argument above shows that if physical
determinism holds then free will does not exist, in this sense free will and
physical determinism are clearly incompatible. This is due to the reasoning that
the premises above are both true and incontestable. In order to rationally show
that this argument is true, the premises and conclusion must be analysed.
Premise 1 is the basic understanding that all
actions are determined by logical consequence beyond our control. For example,
if I return a purse to a person who left it on the train to work. I have only
done this because of the scientific reasoning behind my behaviour, and not
because of some random influences. This action has existed before I made the
decision I thought I had chosen because I have not made the choice myself
(because the action is beyond my control). So, my behaviour is not actually
willed by me. On the other hand, compatibilists argue that random occurrences
make this premise weak. However, I completely disagree. Because I had no choice
about returning the purse, even if the event is a random case. I will still act
in accordance with the way that I am predetermined to act, therefore the possibilities
of any random event do not weaken this argument.
This also follows on to the logical implication
that no individual has moral responsibility for their actions because the consequences
of their actions are beyond their control. If I do not have a set of options
because the nature of my behaviour has been deprived of them, then if I have no
alternative choice of action, I should not be held responsible for all things
that I do. This is because I could not have done otherwise. This is better
understood by using an example from Helen Beebee’s writing. In short, Beebee
states that “if a girl called Carly grew up in an environment where car-stealing
was rewarded, praised and encouraged. Her environment and upbringing have now
resulted in her criminal activities” (Beebee 2013) From this broader determinist
perspective Carly had no control over which direction her life went because the
events in her life were predetermined by factors beyond Carly’s control. Therefore,
I believe that the first premise holds.
Many Biophysicists, and evidence from
Empirical Science have shown that there are clear biological explanations for
our behaviours. These particular logical factors such as genes, biochemistry
etc. drive our behaviour. For example, Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) is an enzyme that
influences aggression levels. This scientific development has been applied to
Italian law. “An Italian court has reduced the sentence of a convicted murderer
by a year due to genes linked to violent behaviour” (Emiliano Feresin, 2009)
This case illustrates that our actions are caused by logical consequences (in
this case genetic predispositions) that lead to individuals acting in a set way.
This example shows that premise two of the consequence argument follows.
Surely, it is now true that we do not have
free will. This is because our actions are only able to lead to pre-decided
outcomes. Which means that there is no possible unconscious process taking
place. The lack of options we have means that we are unable to have acted in an
alternative way. If you cannot choose something and be fully morally
responsible for your decisions, then you are unfree to will anything.
Therefore, the conclusion is true.
Building on the relationship between the scientific
worldview and physical determinism.
It is clear that science considerably
influences physical determinism in the sense that the ability for the laws of
physics to explain the world, leads to the desire of physical determinism to
explain the human mind. This contradicts with the concept of free will because
free will is something that cannot be explained or understood fully, making
both of the concepts incompatible.
It is particularly notable to say that the
nature of cause and effect in science and more importantly in Physics (which lies
at the core of physical determinism) conflicts with free will. Because physics
has a mechanist view of the world dating back to the “big bang”. It is such
that, all actions are caused by physics, geometry and other natural laws. All
human beings are also governed by these same laws which automatically
eliminates a belief in free choice. These laws mean that it is impossible for
free will to exist because our behaviour can always be explained by any scientific
understanding, such as biology and neural mechanisms. Therefore, the code of
ethics that we think we hold is actually a bunch of behaviours that are caused
by explained factors such as evolution, the composition of atoms and any other
scientific explanations. This incompatibility ultimately means, that not only
can free will and physical determinism coexist, but it implies that free will
of the most famous convincing arguments to support the incompatibility of free
will and physical determinism is Laplace’s demon. “The argument states that if
a super-intelligent being (the Demon) could know the positions, velocities, and
forces of all the particles in the universe at one time, their past and future values for any given time are
entailed; they can be calculated from the laws of classical mechanics” (Laplace,
1814) This theory has two important implications for the relationship between
free will and physical determinism. Firstly, the fact the demon has a perfect
knowledge about all physical laws leaves no room for chance and randomness.
This is because the demon has perfect understanding of all laws (which is the
aim of physics) and the possibilities of will or any concepts outside of the demon’s
knowledge are impossible. Secondly, this argument further implies that the concept
of free will is impossible because it is to a great extent a concept that is formed
due to humans having an imperfect understanding, in regards to all the details
of physics. This then leads to the incorrect belief in the existence of ‘free
will’ Laplace’s demon illustrates that free will and physical determinism are
Finally, although John Martins
Fishers metaphysical approach to the compatibility of free will and determinism
is semi-compatibilist. His stance successfully supports the incompatibility
between free will and physical determinism. To briefly note Fisher’s argument from
Kadri Vihvelin’s paper. “Fisher thinks that divine foreknowledge is
incompatible with freedom to do over wise but compatible with moral
responsibility” (Vihvelin, 1998) The first part of Fishers argument shows that if
a being has divine knowledge of the world, be it a God or the entire laws of physics
and nature, there is no room for free will if everything in the world was understood
by an omniscient being.
In terms of the later of his
argument, to say that moral responsibility is compatible is a weak
contradiction of incompatibilism. It is clear that those who argue that free
will and physical determinism are compatible form arguments on the basis of
weak ideas. This is because compatibilists merely use arguments such as
indeterminate randomness, probability etc. In order to try and undermine
determinism but advocate no solid ideas about there being an actual possibility
of free will. If physicists cannot locate free will, then it is absurd for them
to argue that it is compatible without even understanding the concept.
To summarise, the above incompatibility
arguments show that free will is incompatible because it is essentially the complete
opposite of Physics. This is because free will is entirely based on
subjectivity (such as unconscious decisions) which physics does not subscribe to.
Physical determinism views the mind in an entirely objective way in order to
reach clarity through knowledge and not subjectivity.