Stephen Hawking on Free Will

What is Free Will?

Everyone has ideas in their head about what is meant by free will, but even this isn’t as simple as it sounds. At a very basic level, it is the ability to choose. Self-determinism is another way to put it.

When the average believer speaks of ‘free will’ they speak of an individual being able to make conscious choices out of independent agency. In other words, choices that come from their own consciousness and are not forced by another being of agency. It speaks nothing of the range of choices available, which could be as few as two options. So long as the individual is allowed to choose consciously and freely out of the two options, then this is considered ‘free will’.

‘Free Will – A Compatibilist’s View’ – Rowlands, D – April 2016

It would be absurd to make statements like ‘I can’t choose to grow wings and fly away so therefore I have no free will!’ because free will works within the confines of our existing system. That is to say, within the parameters of our physiology and the governing forces of the universe.

However, there are actually a number of different free will theories which make the question harder to answer. You might disagree with ‘libertarian free will’, but actually find a different definition suits you better.

Libertarian/non-causal Free Will

When most people discuss libertarian free will, they actually seem to be discussing ‘the freedom to do otherwise’ (covered next) and make arguments like ‘ought implies can’.

Libertarian free will is one of the forms of non-causal free will that argue essentially there are no causal factors in the choice made.

Proponents of noncausal accounts generally hold that each intentional action is or begins with a basic mental action. A decision or a choice is commonly said to be such a basic action. An overt bodily action, such as raising one’s arm, is held to be a nonbasic, complex action that is constituted by a basic mental action’s bringing about a certain motion of one’s body. The basic action in this case is often called a volition, which is said to be the agent’s willing, trying, or endeavoring to move a certain part of her body in a certain way.

….require that the action not be causally determined; as Ginet sees it, a free action must be entirely uncaused. Ginet requires, further, that in performing the action, the agent not be subject to irresistible compulsion.

And this shows the first problem with a libertarian/non-causal free will. There is always some causal factor in behaviour. We feel hungry, we think we should make food, we decide what we want to eat based on a number of considerations like weight, health, preference etc.

The second (and related) problem concerns acting for a reason. Intentional actions can be (and commonly are) things done for reasons. An action performed for a reason is something for which there is a true reason-explanation. Again, it is often objected that noncausal theories of action and free will cannot provide an adequate account of this phenomenon.

The arguments for libertarian/non-causal free will then seem to go into what sort of causal factors count as causal factors. That yes, you have the desire to eat but you can ignore that desire, and when you do change your mind and want to eat you are free to choose what you like, and therefore you action is uncaused. Or that you might have the desire to eat but ignore it till later, and when making food later, you remember your desire to eat but the act of making the food itself was uncaused. (though why would anyone be making food without a reason?)

Most libertarians endorse an event-causal or agent-causal account of sourcehood. Both these accounts maintain that exercises of the power of self-determination consist partly in the agent’s bringing about her choice or action, but they disagree on how to analyze an agent’s bringing about her choice. While event-causal libertarianism admits of different species, at the heart of this view is the idea that self-determining an action requires, at minimum, that the agent cause the action and that an agent’s causing his action is wholly reducible to mental states and other events involving the agent nondeviantly causing his action.

So what is presented here is a slightly different beast. It would argue that everything is reducible to a mental state that starts off the process. Even then, the feeling of being hungry is what alerts us that we are hungry and then kicks off a mental state, so it does seem like there is still a causal factor BEFORE the mental state, however, if we would take a moment to say the feeling of being hungry and the mental state of wanting food are one and the same rather than a cause and effect, we could squeeze in this into an agent-causal libertarian account of free will. The mental state I am hungry comes from the agent, which leads to the thought, I should get food, which leads on to going to the kitchen and deciding on food. Other mental states pop up, I want to eat healthily, I want to lose weight, I don’t like marmite, I ate peanut butter yesterday which again influence the decision but all come from within the agent, even if some are leaning on previous events to provide the mental state of what a healthy diet is and what was eaten yesterday.

I’d argue that there still are causal factors in actions and they don’t always directly start from internal mental states and body processes. I would also argue that the mental state of realising you are hungry comes after the feeling of being hungry, rather than them being one and the same.

Conclusion: LFW doesn’t seem possible in its ‘purist’ form, however, distilled down to event-causal and agent-causal with some charitable allowances I can see how it can be applied in at least some cases.

The Freedom to Do Otherwise

For most newcomers to the problem of free will, it will seem obvious that an action is up to an agent only if she had the freedom to do otherwise. But what does this freedom come to? The freedom to do otherwise is clearly a modal property of agents, but it is controversial just what species of modality is at stake. It must be more than mere possibility: to have the freedom to do otherwise consists in more than the mere possibility of something else’s happening. A more plausible and widely endorsed understanding claims the relevant modality is ability or power (Locke 1690 [1975], II.xx; Reid 1788 [1969], II.i–ii; D. Locke 1973; Clarke 2009; Vihvelin 2013).

The above is just the beginning of a section of the article but to oversimplify and bastardise this for you, one has the ability to do something different and if that so wanted to, could do that different thing.

This is, of course, subject to critique. The most common being that we can’t alter our desires and will always do what we desire most. I do my best to cover off desire a little more in the ‘Free Will Scale’ section.

This also is a better place for the ‘ought implies can’ (OIC) – which is usually a morality argument but free will and morality are closely linked so it makes sense. If you ought to do an action you have the ability to do an action. I can nitpick and say, I see someone (let’s say an old lady) drop their groceries all over the street, I ought to help them and under most circumstances, I would. However, in this hypothetical; it is freezing cold, I am carrying my own shopping in one hand and my screaming child in the other. In this instance I have 2 ‘oughts’, I ought to get my child out of the cold, home and fed for a nap and putting her down to help the lady out would further distress her, but I also ought to help the old lady out. I could weigh up the options, if it wouldn’t take long to help the lady out I could briefly put down my child, but if it was a big job it would distress my child too much. An argument comes back saying ‘well you still could have done it, so there is still a can’ but we were in a dichotomous situation where there were two different things I ought to do, and that means I only had one can I could actually do. I can either get my child home as fast as possible or I can help out the lady.

Of course, the above isn’t an argument against ‘the ability to do otherwise’ or even a ‘debunk’ of OIC, its just that sometimes there are conflicting oughts which negate cans. Perhaps we would agree that in the case of 2 oughts, there is one ought we ought to do above the other, and therefore negating the other ought.

I think this [The freedom to do otherwise] definition of free will works, the main contentions with it would be:

  • What do we mean by ‘freedom’?
  • What do we mean by ‘do’? – are we just talking about the physical ability to do something? e.g. I could lift an orange but I didn’t, or is this tied into I could have chosen either or?
  • If for the above two, we are just talking about physical ability, are we really discussing will?
  • If I am tied up and being forced to do something, I do not have the freedom to do otherwise, but I might be willing otherwise.
  • How does this relate to all the causal factors? – e.g. even if there was an option to do otherwise, could we really have chosen to do otherwise?

The ability to reflect on your mental states, knowledge and experience and make a decision.

Some would argue that your mental states, knowledge, experience, are all causal factors in your final choice and are therefore you choice isn’t truly free. I would agree from a LFW perspective that this would not count as free will, however, the fact we sit there and consciously process this stuff and make decisions seems like an act of will to me. In fact, we can still ‘will’ something even if we don’t have the ability to act on our will. This definition of free will is largely what I think about when discussing free will, and it is close to the ‘freedom to do otherwise’ definition, but speaks more of the will and the conscious processing rather than the ability.

I explain this and arguments against it in the ‘Free Will Scale’ section on the next page.

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