Is There Any Acceptable Definition of Free-Will?

Yes, we can talk about free will. No, we don’t need to throw the notion in the garbage bin of meaninglessness.

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Somebody wrote to me a private email pointing out that I wrote an essay on free will (Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 1 – The Origins of Free-Will Denial) and I didn’t even define it. While I have reasons not to define it I agree with him that it would have been better if I did. So I will try to remedy that here.

While defining one’s key terms is good practice and can be even expected when there is any risk of ambiguity, I think that free will is a special case. That’s because we do have an inner, first hand experience of free will. In a way it’s similar to how St. Augustine described time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

We experience time regardless if we understand it or not. (As a matter of fact I find the matter of time fascinating and I did quite a bit of research on it. My conclusion is that there are problems with the concept of time, for example the way that second and meter are defined leads to circular definition as both rely on the equation of velocity c = s/t where c, the speed of light, is given and you have two unkowns, s and t, which render the equation unsolvable—but that’s another topic for another post). In the same way we experience free will and have an intuitive notion of it regardless whether we can properly define it or not or whether we can explain it or not.

Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum is based on the same direct inner experience. He didn’t need any external proofs that he is in fact doubting or that he is thinking or existing. It was the mere inner experience of it.

But if we can say cogito ergo sum then maybe we can also say “I choose, therefore I’m free.” It is what, after all, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, did as he describes in Man’s Search for Meaningone of “the ten most influential books in the United States” (of course, some may need to reinterpret here what “influence” means along with what it means that the book has “merit”). He “concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering.” As Frankl says himself:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Just as our experience of doubting and thinking prove our own existence (a-la Descartes), our experience of choice may prove our own freedom.

To give another example, you can’t properly define all the words in a dictionary. If you try, you will end up with circular definitions (such as to be means to exist and vice-versa). What do we do then? Throw away the dictionary and give up on communication? No, we simply accept an intuitive notion of some basic terms even though we can’t properly define them. Guess what, everybody else has the same intuitive notion and we have no problem communicating.

The insistence that we should throw away the concept of free will as meaningless has its roots in the logical positivists’ insistence that there are verifiable statements and the rest are unintelligible or pseudostatements. But it is with good reason that logical positivism fell out of favor. As philosopher Thomas Nagel says1 “logical positivism can be eliminated immediately” by applying its claim to itself. This renders it self-defeating. But the same is the situation with free will denial (since it’s related to logical positivism). If you treat the most basic terms in a language as meaningless because can’t establish a “proper definition” for them then you end up with virtually the whole vocabulary being meaningless as all the rest of the terms are ultimately defined in terms of the basic terms. Then the statement “free will is meaningless” is meaningless as well!

That’s, of course, an extreme position that the free will deniers don’t take. Because they are fine with undefined terms and with intuitive notions. But the inconsistency is here: if we find both inner experience and intuitive notions acceptable, then why isn’t the intuitive notion of free will acceptable? Why isn’t a direct, inner experience-based or phenomenological definition of free will acceptable? Things that cannot be properly expressed in words are not few. And things to which language just doesn’t do justice are even more. And “free will” is a prime example.

We can build on this intuitive definition even though not as much as what free will is but more in terms of what it is not (to be done in later posts). However, for the purpose of communication, the intuitive, phenomenological notion does suffice (as we do communicate about time, Descartes’ thoughts and the undefinable terms of a dictionary). The insistence of having a “regular” definition is unwarranted (as it is in other cases I pointed out). After all, free will is not your regular thing. In fact, it’s hard to pick anything more unusual than it. That’s of course if it turns out that it’s not an illusion. If it is, then, well, you can’t really pick anything at all. But at this point, regardless if it is an illusion or not, we can still have a discussion about it. There is no need to throw it in the garbage bin of meaninglessness as though nobody has the vaguest idea what they are talking about. They may not have an explanation but they do know what they are talking about.

This intuitive definition is not an ostensive definition. The problem with ostensive is that requires something external to point to. Free will, however, is an internal experience. An ostensive definition is needed when the other person doesn’t know what you are talking about. However here you have the same experience of free will that I have. The matter is not that you don’t know what I’m talking about. The problem is that you can’t comprehend to your satisfaction what I’m talking about (aka what you are experiencing). Now calling my experience “free will” should suffice to point to the same kind of experience that you have.

Having said that, I could still go further in describing it. While we all experience the passage of time we can’t directly point to it. It’s an inner experience. But we can give enough external clues to point to the same experience in the other person.

Therefore to spell out this intuitive definition, it’s the experience that the outcome of my choices are actions and not mere reactions. That I can make a difference in my life and I’m not just a spectator to my life. That the possible alternatives that I’m facing are, until the moment of my decision, open-ended and not predetermined. That I’m an agent and not merely a robot.

[Note: Last three paragraphs added on 6/28/2017]

Footnotes:

1

The Last Word by Thomas Nagel, a more complete quote:

It is usually a good strategy to ask whether a general claim about truth or meaning applies to itself. Many theories, like logical positivism, can be eliminated immediately by this test.