One rarely needs to argue in favor of free will. "Sir, we know our will is free, and there’s an end on it," as Samuel Johnson once snarled. The notion that human beings might not possess at least some ability to choose their actions is treated, among philosophers, primarily as a toy for logicians to play with.
And perhaps rightly so. If any strong version of fatalism or determinism were true, that would have enormous, almost certainly fatal, consequences for ethics, politics, aesthetics¯all the humane branches of systematic philosophy. But there seems something so perverse about denying free will, something so willful , that most philosophers merely gesture once or twice at the topic and move on, as if to say: Let fatalistic logicians, from the ancient Diodorus Cronus to the modern Richard Taylor , argue as they will; the arguments they make are contradicted by the fact that they are free to make those arguments, and the fundamental truth of free will remains untouched.
Still, considered purely as a logic puzzle, the topic is interesting¯and sometimes more than merely interesting. The logical difficulties engendered by freedom of the will have exercised innumerable Christian thinkers, from St. Augustine to Jonathan Edwards, who have been forced to weigh its apparent contradiction of God’s foreknowledge and providential design for the universe¯theological elements that deepen the already complex problem that free will poses for modal logic.
Our friend Robert Miller is one of the sharpest young legal philosophers around, and it’s always a pleasure to publish him in the magazine or on the website. In today’s post , however, he seems to get himself in a bit of a tangle, thinking about free will.
His aim is to declare that physicists’ notions of quantum indeterminacy¯true or not¯are unnecessary for a defense of free will. His argument looks like this: A human being is not a purely physical system, as anyone who believes in an immortal spiritual soul that survives the death of the body has to admit. It follows that not all human actions must have prior causes or present effects in the physical realm ruled by the laws of physics.
At the end of his post, Robert notes that this is manifestly true of descriptions of mental states that lack direct physical correlates: "understands Georgetown’s use of the Princeton basketball offense " or "believes that Duke University professors hate their students ." But mostly he argues that physics cannot bind free will even in purely physical settings: "If tomorrow it were conclusively established that the laws of physics are fully deterministic, I would say that human beings, being not purely physically systems, often do things that violate those laws."
That’s clever, as one would expect from anybody as smart as Robert Miller, but it’s not going to fly. The central proposition¯ if the laws of physics are fully deterministic, then human beings often violate those laws ¯is clearly a hypothetical impossible to fulfill. Human beings may be "not purely physically systems," but they are at least partially so, and if their physical actions violate the laws of physics, then the laws of physics aren’t fully deterministic. I pour myself a cup of coffee ¯here’s a physical event that violates deterministic physics, which can only mean that deterministic physics is wrong.
I’m open to the idea that quantum indeterminacy doesn’t help much in solving the logical problems of free will, but Robert’s strong form of mind-body (and soul-body) dualism pushes us to hold that all our physical actions are miracles, in the strictest sense of the word. For myself, I just can’t feel godlike about my freedom to pour myself some coffee¯or see it in the same class as the parting of the Red Sea. We need a theory of free will that proves a little less.