An Epistemological Argument for Free Will


Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that has as its subject the various concepts we label ‘knowledge’, ‘truth’, ‘belief’, and also about how we come to “know something”. I begin with a phenomenological observation:  I believe I have free will. I appear to exercise it, to manifest my will by controlling my body.  Throughout my lifetime my experience suggests to me that I have exercised choice that was not coerced upon me nor determined in the same way that physical events are determined, but instead were determined by my-self, metaphorically an entity that sits about 2 inches behind my eyes.

This is a phenomenological observation. The epistemological issue is: do I have knowledge of freedom or is it a phenomenal illusion?  Is my belief in the ontological genuineness of free will justified? Is that belief knowledge? If the proposition “free will is real” is true, any freely made choice would constitute its truth maker. But surely this begs the question because the free-ness of the act is the very matter at issue.

The knowledge of which I speak above cannot be analytic. It isn’t the same sort of thing as my knowing that two plus two must equal four. Rather, it seems to me that my life’s experience, for example my decision to compose this essay, has been a series of choices from an often broad set of alternatives of which I was aware and the the particular choices I made resulted in a history that might easily have been different. Not only my own choices, but those of my fellows near and far, proceeding back into the early reaches of human society could, had they been made differently, resulted in various possible worlds, contingent histories some only moderately different and others vastly different from the history of the world as it has unfolded.

I write here about what philosophers call “libertarian free will” and not merely compatibilism, a doctrine that seeks to establish something to call “free will” even in the face of determinism (and micro-indeterminism) . In that case, we are free when we seem (illusion?) to be able to do “what we want” even if that desire too is determined (or random) and not freely chosen in the libertarian sense. This is not what most of us mean when we speak of free will. We speak of being direct and original causes, volition-directed causes that are not merely the appearance of “bringing into existence” by our agency, but actually are brought about by that volition. If such a thing is real, then determinism must break down in one place.

If free will is genuine, there must be some phenomena with which causal chains begin without having been determined by some physically prior state of the universe, but only by the choice of a volitional agent. Causal chains are what drives event-unfolding. We identify joints in the history of unfolding events. Places where a particular cause directed the unfolding such that in the absence of that cause things would have turned out differently. If free will is real, there should be joints that have no sufficient deterministic causes and simultaneously are not merely indetermined. They would be sufficiently determined by a volitional purpose originating in an agent. Can we identify such joints?

Of course not every joint in the course of history can be related to free will. Natural processes also influence history. In fact some of the characteristic differences between natural processes and human action seem further to support a judgement for the genuineness of free will. The causal chains that yield up a particular volcanic eruption can easily be traced back thousands, even millions of years. But the causal chains that result in a particular human choice, say to pull a trigger and kill someone in cold blood, cannot be indisputably traced back farther than the decision itself. Yes we speak of reasons, individual history, desires, etc, but even these cannot be definitively connected to the choice to shoot or refrain from shooting in the same way that a “hot spot” under the pacific ocean can be definitively connected to the formation of an volcanic island a million years later. When the hot spot formed the volcano became inevitable unless the Earth was destroyed in the intervening years.

As concerns the trigger, our intuition, based on years of having made and unmade (changed our minds) decisions ourselves, it seems that the inevitability of its being pulled was not determined until the instant in time at which it was pulled. This does not imply that the decision is not associated with a physical correlate, a brain state.  The ubiquity of this association is the crux of our problem from a third party perspective.

Note that to deny even the possibility of free will and to assert that what we think are genuine choices are only pseudo-choices because what we actually choose is determined by what amount to a natural process (whether a just antecedent brain state or going all the way back to the big bang), requires a metaphysical assumption not required by advocates of free will’s genuineness (though they too have assumptions that come in at a later point). It requires one to assume that there is nothing more than a deterministic physics in the universe. Making a case for illusion demands a prior commitment to free will’s impossibility. By contrast accepting the possibility of free will based on the phenomenal appearance of it  requires only that we not accept the prior commitment.

Setting the Problem

If I step to the edge of a cliff to admire the view, I am aware that I can take another step in the same direction and fall off the edge plummeting to my death. Alternatively, I can step backwards away from the cliff, or turn around and walk away from it. Each of these choices makes a difference in the world. Stepping off the cliff will initiate causal chains having many consequences for my family, friends, and people who do not know me, but must become involved in the outworkings of my death: police, funeral directors, etc. If I walk away from the cliff other causal chains will begin. I will go back to my work and discover something that makes my employer millions of dollars they would never have otherwise had.

I am certainly not coerced by any external force.  No one has a gun to my head. Yes at this time I have a desire to remain alive and engaged with the world, and this desire is one of perhaps many reasons for my stepping back from the cliff, but a reason is not a cause. I am fully aware of this and other reasons for choices I make every day, but at the same time I am aware that I can (and have in my life) choose in opposition to reasons. My reasons clearly justify (or not) my choice after the fact but they do not determine, that is compel me, to make that choice.

All the same many philosophers (and scientists writing as philosophers) deny that free will is real. They base this denial on observations (measurements) of the phenomena of the physical universe. They discover all these phenomena to be “causally closed” meaning that physical effects come only from physical causes and physical causes have only physical effects. A third quality associated with causal closure is reciprocity: an effect has a reciprocal impact on its cause. If a moving billiard ball strikes a stationary one momentum is exchanged and the direction and speed of both balls is changed. Reciprocity is important because it is often the quality actually measured by science. There are often cases where we can observe (measure) a cause but not detect some effect — perhaps our instruments are not sensitive enough. But we do measure some change in the causal agent and from that change we can infer the effect that could not be measured directly.

The “free will” business, if it truly existed in the full libertarian sense violates these three principles. If I make a choice, and nothing prior in the physical universe determined that choice, then something to which I refer as a self must exist and have to power to initiate physical chains of causation without there having been any prior determining physical cause of that chain (see note on the self at the end of the essay), the ubiquitous presence of correlative brain states notwithstanding. That the history of the cosmos leading to us and our particular lives at this time is the result of chains of physical cause and effect is not particularly controversial. Whether we speak of gravity, colliding masses, electromagnetic energy, or the actions of human agents, the forces that propel history forward are all physical.

To initiate either of the causal chains envisioned from my position on the cliff’s edge I must move my body. It is my body, a physical thing, whose interaction with the rest of the physical world engages with the causal web. I don’t know anyone who disputes this. Free will, if it exists, is antecedent (metaphysically) to such motion even if the choice is simultaneous with it physically. The issue is not that my body isn’t the physical agent of potentially alternative causal change but that there is something else that is the agent of that body’s action, something not physical, a self with the power of volition, initiating novel causal chains by moving a body! Not only is the exercise of volition undetermined it is fundamentally uncaused by any antecedent physical cause or effect. The cause originates in the agent.

The “not physical” part is the crux of the problem. We certainly find physical bodies and in this respect our causal powers are much like those of any inanimate object in the universe. If I throw a rock that breaks a window, the rock is the agent of the window’s breaking, and my arm is the agent of the rock’s movement. Momentum was imparted to that rock by my arm, both physical and no different than two rocks colliding in outer space exchanging momentum and thus velocity in precisely predictable ways. So as we trace back physical effects in the universe, we find only physical causes including the movement of arms. In this tracing, we account for everything that happens since the big bang. There is nothing left over for free will to explain. Quantum mechanics does not help us either. It is true that quantum phenomena introduce indeterminism into the causal web, but while quantum phenomena might provide some metaphysical space for a hypothetical free will to operate, they are not characterized by any volitional purpose. If there is such a thing as free will, volitional agency, the agent must be non-physical because we cannot find it in any catalog of physical cause-effect relations going all the way back to the big bang.

Why don’t we find the agent? Because its presence and power violates the principles of causal closure. Being “original cause” of a physical effect (movement of the body) there is no prior cause of which it, the choice, is an effect. Significantly, from an epistemological viewpoint, there is no reciprocity. When my arm moves with the rock in my hand I am imparting momentum to the rock and there is a reciprocal resistance from the rock. I can feel the rock pushing back (as it were) on my arm as the rock gains momentum. But I have said that the “original cause” of the arm’s movement was an uncaused choice. The movement of my arm has no reciprocal effect on the choice to move it, a choice which is immediately past and unaffected. This is the evidence that the original cause, the choice, is not physical. Physics doesn’t find such causes in the catalog of the physical because there is no reciprocity to measure.

Free Will is Impossible (supposedly)!

I am familiar with three general arguments as concerns the illusory nature of free will, one logical, one epistemological, and one empirical. The logical argument is simply that free will is impossible thanks to causal closure and that is the end of the matter. That we appear to be free willed must be illusion because there is no logical way for a causally closed universe to produce it. This argument entails of course that it is not physically possible for a causally closed physics to produce a non-physical thing, but it is more. It notes there is no connection by which the doings of the physical can be mapped to the non-physical because the physical’s closure is axiomatic. This argument ignores question of what it is that is having this illusion and by implication extends to consciousness in general and self-consciousness in particular. Everything that we take to be our inner lives is illusion. None of the other arguments even matter as they can pertain to nothing other than a fantasy.

The empirical argument revolves around the experiments of Benjamin Libet in the 1970s. Libet found that a detectable brain state preceded a subject’s report of having made a decision. But the subjects in Libet’s experiments were very constrained as concerns their decisions. Even under natural circumstances it is common to find a decision associated with a just prior qualia or a mental event such as the emergence into consciousness of a reason. But that we act because of a reason does not mean the reason causes in any physical sense the motion of a body. How could a reason, a mental thing if ever there was one cause a physical thing anyway? We understand pretty much what reasons are. They have no magical property of initiating causal chains in the physical. But some entity appears to have that power and to choose a particular act from among alternatives whether for reasons or not. It still should not be surprising that there is some “set up”, some change in the content of consciousness, detectable in a brain state, just prior to many of our decisions. The decisions themselves remain free willed.

The epistemological argument begins by noting that naive human experience proves unreliable as concerns the “true workings” of the world. This argument relies on a duplicitous maneuver, deliberately conflating perceptual reliability at every size level (graining) of the cosmos. It is true that our naive senses are not reliable as concerns the workings of the very large: the cosmos, galaxies, the physics of stars. Even the sun seems, after all, to go around Earth! Likewise with the very small. The sub-atomic and atomic worlds, even up to the realm of simple life like bacteria which are made of many atoms, are all beyond our ability to explain given only our unaided senses. But there is a middle range on which our sensory systems are focused and about which it conveys remarkably reliable information. If you make a turn on a trail and come upon a lion, your next decision, for good or ill, had better assume that there is indeed a lion in front of you. Even primitive man knew what substance composed a sand storm. Even believing some god caused the wind, they knew that the wind was blowing sand!

This is a range of sizes, from roughly mountains to grains of dust at which our sensory experiences, the content of consciousness that emerges from our perception of these things, can be taken to be reliable under normal circumstances. As it happens, our own recognition and implicit reliance on the freedom of our will occurs at exactly this level. As concerns the freedom to initiate original causal chains in the physical we are strictly limited to our bodies and these uncontroversially occupy the middle ground of reliable perception and inference. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our seeming to have free will is not a reliable indicator of its reality, there is nothing about the nature of our experience of it, the experiential world of our bodies which it seems to control, that suggests that it is anything other than free.

The Theistic Alternative

How has philosophy dealt with this issue? One way is to posit something in the vicinity of God who is, like the volitional agent not physical but nevertheless both the source of the physical and the volitional power of a causal agent. Theism puts everything together. There is a physical universe whose mechanisms are purely physical, and there are free-will-endowed agents who can initiate uncaused causal chains. Both are real and their combination in the physical universe is made possible and takes origin (directly or indirectly) in God. But this option leaves something to be explained.

How does God, who is presumptively non-physical, have the power to “make the physical” and further make a non-physical entity, the conscious agent, with the power to interact with the physical and originate uncaused causal chains within it? What is the mechanism of this creation? We notice that the interacting physical and non-physical have, under this metaphysical alternative, a common origin. This at least grounds the possibility of interaction even if it doesn’t explain either how it works or how the two sides were made to begin with. As concerns mind and free will, the theistic alternative is associated with what is called “substance dualism” because mind has qualities that do not emerge from the physical alone.

Philosophers who believe that there are meaningful questions that are in principle unanswerable often have this sort of question in mind. We become self-conscious as non-material agent-observers constrained to physical bodies in a physical universe. Our phenomenological universe lies within the physical universe whose only mechanisms we can sense (often aided by instruments) are the physical ones set in motion by the fact (or the act) of creation. God, should he exist, is not measurable, not detectable physically. Even hypothetically speaking we should expect this to be so. To understand how, by what mechanism, God interacts with the physical we would have, ourselves, to transcend the physical, to be able to examine it as it were from the outside.

Intellectually, God’s reality is an inference based on our observation of causal closure in the physical when coupled with an acceptance at face value of the reality of free will. We are able, at least in principle, to grasp the possibility of original creation (of the universe) because we know ourselves to be “original creators”. In our case the power of uncaused cause is limited to the movement of a body while in God’s case (we suppose) there are no limits other than the consistency of logic, but we do not know this. If we wish to take the theistic route, we only know that whatever the limits of God’s powers, they are at least sufficient to generate the physical universe and self-conscious observers with a limited free will. In the final analysis, as concerns the mechanism of both creation and interaction between the physical and non-physical once created, no answer from our perspective is possible. God presumably knows the trick or we wouldn’t be here, but that is as much as we can say about it (see note on God at the end of the essay).

Naturalism, Physicalism, Materialism, and Property Dualism

Philosophers (not to mention scientists) generally do not like the theistic alternative. Often they cite “occam’s razor” and a somewhat more modern expression in a famous statement by Albert Einstein that “A theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler”. By this Einstein meant to call attention to the requirement that a theory actually explain the phenomena it covers. If it fails that requirement its simplicity is irrelevant! But the aim of the philosophical objection to theism is to remove the theistic demand for an entity that is in principle beyond detection by science. Not only does assuming this entity raise the “interaction problem” (the matter of just how the physical and non-physical interact), but also other metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions none of which can be verified or falsified by any physical measurement (see note at end of essay). If the free will that seems justified to our experience could be explained (and not merely explained-away) without reference to a non-material agent with the capacity to produce that power in, or in some sense grant it to, an otherwise physical agent that would be a simpler theory.

But the presently popular non-theistic alternatives also fail to fully explain the seemingly strong epistemological warrant for free will. I review these in the context of a useful distinction between physicalism, naturalism, and materialism. A very good and in depth review of these doctrines can be found in an excellent book by John Foster “The Immaterial Self: A Defense of Cartesian Dualism” (1991) and another, “The Emergent Self” by William Hasker (2001). Also see my essay expanding further on this: “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”

Physicalism is a metaphysical doctrine. It states basically the real physical, the stuff that can be measured with physical instruments (including the quantum background which cannot strictly be measured but is presumptively physical all the same), is all there is. Further there is no such thing as evidence for any real non-physical thing because, by fiat, there is no such a thing as a non-physical thing! As one might imagine, physicalists are often associated with the “consciousness and free will are an illusion” position. A few have struggled to find some way to warrant the reality of consciousness (failing other than to say “we just don’t know how it works yet”) but free will is even more difficult because it would so obviously, being “uncaused cause” represent a violation of physicalism!

Naturalism is an epistemological doctrine related to physicalism. It says that there is nothing, no phenomenon in the universe (including consciousness and free will if either should exist) that cannot be explained by reference to physical mechanism. Naturalism is related to physicalism in that if physicalism is true, it would follow that anything that is real in the universe has to come from nothing more than (and thus be explained by) the physical. If naturalists do not deny the reality of consciousness or free will (they frequently do however), then the burden on them is to explain these things in purely physical terms. In this, they have not succeeded.

Materialism takes another path. Like physicalism it is a metaphysical doctrine and it shares with physicalism the assertion that all the phenomena of the universe must begin from nothing more than the physical. But it denies that everything the physical can produce is subsequently explainable in purely physical terms. What materialism does is deny that physical causes can have only physical effects. It opens causal closure asserting that complex physical processes can result in emergent phenomena that, once emerged, cannot be explained in physical terms. It is significant that the only phenomena that count here, the emergence of which materialists speak, happens to be consciousness and phenomena associated with consciousness including free will! Such emergence from the physical is called “property dualism” because while the mind emerges from the physical it exhibits properties that are not physical and cannot be explained (reduced) to purely physical terms.

Materialists are fond of citing other emergent phenomena in the universe. A common example is water. Liquid water has properties that are not to be found in oxygen or hydrogen alone. Water’s special properties only emerge from a set of conditions involving water molecules, pressure, and temperature. But it is significant that liquid water and its properties remain incontrovertibly physical as are the water molecules, hydrogen, and oxygen that compose it. In fact, the properties of liquid water are the outcome of the special shape of the water molecule, and that shape, in turn, is indeed the result of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. In theory then it is possible to predict the properties of liquid water from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen alone if we understood them well enough. This is even more obvious as concerns the water molecule. Understanding the implications of its physical chemistry would tell us what liquid water was like, and under what conditions it would form, even if we had not encountered it before.

This is the problem with all the examples of emergence cited by physicists or philosophers. All of them are physical with the exception of the one that wants explaining here, consciousness and free will. That these things are an example of just another emergence like water is part of what is at issue. In 300+ years of physics since Newton no physicist has ever observed physical causes resulting in non-physical effects. If materialism is true then this must be possible but that it is possible and that it has actually happened in the case of consciousness (and free will) is an assumption not grounded by the slightest physical evidence. As a metaphysical inference, it has no more empirical standing than God and it suffers from an analogous set of problems.

Property dualism has an interaction problem! How the physical results in the non-physical is the inverse of the problem of how a non-physical God can create the physical. Similarly, the reverse holds in that the question of how it is that non-physical mind can control the physical is the same problem from either the theistic or the property-dualistic direction. It is not controversial that a brain state is the proximate cause of my moving my body. At issue is what causes (if it is a freely willed movement) that brain state! Property dualism explains this no better than substance dualism. In both cases something quintessentially non-material becomes a cause in the material universe.

The philosophical issues with theism stem from having to suppose there is a supernatural being. The philosophical issues with materialism stem from the absence of any observable power in physics to produce anything non-physical let alone a non-physical uncaused cause! Property dualists can only assume that this must be possible just as theists, in the final analysis, can only suppose that God must be real. Theists can only wave their hands and say “God must know how to do it because we experience it.” Materialists can only wave their hands and say “physics must be able to do it because we experience it.”

The epistemological problems are identical in substance and property dualisms. The nature of the subject and the relation between what seems to manifest as a “willful agent” and consciousness is identical. There are even parallel ethical issues. In the case of theism the ethical issue revolves around what responsibility we have to God should he exist. In the case of property dualism there is a question of whether we can be held responsible for anything as there is no guarantee under property dualism that free will is genuine even if consciousness is!

So the theistic alternative posits a “magical being” while the materialist alternative posits either “magical properties of the physical” or special relations between physical particulars that have a magical (non-material) effect. Neither explains how, that is the mechanics of the mechanism, by or through which free will, uncaused cause, comes about in a physical universe governed by the strict causal closure we observe in physics. The theistic alternative at least posits a being with the power to perform the trick, but we are no closer to knowing how the trick is performed either way.

We are back, therefore, where we began. Free will seems real enough in our experience and beginning by rejecting its possibility renders experience meaningless. But we cannot empirically identify causes that could not have been purely physical thanks to those always present correlative brain states!  Either we accept by assumption that it is real (restoring sensibility to experience), or we deny that free will is real and live with the fact that we cannot explain either how or why it seems to be. For my two cents a belief that “free will is real” is true, is justified by the absence of reciprocity in our experience of its exercise, and this despite the fact that, other theism, no adequate metaphysical ground for it has yet been articulated. To my mind the task of philosophy is to explain what grounds our experience. We can explain why the sun seems to go around the Earth even though it doesn’t. But we have not yet explained why we seem to have free will if in fact we do not.

The many issues raised by the theistic alternative are discussed at some length in my two books (Amazon Kindle Books) “Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free-Will” (2014) and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” (2016).

The SELF: The idea of “a self” is highly controversial in philosophy. There are many explanations advanced for what appears to be a self. Even more than as concerns free will, philosophers almost universely accept that a self is an illusion. I cannot get into this argument in the space of this essay, but I note that almost every philosopher, even categorically denying that a self exists, continues to use language implying a self when discussing free will, consciousness, and any other subject having a subjective aspect. I deal with the nature and reality of the self, personality, extensively in the two books noted above.

GOD: Actually we can infer much more as concerns the nature of God because human consciousness has access to values: truth, beauty, and goodness. I have no time to cover this ground here and it has little direct bearing on the epistemological evidence for free will. Again I refer the reader to my two books listed in the first note above.

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