Mental Cause

In several essays on the broad subject of free will I have said that there are three types of causation in our physical universe: micro-physical indeterminism, macro-physical determinism, and agent-volition, the last subjectively experienced as the willful exercise of one’s mind’s causal capacity, “mental cause”. I refer to what Aristotle called “efficient cause”, that is the immediate forerunner (or forerunners) of a particular event or outcome taken to mean “that which physically brings that particular event about.” Aristotle defined four types of causes, three of which could be said, sometimes, to have “mental” aspects. A simple example here, a fire in a fire-place, will serve to illustrate Aristotle’s distinctions.

1. The “material cause” of the fire is that out of which it could be made. Wood or paper might work. Water would not. There also has to be some oxygen (or other oxidizer) present and so on.

2. “Formal cause” has to do not with the fire’s material substrate but its shape. Not all arrangements of even qualified materials will successfully light. To make a nice fire place fire, the wood and paper have to be arranged in certain ways. Many but not all possible arrangements will serve.

3. “Efficient cause” is that which physically brings the fire about. It might be a lit match set to paper for example. When physics talks about causes, it is this they are talking about. Importantly, there can be chains of efficient causes. To set my wood pile alight with a match I must first strike the match and light it, then hold its flame under my paper kindling. That last step is commonly called also the “proximate cause” and it is mostly this that this essay is about.

4. Aristotle’s fourth cause, the “final cause” is the reason we have built and lit our fire. We want to get warm. Notice that this cause is only indirectly connected to our fire. Besides starting a fire we might get warm in other ways. We could do physical exercise or put on a coat. The entire set up of the fire from the material (wood and paper), its arrangement, to its ignition, are merely means to this end.

Under normal circumstances, we would always attribute “final cause”, to a desire, aim, or objective (purposeful intention) of the agent to get warm. If “mental cause” (of any sort) even exists, final causes would always, by definition, be mental. “Material causes” (that wood and paper in the presence of oxygen can burn) are not typically thought of as mental. Formal causes (the arrangement of the wood and paper in the fire place) might or might not be mental. The wood and paper in their pre-light configuration is not mental per-se, but the arrangement-design might or might not be. In the case of our fire place an agent is involved, but for example in a natural forest (arrangement of trees) ignited by lightening, it is not. As with formal cause, efficient cause might or might not involve mentality. In the case of our fire place, an agent lights the fire, but in the forest fire, lightening does the job.

Notice that from a third-party viewpoint, efficient (causal) agency remains always a physical object. What lights our fire place is a body with arms and hands that strike matches, and so on. There is no need to assume mental cause is real from an outside perspective. When we get to an inside perspective however the situation is quite different.


What we need is some justification for believing mental cause exists, that it belongs in our ontology and “is real” by virtue of being one of the causes (somewhere in the chain of efficient cause) of [some] physical event. When we observe what we take to be a minded agent (human or animal) we see that the physical effects they engender are always products of a body’s motion. No one disputes the physical connection between the body and the rest of the world. The issue comes down to “what moved the body”? The answer is muscles of course, nerves, and more nerves comprising some part of the brain. The question is, was there something that isn’t a nerve as such (though a nerve would be involved) but something quintessentially mental, perhaps a desire or something like that lying at the beginning of the chain of efficient-causes?

Most people would say that it “seems as though” this is the case. Physics says this seeming must be an illusion because it discovers only two kinds of causes in the universe, the indeterminate and the determinate. To be sure, discovered here means measured. Physics detects, with physical instruments, only two types of causes. Speculation about mental cause goes back as far as the earliest recorded philosophy, but physics has never been able to detect it!

If however there is no mental cause when we seem so strongly to sense that there is, all sorts of philosophical problems arise. Mental cause is not the same as free will, but free will entails mental cause. Physics of course denies free will is real But if I am not warranted in believing my agency can be a cause, at least of my own body’s motion, how am I warranted in believing anything? Belief itself (causal or not) is a quintessential mental phenomenon. If my causal capacity is an illusion why not also my agency, and why not anything I might happen to believe or desire?

We can be deluded about our beliefs being true, but it is difficult to believe we are deluded about having beliefs, and doubly so for desires. The debate isn’t usually about having (subjectively experiencing) beliefs, but rather about their being anything “over and above” brain states. If physics calls my very agency into question (not the illusion of it, but its being something more than brain states) what is it then that has beliefs and desires? Can “brains” be an answer? How do brains, qua brains, come to have beliefs and desires? Do the mechanisms of a clock know the time of day in the sense that a human knows it when she looks at the clock? To deny brain states beneath (the foundation) of our mental states would in this day be absurd. The issue is always ultimately the ontological status of what appears, the subjective, as a result of their presence, and what (if any) downward causal powers the appearance has.

These sorts of issues are but the tip of the iceberg. If mental cause (and so by extension free will) is an illusion then a radical skepticism about everything would seem to be warranted. At the same time, even skepticism, since we must be skeptical of our very agency, is not warranted either. There is a long literature here, but as John Searle put it (The Construction of Social Reality [1995]) nothing about the human experience nor all of human history makes any sense without presupposing free will.


I have given some answer to this above: because physics cannot measure it. It would seem unproblematic to take for granted that physics doesn’t cover everything; it is, as the matter is put, incomplete. But the problem is more subtle than that. The two types of causes that physics can measure (strictly speaking physics cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, but only when these interact with the macroscopic world) have qualities, characteristics, that mental causes lack. These qualities are what explain in the sense of “reveal the mechanism for” physical causation. There is no mathematics in physics, no observation or experiment that would suggest that anything other than prior-physics can be a cause in physics. Even not-directly-observable quantum phenomena are readily observed via these same qualities when they interact with the macroscopic world. Purportedly “mental causes”, by contrast, do not appear to share these qualities. As a result, they cannot be observed from a third party viewpoint, and so no path exists to an explanation of the mechanism of their effect on physics.

Rather than accepting that some mysterious sort of cause that cannot be observed must be real, physicists and most philosophers instead move to strike “mental cause” from the list of causal possibilities in our universe. This is a philosophical move, an induction based on evidence from the only sort of detection or measurement instruments, physical instruments, that exist. The anti-physicalist might respond by claiming that while physical instruments can not in principle measure mental cause, subjective consciousness, literally our phenomenal arena detects them, and this arena is, after all, also a part of the universe along with everything else.

At this point we are thrown back upon the brain which is indisputably physical. We know that the movement of my arm is preceded by nerve impulses in my arm and brain that are themselves indisputably physical. If at the top of this chain of efficient cause there was a mental event that set the chain in motion it behooves the proponent of mental cause to say how, that is by what mechanism, the mental event effects (that is trigger) the first indisputably physical (nerve) process in the chain?


According to Phil Dowe (Physical Causation [2000]) material cause is all about transferring some [physically] conserved quantity momentum, mass-energy, or electric charge. If one billiard ball strikes another momentum is transferred from one to the other. This results in two other observations important in this context. First physical cause is temporal. Causes precede their effects. The transfer of a conserved quantity cannot take place faster than the speed of light. Second, there is a reciprocal impact of the effect on the cause. If one billiard ball gains momentum, the other loses it.

Both of these qualities are absent from mental cause. In this context, distinctions made by Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” [2008]) will be helpful. Rescher is aware of the overall relation between consciousness (including mental cause) and brain states. He claims that there never can be any instance of mental cause without the simultaneous existence of some correlated brain state. If we look for a mental event that brings about a brain state, but isn’t itself associated simultaneously with some other brain state, we will never find it. “Mental causes”, in Rescher’s terms are not causes in Dowe’s physical sense.

Mental causes are not, in Rescher’s view, temporal. They are literally (metaphysically) simultaneous with their effect, some brain state. He distinguishes this sort of a temporal cause by calling it “initiation”. Initiation (often intentional but not necessarily so) need not evoke a neurological correlate ex nihilo. It need only slightly modify an existing state. From a third party viewpoint, that modified state would appear a perfectly natural evolution from its own prior state. Nothing would be found to suggest that anything non-physical was responsible for it.

This “a temporal initiation” is possible because in mental cause, no conserved quantity is transferred, and consequently there is no reciprocity. If I elect to pick up a rock and throw it at a window, I can feel the momentum transfer between my arm and the rock, and of course the throw is temporal. But the initiation of the event was simultaneous with the physical brain state that lies at the top of the physically [efficient] causal chain. The evidence that this is so is our experience that there is no reciprocal effect of my choice to initiate a rock-throw back on that initiator. Nothing about the initiation impacts back on the mental cause itself. Of course I may, this being a directed (intentional) initiation, immediately regret having done so. But that is a different, subsequent, thought, not a modification of the original one.

If Rescher is correct about initiation, how can we tell if the choice (mental cause) results (simultaneity being granted) in a correlated brain state or the other way around? We cannot tell based on any physical measurement. Physicalists would say there is no reason not to suppose that the physical is logically (if not temporally) prior. But if Rescher is correct, what then of the mechanism problem?

With regard to mechanism, many speculations seem to orbit about some interaction at the quantum level. The a temporal nature of initiation coupled with a lack of conserved quantity transfer and so lack of reciprocity, are suggestive of quantum entanglement where, on some views (see Ruth Kastner “Understanding our Unseen Reality” [2015]), the same qualities (or lack of them) characterize quantum phenomena. Since we cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, as far as we know, prior to some manifestation in the macro world (the exchange of a conserved quantity) the same qualities as characterize “mental cause” (initiation) might characterize “quantum cause”. The most detailed speculation with regard to mind might be Henry Stapp’s (“Quantum Theory and Free Will [2017]) Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE), mind’s ability to hold or otherwise modify subtle quantum indeterminacy within the anatomical and physiological processes of the brain. True, even QZE does not say exactly how this power of the mental connects up to the physical, but in this case, neither side of the transaction can be directly measured and there are reasons to believe (see the aforementioned Kastner book) that quantum phenomena are also initiations in Rescher’s sense.


Above I have looked at mental cause from the physical side. What does it look like from the mental side? Some philosophers have characterized mental cause in terms of beliefs or desires. But beliefs and desires are not mental causes in Aristotle’s efficient sense. They are Aristotelian “final causes” and clearly mental, but not our issue here.  Being a reason is of course mental, but not all of what is mental is also causal. I might want to get warm (my reason for lighting a fire) but not move a muscle to do anything about it. The quintessential efficient mental cause is a volitional act, an exercise of will on the part of a minded agent. In our experience, only mind, the subjective consciousness of an individual, has this ability to act volitionally, for a purpose, and not either indeterminate or determined by prior physics.

Purposeful cause is mental and only mental, and it is causal, that is itself determining of subsequent physics, for example my throwing a rock. As much as I disagree with Schopenhauer, I do believe he was correct in locating will and representation at the core of phenomenal experience, or as we would put these in more modern terms, intention and qualia. Mental cause, in particular our capacity to control intent and by extension a body, is an intrinsic component of our “what is it like to be…” experience.

Qualia are the mental effects of physical (brains) causes (an over simplification but for purposes of this essay I leave it at that, see “From What Comes Mind”). Intention is a mental cause (initiation) of a physical effect. Throwing a rock begins with an intention, but this is also true for subjective states that exhibit no gross physical effects. Suppose on a nature walk you come upon a beautiful flower. You attend to it, visually, perhaps also aromatically at the same time. Suddenly you become aware of a buzzing sound from behind or above your head somewhere. You cannot see what is causing the sound, but without moving your gaze from the flower you have become aware of it. Becoming aware is clearly a mental event which in this case may be comfortably attributed to prior physics (brain states, bearing in mind Rescher’s initiation can work in both directions). Only subsequently do we volitionally attend to the sound, perhaps to identify it. The volitional element entails agent purposeful-direction and so mental cause even if no muscle has moved.

Under normal circumstances, when we are conscious, we are never without both qualia and intention about something. Is it possible one can be conscious without intention, qualia, or both? Advanced Buddhist monks, masters at meditation, claim to achieve the first, but even this being so, they maintain this special state only while meditating. Sensory deprivation might suggest the possibility of a qualia-free consciousness, but people report made-up qualia, images and sounds brains generate (and to which we attend as we do in a dream state) in the absence of external stimulation. Perhaps we cannot be conscious in the absence of qualia.


Mental cause is necessary but not sufficient for free will. In addition, free will demands agency, a subject whose will it is. An exercise of free willed choice is a volitional act of an agent. It is not either prior-determined, though often influenced, by physics, nor random. It is mental cause directed by agent-purposeful volition, itself quintessentially mental and unique to minded-agency in the universe. To get free will, mental cause must be real, and also subjective agency. The action of the body-agent of a physical event (throwing the rock) is willful only by extension from the [presumptive] mental-agent who is the initiator of that act. A body can sometimes act in the absence of agent consciousness. Such acts are not willful, and typically we do not claim that they are.

The connection between intention (willfulness) and subjective agency is built-in to human language. To speak of intention always implies subjective agency. So free will and mental cause are doubly linked. Free will rests on mental cause, but if free will is not real, there is nothing interesting left for mental cause to do. It is possible there are, for example, subconscious mental causes of which we are not aware (conscious of) and so not willed as such. But if in fact free will (not to mention agency as such) can be subsumed by brain states, there is no reason why subconscious mental cause could not be also.

An exercise of will (volition) by an agent is the quintessential “mental cause”. If free will is an illusion it is hard to understand the point of working to save mental cause. If all of our choices, our behaviors (including purely subjective sorts like “attending to”), are prior-determined by our brains what is left for mental cause to do? When Sean Carroll denies the possibility of free will because “If free will were real it would mean that mind causes physics” (The Big Picture [2016]) he is aiming, really, at mental cause. Free will goes along for the ride because it is the volitional exercise of the causal potential of mind that matters.

Agent volition then, and not beliefs or desires, is the epitome of mental cause. But if volition itself is prior-determined by brain states, and not a non-material (mental) agent, then there is no point to mental cause, the brain can do it all. In turn, mental cause, apart from the free will issue, is usually defended (or challenged) with reference to free will. The possibility of free will is grounded on the reality of mental cause and in addition the reality of the volitional agent able to utilize it. Both of these, in turn, rest on the reality of mind with the “power to cause physics”.

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.


Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

All Will is Free

The goal of this short essay is to argue the word ‘will’ and the phrase “free will” are equivalent. The ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant. All exercise of will is free. There is no “un-free will” although there are un-free actions that aren’t willed.

First let me set some boundaries. I am not trying to establish that free-will is real. This argument is about the ordinary language, conventionally subjective view of our agency. We seem to ourselves (and as self-as-such) to be final arbiters of some physical (bodily) behavior, even if the result is not exactly what was subjectively intended. If with my arm, hand, and fingers, I propel a basketball towards the hoop my goal, to make the ball go through the hoop, may not be what occurs. Nevertheless, it “seems to me” that I, the subjective agent, am the agent-cause of the throw. My agency caused my arm to move or at least this seems to be correct from most people’s viewpoint. My argument below does not hinge on whether libertarian free will is real, but only that it is possible.

We, as agents, seem to make choices. Our [seeming] choices often precede a controlled action (behavior) of our body, and it is those physical actions that are causes in the physical world. These acts are efforts to constrain future possibility to present fact. These causes are NOVEL in the sense that they have, at their beginning a selection by a subject and not merely firing a neuron. A “selection by a subject” is novel because it does not presuppose any prior physical determinant as would the mere firing of a neuron. We are not simply aware of a choice having-been-made. Subjectively it feels like we are the initiator of the choice. A choice resulting in an act of a body seems always entangled with a willing. I decide to order item #26 from the menu before me, and in making that choice I will my vocal apparatus to express it to the waiter. Some would say the vocalization is making the choice and this would be true from a third-party perspective. Subjectively however, we do usually seem to make a choice (decide) before willing an action.

This does not mean there were not physical causes (brain states) before and so impacting the choice or the willing. Nor does this mean there is anything about the experience of choosing and willing, without some brain-state correlate. What’s importantly characteristic of our experience here is that all the prior physical causes together are not sufficient, subjectively, to determine rigidly what is willed; the agent has the final vote, and this vote matters. At least this is what it feels like.

Not all actions of human or animal bodies are a result of willing. Heart beat and breathing come to mind, but there are less trivial examples, including many habitual behaviors and other actions that occur without our thinking about them. Such actions are not ‘novel’ in the sense that I mean that term. They are not sui generis because they are fully determined, that is sufficiently, by prior (neurological) physical causes. Importantly, we do not usually think of ourselves as willing such acts. We are surely not willing a muscle reflex and it does not often seem to us, when habitual behaviors are called to our attention, that we are willing them either.

In addition, even consciously willed acts, if they are free at all, are not free in any absolute sense. It is the body firstly that is the starting point of the physical causal chain initiated in the world. The act is always physical. Once a body acts (freely or otherwise), the causal chains started are beyond that body’s control. In addition acts themselves are constrained by the limits of what the body can do. Moreover, they are limited by what that body’s [seeming] subjective agency recognizes of its alternatives. We cannot do what the body cannot do (for example fly) and we cannot choose from among genuinely available alternatives (physically possible actions we might take) of which we are unaware.

Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009) makes a distinction between moral and metaphysical freedom. Metaphysical freedom refers to all the future possibilities that might contingently happen. Philosophers and physicists are used to the idea that the present physical universe is contingent meaning that what has happened might have happened otherwise. Many events might have happened in the universe that did not happen, and more importantly, many future events are possible and we cannot be sure which of these will occur. Metaphysical freedom in this sense has nothing directly to do with willful agency. In Rescher’s view it is genuine and we have access to it, but we have access merely because it is a property of the physical world with which we engage.

By contrast moral freedom comes down to a conscious agent being free to choose from contingent futures without a constraint (agent or otherwise) fixing the agent’s act (and so will) in some specific way. If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to open the safe I am not morally free in Rescher’s sense. But I am still metaphysically free. I could choose (and so act) to resist the gunman! I will get to the implications of Compatibilism for this argument shortly.

Animals appear to exercise will. Are they also free? I believe the answer is yes, though their freedom, their awareness of potential freedom is more constrained ours. Animals can do what they want in the absence of constraint. In this sense (absent constraint) they are morally free in Rescher’s technical sense. If metaphysical freedom is real, then animals must also be metaphysically free (ontologically speaking). A lioness on the hunt willfully selects between two possible zebras present to its awareness and so willfully acts to chase one of them. But the lioness cannot choose to forgo the hunt and become vegetarian even if there is plenty of nutritious vegetable matter in easy reach. Selecting one zebra and not the other is a freely-willed act, both morally and metaphysically, within the scope of lion consciousness.

Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will” 2013) argues that only a rare, deeply considered moral act, is genuinely free-willed. Everything else, despite how it might seem to us subjectively, is determined. Galen Strawson (“Free Will and Belief” 1986) argued that because so many of the past influences on our choices, beliefs, and so on, were not freely chosen, we are not free ever! Strawson’s argument is that unless every influence on a present decision was freely chosen, the present choice cannot be free at all! Strawson does nothing to address the phenomenological (the seeming) or linguistic issue here. He denies the possibility of metaphysical freedom by fiat. But both human language and experience easily distinguish between a seemingly free act and an act that does not seem to be free. Perhaps not always, but if we can make the distinction even sometimes, then metaphysical freedom might be real! If in a long chain of influences not freely chosen a single choice, however narrow, is freely elected then free will is possible.

Assuming Strawson (or Swinburne) is correct in what sense are all of these determined choices “willings” other than merely being a “figure of speech” that has no referrent? If our brain alone fixes what we do in what way are we, our subjective self, willing that act at all? To be sure what seems like the result of a willing might be an illusion. But in that case, not only are we not free, we are not really willing anything either.

This brings me to Compatibilism. If someone puts a gun to my head and orders me to open the safe I am acting unfreely by compatibilist lights, and yet I am obviously willing in the conventional linguistic sense. I must exercise will to move my arm and hand to the safe and dial the combination. According to compatibilists my will is not exercised freely. Here Rescher’s distinction between moral and metaphysical freedom is helpful. The gun to my head makes me morally unfree. Few would suggest that I have a moral duty to resist the gunman. Yet according to Rescher, I remain metaphysically free. I could resist the gunman, or try to escape. These are genuine options in that they are possible courses of action, future potentials not precluded by physics from which I might select. My willing my hand to dial the combination is still an exercise of metaphysical freedom.

‘Will’ and ‘free will’ do come apart in Compatibilism because compatibilists deny that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” exists at all. That is precisely the compatibilist’s point. By compatibilist lights, metaphysical freedom in Rescher’s sense is mere illusion. To all intents and purposes, at least as concerns macro-physics, events of universe history are not contingent but fully determined.

If compatibilists are right however, it makes little sense to speak of any willing going on either way. If there is a gun to my head, my brain, and not any willing makes me, my body, open the safe. If there is no gunman, my brain might determine that I finish up some work before going home. Either way, what seems to me to be a free-choice willing (I could leave the paperwork until the morning) is not real but merely a seeming. For compatibilists, there is no will at all, only the illusion of one. Put otherwise, there is no such phenomenon as “unfree will” because there is no real will at all!

If compatibilists are wrong and Rescher is right (it is metaphysically possible to resist the gunman) then any “act of will” is an act of “metaphysically free will” notwithstanding there are many past influences, not freely chosen, impinging it, or even that the choice was not morally free. If agents are metaphysically free, if subjective agents can choose between genuinely alternate futures then the subject, and not merely the brain, becomes a part of the causal chain resulting in a particular future out of many possible. If ‘will’ represents anything more than a figure of speech, metaphysical freedom has to be real.

Compatibilists speak of will as though it was real but by their own lights it cannot be. We seem to perform choice-act combinations by willing. If we don’t “will it” (and I grant that not all acts are willed or free) then nothing happens; no act will issue from a body. Importantly it also seems that no act of a body that is not willed is free; we are not free to suppress a reflex and we easily distinguish between willed and not-willed action under normal circumstances. If every free act is willed, and will is not an illusion, and no un-willed act is free, then no “act of will” can be entirely un-free (fully determined) and the ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant.