Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 W - Will - Freedom of


Freedom of the will: The notion that a sane and conscious human being is able to choose freely from certain alternative courses of action, and does choose depending on his own beliefs and values.

That there is a free will, in the sense that individual human beings are accountable for some of their own deeds and ommissions is a basic assumption of the law, and of most persons interacting in society: One is responsible, if sane and conscious; one can choose to do or not to do many things; and what one does consciously is often best explained by the theory that one's beliefs and desires disposed one to do so, and one chose to act accordingly.

It is difficult to explain free will, at least if one does not assume that

  • human beings can represent to themselves alternative courses of action
  • human beings can attribute values and probabilities to the outcomes of their actions (in the sense: if I do p, then probably q, which has value v for me)
  • there is sometimes a fundamental freedom to choose given some perceived alternative.

Most of this can be precisified formally, but the last point involves a fundamental assumption. That one has this freedom to act can be supported by appealing to all manner of well-known facts relating to willing, desiring and doing, such as are involved in toilet-training or choosing one from several cakes.

It would seem that in all those cases where one believes one can choose one perceives some alternative - do A or B; one has some probabilities - if I do A then probably C; if I do B then probably D; and one has some values - having C has value X; having D has value Y; and one seems given the freedom to act on either alternative, and both as would best please oneself and as would least please oneself.

Furthermore, the main reason one believes one has a free will, if written out with some logical clarity, seems to come down to the following proposition

  • for many states S of a person a that a may be in, the probability that a is in state S is not dependent on any state of anything that is not in a, and does depend on some states of a, without being determined by them.

Here it should also be noted that one often finds oneself in the situation that what one values most is least probable; that what is easier to do is worse in (probable) outcome than what is more difficult to do; and that the safer courses of action promise the lesser payments, while trying to achieve the best also is the most dangerous course of action.

It would seem to me that there is far better reason than not to attribute some degree of free will to living beings, at least those that can move independently about, because having the possibility to choose from perceived alternatives in terms of their own felt interests and their own appraisals and representations of the situation and themselves gives them a far better chance of survival.

Therefore it would seem, also from one's own feelings in many situations of choice, deliberation, hesitation, and all manner of decisions with uncertainties, that indeed human beings, and at least also mammals and birds, often are forced to choose, namely when they find themselves in a situation that their nervous system represents to them as an alternative: Here one can choose, with various possible outcomes, with various possible values, and various possible dangers and difficulties. (One interesting set of alternatives that one may have is between doing safe (easy, probable) A with low reward or doing unsafe (difficult, improbable) B with high reward.)

Part of the explanation of this facility of choosing resides in the fact that what one chooses from are not real facts, but one's own representations of possible facts and possible outcomes, with one's own values for these possibilities and their probabilities.

And also part of the explanation of this facility of choosing resides in the fact that an animal that freely moves about has much better chances of survival if it can adapt its own acts to its own appraisals, supposing that the latter are more often correct than not, as is reasonable for individuals from species that have survived (in what are, for them, ordinary circumstances).

Finally, there is a possible basis for free will: If there are disjunctions of probabilities, the statement

If .X or Y. is true, then .X. is true or .Y. is true.

that is true in binary logic and that suggests a kind of fatalism - "You will do X or Y you say. Well then, it follows logically you will do X or you will do Y!" - is no longer true. For example, if .Y. = .not X. and 0<pr(X)<1. Then neither .X. nor .not X. are true, though .X or not X. is, and indeed this seems to be the case with many future contingents (things that may or may not happen, depending partially or wholly on decisions of animals involved in the situation in which the things may happen).

Likewise, while it is a virtual certainty (excluding freaks for the moment) that the baby to be will be a boy or a girl, the probability that either is true (before more information than mere pregnancy) is around 1/2.

So there is a considerable difference between disjunctions in binary logic and in probability theory (and the same holds for conjunctions and negations).


See also: Choice, Disjunction, Freedom of will formalized, Probability, Willing



 Original: May 28, 2005                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top