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I'm a layperson interested in the problem of free will. I recently started reading one of the popular introductory textbooks to the subject. I'm halfway through, and while the book did describe a few of the most notable approaches to the problem of free will, there is something that surprised and disappointed me, which I'll describe below. Because I'm a newbie, I'm wondering whether this is happening because I'm missing some basic understanding, and if so, I would like you to explain it to me.

Almost all of the discourse in that book, as in most popular discourse on the subject, focuses on the question "is there free will?", attempting to argue that the answer is either yes or no with various arguments. I was surprised and disappointed that little attention is devoted to the question "what is free will?"

It seems to me that "free will" is a concept that we all strongly feel, but it's difficult to provide a definition for it. People might say that a choice made under free will is one where the person making the choice did what they really wanted, and wasn't coerced by anyone to make a different decision. The problem is that this definition uses the terms "wanted" and "coerced" which are equally as mysterious as "free will".

I was therefore disappointed when most of the approaches presented in the book did not focus at all on defining free will. Why should I trust any philosopher's argument for the existence or lack thereof of a concept that the same philosopher hasn't been able to provide a definition of free will?

I can accept that the problem of defining free will is very hard and we don't have an answer yet. I just don't understand why the main discourse isn't to discuss the problems that prevent us from defining free will.

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12 Answers 12

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I agree with you and the others that it's all a matter of definition.

It seems possible here the most trivial reason may be the correct one: marketing. “Does free will exist?” sounds like a weighty question with life-changing consequences. “What is the definition of free will?” sounds like something academics would quibble over.

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    This. As soon as you give a sufficiently full definition of the term, you'll immediately arrive at something that almost all philosophers will agree that we either have, don't have, or could never conceivably be able to tell. ... which wouldn't sell many books/publish many papers.
    – Brondahl
    Mar 25 at 10:31
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    @Brondahl "Breaking News: Philosophers agree to disagree!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 25 at 10:52
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    I think the more trivial reason is that regardless of what free will is, we all want it and are therefore more concerned about whether it exists or not rather than what it is.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 25 at 21:47
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  1. The concept of free will started on the subjective level: Most time, all of us feel to be humans with free will. Pressed to give a definition of free will most persons would say: I am sure that I made my decision intentionally, I could have decided also otherwise.

    This definition has one big handicap: No one can check whether a person could have decided differently in a given situation, because the specific situation in the past cannot be reconstructed. As a consequence one cannot work with the definition above. This shows the problem of defining free will.

  2. A different definition has been given by the Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri, e.g. in his book “Das Handwerk der Freiheit, Fischer 2006 (Original in German)”. The whole book deals with the definition of free will. Bieri paraphrases:

    “In meinem Text wird daraus der Gedanke, daß es zur Freiheit des Willens gehört, daß er ein Wille ist, der zum Selbstbild gehört, also gutgeheißen wird (p. 445)” (Google translator: "In my text this becomes the idea that it is part of the freedom of the will, that it is a will that belongs to the self-image and is therefore approved.")

    Bieri’s point is that we perceive ourself as capable of a free decision if we do not feel restricted neither by external nor by internal causes when making the decision.

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  • It would be great to provide your own translation. This one reads a bit odd.
    – Johan
    Mar 25 at 20:45
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    @Johann Unfortunately I am not able to provide a better translation. My last sentence attemps to paraphrase Bieri's core statement. And I can try to answer specific questions on Bieri's text.
    – Jo Wehler
    Mar 26 at 4:06
  • @Johan I am a native German speaker and I do not think the translation could be improved. Which does not mean that I fully understand it (in either German or English).
    – Dubu
    Mar 26 at 8:10
  • @Dubu Then correct me if I'm wrong, but the German does not make any reference as the english does by using "this"? Here werden is rather used in the sense of developing itself rather then becoming I think. And I am not sure "freedom of the will" is very idomatic--it would rather be "free will" or "freedom of will" I think. Those are example of what makes the sentence looks a bit odd to me.
    – Johan
    Mar 26 at 12:33
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    @Johan The reference would be "daraus," literally "from that." It is not clear what it references, probably something in the precending sentence. Concerning "developing itself" vs. "becoming" you might be right, I am not sure and might be missing a nuance. "Freedom of the will" might not be idiomatic, but the original also does not use "freier Wille," which would be the idiomatic equivalent for "free will." I suppose the author wanted to stress the notion of freedom here. I have to admit that the original also reads odd to me, but that is not rare for philosophical texts.
    – Dubu
    Mar 26 at 15:04
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All the debate concerning free will is about the definition. What is the thing we want to call free will?

Some define free will as something real. Some define free will as something imaginary. But no valid definition defines the existence of free will as an open question, subject to debate.

Those who ask whether free will exists or not, those who make arguments for or against free will, they don't know what they are talking about. They have no definition for free will.

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  • We could define it as something that can vary from zero to some maximum. (Then we would just quibble over the maximum I guess)
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 25 at 10:57
  • +1 it is like to many debates about highly abstract ideas. Does God exist. Well, try to deduce both god and their existence. Try to define existence alone. The universe. The beginning of time. Reality.
    – Stian
    Mar 26 at 6:42
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This might be a bit apologetic to philosophers, but answering "is there freewill" can be more useful than "what is freewill" in the style of rhetoric that philosophers use.

Philosophy is rarely purely deductive reasoning. Most of the successful positions are more nuanced than that. One is often not expected to start with "here's the list of assumptions I make" and then prove the rest of the content deductively. Often the path is truly a journey.

If a philosopher starts with "what is freewill," and you disagree with them, logically all of the rest of their argument is moot. But if they explore "is there freewill" without fully defining it, they provide a more interesting position. Should you agree with their definition of freewill, you will find the result is the same as-if they stated all of their assumptions and definitions up front. But should you disagree with any one aspect of their definition, you may still find value in their argument as a point of departure. In a discipline where axioms may not fully be agreed upon, this is valuable.

Sometimes it can be spoken outright. A recent example that comes to mind is Turing's famous paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, he is very forthright with how he sidesteps the definitions that people care most about:

I propose to consider the question, "Can machines think?" This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms "machine" and "think." The definitions might be framed so as to reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words, but this attitude is dangerous, If the meaning of the words "machine" and "think" are to be found by examining how they are commonly used it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the meaning and the answer to the question, "Can machines think?" is to be sought in a statistical survey such as a Gallup poll. But this is absurd. Instead of attempting such a definition I shall replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.

In doing so, he defines a problem wherein he can meaningfully state his axioms up front. Not everyone does this, especially in the discussions on freewill. But I like his work as an example of the natural "you don't have to agree with my definitions" style that philosophy supports so well.

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Free will is the ability to choose your own actions as opposed to them being determined by cosmic/ biological / cultural forces which is called determinism.

Free will and determinism is simply put the yes or no answer to the question "Do I choose my next action or is it predetermined?

Science says that in most ways we are determined and do not have free will, we are simple puppets acted upon by forces beyond our comprehension and understanding. A simple thought experiment about what did you choose in your life will confirm this and yet we still feel we have agency.

In your quest for free will you will be lead to religion or choose to go there, whichever you like, have an open mind but be careful.

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    Even in a deterministic universe, we do have agency and we can choose our actions. Given our preferences and information we choose our optimal choice. Sure, that choice will always be the same given the same preferences and information and therefore predetermined. But that doesn't mean we don't have agency. We still chose what we want. "A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants" - Schopenhauer
    – KarlKastor
    Mar 25 at 22:40
  • @KarlKastor In a deterministic universe (a purely hypothetical idea) there would be no concept of agency, choice or preference. Mar 26 at 7:34
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    This post represents only one of the answers in the 'what is free will?' question. There are other answers.
    – TKoL
    Mar 26 at 13:05
  • @KarlKastor What you are describing there may feel like agency, but it really isn’t in any meaningful sense. If forces beyond your control are determining your choices, then you’re just along for the ride instead of driving the car.
    – David H
    Mar 26 at 18:22
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    @DavidH "If forces beyond your control are determining your choices". It's still my brain calculating what I find the best choice. Just because my brain is part of a deterministic universe and therefore it's choices will always be the same given the same inputs, doesn't mean I don't have agency. If you are a dualist and consider yourself as outside the physical universe, sure then you are being "controlled by deterministic physics". But I would say I am part of the physical universe, so I do make choices, they are just deterministic.
    – KarlKastor
    Mar 26 at 21:36
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Well, first, you are correct, the definition of free will is a big part of the discussion.

For instance, compatibilists tend to define it differently, which is why they are compatibilists.

If the book you read didn't explain this, I would guess that it's just not a very good book. But each viewpoint on free will has its own definition of the term, so the arguments for libertarianism, free will compatibilism, or no free will, all requiring arguing for their respective definitions.

Basically the idea is that we all have a general intuitive concept of free will, and each side argues why their definition fits the general concept, or if it doesn't, why the general concept should be reformed.

Daniel Dennett in Just Deserts explains that his view (compatibilism) is a reformist view, in that he believes the common idea of free will as being free to make an undetermined choice is inaccurate, and explains why he thinks his view is a better one.

The main dispute is what I call the "fork in the road."

Would free will mean that a decision is a fork in the road and you can freely choose to take either fork, regardless of your past and who you are?

Or does it mean that your eventual choice is determined, but it was still a choice you made based on who you are, and is "free" in that sense, even if the outcome could not have been otherwise?

This is really a dispute over the definition of free will, so I agree with you that the real question is how free will should be defined, or rather, conceptualized, and any good book should explain that.

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Good question. I come from the perspective of the Vedic paradigm, so will present that here in a nutshell.

It behooves us to answer more questions.

  1. What is free?
  2. Who is making the will?

The Vedas present the definition of "us" being spritual in nature (ans to 2). Which then allows us to be "free" from the conditionings of the mind, our sensory experiences and the dictations of karma (ans to 1).

It is in the spiritual realm that free will can then be defined. When free from the any conditioning that limits us to time, matter and space and also to the reactions of any actions (laws of matter), the choices we make then are free.

PS : The Vedas, literally translated as "Knowledge texts" have deliberated on this for millenia through various philosophical, scientific and spiritual angles.

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On your question: my guess would be that "what is free will" depends so much on "is there a 'me' inside a human" that it is just getting too complicated - the book would be about the question of dualism instead of free will, mostly. Also, you can tackle "is there free will?" to some extent without deciding on the previously mentioned issue (by talking about thought experiments like "rolling back the universe" and such).

Why should I trust any philosopher's argument

You shouldn't!

Never trust a philosopher's argument on anything. Philosophy is the "love of wisdom/knowledge". Take everything you read with a grain of salt, and if it is from a well-known philosopher, take an extra spoon full.

As opposed to science, there are no falsifiable theories to be found in philosophy.

As opposed to religion, there are no truths to be found in philosophy.

As a layperson (which I also am), the best way to approach this conundrum is to read as much of philosphy as possible, and also dabble in it as much as you can (for example writing answers Philosophy.SE can serve as a great sounding board for your own knowledge and discussion skills).

But always, always keep in the front of your mind that whatever you read is just, like, the opinion of whoever wrote it. You are always free to come up with your own opinion or world-view, and try to slot all of the ideas out there into yours.

Also be sure to realize that for almost all questions out there, there usually are many different answers, very often such that they strictly contradict each other; and nobody can say for sure which is "true" (or correct).

The same goes for definitions; many terms are vaguely defined.

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Tossing out a random veiwpoint: the two questions are actually the same not because of marketing, but because the perception of free will is related to consciousness and our perception of time

Think about a quantum universe with infinite possibilities, three dimensions and no time. This is based on the recent de-Sitter space work showing in very simple terms that an N dimensional space with gravity is equivalent to an N-1 dimensional space with entanglement under certain constraints. I am introducing a variant for philosophical purposes that states a 3-dimensional space with time and gravity is equivalent to a 3-dimensional space with entanglement and no time. This is based on imagination, not on physics or math

So, in this imaginary universe we have 3 dimensions, no time, and an infinite range of possibilities across the 3 spatial dimensions, all entangled with each other to lesser or greater degrees. Consciousness here could be considered a set of "actualities" grouped together and arranged sequentially. This is the time we experience as a consciousness. As our consciousness navigates the possibilities, it creates the perception of this magically monotonically increasing but never decreasing variable

Time is an emergent feature of our universe, as well as consciousness, in fact the two are the same

In this understanding there are related sets of possibilities that work together to make something we can experience. A path of "actualities". The possibilities that don't work together to make something we can experience are those possibilities we don't actually experience

So, in this viewpoint, yes, if you limit yourself to considering the experience of consciousness from inside the perceived timeline, it does feel a lot like you are making choices continuously out of all the infinite possibilities presented to you at each moment. Is it real, yes. What is it, it's what I'm doing

But, also in this viewpoint, if you consider time is emergent from consciousness, and consciousness is simply a collection of related "actualities" from the probability cloud, then all the choices have been kind of made, because from outside the perspective of consciousness there is no time. If a choice can't happen or doesn't "work", it's simply not possible to experience

To put it another way, we probably don't usually ask "what is free will" because we are embedded in the timeline of our own experience, in which the act of asking is the proof that it exists. But if I meditate enough to get my brain outside of this instant of my timeline, the question that usually arises is not what I am going to do next, but what else am I going to do but this one obvious path forward. Which may be my pre-determined path? Who knows, ha!

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I can see various reasons for that.

There are a lot of people, esp. (neuro)scientists who believe that we are determined by our genes, or instincts, etc.

There are other people who believe that everything, including our actions, are determined by physical laws or a universal consciousness or God and similar things.

Then, people have the habit to speak about a subject, even within scientific and philosophical circles, without defining or even caring about definitions o\f they terms they are talking about, even if these are "key" terms and occupy a central position in a discussion. It is a fear of commitment or insecurity. Fear to commit themselves to a specific description definition of a term, so that they can speak more freely and have less chances to be prove wrong in their argumentations or the data they are providing.

The result is terms like "free will" --which refers to one of the most debatable philosophical topics-- produce endless stupid discussions that lead to nowhere. And I really mean stupid. Because each of the interlocutors has a different meaning of the term in mind and they all think they are talking about the same thing! 😃

If they had the courage and intelligence to define the term, there would be much less disagreement between them and the discussions would come much faster to an end. Because they would realize that they have a different definition of "free will" and therefore there were different points of view on and aspects of what we call loosely "free will". As a consequence, there would be more agreements between the interlocutors, of the kind "I see. Well, from that aspect I believe you are right."

Definitions are a universal solvent. They are a solvent for any discussion. And they are indispensable for knowledge and clear thinking.

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Why is it "is there free will?" and not "what is free will?"

Really it is both and the two are less similar questions than they might appear. One does not suffice to supplant or substitute for the other IMHO

Is there free will? This question grants that free-will exists and can be experienced, at will, but asks if there is something beyond one's own will that guides/controls/conscripts/confines/etc our freedom of will. Another way to ask this question is "Does Fate exist?".

What is free will? This question assumes Fate's existence but asks if there is room between Fate and us, and if so, how much. Another way to ask this question is "Are there 'Many Universes'?".

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"what is free will" - Specific interpretations can differ, but in general, we need to accept or deny a binary choice:

Does our personal life acquire help, guidance, specific purpose, important influences from beyond our reality? You can call it God, Guardian Angel, dead relative or friend.

I like the representation of this concept in the movie Always (1989) directed by Steven Spielberg: "The only pain we carry beyond this world (life) is love."

As a result, if you don't believe in Free Will, then you have to believe in some form of afterlife and influence from beyond.

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    I do not see how the last paragraph follows from the second and even if it did, I do not see how this post addresses the OP's question. The opening line in particular doesn't seem to at all.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 25 at 22:11

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