1

Introduction

Approximately 1 year ago, I posted a 'proof' for the absence of free will.

The post drew a wide range of interesting and answers and comments. The most persuasive challenges related to the nature of decision-making; in particular to:

a): Can an act ever be voluntary in the absence of decision to perform it?, and

b): How might a decision be defined if it is to be defined as something other than an act?

Most important to the original 'proof' was the realisation that the claim a 'decision is an act' - whilst accepted by some - is philosophically controversial.

As Strawson (2003, p. 244) points out:

"What about choices and decisions? These are clearly mental actions?"

Some are, but the case is far from clear... Very often there is no action at all: none of the activation of relevant considerations...It simply happens, driven by the need to make a decision...There is no direct action in the actual issuing of new content, any more than there is in the growth of trees one has planted.

With this in mind, I have added three premises which attempt to accomodate this challenge, although these additions do contain another assumption which is addressed below the argument.

Justification

I have posted this formulation as an answer to the original post, but there is clear value in posting it here as a new question, for the roughly 800 people who viewed the original post are likely interested in its development and will most likely not be made aware of this revision unless it is posted here as a distinct, new argument; one open to fresh critique. Of course, some objections that were deemed pertinent to the first argument may again be deemed pertinent to this version. In these cases, reposting an answer verbatim is certainly useful, but a comment with a link may be sufficient. Any expansion on an original answer would benefit from a new post here.

Argument

As in the previous iteration, an 'act' here is defined as 'a thing done', as per Oxford Languages definition #2.

1. Decisions may be either voluntary or involuntary.

2. Insofar as free will requires the ability to make voluntary decisions, those decisions which are involuntary cannot contribute to free will.

3. Any voluntary decision would constitute an 'act'.

4. However, in order for an act to be voluntary, a person must decide to perform it.

5. Therefore, in order for a decision to be voluntary, a person must decide to decide it (perform it).

6. This leads to an infinite regress of prior decisions, in which any voluntary decision requires an infinite chain of prior decisions.

7. Insofar as free will requires the ability to make voluntary decisions, free will is impossible.

Whilst I am interested in all answers/comments, experience from the previous posting suggests that the most productive answers clearly identify and attack specific premises or at least clarify how any point being made is directly relevant to a specific premise/premises.

Clearly, this argument depends on a new assumption, namely that a voluntary decision is always an act. If you believe there is any way for a voluntary decision to be a non-act, this would prove crucial to countering this revision.

Reference

Strawson, G. (2003). Mental Ballistics: the Involuntariness of Spontaneity. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, pp. 227-256. DOI: 10.1111/j.0066-7372.2003.00071.x

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 18, 2022 at 8:02
  • Close the infinite regress. When you decide to do something you are actually deciding to decide to do that. This is because you had the option of not deciding to do that.
    – WokeBloke
    Aug 22, 2022 at 20:55

9 Answers 9

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  1. Decisions may be either voluntary or involuntary.

False. Decisions are not actions. Only actions are either voluntary (=decided) or involuntary (=not decided).

  1. Insofar as free will requires the ability to make voluntary decisions, those decisions which are involuntary cannot contribute to free will.

Free will is the ability to make decisions and perform voluntary actions.

  1. Any voluntary decision would constitute an 'act'.

A decision is not an action. A decision is knowledge about a future action.

  1. However, in order for an act to be voluntary, a person must decide to perform it.

Correct.

  1. Therefore, in order for a decision to be voluntary, a person must decide to decide it (perform it).

Decisions are not actions. They are made, not performed.

  1. This leads to an infinite regress of prior decisions, in which any voluntary decision requires an infinite chain of prior decisions.

No regress. Decisions are not actions, they require no prior decisions.

  1. Insofar as free will requires the ability to make voluntary decisions, free will is impossible.

Your argumentation is based on the false premise that a decision is an act. Therefore your conclusion is also false.

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  • Thanks for responding Pertti, but we never get anywhere with our conversations. I feel you rarely argue from a logical basis and that you tend to make unsubstantiated assertions, which has happened again here. Other than that, I don't think I'll respond. Others may have a different view. Aug 17, 2022 at 12:10
  • No unsubstantiated assertions on my side. Your idea of a decision (a static piece of information) as an act (a physical event) is a serious category error that leads you nowhere. Aug 17, 2022 at 12:18
  • Also... I don't want our continual conflict to degenerate into a 'I downvote, so you downvote' scenario. I absolutely encourage you to downvote if the question doesn't meet the criteria of a good question, but know that any downvotes for your questions no longer come from me, because I have no confidence that they serve any purpose whatsoever. Aug 17, 2022 at 12:29
  • I would also like to see actual arguments, constructive discussion instead of downvotes. Aug 17, 2022 at 12:51
  • 1
    What about "decision, act and the activity potentials of nerves being released to trigger certain actors are three different ways to descrobe the very same process but in the context of very different language games and any substatial differentiation between them or even giving them the status as different metaphysical objects opens up more questions and unsolvable philosophical problems than it allegedly solves".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 17, 2022 at 20:19
2

In the science fiction novel The Sirens of Titan there is a brief "business" concerning a scientist. He has the idea that all human creativity arises due to a small organ in the brain that operates like a radio receiver. All creative ideas are beamed into this organ from some unknown origin, and not produced by human brains at all.

At first, all other scientists treat him as a crank. They shun him and mock his ideas. But later, he proves his idea is correct. He is then showered with accolades and triumph. And the night before he is to receive a prestigious award for his brilliant idea, he throws himself out of a high window to his death.

For he had realized that the truth of his idea removed all possibility of merit for him in his idea. His idea had not come from him, but had been beamed into his head by the orgran he proved to have been the source of his idea. And so, his life's work had been the jerkings of a puppet on strings.

He had tripped over a gigantic stolen concept and the resulting epistomological crisis had destroyed him.

Free will is the opposite of coercion, not of causality. That there are reasons one makes a decision does not mean the decision is not free. The source of the scientist's ideas were not himself, and he had no choice but to have those ideas since they were placed in his head. This is coercion. He originally experienced it as self-directed action, but proved it was not.

This is the source of the desire to cancel free will. If there is no such thing as free will then two things follow.

  • There is no such thing as culpability, so people are free to do as they please without concern for consequences. That is, it is a dodge to avoid the coercion of cultural norms, thus allowing the unchecked free will of the proponent.
  • Since other persons do not have free will, then their ideas about various plans and actions need not be considered. And it is acceptable to force them to do anything that the proponent desires.

This two-pronged strategy has been explicitly present in totalitarian collectivism of all sorts since at least 150 years. What, after all, is the "will of the proletariat?" Or "the will of the folk?" Or "the right side of history?" And it has been an explicit stolen concept all along.

Contrarily, individualist philosophies and religions have strongly emphasized free will in direct connection with self responsibility. You can choose what you will do, and so are responsible for it. For good or bad, what you choose is yours. This is the meaning of personal salvation in Christianity. And of phrases such as "you have the right" in libertarian philosophies.

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  • An interesting answer but - and forgive me if I've misunderstood something - it seems to relate more to the realms of ideology and psychology than philosophy. Your dot points may be correct in relation to some people, but this no bearing upon whether or not free will is actually illusory or not. A person deeming moral responsibility to be desirable/undesirable gets us no closer to understanding whether or not we have it. Aug 17, 2022 at 14:46
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This argument suffers from all the failings of the Standard Argument against free will, plus an additional one of relying upon infinite regress reasoning.

The core problem for both arguments is they fly against the realization by philosophers and scientists that our world is contingent. And a contingent world cannot be characterized by a pure reasoning process, it needs to be characterized empirically. Kant spelled out this problem for rationalism in his Critique of Pure Reason. Subsequent thinking about the limits of rationalism have gone even further than Kant. Logic is plural, and one cannot know a priori if any particular logic applies to a problem in our world.

Both Strawson’s regress and the Standard Argument presume there things which are suspect: 1) that we can define terms explicitly and clearly enough for them to be the objects of logic operations (specifically free will and causation in the Standard Argument, and free will, voluntary and decision in Strawson’s argument), 2) that classical logic is the appropriate logic method to apply to this problem, and 3) that these operations in logic space actually constrain our real empirical world.

For 1), one of the major critiques of libertarian free will advocates has been their inability to provide a definition that captures what they mean by the concept. This is a valid critique, I have never seen a definition used on either side of the dispute that does free will justice. I think the same is true for causation. Ever since Newton destroyed the “contact” requirement in the definition of “cause”, what is actually meant by the term is less than definitive. The commentary on this and the prior question show that voluntary and decision are also term we use but with a lack of shared clarity as to the details of their definitions. But analytic logic operations require explicit, detailed and agreed upon definitions, which none of these terms satisfy.

For 2), classical logic presumes the law of the excluded middle, and this is generally not applicable to our world. Most real world questions have at least 3 part logic of true, false, and neither as appropriate answers, which violates the LEM. Science and empiricism operate with a 4 part logic of supported sufficiently, refuted sufficiently, still uncertain, and invalid question logic categories. All 4 of these categories violate LEM.

Additionally, all objects in our world are bundle objects, which change moment to moment. Hence over time, A=/=A, and one cannot apply logic operations to A over time. These sorts of concerns bring the validity of classical logic into doubt.

For 3) What one can argue, in an effort to address the above, is that for a Presumed set of definitions, and a specified logic method that one can show logical coherence, or for your arguments, show logical incoherence to a claim, IF the claim and the world follow the assumed logic. Note that you have not presented the argument with these caveats. However, once one does this, there remains the question — so what?

As noted above, the real world does not operate based off classical logic. Instead, we have seen that different problems in our world are more usefully addressed by different logics. Choice of logic is itself an empirical question to be answered pragmatically. BUT with no singular One True Logic, and instead a pluralism of logics applicable to our world, our world can NEVER be logically coherent, per ANY logic. So an incoherence argument against a free will claim is irrelevant.

This answer so far is equally applicable to the Standard Argument as to Strawson’s. Strawson’s is further out of line in its efforts to use infinite regress. Classical logic is known for being sometimes unreliable when dealing with absolutes, be they absolute infinities or absolute zeros. Making the absolute infinity a regress just makes it more problematic.

If we apply empiricism rather than rationalism to this question we find that free will is something we experience, and which we then infer applies to us and other things in our world. And both causation, decisions, and voluntary status are also highly useful concepts we are best off assuming apply to our world. Also, empirically, classical logic is a very useful reasoning tool. And using classical logic, and a variety of other logics, one can identify contradictions between the above set of assumed realities, as articulated in your and the Standard Arguments. But incoherence is intrinsic to the methods and conclusions of empiricism, as empiricism produces a patchwork of useful “truths”, not a single global one. And pluralistic reference frames will always suffer from incoherence.

Applying this discussion to your argument, your 1) would be a false dichotomy, 2-5) would be illegitimate due to disputed definitions, 6) would be a “so what” because infinite regress is a logic category we know we can’t trust classical logic in, and 7) would be an unsupported claim due to all the prior critiques.

And ultimately, the whole methodology of trying to evaluate free will purely analytically rather than empirically is a mistaken approach from the start.

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The fault in your argument is at point 5. It is possible that one involuntarily is prompted to make a voluntary decision.

1

You’ve couched your argument in an “insofar as” that cripples it.

If I have trained myself to respond instinctively to a situation of a particular kind (Kahneman’s “fast thinking”), I do not necessarily voluntarily act. However, that does not mean I have not acted freely - I am responsible for my character and dispositions in this instance.

Free will does not depend on voluntary decisions, but also applies to those involuntary ones that are mine.

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  • We clearly disagree - fundamentally - upon what is required of will for it to be free, and that is a question deserving of a dedicated post. It is my stance though that an instinctive action of the trained sort you describe is obviously not free. Consider the elite SAS vet who upon being approached from behind, spins around and hurts an old friend. Her training overrode her volition and whilst she is responsible in a technical sense, was certainly not free to do otherwise. If she was, she would have stopped. Her will and willed action were clearly not free. Aug 17, 2022 at 11:36
  • The freedom of which you speak in your final sentence speaks more of a compatibilist view of free will, in which free will is redefined. This is not the sort I am debating here, hence my use of the 'insofar' you mention. This debate requires far more than can be meaningfully accomplished in a comments section. If you are interested in discussing it further, please start a dedicated chat or ask a dedicated question, and I will enjoy responding further. Aug 17, 2022 at 11:37
  • There is definitely scope for a lot of discussion here, but limited to your question, I have to insist that to bridge the gap between your argument and your goal, there is a hidden premise, that I would argue to be plainly false - “The standing notion of free will is so construed”
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 17, 2022 at 12:33
  • 1
    @Futilitarian A piece of general advice for philosophical arguments is not making your own argument as strong as possible but first, make the argument that you are up against as strong as possible and look for holes in its armor afterward. From this perspective, compatibilism is much stronger than any dualist philosophy. Also, a thing to keep in mind is that all this is conceptual work. Even your own argument is on a conceptual basis, ie. we are talking about how we frame the world in words, not how the world "actually" is in the sense of metaphysics, if this approach even makes sense
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 19, 2022 at 7:49
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    @PhilipKlöcking. Yes. And I guess so much hard work has already been done that to launch into it without familiarising oneself with that work as much as possible is to invite failure and/or replication. Thanks for the tips. Aug 19, 2022 at 8:25
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Let's consider the difference between "atomic" and composite actions:

Intentional actions are picked out and segmented into their parts by applications of Anscombe’s ‘Why?’-questions. (‘Why are you chopping the nuts?’ ‘I’m making a salad.’) The internal structure of actions is consequently a series of steps towards a termination point (or ‘end’), a place where the action stops. When you make Deborah Madison’s persimmon and hazelnut salad, you first coarsely chop the nuts; then you thinly slice three Fuyu persimmons crosswise and put them in a bowl along with the nuts; then you add in three handfuls of trimmed watercress; then you toss with the dressing – and you’re done. A step can be shown to be rational by showing it to be a step on the way to the termination point of the action that you are in the course of performing. A step can be shown to be irrational by showing that it’s not: for instance, if you’ve finished making the salad, but you obsessively keep chopping nuts. Vogler allows that there may be atomic actions, actions that do not have further actions as their parts; perhaps blinking is such an action. But just about any action we care about will be a complex action (i.e., an action that has further actions as parts); and since we don’t usually notice what we don’t care about, atomic actions, if there are any, are hard to come up with.

Now, for all that, let's suppose that a decision can be an atomic action; or at least, "deciding to decide" could be (the mental equivalent of flipping a light switch, maybe?). So now there's this regress of volitions, but according to Kant,

Now every series, whose exponent (of the categorical or hypothetical judgement) is given, can be continued; consequently the same procedure of reason conducts us to the ratiocinatio polysyllogistica, which is a series of syllogisms, that can be continued either on the side of the conditions (per prosyllogismos) or of the conditioned (per episyllogismos) to an indefinite extent.

But we very soon perceive that the chain or series of prosyllogisms, that is, of deduced cognitions on the side of the grounds or conditions of a given cognition, in other words, the ascending series of syllogisms must have a very different relation to the faculty of reason from that of the descending series, that is, the progressive procedure of reason on the side of the conditioned by means of episyllogisms. For, as in the former case the cognition (conclusio) is given only as conditioned, reason can attain to this cognition only under the presupposition that all the members of the series on the side of the conditions are given (totality in the series of premisses), because only under this supposition is the judgement we may be considering possible a priori; while on the side of the conditioned or the inferences, only an incomplete and becoming, and not a presupposed or given series, consequently only a potential progression, is cogitated.

This is somewhat of a detour, admittedly, but there might be a problem, here, in that both the regress of decisions and their progression would have to be given infinitely at once: having decided to decide to decide... with all this theoretically focusing in on a voluntary atomic act that is not construed as a mental switch-flip, yet the host of complex actions that follow upon this prior chain would then have to be chosen in advance as well; the chain extending infinitely backwards would be extending forward, too, and yet it is not apparent that we make all our choices whenever we make any choice. (Kant thought we did make all our choices "at once," in a sort of premortal eternity, otherwise inexplicably, however.)

But so another way to look at how our volitions flow through our lives is Hannah Arendt's (I will quote her outlook on forgiveness specifically, to this effect):

The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility — of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing — is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past… and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between [us].

So another way to look at the problem is: it is one thing to define terms like act, voluntary, decision, and so on, in some way, and show that per their stipulated definitions, a contradiction or some other sort of error arises; it is another to show, say, that whenever we act, there is only one overarching local possibility in play (whatever we would be "caused" to do). One might say: perhaps there are no actions (per the definition given, anyway), neither are there decisions, or volitions, or whatever; yet there is still some contingency in our beliefs and behaviors, a strong contingency even, and when the contingency is disjoint over at least two possibilities, we are moved to say, "I am responsible for actualizing such-and-such possibility, since it was possible for me to actualize the other one instead."

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1. Decisions may be either voluntary or involuntary.

As previously discussed, there are two separate acts associated with each decision that might be said to be voluntary/involuntary. There is the act of deciding, and there is the act decided upon. Which are you referring to?

2. Insofar as free will requires the ability to make voluntary decisions, those decisions which are involuntary cannot contribute to free will.

Why not?

3. Any voluntary decision would constitute an 'act'.

Again, when you say "voluntary" are you referring to the act of deciding, or the act being decided on?

4. However, in order for an act to be voluntary, a person must decide to perform it.

OK.

5. Therefore, in order for a decision to be voluntary, a person must decide to decide it (perform it).

Only if the (inner) act of deciding is also voluntary.

You posit a chain of actions:

I (decide to) (decide to) (drink tea).

Which of these are voluntary? So that we have something to discuss, we posit that the act of drinking tea be voluntary.

I (decide to) (decide to) (voluntarily drink tea).

Your premise 4 says that the final act being voluntary means that it is preceded by a decision. It does not say it has to be preceded by a voluntary decision. As in:

I (decide to) (voluntarily decide to) (voluntarily drink tea).

It's certainly possible that the act of making a decision is voluntary, in which case it too needs to be preceded by a decision. But again, there is no obvious requirement that this preceding decision be voluntary.

A 'decision' pertains to two act: the act of deciding, and the act decided upon. You appear to be conflating the two when specifying whether a decision is 'voluntary'. By implicitly assuming that either both or neither have to be voluntary, you propagate the 'free will' property to every preceding causal step. In essence, you are arguing that every "free" effect must have a "free" cause, and since the point of 'free will' is that there is no prior external cause - that the causal chain starts at the act of freely deciding, you have a contradiction.

But supporters of 'free will' are not going to accept such a premise without argument, and you haven't provided one. Voluntary acts must be preceded by decisions, OK, and those decisions are themselves acts, OK, but the induction falls apart unless you also assume that the decision to act voluntarily must also be voluntary. Your premise 2 asserts something like this, but why on Earth should we accept premise 2?

I (involuntarily decide to) (voluntarily drink tea).

Whether I drink tea or don't drink tea is not determined by any previous event. The causal chain for drinking tea (as opposed to not drinking it) starts here, so the act of drinking tea is voluntary. But the act of deciding whether to drink tea was involuntary. On arriving, my hosts asked "Would you like tea?" I have to answer "yes" or "no". I don't have a choice about that part. So the act of deciding appear to be entirely involuntary. Why not? Your premise 2 says such a situation is impossible, but I don't understand why.

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I hope I'm not lowering the tone when I suggest that premise 3 is at least confusing, because it does not state, what the rest of the argument relies on, that a decision to act must be distinct from the action decided upon.

I raise my hand, I greet a friend, I make their day - all at the same time and in the same action.

I run a red light, I break the law, I alarm my passengers, - all at the same time and in the same action.

This badly needs editing, specially in view of the comments.

As briefly as I can:-

"Distinct" in this premiss seems to me to be ambiguous between a distinction in thought/language and a distinction between things/events. A single action can be described in many ways, depending on context and point of view. It can still be the result of a single decision, describing the act in one of those ways. The above examples show that.

One of the ways, among many others, in which an action can be described is either as carrying out a mental act such as deciding (most often in language) or expressing a mental act (such as deciding). Sometimes, an action such as greeting a friend can be the decision.

A separate process of deciding implies that the decision is not yet made. Making the decision stands to this process in the same (or similar) relation as winning does to running a race. There is no special event that constitutes winning (crossing the line is not an separate event in running, either). Compare the remark (I don't remember the source) that death is not an event in life.

Deciding to do something cannot be nested, so deciding to decide to raise my arm is deciding to raise my arm. Deciding whether to raise my arm can be nested. I can decide whether to decide to raise my arm, but then, of course, I have not yet decided. Can I decide whether to decide whether to decide whether to raise my arm. Maybe, but this suffers from the problem of bluff and double-bluff. Are triple-bluffs possible? Yes. Quadruple? At some point this collapses back into the original position.

None of this is a knock-down argument, but should be sufficient to raise doubts.

After seeing the new version:-

Premiss 3 is much better.

However, I'm now wondering what constitutes a decision. Sometimes there is a decision process distinct from the act. But I'm still not convinced that sometimes at least the act itself may not constitute the decision.

There's a big issue here about the nature of mental acts of all kinds. From the hasty searches I was able to carry out yesterday, there is not much about this in the literature. I certainly don't know much about it.

The other big issue in the background is the question of the origin or beginning of a free action. Nietzsche apparently says that it is supposed to be self-caused and pours scorn on the idea - rightly in my view. I suspect this is a "boundary" question and so impossible to answer within the given categories (voluntary or not voluntary).

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  • Welcome. No, I don't think you're lowering the tone. You've immediately alighted upon many first find confusing about such arguments. I would argue however that "a decision to act [is] distinct from the action decided upon", is implicit in Premise 3, simply by virtue of the fact that to assume it refers to any subsequent act as well would be to make an unwarranted assumption. Aug 17, 2022 at 10:50
  • Ok, a decision to act is distinct from the action decided upon and where it happens at a different time, the action may or may not follow. But in my examples, I do three distinct actions in one. In any case, deciding to do something is linked conceptually to the action decided upon. In the same way, the intention to do X, even though it may or may not precede the action, is conceptually linked to it. Compare preparing to buy something for dinner with buying something for dinner. Actions are very complicated and your model, I suggest, is too simple to bear the weight you want to put on it.
    – Ludwig V
    Aug 17, 2022 at 11:14
  • You raise an interesting point, but the fact that two events are 'conceptually' or temporally linked has no bearing on whether or not they are distinct from one another. If you agree that a voluntary decision is an act, then you have no problem with Premise 3. If you don't think it is an act, and if you can demonstrate why, the argument demands modification. Your 3 examples however don't support such claim. In fact, by comparing the intention to buy dinner and its fulfilment, you are merely confirming that the distinction exists. Aug 17, 2022 at 11:25
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The controversial point of your argument would be here:

  1. Therefore, in order for a decision to be voluntary, a person must decide to decide it (perform it).

Most people would not take the position that free will requires not only the ability to choose, but also the ability to choose what decisions they are faced with deciding. Decisions arise throughout life independent of our wills - like being on raft going through rapids. The channels split at various points and we are faced with a decision as to which we must continue down - or throw our hands up and let the current take us where it will (also a decision).

Thus by reject point 5 the infinite regress is resolved and the argument falls flat

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  • Premises 5 and 6 follow from the previous premises, Ryan. To discount them, you need to demonstrate why they either don't follow from the earlier premises, or that the earlier premises are erroneous. Aug 23, 2022 at 3:30
  • Don't get me wrong. There's a lot wrong with the argument. Read though some of the more substantial answers to get a sense of how to some of the more experienced users respond. Aug 23, 2022 at 3:59
  • @Futilitarian I would disagree with you there. Premise 5 does not follow from the previous premises - it is a jump in logic and the crux of his error. Premise 4 is just a definition of what it means for an action to be voluntary. It does not follow from that definition (or anything previous) that for an action to be voluntary that you must be able to decide to decide, ad infinitum. Aug 23, 2022 at 7:26
  • That's demonstrably incorrect. If you read 3, 4 and 5 carefully, this should become apparent. Aug 23, 2022 at 7:40
  • @Futilitarian I’ve read them several times. 5 does not follow from them, but you are welcome to spell out why you think it follows if you are convinced that it does Aug 23, 2022 at 7:56

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