Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Practical Argument For Free Will

1) If I don't have free will, then I can't choose what to believe.
2) If I can choose what to believe, then I have free will [from 1]
3) If I have free will, then I ought to believe it.
4) If I can choose what to believe, then I ought to believe that I have free will. [from 2,3]
5) I ought, if I can, to choose to believe that I have free will. [restatement of 4]



  1. That is only an argument for believing it if it's true.

    Should we believe it if it's false?

    Are there any downsides to believing in free will if we don't have free will?


  2. My major concern involves Premise 3. If I have free will, it paradoxically necessitate that I can chose NOT to belive it.

  3. It also avoid the question of which free will we have.

  4. Or put in another way, the consequences of mistakenly denying determinism don't matter, because those consequences would have happened anyway.

    The consequences of mistakenly believing determinism could be much more serious.

  5. Very nice,
    I think that's up ther with Anselm's Ontological argument.

    Premise three is definitely a worry, I'm not sure where that ought comes from. But it makes common sense, if we have free-will it is rational to believe we do, more rational then not believing we do.

    However there may be some conflation here between 'having free-will' and 'knowing we have free-will'. If we know we have free-will then we ought to believe it, (can you 'know something to be true and not believe it?').

    If we have free-will but dont't know it, how can we believe it?

    Or at least, it would be irrational to believe it., wouldn't it?

  6. Very cool argument. The only problem I have with it is that, even if I don't have free will, I can be determined to feel as though I've chosen to believe that I do. So, that would seem to make the condition for premise 2 impossible to verify.

    Also, now that I think of it, couldn't a person be able to choose their beliefs without having free will -- i.e., is this ability a sufficient condition, or just necessary?

  7. sounds like an argument for religion.

    anyway 1 is flawed. if there is no such thing as free will then you have either already "chosen" to believe or not believe free will doesnt effect whether any choice is made it jsut effects if htat choice has some arbitrary "freeness" to it the logic behind the argument exists within a free or not free world and still leads to hte conclusion in both worlds. You may have said "I believe I have free will" and that may have been your inevitable conclusion because you have no "free will" but you may still be wrong and it may be bad for you.

    From an external point of view given you believed or you didn't believe you can still be wrong or right and believing can be rated in relation to its probability of being true. Is there any evidence for it? I cant think of any so I guess it would be close to zero probibility. By the way I am dubious about there being any advantage to believing freewill is true even if it is so you dont even get pascals wager.

    The real difference in positions I think is regarding the definition of free will and the perspective and thus this argument uses one perspective/definition to argue i nthe context of another one.

    OK Im probably sounding a bit vague but yeah...

  8. Yeah, I'm inclined towards determinism myself. Still, the practical argument seems hard to refute.

    Some here have questioned premise #3, but I don't see that one as problematic. Insofar as belief aims at truth, it's analytic that we (prima facie) ought to have true beliefs. Feel free to replace "I ought to believe" with "it would be better if I believed", or something along those lines, if that would seem clearer to you.

    Genius, I'm taking it as analytic (true by definition) that choice requires free will. If we're not free, then we can't choose, can we? We might "reach a conclusion", much like a computer program does, but we couldn't choose it.

    I notice that someone discussing this post elsewhere has objected to the move from 4 to 5. He complains that the restatement changes the meaning, because one can ignore the "if I can" as parenthetical, which would then yield "I ought to choose to believe [that] I have free will", which he claims is question-begging. This strikes me as an odd charge. None of the premises illicitly assume what I set out to prove. Rather, the conclusion establishes what I set out to prove. It would be exceedingly odd to object to an argument on those grounds! (Have I misread him? It really does sound like he's saying something like: "It must be question-begging because the conclusion is exactly what he's trying to prove!" Bizarre.)

    Perhaps he doesn't know what "begging the question" means, and instead meant to suggest that the argument was invalid (i.e. that 5 does not follow from 4). But it isn't clear why the restatement is not a legitimate one. It's illegitimate to ignore the "if I can" proviso, but that just shows his mistake in thinking that one can leave out parenthetical clauses without changing the meaning of a statement!

    Anyway, Nigel got the gist of the argument, I think. It all rests on the fact that choice presupposes free will. So we've nothing to lose from believing in free will, and nothing to gain from disbelieving it. (It's a dialectical situation that those idiot Pascalians can only dream of!)

    Here's another way of putting it:

    a) We can either choose what to believe (about free will), or we can't.

    b) If we can't choose, then we can't make the wrong choice (since we can't make any choice).

    c) If we can choose, then we make the wrong choice iff we choose not to believe in free will.

    d) So we can make the wrong choice by not believing in free will, but we can't make the wrong choice by believing in it.

    e) Therefore, anyone faced with the choice ought to choose to believe in free will.

    Or, a simpler version yet:

    A) If we can choose at all, then we must have free will.

    B) We should choose, if we can, to believe in free will.

  9. 4 and 5 are based off 3, which assumes we have free will. You cannot prove free will with a premise that includes free will's existence.

  10. 3 is a conditional about what would follow if free will existed. It does not assume that free will actually exists.

  11. The main problem with the argument is the presupposition of "I." In order for free will to exist there must be an entity to make a decision in the first place. When however we examine the "I," we find that there is no actual "I" - no decision making entity. Some will argue that consciousness is a decision making entity but consciousness (especially as free will is concerned) is just another term for human experience. What constitutes human experience? Anyone can do this analysis for themselves however there are typically three primary parts: thoughts (including memory), emotions (including dispositions), and sensory input (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste). Anyone who has experienced painful emotions in their life knows firsthand that we are not in control of our emotions. Thoughts act on their own as well - if you disagree, prove me wrong and try to sit for an hour and think only of the color blue without letting any other thoughts arise. We certainly don't have control over our sensory input - stubbing one's toe causes physical pain. So if there is no entity in control over the parts that make up our consciousness, consciousness cannot be considered a decision making agent. Since there is no decision making agent there is no decision to be made, and thus, no decision (or choice) at all. Of course practically speaking we must assume and operate under a framework which at least assumes the illusion of free will - to go about things in any other way makes no sense because generally speaking the illusion is inescapable. Even practically speaking however we find serious constraints on the limits involved in the illusion of free will. For example, try to make the decision that you will never again in your life procrastinate - ever. Decide that you will never feel any sadness again in your life no matter what sort of tragic event happens or try deciding to never become angry. Funny then how I still find myself able to blame people and point fingers.

  12. I have a discussion of this at my blog:

    Unfortunately it is unlikely to appeal to you since it implies that if you take both boxes in Newcomb or smoke in the smoking lesion, you should believe that you have free will.

    I disagree with all of those: I take one box, I don't smoke, and I don't believe I have free will unless the evidence shows it.


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