Free Will and Rational Credulity
October 22, 2012 — 14:54

In my previous post, I proposed a definition of free will as the ability to do otherwise, and I explained that, while freedom (so understood) is incompatible with determinism, it is consistent with divine foreknowledge.

Now that we’ve clarified what we mean by free will, we can meaningfully ask whether we have it. So, do we have free will? Are the choices we make such that we could have chosen differently, or is there only one possible series of actions which we can take? Is it reasonable (rational, justifiable) for me to believe that my actions are freely chosen?

To begin with, it may be helpful to consider what (if anything) would count as adequate proof that we are free (where “proof” is meant rather loosely, meaning an argument, evidence, or some kind of reason for accepting it). What would such proof look like? If human beings did in fact have free will, what sort of data would we expect to find (or not find)?

Well, it wouldn’t be proven empirically: you can only observe what is, not what could have been; but free will is about what I could have chosen, not what I do in fact choose. Hence, it seems there couldn’t, in principle, be any empirical evidence which would indicate to me that I could have chosen differently. On the face of it, it’s not easy to see how there could be evidence or argument of any kind which would indicate that.

There are, in fact, certain philosophical arguments for free will which could be put forward*. But suppose there weren’t. If there were no arguments and no evidence for free will that could be given, what implications would this have for the rationality of that belief? It’s important to see that this is true for many of our beliefs, such as the belief in other minds, the belief in an external world, the belief that the world didn’t begin to exist five minutes ago, the belief in the reliability of our cognitive faculties, and so on. If we asked the same question – what proof is there for this belief? – with respect to any one of those, we would have to make the very same admission: we can’t prove it, and (in many cases) can’t see how it even could be proven. Nonetheless, each of those are obviously reasonable things to believe (you’d have to be crazy not to accept them).

This shows that we shouldn’t necessarily expect (much less demand) to have proof in order for a belief to be regarded as reasonable. There are many beliefs that all rational persons hold which are not held on the basis of argument or evidence. As I explained in an earlier post, these are called properly basic beliefs. (A belief is properly basic when it is not held on the evidential basis of any other belief, but is nonetheless justified).

Might free will be such a belief? The thing is, while it’s true that not all beliefs require proof in order to be justified, it’s also true that not all beliefs can be justified without proof. So how do we determine if a given belief (such as free will) is the kind that does or doesn’t need proof? Difficult to say.

There is an epistemological rule of thumb that might be helpful here: in most cases, it’s rational to believe that a thing is the way that it seems to be, unless or until you have some good reason to think otherwise**. This is a principle of rationality we use every day (whether we’re aware of it or not). Many (perhaps even most) of our beliefs are held, at least initially, for no other reason than its simply seeming that way (“seeming is believing,” we might say). If we didn’t form beliefs that way – if we always demanded proof before we accepted something as true, then we would hardly have any of the beliefs we do in fact have.

Does it seem like we have free will? In our everyday experience, it certainly appears to us as if we are consciously and freely choosing from among a variety of possible options, and that it is up us which actions we take. Moreover, consider how often we say things like “You shouldn’t have eaten so much food” or “He has no one to blame but himself” or “I can’t believe I ate that whole thing” (i.e. “I regret the decision I made, and now require Alka-Seltzer”). Implicit in all such should and ought statements is the assumption that the person in question had more than one choice available to them. The very fact that we hold one another morally accountable shows that we presuppose in one another the ability to act otherwise, since it would make no sense to say that a person ought to have done X unless he could have done X. If people were determined in everything they did, then blaming them for their behavior would be like blaming snow for being white, or blaming jalapenos for being spicy. As the saying goes, “ought implies can”.

None of this proves that we are free, but it shows that we tend to believe that we are. And we tend to believe this because that’s the way it seems to us. Ironically, even those who don’t believe in free will cannot help but behave as if they did, and (as Susan Blackmore confesses***) frequently have to remind themselves that their everyday experiences of (apparent) freedom are illusory, and actively repress the natural tendency to regard their behavior as freely chosen. Clearly it seems at least, to nearly all of us (even those who are determinists) that we have free will.

I’m inclined to say that if it seems like we have free will, and we have no good reason to think otherwise, then it is reasonable for us to believe that we do. Held in this way, the belief would be justified insofar as one didn’t have a good reason to think that that the belief in free will is false (that is, insofar as one didn’t have a defeater for that belief). Furthermore, since freedom entails that determinism is false, a person whose belief in free will is justified (and who sees that free will and determinism are incompatible) would also be justified in believing that determinism is false.

But again, this only holds so long as that person doesn’t have a defeater for their belief in free will. Even if free will is properly basic, it may still turn out to be unreasonable. This leaves us with the following question then: are there any good reasons to think that we don’t have free will? If one had strong evidence for determinism, for example, one would thereby have a defeater for the belief in free will (because, from the fact that free will implies that determinism is false, it follows that determinism implies that free will is false). So, another way of framing the question is this: are there any goods reasons for thinking that determinism is true? We shall see.

*One could argue that since we are obviously morally responsible for our actions, and since responsibility requires freedom, that therefore we are free. One could also argue for it (albeit indirectly) as follows: if God exists, then we probably have free will, since (arguably) God would prefer a world of free creatures; hence, insofar as one has reason to believe in God, one has reason to believe in free will. 

** This is called the Principle of Credulity, which (more or less) states that if it seems to a person S that proposition P is true, then unless or until S has a defeater for P, S is justified in believing that P (for more on this, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd edition, page 303).

I should point out that I’ve interpreted the principle slightly differently than Swinburne here. On his usage, ‘its seeming to me that P’ constitutes for me evidence for the truth of P (in which case P would not be basic, strictly speaking, since it would then be held on the basis of another proposition – namely, that “it seems to me that P”). Whereas, I haven’t suggested that ‘its seeming to me that P’ ought to be understood as a basis for an inference to the conclusion that P is true; rather, ‘its seeming to me that Poccasions my coming to believe that P; it may or may not also provide evidence for P. In any case, this issue won’t (as far as I can see) affect my argument here.

***Blackmore says this in an interview with Robert Kuhn