PM5332: On free will

Free will refers to the apparent ability of human beings to choose freely. Philosophers differ on whether this ability is real or merely apparent, and on what it precisely is if it is real.

Free will is often contrasted with determinism and indeterminism. Determinism refers to behaviour predetermined by natural laws and initial conditions, such as the operation of a machine such as a clock. Indeterminism refers to behaviour which is determined purely by chance, such as a roulette wheel. Determinists claim that the universe as a whole, and hence all human thought and behaviour, is the product of immutable physical laws. Indeterminists claim that the universe as a whole, and hence all human thought and behaviour, is a product of pure chance. A third position, sees nature as both partially deterministic and partially indeterministic — such as the world portrayed by many interpretations of quantum physics, in which the world contains real irreducible indeterminism; yet at the same time, the probabilities are not equally balanced, some outcomes are many orders of magnitude more likely than others, and thus the universe will in many respects appear to behave in a deterministic manner.

In terms of how these three basic views of the nature of reality relate to free will, there are two basic views. The first, known as compatibilism, holds that free will is fundamentally compatible with clock-like physical laws, or with roulette-like chance, or with some combination of the two. What we know as free will is simply the absence of any extraordinary interference with the normal operations of our will (such as if one was drugged or subjected to some form of mind control); any ordinary influences on our decision-making processes, whether by natural law or by chance, do not negate free will. The second view, known as incompatibilism, holds that both clock-like determinism and roulette-like indeterminism, and any combination of the two, are fundamentally incompatible with free will. True free will is neither law nor chance, but some third thing which is neither individually nor any combination of the two — a view known as metaphysical libertarianism.

In religion, the difficulty is how the omnipotence of God and predestination can be compatible with human free will. Different religions, or schools of thought within a religion, take different approaches. Within Christianity, the Arminian, Lutheran, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox positions tend to favour the metaphysical reality of free will, while Calvinism tends to disfavour it. The majority school within Islam denies free will, although some Muslim thinkers have defended it.

A related problem is how the omniscience and eternity of God can be compatible with free will. Many argue that, if our actions are truly free, then the future must be open; whereas, if the future is fixed, then our actions cannot truly be free. But, if God is eternal and all-knowing, then our future actions our already fixed with respect to God. One attempt to solve this conundrum is to deny the eternity of God, and insist that God cannot know the future because the future has not happened yet — this position is known as process theology or open theism. A more orthodox attempt to resolve this problem is middle knowledge.

Maratreanism rejects any notion of metaphysical liberatarianism. In the Maratrean view, law and chance are fundamentally one. This is because the Maratrean view of physical law is descriptive; law is simply our own imperfect approximations to the perfect law of nature, the Kolmogorov compression of the universe. What we call chance is simply the limitations in our knowledge of true law.

Free will is relative, not absolute — we can have free will judged by some standards, but not by others. So by our ordinary standards, we have free will, so long as we are not subject to extraordinary influences such as drugs or mind control. With reference to Maratrea, however, we lack free will; we can do nothing except that which she commands us to do, which commands we perfectly obey, for we are not capable of ever disobeying them; yet, with reference to ourselves, our judgement of our own will as free is unaffected, at least as long as we remain unaware of her commands.