On Free Will and Determinism
Given that I hold to a very mathematical, materialist view of the cosmos in which all points of time are extant with one another, it should come as no surprise that I tend to favor the idea of Determinism. This is a philosophy which states that, given perfect knowledge of the physics of the cosmos and adequate data, one could accurately predict any future event with 100% certitude. The idea is that everything operates according to determinable mechanisms, and that understanding these mechanisms can lead to an accurate understanding of their outcomes even before those outcomes have occurred. This view has quite often butted heads with philosophers who argue that Determinism eliminates the possibility of Free Will. Free Will, they argue, does not exist if the outcome of a choice can be predicted with certainty or if the future is already set.
As a Compatibilist, I contend that Determinism and Free Will are not mutually exclusive concepts.
In my humblest of opinions, the reason that these two concepts are often pitted against one another is due to a false impression about the implications of Free Will. It is a very common view that Free Will requires that the agent making the choice has the ability to fundamentally alter reality. On this view, the choice is that which actually informs the future and brings potentiality into reality. This view would fairly obviously stand in contradiction to my own view that all of time– past, present, and future– coexists in reality equally. However, this implication is not actually a requirement of the concept of Free Will.
In order to clarify, let’s start with some definitions. What is Free Will? Free Will is the ability of agents to make choices unconstrained by certain factors. That is to say, the agent making a choice does so according to its own motives. What is a choice? A choice is a selection of one particular outcome from a field of possible outcomes. So, a Free Will agent is one which selects a particular outcome for a situation according to its own motives. There are two things which are noteworthy to our conversation, implicit in these definitions. First is that the choices are unconstrained by certain factors, but that this does not mean they are unconstrained by all factors. Obviously, any choice is going to be constrained in some manner. For example, if a child is offered a choice between a red ball and a blue ball, he cannot choose a green ball. His choice is constrained by possible options, or input. No proponent of Free Will would argue that this constraint removes the child’s liberty of choice. The second noteworthy concept is that these definitions say nothing at all about Free Will’s relationship to time.
If an agent makes a choice according to its own motives, that choice was made freely, whether or not it may have been possible to know how the agent would choose prior to the selection being made, and whether or not the future containing the choice was real prior to the selection being made.
So, then, what does it mean to make a choice according to one’s own motives? This is a concept which I find easiest to describe through mathematical means. Let’s say we have some function . Whenever we plug in a value for , the function selects an outcome based upon its own properties, and unconstrained by the properties of unrelated functions. So, regardless of the outcome of , the function will always make its choices according to its own definition or motive. This function is therefore Free, despite the fact that it has a determinate outcome. Similarly, all possible points on the x– and y-axes over which the function is defined exist simultaneously, but this does not mean that was thereby constrained by some unrelated function. Look at the plots of and in Figure 1, below.
If we were to plug some value into our function , but the outcome that we received was some value which does not exist on the red curve in Figure 1, we would immediately know that our result was constrained by some outside influence. The function was not free to produce a selection based solely upon its own motivations. This result might be represented mathematically as , where represents the constraint on our function.
On a Deterministic view, any particular agent could be similarly represented by a mathematical function. So long as the outcome of any choice is truly representative of that function, rather than having been artificially altered by some outside constraint, it is perfectly coherent to claim that this agent operated by Free Will. The results of its choices were solely dependent upon its own motivations, and were not controlled by another entity. The agent’s freedom is not impacted by the fact that it’s choices are knowable, nor by the fact that the dimensions by which it is measured exist together in their entirety. The only factor relevant to the choice’s outcome is the agent, itself.
Contrary to popular sentiment, Determinism and Free Will are not contending philosophies. Neither one contradicts or precludes the other, and the Compatibilist view is perfectly coherent. We are the navigators of our own course through time.