Proof of Free Will
Tibor R. Machan
Some of my readers may be getting tired of and even exasperated with me about my repeated discussions of free will. Part of this is because the topic has been around for ages and some hope for some kind of final resolution. There will never be that! But this doesn’t mean there cannot be a right answer, only not one that will lead to some kind of world wide consensus. Indeed, is there any inquiry that leads to that?
I have a good friend who insists that the only proof of free will he is going to respect is one that is put in purely biochemical form, one that spells out the precise molecular mechanism that is involved and shows that it isn’t deterministic. And I admit it is an attractive prospect—after all, a good deal of what we worry about in medicine as well as other areas of human affairs comes to the best light when rendered in such precise detail.
But a proof of free will does not require such total, detailed involvement, even if it could be had. Just think, do you need to know the full inner workings of your car to know it is moving down the road? Ordinary perception suffices for that—let those working on the machine worry about all the inner details. For the rest it is sufficient to experience the overt movement of the car.
Free will is evident to us by several means. For one, without it the idea of independent, objective knowledge is unfounded. Those in the sciences, for example, who insist that unprejudiced, unbiased findings trump prejudiced and biased ones implicitly accept that free will is real because only if our judgments can be free, can they be unbiased, independent, objective. Anyone who deplores racial, sexual or ethnic prejudice also implicitly accepts that people have free will and can exercise it badly or well. Racists allow themselves to judge by reference to irrelevant factors about another person and it is their capacity for free, independent perception and judgment that can serve to escape their prejudices, distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. This is true with all other kinds of prejudice. So to deny free will is, implicitly, to endorse the unavoidability of prejudice, bias, subjectivity when it comes to human knowledge and understanding about the world.
There is also the fact that we can observe ourselves as we are aware of things—we can notice when we rush to judgment versus take the time to get things right. We can monitor how we think, indeed, whether we think at all, instead of just indulge our wishes and hopes regardless of what the facts we could examine tell us. That, too, implies that we have free will.
I haven’t even come to the issue that even criticizing those who accept free will implies free will because it implies they could have come to different conclusions about this issue. So they were not compelled to believe one and only one way but were free to choose between different ways and, it is suggested, ought to have chosen differently. But if we aren’t free, how can this make any sense?
Of course, the persistence of the belief by most human beings that there exists a significant moral dimension in human life also attests to the acceptance of the presence in free will. How could anyone be held responsible for how he or she acts if they have no control over their own conduct? How could there be a valid criminal law without the human freedom to choose to do what is lawful rather than unlawful?
There is, furthermore, the plain fact of the enormous differences among human beings, in their practices, institutions, beliefs, styles, culture, art, politics, and philosophy, all of which implies that people are free to choose in very many different ways rather than compelled to do as they are allegedly hard wired or forced by their environment. Even those who strongly defend determinism falter on this point because they realize that what they believe about free will versus determinism is not shared by many others and to explain that without crediting people with the freedom to think as they will is impossible. (No other living being exhibits the immense variety of ways of life that human beings do! And this variety is evident even in the life of just one person, from day to day.)
What about the fact, however, that much of what people do can be predicted? Does that not favor the idea that we are determined in how we behave?
Not really because human beings, while free to choose, are also, for that very reason, free to make long term commitments that then tell others what they are likely going to do, at least in many circumstances. Saying at one’s wedding “I do” is a case in point, although, clearly, it is not decisive without the ongoing choice to carry through with the stated commitment. Taking up other responsibilities, vocations, jobs, etc., all help us to make predictions about how people will act, although there are no guarantees, precisely because we are free to change our minds, for better or for worse.
So, no, laying out the biochemical details of the mechanism of free will probably will have to wait—although a few scientists, like the late Roger W. Sperry, have gotten a pretty good start on it. But that is not the only way to learn whether free will exists.