Free Will Paradox?

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 46 min.

There might be a paradox—or tension?—having to do with how we assess what counts as evidence against free will. Namely, we don’t generally consider that which is physically impossible to count as evidence against free will’s existence; yet to rule out free will’s existence is to say that free will is physically impossible. Is there a paradox here, or would the matter of free will’s existence be straightforwardly settled once we’ve (correctly) noticed that free will is physically impossible? Some reflections:1

  1. What is required in order to answer the (metaphysical) question: Does S have free will?

  2. How is this different from asking: Is S (physically) able to exercise S’s free will?2

  3. A standard definition of free will is: The ability to have done otherwise. I’ll refine this as: The ability to have chosen to do otherwise (for reasons I’ll discuss below; though I’m not sure there’s often a need to be a stickler about this wording).3

To elaborate:
(i) Five minutes ago, S chose to do activity A.
(ii) Were the “tape” of the world to be rewound, reverting the world to precisely the same circumstances—down to every last particle relation, every thought in S’s mind, etc.—that were the case an instant before S chose to do A, S could choose to do something other than A, mostly uninfluenced by pressures external to S’s awareness (e.g., randomness, causally determined forces, mind control…), so that S’s choosing and S’s behavioral action are guided principally by S’s conscious efforts.4
(iii) Therefore S freely chose to do A.
(iv) Hence S has free will.5

  1. I won’t weigh in (much) on the question of free will’s existence. Instead, I’ll focus on what I worry is a paradox arising from what counts as a negation of free will within the could have done otherwise model: S could not have done otherwise. This model provides an uncontroversial expression of our intuitive sense of having free will (i.e., being free to choose between activities A or B, where both activities are both physically possible and plausible); but when it comes to determining whether we actually have free will, the answer one arrives at will depend on the details of one’s definition of free will. I’m not worried about such details here.

As for the paradox, my thinking runs something like:

We (usually) consider physical impossibility to count neither as a restriction on, nor as an existential negation of, free will. So, should physical possibility whittle down our physically possible options so as to supply us with only one available action at any given point over a lifetime, this should not constitute a restriction on, or negation of, free will. But always having only one available action means that we can ever only (choose to) perform one action—we could not ever have done otherwise. This seems to clearly negate free will on the grounds of its being physically impossible.6

If free will is physically impossible, then that should settle the question: We don’t have free will. But physical impossibility should not be enough to negate free will. And so on. Is there a real paradox here?

Put another way: We generally consider free will to be something that, if it exists, is exercised over the range of what’s physically possible. Indeed, it might be smart to include in our definition of free will something or other about “the navigation of physical possibility.” If free will itself is not within that range, yet we don’t count physical impossibility against free will’s existence, then what?

To explore this, we must develop some observations about how we relate restrictions on our activities to free will.

  1. I generally take physical possibility to encompass psychological possibility (it would be tedious to constantly distinguish these semantically, even if it turns out they constitute very different sorts of activities; I will distinguish them when it seems to matter). Being controlled by a puppet-master does not restrict me from recognizing myself to be doing things outside of my bodily control. So, having only one physical possibility particularly seems to negate free will only if we don’t realize that we have only one available action. For example, when forces external to my awareness determine that, when I’m wavering between a peach and a slice of chocolate cake7, it is only physically possible for me to choose the one I end up choosing. Pressures external to my awareness thus influence—or “puppeteer”—the course of my mental activity as I go about choosing.8

  2. I’d like to say as little as I can get away with about the tropes of determinism and randomness, but I think a few words are necessary in a discussion about what counts as restrictions on free will. If you’re not in the mood, skim; or just skip to 7.

A standard deterministic negation of free will runs something like:

Sorry, but we can rewind the tape as many times as you like, and you will (choose to) do A every time, as your choosing and performing that action is directly, causally determined by the unique arrangement of the world that precedes that choice/action. Indeed, this causal chain goes at least as far back as the Big Bang.9

A protest of free will on grounds of randomness generally goes something like:

Each time you rewind the tape, there is some non-zero (but less than 1) probability that you will perform an alternative to A, but this will not be due to free will so much as to some random (quantum) event (in the brain) that compels you toward that alternative.10 11

First, some thoughts on randomness, then a brief comment about determinism.

Randomness strikes me as irrelevant. None of what I’ve encountered about quantum randomness has given me any clear sense of how such minuscule events could significantly affect the goings-on of comparatively immense brain structures, and thus affect my choosing between a peach and cake slice. Some scientists share my skepticism (for one reason or another). Consider the following remarks by David Hodgson (a Judge of Appeal of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia, who often writes about free will12):

The strongest argument for [the strange dismissal by scientists and philosophers of the relevance of quantum mechanics to consciousness] is that, in systems as massive, hot, and wet as neurons of the brain, any quantum entanglement and indeterminacies would be eliminated within times far shorter than those necessary for conscious experiences; and that this is well and good, because any significant quantum indeterminism would only prejudice rationality. Recent calculations by Max Tegmark have suggested that any macroscopic quantum entanglement in the brain would be destroyed in times of the order of 10-13 to 10-20 seconds.13

Hodgson goes on to reference opposition to (physicist) Tegmark by (anesthesiologist) Stewart Hameroff and (physicist) Scott Hagan. For an account of this, see (science writer with formal math training) Charles Seife’s “Cold Numbers Unmake the Quantum Mind” (2000). The debate between these (and other) sciency folks is also mentioned in Hameroff’s Wikipedia entry (a fascinating entryway to the multidisciplinary culture of consciousness studies).

Let’s suppose Tegmark is wrong. Let’s suppose there are random quantum events, and they exert some influence on the (deterministic) macro level, and thus on human agency. I’d wager that randomness would, at most, result in either performing activity A in a slightly different manner—perhaps your left thumb twitches a little this time. Or, in even rarer instances, you perform a different action, but there’s no reason to think this action would have anything to do with what you consider to be your viable options. While trying to choose between eating the peach or cake, it seems utterly arbitrary to assume that randomness would lead to one of those specific activities, rather than, say, moving one step to the left, or spinning in a circle two times, or saying the phrase “Anti-Skeptic Spray,” or scratching your head.

What is so special about a random quantum event that it would result in the complex collection of brain processes tantamount to, “Ah, I’ll have the peach”? That quantum entity has no stake at all in what you do, and no sense of the meaning behind the objects of your deliberation—it has no phenomenology of its own.

Think of it another way. Suppose you choose the peach. To fulfill that choice requires a series of acts—for example, grasping the peach. What you chose, however, was to eat the peach. You did not explicitly choose to, say, move your arm in the direction of a certain object (the peach), then wrap your fingers around that object, and so on (we could break this down into steps as small as we like: “I first chose to rotate my shoulder 1/1000000 of an inch, and then chose to rotate it another 1/1000000, and then another 1/1000000…). The sum of this collection of activities is, “choosing to eat the peach.” Much of what happens next—down to the chewing, swallowing, digesting…—is as automatic as playing a scale at the piano, riding a bicycle, or catching a basketball.

A quantum flicker would have no stake in that sum we call “choosing,” no sense of the meaning behind “peach or cake?,” even if it did have some influence on how a given step plays out as the choice is being made and is implemented. It’s not like there is a peach button and a cake button, and there’s some quantum dart being blindly tossed in that general direction with a .5 (or some other) chance of the dart’s depressing one rather than the the other button, thus initiating the mental activities that amount to choosing, and so on.14

Randomness, though, is apparently not just a quantum level concern. Neurobiologist Martin Heisenberg has argued that, in conjunction with some set of (determined) laws, random (i.e., indeterminate) events at higher levels in the brain—namely, ion channels randomly releasing neurotransmitters—actually supports the existence of human free will, as this is a self-generated process. This is also an unconscious process, however, on which the brain’s owner has no influence. In general, what makes investigating free will important is that it is fundamentally a question about what’s required in order to hold people morally blameworthy for their actions. If you had no influence on your choice to a perform an action, how can I hold you blameworthy? Heisenberg’s conception of free will doesn’t reflect this. Consider his conception in terms of the could have done otherwise model: Had my ion channel not opened as it did, I would have done otherwise (not: could have done as I did or otherwise).

In simpler terms, I agree with Sam Harris’s response to Heisenberg: “If I were to learn that my decision to have a third cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will?”15

[NB: I’ve read Harris’s The Moral Landscape (as well, incidentally, as his book Free Will [2102]), but have not yet read Heisenberg’s article. I will review the below links later, and will make any edits here if I feel they’re needed:

In particular, I’m curious to know how such a tiny neural event could so forcefully commandeer the larger biological structures that exert influence on one’s conscious attitude towards the question, “Peach or cake?”: how does the neurotransmitter do it, and how does Heisenberg know it’s doing it? Also, I’d like to know if Heisenberg is taking randomness to mean something like, “we are unable to track all the variables involved in predicting when the ion channels will open, so we leave it as indeterminate.” If so, this is still determinism, it’s just too much for we humans to keep track of. I suspect he means the randomness is baked in, however, as the above video I linked is called “The Role of Objective Chance in the Brain and Behavior”—key word “objective.”]

While randomness may go on at the quantum level, we humans operate at the macro—emergent, Newtonian, structural, etc.—level, and so I think our concerns about free will are rightly grounded in determinism, which involves external and internal operations and pressures that, if determinism is true, guide thought and behavior. When I speak of restrictions on freedom, I am speaking deterministically.

This does not mean, however, that, even were I to accept determinism, I would reduce it to the (causally determined) activity of individual neurons, or even localized brain structures, any more than I would to quantum entities. To fully justify this would likely require, among other things, a lengthy investigation into the mind-brain relation, which I won’t get into here except to say that I don’t see how the chain of thoughts kicked of by the thought “I’d like some ice cream”—which leads to associated thoughts about where to get ice cream, whether it’s too late to have sugar, what flavor I’d like…—is identical to neurons interacting in a strictly material, causal chain or network, like so many dominoes knocking into one another. There must be a more complex (physicalist) story—perhaps a wholly different story entirely—to be told here than anything like what goes on with networks of toppling dominoes, especially if the arrangement and activity of those dominoes at a given instant result in, or are identical, a mental event.

At any rate, what I’m concerned with here is the notion of deterministic restriction, regardless of where a given determined (or causal) chain begins. Indeed, an ion channel’s opening up may be indeterminate, but its effects (if there are any significant effects) shouldn’t be, and perhaps there is no principled reason we cannot say that the moment following the channel’s opening is the precise state of the world that directly precedes one’s choice. This is still determinism, even though we couldn’t predict it from the Big Bang. (To see this: Imagine the temperature of a room is randomly fluctuating between 30 and 34 degrees, holding each change for between 10 and 12 hours; when at 32 degrees or below, water in the room turns to ice; yet, we would not say that water turning into ice is in itself random or indeterminate, even though we could not have predicted from the Big Bang at what times we would have water or ice in that room during the fluctuations.) And it is the sort of restriction on free will that I’m concerned with when thinking about the could have done otherwise thesis.16

We may conceptualize this different ways. Probabilistically: Determinism is true if, once the ion channel opens in that way, there is a probability of 1 that you’ll choose the peach (even though there was not a probability of 1 that the ion channel would open in that way). Modally: Determinism is true if, in all possible worlds in which the ion channel opens in that way, you choose the peach (even though there are some possible worlds in which the ion channel didn’t open in that way). In other words, you couldn’t have done otherwise.17

  1. There is what may be a theoretical problem with determinism that might be relevant to (the background of) the discussion here (I’m not sure). This problem arises given human consciousness’s special capacities for self-reflection, language, relatively complex thought, and so on. Thanks to these capacities, humans are responsive not just to stimuli, but to meaning—i.e., to reasons. If  you tell me the chocolate cake was made by a small company run mostly by neo-Nazis, I’ll choose the peach (while others might choose the cake on these grounds).

Now, suppose Tammy is trying to choose between black tea and green tea. Tammy remembers that there’s recently been assembled a Laplacian computer system that’s able to take a snapshot of all the particles in the universe, and can tell you what you are determined to do at any point at least five minutes into the future. Tammy downloads the app (called Laplace), and does whatever she needs to do to get things going. Laplace tells her that she is causally determined to choose the black tea. (If you think randomness is a real factor, imagine that Laplace assigns a probability; this must somehow also incorporate all other choices Tammy has made in her life, though, to be clear, Laplace can only trace history backwards if strict causal determinism is true.) Tammy sees the readout, “black tea,” and decides she doesn’t like a computer telling her what to do. So she chooses green tea.

Laplace should have foreseen this. But Tammy is determined to go against whatever Laplace says she’s determined to do. So, either Laplace should simply rule it indeterminate; or should attempt to list the series of events as they would occur (“you’ll see a report saying you’ll choose black, which you’ll go against and choose green; but that will be the report as well, so you’ll go against that and choose black; but that will also be in the report….”), but this will have no end to it; or it should give the nonsensical report that “Laplace will tell you what you’re determined to do, and you will do the opposite.” The latter seems like nonsense because the opposite must have been what she was determined to do. But the truth is that, absent the Laplacian report, black tea was what was determined; but then, her downloading the app must have been determined as well.

In the end, there’s no good way to make sense of this. Human agency is, at its core, a mental doing. We might be tempted to say that the report has enhanced18 Tammy’s free will. But she did not author her desire to rebel against Laplace—how she responds to reasons will depend on many factors having to do with things like her desires, beliefs, and disposition.

  1. There are certain understood restrictions on S’s alternatives to activity A. S, as a human, cannot, by mere force of will, sprout wings and fly, spontaneously calculate the square root of 17 to 3.271 trillion decimal places, see through an oak door, fall in love (in the genuine romantic sense) with a cloud that briefly existed over the Atlantic in 1873, suddenly become an infant again, turn apples into gold, rip through thick steal chains, or travel backwards through time. Surely physical possibility ensures that there are far more things S can’t do than S can do. This doesn’t negate free will.19

There will also be things that are physically possible (for many humans) that S can’t do: perhaps S can’t lift 200 pounds, play the Chopin etudes, eat peanuts without falling ill, converse in Chinese, score high on the SAT, imagine a dodecagon (maybe some people can do this; I can’t… no need to go as far as the chiliagon). These personal restrictions don’t negate free will.

Another sort of personal restriction that seem to not generally strike us as negating free will (though some philosophers and neuroscientists might disagree) has to do with dispositions—genetic, cultural, or otherwise—that contribute to intuitively felt desires, such as a hunger for food, a preference for one song over another, one’s sexual orientation, and physical attraction towards this or that person.

  1. There is another sort of physical possibility: That which it is possible for a particular human at a particular point in time to do. Say, my choosing the peach is causally determined. That’s the only action physically available to me. But of course it is certainly possible for me to choose to eat a peach. It’s not like trying to lift 300 pounds (which I cannot do) or sprout wings by force of will. Where the impossibility seems to lie here is in the choosing itself as a psychological event or mental event. (Perhaps our conception of free will should be strictly confined to the mental. That is where willing happens. So we are navigating not physical possibility in the exercise of free will, but mental possibility.)

  2. It’s also useful to consider that expanded possibilities may have nothing to do with free will—that is, do not enhance free will. Shoes make it possible to walk or run more efficiently (or at all over, say, a path of hot, jagged rocks), but it doesn’t mean that the choice one makes at any given point while wearing shoes isn’t determined. And if those shoes make it possible to jump ten feet into the air, or even over a hotel, the choice to jump may still be determined. Shoes (and cars, airplanes, maps, and so on) give you more physical freedom, but what actually do may still be determined.

It might—or might not; I’m not sure—also be worth point out that the jumping shoes don’t change the amount of power that can be exerted by your legs in themselves, any more than they allow you to walk barefoot more quickly on the path of hot, jagged rocks. They don’t change anything about your capacities as a free agent, any more than performing self-surgery and implanting wings that enable you to fly would prove that you could will yourself to sprout wings after all.

Similarly, cognitive enhancement—for example a pill that makes it possible for me to calculate square root of 17 to thousands of digits—would not change the fact that what I choose to do with that enhancement is determined (if determinism is true).

Finally, there is an interesting result of having more options that may seem counterintuitive. It would seem that the more options you (believe yourself to) have, the freer you are. It may be, however, that a great number of options amounts to a restriction. With two options, you lose one option by choosing the other. With 50 options, you lose 49 options by choosing. You’ve now lost more, which may (rightly) be perceived as lost freedom. (This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s felt like Buridan’s Ass when trying to choose a deodorant, or who has had so much to do in a day that it feels paralyzing—indeed, it may feel that nothing’s gotten done, even when a few items did get checked off the To Do list.)

  1. So far, questions about physical possibility seem external to the question of free will’s existence.

  2. Physical impossibility is subordinate to logical impossibility. S can’t draw a square circle, be simultaneously alive and not alive (in the same world), or choose both {the peach and not the cake} and {the cake and not the peach} (in the same world). There are logical possibilities that may be physically impossible (e.g., flipping a coin that turns into Barack Obama mid-air), but there are no physical possibilities that are logically impossible. So, questions about logical possibility seem to be external to the question of free will’s existence.

  3. A clarification: In everyday talk, we often conflate the mental activity of choosing and outward action. Saying “I chose (or decided) to go to dinner” is not the same as saying “I went to dinner.” You can choose to go to dinner, yet not go: “I told my friends to save me a seat, but then I fell asleep in the bath.” This is why I refined could have done otherwise to could have chosen to do otherwise. “Choosing” is a kind of “doing,” but this gets tricky. If activity A is itself the choosing, then it’s odd to say S chooses to do activity A—it threatens to become: S chooses to choose to choose to choose… More on this below.

For now I’ll note that I use choosing, decide, and such to refer to mental activities; actionperform, and the like are for behavioral activities, and I suspect there is an important distinction between them.

  1. Distinguishing choosing (as an internal mental activity) and actions (as a chosen-to-be-performed outward activity) in such a way that treats both as expressions of free will might lead to new problems. Choosing is itself an activity. We choose freely (or not). Since a freely chosen (or at least a non-vetoed-by-“executive-function”) activity requires being chosen, we must (freely) choose to choose that activity. There is no way to say that there is some initial choice that was freely authored by the agent (i.e., that could have been otherwise). So there is either an infinite regress (impossible), or there is an unchosen starting point. The latter must be true, and I think that this is what we call desire, inclination, disposition, instinct, and so on.

Perhaps there is a way to resolve this regression. (Freely) choosing is not an act in itself. It is rather how we characterize certain kinds of activities. The choice doesn’t exist per se—that is, without the presence of something chosen—any more than you can visually perceive without there being something perceived (even if that something is pitch black darkness). This is part of what makes free will a metaphysical question rather than a physical one. Someone can be bound and tied, yet still have free will. Paralyzed from head to toe, and have free will. Be controlled like a puppet, and have free will. People in this situation can mentally choose bodily actions which the paralysis, puppeteer, etc. countermand. So, “I chose the peach,” becomes shorthand for “I willed my body to eat the peach, and did not will my body to eat the cake.” That sort of willing, and the activities it summarizes (grabbing the peach, moving it to one’s mouth, etc.), we call choosing.

I think this ultimately does not fix the problem, as we might as well now use the word willing where we were using the word choosing. And the same problem as before emerges. So, I will use choosing and willing roughly interchangeably, and will consider these to characterize the mental or conscious—or more broadly, psychological or cognitive—dimensions of free will, with the above complications in the background.

  1. This distinction in mind, a further refinement about determinism.

I’m concerned here with determining—or at least guiding—pressures that are external to awareness. That is, pressures contributing to actions we would acknowledge as issuing from our self, as when choosing the peach rather than the cake. These are unlike the pressures we are fully aware of, particularly if they result in actions we realize we’d rather not perform; say, when someone jumps from a burning balcony, or when your big sister subjects you to the stop-hitting-yourself routine.

Such pressures exist, and at the very least often guide our activities, whether or not strict determinism is true. I’ll group these pressures as external and internal.

External pressures happen outside of the mind (as it were), and come in a wide variety.

There’s priming, for example, such as when after having seen a picture of a mailbox an hour ago, you are most likely to fill in “l _ _ _ er” with “ett” rather than “add”, as you would have done had you seen a house. Or when seeing the word “he” used exclusively in a writing leads you to associate the writing’s subject matter with masculinity rather than femininity.

And there are people whose job it is to design airports (down to the floor tile patterns) so that visitors unconsciously follow a certain path (for example, into the food court, with time enough to spare for lunch thanks to the efficiency of the airport’s guiding—or “wayfinding”—system).

There are also social pressures that can unconsciously or quasi-consciously influence our choices—e.g., genuinely liking a song you might not otherwise like, because the object of your infatuation loves it; or seeing someone else bite into the peach and exclaim, “mmmm that’s a great peach!” In the latter case you surely know you’ve been influenced, but it’s also true that you now have a strengthened desire for the peach rather than for the cake: it’s your desire, but you didn’t author it. It happened to you. And you also still feel you could have chosen the cake.20

Goings-on in the brain and broader nervous system that unconsciously influence behavior—via hormones, neurotransmitters, etc.—also count as external pressures.

Internal pressures happen in one’s conscious experience (so to speak). Hunger is a basic internal pressure.

A more complicated example: You usually like the taste of chocolate cake more than that of peaches. That’s an internal pressure. You must also factor in other internal pressures in your decision, such as how you’ll feel after eating one of these items (regret, sugar crash, etc.). Which of these have the greatest effects on you, and even which you (mis)remember having had the greatest effects on you in the past, are themselves internal pressures.

We have to be careful when talking about internal pressures. Pain, for example, can be one. That I dislike being set on fire is partly because it hurts.21 I didn’t choose that. But I’m aware of this as a reason for jumping to my death rather than choosing to face the fire. Is this different than choosing the pleasurable experience of, say, caramel ice cream over the (for me) less pleasurable experience of chocolate? I’m not entirely certain. But, again, I’m particularly concerned here with pressures that are unconscious, such that we choose something believing that not choosing it was also a viable option. I don’t think the same is true of jumping away from fire, not for most of us (imagine standing barefoot on a metal balcony that suddenly becomes red hot; it’s hard to imagine anyone who has pain receptors and functioning legs not leaping upward at that moment).

I’m interested in when it really does feel that we could have gone either way, and in the determining pressures we don’t realize sent us one way rather than another.

Belief is another internal pressure (at least in its conscious cognitive dimension). Belief is passive: it happens to you. Try believing you’re not reading this. Belief is responsive to reasons, even when those reasons aren’t obvious. Someone might believe some proposition for buried political reasons. But if it’s a genuine belief, it’s something that happens to you, not a willed state of mind. And yet belief is not generally considered a negation of free will.

Belief also restricts our activities in another way. If you believe something to not be physically or personally possible, you probably won’t attempt to perform that activity. Same goes for if you, say, believe something to be unpleasant that in reality you would find pleasant. And so on.

  1. To make the external/internal distinction clearer: A phantom limb is an internal mistake about the external world. There is conscious experience of a physical body part that doesn’t exist, due to things happening in the external world.

  2. In general, no single pressure determines (or guides) one’s choice (or action). Rather, there will be some sort of balance of pressures. As a crude example, imagine the pressures involved with predicting what a billiard ball would do when struck a certain way. Even if we account for table quirks, chalk volume, the shape of the stick’s cue—these pressures can influence how the ball responds to being struck, but with a fair amount of predictability. But this isn’t complex enough. Now imagine trying to make those predictions when the pool table is on a small boat on a wavy sea. The ball is subject to a complex of (often competing) pressures (including its own physical attributes); its behavior will reflect the balance of all that.

(A crude example, namely because billiard balls lack minds and thus certainly lack anything that could be mistaken for free will: there’s nothing that it’s like to be a billiard ball.)

  1. To drive home the point that an inability to choose our desires does not count against free will: Suppose we decide free will doesn’t exist due to that inability. But now a free will pill has been made that somehow endows complete free will. (This is similar to the question of what it might look like to program free well into a computer; see my forthcoming “Free Will Is [Mostly] Irrelevant”). What would this look like? What would it do? How would it give you the ability to choose your desires? You would have to desire the desires you choose. There is absolutely no solution to this (which is part of why I think the whole free will question is misguided and ultimately irrelevant).

This problem is well known: we don’t get to choose our desires, preferences, or dispositions; and even if we do endeavor to cultivate new desires, preferences, or disposition, we don’t get to choose what those are either. This hasn’t stopped most of us from feeling strongly—and even believing explicitly—that we are in charge of our activities: “Nature (or God, or my computer programmer) gave me my desires; I decide what to do with them.” (Some, of course, explicitly believe this does negate free will; see… lots of neuroscientists. And maybe for good reason: Notice that you have to make the same claim for the desires that guide your decision of what to do with them.)

We would have a similar problem were we to be given the opportunity to choose our beliefs: You’d have to believe which beliefs you desire to have. This will always come down to a starting point authored external to your conscious efforts.

  1. Most of the restrictions on our activities I’ve mentioned so far aren’t generally considered to negate free will’s existence. Having this or that (internal) preference, through nature or nurture, doesn’t negate free will. And being unable to do the physically impossible doesn’t negate free will. External pressures would be seen by many to negate free will provided those pressures have the final word on what activities we actually perform (i.e., are such that we could not have done otherwise).

Now that I’ve reviewed what does and doesn’t generally count as a negation of free will, I’ll begin exploring the implications of all this for the potential paradox?

  1. It’s possible to imagine S living a life in which there is only available a relatively small range of possible activities at any given moment. Indeed, this seems to be the case for many people, not just due to general restrictions on physical or personal possibility, but also due to thinks like socio-economic status and education. It’s possible for S to have only a small range of options, and still exercise free will over that range of options: peach, cake, chips, or wait ’til dinner?

  2. Imagine S has a life in which there are exactly two courses of activity available at any given moment. Suppose that if S chooses one activity, S always could have freely chosen the other. We would say S has free will.

  3. Imagine S has a life in which at any given moment there is one course of activity available at any given moment, though there appear (to S and those around S) to be more. Throughout life, S always presumes to be choosing freely: “I chose the peach, but could have chosen the cake,” S says. We would be inclined to say that S doesn’t have free will. But consider another version of this story.

  4. Imagine S, as an adult, is introduced to a life in which there is one course of activity available at any given moment, and there do not appear to be any alternatives. For example, if S is bound by ropes. The only (significant) option is to stay bound. S may try to move or even to break free, however. So it seems free will is still in the running. Similarly, I can try to sprout wings and fly (i.e., direct my will towards that task), but will fail.

  5. Albritton, in the aforementioned “Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action” (see Footnote 2), questions what it means to try to do something you know to be physically impossible. There might be a significant distinction, for example, between “trying” to jump over a lectern and “trying” to jump over a hotel, even if you know you will fail at both. If there is a distinction, perhaps there is a line you cross somewhere in between lectern and hotel. His point for bringing this up is a good one:

In my present cognitive state, that is, I’m not inclined to count anything I might succeed in doing as “wiggling my teeth,” “jumping over this building,” “flying around it by flapping my arms,” and that’s why I’m not inclined to count anything I might do as trying to do any of those things; and that’s why my prima facie incapacity to try to do any of them isn’t an incapacity, and doesn’t show any lack of freedom in my will. (page 245 in the journal, 416 in Oxford Free Will book)

It’s a fascinating question. Suppose we make the lectern 4 inches taller… 6 inches… 12 inches? At some point, it becomes difficult to make sense of what it would mean to try to jump over it. On the other hand, we encourage people—or understand what it means for them—to do things that are highly unlikely and may even be known to be impossible; for example, for a paralyzed person to try to wiggle her toes (after 30 years of paralysis?); she still knows what it means to try, provided she remembers a time when she could will her toes to wiggle. Trying to wiggle her toes might even help rebuild neural connections that eventually lead to a mind/will-body reconnection.

A far less extreme case might be when my hand is thoroughly asleep and I cannot move my fingers. I know that I’ll fail the first few moments, but I know what it is to (sometimes in a panic) try. I know I can’t move them while it’s thoroughly asleep, but trying might wake the hand up faster? There’s a certain automaticity to this: I think it, and my hand eventually moves (when the hand—i.e., when the world—is ready). I trust that all I need to do is think it, and my body knows what to do from there. Perhaps this is the same with “trying” to sprout wings: I think it, and trust that, if it does happen, it won’t be because I consciously understand anything about what it takes for wings to sprout (rewriting my DNA or unlocking some hidden potential in my genes—maybe the wings would then sprout over a period of months). Rather, I trust that, if it does happen, it will be because my body knows what to do, once I’ve willed it to. (Having the thought, “I’d like to move my hand,” isn’t enough. I have to actually will it: “Move, hand,” as it were.)

At any rate, I (think I) can imagine sprouting wings, what it might feel like, etc.; and to use one of Albritton’s examples, I (think I) can imagine what it would feel like to wiggle my teeth (the same as it does when I use my fingers to do it, minus the fingers). The body then makes it happen or it doesn’t (irrespective of whether my imaginings about such experiences are correct).

  1. Trying may be empirically addressable. That is, once brain science is sophisticated enough to tell us the ways in which brain activity of, say, unsuccessfully willing to move my asleep [or amputated] hand differs from successfully willing to move my awake (or robotic prosthetic implant) hand. People (and monkeys) are able to control robotic arms that have been wired into their brains. This makes intuitive sense, and I imagine it would look no different than moving one’s biological arm (there’s whatever Libet-style machines detect before it happens; there’s the conscious act of willing (which at this point is a self-report as it can’t yet be detected by machines; this is perhaps a flaw in current methods); and there’s the stuff going on in the motor cortex as it moves; etc.).

What we need next is to see what happens when willing something humanly impossible, like sprouting wings or jumping over a hotel. For the former, would trying to will such a thing look neurologically different if when done, over a period of years, in a highly realistic virtual reality environment where such a thing is possible? Perhaps the environment could even feed stimuli into your back so that you “feel the wing-buds sprouting.” For the hotel case, how would this differ, neurologically, from jumping over a basketball? Or from jumping with special shoes that actually make clearing the hotel possible?

  1. We might be tempted to say, when S is bound by ropes, that S’s will is not free, because S cannot get up and walk. But getting up is just one of the many things S can will. It turns out there’s lot of willings S can in fact turn into action: S can crinkle their nose, blink their eyelids, hold their breath (for a while), hum a song, and rub the roof of their mouth with their tongue.

These options can be removed by injecting S with a thoroughly paralyzing solution. But S can still think. S can imagine debating over whether to imagine eating a peach or some cake, and can choose to imagine eating the cake, and can think, “I could have just now chosen to imagine eating the peach instead.”22 And S can try to open their eyes (at some point, once the solution’s worn off, it will work).

So nothing here negates free will. Besides, if S had free will before being bound up, then S’s free will clearly hasn’t been removed; rather, there’s a restriction on the fullest exercise of S’s free will, but not due to physical impossibility per se. Rather, it is due to S’s realizing there are restrictions in place.23

  1. Consider the same scenario of S being bound or paralyzed, but from birth, with no knowledge of the world outside of a small dark room. No knowledge of peaches or cake. (Perhaps S is kept alive through tubes and such, unknown to S.) It’s hard to know just what range of mental activities would be available to S. Indeed, S would likely be in a state of complete psychological disintegration. I take it this scenario is not of much use as, if S doesn’t have free will in this case, it’s due to having been denied personhood and anything like an intact mind.

It is useful in one way, though. Taken along with 21 above, it seems there’s no good way to show that restricting bodily and mental activity by external pressures can amount to anything more than denying the expression of free will.

  1. On reflection, then, there must be a distinction made between being denied the performance of a choice—going to dinner, breaking bonds, sprouting wings, calculating an impossible math problem—and believing that one personally authored the choice to do what one actually does. In other words, a distinction between, on the one hand, choosing to go to dinner and failing, in which case I recognize my restriction; and on the other hand, believing that I freely made the choice to go to dinner (when it was actually the only choice I could have made, due to my lack of free will).

  2. It seems that the scenario in 20 is the only one that poses a challenge to free will’s existence. That is, when S has only one available course of activity, while there appears to be more, so that S always thinks, “I could have chosen to do otherwise.” In this scenario, it is only physically possible for S to choose just as S chose. Indeed, this could be the case when S is paralyzed as well—S could only have chosen to imagine eating the cake.

One of the difficulties with free will is that S would think, “I could have chosen to do otherwise” with or without free will (or at least to try to do otherwise, if S is bound by ropes). I can’t conceive of anything in particular that it would be like to have free will, as distinct from not having free will. Indeed, if on some days S actually can—well, must—choose freely, on other days not, it presumably wouldn’t feel any different to S.

But this is highly flawed, because in that scenario S, even if S could choose on what days to have or not have free will (e.g., by deciding each morning)24, the days “without” free will are really just days in which free will’s expression is restricted. It’s not something that goes off and on like a light; you have it or you don’t. Determinism isn’t true one second and not the next (that’s part of the definition of indeterminacy).

And if randomness is a real factor, the presumption seems to be that if it influences you only once during your life, you don’t have free will. Would this also mean that if it affects one 80-year-old for the first time in his life, then none of us who’ve yet to succumb to randomness has free will? Or is it an open question for each of us? We might think the worst-off drug addicts have no free will, but this says nothing for the rest of us. But how would we distinguish this from simply saying their free will is restricted, buried under the addiction (addicts might even have two sets of free will: one that chooses drugs, one that doesn’t; maybe they have even more free will; addiction is too complicated and mysterious to get any further into here).

Furthermore, had that 80-year-old died one day before the random event, would we then say that he had free will? Or would we say that he managed to die before it was restricted?

The danger here, again, is the idea of having free will sometimes, sometimes not; rather than viewing our existing free will as sometimes restricted, sometimes not. Perhaps then, a good conception of free will would view that term as the name we’ve given to the moments when we happen to not be (unknowingly) forced toward one activity—it’s not some metaphysical gift or some special light in our souls that makes us free; not something we’re born with. It’s a lapse in the usual constraints of physical impossibility—a lapse that may turn out to never occur in anyone, ever.

But wait. Then we would talk about the potential for free will, should such a lapse occur, with no internal changes in the adult human needed (unlike, say, a snail, which would also need the addition of the sort of consciousness that enables it to respond to reasons). And then we’re back to where we started, qualifying all of our talk of free will with the words potential for, which is not meaningfully different than simply keeping it as free will (i.e., free expression that could be happening all along is restricted either way; and not being able to sprout wings is what we really mean here, etc., and thus we start this whole essay over).

But no matter. This is getting into the details of the definition, and that’s not the aim here.

  1. At any rate, it seems that S either has free will or not, and that the restriction by physical possibility (a term I now use to encompass all manner of possibility, including personal) to choose doesn’t seem to negate free will. To see this, imagine S has free will and is able to exercise it one day per week. Now imagine one day per month. Once per year. Once per decade. Once per 40 years. But in this last scenario, S dies at age 39. S had free will, but was restricted so that the chance to express it never arose. However, throughout S’s life, in which only one course of activity was available, S always believed, “I could have chosen to do otherwise.” Call this the Single-Option Scenario (SOS).25

  2. When SOS is the case, it is physically impossible for S to do other than S actually does (even though other options are generally physically possible; e.g., it’s physically possible for a human to choose a peach over cake, but it was only physically possible for S, in that moment, to choose the cake). If all humans were in the same situation as S (let’s presume they are, for argument), this would seem to negate free will’s existence for all of us. But, we’ve already seen that physical impossibility isn’t enough to negate free will, though it may suppress its expression, whether S knows it (as when tied up) or not (as when S doesn’t believe it’s possible to walk across a floor cleverly painted to look like a deep pool of water).

  3. A resolved conclusion (that fails):

A life with only one available activity at any given moment would seem to constitute a robust example of lacking free will. Indeed, if choosing to do otherwise is impossible, it must follow that we don’t have free will. Case closed. In other words, restriction on the act of choosing is the only restriction on our activities that negates free will, by definition.

But wait, examples such as the one described in point 25 apparently demonstrate that one could go a lifetime with free will thus restricted. This would feel no different than having free will. (If, indeed, it makes sense to talk in that way; this, of course, will depend on the details of one’s definition of free will; e.g., again, if you think not choosing your desires is a problem problem for free will, this way of talking may seem especially nonsensical.)

How to resolve this tension? I’m not sure. One could say that all of this points to free will’s nonexistence, or to the need to settle on a less confused notion of free will (i.e., compatibilism). I’m partial to the former, but won’t explore that here. And I find the latter unsatisfying because it starts an idea, free will, and turns it into something else seemingly just for the benefit of those who believe it’s important that we have it. But these camps are using the term to denote (at least) two different things. It’s possible a group of two people, one of whom accepts free will and one who doesn’t, to tell the other that their description of the physical world is accurate; but that description does or doesn’t entail free will. In other words: if you figure out that you don’t have free will, and then redefine the concept just so you can say you have it (and have had it all along)… well, I find that unsatisfying. (Definitions of free will often seem designed to show that others have it so we can hold them morally blameworthy of their actions, and thus deserving of punishment.)

There are other ways we might try to resolve this. For example, we might conclude that free will is not a positive phenomenon, i.e., is not due to the presence of some thing in itself that enables humans to transcend or escape determinism; but is rather an absence of restriction. That is, free will is the name we give to human activities that take place in (those rare) domains where physical impossibility is not all encompassing. Perhaps consciousness is itself a basic easing off by the restriction of physical impossibility; more complex forms of consciousness are given by more easing off, and eventually endow “free will.” I think this sort of fanciful recasting of free will still counts as a whatever-it-takes redefining of the idea, and wouldn’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Not to mention that this is essentially the same suggestion I made at the end of point 24, about the potential for free will. I won’t further explore this potential resolution, and won’t suggest any others.

In the end, perhaps there is simply no difference between having free will and not having it. Particularly in terms of lived experience, and if you don’t believe you might be sent to Heaven or Hell for your (free) choices. A lifetime of restricted free will (in the SOS scenario, i.e., with no known external binding) would feel no different than one of nonexistent free will, or perhaps even of expressed free will (expressed free will might be even better for those who’d express poor judgment… a judgment faculty they didn’t choose; see, there is no blank-slate starting point for the human agent’s desires and dispositions). This threatens to make the free will question seem irrelevant, which I write about here: “Free Will Is (Mostly) Irrelevant”

  1. To finally conclude this exploration, I evaluate the paradox—tension?—as unresolved. Regardless of whether we have free will or whether its existence is important, in our standard conceptions of that idea, contradictory conclusions seem to obtain:

Physical impossibility does not negate free will’s existence, though it may restrict its expression, especially in the case of mental restriction such that S believes that S could have done (or, especially, could have chosen to do) otherwise. If, in fact, it turns out S could not have chosen to do otherwise (determined either at the point of the Big Bang, or determined by some random event that could not have been predicted at the Big Bang; notice, again, that both really come down to some kind of determinism), then it would mean that S was physically incapable of doing otherwise. That is, forces are hard at work on S’s mental choosings and willings, whether or not S knows it. This suggests that free will, or at least its expression, is physically impossible. We have said though, that neither internal nor external restrictions on free will are enough to negate its existence. And we’ve (convincingly?) distinguished between free will’s not existing and its (thoroughly) restricted expression; the latter doesn’t threaten free will’s existence.

Thus, we see that we can (seemingly) reasonably say that (a) S could never choose—i.e., could never will—to do otherwise, and therefore does not have free will; while also saying that (b) the forces that worked on S, making only one willing physically possible at any given turn, do not, in themselves, negate free will. (a) and (b) are mutually opposed. Thus the tension.

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Further Reading


  1. For the record, I don’t think free will poses nearly as important a question as it’s usually framed as posing. I explain why in “Free Will Is (Mostly) Irrelevant.” Still, the idea plays a crucial role in our lives (e.g., as a basis for our [retributivist] legal system and as a major feature of monotheistic religions), so it’s important to keep chipping away at it.

    This reminds me of something Robert Nozick wrote in his preface to the “Free Will” section of Philosophical Explanations, upon admitting that the “frustrating and unyielding” character of free will had resulted in his approaching the issue from many directions: “If we cannot solve the problem, at least we can surround it” (page 293). I’d like us to surround the idea, only to notice ourselves staring at one another across an empty theater. Sometimes intractability is a symptom of there being no real problem to solve (except for the incredibly difficult problem of showing that there’s no real problem to solve).

  2. For a classic (not to mention entertaining) discussion of what amounts, roughly, to a distinction between questions 1 and 2, see Rogers Albritton’s paper “Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action” (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Nov., 1985), pp. 239-251) (also available in the excellent collection: Free Will (Oxford Readings in Philosophy), Second Edition [2003], ed. Gary Watson).
  3. I suspect the tension I’m working on here will exist for most, maybe all, definitions of free will, though in some cases with fewer items that count as restrictions on free will; for example, desires and such may be less of a problem for compatibilists.
  4. We might call these efforts willings, but below I’ll speculate below about whether willing might be interchangeable with choosing. We are rarely this careful with our language, however (i.e., in the semantic expression we give of our intuitions surrounding these activities). In many cases, it seems choosing is meant as the sum of willing and physically acting out the willed behavior. In other cases, it seems there are mental willings (e.g., choosing) and non-conscious behavioral willings (e.g., typing; I don’t consciously choose to move each finger as I type: there’s an automaticity to this, but I will consciously will if I need to type an uncommon character, like “Ω.” I have not attempted to be rigorous about these distinctions, in large part because it’s really not clear which of these semantic models (which often perhaps amount to metaphors) does the best job of picking out what’s actually happening. I also want to leave my reflections to their own semantic, conceptual, and metaphorical devices, as it were.
  5. Thomas Nagel has written a clear and simple account of some of the vexing issues surrounding this conception of free will in the chapter “Free Will” of his book What Does it All Mean? (1987; New York: Oxford University Press).
  6. I use the word restriction throughout this writing. This may not be the best metaphor. If free will exists, and it is “restricted” by, say, being fed fewer rather than more options for its expression (or, rather, is being denied fewer rather than more opportunities to arise at all, etc.; depending on how one conceives of free will), it’s not as if free will is a physical thing being held down (or being allowed to emerge from its deterministic cage). Nor is it a thing that can be literally shrunken or expanded. Restriction here is a short way of contrasting free will’s expression, exercise, engagement, etc. Hopefully what this means comes through in context. Perhaps in some cases dampening would be a better metaphor.
  7. I borrow this simple, but interesting, example from Nagel’s aforementioned “Free Will” chapter in What Does it All Mean?.
  8. While choosing seems to be a mental activity, there is some vagueness about when mental willing transitions into physical action. I sometimes find myself in bed thinking, “get up… get up now… get up now… on 5, 4, 3, 2, 1……. get up now….” and at some point I will finally get up. I never know why this was the moment I actually got up, and often wonder if this was due to my final willing to get up, or if it was something my body spontaneously did, deciding on its own to comply or cooperate with my mental willing. Did free will suddenly kicked in, the restriction lifted, etc.? Or was that last willing the real willing, because it’s the one that made me move? While all of the initial willing really just me psyching myself up—e.g., by visualizing myself rising—to finally move, while knowing that I wouldn’t move at first? We might have similar experiences when trying to initiate a difficult phone call, or jump out of a plane as a first-time skydiver. (See also the below discussion on trying; e.g., trying to move a hand that’s asleep).

    I’m avoiding involved discussions of Benjamin Libet and the like. For that, try “Conscious Willing and the Emerging Sciences of Brain and Behavior” (2009) by Timothy O’Connor. But I will say this. In O’Connor’s assessment of Libet’s studies, he wonders speculatively about the possibility of subjects experiencing a “growing anticipation that they are about to act.” When I’m telling myself to get out of bed, I seem to experience several false starts, and then one of them takes, and the feeling that I’m about to act seems to be stronger in that case (just as perhaps it was stronger in each of the instances leading to the final act), though I can’t be sure; this might be after-the-fact confabulation. I’d wager that Libet-style machine would register the final act, but would not register the earlier stages of unsuccessful willings (the earliest of which I know full well won’t take, but I don’t intend them to); in other words, I’ve decided well before moving that I was going to move, and, as O’Connor also points out, this also goes unregistered by Libet’s machines—it was just a matter of getting my body to cooperate. I also wonder if there’s some penumbral area, let’s say, just before I will successfully, which Libet’s machine would give a false positive to still-unsuccessful willings. So, if my body doesn’t have free will (like a car), I do (and I’m the driver). What I mean by “I” here is another metaphysical questions I’ll forego discussing today, except to say: it’s the thing with free will.

  9. There are other deterministic models. For example, the view that God has known forever what you will do. You can obviously never do otherwise than what God already knows you’re going to do, and so you must not have free will.
  10. We must avoid the temptation to view the reversion of the world as occurring against a static temporal background. This mistake looks something like: “If you rewind and then replay the tape enough times, there is a non-zero probability that you will eventually perform some alternative to A,” as though “rewinding and replaying the tape” is a repeatable event that happens within a continuously forward meta-timeline; or, put another way, such that God may observe from the outside (i.e., you don’t rewind God when you rewind the material world). When we revert the world, we are reverting everything that is the case in all possible worlds. It is, then, not the case that you make the choice a second time—it is always the first time, and the reversion never happened.

    You might counter that, in theory, one could create a closed system that does make it possible to rerun the same state of affairs several times—for example, via a computer simulation. I don’t think so. Each time you restart the program, something has changed; for example, the hardware has seen wear and tear, and the energy currents that power the simulation would need only be slightly different—even just infinitesimally different—in order to to say it’s not precisely the same state of affairs, given the complexity such a simulation would require. We may even be justified in saying that different individuals—even if these individuals are the same person over time—observing the results of such re-run simulations could contribute a nontrivial difference. But suppose you were able to be precise in this regard. The determinist would say that running the simulation a trillion times would be no different than running it once; the indeterminist (a term I use to mean, roughly, that an agent’s doings aren’t strictly or principally determined by factors outside of the agent’s conscious efforts) would say that each instance carries some probability of being significantly different.

  11. Another way to conceptualize all this is: Suppose you pause the world precisely before S chooses to do A. You make, say, 999 quadrillion exact duplicates of the world (none of which may have any interaction with the others). You un-pause all of them simultaneously. If S chooses A in all of them, this is strong inductive evidence that determinism is true, particularly if A was arrived at deliberatively. If there is at least one world in which S chooses A, and at least one in which S does not, then determinism—at least of the classical sort (e.g., such that S’s choice was made at the time of the Big Bang—is not true, and S might have free will. (Non-conscious random factors still need addressing.)
  12. Hodgson has written a book on the subject (I haven’t read it): Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will (2012)
  13. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, (Robert Kane, editor); Chapter: “Quantum Physics, Consciousness, and Free Will” (David Hodgson); pages 107–108; 2002 edition. The bit about Max Tegmark is taken from Charles Seife’s 2000 article “Cold Numbers Unmake the Quantum Mind” (Science, 04 Feb 2000: Vol. 287, Issue 5454, pp. 791), in which Seife quotes an interview with Tegmark.
  14. I could speculate about some explanation, but my efforts strike me as highly fanciful and overly specific (and perhaps untestable). For example, suppose that, in deliberating, you develop two mental models in the brain: one for choose to eat the peach, one for choose to eat the cake. You do this by imagining, for example, what it would feel like to eat the peach and the cake, and what it would feel like after. These amount to competing activities because they attempt to utilize related resources in the brain (it’s not like trying to decide between, “should I have the peach or should I buy the house on 7th Ave?”). These mental activities initiate the organization of biological structures, one for each activity (though they may share enough of the same foundational material resources in the brain so that one or the other activity could be manifest depending on the structure that is developed on those materials).

    Whichever structure is most robustly constituted—i.e., the first of them to result in a sufficiently explicit activity-inducing structure—wins (e.g., the chocolate surpasses the “executive” defenses attempting to veto breaking your diet, and initiates the decisive pro-cake move, which may at this point be executed with near-automaticity; almost as if a sneeze). It could be that, if resources in the brain are being dedicated to sending energy to A or B, a random event could tilt the balance by just enough for one of them to win. Why not? I have no idea, but I like the elements of this that remind me of work in embodied cognition.

  15. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (2011), page 104.
  16. I’ll again note, but won’t explore the question of whether the randomness—of say a coin flip or weather patterns—is a euphemism for human ignorance about an impossibly complex data set in relation to events that we are thus forced to think about probabilistically; or whether it really just is the case that the universe organizes itself probabilistically, and thus there is no fact of the matter about what will happen with the weather one week from today. Weather is famously chaotic. Notice, though, that even in (less complex) cases where it seems determinism must be in play, such as with a fair coin flip, we still must think about the outcome as 50-50. Even if I’m looking at the quarter and I know what the outcome is, the rational probability for you to assigned is 50-50—though this is really a probability about the success of your guess, not about how the coin landed, which is already settled and has an actual probability of 1 in terms of what will be there when I open my hand to show you the coin). I think the Monty Hall Problem provides a terrific case for demonstrating how easily most of us intuitively confuse assigning probability to the success of our guess about an already settled outcome with assigning probability to an unsettled outcome.
  17. If we back up to just before the ion channel opens, should we think of the willings as indeterminate, conditional on the ion channel’s behavior? Indeterminate willings occur in anywhere from one to all-but-one possible worlds. (If the event occurs in zero worlds, this is the same as saying that its not occurring is strictly determined—i.e., it is impossible.)
  18. More on enhancement below
  19. At least not for most of us. Not all would agree. For example, I take it that Elizabeth Anscombe would disagree; see her paper “Soft Determinism” in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (The Collected philosophical papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, Volume 2) (1981), where she states that she “never thought that freedom was compatible with physical impossibility” (page 172). For a rebuttal to Anscombe, see Rogers Albritton’s paper “Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action” (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Nov., 1985), pp. 239-251).
  20. An interesting case: Suppose you hate peaches and strongly crave cake, and someone bets you that you’ll choose the cake, as a test of your will. You could choose the peach to win the bet. Suppose you find yourself with such a dare, in some form or another, every time you crave cake. Perhaps you could hold out indefinitely, depending on your relationship with food. Change the cake to alcohol, and suppose you’re an active alcoholic. How long would you hold out?
  21. I also don’t want to be disfigured, die, or have hospital bills.
  22. Fascinatingly, choosing what to imagine does not seem to pose anything like the above-noted problem of choosing, as a mental event, what to choose, etc.
  23. An interesting scenario is one in which S simply wills to remain tied up, because S is fine with how things are, or because S doesn’t believe there to be any other available option. There’s something odd about classifying not willing anything to count as willing things to say the same, but I won’t explore this.
  24. I’m reminded here of the alcoholic who becomes a hermit, staying home alone to avoid temptation, to avoid conceding his (free) will to the night, to avoid the aforementioned sneeze-like automaticity of downing a stream of booze that being out and about could initiate; staying indoors is something like tying himself to the Odyssean mast, but while deader inside. In AA culture, I believe they call such people Dry Drunks. You’re sober, but you aren’t living as you’re deprived of your usual medicine, booze, with nothing to replace it.
  25. Another note on belief. Suppose Tammy indeed has multiple options at any point in life, but only ever believes herself to have one. Suppose the evidence for alternative activities is there in front of her, but for whatever reason (sometimes rather banal reasons) she never notices them. Does this restrict—or maybe a better put: narrow the expressive sphere of—her free will (if it exists); or does this, rather, constitute a lack of free will? I strongly suspect the former, given that the scenario is contingent upon her happening to not have convincing evidence for her alternative options. Suppose she were to notice evidence for alternative options only on Tuesdays. Would we say she only has free will on Tuesdays? Or would be say that she is only able to express her free will on Tuesdays? I think the latter, even if she always did the same thing she would have done had she not noticed the alternative options (which raises the possibility that the doing of one’s only available option may still count as an expression of free will).

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