The Problems of Consciousness

What is Free Will, and Do We Have It?

The notion of free will, freedom of the will, comes up periodically when thinking and talking about consciousness, because it seems, or at least it sometimes seems to some people, as though free will is inextricably linked to consciousness. For instance, it may seem as though we have free will if and only if consciousness affects the physical world.

There is a theory of free will which seems to do a good job of explaining how the concept works in ordinary objective language, how some actions can be freely willed and others not, and that at the same time separates the concept from questions of consciousness, determinism, and even Divine Omniscience. While it might eventually be useful to expand this page to include other accounts of free will, for the moment we will just outline this particular theory (which is roughly what the professional philosophers call Compatibilism) if only because it tells us that, as far as it is concerned, we can go about our business of thinking about consciousness without having to worry about free will at the same time.

One of the things that we say when describing a freely-willed act is "I could have done otherwise." The "could" implies a counterfactual of some kind; let us expand a bit on what sort of counterfactual it is.

Things like "I could have done otherwise if that professional wrestler hadn't been holding onto my wrists and forcing me to do it" clearly don't count (since this is, after all, a paradigmatic case in which one was not acting of one's own free will).

It seems at least plausible that "I could have done otherwise if the hardware random-number generator in my brain had produced a different result" doesn't really capture the essence of free will, either. As someone clever has pointed out [need a citation here!], acting with free will doesn't mean acting at random, at least not as the term is usually used. (See also the discussion of randomness and consciousness in a note on "explanation".)

The best expansion of "I could have done otherwise" seems to be "I could have done otherwise if I'd wanted to", "I could have done otherwise if I'd felt like it", "I could have done otherwise had I been so inclined." But in fact I didn't want to, I didn't feel like it, I wasn't so inclined, so I did what I did. The counterfactual alternate universes in which I did otherwise are universes in which I had different instantaneous desires at the relevant moment.

So it seems plausible to say that an act is freely willed, done of the actor's own free will, just when that act tracks the actor's desires; when the actor would not have done the thing had he had relevantly different desires, and when in all nearby possible worlds where he did have the desires, he would do the thing. (Compare this with Nozick's notion that knowledge is belief that tracks the truth).

This notion of free will doesn't depend on the universe being, or not being, deterministic; it works whether or not there is some Divine (or otherwise) being who has foreknowledge of all our actions; and it doesn't depend on any particular notion of the nature or role of consciousness. It requires us to have some theory of desire, and of counterfactuals, but it appears to make so few demands on those theories that we can plug in whatever theories we like best and come out with a corresponding theory of free will.

So for the time being we will use this notion of free will, just because it seems to keep well out from under our feet as we think about consciousness. Did I do A by my own free will? Yes, as long as my doing A tracks my desires. Do people have free will? Yes, in that many of our actions track our desires. Does that have anything to do with the nature of my subjective consciousness? Not much, fortunately.

Of course, if by "Do I have free will?" someone means exactly "Does my subjective consciousness affect the physical world?", then we're still on the hook.

(See also Consciousness and Determinism, for some thoughts that also touch on free will, in the "could things have been otherwise?" sense.)

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David Chess accepts all the blame, but Steve White gets some of the credit. If you're lost, see the site map. This page last updated August 28th, 2002.