Philosophy Bro explains complex ideas of philosophy in easy to understand language, created by Tommy Maranges, the author of Descartes' Meditations, Bro.

Mailbag Monday: Free Will

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.

Ricky writes,

Can you do free will or determinism please?
your fellow bro

Alright, bro, I’ll take a crack at it.

First of all, though, there’s a more fundamental question than free will or determinism. For some reason, lots of bros seem to think that if determinism is true, free will is obviously an illusion. It’s an intuitive line of reasoning - 'if the future is alreadydetermined, then of course we can’t have free will. Fucking elementary, Watson.’ Hold your horses there, asshole. Not so fast.

Put a bro in a maze - but not a normal maze. This maze only has one path, from the start to the finish, and no forking paths at all. But this maze does wind in all sorts of directions, twisting and turning on the way. Now, let’s put a blindfold on our intrepid hero. Basically, if this dude makes a wrong turn, he’s going to slam into a wall. Now, at the end of this maze is a fucking hottie, and obviously this bro is going to get to her. He can hear her humming to herself, and he’s like a bloodhound on a scent. So he starts walking forward, toward the sound, until he gets the sense that it’s coming from the left - so he turns left and walks forward until it’s coming from the right - and so on. Eventually, he gets to the end, she’s thrilled to see him because girls love bros, and they live happily ever after until someone even hotter comes along and he peaces out.

The point is, even though this bro’s path was determined - he couldn’t have gone forward when he had to go left - he had no idea. He just followed his motivation and ended up where he wanted to be without ever feeling the walls the confined him. His path was determined, sure, but he also freely chose it. At that first turn, had he wanted to go right instead of left, the sound would have been coming from the right - otherwise he wouldn’t have fucking chosen right. He’s just trying to get to the lady. So, had he acted otherwise than he did, the determining laws would have been different, but not as a result of his turning right - just in conjunction. If the bro had turned right, it wouldn’t have caused the walls to be different - they just would have been different the whole time. And we definitely know the bro could have turned right - after all, later on he actually does.

The thesis that free will and determinism are compatible is called compatibilism. Maybe that argument works, maybe it doesn’t - honestly, I doubt I just resolved the compatibilism debate in two paragraphs, but if so then I’ll be leaving and you can find me teaching kindergarten - but the point is that free will and determinism aren’t as obviously incompatible as you might think right away. In fact, the problem of free will might just be the deepest fucking rabbit hole philosophers have yet dug; if you don’t believe free will and determinism are compatible, then you’ve got your own fucking problems, champ. You have two options: either deny free will or deny determinism.

If you deny determinism, or embrace indeterminism, you believe that the future isn’t determined by the laws of physics and the way things are. Even with the present laws, right now, maybe the future could be a bunch of different ways. Some bros think, for example, that quantum physics is indeterminate. I won’t commit myself to that, because I don’t have a firm enough grasp of what is a complex and highly technical piece of physics to make claims one way or another (Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems are the most often abused concepts, ever) but even if that were the case, even if physics is indeterminate like that, no one wants to say that random particle decay is the source of free will. That’s not any more free - particle decay is completely random, and a random choice is no more free than a coin flip.

Look at it this way: if I decide, “Yeah, I’m going to fucking bungee jump!” There has to be some way for me to get from that decision to actually bungee jumping. That will eventually require me to willingly strap a bungee cord to my legs and jump off a bridge. So a neuron fires that sends the signal from my brain to my legs that says, “TIME TO FUCKING JUMP.” And that signal travels down some nerves to my muscles, my muscles contract, and I go leaping into space like a fucking boss. Fuck yeah. But everything in between making the decision to jump and me jumping is a deterministic process. It seems like we need some determinism to execute our decisions - if free will depends on indeterminism, we could never get to that end result. If making the decision is random, it’s still not free - it’s as good as making a decision based on a die roll.

So maybe you deny free will instead - after all, there are pretty good arguments that say that free will isn’t compatible with either of two opposites. Alright, then explain this: what can we say about right or wrong? If you answered anything other than “nothing”, you have some fucking explaining to do. If I told you, “You know, you really should have had sex with Marilyn Monroe while she was alive,” you would look at me like I was a fucking idiot. “But, uh, she was, you know, dead, before I was born.” “Yeah, well, that’s sure as shit not my problem. You should also stop the genocide that’s happening on Mars. HELPLESS MARTIANS ARE BEING WIPED OUT. And you’re just sitting there surfing teh interwebs. Shameful.” None of that makes any sense - of course it’s not fair to expect you to do something that you have absolutely no capacity to do. But if free will is an illusion, then we don’t have any ability whatsofuckingever to do anything except what we actually do. We could no more ask each other to act morally than we could ask each other to not be so awesome. And that’s just crazy-talk. Bros are always awesome.

So, there you have it. It looks like we have arguments that free will is incompatible with determinismand indeterminism, but without free will our moral judgements, all our moral judgements, whether right or wrong objectively exist, are meaningless - that is, some things are obviously wrong, or defunct in some way - some decisions are better than others. So which arguments are faulty? Where did our intuitions go wrong? That’s fucking tough. Consider this: when we find a mechanism for decision-making - say, a neuron firing - if it falls under some deterministic process, determinists will say, 'aha!’ and question free will. If it falls under some indeterministic process, it will appear random and indeterminists will say, 'so there!’ and question free will, since by definition no process can predict or impose order on an indeterministic process. Perhaps we have no way of knowing at all what free will would look like, even if we were staring it right in the fucking face.

Further reading:

David Lewis and Peter van Inwagen, a compatibilist and an incompatibilist respectively, are probably the clearest meta-writers about free will - they do the best job of framing the debate. Van Inwagen’s How to Think About the Problem of Free Will lays out the problem incredibly clearly, and serves as the basis for this post. His An Essay on Free Will is a much more in-depth treatment of the topic.

Lewis’ Are We Free to Break the Laws? (pdf) lays out an excellent, though technical, case for compatibilism.

Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting discusses different versions of free will with respect to determinism, and is a good technical treatment of the topic for those who want something a little deeper than a single paper.

Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time": A Summary

Jean Jacques Rousseau's "Discourse on Inequality": A Summary