free will

Problem of Free Will

Free will is a problem. If all of us are physical machines, obeying laws of physics, then all our movements and mental states are caused by events that took place earlier. What is caused is fully determined by the cause. So whatever we do now and in the next minute is all pre-ordained by antecedent events and causes, and we have no control over it. How can we then have free will? The fact that I am writing this note on free will — is it totally and completely determined by the events from time immemorial? That doesn’t sound right.

The way out of this problem of free will is, in fact, fairly simple. We just have to acknowledge the fact that we have a mental realm where we make decisions as to how we want to act, and we have a physical realm where the actions actually take place. If I (my mental realm, that is) decide to go back edit the previous sentence, my physical hands will do the necessary key strokes to make that a reality. This commonsense view has a name in philosophy. It is dualism, or Cartesian dualism to denote its origin in Des Cartes’s work — you know, the guy who said I think therefore I am.

Dualism, despite its appeal and tacit acceptance in our commonsense, has big problems. If there are two kinds of things, mental and physical, how exactly do they interact with each other? They obviously do — my hands do what I want them to do. And if you stuck a gun to my head, my mental realm would want my hands to point skyward. Where is the connection between the mental and physical realms? Since none could be found, dualism of any sort has fallen out of favor with contemporary philosophers.

Once you discount dualism as implausible, you are left with monism unless you are Richard Pirsig, in which case you may prefer a trinity, which may really be the way to go. If you are a monist, then you have two extremes to choose from. You could say that everything is in your mind, and the appearance of a real physical world out there is a mental or cognitive construct. Or you could say that everything is physical, and your consciousness is an epiphenomenon. Both these approaches have problems, which is probably why in the Hindu monism of Advaita, both seem to negated. Your mind is an illusion, you physical world also is an illusion. What is real is just Brahman, and it is unknowable. Well, it does clear things up a bit, but it is also kind of useless, because you cannot take it any further.

You see, free will really is a problem. Of course, free will has its own boundaries. If you slip on a banana peel and find yourself heading face first into the pavement, you cannot exercise your free will and choose not to fall. But you can stick your hands out and try to save your face from injury. In fact, that kind of happens without thinking about it, and hence without free will. What I mean to say is that you do not have free will to change the laws of physics as it applies to your physical body as a whole, but you can change its configuration at will, while obeying those laws. Is there a sort of compatibilism hiding in that statement?