Some problems are easy to present as philosophical problems, or at least as problems with a philosophical aspect to them. For example, there is clearly a philosophical aspect to the nature of democracy. But the freedom of the will is harder to present to common sense as a problem. That great defender of common sense, Dr Samuel Johnson, put it bluntly: 'Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on't' (as reported in Boswell's Life
). But it is not quite so simple.
Certainly, the Greek philosophers did not discuss the problem. Aristotle has written an excellent discussion of what are known as 'excusing conditions'. He assumes that we are normally responsible for our actions and discusses the various valid excuses we could offer for seemingly bad behaviour, such as that we did not know what we were doing, or that in some way or another we were compelled to act as we did. In other words, he is assuming freedom to act or forbear as a necessary condition of responsible action and, like Samuel Johnston, does not doubt that that is our usual state.
Doubts began to emerge in the theology of the early Church. God is omniscient so He must know what you are going to do next Saturday. But if that is now already known, it must be in some way fixed. How then can you be said to be free to do anything different next Saturday? I'll not venture into the many intricate answers to that question but move to the problem as it has been presented in the modern period after 1600. The problem has been given a scientific twist and as science has progressed so have its challenges to free choice. What follows will involve only a schematic and simplistic view of what science can argue against free choice.
By free choice I mean the choice to perform action A (switch on TV to listen to the news) when I could just as easily have chosen to do B (picked up my book). The belief that while I did A I could equally have done B is firmly assumed in the way we see ourselves.
It is also firmly assumed in everyday life and in science that every event has a cause (and, before anyone brings it up, quantum mechanics is not relevant to this discussion). But human actions from one point of view are also events (switching on the TV or picking up the book) so it follows that they too must have causes. But a cause is what makes an event happen so my choices, since they are also events, must be made to happen. Obviously what is made to happen cannot be said to happen freely. Hence my choices are not free, and therefore I cannot be held morally responsible for them.
Aristotle said that, in the special circumstances when we are compelled, we are not free and therefore not responsible. The above argument is claiming that compulsion is pervasive and therefore we are never free and therefore never responsible.
Some thinkers – philosophers, scientists, social reformers – have been happy with that conclusion, or at least for a more sophisticated version of it. For example, in the 1960s, Baroness Barbara Wootton wrote an influential book with the title: Social Science and Social Pathology
. Her argument was to the effect that discussion of responsibility was pointless, and that anti-social behaviour of all kinds should be regarded as we regard diseases. Treatment rather than education or punishment was the 'cure'. For an excellent parody of that position I refer readers to Gee, Officer Krupke!
in Westside Story
Most people would not be happy with the above suggestion that we are not responsible for our actions and feel strongly that we are free. We have a deeply entrenched view that, although I did A, I could just as easily have done B. It seems then that the assumption of science – that things have causes and don't just happen randomly – is in conflict with our other assumption in everyday life that we can act freely.
It is also worth stressing that the conflict is not just between the causal assumption of science and the freedom assumption of everyday life. In everyday life, we also assume that there is a causal explanation for what happens in the everyday world. As we say, things don't just happen. The conflict is within our own consciousness and approach to the world.
One possible solution to the conflict might be to allow that our actions, insofar as they are also events, must be caused but to inquire into the nature of that causality. A plausible answer is that our actions are caused by our desires to act in one way rather than another. That move removes the paradoxical nature of saying that our actions are caused because it makes clear that the causality is not some sort of external force pushing us around but is an expression of our very own self. I freely chose a second bit of toast because that was what I wanted to choose.
We could follow this up by saying that what negates free choice is not causality but constraint. I am not free when I am prevented by some external force from doing what I want but I am free when nobody or nothing stops me from acting as I want to. So free choice can be interpreted as the outcome of our strongest desire at the time, and our strongest desire is interpreted in terms of our internal causality.
It might be objected that we sometimes act against our strongest desire – your strongest desire is for that second slice of toast but you have made a resolution to eat less and you succeed in overcoming your desire for the second slice.
That kind of objection requires us to say a bit more about both desire and causality. Sometimes a desire can exert on its own an overwhelming causality. The obvious type of example here would be that of an addict, or sometimes people become so angry that they cannot stop themselves saying or doing what they later regret. But surely the desire for a second bit of toast is not of that overwhelming kind. I suggest that in cases such as that of the toast we remember our resolution and do not want to break it so soon after New Year, so reason intervenes and modifies the desire for the toast and strengthens the desire to be consistent and stick to our resolution to get slim. The first point then is that reason can and most often does modify our desire. Modified by reason, desire is no longer simply an overwhelming causal impetus but an all-things-considered choice.
The concept of causality also needs to be expanded. A cause can be a sufficient condition of an occurrence – when the cause event happens, nothing else is required to bring about the effect. For example, my knocking over a glass at the Burns Supper is a sufficient cause for the spilling of its contents.
But a cause can also be a necessary condition. The police might inquire into the cause of an accident. From their point of view, the cause was that the driver was over the limit. But that was by no means a sufficient condition. If no other car had been coming, the accident would not have happened. Or if visibility had been better, or there had not been a bad bend in the road, the accident would not have happened. These factors were all necessary causal conditions without which the accident might not have happened.
If we accept that causes can be either necessary or sufficient conditions, we can say that free choice requires a desire to act as a causally necessary condition but it also requires rational thought as a necessary condition; rational thought may modify one desire and strengthen another. I conclude that both desire and reason are independently necessary and jointly sufficient for free choice and that that analysis can rescue moral responsibility without sacrificing the causality of events.
Perhaps that was all Dr Johnston meant when he said that we know the will is free. But Boswell would have been rash to make such a suggestion.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow