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Free will, libertarianism, and luck

Do we have free will? Free will is one of the central topics in philosophy, both historically and in the present. The basic puzzles of this topic are easily felt. For instance, it’s easy to wonder whether factors beyond our control — our genetic constitution, the environment in which we were brought up, and so on — might be among the causes of our behavior. In the light of this, we might wonder whether it’s really possible for us to act freely or, instead, whether everything we do is ultimately shaped by these factors in such a way that undermines our free will.

In contemporary philosophical discussions, this concern is crystallized as a concern about the relationship between free will and causal determinism. Causal determinism is the view that for any given time, a complete statement of the facts at that time, together with a complete statement of the laws of nature, entails every truth as to what happens after that time. On this issue, the basic divide among philosophers is between compatibilism and incompatibilism. Compatibilists believe that free will is compatible with determinism, whereas incompatibilists argue that free will is incompatible with determinism. According to incompatibilists, if our actions are causally determined, then we can’t act freely.

One view about free will that has recently received a lot of scholarly attention is the libertarian view of free will. Libertarianism about free will, which is completely distinct from libertarianism as a political doctrine, is the view that people do have free will, but that this freedom is incompatible with determinism. Thus, libertarians are incompatibilists who think that free will exists. (You could, of course, be an incompatibilist who thinks that free will doesn’t exist — a so-called “free will skeptic.”) In short, if libertarianism is true, then people sometimes act without being causally determined to do so.

In many ways, libertarianism is a natural view to hold about free will. After all, it seems obvious to most of us that we have free will, and many people believe that there’s a clear incompatibility between free will and determinism. But despite this appeal, many philosophers are skeptical of libertarianism. They think that there are powerful reasons to think that this view is false.

One especially prominent objection to libertarianism is the “luck objection.” According to this objection, if our actions aren’t causally determined, then our actions or crucial facts about our actions become matters of luck or chance in a way that undermines our free will. To illustrate, suppose that you have a choice between telling the truth or lying, and you decide to tell the truth. In order for your decision to be a free action, then, according to libertarians, it can’t be causally determined by past events. However, what follows from it not being causally determined is that it was open, up until the time you decided as you did, that you wouldn’t decide that way — that is, it was open, keeping everything else fixed up until that moment, that you would decide to lie instead.

In many ways, libertarianism is a natural view to hold about free will.

To appreciate the concern this raises, we can engage in a philosophical thought experiment. Given that your decision to tell the truth wasn’t causally determined, it follows that there’ll be a nearby possible world with the same laws of nature and with the same past up to the moment of decision in which you (or your counterpart) decide differently — you decide to lie rather than decide to tell the truth. But since the laws of nature and the past up to the time of decision are the same in both worlds, then there’s nothing about you — no change in your circumstances or change of mind — that could explain this difference in decision. And if there’s nothing that could explain this difference, then it seems that your deciding to tell the truth rather than deciding to lie is just a matter of (good) luck on your part. But if it’s just a matter of luck that you decided to tell the truth rather than deciding to lie, then surely your decision to tell the truth can’t be a freely-willed action. Or so proponents of the luck objection contend.

There are a number of ways in which libertarians might respond to this objection. For instance, they might deny that the lack of an explanation of the difference between the two decisions entails that the difference is a matter of luck. Or they might deny that the difference’s being a matter of luck entails that your actual decision to tell the truth was not freely made. But these responses remain controversial. And the fate of libertarian views more generally remains controversial as well.

Headline Image Credit: Jubilee Maze, Symonds Yat. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Robert Oerter

    It’s surprising to me that philosophers continue to frame the free will issue as a conflict with causal determinism, because we physicists have long been trumpeting the fact that the universe is not deterministic.

    On the main point of your post, the “luck” objection seems a powerful one to me, but I think it’s unfortunate that it’s referred to by that name. I don’t think it really matters whether we say the difference is due to luck. The real point is that in you are the same person in both worlds, and yet you make a different decision. Therefore the difference cannot be due to you yourself, or anything about you. Neither of the responses you mention in the last paragraph seems to address this fundamental point.

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