Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Are you really free? Yes: a new argument for freedom

How is human freedom really possible in the natural world as correctly described by modern physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience? Or, given the truth of modern science, are you really free?

By ‘real freedom,’ I mean ‘real free will and real rational agency,’ which in turn means:

First, you really can choose and do what you want to, or refrain from so choosing or doing, thus without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces (real free will).

Second, you really can self-consciously choose and do what you want to, for reasons, and with real moral responsibility (real rational agency).

By ‘real moral responsibility’ for X, I mean:

First, X is something you really chose or did, whose objective moral value flows from and directly attaches to your really free choice or action.

And second, real moral responsibility requires real freedom—if you weren’t free to choose or do X, you couldn’t be responsible for it.

Most contemporary philosophers and scientists, and many non-philosophers too, hold that you are not really free, because they also believe that the truth of modern science entails a thesis I will call ‘natural mechanism.’

‘Natural mechanism’ says that everything that happens is either deterministic, indeterministic, or some mixture of both, and that all its causal and quantitative characteristics are not only fixed by the general causal laws of nature, especially those laws governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy, together with all the settled facts about the past, especially including the Big Bang, but also calculable from those laws and facts on an ideal digital computer.

If natural mechanism is true, then you are not really free, because, instead, no matter what you may believe about your freedom, you are really a deterministic or indeterministic natural automaton, ultimately caused by the Big Bang.

I will now provide a new philosophical argument for a theory of real freedom that is neither contrary to modern science nor committed to the thesis of natural mechanism, that I call ‘Kantian natural libertarianism.’

Kantian natural libertarianism flows from two simple but earth-shattering ideas proposed by Kant in the 18th century, and also from one slightly less simple but still earth-shattering idea proposed by Nobel laureate physicist Ilya Prigogine in the late 20th century:

First, action that is perfectly in conformity with a law, is not necessarily entailed or otherwise necessitated by that law.

Second, real freedom presupposes, in rational human animals, the natural processes specifically characteristic of living organisms; but living organisms are not natural automata, whether deterministic or indeterministic, because they are self-organizing and purposive; hence real freedom is grounded in biological anti-mechanism.

Immanuel Kant. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Immanuel Kant, by Veit Hans Schnorr. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Third, the correct physics is a non-deterministic interpretation of non-equilibrium thermodynamics. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call this NDI-NET.

Let us suppose that NDI-NET is true, and that all the general causal laws of nature, as formulated by modern science, are also true, under the NDI-NET interpretation.

From these suppositions, it does not follow that natural mechanism is true, and that we are really natural automata.

To see this, suppose that everything we choose and do is at least consistent with those general causal natural laws, and that therefore we never violate any of them.

And in particular, suppose that we never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, hence we never violate any of the general causal natural laws governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that whatever we choose and do is entailed or otherwise necessitated by those laws. This is because, as Kant pointed out, mere conformity of action with laws is not the same as entailment or necessitation by laws.

Indeed, for any general causal law of nature whatsoever, no matter how specific it is, together with all the settled natural facts about the past, nevertheless, there is always some physical ‘open texture’ that is not entailed or necessitated by that law, although it remains perfectly in conformity with the laws.

More precisely, in the wake of the Big Bang, there is always and everywhere some physical open texture that, at various stages of far-from-equilibrium, temporally-unidirectional, complex, self-organizing thermodynamic activity, as studied in ND-NET, creates targets for ultra-specific, context-sensitive physical activity: e.g., the roiling surface-structures of boiling water; the Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction, plus light excitation; the unfolding of weather systems; the development of viruses; organismic activity including the purposive lives of simple organisms, plants, and animals; the feelings, desires, perceptions, and thoughts of conscious animals; and really free choice and action by conscious animals, including rational human animals.

Let us call these thermodynamic targets ‘live options,’ and this physical open texture ‘natural open space.’

Given some live options in natural open space, then, even though you never violate any general causal laws of nature and never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, it remains really possible for you, in context, to choose and do some things you want to, in purposive, creative, and morally-empowered ways, by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring the total quantity of matter or energy that is always already available then and there.

For example: now type or write down any word that spontaneously comes into your head.

(I typed ‘freedom’.)

Let’s call this sort of activity, ‘natural self-determination.’ This is just like a creative artist who makes an original work of art by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring whatever already-existing materials are given to her.

As naturally self-determining animals, we are all creative natural artists, ‘little bangs,’ who purposively bring new energy-structures into the world, and thereby actualize potential energy.

The Big Bang has done many things. But it didn’t type or write down that very word: you did it, with real freedom.

Therefore you’re not a natural automaton; instead you’re a naturally self-determining animal fully capable of real freedom.

So Kantian natural libertarianism is true.

Featured image credit: Padlock photo by Dustin Gaffke. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. RA Landbeck

    Whether one is a “natural automaton” or “a naturally self-determining animal”, whatever freedom that may include, so long as the male of our species remains prisoner to a concupiscent lower nature, outside volition and control, that freedom is compromised by a corruption of moral perception that limits the ethical construct which our species is capable of creating.

  2. Stephen Lawrence

    Robert the problem is how could you have typed say “dog” instead of “freedom”.

    The answer must boil down to “you would have if circumstances you didn’t choose had been appropriately different”.

    This is why “real freedom” is impossible.

  3. Vlad

    I believe this is an illusion of free will that comes from not seeing the bigger picture. I see it as this: I am driving on the highway and there are 6 lanes beetween which i am allowed to drive as I please. But there are only 6 lanes. You see, as long as any law (hence restriction) exists, we are never free.

Comments are closed.