Essay Freedom Metaphysics

From Metaphysical Freedom
To Civil Liberties
A Cybernetic Account Of Natural Law

François-René Rideau

This essay was originally an intended submission to les journées de Rochebrune 2005, but it is both far too long and far overdue. Maybe I will finish it some day, and then have a condensed version of it published to a similar conference afterwards?

Note that this is a preliminary draft, subject to revision. Parts that haven't been redacted yet have been removed. Feedback is welcome.

Abstract: We clarify the meanings of ``liberty´´ and related concepts. We notably distinguish metaphysical freedom or liberty in fact, from civil liberty or liberty in law. We will examine the properties of these concepts and related ones such as free will or individuality, and the relationship of all these concepts with each other. Along we way, we disarm the most common fallacies about liberty and reframe the debate using arguments from Praxeology, Objectivism, Phenomenology, Algorithmic Information Theory, Cybernetics, Darwinism, and Libertarian Law Theory.

1 Introduction
   1.1 Understanding Liberty
   1.2 The Meanings of ``Liberty´´
   1.3 Plan of this Essay
2 The Chimera of Extrinsic Freedom
   2.1 Metaphysical Freedom
   2.2 Fatalism and Determinism
   2.3 Praxeology
   2.4 Phenomenology
   2.5 The Irrelevance of Determinism
   2.6 Transcendence
   2.7 The Freedom Within...
   2.8 ... Within an Individual Man
3 Intrinsic Freedom: The Epistemic Approach
   3.1 Individual Liberty Where It Matters
   3.2 Epistemic Freedom
   3.3 Thrownness
   3.4 Tools of Knowledge
   3.5 Relativity of Metaphysics to Knowledge
   3.6 The Objective and the Subjective
   3.7 Measuring Freedom: Information
   3.8 Algorithmic Information Theory
   3.9 Abstraction Level
4 Civil Liberty
   4.1 Mutual and Reflective Freedom
   4.2 Social Behaviour and Individual Knowledge
   4.3 Facts vs Rights
   4.4 Distinguishing Metaphysical Freedom and Civil Liberty
   4.5 Law as Technology
   4.6 Theory of Law
   4.7 Equality Before Law
   4.8 Accounting Freedom
Even messier draft of ideas to integrate
1.1 Understanding Liberty

Ideas have consequences. The consequences of Ideas about Liberty are that institutions are established that will preserve those liberties we acknowledge and understand, subvert those liberties we acknowledge but do not understand, and crush those liberties we fail to acknowledge.

Certainly, the deep examination of the meaning of Liberty is something that few people care about, and any philosophical debate on that topic is bound to find but few interested parties. But it is those few parties who will serve as authorities to others; it is those few parties who will set the tone for the casual discussions of educated men; it is them who will shape the sense of life of influential intellectuals, teachers, authors and artists, and through them the culture of future generations. And thus do philosophical arguments about Liberty ultimately matter.

Errors and fallacies about Liberty ultimately lead to oppression and suffering. Understanding of Liberty, what it is and what it isn't, ultimately leads to freedom and happiness. Lies and distorsions about Liberty are the ultimate tools of all tyrants through the establishment intellectuals that are their minions. Truths and Rectifications about Liberty are the ultimate defense of free men and the legacy of the authentic free thinkers.

1.2 The Meanings of ``Liberty´´

There are many quite distinct meanings commonly ascribed to the word ``liberty´´, and to variants of this word such as ``freedom´´ or ``free will´´. People who argue about ``liberty´´ and its variants often get confused about these distinctions and find themselves unable to understand each other, or even prone to fall into absurdities and fallacies due to some semantic shift between several related but nevertheless distinct meanings of the word.

We propose to examine those main meanings of the word, mutually contradictory or self-defeating as they may sometimes be. We will disarm fake problem settings and other common philosophical traps, and reframe the concepts of Liberty where they are relevant. We aim to offer a clear vision of what Liberty is, what it isn't, why it matters, and how it matters.

1.3 Plan of this Essay

In a first part, we will examine some common philosophical arguments about Free Will in terms of Determinism, Soul, Transcendence, etc. We will explain that they are fallacies based on absurd premises, and why they altogether fail to address any actual attribute of man. To achieve this explanation, we'll provide sound conceptual tools to reframe the debate correctly: praxeology, phenomenology, cybernetics.

In a second part, we will propose a notion of Free Will compatible with our man-centered approach: Epistemic Freedom. We will use information theory to argue that man is indeed intrinsically free according to this notion.

In a third part, we will explain how this notion of Epistemic Freedom is relevant in the study of social interaction. This study will lead us to another, quite different kind of Freedom, Civil Liberty. We will argue why Civil Liberty is beneficial in terms of what we previously established about human nature.

2 The Chimera of Extrinsic Freedom
2.1 Metaphysical Freedom

The first concept of liberty that I'll tackle is what I'll call metaphysical freedom. Metaphysics is the domain of fundamental properties of things, that necessarily follow from their very nature and existence[1]. I am metaphysically free to do something if in fact I somehow can do that thing, that is, if there is a possible, conceivable future in which I actually do that thing.

Thus, say, I am not metaphysically free to jump to the moon, or to turn into an eagle, because they are things I can't possibly do. Neither am I free to stop breathing for several minutes and still continue living. Nor am I free to sell the transcript of this speech for three hundred million dollars to the first comer.

Or am I? After all, what is? What can I or can I not really do? Can't I possibly conceive that I would jump to the moon? In Cyrano de Bergerac, the main character imagines many ways to jump to the moon, including pulling himself up by his bootstraps. So can I conceive my jumping to the moon. Lemme focus on the idea... here I did, how pleasant it was! — Maybe you'll tell me that this idea was ridiculous on its face, an impossible fantasy. But how do you know? What would you have replied in 1661 to Joseph Glanvill who wrote:

To converse at the distance of the Indes by means of sympathetic contrivances may be as natural to future times as to us is a literary correspondence.

How can you draw the fine line (or not so fine line) between the actually real, the merely possible, and the outright ridiculous? And what if I used the help of a spaceship to achieve this jump? Would it be cheating or would it be a valid reframing of the concept? You might object that I utterly lack the opportunity to ever have such a spaceship ever built for me. How do you know? Wouldn't you have told the same to a young Neil Armstrong, too? Where is the line between opportunity and possibility? Is this line actually well-defined, or are the limits of reality fuzzy?

And what if I'd change my career plan, so as to become an astronaut, or a great scientist, or a successful space entrepreneur, or a billionaire, or an evil overlord, so that I would create the currently unimaginable opportunity of my jumping to the moon? What if we'd been talking about something else than jumping to the moon? Aren't there things you believe impossible and that will nonetheless happen? What if the world were just a dream or an illusion, and things were actually very different from what they seem? What if some miracle suddenly happened or ceased? Does anything go? Isn't everything possible, or at least possibly possible?

``What if´´: Does the question have a meaning at all? Is there any ``elbow room´´ left for metaphysical freedom? Or on the contrary is it a concept so large and so vague as to be useless? Do we possess any kind of free will? If so, what is it? Does it matter?

2.2 Fatalism and Determinism

One way in which the debate on metaphysical freedom has often been framed is that of Fatalism versus Free Will, and its many variants, from the ancient religious arguments about Predestination, to the modern discussions about Physical Determinism.

According to some philosophies, each man has a Fate already decided before his birth; this Fate governs his deeds and his lot; he cannot escape it. In ancient myths and religions, this Fate or Predestination may have taken the form of a Great Book of Life where ``everything is already written´´, or an otherwise Omniscient God aware of all events past, present and future. In modern parlance, this Fate takes the form of people being the mindless puppets of some external ``determinism´´, be it genetic, social or psychological, and ultimately physical.

Equal and opposite philosophies argue that man may have ``free will´´ only inasmuch as the above Predestination does not exist or has no strength: there is no Fate, or it can be convinced to change its mind; there is no Book of Life, or it is still to be written; there are no Determinisms, or they can be broken. Finally, absurdist philosophies just give up reason, and accept several incompatible variants of the above as simultaneously or alternatively true in what constitutes a ``Great Mystery´´.

With the advent of modern science, this problem of Fatalism has been formalized and displaced as that of Physical Determinism. According to this point of view, the important question is whether the equations of Physics that describe our Universe are deterministic or non-deterministic; that is, whether or not they are such that everything in the future is exactly determined by the state of things in the present.

As the argument goes, if the Universe is deterministic then considering the state in which the Universe currently is, all the future events that will happen mechanically follow and each of us is only free to do but what he will do, and nothing else. In other words, everything is already written[2][3], there is as little freedom as possible, that is, none at all, and any semblance of freedom is a mistaken delusion borne in ignorance. Only if it is non-deterministic, if future events are not ``already written´´, if several outcomes are possible, is there room for metaphysical freedom[4]

Such formalism brings little in terms of philosophically meaningful statements; clever as they may think they are, physicists are just rehashing the same age-old debate. However, formalism has the advantage that it makes it clearer what the claims of each side of a debate are, and easier to establish those that are tautologies and to reject those that are meaningless absurdities.

And so the question is, how do we know whether the Universe is Deterministic or not? Can we know? Was the Universe sold with an officially certified label including a checkbox ``deterministic´´ that is either checked or not?

2.3 Praxeology

The very discussion whether or not the universe is deterministic presupposes a conceptual setting of many possible universes being considered out of which ``our´´ Universe may be one. Hence, simply asking about determinism requires some ``freedom´´ at a metaphysically more basic level.

The above argument is one of performative contradiction: a hypothesis is established as true if any action that would claim to deny it would contradict itself; the denial would presuppose the denied assertion. This argument can be systematized as Praxeology, or the Ontology of Human Action: the study of things from the point of view of how they ultimately affect the way that men act. For example, if I were try to logically argue that logical arguments are useless, I would be obviously contradicting myself, and my argument would therefore be wrong[5].

Of course, entrenched proponents of determinism might say that all these considerations about the freedom implicit in human action are but illusions based on misunderstanding of man's ``ultimate´´ predestination, of his lack of ``absolute´´ liberty. Still, our actions establish that as far as we discuss, choose and plan, there is freedom, to some extent. There only remains to establish the nature of this prerequisite freedom implicit in taking the argument seriously. Our approach will be to elucidate mistakes made by people focused on physical determinism, so as, by contrast, to gain insight about the real issue.

2.4 Phenomenology

Phenomenology, according to Heidegger and after him cyberneticians of the third generation [B22], consists in studying phenomena within the framework that makes them meaningful, excluding things that are irrelevant because they do not affect meaning. Such a framework is called an ontology. By definition, an ontology embodies all that matters about some phenomena, nothing less, nothing more, so that anything outside of it doesn't matter, and anything that matters is inside of it[6].

Thus, consider the universe as observable by people inside the universe; in the phenomenological perspective, this universe is actually an Ontology of Human Action, comprehending everything that humans may observe and act upon, and the feedback that may they receive from such action. Whatever matters to Human Action by definition is part of this Ontology, and thus ``exists´´ in the Universe, whereas whatever doesn't matter to Human Action by definition isn't part of this Ontology, and doesn't ``exist´´ in the Universe.

Note that in any ontology, a piece of information may matter only inasmuch as it is used in a discriminating way by some observing actor inside the ontology to select or otherwise affect his future behaviour. Thus, although some ontologies may initially try to focus on the study of passive structures such as abstract grammar and mathematical algebras, they must always include some kind of action or interaction at some higher level, such as uttering sentences or using mechanical devices. Therefore, ontologies are ultimately all rooted in the Ontology of Human Action.

2.5 The Irrelevance of Determinism

Once it is understood that metaphysics, like any human science, can only have meaning within an Ontology of Human Action, we see that the question of physical determinism vanishes into irrelevance and inexistence: because the very same structure of events has many models that are equivalent as far as what humans observe in interaction with what they do, yet some models are non-deterministic while others are deterministic.

Indeed, you can always ``complete´´ a given non-deterministic model of the universe into a deterministic model, in quite a straightforward way: for each place where the model says there is or might be a non-deterministic choice, add to the description of the universe some variable that determines the outcome of said choice [7]. If you have probabilistic constraints, adjust accordingly the distribution of the variables and the way they combine into various outcomes [8]. Or if you prefer, you may keep but one global variable ``source of randomness´´ that helps resolve all this (probabilistic) non-determinism; the infinitely many possible decompositions of this global variable into factorings of simpler variables follow from the structure of the universe. [9] Conversely, you can always ``quotient´´ a deterministic model of the universe into a non-deterministic model, also in quite a straightforward way: identify all states of the universe that we can't possibly distinguish by observation, and as for the structure that relates these states, instead of the deterministic relations between the original states, consider the non-deterministic relations between these classes of undistinguishable states. Depending on how much you realize that you can't ``actually´´ or ``possibly´´ distinguish things in the universe, the amount of non-determinism in your model will increase; and since we are far from gods actually able to distinguish everything, there will be a lot of non-determinism [10].

As Daniel Dennett points out [B4], we may never know if the universe is deterministic or non-deterministic, or if it switches between deterministic and non-deterministic every other day: no possible human observation can possibly tell one from the other, and for good reason. Therefore it follows that to us humans, the question of whether or not the universe is deterministic is undecidable. And this undecidability entails that in the ontology of human action, the question is irrelevant [11].

To use a mathematical term, determinism is not an intrinsic property of the Universe: it is merely an arbitrary property of models of the Universe. The map is not the territory. Models are not the Ontology. The choice of a model is not intrinsic to the ontology. The deterministic or non-deterministic nature of various models is as relevant to the ontology as the feminine or masculine gender of the word ``sun´´ in various languages is relevant to the structure of the star that lights our world[12]. It is not even an intrinsic property of our universe that its models should be physical: Physics is not a be-all end-all paradigm that explains all that is relevant about Human Action; other non-physical representations of our Universe are thus not only possible but necessary [13][14].

As established, the question of Determinism is irrelevant to metaphysics; making this question prominent in a metaphysical context is a Categorical Error. By examining the discrepancy between the physical ontology in which Determinism does have meaning and the proper ontology that matters for metaphysics, we can fully deconstruct the logical fallacy beneath this error.

2.6 Transcendence

Despite its scientistic veneer the interpretation of metaphysical freedom in terms of physical determinism is an instance of the all too mystical fallacy of transcendence.

Transcendence is the self-contradictory concept that there can somehow ``exist´´ things that are at the same time outside a currently considered ontology, yet meaningful within said ontology. Since an ontology by definition includes everything that is meaningful, such a notion is absurd: either something is meaningful and part of the ontology, or it is outside the ontology and meaningless. Once you adopt the phenomenological point of view, transcendence appears as obviously bogus; yet, it is a kind of fallacy that keeps being repeated over and over.

Now, the debate on the deterministic nature of the Universe critically assumes a One True physical model of the Universe, a complete description of it in terms of mathematical equations [15]. Yet, no model of the universe, physical or not, can both exist within the universe itself and be complete at the same time: only some kind of superior entity outside the model could bless the model as being the One True Model by interacting with it; it doesn't matter whether this godly entity is a personal god playing with his toy, an impersonal computer running a physical simulation, or whatever supernatural entity makes the model meaningful in its own meta-universe; it can't be both inside and outside. If it's inside the model, then a yet superior entity is required to give meaning to the actions of this entity, and the model isn't actually complete; and if it's outside the model, then the model is admittedly not actually complete either. Consequently, to claim that a One True Model could serve as the basis for interaction by a transcendent god both inside and outside the universe is a clear instance of the fallacy of transcendence.

If any kind of superior entity observably affects the outcome of anything in the universe, then this god is part of the universe's ontology, and any model of the ontology would have to include a model of this god's interactions and therefore be out of reach of this god itself; thus, the god might be somehow superior to men, he would not be transcendent [16]. The hereto unsubstantiated hypothesis of such a superior god thus pushes back all the questions up one level, but doesn't solve anything: is this god's behaviour deterministic? If a model is necessary for some system to be meaningful, and if some entity superior to it is somehow necessary to make a model meaningful, then where is the meta-god who'll make it meaningful for god to watch the universe? And what about the meta-meta-god, etc.? Wherever we stop, we must assume an ontology that stands without the need for a superior entity; and if we do not stop, then this infinite regression is no explanation at all, involves no global model of the ontology, and doesn't achieve the chimerical transcendence.

2.7 The Freedom Within...

The fallacy of transcendence can be found in many attempts to explain freedom. The theory of transcendent souls[17] is a simple mystic variant of it; coordinated quantum wave collapse [18] is a more elaborate pseudo-scientific version. The fallacy can be recognized wherever singular metaphysical sources of freedom are invoked; these sources supposedly act upon the observable universe without being acted upon by it in any observable way. Said sources of freedom are fake explanations; all they really do is give a name to that which they refuse to examine and claim is beyond examination. The proponents of this fallacy pretend to have explained what they have blindly assumed [19].

People who seek an explanation of metaphysical freedom in a transcendent source also miss the point in a crucial way: their arguments could possibly claim that ``the universe´´ is free, but they cannot claim that men are either free or not free within it — because their theory is completely oblivious of men.[20] By connecting liberty directly to a transcendent source instead of relating it to the essential nature and structure of man, these arguments short-circuit the middle man; they leave man a puppet in the hands of outside souls, gods and other imaginary spirits. Inasmuch as a man's behaviour is influenced by some kind of soul, quantum wave coordinator, personal god or impersonal random event outside of observable nature, how can we affirm that this mystical essence makes man free? Quite to the contrary, it binds man to events that are external to him — and indeed external to nature itself. Inasmuch as man is influenced by these events and cannot control them, how can we claim that the sources of these events are constitutive of the nature of man? These events, if they exist, are at best parasites, accidents or noise that interfere with man's behaviour. [21]

Any metaphysical theory of man's freedom must include or start from a theory of man. If we are to discuss whether individual human beings are free or not, we need a theory of what an individual is: what makes him distinct from his environment, from his peers. Furthermore, any attribute that an individual may possess must fall within the criteria that distinguish the individual from his environment; otherwise, it fails to actually belong to the individual.

2.8 ... Within an Individual Man

Most of our actions assume the notion of individual: they suppose that in the world we act in there are distinct entities called individuals. Each individual is physically separate from his environment and autonomous from it; this environment includes his peers, other individual entities. The distinction is relevant because it determines the success or failure of important interactions. Moreover, each of us, including you and I, is such an individual. For example, if I know a secret, I won't expect you to be able to act on it. And if a poisonous snake bites you, you won't expect that administering the antidote to me will save you. [22]

An individual acts as such when he follows an identifiable character, a systematic persona, constant traits, an internal structure, etc. [23] When his behaviour is governed by randomness, by a fluke, by external miracles and coincidences, then he is the victim of external influences rather than an individual — and it is precisely because that is not the case, because he does behave according to certain characteristic patterns, susceptible to observation and negociation through inter-personal interaction, that we like or dislike, trust or distrust, befriend or avoid a given person, and that we recognize his existence as an individual to begin with.

People do not indulge in random absurd acts without structure or suit but to make plans and follow patterns that follow their individual character, personality and interests. This is an objective fact and a praxeological truth [24]. It is according to their nature as individuals in the observable universe that we may find or fail to find in men any meaningful kind of liberty.

3 Intrinsic Freedom: The Epistemic Approach
3.1 Individual Liberty Where It Matters

In the preceding section, we have not only dispelled some all too common misframings of the concept of Liberty, we have also laid down the basic elements upon which to restate the question: What does it mean to be free?

What we saw is that this question was lacking both a subject and an observer: on the one hand, we need to relate freedom to an individual who can be free or not; on the other hand, we need to find an actual point of view from which it may mean something that said individual be free or not. We must specify who is or isn't free, and from which point of view.

As far as points of view matter at all, the question can often be simplified: Who is or isn't free, from whose point of view? And that's how, starting from the point of view of Human Action, we see that the question that matters with respect to liberty is whether a given individual A is or isn't free from the point of view of given individual B.

Note that the answer to such question does not depend on the opinion of B as such. B may be right or wrong in assessing that A is or isn't free from B's point of view. Ultimately, inasmuch as we'll find a meaning for freedom, whether A is or isn't free from B's point of view is an objective fact; B may be right in assessing it, and make plans that depend on this assessment and succeed; or B may be wrong in assessing it, and his plans will be jeopardized when they depend on this mistake. That's where the expression ``B's point of view´´ can be misleading. What we actually mean is ``B's point of being´´, properties intrinsic to the relationship of things to B, as considered in the Ontology of Human Action; or equivalently, properties intrinsic to things as considered in the Ontology of Being B.

We'll use the shorter expression ``relative to B´´ instead of ``as considered from the Ontology of Being B´´; we may also use ``as far as B could possibly tell´´, where this ``possibly´´ includes all the interactions into which B may or may not enter in the quest to tell the difference and act upon it[25]. And this shall be well distinguished from ``in B's opinion´´, as B may have opinions that may be correct or incorrect, meaningful or absurd, and that may or may not adequately describe the world in which B nonetheless lives. B's opinion, in addition to whatever biases and limitations constrain it, may only take into in consideration the interactions that B actually already entered into.

To further justify this distinction, a lot of living beings live without having any opinion at all about a great number of topics that nevertheless are relevant to the way they live; many living beings are not even sentient, and the notion of ``relative to them´´ makes sense, but ``in their opinion´´ doesn't. A may be acting in ways very relevant to the future of B, and B may have a correct understanding of what A is doing, or B may have an incorrect understanding of it, or B may not even have an understanding of it, B may not aware of it at all, assuming B has some kind of consciousness.

If you have skimmed through the above paragraphs without paying much attention, be aware that they were not a mere digression, or an idle nitpicking; they pinpoint the essence of what we'll argue liberty is all about: the discrepancy between A's behaviour as it does affect B, and A's behaviour as B may know it — what I'll call Epistemic Freedom (of A relative to B) [26].


If indeed we go back to the initial question of metaphysical freedom, ``Can or cannot A do X?´´, and put it in the only valid metaphysical perspective, the perspective of Human Action, ``as considered from the Ontology of being B´´, then it follows that the notion of metaphysical freedom that matters is ``Can or cannot A do do X, as considered from the Ontology of being B´´. Or if you prefer, ``Can or cannot A do X, as far as B could possibly tell´´ and act upon, through whatever kind of interactions B may engage into to know.

Now, this elusive notion is not reachable, as it requires omniscience of all such possible interactions to give answers. Interestingly another approximate notion is definitely reachable: ``Can or cannot A X, as far as B actually thinks´´. And you get your answers simply by asking B's opinion, or better, by seeing what opinion B actually acts upon.[27]

All these notions are related but distinct variants of Epistemic Freedom. More variants are possible, and all variants may have uses. The important point is that ultimately, humans, as actors in the universe, act and interact according to the finite extent of their knowledge.[28] That knowledge encodes what may be known as to the future behavior of a given actor.

(XXX later: is there circularity between that CAN and that MAY the "relative to" is indeed somewhat tautological the "as far as I know" isn't. returning the things: freedom as the default, knowledge as the probability, sheafs, combo. ?)

So, what is the nature of the metaphysical freedom implicit in any discussion about freedom? What to reply to the objection to metaphysical freedom by radical determinists that the whole discussion is actually meaningless and that any a priori non-obviousness of this meaninglessness is an illusion?

The freedom implicit in this discussion is what we may call ``epistemic freedom´´, the freedom of things we do not know yet that we may discover through further interactions. And the radical determinists' objection is irrelevant, because nobody may possess perfect total knowledge that can be acted upon.

In a first, static approximation, we may equate epistemic freedom with ignorance: we consider something as free inasmuch as its outcome or behaviour is unknown. The freedom of phenomena, of people are thus a direct expression of our intrinsic ignorance of the nature and state of the universe. This ignorance is what praxeologists call ``radical´´ ignorance: an irreducible ignorance that is significant because it is consubstantial with the nature of man as an actor in the universe. This ignorance cannot be dismissed as a mere defect. It isn't a circumstantial mistake that may be corrected by a proper attitude, either scientific inquiry or religious faith. It is a fundamental characteristic of any actor of any possible world.

But from a dynamic point of view, epistemic freedom is quite opposite to ignorance. Epistemic Freedom is not the absence and oblivion of information, but quite on the contrary, it is the openness to further information, which implies the gathering and positive use of ever more information, yet accumulating but ever partial knowledge. As contrasted to ignorance, this openness doesn't increase when knowledge is weakened, but when knowledge is improved; it doesn't increase when interaction is reduced, but when interaction is widened. From the point of view of a mindless piece of rock, ignorance is at its zenith, but epistemic freedom is at its nadir: the world has the least epistemic freedom from its point of view, because it is oblivious to any signal, because any information is irrelevant to it, because it won't interact with its environment, because it will react passively to outside forces, because it will never know anything ever; the world does what it does to the rock, it reacts how it does, and nothing matters. From the point of view of a rational human being on the other hand, who can interact with its environment in intelligent ways, who can learn many things, epistemic freedom is at its culmination: there are a great number of things that he may learn.

Epistemic freedom is interesting at its frontier, which grows with Life: it is what a living actor is interacting with that hasn't been integrated, the external, the future.

NAAAH - Exchanging Knowledge on things that matter to us for Freedom on things that don't. The above is too much of a BULLSHIT ratiocination of "it's good" from an emotional point of view.

3.3 Thrownness3.4 Tools of Knowledge3.5 Relativity of Metaphysics to Knowledge3.6 The Objective and the Subjective3.7 Measuring Freedom: Information3.8 Algorithmic Information Theory3.9 Abstraction Level4.1 Mutual and Reflective Freedom4.2 Social Behaviour and Individual Knowledge4.3 Facts vs Rights4.4 Distinguishing Metaphysical Freedom and Civil Liberty4.5 Law as Technology4.6 Theory of Law4.7 Equality Before Law4.8 Accounting Freedom
Even messier draft of ideas to integrate
[B1] Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ayn Rand, 1974
[B2] Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand, 1979
[B3] Should We Obey The Laws Of Our Country?, Christian Michel, 2000
[B4] Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett, 2003
[B5] Predictability, Computability, and Free Will, Eric S. Raymond, 2004
[B6] Comment l'étude des structures industrielles peut-elle être scientifique ?, François Guillaumat, 2001
[B7] Economic Reasoning vs Accounting Fallacies: the case of "public" research, François-René Rideau, 2003
[B8] Government is the Rule of Black Magic, François-René Rideau, 2003
[B9] The Enterprise of Liberty vs The Enterprise of Politics, François-René Rideau, 2004
[B10] Capitalism is the Institution of Ethics, François-René Rideau, 2005
[B11] The Unknowable, Gregory Chaitin, 1999
[B12] The Ethics and Economics of Private Property, Hans Herman Hoppe, 2004
[B13] website, Hans Herman Hoppe, 2004
[B14] The Foundations of Morality, Henry Hazlitt, 1964
[B15] Human Action, Ludwig von Mises, 1949
[B16] An Introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and its Applications, Ming Li and Paul Vitanyi, 1998
[B17] The Mantle of Science, Murray Rothbard, 1960
[B18] The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard, 1982
[B19] How to Do Philosophy, Paul Graham, 2007
[B20] The Discovery of Algorithmic Probability, Ray Solomonoff, 1997
[B21] A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram, 2002
[B22] Understanding Computers and Cognition, Terry Winogard and Fernando Flores, 1986


1. Rational Deliberation

1.1 Free Will as Choosing on the Basis of One's Desires

On a minimalist account, free will is the ability to select a course of action as a means of fulfilling some desire. David Hume, for example, defines liberty as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” (1748, sect.viii, part 1). And we find in Jonathan Edwards (1754) a similar account of free willings as those which proceed from one's own desires.

One reason to deem this insufficient is that it is consistent with the goal-directed behavior of some animals whom we do not suppose to be morally responsible agents. Such animals lack not only an awareness of the moral implications of their actions but also any capacity to reflect on their alternatives and their long-term consequences. Indeed, it is plausible that they have little by way of a self-conception as an agent with a past and with projects and purposes for the future. (See Baker 2000 on the ‘first-person perspective.’)

1.2 Free Will as deliberative choosing on the basis of desires and values

A natural suggestion, then, is to modify the minimalist thesis by taking account of (what may be) distinctively human capacities and self-conception. And indeed, philosophers since Plato have commonly distinguished the ‘animal’ and ‘rational’ parts of our nature, with the latter implying a great deal more psychological complexity. Our rational nature includes our ability to judge some ends as ‘good’ or worth pursuing and value them even though satisfying them may result in considerable unpleasantness for ourselves. (Note that such judgments need not be based in moral value.) We might say that we act with free will when we act upon our considered judgments/valuings about what is good for us, whether or not our doing so conflicts with an ‘animal’ desire. (See Watson 2003a for a subtle development of this sort of view.) But this would seem unduly restrictive, since we clearly hold many people responsible for actions proceeding from ‘animal’ desires that conflict with their own assessment of what would be best in the circumstances. More plausible is the suggestion that one acts with free will when one's deliberation is sensitive to one's own judgments concerning what is best in the circumstances, whether or not one acts upon such a judgment.

Here we are clearly in the neighborhood of the ‘rational appetite’ accounts of will one finds in the medieval Aristotelians. The most elaborate medieval treatment is Thomas Aquinas's.[1] His account involves identifying several distinct varieties of willings. Here I note only a few of his basic claims. Aquinas thinks our nature determines us to will certain general ends ordered to the most general goal of goodness. These we will of necessity, not freely. Freedom enters the picture when we consider various means to these ends, none of which appear to us either as unqualifiedly good or as uniquely satisfying the end we wish to fulfill. There is, then, free choice of means to our ends, along with a more basic freedom not to consider something, thereby perhaps avoiding willing it unavoidably once we recognized its value. Free choice is an activity that involves both our intellectual and volitional capacities, as it consists in both judgment and active commitment. A thorny question for this view is whether will or intellect is the ultimate determinant of free choices. How we understand Aquinas on this point will go a long ways towards determining whether or not he is a sort of compatibilist about freedom and determinism. (See below. Good expositions of Aquinas' account are Donagan 1985, MacDonald 1998, Stump 2003, ch.9, and Pasnau 2002, Ch.7.)

There are two general worries about theories of free will that principally rely on the capacity to deliberate about possible actions in the light of one's conception of the good. First, there are agents who deliberately choose to act as they do but who are motivated to do so by a compulsive, controlling sort of desire. (And there seems to be no principled bar to a compulsive desire's informing a considered judgment of the agent about what the good is for him.) Such agents are not willing freely. (Wallace 2003 and Levy 2007, Ch.6, offer accounts of the way addiction impairs the will.) Secondly, we can imagine a person's psychology being externally manipulated by another agent (via neurophysiological implant, say), such that the agent is caused to deliberate and come to desire strongly a particular action which he previously was not disposed to choose. The deliberative process could be perfectly normal, reflective, and rational, but seemingly not freely made. The agent's freedom seems undermined or at least greatly diminished by such psychological tampering (Mele 1995).

1.3 Self-mastery, Rightly-Ordered Appetite

Some theorists are much impressed by cases of inner, psychological compulsion and define freedom of will in contrast to this phenomenon. For such thinkers, true freedom of the will involves liberation from the tyranny of base desires and acquisition of desires for the Good. Plato, for example, posits rational, spirited, and appetitive aspects to the soul and holds that willings issue from the higher, rational part alone. In other cases, one is dominated by the irrational desires of the two lower parts.[2] This is particularly characteristic of those working in a theological context—for example, the New Testament writer St. Paul, speaking of Christian freedom (Romans vi-viii; Galatians v), and those influenced by him on this point, such as Augustine. (The latter, in both early and later writings, allows for a freedom of will that is not ordered to the good, but maintains that it is of less value than the rightly-ordered freedom. See, for example, the discussion in Books II-III of On Free Choice.) More recently, Susan Wolf (1990) defends an asymmetry thesis concerning freedom and responsibility. On her view, an agent acts freely only if he had the ability to choose the True and the Good. For an agent who does so choose, the requisite ability is automatically implied. But those who reject the Good choose freely only if they could have acted differently. This is a further substantive condition on freedom, making freedom of will a more demanding condition in cases of bad choices.

In considering such rightly-ordered-appetites views of freedom, I again focus on abstract features common to all. It explicitly handles the inner-compulsion worry facing the simple deliberation-based accounts. The other, external manipulation problem could perhaps be handled through the addition of an historical requirement: agents will freely only if their willings are not in part explicable by episodes of external manipulation which bypass their critical and deliberative faculties (Mele 1995, 2003). But another problem suggests itself: an agent who was a ‘natural saint,’ always and effortlessly choosing the good with no contrary inclination, would not have freedom of will among his virtues. Doubtless we would greatly admire such a person, but would it be an admiration suffused with moral praise of the person or would it, rather, be restricted to the goodness of the person's qualities? (Cf. Kant, 1788.) The appropriate response to such a person, it seems, is on an analogy with aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty, in contrast to the admiration of the person who chooses the good in the face of real temptation to act selfishly. Since this view of freedom of will as orientation to the good sometimes results from theological reflections, it is worth noting that other theologian-philosophers emphasize the importance for human beings of being able to reject divine love: love of God that is not freely given—given in the face of a significant possibility of one's having not done so—would be a sham, all the more so since, were it inevitable, it would find its ultimate and complete explanation in God Himself.

2. Ownership

Harry Frankfurt (1982) presents an insightful and original way of thinking about free will. He suggests that a central difference between human and merely animal activity is our capacity to reflect on our desires and beliefs and form desires and judgments concerning them. I may want to eat a candy bar (first-order desire), but I also may want not to want this (second-order desire) because of the connection between habitual candy eating and poor health. This difference, he argues, provides the key to understanding both free action and free will. (These are quite different, in Frankfurt's view, with free will being the more demanding notion. Moreover, moral responsibility for an action requires only that the agent acted freely, not that the action proceeded from a free will.)

On Frankfurt's analysis, I act freely when the desire on which I act is one that I desire to be effective. This second-order desire is one with which I identify: it reflects my true self. (Compare the addict: typically, the addict acts out of a desire which he does not want to act upon. His will is divided, and his actions proceed from desires with which he does not reflectively identify. Hence, he is not acting freely.) My will is free when I am able to make any of my first-order desires the one upon which I act. As it happens, I will to eat the candy bar, but I could have willed to refrain from doing so.

With Frankfurt's account of free will, much hangs on what being able to will otherwise comes to, and on this Frankfurt is officially neutral. (See the related discussion below on ability to do otherwise.) But as he connects moral responsibility only to his weaker notion of free action, it is fitting to consider its adequacy here. The central objection that commentators have raised is this: what's so special about higher-order willings or desires? (See in particular Watson 2003a.) Why suppose that they inevitably reflect my true self, as against first-order desires? Frankfurt is explicit that higher-order desires need not be rooted in a person's moral or even settled outlook (1982, 89, n.6). So it seems that, in some cases, a first-order desire may be much more reflective of my true self (more “internal to me,” in Frankfurt's terminology) than a weak, faint desire to be the sort of person who wills differently.

In later writings, Frankfurt responds to this worry first by appealing to “decisions made without reservations” (“Identification and Externality” and “Identification and Wholeheartedness” in Frankfurt, 1988) and then by appealing to higher-order desires with which one is “satisfied,” such that one has no inclination to make changes to them (1992). But the absence of an inclination to change the desire does not obviously amount to the condition of freedom-conferring identification. It seems that such a negative state of satisfaction can be one that I just find myself with, one that I neither approve nor disapprove (Pettit, 2001, 56).

Furthermore, we can again imagine external manipulation consistent with Frankfurt's account of freedom but inconsistent with freedom itself. Armed with the wireless neurophysiology-tampering technology of the late 21st century, one might discreetly induce a second-order desire in me to be moved by a first-order desire—a higher-order desire with which I am satisfied—and then let me deliberate as normal. Clearly, this desire should be deemed “external” to me, and the action that flows from it unfree.

3. Causation and Control

Our survey of several themes in philosophical accounts of free will suggests that a—perhaps the—root issue is that of control. Clearly, our capacity for deliberation and the potential sophistication of some of our practical reflections are important conditions on freedom of will. But any proposed analysis of free will must also ensure that the process it describes is one that was up to, or controlled by, the agent.

Fantastic scenarios of external manipulation and less fantastic cases of hypnosis are not the only, or even primary, ones to give philosophers pause. It is consistent with my deliberating and choosing ‘in the normal way’ that my developing psychology and choices over time are part of an ineluctable system of causes necessitating effects. It might be, that is, that underlying the phenomena of purpose and will in human persons is an all-encompassing, mechanistic world-system of ‘blind’ cause and effect. Many accounts of free will are constructed against the backdrop possibility (whether accepted as actual or not) that each stage of the world is determined by what preceded it by impersonal natural law. As always, there are optimists and pessimists.

3.1 Free Will as Guidance Control

John Martin Fischer (1994) distinguishes two sorts of control over one's actions: guidance and regulative. A person exerts guidance control over his own actions insofar as they proceed from a ‘weakly’ reasons-responsive (deliberative) mechanism. This obtains just in case there is some possible scenario where the agent is presented with a sufficient reason to do otherwise and the mechanism that led to the actual choice is operative and it issues in a different choice, one appropriate to the imagined reason. In Fischer and Ravizza (1998), the account is elaborated and refined. They require, more strongly, that the mechanism be the person's own mechanism (ruling out external manipulation) and that it be ‘moderately’ responsive to reasons: one that is “regularly receptive to reasons, some of which are moral reasons, and at least weakly reactive to reason” (82, emphasis added). Receptivity is evinced through an understandable pattern of reasons recognition—beliefs of the agent about what would constitute a sufficient reason for undertaking various actions. (For details, see Fischer and Ravizza 1998, 69–73, and Fischer's contribution to Fischer et al. 2007.)

None of this, importantly, requires ‘regulative’ control: a control involving the ability of the agent to choose and act differently in the actual circumstances. Regulative control requires alternative possibilities open to the agent, whereas guidance control is determined by characteristics of the actual sequence issuing in one's choice. Fischer allows that there is a notion of freedom that requires regulative control but does not believe that this kind of freedom is required for moral responsibility. (In this, he is persuaded by a form of argument originated by Harry Frankfurt. See Frankfurt 1969 and Fischer 1994, Ch.7 for an important development of the argument. The argument has been debated extensively in recent years. See Widerker and McKenna 2003 for a representative sampling. For very recent work, see Franklin 2009 and Fischer 2010 and the works they cite.)

3.2 Free Will as Ultimate Origination (Ability to do Otherwise)

Many do not follow Fischer here, however, and maintain the traditional view that the sort of freedom required for moral responsibility does indeed require that the agent could have acted differently. As Aristotle put it, “…when the origin of the actions is in him, it is also up to him to do them or not to do them” (NE, Book III).[3]

A flood of ink has been spilled, especially in the modern era, on how to understand the concept of being able to do otherwise. On one side are those who maintain that it is consistent with my being able to do otherwise that the past (including my character and present beliefs and desires) and the basic laws of nature logically entail that I do what I actually do. These are the ‘compatibilists,’ holding that freedom and causal determinism are compatible. (For discussion, see O'Connor, 2000, Ch.1; Kapitan 2001; van Inwagen 2001; Haji 2009; compatibilism; and incompatibilism: arguments for.) Conditional analyses of ability to do otherwise have been popular among compatibilists. The general idea here is that to say that I am able to do otherwise is to say that I would do otherwise if it were the case that … , where the ellipsis is filled by some elaboration of “I had an appropriately strong desire to do so, or I had different beliefs about the best available means to satisfy my goal, or … .” In short: something about my prevailing character or present psychological states would have differed, and so would have brought about a different outcome in my deliberation.

Incompatibilists think that something stronger is required: for me to act with free will requires that there are a plurality of futures open to me consistent with the past (and laws of nature) being just as they were—that I be able ‘to add to the given past’ (Ginet 1990). I could have chosen differently even without some further, non-actual consideration's occurring to me and ‘tipping the scales of the balance’ in another direction. Indeed, from their point of view, the whole scale-of-weights analogy is wrongheaded: free agents are not mechanisms that respond invariably to specified ‘motive forces.’ They are capable of acting upon any of a plurality of motives making attractive more than one course of action. Ultimately, the agent must determine himself this way or that.

We may distinguish two broad families of ‘incompatibilist’ or ‘indeterminist’ self-determination accounts. The more radical group holds that the agent who determines his own will is not causally influenced by external causal factors, including his own character. Descartes, in the midst of exploring the scope and influence of ‘the passions,’ declares that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (PWD, v.I, 343). And as we've seen, he believed that such freedom is present on every occasion when we make a conscious choice—even, he writes, “when a very evident reason moves us in one direction….” (PWD, v.III, 245). More recently, Jean-Paul Sartre notoriously held that human beings have ‘absolute freedom’: “No limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself, or, if you prefer, we are not free to cease being free” (567). His views on freedom flowed from his radical conception of human beings as lacking any kind of positive nature. Instead, we are ‘non-beings’ whose being, moment to moment, is simply to choose:

For human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it either from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept….it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be, down to the slightest details. Thus freedom…is the being of man, i.e., his nothingness of being. (568–9)

The medieval philosopher Scotus and mid-twentieth century philosopher C.A. Campbell both appear to agree with Descartes and Sartre on the lack of direct causal influence on the activity of free choice while allowing that the scope of possibilities for what I might thus will may be more or less constricted. So while Scotus holds that “nothing other than the will is the total cause” of its activity, he grants (with Aquinas and other medieval Aristotelians) that we are not capable of willing something in which we see no good, nor of positively repudiating something which appears to us as unqualifiedly good. Contrary to Sartre, we come with a ‘nature’ that circumscribes what we might conceivably choose, and our past choices and environmental influences also shape the possibilities for us at any particular time. But if we are presented with what we recognize as an unqualified good, we still can choose to refrain from willing it. As for Campbell, while he holds that character cannot explain a free choice, he supposes that “[t]here is one experiential situation, and one only, … in which there is any possibility of the act of will not being in accordance with character; viz. the situation in which the course which formed character prescribes is a course in conflict with the agent's moral ideal: in other words, the situation of moral temptation” (1967, 46). (Van Inwagen 1994 and 1995 is another proponent of the idea that free will is exercised in but a small subset of our choices, although his position is less extreme on this point than Campbell's. Fischer and Ravizza 1992, O'Connor 2000, Ch.5, and Clarke 2003, Ch.7 all criticize van Inwagen's argument for this position.)

A more moderate grouping within the self-determination approach to free will allows that beliefs, desires, and external factors all can causally influence the act of free choice itself. But theorists within this camp differ sharply on the metaphysical nature of those choices and of the causal role of reasons. We may distinguish three varieties. I will discuss them only briefly, as they are explored at length in incompatibilist (nondeterministic) theories of free will.

First is a noncausal (or ownership) account (Ginet 1990, 2002; McCann 1998; Pink 2004; Goetz 2002). According to this view, I control my volition or choice simply in virtue of its being mine—its occurring in me. I do not exert a special kind of causality in bringing it about; instead, it is an intrinsically active event, intrinsically something I do. While there may be causal influences upon my choice, there need not be, and any such causal influence is wholly irrelevant to understanding why it occurs. Reasons provide an autonomous, non-causal form of explanation. Provided my choice is not wholly determined by prior factors, it is free and under my control simply in virtue of being mine.

Proponents of the event-causal account (e.g. Nozick 1995; Ekstrom 2001; and Franklin forthcoming) would say that uncaused events of any kind would be random and uncontrolled by anyone, and so could hardly count as choices that an agent made. They hold that reasons influence choices precisely by causing them. Choices are free insofar as they are not deterministically caused, and so might not have occurred in just the circumstances in which they did occur. (See nondeterministic theories of free will and probabilistic causation.) A special case of the event-causal account of self-determination is Kane (1996 and his contribution to Fischer et al., 2007). Kane believes that the free choices of greatest significance to an agent's autonomy are ones that are preceded by efforts of will within the process of deliberation. These are cases where one's will is conflicted, as when one's duty or long-term self-interest compete with a strong desire for a short-term good. As one struggles to sort out and prioritize one's own values, the possible outcomes are not merely undetermined, but also indeterminate: at each stage of the struggle, the possible outcomes have no specific objective probability of occurring. This indeterminacy, Kane believes, is essential to freedom of will.

Finally, there are those who believe freedom of will consists in a distinctively personal form of causality, commonly referred to as “agent causation.” The agent himself causes his choice or action, and this is not to be reductively analyzed as an event within the agent causing the choice. (Compare our ready restatement of “the rock broke the window” into the more precise “the rock's having momentum M at the point of contact with the window caused the window's subsequent shattering.”) This view is given clear articulation by Thomas Reid:

I grant, then, that an effect uncaused is a contradiction, and that an event uncaused is an absurdity. The question that remains is whether a volition, undetermined by motives, is an event uncaused. This I deny. The cause of the volition is the man that willed it. (Letter to James Gregory, in 1967, 88)

Roderick Chisholm advocated this view of free will in numerous writings (e.g., 1982 and 1976). And recently it has been developed in different forms by Randolph Clarke (1993, 1996, 2003) and O'Connor (2000, 2005, 2008a, and 2010). Nowadays, many philosophers view this account as of doubtful coherence (e.g., Dennett 1984). For some, this very idea of causation by a substance just as such is perplexing (Ginet 1997 and Clarke 2003, Ch.10). Others see it as difficult to reconcile with the causal role of reasons in explaining choices. (See Feldman and Buckareff 2003 and Hiddleston 2005. Clarke and O'Connor devote considerable effort to addressing this concern.) And yet others hold that, coherent or not, it is inconsistent with seeing human beings as part of the natural world of cause and effect (Pereboom 2001, 2004, and 2005).

3.3 Do We Have Free Will?

A recent trend is to suppose that agent causation accounts capture, as well as possible, our prereflective idea of responsible, free action. But the failure of philosophers to work the account out in a fully satisfactory and intelligible form reveals that the very idea of free will (and so of responsibility) is incoherent (Strawson 1986) or at least inconsistent with a world very much like our own (Pereboom 2001). Smilansky (2000) takes a more complicated position, on which there are two ‘levels’ on which we may assess freedom, ‘compatibilist’ and ‘ultimate’. On the ultimate level of evaluation, free will is indeed incoherent. (Strawson, Pereboom, and Smilansky all provide concise defenses of their positions in Kane 2002.)

The will has also recently become a target of empirical study in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Benjamin Libet (2002) conducted experiments designed to determine the timing of conscious willings or decisions to act in relation to brain activity associated with the physical initiation of behavior. Interpretation of the results is highly controversial. Libet himself concludes that the studies provide strong evidence that actions are already underway shortly before the agent wills to do it. As a result, we do not consciously initiate our actions, though he suggests that we might nonetheless retain the ability to veto actions that are initiated by unconscious psychological structures. Wegner (2002) amasses a range of studies (including those of Libet) to argue that the notion that human actions are ever initiated by their own conscious willings is simply a deeply-entrenched illusion and proceeds to offer an hypothesis concerning the reason this illusion is generated within our cognitive systems. Mele (2009) and O'Connor (2009b) argue that the data adduced by Libet, Wegner, and others wholly fail to support their revisionary conclusions.

4. Theological Wrinkles

A large portion of Western philosophical writing on free will was and is written within an overarching theological framework, according to which God is the ultimate source and sustainer of all else. Some of these thinkers draw the conclusion that God must be a sufficient, wholly determining cause for everything that happens; all suppose that every creaturely act necessarily depends on the explanatorily prior, cooperative activity of God. It is also presumed that human beings are free and responsible (on pain of attributing evil in the world to God alone, and so impugning His perfect goodness). Hence, those who believe that God is omni-determining typically are compatibilists with respect to freedom and (in this case) theological determinism. Edwards (1754) is a good example. But those who suppose that God's sustaining activity (and special activity of conferring grace) is only a necessary condition on the outcome of human free choices need to tell a more subtle story, on which omnipotent God's cooperative activity can be (explanatorily) prior to a human choice and yet the outcome of that choice be settled only by the choice itself. For important medieval discussions—the period of the apex of treatments of philosophical/theological matters—see the relevant portions of Aquinas BW and Scotus QAM. For an example of a more recent discussion, see Quinn 1983.

Another issue concerns the impact on human freedom of knowledge of God, the ultimate Good. Many philosophers, especially the medieval Aristotelians, were drawn to the idea that human beings cannot but will that which they take to be an unqualified good. (Duns Scotus appears to be an important exception to this consensus.) Hence, in the afterlife, when humans ‘see God face to face,’ they will inevitably be drawn to Him. Murray (1993, 2002) argues that a good God would choose to make His existence and character less than certain for human beings, for the sake of their freedom. (He will do so, the argument goes, at least for a period of time in which human beings participate in their own character formation.) If it is a good for human beings that they freely choose to respond in love to God and to act in obedience to His will, then God must maintain an ‘epistemic distance’ from them lest they be overwhelmed by His goodness and respond out of necessity, rather than freedom. (See also the other essays in Howard-Snyder and Moser 2002.)

Finally, there is the question of the freedom of God himself. Perfect goodness is an essential, not acquired, attribute of God. God cannot lie or be in any way immoral in His dealings with His creatures. Unless we take the minority position on which this is a trivial claim, since whatever God does definitionally counts as good, this appears to be a significant, inner constraint on God's freedom. Did we not contemplate immediately above that human freedom would be curtailed by our having an unmistakable awareness of what is in fact the Good? And yet is it not passing strange to suppose that God should be less than perfectly free?

One suggested solution to this puzzle begins by reconsidering the relationship of two strands in (much) thinking about freedom of will: being able to do otherwise and being the ultimate source of one's will. Contemporary discussions of free will often emphasize the importance of being able to do otherwise. Yet it is plausible (Kane 1996) that the core metaphysical feature of freedom is being the ultimate source, or originator, of one's choices, and that being able to do otherwise is closely connected to this feature. For human beings or any created persons who owe their existence to factors outside themselves, the only way their acts of will could find their ultimate origin in themselves is for such acts not to be determined by their character and circumstances. For if all my willings were wholly determined, then if we were to trace my causal history back far enough, we would ultimately arrive at external factors that gave rise to me, with my particular genetic dispositions. My motives at the time would not be the ultimate source of my willings, only the most proximate ones. Only by there being less than deterministic connections between external influences and choices, then, is it be possible for me to be an ultimate source of my activity, concerning which I may truly say, “the buck stops here.”

As is generally the case, things are different on this point in the case of God. Even if God's character absolutely precludes His performing certain actions in certain contexts, this will not imply that some external factor is in any way a partial origin of His willings and refrainings from willing. Indeed, this would not be so even if he were determined by character to will everything which He wills. For God's nature owes its existence to nothing. So God would be the sole and ultimate source of His will even if He couldn't will otherwise.

Well, then, might God have willed otherwise in any respect? The majority view in the history of philosophical theology is that He indeed could have. He might have chosen not to create anything at all. And given that He did create, He might have created any number of alternatives to what we observe. But there have been noteworthy thinkers who argued the contrary position, along with others who clearly felt the pull of the contrary position even while resisting it. The most famous such thinker is Leibniz (1710), who argued that God, being both perfectly good and perfectly powerful, cannot fail to will the best possible world. Leibniz insisted that this is consistent with saying that God is able to will otherwise, although his defense of this last claim is notoriously difficult to make out satisfactorily. Many read Leibniz, malgre lui, as one whose basic commitments imply that God could not have willed other than He does in any respect.

On might challenge Leibniz's reasoning on this point by questioning the assumption that there is a uniquely best possible Creation (an option noted by Adams 1987, though he challenges instead Leibniz's conclusion based on it). One way this could be is if there is no well-ordering of worlds: some worlds are sufficiently different in kind that they are incommensurate with each other (neither is better than the other, nor are they equal). Another way this could be is if there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds: for every possible world God might have created, there are others (infinitely many, in fact) which are better. If such is the case, one might argue, it is reasonable for God to arbitrarily choose which world to create from among those worlds exceeding some threshold value of overall goodness.

However, William Rowe (2004) has countered that the thesis that there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds has a very different consequence: it shows that there could not be a morally perfect Creator! For suppose our world has an on-balance moral value of n and that God chose to create it despite being aware of possibilities having values higher than n that He was able to create. It seems we can now imagine a morally better Creator: one having the same options who chooses to create a better world. For critical replies to Rowe, see Almeida (2008), Ch.1; O'Connor 2008b; and Kray (2010).

Finally, Norman Kretzmann (1997, 220–25) has argued in the context of Aquinas's theological system that there is strong pressure to say that God must have created something or other, though it may well have been open to Him to create any of a number of contingent orders. The reason is that there is no plausible account of how an absolutely perfect God might have a resistible motivation—one consideration among other, competing considerations—for creating something rather than nothing. (It obviously cannot have to do with any sort of utility, for example.) The best general understanding of God's being motivated to create at all—one which in places Aquinas himself comes very close to endorsing—is to see it as reflecting the fact that God's very being, which is goodness, necessarily diffuses itself. Perfect goodness will naturally communicate itself outwardly; God who is perfect goodness will naturally create, generating a dependent reality that imperfectly reflects that goodness. (Wainwright (1996) is a careful discussion of a somewhat similar line of thought in Jonathan Edwards. See also Rowe 2004.)

Further Reading

Pereboom (2009) samples a number of important historical and contemporary writers on free will. Bourke (1964) and Dilman (1999) provide critical overviews of many historically-significant writers. Fischer, Kane, Pereboom, and Vargas (2007) provide a readable while careful debate that sets out some main views by four leading thinkers. For thematic treatments, see Fischer (1994); Kane (1996), esp. Ch.1–2; 5–6; Ekstrom (2001); Watson (2003b); and the outstanding collection of lengthy survey articles in Kane (2002, with an updated version due to appear in 2011). Finally, for a topically comprehensive set of important contemporary essays on free will, see the four-volume Fischer (2005).


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  • Almeida, Michael (2008). The Metaphysics of Perfect Beings. New York: Routledge.
  • Aquinas, Thomas (BW / 1945). Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (2 vol.). New York: Random House.
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  • Augustine (FCW / 1993). On the Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
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