On “Free Will”

Today I have something a little different for you. Now that I’ve warmed up my writing muscles a bit with the Tao Te Ching, I’ll start posting some original philosophical writings here alongside my commentary on the TTC. To kick things off, I’d like to say a few things about the free will debate, which was one of the first philosophical issues I ever really cared about.

This topic is one I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years, and almost from the start, I came to the conclusion that most of what’s been said about it fails at bringing the debate closer to any definitive answer, instead circling around the same few ineffective arguments time and time again. 

In order for discussion on free will to get out of the rut it’s in, it’s necessary to acknowledge and address some of the ambiguities and unexamined assumptions that are responsible for its sorry state, which is precisely what I intend to do here, beginning with a couple that need to be addressed before any discussion on the topic can be had–two issues that stem from the phrase ”free will” itself.

The first problem with the phrase is that it’s vague; it doesn’t make explicit to what freedom it refers, so different people will use it to refer to different types of freedom. One person might say “free will” and mean freedom from determinism, while another might say the same phrase and mean freedom from coercion, and if they start arguing with each other about the existence of “free will”, they’ll both be arguing about different things while thinking they’re arguing about the same thing (unless they first go through the effort of defining their terms, which most people don’t do).

The second problem with the phrase “free will” is that it’s exclusive; despite there being a multitude of freedoms which the will may or may not have, each person only ever uses the phrase to refer to one type of freedom, and that freedom will in their estimation be raised far above all others simply because it’s the one they happen to associate with the phrase “free will”, a phrase which society tells us refers to something incredibly important.

Because of these issues I usually prefer to avoid using the phrase “free will” altogether and instead refer to specific types of freedom, thus avoiding any confusion as to what freedom I’m referring to and not privileging any one type of freedom over the others.

Now, it might seem that the vagueness of the phrase “free will” means that it isn’t a coherent topic that one can comment on and discuss, but rather a mishmash of different topics that get lumped together under the same vague phrase. However, in all the time I’ve spent discussing and reading about the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something that connects almost all of what has been said about “free will” and makes a coherent topic of it.

I believe that there is one particular freedom lies at the core of pretty much all uses of “free will”, and this freedom I call by the name “freedom from external necessity”. This refers to the idea that people’s decisions are their own, not something forced onto them by the situation or their brains or what have you. All the other freedoms people call “free will”–e.g. freedom from determinism or freedom from coercion–are freedoms that different people believe are prerequisites for us to have the freedom from external necessity; they believe our decisions aren’t really be ours if they’re determined, or if we’re being coerced into making them. As such, this will be the freedom I’ll focus on in my posts on “free will”.

Anyways, now that I’ve gotten that all cleared up, in my next post on the topic I’ll be exploring whether or some of the different freedoms people like to call “free will” are actually necessary for the freedom from external necessity.


Other posts in this series:
Part 2 — Free will: on Physical Determinism
Part 3 — Free Will: “Could Have Done Otherwise”
Part 4 — Free Will: Incompatibilist “Freedom”

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