Free Will is an Experiential Nonnegotiable

December 5th, 2017 / No Comments

I think there are strong reasons to believe humans have genuine but limited free will.  I believe this, in part, because I experience this freedom everyday!

In a previous post, I listed 9 reasons I think it makes sense to affirm that humans have genuine but limited free will. In this one, I want to address one of the most powerful reasons: what I call freedom as an experiential nonnegotiable.

Our Freedom is Always Limited

Some people reject genuine human freedom, because they think “freedom” means “the ability to do anything.” Few if any scholars who affirm free will believe this.

Human freedom is always limited. It’s constrained, conditioned, or framed by many sources, both internal and external to the human actor. But all humans act as if they are free, even if some deny with their words that they are free.

To be free is to choose, in a particular moment, among a limited number of relevant options. To be free is to be a source or cause of the action one chooses. Free creatures could have chosen to do something other than what they chose; they could have done otherwise.[1]

I should also add that I don’t know with certainty that all humans have limited but genuine free will. Absolute certainty about such matters is illusive.

I’m more confident about these descriptions, however, than I am about other descriptions of humans or even of existence in general. I’m confident about them, because I experience them personally. And I presuppose their truthfulness in the way I live my life.

We Should Start with the Data We Know Best

Because we often make mistakes and we don’t know much if anything with certainty, we should have some way to move forward in our attempts to make sense of life. The philosophers Roderick Chisholm recommends what he calls “epistemological particularism.”[1]

Epistemological particularism privileges experiences we know best when trying to makes sense of life. It begins with ideas that seem most obvious. It doesn’t claim we can be certain that our descriptions are accurate. But we can be more confident in first-person data — especially data inevitably expressed in our living — than data we know from a third-person perspective.

This method should lead us all to affirm the reality of human freedom. Of course, some people interpret studies in neuroscience (and other sciences) as indicating humans are not free. For several reasons, I think such anti-freedom interpretations mistaken. But my first step in addressing them is to argue we should feel more confident of the truthfulness of first-person data – our inescapable personal experiences – than the data of neuroscience. Scientists obtain neuroscience data through third-person perspectives.

I’m not rejecting the discipline of neuroscience. In my view, neuroscientists should pursue their research with passion. The discipline has generated helpful insights. And I have several friends contributing in this field. But we must avoid conclusions that the data does not and, I think, could not in principle support.

Is Free Will Just Common Sense?

Some call these beliefs that are more self-evidently true and inevitably expressed in our actions “common sense.” Philosophers such as Thomas Reid, GE Moore, and Alfred North Whitehead argued for commonsense ideas.[2] In terms of freedom, common sense says we all act freely — at least sometimes.

Some people use “common sense,” however, to describe ideas that are not inevitably expressed in our lives. For instance, to some people it is common sense black men should not marry white women. Others think its common sense that the New England Patriots are the greatest football team of all time. Some even think common sense tells us that God controls our lives. Because these ideas are not truly common, the phrase can be misleading and then dismissed as unhelpful or dangerous.

David Ray Griffin distinguishes between ideas some call common sense and what he calls “hard-core” and soft-core commonsense ideas.[3] We inevitably presuppose hard-core commonsense ideas in our practice; we don’t inevitably presuppose soft-core commonsense ideas. Soft-core commonsense ideas might include the (wrong) belief that black men and white women shouldn’t marry, the (debatable) belief that New England has the best football team, or the (arguably harmful) belief that God controls creation.

We can deny soft-core commonsense ideas and still live consistently. Hard-core commonsense ideas cannot consistently be denied in our practice.

Free Will is an Experiential Nonnegotiable

I’ve come to call the ideas that we inescapably live out “experiential nonnegotiables.” We should accept the truth about some aspects of human existence to speak adequately about how we live.

In fact, we contradict ourselves if we say we always act one way and then act differently. We commit what Jürgen Habermas calls “performative contradictions:” our performance in life contradicts our statements about what life is like.[4]

In terms of freedom, we contradict ourselves if we claim we are not free and then live as if we act freely. Our words don’t match our actions. We are experiential hypocrites. At least for most humans, genuine but limited freedom is an experiential nonnegotiable.

I could list other experiential nonnegotiables (e.g., there is a world external to myself), but my point for this essay is that we find strong justification for believing humans have genuine but limited freedom by the inevitable experience of freedom in our lives.

We contradict ourselves if we claim we are not free and then live as if we act freely. We are experiential hypocrites. Click To Tweet


[1] For similar understandings of freedom, see Laura W. Ekstrom, “Free Will is Not a Mystery,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2nd ed., Robert Kane, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 366-380; William Hasker, “Divine Knowledge and Human Freedom,” The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2nd ed., Robert Kane, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 40-56; Timothy, O’Connor, “Agent-Causal Theories of Freedom,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2nd ed., Robert Kane, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 309-328 and “The Agent as Cause” Free Will, Robert Kane, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002); Kevin Timpe, Free Will: Sourcehood and its Alternatives, 2nd ed. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[1] Roderick M. Chisholm, The Problem of the Criterion (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1973).

[2] For a brief overview of commonsense philosophy, see “Philosophy of Common Sense,” New World Encyclopedia.

[3] David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), 34, 210.

[4] Jürgen Habermas, “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. C. Lenhardt and S.W. Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990).

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