Free Will is an Experiential Nonnegotiable

March 22nd, 2020 / No Comments

There are strong reasons to believe humans have genuine but limited free will.  I believe this, in part, because I experience freedom every day.

In a previous post (click here), I listed 9 reasons it makes sense to affirm that humans have genuine but limited free will. In this post, I address perhaps the most powerful reason: freedom as an experiential nonnegotiable.

Our Freedom is Always Limited

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

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

To be free is to choose, in a particular moment, among a limited number of relevant options. We freely choose as a source or cause of our actions. Free creatures could have chosen something other than what they chose; they could have done otherwise.[1]

I don’t know with certainty that all humans have limited but genuine free will. Absolute certainty about such matters is illusory. Certainty is rare!

But I’m more confident about my freedom than I am about descriptions of humans or even of existence. I’m confident about about free will, because I experience it personally. And I presuppose its veracity in the way I live my life.

We Should Start with the Data We Know Best

We often make mistakes and don’t know much if anything with certainty. So we should have some method in our attempts to make sense of life.

The philosopher Roderick Chisholm recommends what he calls “epistemological particularism.”[2] This method privileges experiences we know best when trying to makes sense of life. It begins with ideas that seem most obvious.

See my essay in this…

Epistemological particularism doesn’t claim we can be certain descriptions of our experience are 100% 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 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 interpretations mistaken. But my first step in addressing claims about determinism 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 neuroscience as a discipline. In my view, neuroscientists should pursue their research with passion. The discipline has generated helpful insights, and I have friends contributing in this field. But we must avoid conclusions the data does not and, I think, could not in principle support. For an accessible philosophical defense of freewill in light of neuroscience research, see Alfred Mele’s work.[3] 

Is Free Will Just Common Sense?

Some call those beliefs that are 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.[4] In terms of freedom, common sense says we all act freely — at least sometimes.

We use “common sense”  to describe ideas that are not inevitably expressed in our lives, however. To some people, for instance, it’s common sense black men should not marry white women. Others think it’s common sense that the New England Patriots are the greatest football team. Some think common sense tells us God controls our lives. Because these ideas are not truly common nor expressed inevitably in our actions, the phrase “common sense” 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.[5] 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 must accept the truth of experiential nonnegotiables if we want to speak adequately about the way the world works.

We contradict ourselves if we say we 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.[6]

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 if not all, genuine but limited freedom is an experiential nonnegotiable.

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

We contradict ourselves if we claim we're 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).

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

[3] Alfred Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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

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

[6] 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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