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Free Will

FREE WILL

FREE WILL. Belief in human free will was challenged by two intellectual developments at the beginning of the early modern period in Europe, the Protestant Reformation and the development of the mechanical theory of matter. The challenges were not entirely new. Medieval theologians had long wrestled with the question of whether human free will was compatible with God's omnipotence and providence and with the theory of nature they had inherited primarily from Aristotle. But challenges to the belief in free will became particularly sharp in early modern Europe.

DESCARTES AND THE CARTESIANS

The notion of free will was central to the thought of René Descartes (15961650), who included among acts of will not only the choice to pursue or shun an attractive object, but also judgment, the act of mind by which we affirm or deny that something is the case. Descartes relied on the principle that God, being wholly good, cannot deceive us. Yet we are deceived. Descartes explained this fact by saying that our mistakes arise when we misuse our free will, affirming what we do not know to be true or denying what we do not know to be false.

Descartes reconciled free will with the new mechanical physics by distinguishing between mind and body. Since the will pertains to the mind, freedom of will is not directly challenged by mechanical physics. Descartes's position raised the problem of mind-body interaction, in particular how the mind, by its free choices, could cause motions in the human body. Descartes's own position is subject to scholarly dispute. But it is clear that the philosophers influenced by Descartes tended strongly toward theories of mind-body parallelism, according to which the histories of a mind and its associated body are causally independent but coordinated, perhaps by God. Indeed, the Cartesians Nicolas Malebranche (16381715), Louis de la Forge (16321666), Géraud de Cordemoy (16141684), and Arnold Geulincx (16241669) held a general theory of causation, known as "occasionalism," according to which God is the only true cause, and other "causes" provide no more than the occasions for God's causation.

Descartes's epistemological use of the notion of free will also raised the question of how human free will is consistent with God's omnipotence, which implies that God preordains all things. In his Principia Philosophiae (1644; Principles of philosophy) Descartes answered this question by saying that we can "get out of" the difficulty by noting that the finite human mind cannot comprehend what an omnipotent God is capable of. Here Descartes was drawing on concepts prominent in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates among Protestants and Catholics. To the general problem of the relation of human free will to God's omnipotence, Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) had added a further difficulty by claiming that human free will was destroyed or at least greatly diminished by original sin, and that all good and meritorious human actions are the results solely of divine grace. Luther's position was attacked by Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) in De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe (1524), to which Luther replied with De Servo Arbitrio (1525). The Council of Trent (15451563) reaffirmed that freedom of will was not destroyed by original sin, and at the same time that postlapsarian human beings are incapable of meritorious acts without the aid of supernatural grace. Disputes about the relation of free will to original sin and grace abounded in the sixteenth century, initiated especially by Luis de Molina's Concordia Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis (15881589; The harmony of free will with gifts of grace) and by the posthumous publication of Cornelius Jansen's Augustinus (1640). This work served as the background for the famous written controversy between the Cartesians Antoine Arnauld (16121694) and Malebranche, which began with the publication of Malebranche's Traitédela nature et de la grâce (1680; Treatise of nature and grace).

BRITISH PHILOSOPHERS

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) set the tone for subsequent discussion of human freedom among English-speaking philosophers with his declaration that "a free man is he that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do." Hobbes urged that only human beings and their actions, and not a supposed faculty called "the will," should be termed "free." He was a thoroughgoing materialist and mechanist. Hence he held that volitions, like all other human actions, are in the end movements in the human body. He pointed out that even inanimate things are said to act freely when they move without external impediment, as when water is said to descend freely in a river bed. But he allowed a special sense of freedom for human beings: They act freely when they do what they will to do without hindrance. Hobbes's position is a classic example of "compatibilism," the position that an action's being determined by antecedent causes is consistent with its being free. Hobbes denied that willing is among the things one can will to do or do voluntarily. Hence, only human actions other than volitions are free, and an action is free whenever it is what the agent wants to do.

Like Hobbes, John Locke (16321704) believed that only human beings and their voluntary acts (which are other than acts of will) can correctly be said to be free. Again like Hobbes, he maintained that a human action is free only if it is what the agent wants to do. But he added a second condition: a human action is free only if the agent could have refrained from performing the action simply by willing not to perform it. Suppose a man is locked in a room where he wants to stay. For Hobbes, the man's remaining in the room is free; for Locke it is not.

The most important eighteenth-century compatibilist was David Hume (17111776). In Section VIII of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), he defines liberty as "a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may." He argues that the "operations of the will" are just as much subject to external causal determination as the operations of matter, and indeed that this fact is recognized by "all mankind . . . in their general practice and reasoning," but that people hesitate to acknowledge it openly because they are in the grips of the false belief that causal determination amounts to constraint.

The most important critic of compatibilism was Thomas Reid (17101796), the founder of the Scottish school of common sense philosophy. Reid argued that the sort of freedom that is central to moral responsibility is located precisely in the will: "By the liberty of a moral agent, I understand, a power over the determinations of his own will. If, in any action, he had the power to will what he did, or not to will it, in that action he is free." Reid developed the notion of agency, or agent causation. In his view, free acts of will are caused not by some antecedent event inside or outside the agent, but rather by the agent himself or herself.

SPINOZA, LEIBNIZ, AND KANT

Baruch Spinoza (16321677) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) were proponents of the principle that there was an explanation for everything that happened and existed. For Spinoza this principle implied that all human actions occur with logical necessity. He was a pantheist and held that, strictly speaking, only "God or Nature" is free. Nevertheless, he said, the actions of a human being are free to the degree that they are independent of finite causes or reasons outside the human being.

Leibniz shrank from this position and emphasized the distinction between necessary and contingent truths. In Section 288 of the Theodicy (1710) he writes, "Freedom . . . consists in intelligence . . . in spontaneity, in virtue of which we determine ourselves; and in contingency, that is, in the exclusion of logical or metaphysical necessity." He held that human choices and actions are intelligent, spontaneous, and logically contingent. At the same time, they are determined by God's choice to create the most perfect of all possible worlds. Leibniz's position thus amounts to a complex version of compatibilism.

Immanuel Kant (17241804) brought to a climax the efforts of early modern philosophers and theologians to make belief in human free will consistent with their other intellectual commitments. His position on free will depends on his distinction between the human self considered as an object of empirical knowledge and the human self considered as a thing-in-itself. In the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781/1787; Critique of pure reason), he writes that freedom is "the power of beginning a state spontaneously." Kant held that all operations of the human self considered as an object of empirical knowledge are determined by external causes, and hence are not free. Yet for him the self-in-itself is self-determining and autonomous, and hence free.

See also Cartesianism ; Descartes, René ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Kant, Immanuel ; Liberty ; Locke, John ; Moral Philosophy and Ethics ; Philosophy ; Spinoza, Baruch .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kane, Robert, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford and New York, 2002.

Nadler, Steven, ed. A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy. Malden, Mass., and Oxford, 2002.

Rowe, William L. Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Sleigh, Robert, Jr. Leibniz and Arnauld: A Commentary on Their Correspondence. New Haven, 1990.

Sleigh, Robert, Jr., Vere Chappell, and Michael Della Rocca. "Determinism and Free Will." In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Edited by Michael Ayers and Daniel Garber. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Elmar J. Kremer

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free will

free will, in philosophy, the doctrine that an individual, regardless of forces external to him, can and does choose at least some of his actions. The existence of free will is challenged by determinism. A denial of free will was implicit in Plato's argument that, because no one would deliberately choose a worse over a better course of action, people's decisions are determined by their understanding (or ignorance) of what constitutes the good. Aristotle disagreed; he distinguished between reason and desire, pointing out that people sometimes do what they desire even when they know it will harm themselves or others. Some Stoics sought to adapt the idea of free will to their rigorous form of determinism; Chrysippus emphasized that action could be produced by choice which itself had antecedent causes. In the Christian philosophical tradition a central question regarding freedom of the will was this: is virtue within the power of the individual or completely dependent on the power of God? St. Augustine, although he argued that God's foreknowledge of human actions (a consequence of his omniscience) did not cause them, did hold that God's omnipotent providence implied predestination: man was wholly dependent on divine grace. St. Thomas Aquinas maintained the freedom of man's will in spite of divine omnipotence, holding that God's omnipotence meant he could do all things possible or consistent with his goodness and reason, which did not include the predetermination of human will. William of Occam affirmed free will but claimed it impossible for any human to comprehend how it is compatible with God's foreknowledge and omniscience, which cannot be distinguished from his role as prime mover and original cause. Martin Luther and John Calvin both followed Augustine's doctrine of predestination, but later Protestant writers disputed their position. Advocates of free will have usually begun with the overwhelming testimony of common practice and common sense: people do believe they in some way determine their actions, and hold each other accountable for them. Therefore advocates of free will have argued that the human will, unlike inanimate things, can initiate its own activity. This position has been called into question by experiments, first undertaken by American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, that have shown that brain signals associated with decisions concerning actions occur before a human being is conscious of making a decision.

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free will

free will • n. the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion. • adj. (esp. of a donation) given readily; voluntary: free-will offerings.

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-free

-free • comb. form free of or from: smoke-free tax-free.

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Free Will

Free Will

See Determinism; Freedom; Free Will Defense

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free will

free will See VOLUNTARISM.

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