The Last Word on Free Will

People have been arguing if free will exists or not for millennia with little progress. You have the Incompatibilists on one side arguing that free will and a deterministic universe can’t both be true, and the Compatibilists arguing that they can. While the heavy artillery appears to be on the side of Incompatibilism (the universe does appear to be deterministic), the inherent nihilism of Incompatibilism has meant most people have opted for some flavour of Compatibilism of varying sophistication. The arguments for both sides washes back and forth and we are no closer to an answer than the ancient Greeks.

Rather than approaching the question of free will from a philosophical perspective, we can just approach it empirically.

  1. The probability free will exists is greater than zero. Our knowledge of the universe is incomplete and so no matter how much evidence there is supporting a belief we can not apply a probability of zero to any hypothesis that negates this belief. All the evidence suggest fairies don’t exist at the bottom of the garden, but there is some finite probability that they do. In the case of free will this means that while all the evidence points to it not existing, we can not say with certainty it does not exist.
  2. If there is no free will then it is meaningless what beliefs you hold about free will. There is nothing lost in life believing in free will if it doesn’t exist since whatever beliefs you have were predetermined.
  3. If there is free will then believing there is no free will is throwing away your life. If free will exists and you go through life believing everything is predetermined then you will have missed making the choices open to you by free will. You may spend your life in a nihilistic funk when you could have chosen differently.

Given these three statements the only conclusion we can reach is we have to live as though free will exists even if everything we know points to it not existing. Nothing is lost believing in free will if it doesn’t exist, while everything of importance is lost if you don’t believe in free will and it exists. No matter how unlikely free will is, and it appears very unlikely, the conclusion doesn’t change – as long as our knowledge of the universe is incomplete the only rational action is to live as though free will exists.

While I am sure that I am not the first person to propose this solution to the free will problem, I have not been able to find who first proposed it. If anyone knows the source of this argument please leave a comment.

4 comments on “The Last Word on Free Will
  1. This argument (though in a much more nuanced and developed way, was made by William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism”.

    It is a bad argument, though. It’s bad because it is based on completely ignoring the case for compatibilism. ‘Free will’ is not an illusion unless by ‘free will’ you mean metaphysical free will. If that’s what you mean, then I think it’s safe to say it’s an illusion. But an illusion we can live without. But ‘free will’ doesn’t have to be understood in a metaphysical way (in a way that assumes we can be somehow ‘sefl-caused’). There are other, non-trivial ways of understanding it that aren’t illusory, and don’t require a denial of determinism.

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