A brief, general definition of freewill
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Some areas of the human brain implicated in mental disorders|
that might be related to freewill. Source: wikipedia.
In my previous article, I explored the subject of freewill in the context of my own metaphysics: a formulation of idealism. In this brief essay, I'd like to generalize some of the principles I based my earlier discussion on, for the benefit of those interested in the topic of freewill but not necessarily interested in particular metaphysical formulations.
What is freewill? We all have an intuitive understanding of it, but when we translate that understanding into words, we often misrepresent the essence of our own intuition. Having pondered about it for a while, here is how I would define it:
Freewill is the capacity of an agent to make an intentional choice unconstrained by any factor outside that which the agent identifies itself with.
The word 'intentional' is important to differentiate a true choice from a merely random choice. A true choice entails a preference, purpose or bias of some sort, not the mere throw of dice.
Let's exemplify this definition by taking the agent to be a person. Personal freewill is then the capacity of a person to make an intentional choice unconstrained by any influence, limit, requirement or power that the person does not identify herself with. Note the emphasis on what a person identifies herself with, as opposed to what a particular paradigm implies the person to be. Materialism, for instance, entails that a person is merely her physical body. This way, if a person's choices are merely the outcome of deterministic physical processes in her brain, that would still comply with the definition of freewill above. After all, the processes in a person's brain are part of what the person supposedly is. Yet, most of us would intuitively and immediately reject deterministic brain processes to be an expression of true freewill. Why? Because, for whatever reason, we do not identify ourselves with processes in our brains. We say that we have a brain, as opposed to saying that we are a brain.
The definition above also circumvents a problem with libertarian freewill, which entails that a truly free choice must be completely non-determined. The problem here is that, from a logical perspective, a choice is either the deterministic outcome of some (perhaps unfathomably rich, incomprehensible, transcendent, meaningful and complex) process, or random. It is very hard, if at all possible, to find semantic or logical space for libertarian freewill if we insist on differentiating it form the latter two cases. According to the definition above, on the other hand, true freewill can be the expression of a deterministic process, so long as the determining factors of that process are internal to that which the choosing agent identifies itself with.
Most people identify themselves with their particular conscious thoughts and emotions, as subjectively experienced. Therefore, when agents are human beings, true freewill is the case if, and only if, all determining factors behind the making of a choice are part of the person's conscious thoughts and emotions: her opinions, beliefs, preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes, goals, etc. The fact that a particular paradigm, like materialism, insists that thoughts and emotions are brain activity is merely a conceptual abstraction that bears no psychological relevance to how a person experiences her own identity. This way, the definition of freewill above is independent of particular ontological paradigms, like materialism.
To say that our choices are the deterministic outcome of processes that we identify ourselves with does not refute the essence of our intuition about freewill. The appearance that it does is merely a linguistic illusion. Let me try to illustrate this with an example. I may say: 'I made choice A but I could have made choice B.' This statement is a clear assertion of my freewill; in fact, it captures the very core of what freewill entails, doesn't it? Yet, the statement implies that the choice was indeed determined: it was determined by me! In other words, it was the perceived essence of what it means to be me that determined the choice. Therefore, I can rephrase the statement in the following way, without changing its meaning or implications: 'I chose A because it is my perceived essential nature to do so, although there were no external factors preventing me from choosing B.' Formulated this way, the statement is clearly consistent with the definition above. Do you see what I mean?
When one says that one's choice cannot be determined by anything in order to be truly free, what one actually means is that one's choice cannot be determined by anything external to that which one identifies oneself with. After all, unless the choice is random, it must be determined by something, even if that something is no more than the perceived essential nature of the agent that makes the choice. True freewill applies in this latter case.
I hope this brief articulation helps sort out some of the linguistic and logical noise that so often clouds discussions about freewill.