Monthly Archives: June 2011

A concise statement of the problem of free will

John C. Wright recently posted on Determinism and Indeterminism and quoted this concise statement of the problem of free will, which was written by a reader of his called Lucky Marty:

Consider the following propositions:

  1. All events are either the deterministic result of prior events or else they are random.
  2. Free choices are not fully determined by prior events.
  3. Free choices are not random.
  4. People make free choices.

All of them seem highly plausible, and in fact it’s not easy to see how any of them could be false. But they can’t all be true

This is the same point I’ve been making, but stated in a clearer way.

So, which of these four propositions is wrong? The first and third are undeniable, so that leaves the other two. My approach is to reject #2. Keeping in mind that “prior events” includes one’s own prior thoughts and desires, I think we could still be free in most important senses of the word even if our choices are fully determined — that, in Daniel Dennett‘s phrase, we could have all “the varieties of free will worth wanting” even in a fully deterministic universe.

But if you insist on #2 — if you define freedom in such a way that it precludes determinism — then I will insist that you reject #4. Free will, thus defined, does not and cannot exist — not because the world happens to be deterministic (which may or may not be the case), but because it is logically impossible.

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