Freedom of the Will – Peter van Inwagen

In this selection, Peter van Inwagen provides a glimpse into what is often thought of as one of the more interesting and perplexing problems in all of philosophy: the problem of free will. There are a variety of questions associated with this problem. “Do we have free will?” is perhaps the most commonly heard of these questions, but it is hardly the only one of interest. We might also wonder exactly what free will is, and whether it is consistent with what else we know of the universe, and what we should think of our lives if we do not have it. In this article, van Inwagen is particularly concerned with surveying the debate over whether free will is compatible with determinism. He maintains that no matter what stance one might take on the issue, one will be faced with having to accept a consequence that sounds implausible. He refers to these consequences as “mysteries.” In the end, van Inwagen reports that he favors a kind of incompatibilism because that position requires accepting the least problematic mystery.

At the beginning of the article, van Inwagen invites us to imagine the concept of free will in terms of a kind of metaphor. Having free will, he says, is like coming to a fork in a path, and having both of those forks open to you. That is, having the ability to bring it about that you go down either of those paths. If, on the other hand, you do not have the power to go down the first path, and have the power to go down the second path, then you lack free will with respect to which direction you will go. And so too with all other sorts of decisions. Following this, he introduces us to the notion of determinism. Van Inwagen explains the thesis in several ways, but in this context it is important to understand that if determinism is true, then any state of affairs together with the laws of nature entails exactly one unique future. As van Inwagen notes, it is initially plausible to think that free will and determinism are incompatible; the trouble is in determining whether or not this is so.

Van Inwagen first gives rough a description of a compatibilist view. He then suggests that the compatibilist is faced with two difficulties; first, she must show that there are multiple futures that are open to us, and more importantly, she must show that they are “open” in a genuine sense of that word. Although van Inwagen thinks that the compatibilist can present a picture that appears to meet these challenges, he argues that the compatibilist must deny a claim that seems unavoidably true. This claim, he calls the No Choice Principle. He argues that the truth of the No Choice Principle, together with the truth of determinism, entails that we lack free will. Therefore, as the compatibilist maintains that we do have free will even if determinism is true, she must reject the No Choice Principle; that, van Inwagen maintains, is the “mystery” of compatibilism. It is mysterious how something so apparently true as the No Choice Principle could possibly be false.

However, rejecting the compatibility of free will and determinism also results in a mystery. To be an incompatibilist one must deny the truth of either free will or determinism. The problem with denying determinisn, van Inwagen suggests, is that the falsity of determinism also seems to undermine free will. If human choices are undetermined in the sense that they are random or uncaused, then we lack any control over the choices that we make, and surely that is inconsistent with free will. Some incompatibilists try to avoid this problem by making appeal to a different sort of causation, a sort that arises not from events but from agents themselves. Fittingly, this type of causation is known as agent-causation. Van Inwagen argues, though, that the concept of agent-causation is deeply problematic; accepting the truth of agent-causation seems “mysterious.” In light of this, it may appear that we lack free will regardless of whether determinism is true or false.

Denying free will, though, also leads to extremely strange consequences. One need not endorse agent-causation, or reject the No Choice Principle, but denying free will is tantamount to denying that, in deciding between two options, it is not really in your power to make one or the other come to be. And this, van Inwagen thinks, is so incredible that it must be false. Part of the explanation of why it seems so incredible to van Inwagen is that he argues that it rules out the possibility of even trying to decide whether to take the first or second option. For I can only deliberate about what to do if I believe that the alternatives are genuinely open; but if I really believe that I lack free will, then I cannot believe that the alternatives are genuinely open. It would seem to follow then, that I could not deliberate about which alternative to take. In the end, van Inwagen suggests that it is simply too difficult to give up the idea that sometimes multiple futures are open to me.

Van Inwagen’s own preferred resolution of the problem is to deny that all of our choices are determined, but that we somehow maintain control over those choices (further, he denies that agent-causation is helpful in this regard). To do otherwise, one would have to abandon either the No Choice Principle, or the concept of our free will, but of which constitute accepting deeper mysteries than the mystery that van Inwagen is willing to accept.