An Argument Against Free Will

The non-existence of free will is something I am almost certain of. When people hear this, they usually tell me that my position is “nihilistic”. While I don’t believe that “nihilists” really exist, I understand the aversion people feel towards the idea of being a cog in the machine. It’s an illusion, but so what? Nothing important needs to change in someone’s behavior when they stop believing in free will.

The argument looks something like this:

  1. When we make a conscious decision to act a certain way, we make that choice because of the way we are, mentally speaking.
  2. Free will requires you to be able to self-determine the way you are.
  3. But to have self-determined the way you are, you would have had to make conscious decisions to be a certain way.
  4. Now we are caught in an infinite regress: for self-determination to be possible, you would have to be able to self-determine the process by which you self-determine, which would require that you self-determine the process by which you self-determine the process by which you self-determine.
  5. Therefore, free will, understood in this sense, is impossible.

Imagine the following scenario: at some point in your life you decide to change the way you are. The way you try to change the way you are will be the function of the way you already are. And just to be clear, “the way we are” includes the thoughts that pop into our heads without a prior conscious decision on our part.

The often misunderstood argument does NOT claim that the universe must be wholly deterministic, or that there is no “randomness” in it. Whether we are the way we are because of determinate laws of nature, randomness, heredity, environment, or some combination of these doesn’t matter for the argument at hand. It is nonetheless true that what you do and can do is determined by your nature and nurture, and you are the author of neither. Not being a causal determinist is fully compatible with not believing in free will, and vice versa.

It is important to note that this line of thought is in no way original. Some version of the above argument has been formulated in different ways by many philosophers: John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Galen Strawson just to name a few.

3 responses to “An Argument Against Free Will”

  1. Your argument makes a good deal of sense. As individuals, we determine next to nothing about the world we encounter every day, yet this world determines the parameters of our existence. What on earth could be “free” about that?

    Liked by 1 person

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