The scientific image of the world seems to suggest free will is impossible for humans. Despite the central role it plays in giving meaning to our lives, it’s all too tempting to dismiss free will as an illusion. But that would be a mistake. Instead of thinking of ourselves as part of a causally determined nature, we need to start with acknowledging that ‘causality’, ‘laws of nature’, and even ‘nature’, are in fact constructs of human consciousness. The causal necessity we seem to detect in nature is nothing more than our own, human projection. What is more, human actions properly understood are distinctly different from natural events – embedded with meaning and possibility. Free will can seem impossible in theory, but it’s fully real, argues Raymond Tallis.
Free will seems impossible in theory. Actions are material events originating from a material body interacting with a material world. All such interactions are governed by the laws of nature. What’s more, they seem to have a causal ancestry that extends beyond anything over which agents can have control – perhaps all the way back to the Big Bang. Worse still, agents rely on a law-governed universe for their actions to be possible and to have predictable, and hence their intended, consequences.
This traditional case for determinism has recently been supplemented by ‘neurodeterminism’ which rests on the assumption that persons are their brains, which are material objects subject to the laws of nature. Neuroscientific studies of voluntary actions have seemed to some thinkers to demonstrate that our brains have decided what we are going to do before we are aware of having made a decision.
Nevertheless, free will appears real in practice: we feel that there is an undeniable, fundamental difference between things we do and things that merely happen to or around us. What’s more, if there were no such difference, our lives would lose much of their meaning. Defending our practical belief in freedom against theoretical objections is perhaps the most important, as well as the most intriguing, challenge of philosophy. Given the stalemate between those who defend and those who deny free will a new approach is needed.
The human construction of nature
My defence of free will rests on the ‘aboutness’ or intentionality of human consciousness. This is the key to the unique nature of human beings as embodied subjects. Intentionality cannot be reduced to the law-governed effects of the material world interacting with the human body or, more specifically, the brain. Seeing an object ‘out there’, for example, is not identical with neural activity triggered by light energy, though the latter is its necessary condition. If there is such a thing as law-governed causality in the case of vision, it applies only to the light getting into the brain but not to the gaze looking out. The same distinction applies to the aboutness of other mental contents – other forms of perception, beliefs, knowledge, thoughts, hopes, and plans.
Intentionality cannot be reduced to the law-governed effects of the material world interacting with the human body or, more specifically, the brain.
In virtue of the intentionality of consciousness, conscious subjects are in contact with their material surroundings but at a distance from them. Out of this gap grows a space between the natural world and conscious subjects. The space is vastly extended by the sharing or joining of intentionality between conscious subjects. Gestures such as pointing and language create a public, human world, a community of knowing minds, facing nature. This realm is saturated with signs and sedimented meanings that are implicit in artefacts, technologies, and institutions. It is as a consequence of being situated in this extra-natural realm, woven out of trillions of cognitive handshakes, that human subjects are agents acting upon the natural world from a virtual outside.
Nature itself, as it features in our scientific explanations, is a construct of human consciousness, not something we find “out there”.
Acknowledging the nature of human subjects enables us to look critically at the laws of nature and of causal necessity – seeming barriers to free will: the very ideas of laws and causes are inseparable from that of a natural world as it is constructed by conscious subjects. Nature itself, as it features in our scientific explanations, is a construct of human consciousness, not something we find “out there”. The truth of this seemingly outrageous claim becomes evident when we reflect on the experimentation that reveals nature as law-governed and causally closed, and has transformed its habits or regularities into the written down laws of science that evolve as the sciences evolve. There is nothing natural about the discipline-dependent, historically evolving, laws of science which we inaccurately call ‘the laws of nature’.
The practice of experimental science whose findings are supposed to reinforce the claim that we are subordinated to the forces of nature is a striking -perhaps the most striking - expression of our ability to stand outside of the natural world. The distance from which we discover ‘how things work’ is a compelling testimony to the privileged position of human agents in the order of things. Our occupancy of this special position is evident outside as well as inside the laboratory: laboratories are special places, but they are not metaphysically privileged. Our extra-natural status is further highlighted in the deliberate exploitation of the habits of nature to deliver desired outcomes – either directly or indirectly via science-informed technology. Experimental science, and its common-sense precursors evident in the grasp of general principles, show how (to use the words of John Stuart Mill) “we can use one to law to counteract another”.
There is nothing natural about the discipline-dependent, historically evolving, laws of science which we inaccurately call ‘the laws of nature’.
The questionable nature of causal necessity
My critique of the naïve understanding of causation that enables it to be presented as a barrier to genuinely voluntary behaviour is the second major strand of my defence of free will. Here I build on the work of David Hume. Hume argued that causes, understood as necessary connections between events, exist only in the mind not in the material world. The sense of material necessity such that events of Type A must be followed by events of Type B arises out of our transformation of the perception of the constant conjunction between events into a sense of inevitability. The supposed necessary connection between events is not itself available to experience. As Hume pointed out, causal necessity is a kind of superstition – an example of the tendency of the mind ‘to spread itself upon things’.
As Hume pointed out, causal necessity is a kind of superstition – an example of the tendency of the mind ‘to spread itself upon things’.
I go further than Hume and argue that positing a causal connection between successive events is necessitated by the irruption of consciousness into the natural world that splinters the continuum of unfolding nature into discrete and separate events. Causation is then required to cement them back together. Understanding causation in this way opens a path to the claim that the identification of causes is always interest-dependent. Indeed, the elevation of types of events to the status of causes cannot be understood outside of the context of human agency, whereby events are requisitioned as means of shaping the flow of events to realize chosen goals – simple ones such as catching a bus to go to town or more complex ones such as fulfilling an ambition to qualify as a doctor. Far from being an obstacle to freedom, therefore, a law-governed, causally connected, natural world is deeply implicated in the very idea of agency.
The distinctive nature of human actions.
The most cursory inspection shows that actions are utterly unlike sequences of events seen in the natural world. They are put together differently. Think of all the movements that are involved in a train journey to an appointment in a distant city: they range from booking a ticket in advance, ordering one’s affairs in order to be free to make the trip, driving to the station, waiting on the platform, finding one’s seat, dismounting from the train, and travelling to the right street, the right building, and the right room, to meet the right person. The stitching together of many heterogeneous events that have different time scales, and are often interwoven, is a consequence of their being requisitioned. The requisitioning of, and stitching together, of events into actions is guided by intentions and reasons, and informed by hopes, beliefs, knowledge. Philosophers call these ‘propositional attitudes’ Propositional attitudes have a complex intentionality. As such they cannot be understood as the mere law-governed effects of material causes nor, on the other hand, as being themselves causes comparable to those supposedly operating in the natural world.
What we may call ‘becausation’ (as opposed to ‘causation’) of voluntary actions, operates from the virtual outside opened up by intentionality. It is occasioned by future states of affairs which are envisaged as possibilities. The fulfilment of possibilities, growing out of the individual and shared intentionality of human consciousness, isthe most obvious explanation of the immediate, intermediate, and ultimate goals of actions. Possibilities are states of affairs which the actor intends to bring about or to pre-empt.
In order to understand how agency is compatible with a seemingly law-governed, causally connected natural world - upon which it relies for actions to have predictable consequences – it is necessary to see how agents can stand outside of nature.
There are many crucial respects in which possibilities are extra-natural. First, they exist only insofar as they are envisaged by conscious subjects: they are not part of the natural world which, at the scale at which agents operate, is composed entirely of actualities. Secondly, what is envisaged in possibilities is general: there are many material states of affairs that would count as the realization of an intended goal. The material world, of course, consists solely of items that are particulars, notwithstanding that conscious subjects gather them up into general categories. Finally, possibilities, as the intentional objects of our plans, are unlike material objects, states or events in this further respect: they transcend the present, drawing on the past (which is no longer existent), and pointing to an imagined future (which does not yet, and may never, exist). In short, they are steeped in tensed time which has no place in the world of insentient objects and material events. The natural world at time t1 is confined to time t1. Actions therefore differ from other happenings in these important respects: the way they are put together; the envisaged possibilities that inform them; and their relationship to time.
There is another important respect in which the propositional attitudes such as intentions, reasons, and beliefs, which provide the ‘becausation’ of actions, are different from items in the natural world. They are holistically connected. Intentions, for example, make sense only in relation to a wider sense of who and what and where I am and of the world to which I am related. Knowledge, beliefs, wishes, and so on, inform, shape, and regulate one another. This kind of holistic connectedness is entirely unlike that of the spatio-temporal connectedness of events in the material world.
Time to summarize. In order to understand how agency is compatible with a seemingly law-governed, causally connected natural world - upon which it relies for actions to have predictable consequences – it is necessary to see how agents can stand outside of nature. That ability is built into the intentionality of consciousness as it is elaborated to a unique degree in human beings. It is from a standpoint outside of nature that the habits of nature can be discovered as the laws of science - which can then be exploited in the service of agency – and individual law-governed events transformed into handles to bring about desired states of affairs. Agency is driven by envisaged possibilities. These account for the distinctive character of actions in which events are stitched together - in ways that are not seen elsewhere in the material world, that is, in pursuit of necessarily general goals located outside of the present to which nature is confined.
When we appreciate the significance of the space opened up by intentionality, we can understand how free will proves, after all, to be possible in theory as well as in practice; to be real rather than illusory.