The Elusive Nature of Free Will

A while ago, I wrote a blog post called Ludwig von Mises on Free Will, where I wrote the following:

Take a trivial example: I wake up in the morning with a slightly sore throat. Now I have two alternatives: getting up and go to work despite the sore throat (hoping it will get better during the day) – or to report sick and stay in bed. The sore throat makes it necessary to make this choice; this necessity is determined by the circumstances. The consequences are inescapable: if I go to work, it may happen that my throat gets worse; reporting sick and staying in bed will result in the loss of one day’s pay; those possible outcomes are, at least partly, determined by my choice. The only thing that is truly free is the choice itself. And if someone were to ask me what caused the choice, the only possible answer is that I caused it; I made the choice.

One reader asked me what I think of the following reasoning:

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
1. Every act […]  is caused by a desire/preference.
2. To have free will is to be the originator of one’s desires.
3. Man cannot choose what he desires.
4. Man is subject to his desires.

This is a very common objection to the idea of free will or free choice. It means that the outcome of a choice is already determined by the desires and preferences one already holds. If I have the choice between X and Y, and I choose X and forego Y, this is because I already prefer X to Y, or already desire X more than I desire Y. In the example I gave, it would mean either that I already desire to stay in bed, or that I already prefer going to work rather than staying at home. And thus, the choice is not really free; the outcome is already determined by my desires and/or preferences.

One possible answer is that it is still my desires/preferences that are what determines the outcome of the choice, so it is still true that it is I who makes the choice to stay in bed or get out of bed (or whatever the choice is about). But that is hardly a sufficient answer. (Schopenhauer would retort that I will to stay in bed or get up, but I don’t will to will it.)

But then, desires and preferences are not irreducible primaries. A preference is a value judgment – to say that one prefers X to Y is to say that one values X more than Y. And desires proceed from value judgments – if you value something, you will desire to have it, or to keep it, if you already have it. (For example, if you value a person so highly that you want to spend the rest of your life together with him/her, then you will desire to get married to him/her; or, if you are already married, you will desire to keep this marriage.)

And then the question becomes: do we choose our values? And, if so, how?

Unfortunately, I can think of many counter-examples. If you are hungry, you will inevitably desire some food. Food has to be a value to you, since without it you will starve to death. So if you value your life, you will have to value food, and you will have to desire it. (The only exception here is if you are so tired of and fed-up with life that you don’t care whether you will die or not.) In such a case, I don’t have to make a choice; nature has “made the choice” for me. It does imply other choices: should I go to a restaurant or cook my own food? And what kind of food should I eat today?

But then, what kind of food do I prefer? Sirloin steak? Vindaloo? Or something simpler and cheaper like bacon and eggs? (I would forego blood pudding, simply because I don’t like the taste of it.) But I know I like sirloin steak and vindaloo, because I have eaten them before. But then, did I decide to like them? No; I just tasted them and liked them.

Art works are a similar case. There are books, painting and pieces of music I love, others that I like, others that I don’t care much for, and then there are others that I positively detest. But did I choose or decide which art works to love and which ones to detest? No. I simply read the book, looked at the painting and listened to the music and found that I loved it, liked it or detested it. No choice was involved here. It will affect other choices: to read more books by the same author, look at more paintings by the same painter, listen to more music by the same composer – just as liking vindaloo the first time I tasted it will make me eat vindaloo now and then in the future.

(Is there any difference between gastronomical and artistic preferences? Only one that I can think of: Artistic preferences reflect one’s own personality; gastronomical preferences say virtually nothing about one’s personality.)

But then there are chosen values. What philosophy one prefers and tries to live by is one example. Some time or another in one’s life, one has to choose between the other-worldly outlook of the Platonists and the this-worldly outlook of the Aristotelians. Valuing the “Austrian” school above other economic schools of economics is another such choice. But here, the choice requires a fair amount of thinking and reasoning. So what determines how one chooses to think and reason? One certainly does not make those choices on the basis of “taste”, much less then by tossing coins.

But thinking or reasoning is not an automatic process – it is a process that has to be initiated and maintained by the thinker himself or herself. And if values proceed from thinking, then the basic choice is to think or not to think about those values. Thinking will tell you which values are actually values and which values to pursue. In Ayn Rand’s words:

… to think is an act of choice … Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs and heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival – so that for you, who are a human being, the question “to be or not to be” is the question “to think or not to think”. (“Galt’s speech” in Atlas Shrugged.)

She even goes so far as to write:

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character. (Ibidem; emphasis added.)

However, I have a problem with this: I am not introspectively aware of such a choice; I cannot remember ever having chosen not to think, or not to think at all. The choice I am aware of (and this is a choice that comes up regularly) is to think about this thing, this issue, rather than of that thing or issue. (To take an example, while I am writing this, I will have to choose thinking about free will, and I will have to forego thinking about what to have for dinner; when I finish, the reverse is true: I will have to choose thinking about dinner and forego the issue of free will.)

But this may be a nit-picking objection. To think is always to think about something; there is no such thing as thinking about nothing.[1] And if an issue is important, and I choose to evade it, i.e. refuse to think about it, this will have dire consequences.

Or could this regression be taken a step further? Another formulation Ayn Rand uses is that the basic choice is “to focus or not”. To focus is not exactly the same as to think, but focusing one´s mind is a prerequisite of thinking. (A metaphor that is sometimes used is that it is like turning the ignition key of a car, which is a prerequisite of driving the car.) – Speaking for myself, I think every moment I’m awake – but mostly, my thoughts are wandering from one subject to another. But writing this blog post, I have to focus on the issue of free will and try not to think about other things. Or if I am instead preparing dinner, this is what my mind has to be focused on.

If a man does not focus but instead (as I do most of the time) lets his mind wander from one subject to another, this is called “drift” – his mind is merely drifting. But if a man simply refuses to focus his mind, when he should, and refuses to think about some issue, this is called “evasion” – and just as focusing and thinking, according to Ayn Rand, is man’s basic virtue, so evading is his basic vice, from which other vices then proceed.

This is as far as I can go with this issue at present. Every regression has to stop somewhere.

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However this may be, and however elusive free will might be, it remains a fact that every thinking person faces numerable choices and has to make numerable decisions every day. (It may be different for non-thinking persons – how would I know, when I am thinking all the time? – but most people do think.)

To take an example, I have done a lot of translation work over the years. (I used to translated Ayn Rand into Swedish, which I am now forbidden to do; but I am currently translating essays by George Reisman. And I have actually translated one of Ludwig von Mises’ books.) And here, almost every sentence presents me with choices: which Swedish word to pick, and which word order to choose in the translation. (This can be a hard problem, if a sentence is long and contains subordinate clauses.) But all those choices and decisions are guided by a principle: Say what the original says, and say it in Swedish. The exact meaning of the English original should be conveyed, and at the same time, the translation must be such that the reader does not even think of it as a translation.

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Another factor that contributes to the illusiveness of free will and the power of choice is the fact that so much of what we do daily is automatized. For example, it once took an effort of will to first learn the alphabet and then to read and write. But today, reading and writing comes more or less automatically. And this is also true of such a simple activity as walking. As toddlers, we had to exert some will-power to learn to walk, but that time is long gone. If I am taking a walk, I do not need a separate decision for every step I take; I only have to decide to take the walk. – Bodily functions like heart-beat and breathing are automatic by nature; but walking, reading and writing (and many other things, like playing a music instrument or mastering a foreign language – and you can certainly think of other examples – have to be automatized, i.e. made automatic, by ourselves.

Decision-making itself can also be automatized. To go back to my original example – should I stay in bed or get up despite my sore throat? – I gave a slightly complex example (the complexity being the sore throat). Normally, we just get out of bed, make a cup of coffee and then go to work. Those are decisions – but they are decisions we make every day and are at least almost automatic; so we don’t even think of them as decisions.

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And now, there is only one decision to make: To stop writing about free will and start thinking about some other pressing matter. (I could write a lot more; and maybe I will.)


[1]) One might think about the word “nothing” or about the concept of “nothingness”; but if one is literally thinking of nothing, one is not thinking at all.

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One Response to The Elusive Nature of Free Will

  1. Excellent summary of the issue at hand.
    My thinking that humans have freedom would be based, to some extent, on existentialist thought. If Schopenhauer was right about being unable to will what we will (which I am far from being in agreement with) there still remains the fact that the concept of Will, in the abstract, is impotent insofar as explanatory power goes. Will is always MY will because that is the only kind that exists in my world and therefore we need to recognize the I MYSELF in the debate about choice. Whatever factors may influence my decision, they are factors which belong,subjectively at least, to me because I bring them into existence by my submission or resistance to them.

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