Category: causal necessity

Thomas Pink says some very enlightening things about free will in his podcast with the lovely Nigel at

He explains how for compatibilists actions need a ‘goal’ or purpose to make sense as actions rather than meaningless events. (The difference between a muscle twitching a leg that moves a foot that impacts your leg and me kicking you because you are idle). He suggests that goals or purposes only make sense if they have a prior cause. This view is very similar Hume’s.

For me, compatibilism makes sense if you see actions and choices and decisions as events on a timeline:

> CAUSE empty belly (physiological)> EFFECT hunger > Should I have a chocolate biscuit or a carrot? (social conditioning etc. influences / determines? my CHOICE > my GOAL or purpose is either to stay slim and gorgeous or enjoy the chocolate biscuit and I imagine those possible futures as I decide > ACTION I eat a biscuit. My biscuit eating is a result of my choice, my choice gives it a goal and purpose and makes my ACTION intelligible (understandable) as an act of free will which forms part of a ‘causal chain.’

So, for compatibilists, free will: choices and decisions, only make sense as part of this chain. Without the causes, the prior events that inform my choices and my goals, free will would seem meaningless and randum, as if it had nothing to with my life.

However, Thomas Pink thinks that we ‘can have uncaused intelligible actions’ (my emphasis). He says that ‘action involves a self direction at a goal’ and that ‘the goal is provided by the very content of the mental event of choosing.’ and in that sense it is ‘internally generated’.

For Pink, choosing is about putting options and choices before ‘the mind’s eye’ and then directing your yourself at the option or goal you choose.

Although he claims to be a compatibilist, he admits that he is closer to a libertarian position. I think he is a libertarian really.

Talk of a ‘mind’s eye’ worries me (homunculous alert!), and I don’t think Pink’s position is all that convincing philosophically, but I want to believe him because I think politically I ought to be a libertarian.

What I am really (not that you’d care) is a philosophical pragmatist and ‘non-reductive physicalist’, that means that I think we are entirely physical, but I don’t want to reduce us to lumps of matter. I think the idea of ‘free will’ is a much more useful way of describing how we behave than a ‘scientific’ description. I think the problems we have when we discuss free will and determinism are probably the result of misconceptions about the way human beings are in the world. They are the result of problems with our language. I am, of course, indebted to Richard Rorty for this view, although I need to do a lot more work on it to explain it more fully.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.


HARD DETERMINISTS (obviously not as hard as Sam)

Hard determinists think that free will is an illusion. They think that all the choices, decisions and actions of human beings are determined by prior physical causes. Just like the atoms that form the rest of the physical world we are subject to the forces of cause and effect, we cannot do other than what we do do: we are subject to causal necessity. We are no more in control of our lives than an autumn leaf tumbling on the wind. (Ooh, lovely image!) As Baron d’Holbach put it

Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant … he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. . . . Nevertheless, in despite of the shackles by which he is bound, it is pretended he is a free agent, or that independent of the causes by which he is moved, he determines his own will, and regulates his own condition.”

The problem that this brings about is that if we are without free will, then we cannot be held responsible for our behaviour. How can we justify praising or blaming anyone for anything if they could not have done anything else. Clearly this view has profound implications for our notions of morality and justice.

The whole point of morality is that it implies a choice: we can choose to do ‘the right thing’. We know that we ought to do the right thing. But it make no sense to say we ‘ought’ to do something if we have no free will? The word ‘ought’ implies that we can, but we can’t! See?

Free the animals.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.

‘Free will’ is being able to exercise control over your actions, choices and decisions. We all ‘feel’ like we have free will, but the extent to which we really do is disputed (as usual) by different philosophers and for different reasons.

choices and decisions. We all ‘feel’ like we have free will, but the extent to which we really do is disputed (as usual) by different philosophers and for different reasons.

For libertarians (incompatibilists) the term suggests a complete freedom from the causal necessity that determines all other physical things. They believe that human beings are able to somehow ‘stand’ outside the causal chain of events and thereby make free and undetermined choices.

It’s easy to see how someone like Descartes, who believed that the mind was metaphysical, could believe in free will – a metaphysical (non-physical) mind clearly won’t be determined (controlled) by physical processes. Descartes was a dualist, he believed that human beings were made of two different ‘substances’: the ‘physical‘ and the ‘mental‘. You can think of the ‘mental‘ as being something like the ‘soul’.

Please feed the animals.