Kia ora: This year has been bringing us difficult issues to ponder over. NZ ‘Cr Willie Terpstra has undergone stem cell surgery for her motor neurone disease. The stem cells used were from an aborted foetus. Yet stem cells are seen as hope in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Burns, Diabetes and Leukaemia. Tenri Schiavo from Florida has now been 12 days without food or water and her parents have failed in their final bid to have her feeding tube reinserted. Terri died on the morning of 1 April New Zealand time after 13 days.

*  Last Meeting: We looked at Saudi Arabia, it’s political and religious history, the current situation with problems caused by rapid population expansion and a consequent rapid rise in unemployment, and the links to terrorism, and at future trends and conditions that could lead to war.

*  April monthly meeting: Monday 4 April 7.30 pm Turnbull House. Wellington. All welcome. Topic New Zealand: Why was the first edition of Dom Felice Vaggioli’s book History of New Zealand and Its Inhabitants published in Italy, in Italian, destroyed and suppressed to remain unknown until a second edition was published in English in 2000. What was the secret or dangerous material that this book contained? Is there some secret in New Zealand’s past and where does religion fit into this?

* Radio Access 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 10 April. Two CD’s have been compiled of past programmes and arc now available. This is an endeavor to make available the excellent material that Jeff and Joan produce in this monthly programme. If you are interested, please e-mail Jeff or write to the NZ Humanist Society.

* Committee] Council meetings: Sunday 10 March 10.45 am at Jeff and Joan’s 8 Amritsar St Khandallah.

* Email discussion group:. Is operating now on Yahoo at Have you registered to meet with other members via the web world of communication?

* Included article: The Feb/Mar 2005 issue of Free Inquiry has an article Determinism? Free will? What if they’re Both True? Our NZ Humanist published an article by one of our members in 1976 on this same issue with similar reasoning.

* Quotable Quote: “If you do your best, everything will turn out for the best.”

Gaylene Middleton

David A. Shotwell

The Free Will Problem again

David A. Shotwell has taught mathematics at the Colorado School of Mines, San Diego State University, and Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, where he is now retired. A version of this article approved previously in the Rocky Mountain Skeptic.
Debate over the existence of the freedom of the will is almost as old as philosophy itself, and there is no prospect that it will terminate in universal agreement. It is also unlikely that any fundamentally new position remains to be formulated. One may hope, however, that there is still room for analyses that clarify the issues involved and clear away some misconceptions. The present essay is an attempt to do this. The reader is warned that it defends a deterministic view of human nature and behavior and is a rebuttal of the claim that freedom and determinism are mutually exclusive. My strategy will be to explain what I take to be the correct interpretation of the concept of free will and to discuss possible objections to it. I include some remarks on the status of determinism and its implications.
Consider first an uncontroversial situation. A single planet is in orbit around a star. We ask: Could the planet follow a path that differs from the path it does follow? If the intended sense of could is that of logical possibility then the answer is an unconditional “Yes.” If, however, the question refers to physical possibility, and if the deterministic classical laws of motion apply, the answer takes another form: Yes, the orbit could be different, but only if (a) the laws of motion were other than what they are or (b) the initial conditions (position and velocity) at some earlier time had differed from what, in fact, they were.
Concerning human choices, decisions, and actions, I will adopt the following assumptions. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the state of a person’s brain, i.e., its physical and chemical characteristics at any given time, and the subjective experiences occurring at that time. Thus, the properties and interconnections of the billions of neurons in the brain determine uniquely the accompanying mental events, and the latter occur only II the appropriate configuration of the brain and nervous system is present. The postulated relation between brain and mind is a logically contingent one; it does not imply that mental events and physical events are identical or that it is factually (as opposed to logically) possible for an unconscious robot to impersonate a human being. I also assume that the states of the brain at various times are related by deterministic laws. More precisely because the brain is not an isolated system, the requirement is that it be part of a larger system which obeys such laws. This system will include the person’s body sense organs, and (at least) his or her immediate surroundings.
I am not now concerned with the truth of these hypotheses (although I believe that they are true) but with another question: Are they incompatible with the freedom of the will? I shall argue that the answer is no.
Consider what is involved in the notion of free action versus coercion or constraint. We all learn, at an early age, that there are situations in which we can exert control over our environment and thereby achieve desired results. In these situations, if we decide upon an action and attempt to carry it out, obstacles are not encountered and we are successful. In other cases, however, we have an objective, but our efforts to achieve it fail. Experience teaches us to classify situations as belonging to one or the other of these types. I submit that the concept of freedom arises in this way A person is free to the extent that the situations confronting him are such that, whenever he attempts to realize a desire, he succeeds. Freedom, therefore, is not an all-or-nothing attribute. It has gradations ranging from impotence at one extreme to omnipotence at the other, with most of us located near the low end of this spectrum. Note that freedom, thus construed, requires no assumptions about the causes or origins of our desires and actions: it is neutral with respect to the presence or absence of deterministic laws that can be applied to human behavior. That is one of its advantages. There can be no doubt that we possess at least a measure of freedom in this sense. But there can be doubt concerning its existence if it is made to depend upon metaphysical entities such as uncaused causes, which we, as agents, are alleged to be by some philosophers.
This explication of the meaning of freedom is consistent with the ordinary nonphilosophical uses of the word, though not with the connotations that it has for some people, as I indicate below It also accounts for the intuitive conviction that our wills are free, which is often said to be more reliable than argument and reasoning. My opponents, however, will reply that no such simple solution of a profound and subtle problem can be correct. They maintain that freedom as I interpret it is only a pale shadow of the genuine article, and that the latter necessarily excludes the deterministic hypotheses stated above. I believe that this objection arises because people carry out thought experiments and misinterpret the results. This can be seen through an example.

Mr. Smith, upon arriving at a fork in the road, turns right. He then reproduces the scene in his imagination and says, “Being a free agent, I could have turned left. But if my actions fall under deterministic laws, I could not have turned left. Therefore, I am not subject to such laws, even if they do apply to the motions of inanimate objects.”

This argument is valid but question begging. Indeterminism is included in Smith’s concept of what constitutes a free agent; it is an a priori assumption, not a conclusion derived from empirical evidence. The terms freedom and free choice, unlike red and round, are not merely labels that characterize simple, publicly observable objects or situations. They carry a load of theory, and the theory implicitly held by one person, e.g., Smith, is likely to differ from that of another. This probably accounts for the centuries of inconclusive controversy over their proper interpretation.
The determinist’s account of the journey along the road is similar to that which applies to the example of the revolving planet. Smith could, without qualification, have turned left instead of right, if we are referring only to the logical possibilities. With reference to physical possibility he could also have done so, but only if (a) the laws by which brain states evolve in time were other than what they are or (b) the state of his brain had been, at some earlier time, at least slightly different from what it actually was.
This account of the matter invariably meets with resistance. The probable reason is that we are inclined to reify causal laws and conditions into tyrannical agents that victimize people by coercing them into actions contrary to their own desires. An excerpt from A. J. Ayer’s Philosophical Essays is relevant:
We tend to form an imaginative picture of an unhappy effect trying vainly to escape from the clutches of an overmastering cause. But the fact is simply that when an event of one type occurs, an event of another type occurs also, in a certain temporal or spatio-temporal relation to the first. The rest is only metaphor. And it is because of the metaphor, and not because of the fact, that we come to think that there is an antithesis between causality and freedom.
Smith’s decision to turn right was his own, a fact which is not altered by the supposition that the decision itself had prior causes. The determinist, in saying that his action was freely chosen, is making a statement of hypothetical, or “if-then,” type: The circumstances were such that, if Smith had decided and attempted to turn left, he would have succeeded. And such a statement can be true even though the “if” clause is false.
Opponents of my position are likely to begin their arguments by pointing out that the deterministic assumptions with which I began have not been proved. That is correct, but the available evidence renders them very plausible. The dependence of thinking and behavior upon brain physiology and chemistry is revealed by the effects of drugs, brain injuries, and the deterioration of old age: e.g., a small quantity of LSD can cause temporary (or perhaps permanent) insanity But even if this is true, it is said, physicists have discovered that the basic laws of nature are in-deterministic; therefore, there is room for a strong form of free will that was not permitted by classical physics. The idea seems to be that a person’s brain is controlled by a nonphysical entity that inhabits it like a ghost haunting a mansion. When a choice-especially a moral choice-is to be made, the absence of strict causality at the physical level allows the ghost to intervene by forcing neurons to fire in one pattern rather than another.
“If there is no appeal to the supernatural, however, it is not clear that the allegedly in-deterministic character of modern physics can support the case for freedom….”
If there is no appeal to the supernatural, however, it is not clear that the allegedly in-deterministic character of modern physics can support the case for freedom of a different and stronger kind than that which I have advocated. First, the occurrence of submicroscopic events that are only statistically lawful is logically compatible with the existence of deterministic laws applying to the behavior of large-scale objects such as the human brain and nervous system. (For an elaboration of this point, see chapter 10 of The Structure of Science by Ernest Nagel.) Second, even if our brains contain an amplifying mechanism that makes them subject to quantum mechanical uncertainties, this cannot (without ghostly assistance) yield any conclusions about individual freedom or moral autonomy To see why imagine a murder trial in which the defendant argues as follows: “I am not responsible for killing Smith with an ax, because I was suddenly and unaccountably struck by an attack of indeterminism. Some unfortunate but unavoidable quantum transitions threw my brain into a state that resulted in the crime. I do not know whether this will happen again, because the operations of my brain are spontaneous and not subject to causal law”
Thus, the problem is to show that a free choice, in this supposedly strong sense, is not merely a random choice. Until that is done, skepticism is in order.
What of the premise that quantum mechanics is essentially in-deterministic? This is generally believed to have been rigorously established by von Neumann. It has been found, however, that his proof depends upon some assumptions that look plausible but are not at all necessary; if they are rejected, quantum theory can be reformulated with a deterministic “hidden variable” substratum. The physicist David Bohm did this in 1952. His theory is unpopular, probably for ideological rather than technical reasons. It also has some counterintuitive and seemingly paradoxical features (as shown by recent experiments on the spin of separated particles that emerged from the same source) but that is true of every interpretation of quantum mechanics. I should add that these remarks apply to the “elementary” (non-relativistic) theory I cannot say what the implications are for the whole of modern physics, but it seems fair to conclude that the issue of determinism versus chance is still open. Until it is settled, the fashionable preference for an in-deterministic universe is a form of scientific defeatism. It amounts to an insistence that some events are forever inexplicable; they simply occur spontaneously and nothing more can be said. While it is logically possible that this claim is true, a scientist (virtually by definition) is someone who is trying to prove that it is false.
Moral considerations are often brought into discussions of determinism, but the issues raised are too comprehensive for brief discussion. I will comment upon only one argument of this type. It is said (contrary to the position I have advocated) that the nonexistence of free will follows from the fact that human behavior is subject to causal laws and that our attitudes toward social problems such as crime should be changed accordingly; punishment is unjustifiable, and the attempt to distinguish between sanity and insanity in determining guilt is nonsensical because the term guilt itself is meaningless.
This “no-fault” view of human nature, however, has implications that are usually overlooked by its advocates. It implies that it is never appropriate to admire, praise, or reward anyone; actions approved by society are no less determined, and no more avoidable, than others. It is also inconsistent with the no-fault view to claim that retributive punishment is morally outrageous. Judges and juries who impose it are no more free to do otherwise than criminals are to change their own behavior.
Our beliefs concerning the freedom of the will, therefore, can have practical consequences if they lead to changes in social policies. But an elaboration of that point will be reserved for another occasion.
Reproduced from Free Inquiry, Feb/Mar 2005