Top five arguments for rejecting free will – and answers to them

Discussed below are the arguments offered by average people, intellectuals and even many in the scientific community for rejecting free will and embracing its opposite – in philosophy, what is called “determinism.”  As background, however, consider the positive case for free will.  Free will is not something that one must derive by a lengthy chain of reasoning using abstract concepts.  Free will is something every single human being out of infancy experiences every day. You can see yourself choosing between one shirt and another, or how to spend the next hour, or what app to use on your mobile phone, or how to get to work during rush hour.  Underlying these specific choices is the fundamental set of choices about how you will use your mind – will you deliberate or go by raw feeling? Will you think, or avoid the effort? These fundamental choices make possible all the rest, and you can see yourself making them as well. Free will is an object of direct perception – perception directed internally at one’s mind instead of externally.  The same introspection that lets one see he is thinking about tonight’s Superbowl party provides all the evidence needed to be convinced of the existence of free will.  For that reason, because free will is directly evident and fundamental (at the base of every other kind of thought or action), it is in fact axiomatic.

Some people, usually academics or college students who have had a philosophy class, deny free will’s axiomatic status.  The fourth objection below will present and respond to their arguments.  First, several everyday types of objections will be answered.


Objection 1: How can you say there are self-made men, or that men can choose to be successful on their own, when everyone knows that what we make of ourselves depends on the conditions of our birth, our families, our social and economic status, even what country we were born in?  Can a person who is born in Syria during a bloody war choose the same path as a person born into a well-to-do family in the United States?  For that matter, can a homeless or desperately poor person in the United States have the same choice as the person born into the well-to-do family?

Response: The details of a person’s path through life are no doubt affected by his start.  However, the fundamental trajectory is not.  For example, there are countless instances of those born or raised in war-torn countries escaping to safer lands, and of desperately poor persons raising themselves up the economic ladder by hard work, saving, and perseverance.  No one has the choice of his start – that would be an absurdity implying he had choice before he existed.  What one has the choice of is what to do about it.  Does one accept one’s situation in dejected resignation, or does one act to change it?  Does one plan, take risks, make the effort, or refuse to think, play it safe and stay in the unsafe or poverty-stricken state one starts in?  When Andrew Carnegie started working as a boy of 12, he earned the equivalent of $1.20 per week.  When he succeeded, he earned $1.20 per second.  Did he allow his pitiful initial state as a penniless immigrant to hold him back, or did he overcome it, by thinking, acting, looking for opportunities, making his own opportunities, and taking advantage of opportunities as they came?  Every immigrant who has left a country enduring war or famine to live in the United States is a testament to the possibility and consequences of choice.  Similarly, every person born into a decent family in America who chooses a path of crime, alcoholism or begging over productiveness is proof of the fact that where you start not only doesn’t guarantee failure but it doesn’t guarantee success either.  A person’s choice is decisive.
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Objection 2: Even if I accept what you say in the introductory post that free will consists of the choice to focus one’s mind and think, as contrasted with evading and not thinking, even if I accept that everyone possesses such a choice, how does it explain a person’s success in life or career? Maybe he can focus on the problem before him, whether a crossword puzzle or a test problem in school. But that oversimplifies the totality of what is required to succeed across decades.  Such success is a combination of thinking, luck, help from others, being in the right place at the right time, being born with natural intelligence, etc.

Response: There are, often, a combination of factors in the details of any individual’s success, but the question is:  which factors are fundamental and explain the others?  It is true that focusing on a crossword puzzle involves the same type of mental activity that leads to success in life, but one instance of that kind of thinking and acting won’t make a successful life, just as one instance of solving a crossword puzzle doesn’t guarantee you’ll solve the next one if you drift, get distracted and down a few scotch whiskeys to allay anxiety about whether you’ll solve it.  A successful life requires one’s commitment to rational thought in principle, at all times, across the decades, in every area of life.  There may be help from others or from chance, but how many have squandered such benefits and chosen not to take full advantage of them?  Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind, meaning no amount of luck will help the mind dulled by passivity or drugs.  The time spent thinking and planning is never wasted because it is the precondition of success, whether success is precipitated by a “lucky” unexpected event or by one’s own action.
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Objection 3: Doesn’t free will violate the law of cause and effect?  Effects are determined by their causes, so how can a choice, which is by definition not determined, exist?  Isn’t choice, therefore, something causeless?

Response: This charge is based on a false view of cause and effect.  Cause and effect are properly viewed as a relationship between an entity and its action, between the kind of thing it is and the kinds of things it can do.  A feather floats, a billiard ball rolls, a dropped ball falls, a helium balloon moves upward when it is released.  With regard to living beings, each kind of being has certain potentialities, and those potentialities are a consequence of the kind of being it is. For conscious animals, potentialities include sensing, perception (integrated sensation) and reacting to their environment. For the most advanced conscious being, man, the potentiality is vastly greater: it includes conceptualization, the viewing of entities not as isolated perceptions but as integrated with other similar entities into a mental unit called a concept.  Every single achievement of man – from the development of tools to the development of farming, to the discovery of individual rights, to the development of manufacturing, to IPhones, to space travel, to cancer treatment – is a consequence of that fundamental potentiality of conceptualization.  On the higher levels, simple conceptualization (grouping of entities by similarity into a unity) is augmented by complex methods such as logic, scientific study, and engineering, but all these methods stem from and rest on conceptualization.

From the perspective of free will, the most important fact is that conceptualization is not automatic, as perception and sensation are.  Conceptualization requires an act of choice, a choice to focus one’s mind on the entities or phenomena of interest, a choice to sustain a process of reasoning across time, a choice to keep mental clarity and form proper definitions to keep concepts distinguished (as opposed to fuzzy in the “I kinda know what they mean” sense). In short, reason does not function automatically but rather requires an act of choice.  Man is always free to engage in that process of focus and sustained effort, or to unfocus and drift.  But because of the kind of entity he is, he must always make that choice.

Thus for man, his reasoning faculty is “caused” not by some prior action, like a billiard ball moving because another ball hits it.  It is simply his nature – in effect, he must make that choice (to focus or not, either one being within his power).  And his potentiality to focus or not is “caused” by the kind of entity he is, not by some prior action.  Thus there is no contradiction between cause and effect and free will, if both cause and effect as well as free will are understood properly.
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Objection 4: The advocates of free will say that free will is an axiom, a basic philosophical premise at the root of everything regarding man.  Well I reject your axiom.

Response: It could be responded, amusingly, that rejecting free will is your choice.  And, indeed, it is.  But as the first sentence in response demonstrates, your rejection of free will in fact is a validation of free will, for when you say “I reject” free will you are actually saying “I choose to reject free will.”  And that is one of the characteristics of an axiom: it re-affirms itself in every attempt to deny it.  Axioms, because they state fundamental facts about nature or man, are self-evident in every act of awareness, in every thought or statement, even in attempts to deny them. This “re-affirmation through denial” was identified by Aristotle (who called it “proof by refutation”) in the process of answering those critics who denied the axioms of logic.

More deeply, when one asserts that free will does not exist, he wants us to take him seriously, to believe that he has given thought to the matter, engaged in a process of reasoning, and as a consequence rejected our positive statement advocating free will.  However, the nature of the position he is taking is that everything one does is caused by factors outside one’s control, and so the conclusion being asserted actually contradicts his implied deliberation.  If man doesn’t have free will then his every thought, idea and action is programmed for him by his genes or brain or upbringing.  And that is true not only of “other men” but also of the very individual who is rejecting free will.  Thus he wants us to believe his position is worth considering because he has engaged in a process of reason, yet at the same time he is saying that he does not have the capacity to choose his ideas or conclusions – they are simply programmed for him.  Why, then, would we even take him seriously?  If he is not offering a real reason for his conclusion but merely saying he has no power to escape that conclusion, why should we care?  Why would we give his conclusions more weight than we do the mutterings of an insane person?
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Objection 5: You may cite examples of individuals choosing to make their own way, to succeed on their own, raising themselves from far lesser circumstances to wealth or career achievement.  But those individuals are exceptions, essentially freaks of nature. Statistics show that in the overwhelming number of cases, where you come from determines what you’ll become. Given those statistics, how can you say that it is the nature of man to have free will?

Response: Man is man.  There are not two kinds of beings – man, the regular guy and man the Superman – contrary to what the philosopher Nietzsche says.  If man as a man possesses a certain potentiality, then all men do. As stated in the answer to objection #1, there are countless examples of men choosing to think and act to raise themselves beyond their initial circumstances.  And there are also countless examples of men born with great advantages choosing to squander those advantages and coast as parasites on their relatives or on other men.  This large number of examples demonstrates that overcoming poverty or other disadvantages is possible to man as a man (not just to a few unique men), just as starting with wealth and advantage and degenerating into drugs, lassitude and eventually poverty and homelessness are also possible to him.  The difference is a man’s choice to think and act.  Neither the man who elevates himself nor the man who degrades himself are freaks of nature – both are actualizing a potentiality of man, i.e. both are exercising choice. And the enormous numbers of men who do one or the other belie the claim that they are something other than … men.

Those who rely on statistics, however, don’t analyze the causes of man’s state.  Thinking in terms of faceless collectives, without analyzing the individual circumstances underlying a poverty-stricken state, is the kind of context-dropping that permits one to view raising oneself as hopeless.  For example, a substantial number of people are homeless in any large city in the developed world (fewer, however, than most people believe). The welfare advocates present these people as all helpless victims of fate who need to be rescued by society.  Yet it is known that half of the homeless are in that state due to substance abuse (see, e.g. “Substance Use: Pathway to homelessness? Or a way of adapting to street life?” by E. Didenko and N. Pankratz, Visions Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 2007, where several scholarly studies are cited). Thus their homelessness stems not from “fate” or causes outside their control but from their own prior choices and actions.

Another ludicrous example often cited is the plight of those who have a large student loan balance.  This author has heard people complain that they can never get ahead because they have large student loan balances that they’ll never pay off – and that, therefore, man is helpless in a practical sense.  Ignore for a moment that even having the opportunity to have a student loan and go to college already puts one in the top echelon of economic advantage – this is not something afforded to the homeless or to drug addicts or to people in war-torn countries.  This objection would have you believe that having a large student loan is some horrible act of nature (like a tornado) that was visited on a person through no fault of his own. The fact that he had to apply for, sign and commit to paying off the loan is not mentioned in this person’s sob story.  Nor is the fact that he received a college degree as a consequence, which underlies his current employment and ownership of a house.  The fact that people may, indeed, make unthinking choices, relying on range-of-the-moment feeling or wishful thinking rather than logic in deciding to take such loans, the fact that they may over-commit themselves to paying off too many loans given their prospect of earnings, is proof not of man’s lack of free will but of exactly the opposite.

Exercising choice doesn’t guarantee success.  That lack of a guarantee is precisely the meaning of free will.  It is precisely the root of the requirement that one use the most scrupulous process of reasoning, refusing to act recklessly or on the range-of-the-moment, in making all decisions, whether to take a loan, or drugs, or a certain job, or a certain train, or a certain romantic partner.  Even the right course of action and thought doesn’t guarantee success in a particular case, but rejecting the proper method does guarantee failure (whether immediate or over time).  Man’s only protection against failure, or more positively, man’s only possibility of succeeding over the long run, is to use his mind properly and act in accordance with his reason, consistently and in principle.  Although not part of this discussion of free will, that commitment to principle is the entry into the realm of moral choice and the root of a proper moral code.
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1 comment to Top five arguments for rejecting free will – and answers to them

  • Dogmai

    In regard to objection number 4, in addition to your comments, by denying the axiom the determinist is simultaneously committing the fallacy of self exclusion and the fallacy of equivocation which violates Aristotles law of the excluded middle.

    When he states that he “rejects the axiom” he is referring to himself both as the efficient cause AND as the proximate cause (the entity doing the rejecting), but A cannot equal A and non-A at the same time. It’s one or the other.