Often times, philosophers preoccupy themselves with problems that, while appearing significant, are not when subjected to a critical eye. A particularly enduring problem is that of ‘free will’ and whether or not agents have control over their lives. Within metaphysics there are three schools of thought that broadly capture all the views of free will; moreover they are, in order of decreasing levels of freedom, Libertarianism, Compatiblism and Determinism. Metaphysics stands to benefit from becoming more acquainted with current science. Ultimately, this post will take compatiblism to be the view that is closest to the question of the freedom of the will, albeit in a nontraditional answer.
Ruling Out the Alternatives
By choosing a form of compatiblism as the real answer to the question of the freedom of the will I have obviously written off determinism and libertarianism. In doing so one may reasonably assume I have a very good reason to do so; I’ll start with the former. Determinism simply does not correspond to contemporary science. In fact the very best version of determinism would be valid only if given 17th century physics as a presupposition. Physics from the 1920s to the present describes a world very much profoundly indeterminate (Feynman 1992; Polkinghorne 2002). This relatively new understanding of the universe says that if the universe were to start again with all the same initial conditions the results will be different. If one is to hold the line that everything is determined then one must also accept the absurd belief that the conditions for the Mona Lisa were already determined at the moment of the big bang. Determinists will often times find themselves in a bind; they often turn towards the natural sciences, namely physics, for empirical justification. There the appeal of strong reductionism is great, for it nicely fits the narrative of universal causation. But the very same physics also speaks of quantum indeterminacy at the micro level. Quantum indeterminacy introduces a randomness that takes away from the force of the deterministic argument regarding the will. Yet while randomness is the real nature of the universe, and the brain, nervous system for that matter (Glimcher 2005), phenomenological analysis of experience does support a causation argument of actions. Here the determinist is most comfortable and does have some empirical support. Agents experience cause and effect all the time and this is one of many phenomenological laws encountered all the time. Yet laws like Newton’s second law of thermodynamics breaks down at the quantum level, they are often times irreducible to a lower, albeit more real, level of reality. Just as the phenomenological ‘laws’ of economics, sociology, and psychology, to single out a few disciplines, break down when pressed downward towards physics, so too does classical physics when pressed downward to the quantum level. There is clearly a hierarchy of causation, itself the core of science. So while determinism is intuitively appealing because of our phenomenological experience, it is nonetheless wrong on a profound level but still very much plausible on this macro level. Determinism may be useful in the social sciences where aggregates of individual actions can form a predictable trend, yet just as the indeterminacy of the quantum level smoothes out when moving upward towards the macro level, so too does the irregularity of individual action level out when moving towards aggregate models.
Having hopefully sufficiently covered determinism, I now turn towards libertarianism. The classical philosophical model is best captured by Thomas Reid. Indeed, the following passage best captures this philosophical adherence to metaphysical libertarianism:
“By the liberty of a moral agent, I understand, a power over the determinations of his own will. If, in any action, he had power to will what he did, or not to will it, in that action he is free. But if, in every voluntary action, the determination of his will be the necessary consequence of something involuntary in the state of his mind, or of something in his external circumstance, he is not free; he has not what I call the liberty of a moral agent, but is subject to necessity.”
Unfortunately Reid’s account is entirely wrong. Metaphysical libertarianism has come under fire from various sources ranging from Continental philosophy to biology, specifically neuroscience. Indeed, the groundbreaking experiments by the late Benjamin Libet done in the 1980s showed that agents had sparks of brain activity up to 300 milliseconds before they made a conscious effort to twitch a finger. Even recent work done by John-Dylan Haynes in 2008 found that relevant brain activity occurred up to a full 10 seconds before there was a conscious decision to move (Nature Neuroscience, vol 11, p 543). This stands in contrast to Reid’s account. The traditional picture of the agent consciously thinking about and then willing an action is wrong. Agents do not have strict conscious control over their will. The truth becomes something closer to Hume’s account. Given the finding of neurobiology, the traditional philosophical notions of an unrestricted Free Will lead nowhere; furthermore, what ends up counting as free will is to be found in the subconscious, there the relevant brain activity occurs.
A Useful Fiction
If determinism is not the case and neither is libertarianism, what then is the answer? I believe it lies somewhere in the middle. A nuanced compatiblism that I advocate recognizes that agents by means of their consciousness do not have strict control over their motivations and actions. What they can do, by means of consciousness, is nullify, strike down, the desires that the subconscious suggests. We can think of the subconscious as a very intelligent personal advisor that brings up plans of action with the ultimate decision up to the conscious self. The nature of this causal interaction is currently not fully understood. However, what is understood is that the relevant matter of causation is not a top-down approach as previous philosophical traditions would have one believe. It is not the case that the conscious self dictates all desires and actions. One is not free to will action as a first cause, but one is free to either go along with or nullify volition brought about by the subconscious. In this way my view is still able to maintain moral responsibility and the possibility of alternative possibilities. Agents are still responsible for actions that they could have chosen otherwise to act in. Lest charges of laxity in regards to punishment be levied against this view, a proper hedge is then in order. Contemporary jurisprudence already has provisions that provide for punishment leniency; a prime example is that of crimes of passion. In those situations the impulse from the subconscious is too great for the conscious self to resist and thus actions are taken which may or may not be moral. Morality is not found in the subconscious, only in the conscious self.
Work With What We Have
Thus the picture proposed broadly speaking falls within the compatiblist camp regarding the freedom of the will. There are of course questions of which I did not address that often times hurt the compatiblist message, namely the fall back on some mysterious kind of substance dualism to account for the conscious self and other questions regarding the nature of consciousness. But I do not think those questions are particularly relevant nor do I think they deserve as much attention for at least those questions have not hit the same impasse in progress as the question regarding the freedom of the will. The nature of consciousness is better understood as time passes and I believe even solvable in principle. Philosophers such as Frankfurt that talk about agents acting in a way that they would have even if the circumstances were different but because of their own intents still act that way appear to me entirely nonsensical. There is no way to run a scenario again and expect with absolute certainty the same result. The only way to do so is the smuggle determinism through the back door and then appear astounded at the result. The best we can do is predict with sometimes reasonable certainty and sometimes not. As neuroscience progresses different metrics of control over the subconscious by the conscious self may be invented. These will certainly help clear up claims regarding the degrees of responsibility agents have over choosing to not nullify subconscious action suggestion. Until that occurs, society has to work with what it has and often times the courts strike a compatiblist balance, libertarianism results in draconian punishment while determinism could conceivably, if it is consistent, let someone walk away from deserved punishment. Thus for at least practical matters we should maintain this compatiblist balance. Thankfully the empirical sciences are moving closer and closer towards discovering the actual mechanisms that underlie this philosophical position.
 Very useful in Economics and the other social sciences.
 Arguing About Metaphysics, Michael Rea pg. 376.
 I particularly am sympathetic to the emergent view of consciousness which states that consciousness occurs as a irreducible phenomena as the result of other lower level phenomena interaction. This view ties in nicely with the first part of this essay in which I skirt around my greater view that while reductionism is useful in certain fields and has admittedly done much work, it is not universally applicable and seems to be of greatest use in physics and physical chemistry.
“Nine Big Brain Questions.” NewScientist 03 April 2010: 26-32. Print.
Rea, Michael. Arguing About Metaphysics. Routledge, 2009. Print.
Murphy, Nancey, George Ellis, and Timothy O. Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will. Springer Verlag, 2009. Print.