Defining Libertarian Freedom

It may seem intuitive to define libertarian free will (LFW) as simply having the ability to choose between (at least) two options such that nothing compels you to choose either one (or any) in particular. Analytic philosophers like using heuristic tools like the conception of logically possible worlds, and in their preferred modal vocabulary the naïve version of the libertarian thesis would look something like this:

S is Libertarian Free if and only if S is given a choice between A and B in both logically possible worlds W and W*, where W and W* both have all and only the same causal antecedents to the choice in play, and S chooses A in W but not in W*.

This definition is rife with problems, however. For instance, if the mechanism responsible for S’s choosing A or B happens to operate indeterministically (as we might imagine the quantum vacuum does – or at least, as those who subscribe to indeterministic theories of quantum mechanics think it does), and S is at the whim of this mechanism, then S satisfies the above constraint, but has not exercised what we (libertarians) mean by ‘free will.’ Thus, we need to explicitly work into the definition that the choice finds it’s origin in the free and intentional movement of the will.

In a previous article I defined Libetarian Free will as follows:

S is libertarian free =df S has at least one choice between at least two options A and B, where no causal antecedents to S’s choice determine that S chooses either A or B, and S’s choosing of A or B is an intentional act of causally determinative volition on the part of S.

This definition is also problematic in a few ways. First, S might be libertarian free dispositionally, but S has not lived long enough to encounter even a single choice between at least two options A and B. We can imagine a child who, by nature, has the undeveloped potential to make libertarian free choices, but who, for whatever reason, doesn’t live long enough to realize that potential. We can also imagine a libertarian free agent popping into existence, and then, before she ever gets the chance to exercise her freedom, popping out of existence. In such cases we have imagined libertarian free agents, but they have never been given the opportunity to exercise their freedom (and so, on my proposed definition, would not be genuine, bona fide, examples of libertarian free agents). Thus, perhaps libertarian freedom needs to be defined dispositionally:

S is libertarian free =df S has the dispositional potential to, if given at least one choice between at least two options A and B, choose A where no causal antecedents to S’s choice determine that S chooses A, and S’s choosing of A would be an intentional act of causally determinative volition on the part of S.

This definition is liable to run into problems with Frankfurt style counter-examples (depending on how one construes the word ‘choose’ in the definition). I previously dealt with this by providing a careful definition of ‘choosing,’ but the definition I put forward was at best ambiguous on its face.[1] Without the additional caveat, it isn’t evident whether to ‘choose’ meant to act in the manner willed, or simply to signify an act of the will (i.e., primitive deciding, which is prior to action). If the first, then Frankfurt style counter-examples are going to pose a problem for libertarianism, and if the latter then they probably won’t. In the interest of disambiguation, this further amended definition should be preferred:

S is libertarian free =df S has the dispositional potential to, if given at least one choice between at least two options A and B, decide to choose A where no causal antecedents to S’s choice determine that S decides to choose A, and S’s deciding to choose A would be an intentional act of causally determinative volition on the part of S.

To my mind there are only three problems which this definition might have, but I am not (myself) convinced that these are genuine problems (in other words, I am convinced that these are at best pseudo-problems), so that I am content to subscribe to the above definition. These three problems are (i) that libertarianism is semantically vacuous (i.e., logically incoherent), (ii) that Frankfurt-style counter-examples might be made to apply even to the act of deciding to choose, and (iii) that if it makes sense to talk about an intentional act of causally determinative volition, it might make sense to imagine that a person exercises such a capacity even without being given a choice between two alternatives. The first pseudo-problem is a popular one, but there is no compelling argument for it (says me). Those who cannot see the sense in it may be intellectually colourblind (to borrow from Alexander Pruss yet again),[2] and at least until they provide a convincing demonstration (convincing, that is, to Libertarians, and not just convincing to die-hard determinists), we are well within our rights to dismiss the claim with a measure of incredulity. The second pseudo-problem is not a real problem precisely because if one cannot even decide (in a causally un-coerced way) in favor of one option over against another (such as its negation), then we have lost sight entirely of the will as a free actor. The third pseudo-problem seems to me to be a clear pseudo-problem because even if we might perform an intentional act to realize A, if we had no genuine choice between A and ~A, then that intentional act is not causally determinative. It may be causally required (such that A could not have come about without the intentional act of the will), but it wasn’t determinative in the sense that it determined the outcome (the effect) – it would just be one more link in a causal chain running back in a line of succession before it all the way to a determinative cause.


[1] For a discussion of Frankfurt-style counter-examples, and how I qualified the definition previously provided, see my article: Arguments for Libertarian Free Will.

[2] Alexander Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment. (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 193.



11 thoughts on “Defining Libertarian Freedom

  1. Within a context of perfect determinism we find free will. Before saying what it is, let’s clarify what it cannot be. It cannot be freedom from (a) causation, (b) one’s own self, or (c) from the real world as it is.

    Free will requires reliable cause and effect (determinism) if the will is to implement its intent. If it cannot implement its intent, then the will becomes irrelevant and meaningless. In no rational context does “free” imply freedom from causation. For example, “the bird was set free from its cage”. Does this mean the bird is free from causation? If so, then what happens when he flaps his wings? He cannot fly without a deterministic universe. And the “free” in free will works the same way. The will cannot carry out its intent without a deterministic universe.

    It is also irrational to expect our will to be free from ourselves. In fact, it is the authenticity of the will as the expression of our own reasons and feelings, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic disposition, and our own environmental history that makes it truly our own will. If it were free from ourselves, then whose will would it be?

    The word for a will that is free from the real world is a “wish”. It is irrational to expect our will to transcend the practical limits of our environment. However, we may significantly transform that environment with the right tools and skills. We escape the rain by building a house. And we have landed a man on the moon. We have even raised the temperature of the planet.

    No will has those freedoms.

    So what is free will? It is nothing more, or less, than our ability to choose for ourselves what we will do next. Our choice is our will at that moment. And, so long as we are mentally competent and are not forced to act against our will by someone else, our choice and our act is of our own free will. And we are the final responsible cause of what follows from our freely chosen actions.

    • Hello Marvin Edwards,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I wonder if I can interest you in interacting a little bit on this point concerning freedom of the will. As you know, I am a professed libertarian, which means I subscribe to the view that the will is free in the sense that it is not causally pre-determined (by prior causes, whether temporally prior, or merely causally prior in a broader sense). I think this view makes sense. You, evidently, do not. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of why.

      You say ” In no rational context does “free” imply freedom from causation.” This needs some unpacking. At face value, your statement could be taken to mean that (for instance) the non-epistemic (i.e., realist) version of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is irrational. On that view, quantum events occur indeterministically – but then we can imagine constructing the following sentence: “quantum events occur free of (physical) determination.” That sentence’s proposition is true if the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, and it is at least meaningful if the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is not irrational. If you think the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is irrational then what follows will be of little interest to you. Assuming (for the sake of argument) that you think the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is (or may be) right, it looks like you will have to retract your prior comment. Perhaps you could amend it somehow?

      Alternatively, perhaps you could suggest that the above sentence is not semantically equivalent to the following: “quantum events occur free of (physical) causation.” Here we make a distinction between being ‘determined’ and being ’caused.’ We could say, for the sake of argument, that quantum mechanical events are not ‘determined,’ but they are ’caused’ (they are caused by the quantum vacuum itself, which is a physical system). This seems reasonable. Thus, quantum mechanical events are not determined by any physically antecedent events or causes, but they are physically caused by the quantum vacuum.

      If you find this reasonable, then it opens the way for you to see that the libertarian thesis may be reasonable after all. The libertarian maintains that the subject, or the subject’s will, is the cause of the choice, but that the choice isn’t pre-determined (i.e., it doesn’t follow by entailment from the set of causally antecedent conditions). Technically the libertarian does believe that the choice is ‘determined’ – what she doesn’t believe is that it is pre-determined, meaning (something like) determined beforehand. It is determined by the individual’s will, which is the determinant, and is not itself determined by anything else.

      Further, suppose we ask what caused the universe to exist – or a more philosophically astute question, what caused the whole sum of contingent beings to exist? If there is no answer, then the beginning of the world is something unexplained, and is itself ‘free of causation.’ You see the problem, I presume.

      Perhaps you could argue that nothing is contingent, and that everything follows deterministically from some prior cause(s), including the universe, and the multiverse (if there is one) and the cause of the multiverse, and so on ad infinitum. The troubles here are gross: first, infinite regresses of this kind seem logically impossible; second, infinite regresses of this kind do nothing to explain why contingent things exist; third, positing an infinite regress of causal links in a great big deterministic chain is to collide head on with the best scientific evidence we have, all of which points to a definite beginning of the universe (and/or the multiverse, if there is one); fourth, to say that nothing is contingent is to deny one of the most fundamental and self-evident presuppositions of modal logic. I will digress on this point for now, but I will be happy to return to it later if you indicate any interest in talking about it.

      Finally, your compatibilism poses serious problems for meta-ethics. On your view, it seems to be impossible to make a morally relevant distinction between somebody who has been brainwashed by terrorists into doing horrible things, and somebody who has, without coercion or brainwashing, become a terrorist by choice. It is impossible to make a moral distinction between the person who is uncontrollably murderous because of a mind-altering drug, and the person who, in soundness of mind, is murderous because that is in accord with their will (for, the latter’s ‘will’ is just as much at the mercy of causes and effects beyond their control as the former’s will is given the mind-altering drug). However, we all know to make a moral distinction in such cases. If there is a moral distinction, then determinism doesn’t leave room for any adequate explanation of this fact. That, though, is a problem.

      I will leave you with these thoughts for now. Please do feel free to engage these points at your leisure and discretion.

      • All I know of Copenhagen is that Hans Christian Anderson once lived there. And my beliefs regarding quantum indeterminacy is that nothing, other than the eternal existence of “stuff in motion”, is truly uncaused. In any case, I don’t see how quantum level indeterminacy can be applied to the problem of human free will. It’s like trying to relate the motions of a microbe to the motion of planets.

        Luckily, the free will “versus” determinism paradox is easily resolved without such concerns. Every paradox is based in a fraud. The fraud in this particular paradox is deceiving us into believing that we must be free from reliable cause and effect (determinism) in order to be “truly” free.

        There are two undeniable facts. One is that we exist autonomously in that we are free to choose for ourselves what we will do next. The other is that everything that happens is the result of prior states and events, and thus deterministically inevitable.

        The fact of free will is spectacularly useful. It is the source of our confidence that we can create a better world for ourselves. The fact of universal inevitability is spectacularly useless. The best we can do is to discover the specific causes of specific effects that are relevant to the conditions of our existence, and work with this knowledge to make a better world. But any attempt to find useful implications from the specific fact of universal inevitability leads even the best minds into confusion. It is best to simply acknowledge it and then ignore it.

        Both, nevertheless are truths about the real world. And they are simultaneously true in every instance of free will. Yes, our decisions are authentically our own and the results of our chosen actions contribute to causing what becomes inevitable. And, yes, we act according to our reasons and feelings, our beliefs and values, our genetic dispositions, and our environmental experiences, such that the more certain we are of a given decision, the more we are aware that it was our inevitable choice.

        The word “determine” has two meanings. One is to discover and know of the cause, the other is to actually be the cause. As in, “The scientist was unable to determine which chemical in the mixture determined the color change.” I’m using it in the sense of “causing”.

        Both the concepts of free will and moral responsibility rely upon a deterministic universe. Praise, blame, and corrective penalty are all tools that are expected to deterministically alter future behavior. If the criminal offender can be corrected, then he is released into society, once again as an autonomous individual who, we hope, will make better choices of his own free will.

        And it is really in the area of correction that the distinction between how a person came to do what they did becomes relevant. The sane assailant may go to prison for correction while the insane assailant may be treated in a secure mental institution.

        I do not call my free will “libertarian”. The free will I speak of is quite ordinary, and can be observed in operation every day.

        I do not call my determinism “hard” or “soft”. My determinism is quite ordinary. It is a simple belief in the reliability of cause and effect.

      • Good morning,

        You write: “I don’t see how quantum level indeterminacy can be applied to the problem of human free will. It’s like trying to relate the motions of a microbe to the motion of planets.” I can see how, if you aren’t familiar with quantum mechanics, my example may have gone unappreciated. It is unfortunate though, as this is (I think) a very useful analogy. I would encourage you to, one day, familiarize yourself with quantum mechanics at least a little bit, and then return to my comment and see what you make of it.

        Now, you also write this, which is an excellent summary statement of your view: “There are two undeniable facts. One is that we exist autonomously in that we are free to choose for ourselves what we will do next. The other is that everything that happens is the result of prior states and events, and thus deterministically inevitable.” I agree that the first is practically undeniable (i.e., cannot be denied in practice). I believe the second is flatly false. What reasons do we have for believing it? It clearly isn’t an analytic truth, and it sounds like the kind of belief we would require empirical evidence for. However, what empirical evidence is there for that belief? Very weak evidence at best – so weak, in fact, as to lead many scientists to affirm quantum indeterminacy and the big bang on the basis of empirical evidence, both of which strongly suggest that determinism is false. What other reason do we have to believe it? Even on Newtonian mechanics not everything deterministically follows from prior states and events (see John Norton’s example of a ball on a dome: What arguments are there for determinism? Can you think of any? Would you like to share any with me?

        Thank you again for your comments.

      • Interesting article on the dome, but I only read far enough to get the gist of it. In any real world experiment the ball on the apex would be subject to minor gravitational variations from planetary size objects that could account for its eventual rolling off. You would have to isolate your experiment from such gravitational influences (not to mention ordinary vibrations from someone walking across the floor, etc).

        Let me give you a different scenario. With reliable cause and effect, I can reach up and pick an apple from the tree and have an apple in my hand. Without reliable cause and effect, when I pick the apple I will sometimes have a cat in my hand, or perhaps a pair of slippers, or maybe the apple will simply go “poof!” and disappear.

        Realistically, if there were no reliable physical behaviors, then atoms could not even form, because the forces binding the electrons, protons, and neutrons would be unreliable from moment to moment.

        From this perspective, the existence of the world and any given thing on it is empirical evidence of the reliability of cause and effect (determinism).

        But determinism is not so much a characteristic of a physical world as it is of a rational world. Even in a dualist scenario, where a soul is operating without the constraints of physical reality, there must be some consistency of purposes and reasons. These purposes and reasons determine what the soul will choose.

        The key thing to remember though is that it is the causal agent’s own will, his own reasons and feelings, his own beliefs and values, his own dispositions and acquired learning and experience, and all that makes him uniquely himself which authors the decision that motivates his action. He remains the final responsible cause of what happens next.

      • As a philosopher it is part of my profession to sniff out hidden assumptions and think analytically about them. I think, thanks to your last comment, I see a subtle equivocation in your thinking to which I’d like to draw your attention. The equivocation seems to be that between ‘reliable cause and effect’ and ‘determinism.’ These are not logically/semantically equivalent. I agree that there is reliable cause and effect in the sense that no effect is ‘uncaused’ or ‘unexplained.’ I do not believe that every effect is logically entailed by its cause. The former thesis is what philosophers call the ‘principle of sufficient reason.’ Somewhat paradoxically, the PSR (for short) and ‘determinism’ are actually logically incompatible with each other, though they are often confused by non-philosophers (which is very excusable). If you take the liberty of perusing my other articles you will soon find that I have a deeply entrenched commitment to the PSR. However, from “every effect is caused/explained” it does not logically follow that “every effect is logically entailed by its cause/explanation.” This distinction is subtle, but extremely important – the whole discussion pivots around this distinction. I take the former commitment to be self-evident, I take the latter to be evidently false.

        I would like to re-invite you to provide any arguments for determinism as I have here defined it (in contradistinction to the PSR), if you are, after reflection, still convinced that determinism is true. What arguments have you for your conclusion?

      • The reliability of cause and effect is the basis of deterministic inevitability. The one is sufficient for the other. The implication of reliable cause and effect is that every effect has its relevant causes and that each cause, being also an effect, has its relevant causes as well. Rather than a causal chain, it is more likely an ever branching tree.

        However, the farther back you go the less relevant each cause becomes to the final effect. Usually, we are only interested in the most direct and recent causes.

        Nevertheless, the current state and its current events necessitate the next state and its events.

        Did you have some other definition of determinism?

      • I am afraid I must insist on an argument for this one: why make that connection between every effect having a sufficient cause, and every effect resulting necessarily from its cause? Can you see the sense in affirming one without the other? If not, then our discussion is going to run into a dialectical wall which we will not be able to get past.

        I leave it up to you to think on this question, and get back to me when you have an argument you would like to submit to me. Barring that, though you are welcome to continue sharing your thoughts, my responses will be, at best, limited. Until I see an argument, I am afraid we will be at an impasse here.

      • My argument is probably too simple for you. If the relation of cause and effect is reliable, then it follows that events unfold reliably, and inevitably.

        Now, we too are causal agents. We are not merely the effect of prior physical causes, but we are also the causes of new physical effects. And a lot of what becomes inevitable is by our choices of our own free will.

        Our choices are, simultaneously, both inevitable and our own.

        But this is not likely to satisfy your desire for an extended philosophical discussion. And, after being exposed to Pragmatism, I would find such abstract explorations rather tedious and unproductive in any real world sense.

      • Best I can make out, your argument is implied in the sentence “If the relation of cause and effect is reliable, then it follows that events unfold reliably, and inevitably. ” If we put this into an argument it would look something like this:
        1) The relation of cause and effect is reliable.
        2) If the relation of cause and effect is reliable, then effects follow inevitably from their causes.
        3) Therefore, effects follow inevitably from their causes.

        Now, technically, this argument doesn’t conclude to the truth of determinism, but we could fix that by adding other premises (such as that everything has a cause).

        So, this argument makes two things clear to me. First, your conception of reliability is stronger than that used in science to speak about the law-like (i.e. nomic) regularities in physics. Second, that your conception of reliability is probably not the same as the concept I earlier attributed to you of ‘sufficient reason.’ So, what you have in mind comes neither from science, nor, as far as I can tell, from any careful philosophical reasoning. It’s more like a strong ‘common-sense’ dogmatism to which I find myself intellectually unsympathetic.

        Although you have provided a kind of ‘simple’ argument, I find its premises utterly unpersuasive. I’m afraid our discussion has, therefore, probably come to its end. Thank you again for your comments, and I hope you always feel welcome to comment on anything which piques your interest on my blog.

  2. (A) Determinism is nothing more and nothing less than the belief in the reliability of cause and effect.

    (B) Deterministic inevitability is the logical implication that if cause and effect is universally reliable, then the total current state and its events are the inevitable result of the prior state and what was going on then. That is to say that each event currently happening has one or more relevant and direct prior causes bringing it about.

    (C) Each cause is also an event, and as such has one or more relevant, direct, prior causes bringing it about. This is less a causal chain and more like a causal tree. But the result is that all events unfold in a single and inevitable way.

    (D) This seems to be true from the preponderance of the empirical evidence. Whether there is any true indeterminacy in Quantum effects and whether there is any other indeterminacy to be found is apparently still a matter of debate.

    (E) However, the single relevant issue to humanity is what deterministic inevitability, should it turn out to be true, means to us. The correct answer is, not much at all. Although the specific causes of specific events has proved extremely useful in allowing us better control of our physical environment, through physics, chemistry, medicine, and so forth, the single fact of universal inevitability offers no useful implications.

    (F) Therefore, should it turn out that universal inevitability is true, then that fact should best be simply acknowledged and then ignored.

    (G) The concept of universal inevitability tends to mislead and confuse even our most intelligent minds. Typically when we use “inevitable” in ordinary speech, we are implying something is “beyond our control”. And this idea is threatening to both our morale and our morality.

    (H) However, universal deterministic inevitability must include ALL direct and relevant causes. And we are the final responsible cause of a great many significant events. The mental process by which we choose what we will do next is the final responsible cause of what necessarily follows from our actions.

    (I) And that mental process is the true operational definition of free will.

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