The debate over what free will is, and whether or not it exists, extends back to ancient philosophy. From the dawn of a man, we have questioned whether choice is an illusion, whether we really want to make a cheese toasty, or whether our decisions are pre-ordained and controlled by someone or something else. The crux of the free will issue is a trilemma — three propositions that are all individually convincing, but inconsistent and potentially contradictory. In a trilemma, one can not hold all statements at the same time, rather they have to choose which two to hold, and which one to reject.
In the case of the free will trilemma, the three statements are as follows:
- Everything behaves according to deterministic laws (e.g. cause and effect, God’s plan, the laws of physics, chemical reactions etc.)
- Free will is our ability to do other than these laws. In other words, free will is the ability to break deterministic laws.
- Free will exists.
It should be clear that these statements are contradictory. After all, if everything behaves according to deterministic laws, we oughtn’t be able to break those laws, and if we can’t break the laws, then free will does not exist.
Depending on which statement of the trilemma you reject, your perspective on free will is defined. There are 3 main broad perspectives on the trilemma.
The first position is Libertarianism — the philosophical perspective, not the political category. The Libertarian denies the first statement of the trilemma, they do not believe everything is predetermined. They argue that we must have free will, which they define as the ability to freely make choices, to do other than you chose.
However there are two major brands of Libertarianism. Some believe that some things are ruled by deterministic laws, specifically causality, but that we, as causal agents, make free choices that change causal chains, thus breaking deterministic laws. However, non-causal Libertarianism argues that our choices are not ‘caused’ by anything, and that deterministic laws do not exist at all. The latter opinion is harder to support given the universe operates on the premise of cause and effect — my choices from big things to small ones…