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There’s More to Life than Physics

The dubious assertion that physics shows all there is to know about reality is not nearly enough to credibly challenge the truth of free will

There is an objection to free will that goes like this: if something is not determined, it’s random, and vice versa. Neither is acceptable for advocates of libertarian free will. Obviously, if an action is determined—that is, necessitated by prior conditions—then it is not within our control. However, if something is undetermined (or indeterministic, like phenomena in quantum mechanics), then there is—or so the allegation has it—no rhyme or reason to why it is happening, which is not what libertarians want to say our freedom of choice consists of. Again, there seems to be a lack of control.

There are two ways to resolve this difficulty. The first is a defense; the second is a proposal.

First, the defense. The terms determined and random are logical contraries. If something is determined, it is not random, and if something is random, it is not determined. That is true enough. However, these terms are not clearly logical contradictories—which is to say they do not obviously exhaust all options, where if something is not determined, it must (by necessity) be random, and vice versa. This is one of the mistakes the determinist makes—that is, assuming contradictory, rather than merely contrary, predicates. We might ask if there is some third category. What the determinist must do is demonstrate that there is no third category. But how can he without begging the big metaphysical question? In that sense, the argument against free will is an apparent failure—in a word, a false dichotomy.

I further suggest that physical theory has already exposed this false dichotomy. Although I believe that it is a mistake to “go looking” for human freedom of choice in the spooky realm of quantum mechanics, it must nevertheless be acknowledged that discoveries related to quantum mechanics have given us scenarios where things seem to be neither (strictly) determined nor (entirely) random. Rather, we have something of a “constrained indeterminism” or “adequate (but not full) determinism,” where objective probabilities are given—in other words, a plausible “third category.” Not determined, not random, but something else . . . what exactly, perhaps we are not entirely sure, but the point stands.

And now, a proposal. It requires that we modify—or perhaps abandon—any mechanized philosophy of nature, in which everything is ultimately the result of a mindless, bottom-up, unfolding of efficient, unintentional, physical causes. Fortunately, a mechanistic perspective—namely, the universe as just one fantastic, unfurling machine—has been untenable for almost entirely scientific reasons for decades.

So imagine that some person, Suzi, decides to play piano because she wants to delight her mother with Billy Joel. In playing the piano, we can also say (in an explanatorily non-competitive sense) Suzi’s body moved because of certain events in Suzi’s nervous system. However, the naturalist is going to say these are really the same causal sequence, only described differently—psychologically, on the one hand, and physiologically, on the other—and what really explains Suzi’s playing the piano are the physical events, which all else is ultimately reducible to—even if we have not yet demonstrated how this is possible (which nobody has). The naturalist will then read the entire scenario deterministically, however forced that description (obviously) feels.

However, if there are arguments in place to show, or at least plausibly suggest, that the human intellect either is itself immaterial or has immaterial aspects—and those arguments do, I believe, exist—then we should not only not be impressed by this naturalistic assumption, but also see it as inadequate. For the naturalist’s assumption rests on the idea that physics is all we need to offer an adequate, complete explanation of why Suzi decided to play the piano, and it further assumes (falsely) that if is any other kind of reality factoring into this explanation—such as the formal-to-final-causality of the immaterial soul, as Aristotelians would have it—it would not be describable by physics, and hence at odds with physics. Such an immaterial reality would not be at odds with physics (even if not describable by physics); it would be at odds only with physicalism, which is little more than the dogmatic and doubly dubious (philosophical) assertion that physics exhausts all there is to be known or said of reality.

As John Haldane explains, “the issue of whether the physicalist worldview is adequate is precisely what is in question and so it cannot be assumed as part of a case against any alternative. Equally the idea that acknowledgement of mental attributes is incompatible with physics is only true if by ‘physics’ one means not physical science but physicalism, the doctrine that there is nothing other than what physics deals with. Certainly the latter is incompatible with acceptance of sui generis psychological states and features . . . but the truth against physicalism is what is at issue. It cannot be part of an argument in favour of itself” (Atheism and Theism, p. 99).

On the other hand, Aristotelians and scholastics (followers of Aristotle and St. Thomas, respectively) have traditionally marked the following distinction between behaviors of substances—especially among organisms—that are caused from external forces, on the one hand, and those originated “from within” or by virtue of the substances’ inherent (controlling) power, on the other. This position allows for top-down as much as bottom-up identifications of causation—a position becoming increasingly respected by physical theorists anyhow. If this is the case, then we can see how that possible third category emerges. If there are substances with intellect and will, and these substances are (loosely speaking) able to “move from within,” then they can engage in acts of rational willing, as the scholastics called it, or reasons-based action. That is, these substances can control their parts (including particles in their brain) instead of their parts controlling them. No science contradicts this, and much good science—particularly in quantum biology and neuroscience—seems to support it.

Let us come at this another way. There are substances with characteristics powers. And in various ways, various substances—humans, cats, dogs, and so on—are originating sources of their characteristic activities, or at least some of them. They are not just affected by, but capable of affecting causal chains and of introducing new causal chains entirely in certain instances. The approach is as top-down as it is bottom-up, which resolves much of the puzzle about free will, since the puzzle is (fundamentally) about a lack of control. If something is controlled by prior conditions (including its parts), then even if those parts behave “randomly,” free will is untenable. The Aristotelian alternative rejects that perspective and puts wholes in control by arguing that substances are (in relevant respects) primary. While mystery remains, the investigation can continue into the nature of human freedom without foolishly denying it.

What’s more is that under the Aristotelian view, the person is the cause of his actions, not his prior conditions or reasons under consideration, even if both can act as influences. A person may act because reasons impressed him, but the cause is not, even strictly speaking, his will, but the person himself—the entire agent. By will we just mean his inherent power to act as cause in the relevant respect—that is, of being able to grant the dignity, the honor, of any finite reason ultimately being efficacious for action. The person makes the reasons efficacious—that is, determining. tThe reasons do not make efficacious (determine) the person. Suzi had the power to choose to play Billy Joel on the piano because of reasons; hence it’s not “random,” since to be random involves there being no rhyme or reason as to why something happened. She also had the power to choose not to play Billy Joel on the piano and, say, watch television instead, because of other reasons.

If somebody asks what ultimately caused Suzi to favor one set of reasons over another, we must be careful to detect some subtle begging of the question against the proponent of libertarian freedom and Aristotelian substance causation. The ability to favor any finite reason, and to make it ultimately efficacious for action—more particularly the power to end deliberation, to make one consideration the final consideration—is just what it means to be an agent capable of rational-willing: the ability to say, definitively, “I choose you.” There is nothing that caused Suzi to favor one set of reasons over another; it is precisely because Suzi herself is a top-down cause that any finite reason was chosen.

As Mortimer Adler summarizes: “The Libertarian maintains that these reasons in themselves are not determinative of the action. No one reason is strong enough to make the man decide. First the man must decide—and it is his decision to act on one reason rather than another which makes that reason stronger than the others. If it were otherwise, the Libertarian proposes, if any one reason of itself were strong enough to determine the action, the man would have no difficulty in making the decision. He would merely act as the reason dictated. It is the very difficulty that attests the existence of free will.”

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