Do We Have Free Will? A Review of the Leading Theories Shows That the Question Is Answerable after All

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We all believe or at least are inclined to believe that every event has a cause. This is the view known as "causal determinism." Most would think it nonsense to say that an event transpired without a cause. We would be incredulous if someone seriously thought, for example, that her clock stopped working for no reason whatsoever. Even if no one could determine the precise cause or causes, we still would not accept the idea that the clock's stopping had no cause. Whether we're talking about clocks, computers, solar flares, the mating habits of geese, or the common cold, we firmly believe that each has a cause.

Further, we all believe that our acts - what we do, say, and choose also have causes, just as everything else must have causes, for our acts are events, too. We assume that our acts are the result of our heredity, our previous experiences, the peculiarities of our personality, the circumstances preceding the acts, or something. Indeed, we believe that our acts must have causes otherwise they would simply happen by chance.

On the other hand, most people believe that we have free will - that we can sometimes make a choice and that it is up to us what we shall choose. And most believe that if we act freely, we can be held responsible for what we do.

But if everything, including every act, has a cause, how is it possible for persons to have free will? Let's say that you perform an act - you press your finger against a button that detonates a bomb. Since everything has a cause, this movement of your finger must have a cause - perhaps the contracting of your muscles accompanied by certain electrical impulses in your hand and brain. According to causal determinism, this something cause or causes, in turn must have been due to other causes (like certain brain states), and these causes must have been due to still others, and so on. Indeed, there must have been a whole succession of causes extending indefinitely into the past - stretching back before you were even born. Therefore, your simple act of pressing the button must have been the result of causes over which you had no control whatsoever.

We may believe we are free, but how can this be? How can we consistently believe both that we are determined and that we have free will? Two of our most basic beliefs seem to be inconsistent. Welcome to what philosophers call "the problem of free will and determinism."

A lot is riding on the responses we gave to this problem. Among the important things at stake here is the idea of moral responsibility. If we really are not free in any meaningful way, we cannot reasonably be held responsible for what we do. We cannot reasonably be blamed (or praised) for any act. After all, we would have no control over our acts - they would be the end result of causal chains that stretch back into the indefinite past. We would have no say in this process; it would simply happen to us. We therefore could not be reasonably held responsible for our actions and choices - no more than we could be held responsible for some genetic disease that befell us.

To see variations on this theme, we need only pick up a newspaper. There we can read about trial lawyers pleading the devil made-me-do-it defense - that a client is not responsible for his illegal act because he was born with bad genes, or he grew up in a violent community (and thus has "urban survival syndrome"), or he suffered from "roid rage" (severe mood swings associated with steroid use), or he was the victim of long-term abuse.

The famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) consistently wielded the "determinism defense" with great skill and passion. In the 1920s he defended two college students. Leopold and Loeb, who murdered and dismembered a child. He admitted that the boys did indeed commit the heinous act but that they - like all of us - never had any real control over their lives. They were doomed - determined - by forces that were at work before the boys even conceived of their crime. …