A Case for Free Will


I do two things in this essay. First, I present a coherent account of free will. Second, I demonstrate the existence of free will.

1. A Coherent Account of Free Will

We often hear that free will is incoherent, or at least impossible to define. The motivation behind the first camp seems to be this, that every cause is either determined or random. The concept of free motion is a concept of a form of motion that is neither determined nor random; so, they argue, free will does not exist. This argument has swayed many people including, it seems, some of the previous posters in this node. The motivation behind the second camp seems to be to preserve free will from rational scrutiny, perhaps because the concept is perceived as important but fragile. Well, it may be important but the concept of free will is not fragile in the slightest. We can do away with both camps, since a coherent account of free will exists.

In this section, I develop the concepts central to this account of free will, present the account, and answer the argument that free will is conceptually impossible.


Anything can be divided into its properties, capacities, and parts. Let's take an arbitrary thing - say, my cat. My cat has the properties of whiteness, cuteness, being about six inches tall when walking, and so on. Its capacities include things like its ability to catch birds and its ability to someday learn to walk the tightrope. Its parts include its tail, feet, body, and head; though we could divide it up into a different set of parts if we so chose. Now, something has all of my cat's properties, capacities, and parts without being had, in the same sense, by anything else. That is my cat's substance.

The idea of a substance seems coherent. We talk about S having a property P all the time, and such talk would seem to presuppose the existence of substances. S could be had by something else, granted, but that can't go on forever. So predication would seem to presuppose the existence of substances, which means that the idea of a substance must be coherent.

Ultimate Cause

Take a specific, arbitrary time. We're going to call that time, t. Now at t there is a way that all of reality is. Call the way that all of reality is at t, the state of affairs at t. The state of affairs at t necessitates certain things about the state of affairs at t+1 (which is a time after t). Now let's say that for some t, part of the state of affairs at t+1 (and we'll call this part A) is not entirely necessitated by the state of affairs at t. Now if A is the beginning of a causal chain, A is an ultimate cause.

Here's another way of putting it. Think about a chain of causes that has a beginning. A causes B, B causes C, and so on until Z. There is a cause in this chain, A, which has no prior necessitating cause. A in this chain is an ultimate cause.

The idea of an ultimate cause is prima facie coherent. We have evidence that it is coherent, since people employ the idea in philosophy and physics.

A Coherent Account of Free Will

My account is just this, that a human has free will if and only if his substance is an ultimate cause.

The concepts of substance and ultimate causation are prima facie coherent. Since this account was created by combining two prima facie coherent concepts, we have evidence that if someone does not believe that it is coherent, they are simply failing to understand it. Further, it seems conceptually possible for any existent to be an ultimate cause; so, since a substance is an existent, there can be no incoherence in the combination of the concepts of substance and ultimate causation. The account is coherent.

Conceptual Determinism Refuted

Conceptual determinism is the belief that it is conceptually impossible for an event to be neither random nor determined, and free will is neither random nor determined. With the above account of free will, this position can be refuted quickly. An event is random if it is caused by nothing, determined if it is caused by a previous event, and free if it is caused by a substance.

The appeal of conceptual determinism comes from the presupposition that all causes are events. If that is true, then every event is either caused by a previous event or by nothing, or, in other words, either determined or free. When we introduce substantial causation into our ontology, we create a third form of motion that we can plausibly call free.

Summary of Section 1

The substance of X is what has all of X's properties, capacities, and parts without being had by anything else. An ultimate cause is a cause with no prior necessitating cause. A human has free will if and only if his substance is an ultimate cause. Conceptual determinism, the belief that only random and determined events are conceptually possible, is false because substantial causation is conceptually possible.

2. Demonstration of the Existence of Free Will

Free will exists, because we had to get the concept of causality from somewhere, and we could only get the concept of causality by experiencing our own free will.

The Concept of Causality is not Innate

If we didn't acquire the concept of causality, then it is innate in us. Or perhaps it was produced by some sort of illusion, or given to us by revelation, or something like that; we will treat these all alike. Now, by the burden of proof principle, the burden of proof for the existence of any entity is on the person who proposes that it exists, and this applies to the notion of an innate concept of causality. The person who believes that there is such a concept has to meet an enormous burden of proof, if he wants to remain rational. He would have to prove, with scientific data, that this concept is in our heads from the beginning. Positive evidence of the sort that is wanted almost certainly does not exist.

Further, if the concept of causality is innate or whatever, then it is completely unlike our other concepts and beliefs. We have thousands of experiences of forming concepts by observing things and integrating them. The same is, if anything, truer of our beliefs. This gives a reasonable person a strong presumption that the concepts we cannot remember forming, including that of causality, were acquired at some point, not innate.

So we have two arguments against the view that our concepts are innate, or illusory, or revealed, or whatever: first, it fails to meet the burden of proof, which, by the burden of proof principle, justifies us in failing to affirm it; and second, that would be totally unlike our other concepts and beliefs. So, we can conclude that we acquired the concept of causality.

The Concept Comes from the Self

So, we got the concept of causality from somewhere. This had to be either from the external world or from introspection. There is no form of perception that we could have acquired the concept from other than extrospection and introspection. And it sure didn't come from the external world. There is no entity labelled "causality" out in the world. We cannot see cause and effect in things like we can see the color blue in things. So we must not have gotten the idea, the concept, the category if you will, of "cause" by looking at things out in the world. So, we acquired the idea of causality by introspecting.

In introspection, we can identify a self, beliefs, and a great shifting mass that we can call the passions for our purposes. The same argument that eliminated the external world eliminates our beliefs and passions, since we cannot perceive causality in them any more than we can perceive it in the external world. We must have gotten the concept of causality by experiencing causality in our innermost self.

The Concept Comes from a Free Self

So, with a single argument, we have disqualified the external world, our beliefs, and our passions as the thing that gave us our concept of causality. Our innermost self experienced causality at some point, and it must have experienced it either as a thing caused to act, or as an ultimate cause. If the self is an ultimate cause, then we are free. This is so, by the way, because the self is a substance. You will notice that the self has beliefs and passions, and the self is not had by anything else.

But the same argument that disqualifed the external world, our beliefs, and our passions eliminates the possibility that the self experienced causality as the thing acted upon. There would be no perception of causality when the self was acted on, only of change. And so the self must have been the initial, primary generator of motion. The self is an ultimate cause, and the ability of the self to act as an ultimate cause is what we call free will.

Summary of Section 2

The burden of proof principle and induction justify the conclusion that the concept of causality is not innate, so we acquired it from somewhere. It could not have come from the external world, introspection of our beliefs and passions, or the self's determined motion - we can only perceive change in these ways, not causality itself. We could only have gotten the concept by generating a cause from our innermost self. Therefore, we have free will.