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In this post I shall demonstrate that the position of metaphysical libertarianism, i.e. classical free will, the sort often assumed in folk philosophy, is logically incoherent. This is important, as it has heretofore been assumed by many (if not all) metaphysical libertarians that the falsity of their ultimate sort of freedom is at least partially contingent on the truth of physicalism regarding the mind, and related theories. Here I shall argue that true free will is logically impossible on the bases of the natures of identity and control.

The preference problem

As I’ve previously stated, I believe metaphysical free will to be incoherent. Why? First, it is important to understand what metaphysical libertarianism (also sometimes called classical free will) is. Metaphysical libertarianism denies determinism regarding the mind, and asserts that at least some of our actions are “fundamentally” under control. In some sense, like the God of the cosmological argument in the philosophy of religion, “we” as agents are uncaused causes. This idea should not be very difficult to undertand, as it is roughly in line with our folk intuitions about free will.

I will waste no time in getting to the difficulty I see with this, for as with the uncaused cause of the cosmological argument, I see a regress as the source of problems. And unlike the cosmological argument, which terminated a supposed regress with a being called God, all manners of terminating this regress invalidate metaphysical free will. It is what I shall call the preference regress. The central concept of metaphysical libertarianism can be summed up as “I can do what I will, and I can will what I will.” It gives us a sort of “ultimate responsibility for out actions. When we do something, it is because for whatever reason, we have a preference for that. I’m sure a metaphysical libertarian would agree with this statement. Even if free will were coherent, we would still be deciding what to do out of a range of options. If I’m truly free, and I have decided to kill, then I have for whatever reason decided that the course of action of killing is a better one than several others, such as going to the movies. This constitutes a preference. In fact, “free will” as suggested by metaphysical libertarians would not make sense without preferences and decisions.

If I am ultimately free, however, according to what preferences have I selected my current preferences? And against what set of preferences do I judge those preferences? One should be able to see the regress at this point. If I am ultimately free, this means I both act according to my preferences and prefer according to some other preferences. We need a way to terminate this regress - we need a preference, or a set out preferences, that aren’t themselves selected according to some level of our preferences.

Unfortunately for metaphysical free will, I think all ways of adequately terminating this regress defeat metaphysical free will. One solution is for there to exist static, uncaused preferences that we have. All our action (through however long a chain of preferences) would lead back to these preferences. However, if the preferences are static, not caused by “us” and not chosen according to some even more fundamental set of preferences, it is difficult to see how our actions are under “our” control. If this was the case, all our actions would be determined by this uncaused set of fundamental principles, and “we” would be superfluous.

A second route is to say that there is no self aside from these fundamental, uncaused preferences, and instead argue that these uncaused preferences are what constitute identity. In other words, “’I’ am a bundle of fundamental, uncased preferences. However, if we are these fundamental preferences, then “we” cannot meaningfully be said to be controlling them, as that would require a separate “we.” And that’s coupled with the fact that if there were uncaused preferences to evaluate all other preferences, as we saw with our previous attempted solution, we end up with a sort of preference determinism.

If God is invoked as the termination of the regress, then we have theological determinism - everything happens according to God’s will. Furthermore, God would have to not have free will, else we would not terminate the regress of preferences, and if God’s preferences are caused, then he’s hardly the creator or prime mover that most theists think of as God.

Quantum mechanics is a frequent refuge for those who find the implications of metaphysical naturalism distasteful. However, a proper understanding of this difficult area of physics shows why the indeterminism of the quantum universe is unhelpful in the case of free will. It is true that in the strictest sense employed by physicists, there are “uncaused” quantum events. However, such events are special because they are objectively probabilistic, whereas most probability is epistemic. What does this mean? Most probability is epistemic because the probability is due to our own ignorance, not because the outcome of the event is not determined. But, at the fundamental level, the universe is objectively probabilistic - the electron really does have an x% chance of being pound at point A. This is unhelpful for free will though, for if our foundational preferences are random quantum events, they are under the control of nothing, let alone us, save for the fluctuations of quantum probability.

The only solution to the logically impermissible regress of preferences is to say that foundational preferences are caused by something without will, which is determinism, or at least a modern quantum “indeterminism” (possibly better characterized as probabilistic determinism) that is no more helpful for free will.

Free will and counterfactuals

The incoherence of classical free will is actually furthered bolstered by another fact, which I did not include in the main body of this work, as it does not argue that classical free will is an incoherent concept per se, This criticism of classical free will instead draws from the nature of our experience and the ways our minds work. In this sense it is an evidential argument more than a strictly logical one.

The problem goes like this. Surely at any given moment, there is a massively large variety of logically possible actions one could take. However, we only really consider a very narrow range of these options. Why should this be if we are truly free? Furthermore, if we had the sort of freedom classical free will suggests, we’d have to at least enumerate, if not compute, all logically possible actions. In other words, we’d have to know how many options there are and what they are in order to narrow down and reflectively choose between a few according to preferences, though we wouldn’t necessarily have to reason through every possibility. This would take an enormous amount of time, and in some circumstances would take forever, as there might be an infinite number of logically possible answers to a consideration of action which amounts to an open question. In other words, some questions of action are non-computable functions. If all our actons truly came from within, it would take literally forever to decide many things. The only solution is to make the preferences at some level caused by something not holding preferences, as this elminates the need to compute infinite possibilities, since our preferences for action are ultimately determined by physical, causal factors beyond anyone’s control.

Implications of the failure of metaphysical libertarianism for theism

The incoherence of classical free will also has interesting implications for theism. The usual formulation of God’s omnipotence is that he can do anything which is logically possible, in order to avoid challenges such as “could God create a rock he could not move?” (which would be logically contradictory). But if God is subject to basic logic, and free will is incoherent, God cannot have free will. His preferences must in some sense be either arbitrary and not under his control or caused and not under his control, because no matter the nature of God, we still run into the same problem of identity that we have when we attempt to grant ourselves free will. This means that, even if God existed (which I don’t believe), he would either be a God very unlike the one of most theists (in fact, God as an intentional being would be unnecessary, or at least not ultimate, given that uncaused, eternal divine preferences would almost constitute Platonic forms), or is a completely superfluous metaphysical addition to an already causal process.

The theist might make one of two transcendental arguments. The first is that God is “beyond causation” (whatever this means). The problem with this is that God is supposedly the cause of the world, or at least is able to causally interact with it,. The concept of causality clearly exists in whatever logical space it is God supposedly exists in, else it would be incoherent for him to cause something. The second route is to argue that God is “beyond logic,” but this is absurd, because there is then no way in which we could even intelligibly make the proposition “there exists one or more deities.”
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