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Tallis in Wonderland

The Mystery of Freedom

Raymond Tallis thinks up some possibilities to explain free will.

Free will seems impossible in theory and yet appears to be real in practice. How do we reconcile these two observations? We need first to look at the arguments against free will, then exercise our freedom by taking them to pieces.

As the argument goes, every action is a material event, and material events are caused by earlier events; those earlier events are caused by yet earlier events; and so on, possibly all the way back to the Big Bang. What’s more, all events are subject to the laws of nature, which, by definition, are unbreakable. Besides, we need the laws of nature to be 100% reliable if our actions are to have the desired outcomes. If the laws of motion did not apply universally, we would not be able to make it to the shops, or even climb out of bed.

So there we have it: a causally closed world unfolding according to the laws of nature, apparently making the exercise of free will impossible. The idea of choosing between futures, or deflecting the course of events, is a fantasy. As Peter van Inwagen puts it, there is “at any instant exactly one physically possible future”. It seems that, like other material objects, we are merely conduits through which the material world passes. Notwithstanding appearances, our biography is written before we are born. We no more choose how we live than we chose that we live. Our intra-uterine and extra-uterine existences are equally pre-determined.

It’s a slam dunk. And yet we find it difficult sincerely to doubt that there are genuine actions as well as mere happenings, and that the things we do are distinct from things we merely undergo. We cannot help feeling that there’s a fundamental difference between a physical event such as my falling down the stairs and my walking down the stairs as the first stage of a journey to London; or between shouting out in my sleep and engaging in an earnest discussion about free will. Moreover, on the basis of a supposed freedom of choice, we morally judge ourselves and others, dishing out praise and blame, approval and disapproval, as we see fit. Is our conviction that we are responsible for our actions merely a superstition left over from a pre-scientific age?

I want to argue that it is not and that we are responsible for at least some of our actions. My argument will look critically at the very idea of causes and at our relationship to the laws that seem, through our material bodies, to embed us in the natural world. I will have a little less to say about causes than laws, for two reasons: 1) Causes seem to be implacable only because they are expressions of laws; and 2) The idea of causation as an independent constraint on what happens, and hence on what we can do, has taken something of a battering.

Cause To Be Uneasy

Indeed, causation never recovered from David Hume’s famous attack on it in his Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40). Hume argued that there’s no evidence for causation as a necessary connection between events, and that what we call ‘causation’ is instead merely a constant conjunction we perceive between types of events. This leads us to believe that they must be conjoined as if there were some force or glue binding them. The apparent ‘necessity’, however, resides not in the material world, but in our minds.

There have been many attempts to rescue causation from its ‘Hume-iliation’ The ‘counterfactual’ interpretation sees a cause C of an event E as something along the lines of, if C did not happen, E would not happen. Causes are necessary but not sufficient for their effects. Unfortunately, this formulation fails to distinguish between causes and surrounding conditions. Worse, it can confer a causal status on things that do not happen. For example, the wilting of your garden flowers while you were on holiday could be seen as being counterfactually caused by my not watering them as I had promised.

‘Statistical’ interpretations of causation say that a cause is an event whose occurrence increases the likelihood of another event – the effect. But this adds little to the counterfactual interpretation, particularly as it does not pinpoint the difference between causation and mere correlation. One way of distinguishing causation from correlation (or coincidence) is through manipulation: if I find that by bringing about event A I consistently bring about event B, I may conclude that A plays a causal role in the occurrence of B, and is not merely correlated with its occurrence.

This thought inspired another theory of causation: the ‘manipulability’ theory, according to which causes are to be regarded as handles by which the world may be manipulated. It, too, is unsatisfactory. After all, if causation is a real feature of the natural world, then we may assume that it’s active in places where no hands have been, such as on unvisited planets.

Nevertheless, the idea of causes as at least potential handles is not only an interesting insight into the nature of causes, but turns our relationship to the material world back-to-front, and so helps us to see our a way out of the law-governed prison of physical nature that seems to make free will impossible.

To understand this, we need to direct our attention away from the laws of nature to our means of discovering them; and, following this, to our capacity to utilise them to serve our ends.

Escaping The Flow

Consider Robert Boyle (1627-91) discovering the law named after him, according to which the volume and pressure of a gas are inversely proportional: as the volume on a fixed amount of gas is decreased (say by shrinking its container), so its pressure increases. Conversely, as the volume made available for it to expand into increases, so its pressure falls. Boyle demonstrated this relationship by manipulating variables: the independent variable (for example, the volume) and the dependent variable (for example, the pressure). But Boyle’s law holds only so long as other variables are kept constant. One important variable is temperature, whose influence is expressed in Jacques Charles’ law, according to which the volume of a fixed quantity of gas increases in proportion to the rise in temperature. Alternatively, if the volume is held constant, pressure rises with temperature.

What on earth has schoolroom physics got to do with free will? A lot. Any experimenter discovering or testing these laws must be manipulating nature from outside. (Hold on to that ‘outside’ because it will be central to the argument that follows.) Moreover, we can in our minds separate things that are not separate in nature: for example, independent and dependent variables, as well as parameters that are kept constant. Outside of the laboratory, there is no such thing as pure volume, pure pressure, and pure temperature: rather they are all inseparable aspects of stuff. What’s more, in the lab those variables are manipulated in order to discover, demonstrate, and most importantly to exploit the laws.

We take it too much for granted that we can tease out more than one law from the same stuff; for example, Boyle’s and Charles’ laws from the same gas. But this fact illuminates an otherwise obscure argument of JS Mill in an important posthumously published paper, ‘On Nature’: “Though we cannot emancipate ourselves from the laws of nature as a whole, we can escape from any particular law of nature if we are able to withdraw ourselves from the circumstances in which it acts. Though we can do nothing except through laws of nature, we can use one law to counteract another.” (Italics added). The controlled conditions in the lab maintained for our experiment to reveal the different law that apply to gases provide a perfect illustration of the manipulation Mill’s claims is possible when we use one law of nature to counteract another. And if we can exploit artificially separated laws of nature to bring about a certain result inside the laboratory, we can exploit these teased-out laws elsewhere too. (Laboratories are special places, but they are not metaphysically special.) The evidence that we indeed do exploit the laws of nature is ubiquitous – notably in the landscape of science-based artefacts which tilt our encounters with the natural world in our favour. In summary, the indubitable capacity we have to step outside of the laws of nature in order to discover those laws prepares the way for us to use what we’ve discovered to further distance ourselves from nature.

That distance ultimately owes itself to a primordial ‘outside’ which is easy to overlook because it is everywhere we look. It is a virtual distance from a law-governed, causally closed natural physical order, and it is opened up by the intentionality of consciousness – the fact that consciousness is always about something.

The separation of our minds from the physical causal order is most easily illustrated by vision. When I see an object, my perception has two elements. There is the physical causal link, subject to the laws of nature, between the object seen and my visual system, which link results in activity in my visual cortex. This explains how the light gets into my brain. It doesn’t explain the second element of perception: how the gaze looks out – the intentionality of my experience – which locates the object as ‘over there’ and as other than myself. The spectatorial distance of vision and of the other senses that operate through intentional objects of experience is the ground floor of our ‘outside’ of nature, from whence we can explore, investigate, and, with increasing power, manipulate the world.

Possible Paths

There are two other developments springing from intentionality, each of which would deserve a column to itself. The first is the sense of possibility which is opened up by intentionality. My awareness of objects exceeds what I am currently experiencing of them: I intuit that there is more to them than what is revealed to any of my senses. The second is the amplification and development of that intuition by the joining of my intentionality with that of other subjects – most spectacularly in a realm created through gestures and language. This joining with the minds of others weaves a boundless public world, seething with possibilities which may or may not be real or even realizable. That shared world is also temporally deep – rooted in a past and reaching towards a future.

It is in having possibilities, which exist only insofar as they are envisaged by a conscious subject, that the capacity for agency resides. Possibilities populate a space outside of nature, from which human agents seek to act upon the world. There are no possibilities in the physical world itself; there is only what is. The choices behind our actions are therefore not effects of material causes with an ancestry traceable to the Big Bang, or the expression of laws acting throughout nature. They are the children of envisaged possibilities.

It is moreover in the grasping of possibilities that we find the origins of the scientific inquiry through which we have learned how to magnify our capacity to manipulate the world. It is ironic, therefore that, as science discovers ever more universal laws with increasingly astonishing powers of prediction, we have begun to imagine that these laws demonstrate that the noose of nature is tied tightly round our necks. To the contrary, our growing science confers upon us the ability to act upon nature from ever greater distances. It is not mere superstition, therefore, that our actions originate from us, that they deflect the course of events, and that we are responsible for them.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2020

Raymond Tallis’s new book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God & Science is out now.

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