In our analysis of the scientific definition of ultimate reality as a final explanation of matter and the phenomena of the universe we have arrived at the pinnacle of scientific metaphysics with string theory. The basic proposition is elegant as well as ingenious; the smallest particles are not points, but “string-like” energy which can stretch and vibrate like rubber bands. Using mathematics unfathomable to most of us and aligning string theory with supersymmetry (extra mathematically described dimensions), some of the great minds of modern physics are working to establish superstring theory (or several such theories) as the actual foundation of the elementary particles, the four forces, the laws of motion, special relativity, and quantum mechanics. Have we at last reached the moment of the revelation of the genuine form of ultimate reality?

Perhaps… it certainly feels close, but one cannot help being disturbed that there are five or more equally coherent models and each requires more than the commonly accepted 4 dimensions – in fact typically 10 or 11 in all (with the extra 6 or 7 being tiny curled up dimensions). The extra dimensions are not visible in the natural world although several physicists, for example Brian Green, have attempted to show it symbolically (I like his example of an ant crawling around a cable). Also while only one constant is required, twenty other constants of the standard model remain unexplained. Most non-physicists will also struggle with the advanced version where the ‘strings’ take on different forms or ‘branes’ with a change in dimension; that is a 1-brane is a string, a 2 –brane is more like the surface of a drum, and so on to a ‘p-brane’ in a ‘p’ dimension. We are no longer in Kansas Toto.

String or superstring theory remains exactly that, a theory. However it is the latest addition to the human corpus of metaphysics, and being identified with science may be the most credible. It leaves the philosopher with a disappointingly physicalist and inscrutable (if presumably simpler) ultimate reality where non-material familiars such as love, friendship, justice, virtue, purpose, and happiness are unsupportable or represent human illusion. If this picture is correct, and we may be forced to accept it for the near term in the absence of counter-proofs or better explanations, we will have to integrate this perplexing understanding of ultimate reality into our conceptual structure of a meaningful life. But that is the task of a later essay.


“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.


If free will is confirmed by the empirical and moral arguments discussed in the last two posts, the next question is how human will can be free when it appears everything else in nature is determined by antecedent causes or events. The answer depends on the proposition of free agency which is the subject of this blog.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant explains that the– metaphysics of causality require a first cause which is a free agent- that is  “a faculty of absolutely beginning a state and therefore also of absolutely beginning a series of consequences,” and “every beginning of an act however  presupposes a state in which the cause is not yet active; and a dynamically first beginning of an act presupposes a state which has no causal connection with the preceding state of this cause, that is, in no wise results from that preceding state.”  Kant calls this transcendental freedom as opposed to the law of causality. Free agency then is the faculty of transcendental freedom.

Mortimer Adler concurs: freedom of choice does not make the chosen decision “uncaused” rather the operative efficient cause is not like the efficient causes that operate in natural phenomena which are determined but unwilled. Action of the human will is outside the domain of natural phenomena studied by science. Such actions arise from the intellect and are necessitated (due to genuine knowledge) or arbitrary (based on unsupported opinion). Necessitated actions serve our happiness as we are unable to will not to seek happiness, whereas other acts of the will seek partial goods. Thus, free agency is affirmed by these three conditions: (1) the immateriality of the will, (2) the difference between the ways its acts are caused as opposed to natural events, and (3) its causal indeterminacy not due to chance.

In conclusion, free will can be demonstrated as a free agent deciding on a course of action unrelated to a prior causal chain. It relies on reason not causality. What seems unclear to me and is perhaps the fault of an excess anthropomorphic perspective is why other animals are not free agents. When a bird chooses to build her nest on one rather than another of the identical eave-covered outdoor lights outside my library, it seems a stretch to call it instinctual, due to sufficient and necessary cause or even chance. It appears to be a conscious choice of an unconstrained and non-coerced creature.

1Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2007. ISBN 978-0-140-44747-7, pages 405-408.

2Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, pages 56-57.


“This is also clearly defined in the teachings of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed with free-will and volition; that it has a struggle to maintain with the devil and his angels, and opposing influences, because they strive to burden it with sins.” – Origen of Alexandria.


Previously I identified two main arguments for the existence of human free will. The first relies on empirical evidence as we discussed in the last post. Today we will look at Immanuel Kant’s moral argument for free will. In the Critique of Practical Reason, he demonstrates that an objective ethics can be based on reason alone, that is, necessity rather than empirical or contingent conditions. In his model, moral maxims can be tested for universality of form by inquiring whether such maxims if made a universal law would be contradictory. For example the maxim to seek one’s own happiness fails since if all men seek their own happiness it renders happiness for all men impossible; while the maxim for all men to tell the truth succeeds as any dishonesty renders all statements untrustworthy.

He then points out that one ought to follow the moral laws; and what one ought to do one must be able to do; therefore the will must be free to follow or not follow the moral laws. In other words, while freedom cannot be proven by reason alone, “freedom and the unconditional practical law imply each other.”1 Kant is denying that free will is a matter of faith as are, for example, immortality or God. Rather the will using practical reason determines the moral law and by virtue of its autonomy upholds that law.

Roger Scruton rephrases Kant’s moral argument, suggesting we suspend the idea of freedom and note the universal practice of holding people to account for their actions. In the case of a criminal act such as a mugging, we hold the mugger responsible for a deliberate act. In the case of negligence such as the inadequate supervision a child who is then harmed, we hold the caregiver responsible even though it is not a deliberate act. In a third case where the caregiver of a child is called away by an urgent emergency the same child’s injury is neither deliberate nor worthy of blame. This is the social practice which gives the concept of freedom its sense. When we hold someone responsible for a state of affairs, we do not necessarily imply his actions caused it, nor do we hold someone responsible for everything that he does deliberately. The judgment of responsibility attaches an event not to the actions of a person but to the person himself – with the implied understanding the person’s free will was the cause of his actions.2

The moral and empirical arguments provide a nearly impregnable defense of freedom of the will, but both depend on a coherent understanding of free agency which is the subject of the next blog.


1Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers. 1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 547-548.

2Scruton, Roger, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. Penguin Books. New York, 1999. ISBN 0 14 027516 9, page 99-103.


“All theory is against freedom of the will; all experience is for it.”  – Samuel Johnson.


We have seen that the main argument against free will is the deterministic or mechanistic appearance of the universe. Science leans against free will, but is not definitive as of this time. Philosophers offer two basic defenses of free will: (1) empirical evidence and (2) the moral argument. In this blog we will look at the first.

No matter what else we may discover about human behavior, most people believe they have and experience free will regularly and certainly everyone appears to act as if they do. Richard Taylor makes a strong case for free will by pointing out two universal empirical facts: (1) sometimes I deliberate, and (2) sometimes it is up to me what I do. Given these two ‘facts’ the will must be free. Deliberation is inconsistent with determinism because if my actions are determined, why would I deliberate? If my actions were not free I would use my reasoning ability to discover my future actions rather than deliberate to decide on those actions. A scientist may attempt to identify future behavior by looking at causes, but would be unlikely to think his or her own action can be identified this way. Moreover if actions are determined, then no action is up to me, in direct contradiction to the second fact. Determinism is simply inconsistent with the empirical facts. Taylor adds that indeterminism or behavior as uncaused also violates these empirical facts.1

Roger Scruton argues that determinists are trying to shift the burden of proof on to believers in freedom rather than proving that we are not free. His response: why should we have to do that when “it is obvious we are free” ? The determinist’s error is in believing if action were free it would mean they are uncaused.2 Mortimer Adler agrees; it is a misunderstanding of the issue itself – free choice does not mean uncaused, even if such actions are unpredictable.  After all science relies on statistical and probabilistic formulations, but this does not mean events in the universe are uncaused. Adler concludes actions of will are outside the domain of the science of physical phenomena. Will is intellectual not sensuous, and not a faculty of pure desire, memory, or imagination all of which may follow scientific laws; rather will and intellect are non-material and are governed by laws of their own.3 Metaphysically then, events can be caused by either antecedent events or by free agents, and empirically humans are free agents.

We will investigate further the meaning of free agency after the next post on the moral argument for free will.


1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, page 37-58.

2Scruton, Roger, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. Penguin Books. New York, 1999. ISBN 0 14 027516 9, page 98-99.

3Adler, Mortimer J., Ten Philosophical Mistakes, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1985. ISBN 0-02-064120-6. p.146-150.


Last time we looked at the scientific evidence against human free will and today we will look at some opposing positions. Alfred Mele in a recent issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine2 argues persuasively that the significance of the neurological experiments is exaggerated. He participated in a Libet-style experiment and has doubts about Libet’s conclusions both with respect to the timing of decisions and the arbitrary rather than reasoned nature of the actions of the participants. Even if such decisions are made unconsciously, he believes it is a stretch to then argue that decisions requiring sustained information gathering and reflection are similarly unconscious. He discusses restrictivism, a theory which suggests free will only applies when “we are tempted to act contrary to what we believe we ought to do, morally speaking.”

Mele also takes on the argument that even if such actions are not unconscious, the mere fact that we can demonstrate that they are the result of brain activity rather than a soul means they are not free. His counter argument is based on psychological studies that most people do not feel we need to have a soul to have free will.

Roger Penrose looks at a physicist’s approach to free will. He asserts that just because the universe is a well-behaved place does not mean that human actions are determined merely by antecedent causes and the environment. He suggests that the intricate networks of neurons releasing neurotransmitters from microtubules may indicate an entangled quantum system within and between cells. This may permit a fully material system to have a non-computable element. He also believes that this type of quantum consciousness could involve the entire brain – sort of quantum consciousness.3

It seems the scientific arguments for and against free will are unlikely to demonstrate convincingly that humans lack or have free will for now, though it remains for each individual to reach his own conclusion. Next we will look at the philosophical arguments in favor of free will.


1Johnson, David Kyle, The Big Questions of Philosophy. The Great Courses. Lecture 17.

2Mele, Alfred, Is Free Will Dead (Again)? In The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 83, 4th Quarter 2018, Pages 80-86.

3Gimbel, Steven, Quantum Consciousness, in Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Steven Gimbel, The Teaching Company, 2015, Lecture 13.


“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I have visited thirty one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.


Last time we looked at determinism as an argument against free will and noted that its undeniable  corollary that no one would be responsible for his actions undermines that line of reasoning. However some philosophers persist, drawing on science, particularly neuroscience, as evidence that the human belief in free choice is an illusion.

David Kyle Johnson presents the case quite well.1 First the brain appears to be the decision-making center for man and it is simply a collection of neurons wired together in a such way as to determine our behavior. Brain structure and function is determined by genetics and environment both of which originally are not determined by oneself. Also emotions work through the brain’s limbic system and often override the inhibitory signals coming from the cortex or thinking portion of the brain. Joseph DeLoux, a New York University neuroscientist asserts that the emotions therefore control most of our actions and only afterward do we rationalize those decisions.

Johnson also reviews work done in the 1960’s by Hans Helmut Kornhubeer and Luder Deecke where it was possible to measure brain activity before a decision occurred, and the processes involved happened before the decisions in a part of the brain unrelated to conscious deliberation. In the 1980’s Benjamin Liber showed this readiness potential occurs 0.35 seconds before a decision is made.

In 2008, John-Dylan Haynes did an experiment where he found unconscious parts of the brain were busy working to initiate actions seconds before a stimulus which required an individual’s choice. Itzhak Fried showed in a similar experiment that neurons observed directly were unconsciously ‘deciding’ on an action before the conscious decision with consistency that allowed an 80-90% predictive accuracy. The implication of these studies is that the conscious decision is an afterthought and that free will is an illusion.

(continued next post)


“We must believe in free will – we have no choice.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer.



In our last blog we examined metaphysical arguments against the possibility of free will, and found them unpersuasive. Today we will examine the stronger empirical argument. At the foundation of this argument is the concept of determinism or a completely mechanistic universe. Empirically whenever we experience an event we expect there to be a cause, and in many cases the cause is evident. That cause is itself the effect of an antecedent cause and so forth backwards presumably indefinitely. Hard determinism holds that all events in the universe fall into such chains of cause and effect including apparently volitional human actions. The determinist does not claim to be able to demonstrate detailed chains of causation, but asserts such chains exist in nature universally. Typically determinists offer scientific support of the theory rather than proof per se.

Hard determinism effectively eliminates moral responsibility for one’s actions as they are not the result of personal choice. This is so contrary to human experience, that the best counterargument is a reductio ad absurdum. Since the unavoidable conclusion is that no one is responsible for his actions, no punishment or praise is due to anyone for any action. Murder is not morally reprehensible and personal sacrifice is not praiseworthy.

Few philosophers are willing to go this far so a milder version known as soft determinism has developed. In this model, human actions are not externally constrained or impeded and are the results of decisions influenced by moods, desires, and choices which themselves have antecedent causes. This position suffers from the problem of hard determinism; if each action is the result of one’s choices, moods, or desires, but those are determined by antecedent causes then the actor still does not seem to be responsible for the action. Richard Taylor describes the implication:

“It is hardly the description of a free and responsible agent. It is the perfect description of a puppet. To render a man your puppet, it is not necessary forcibly to constrain the motions of his limbs after the fashion that real puppets are moved. A subtler but no less effective means of making a man your puppet would be to gain complete control of his inner states, and ensuring, as the theory of soft determinism does ensure, that his body will move in accordance with them.”1

Some philosophers argue that in fact we are not directly responsible for our actions although society may decide to assign such responsibility. Their position tends to rely on scientific evidence that supports deterministic views of behavior. We will look briefly at their position in the next post.

1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, page 50.


“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” – Stephen Hawking.



Last time we examined the concept of causation which at least empirically seems undeniable. But if all things and events in nature are caused, then human actions and decisions must also be caused. The question we address today is whether this is consistent with free will. As in the discussion of the existence of God, there are several classic arguments for and against free will.

But first we will distinguish voluntary from involuntary activity. Biological functions appear to represent varying levels of involuntary activity. The beating of the heart, circulation of blood, digestion, production of urine, and internal chemical processes are absolutely involuntary or perhaps as Aristotle says non-voluntary. Some senses also are also beyond volition especially touch and perhaps hearing, while others such as sight, taste, and smell can be controlled to some extent by closing the eyes or mouth or by holding the nose. We appear to be able to time sleep, but its eventuality seems involuntary. Many human drives such as hunger and thirst appear spontaneously, but can be resisted. The vast majority of the remainder of human actions are more typically considered voluntary, that is due to conscious choice rather than biologic necessity or function. The remainder of our discussion will refer to these traditionally voluntary human actions and omit the biologically based ones.

I will use Mortimer Adler’s definition of free will or natural freedom as “being able to choose otherwise no matter what one has chosen in any particular instance.”1 On the face of it  we all believe we have such freedom, but in fact, this is not self-evident. Arguments against free will follow two basic formats: metaphysical and empirical/scientific.

The first metaphysical argument is based on time and dates back to early Christian debates on predestination which will be the subject of a later blog. However the argument comes down to this: if events occur in time and if the course of time allows only one future to exist, then only one course of events is possible and hence one cannot have chosen otherwise in any given instance. That is, all events in the universe are instantiated in its single future. This fits the concept of the universe in eternalism, but not presentism (see TIME – PART II – THE METAPHYSICS OF TIME  published on this site June 12, 2019).

A second metaphysical argument references causation; if human actions are not caused, they must be random and hence do not represent free will as such. Believers in free will are forced to respond by asserting the metaphysically unprovable theory of free agency; that is events can be caused by either a series of antecedent causes or by the simple initiation of unforced agents. We will entertain this in more detail in a later post.

By and large, most philosophers and most people will not be convinced by these metaphysical arguments against free will. Empirical and scientific arguments appear more challenging as we will take up next time.

1Adler, Mortimer J., Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985. ISBN 0-02-064120-6. p.147.


“The same motives always produce the same actions; The same events follow from the same causes”- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.


In man’s phenomenologic experience of the world,  one  question  inevitably arises: Why? Or perhaps more accurately, why is this object here or why does that event occur? By trial and error and observation, the infant and child learn that things and events appear to have causes, though of course this is a human projection of an idea onto reality. There is no metaphysical reason that things and events should require an explanation; rather this emerges from the human mind. Metaphysics might allow that things and events simply are, but of course, empirically, causation is confirmed over and over in virtually every aspect of life.

Aristotle identifies four dimensions of the causes of things: (1) material – its make up, (2) formal – i.e. the form it takes, (3) efficient – the process by which the thing or event comes to be, and (4) final cause –the end or purpose of the thing. So a house has wood and bricks as its material cause;  a blueprint as its formal cause; the construction crew as its efficient cause; and the need for a home and shelter as its final cause.  In nature, the final cause is usually closely related to formal cause and is the least apparent compared to human creations.

Francis Bacon, the first major philosopher of science, believes that the study of final causes is inappropriate in physics, and later thinking increasingly moves away from all but efficient cause which is reworked as the mechanical explanations of things – dependent only on matter and motion, especially motion producing motion, instantiated in the principle of cause and effect. David Hume, the great 18th century Scottish philosopher, argues somewhat convincingly that we cannot prove cause and effect, rather it is an illusion imposed on reality by human assumptions after repeated observation of similar events in ‘constant conjunction’  – for example the movement of a billiard ball following contact by another moving billiard ball. Nevertheless Hume argues for causation in nature and denies that anything happens by chance or that anything can be uncaused.

The mathematical predictability of mechanics in physics starting with Galileo and Newton and the elegant explanations of changes in biologic organisms described first by Charles Darwin and A.W. Russell seemed to verify the mechanical explanation of reality. Different fields of science converge on the simple and secure principle: events in nature are caused. The reluctant corollary: since man is part of nature, then his actions too must be caused. But is this conclusion inconsistent with free will? Next time we will look closer at the classic arguments.