“Free will” is an ethical concept, not physics

Academic philosophers (or the physicists who like to chime in) like to debate whether we have free will, because our brains are physical things, subject to the laws of physics. A fun puzzle, but there is a deeper, more important question to answer.
Free will is not just a philosophical puzzle, it is an important real-life issue, with serious consequences. We base decisions on whether to reward or punish people, depending on whether or not their actions were performed of their own free will.
The everyday issue of free will is a question as to when we should hold people accountable or relieve people of accountability for their actions; it has a real impact, possibly leading to people being punished or rewarded.
If someone says “I can’t do that today, I don’t have enough energy”, we don’t invoke E=MC2 and explain that with their body mass, they have plenty of energy. At least in the energy case, there is a rigorous scientific analog of the everyday concept. If free will doesn’t work for physics, fine, but philosophy does need to help with the everyday concept, so let’s see how that works instead.
We answer the question of whether a person acted of their own free will by asking whether they may have been compelled to act by external forces or if their brain was acting abnormally (for example, because of a tumour or a more subtle mental illness).
We do this because some of our current theories on how to change the behaviour of people for the better suggest that we can change the states of their brains in such a way that more desired outcomes will be achieved. One way we do that is through systems of reward and punishment, that we expect will either change the behaviour of the person in question or, by example, deter or encourage others.
We know this is futile if the more subtle changes in brains brought about by reward and punishment will be overwhelmed by more obvious brain damage or physical force. So we don’t fine people, throw them in jail or express moral disapproval, if their action was compelled.
It is time we focused more on this aspect of free will than on spurious questions about whether, given the initial state of the universe and the laws of physics, the actions of a person are pre-determined. It is equally irrelevant to know whether there are macro-level effects of quantum indeterminacy on human actions.
What does matter is to find out how our current laws and attitudes can be improved and, if so, should we update the short-hand phrase “free will” to better fit those improvements.
For example, the current number of people with mental illness who are being “treated” by our justice system is a scandal. Many of the people directly involved, such as judges, police, probation officers and jailers, realize that people with mental health problems who commit crimes are not well-served by the justice system, nor does criminalizing the mentally ill reduce any harm done to the public.
Of course,the majority of mentally ill people do not commit crimes, but many of them are punished for their “deviance” by means of more subtle social tools of disapprobation, from frowns to exclusion.
People with addictions have a lower measure of free will than if they did not, which is to say they are more constrained and more likely to do things they would otherwise not. So free will is not “all or nothing”; there are degrees of free will. This applies to being possessed of some ideology as well.
I suggest that philosophers should join the rest of us and spend more of their time investigating the whole complex of ideas involved in our ability to make decisions, including “free will” as a network of related concepts.

What is philosophy good for?

I have studied philosophy for a few years full-time at university, and ever since then for at least a few hours a week. and I have found it to be more useful in everyday life than the mathematics, physics and computer science that I also studied (in other years).1

(I admit that the maths included too little statistics, which turns out to be almost as useful as philosophy).

On the other hand, even famous philosophers like Daniel Dennett have doubts about much of what goes on in the field:

A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,” he says. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.

Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “wilfully cut off from any serious issues,” says Dennett. The problem, he explains, is that clever students looking to show off their skills “concoct cute counterarguments that require neither technical training nor empirical knowledge.” These then build off each other and invade the journals, and philosophical discourse.

There are many theories in philosophy. Most of these are wrong, and have been clearly shown to be wrong by rival philosophers. However, the value here is often that demonstration, because the theories are often tempting and the value comes in knowing why they are wrong. When we deal with those serious issues outside the realm of professional philosophy, we often fall into the trap of finding what seems like a simple solution that does not actually solve the whole problem. As H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

I find that when dealing with those issues, rather than using the Donald Trump approach, I can sometimes remember to avoid the trap and use some of the tools I acquired while studying philosophy to realize that there is some hidden complexity and know where some of that complexity is likely to be hidden. I can look at the counter-examples that are known, and rival ideas to see which may fit the situation better.

I did not get any simple answers to “the big questions” from philosophy. The biggest benefit I got was a toolkit of partial explanations and tools for reasoning, together with a set of approaches to generating more questions to expose unknown issues. In many cases, the big questions, such as “do we have free will” did turn out to have at least partial answers. For example, I’m sold on at least some of Dennett’s answers in “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting” and I think that the answers have an important bearing on some important moral issues such as when we should hold people accountable for their actions and in what way.

I suppose that having said that, I’ll have to explain why in a subsequent post. A rough idea is that the everyday concept of free will, which is intended to rule out situations like being forced at gunpoint to do something, is a better starting point than the more abstract ideas that seem to imply we would have to defy the laws of physics. And that those ideas of being free from various external constraints lead to better ideas about how we may want to impose external constraints such as threats of punishment to those who would abuse those kinds of free will.


  1. The mathematics was not useful because it was too abstract.  I enjoyed learning it, and still read advanced mathematics occasionally, but I never once used any of it in real life, except to teach calculus to others who did not need it except to pass a test. I did not become a physicist, though I still read physics in scientific journals, so also happy I learned it, but not of practical value to me. The computer science was almost all obsolete before I used any of it. However, it did get me a career that lasted many years and proved to be an opening to many spheres of knowledge beyond just the world of computers.