At least since the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, one of the most central questions of human existence has been whether we have free will. In the late 20th century, some thought neuroscience had settled the question. However, as it has recently become clear, such was not the case. The elusive answer is nonetheless foundational to our moral codes, criminal justice system, religions and even to the very meaning of life itself—for if every event of life is merely the predictable outcome of mechanical laws, one may question the point of it all.
But before we ask ourselves whether we have free will, we must understand what exactly we mean by it. A common and straightforward view is that, if our choices are predetermined, then we don’t have free will; otherwise we do. Yet, upon more careful reflection, this view proves surprisingly inappropriate.
To see why, notice first that the prefix “pre” in “predetermined choice” is entirely redundant. Not only are all predetermined choices determined by definition, all determined choices can be regarded as predetermined as well: they always result from dispositions or necessities that precede them. Therefore, what we are really asking is simply whether our choices are determined.
In this context, a free-willed choice would be an undetermined one. But what is an undetermined choice? It can only be a random one, for anything that isn’t fundamentally random reflects some underlying disposition or necessity that determines it. There is no semantic space between determinism and randomness that could accommodate choices that are neither. This is a simple but important point, for we often think—incoherently—of free-willed choices as neither determined nor random.
Our very notion of randomness is already nebulous and ambiguous to begin with. Operationally, we say that a process is random if we can’t discern a pattern in it. However, a truly random process can, in principle, produce any pattern by mere chance. The probability of this happening may be small, but it isn’t zero. So, when we say that a process is random, we are merely acknowledging our ignorance of its potential underlying causal basis. As such, an appeal to randomness doesn’t suffice to define free will.
Moreover, even if it did, when we think of free will we don’t think of mere randomness. Free choices aren’t erratic ones, are they? Neither are they undetermined: if I believe that I make free choices, it is because I feel that my choices are determined by me. A free choice is one determined by my preferences, likes, dislikes, character, etc., as opposed to someone else’s or other external forces.
But if our choices are always determined anyway, what does it mean to talk of free will in the first place? If you think about it carefully, the answer is self-evident: we have free will if our choices are determined by that which we experientially identify with. I identify with my tastes and preferences—as consciously felt by me—in the sense that I regard them as expressions of myself. My choices are thus free insofar as they are determined by these felt tastes and preferences.
Why, then, do we think that metaphysical materialism—the notion that our choices are determined by neurophysiological activity in our own brain—contradicts free will? Because, try as we might, we don’t experientially identify with neurophysiology; not even our own. As far as our conscious life is concerned, the neurophysiological activity in our brain is merely an abstraction. All we are directly and concretely acquainted with are our fears, desires, inclinations, etc., as experienced—that is, our felt volitional states. So, we identify with these, not with networks of firing neurons inside our skull. The alleged identity between neurophysiology and felt volition is merely a conceptual—not an experiential—one.
The key issue here is one that permeates the entire metaphysics of materialism: all we ever truly have are the contents of consciousness, which philosophers call “phenomenality.”’ Our entire life is a stream of felt and perceived phenomenality. That this phenomenality somehow arises from something material, outside consciousness—such as networks of firing neurons—is a theoretical inference, not a lived reality; it’s a narrative we create and buy into on the basis of conceptual reasoning, not something felt. That’s why, for the life of us, we can’t truly identify with it.
So, the question of free will boils down to one of metaphysics: are our felt volitional states reducible to something outside and independent of consciousness? If so, there cannot be free will, for we can only identify with contents of consciousness. But if, instead, neurophysiology is merely how our felt volitional states present themselves to observation from an outside perspective—that is, if neurophysiology is merely the image of conscious willing, not its cause or source—then we do have free will; for in the latter case, our choices are determined by volitional states we intuitively regard as expressions of ourselves.
Crucially, the question of metaphysics can be legitimately broached in a way that inverts the usual free will equation: according to 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, it is the laws of nature that arise from a transpersonal will, not the will from the laws of nature. Felt volitional states are the irreducible foundation of both mind and world. Although Schopenhauer’s views are often woefully misunderstood and misrepresented—most conspicuously by presumed experts—when correctly construed they offer a coherent scheme for reconciling free will with seemingly deterministic natural laws.
As elucidated in my concise new book, Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics, for Schopenhauer the inner essence of everything is conscious volition—that is, will. Nature is dynamic because its underlying volitional states provide the impetus required for events to unfold. Like his predecessor Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer thought of what we call the “physical world” as merely an image, a perceptual representation of the world in the mind of an observer. But this representation isn’t what the world is like in itself, prior to being represented.
Since the information we have about the external environment seems to be limited to perceptual representations, Kant considered the world-in-itself unknowable. Schopenhauer, however, argued that we can learn something about it not only through the sense organs, but also through introspection. His argument goes as follows: even in the absence of all self-perception mediated by the sense organs, we would still experience our own endogenous, felt volition.
Therefore, prior to being represented we are essentially will. Our physical body is merely how our will presents itself to an external vantage point. And since both our body and the rest of the world appear in representation as matter, Schopenhauer inferred that the rest of the world, just like ourselves, is also essentially will.
In Schopenhauer’s illuminating view of reality, the will is indeed free because it is all there ultimately is. Yet, its image is nature’s seemingly deterministic laws, which reflect the instinctual inner consistency of the will. Today, over 200d years after he first published his groundbreaking ideas, Schopenhauer’s work can reconcile our innate intuition of free will with modern scientific determinism.