Free Will: Emphasizing Possibilities

I suspect the crux of discussions and worries about (the absence of) “free will” is the issue of possibilities. I also think it is a key source of confusion. Different people are talking about possibilities in different senses without being clear about it, which leads them to talk past each other, and perhaps even to confuse and dispirit laypeople by making them feel they have no possibilities in any sense whatsoever.

Different Emphases

Thinkers who take different positions on free will tend to emphasize different things. One camp tends to say “we don’t have free will, since all our actions are caused by prior causes that are ultimately beyond our own control, and in this there are no ‘alternative possibilities'”.

Another camp, so-called compatibilists, will tend to agree with the latter point about prior causes, but they choose to emphasize possibilities: “complex agents can act within a range of possibilities in a way crude objects like rocks cannot, and such agents truly do weigh and choose between these options”.

In essence, what I think the latter camp is emphasizing is the fact that we have ex-ante possibilities: a range of possibilities we can choose from in expectation. (For example, in a game of chess, your ex-ante possibilities are comprised by the set of moves allowed by the rules of the game.) And since this latter camp defines free will roughly as the ability to make choices among such ex-ante possibilities, they conclude that we indeed do have free will.

I doubt any philosopher arguing against the existence of free will would deny the claim that we have ex-ante possibilities. After all, we all conceive of various possibilities in our minds that we weigh and choose between, and we indeed cannot talk meaningfully about ethics, or choices in general, without such a framework of ex-ante possibilities. (Whether possibilities exist in any other sense than ex ante, and whether this is ethically relevant, are separate questions.)

Given the apparent agreement on these two core points — 1) our actions are caused by prior causes, and 2) we have ex-ante possibilities — the difference between the two camps mostly seems to lie in how they define free will and whether they prefer to emphasize 1) or 2).

The “Right” Definition of Free Will

People in these two camps will often insist that their definition of free will is the one that matches what most people mean by free will. I think both camps are right and wrong about this. I think it is misguided to think that most people have anything close to a clear definition of free will in their minds, as opposed to having a jumbled network of associations that relate to a wide range of notions, including notions of independence from prior causes and notions of ex-ante possibilities.

Experimental philosophy indeed also hints at a much more nuanced picture of people’s intuitions and conceptions of “free will”, and reveals them to be quite unclear and conflicting, as one would expect.

Emphasizing Both

I believe the two distinct emphases outlined above are both important yet insufficient on their ownThe emphasis on prior causes is important for understanding the nature of our choices and actions. In particular, it helps us understand that our choices do not comprise a break with physical mechanism, but that they are indeed the product of complex such mechanisms (which include the mechanisms of our knowledge and intentions, as well as the mechanism of weighing various ex-ante possibilities).

In turn, this emphasis may help free us from certain bad ideas about human choices, such as naive ideas about how anyone can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It may also help us construct better incentives and institutions based on an actual understanding of the mechanism of our choices rather than supernatural ideas about them. Lastly, it may help us become more understanding toward others, such as by reminding us that we cannot reasonably expect people to act on knowledge they do not possess.

Similarly, emphasizing our ex-ante possibilities is important for our ability to make good decisions. Mistakingly believing that one has only one possibility, ex ante, rather than thinking through all possibilities will likely lead to highly sub-optimal outcomes, whether it be in a game of chess or a major life decision. Aiming to choose the ex-ante possibility that seems best in expectation is crucial for us to make good choices. Indeed, this is what good decision-making is all about.

More than that, an emphasis on ex-ante possibilities can also help instill in us the healthy and realistic versions of bootstrap-pulling attitudes, namely that hard work and dedication indeed are worthwhile and truly can lead us in better directions.

Both Emphases Have Pitfalls (in Isolation)

Our minds intuitively draw inferences and associations based on the things we hear. When it comes to “free will”, I suspect most of us have quite leaky conceptual networks, in that the distinct clusters of sentiments we intuitively tie to the term “free will” readily cross-pollute each other — a form of sentiment synesthesia.

So when someone says “we don’t have free will, everything is caused by prior causes”, many people may naturally interpret this as implying “we don’t have ex-ante possibilities, and so we cannot meaningfully think in terms of alternative possibilities”, even though this does not follow. This may in turn lead to bad decisions and feelings of disempowerment. It may also lead people to think that it makes no sense to punish people, or that we cannot meaningfully say things like “you really should have made a better choice”. Yet these things do make sense. They serve to create incentives by making a promise for the future — “people who act like this will pay a price” — which in turn nudges people toward some of their ex-ante possibilities over others.

More than that, a naive emphasis on the causal origins of our actions may also lead people to think that certain feelings — such as pride, regret, and hatred — are always unreasonable and should never be entertained. Yet this does not follow either. Indeed, these feelings likely have great utility in some circumstances, even if such circumstances are rare.

A similar source of confusion is to say that our causal nature implies that everything is just a matter of luck. Although this is true in some ultimate sense, in another sense — the everyday sense that distinguishes between things won through hard effort versus dumb luck — everything is obviously not just a matter of luck. And I suspect most people’s intuitive associations can also be leaky between these very different notions of “luck”. Consequently, unreserved claims about everything being a matter of luck also risk having unfortunate effects, such as leading us to underemphasize the importance of effort.

Such pitfalls also exist relative to the claim “you could not have done otherwise”. For what we often mean by this claim, when we talk about specific events in everyday conversations, is that “this event would have happened even if you had done things differently” (that is: the environment constrained you, and your efforts were immaterial). This is very different from saying, for example, “you could not have done otherwise because your deepest values compelled you” (meaning: the environment may well have allowed alternative possibilities, but your values did not). The latter is often true of our actions, yet it is in many ways the very opposite of what we usually mean by “you could not have done otherwise”.

Hence, confusion is likely to emerge if someone simply declares “you could not have done otherwise” about all actions without qualification. And such confusion may well persist even in the face of explicit qualifications, since confusions deep down at the intuitive level may not be readily undone by just a few cerebral remarks.

Conversely, there are also pitfalls of sentiment leakiness in the opposite direction. When someone says “ex-ante possibilities are real, and they play a crucial role in our decision-making”, people may naturally interpret this as implying “our actions are not caused by prior causes, and this is crucial for our decision-making”. And this may in turn lead to the above-mentioned mistakes that the prior-causes emphasis can help us avoid: misunderstanding our mechanistic nature and failing to act on such an understanding, as well as entertaining unreasonable ideas about how we can expect people to act.


This is why one has to be careful in one’s communication about “free will”, and to clearly flag these non sequiturs. “We are caused by prior causes” does not mean “we have no ex-ante possibilities”, and conversely, “we have ex-ante possibilities” does not imply “we are not caused by prior causes”.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to Mikkel Vinding for comments.

Ontological Possibilities and the Meaningfulness of Ethics

Are there different possible outcomes of the future? Or phrased more broadly: do ontological possibilities exist? I think this is a profound question, and one may think much depends on our answer to it. For instance, if ‘ought’ truly implies ‘can’, and the only real ‘can’ there is is whatever in fact happens, it would seem to follow that the only thing that could ought happen is what in fact happens. That whatever happens is what ought to happen, if anything.

Ontological possibilities here stand in opposition to what we may call hypothetical, or ex ante possibilities. That is, we are clearly able to think in terms of different outcomes being possible, and to then plan and take action based on such thinking, but that does not imply that those outcomes were ever genuine possibilities in a deep ontological sense.

Worth noting is it that there seems to be a contradiction between two widely shared views that pertain to the existence of ontological possibilities. For on the one hand we have what appears a widely accepted distinction between necessary and contingent truths, necessary truths being ones that must be true because negating them would imply a contradiction with reality (commonly cited examples are 2+2=4 and syllogisms), while a contingent truth is one that could have been false, as its negation (supposedly) does not imply a contradiction with reality (e.g. “Life evolved on Earth”, “Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election”).

Yet this does not seem consistent with another prevailing belief, namely that the entire world unfolds according to deterministic mathematical equations. If the latter is true, then any truth about the world would appear a necessary one, as its negation indeed would imply a contradiction with the fundamental equation(s) just as much as does 2+2=5.

So what are we to make of this? What could possibly be true about ontological possibilities?

Why Ask This Question?

My reason for examining this question here has to do with ethics – more specifically, it has to do with an objection one might be tempted to level against the sensibility and meaningfulness of ethics. For, in light of the ought-implies-can note above, one might claim that ontological possibilities are necessary in order for ethics proper to get off the ground, and indeed for engagement in ethical reasoning, decision-making, and action of any kind to even make sense.A combustible and controversial claim for sure, yet I shall entertain no discussion of it here.

Instead, my aim here is to argue that if one thinks ontological possibilities are required for “the meaningfulness of ethics” – i.e. required in order for engagement in ethical reasoning, decision-making, and action to make sense – then one cannot reasonably reject such “meaningfulness” with the claim that ontological possibilities are not real. The reason being, in short, that we simply do not know whether such possibilities are real or not, and, as far as I can tell, we all but surely never will.

The Nature of the World: Does Quantum Mechanics Preclude – or Describe – Ontological Possibilities?

In order to say whether ontological possibilities exist, it seems apt to look toward what is arguably our most fundamental and well-tested theory of the world, namely quantum mechanics, and see what it has to say about it.

The answer is that it depends on which interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, a matter concerning which there is much disagreement among experts. And in light of such disagreement, it only seems reasonable to maintain a substantial degree of uncertainty concerning which interpretation is correct.

As for how one should break this uncertainty down more specifically, there seems plenty of room for reasonable disagreement. For instance, assuming the formalism of quantum mechanics indeed does describe the world in the first place, it seems defensible to place 50 percent probability on the claim that none of the well-known interpretations are correct, and to distribute the remaining 50 percent of one’s credence among the (more or less) mainstream interpretations. This could then be done based on how many subscribers these respective interpretations have among experts, in which case it seems one should assign roughly equal credence to the so-called Many Worlds Interpretation and the Copenhagen Interpretation – perhaps 20 percent to each – while distributing the remaining 10 percent to the remaining ~10 interpretations, resulting in about one percent credence in each of them.

That would be one way one could do it. I don’t necessarily agree with the exact numbers in this distribution; it is just an example that seems within the bounds of defensibility. What does not seem defensible, however, is to maintain complete certainty in the veracity of any one particular interpretation. And this is true for various reasons. For not only are there many competing interpretations that all seem to have at least some strengths and weaknesses, and not only can the possibility that the correct interpretation is a yet unformulated interpretation not be ruled out; the possibility that no interpretation of the formalism is true also seems a very open one.

After all, we have seen it happen before that a prominent physicist considered the, admittedly impressive, canon of physics of his time complete but for a couple of anomalies, only for those anomalies to then revolutionize physics completely within a few years. How can we maintain near-complete confidence that the same could not happen with the physics of our time? Indeed, who is to say that quantum mechanics isn’t still just one of the outer layers of the onion, no less a parochial approximation of the underlying dynamics of reality than classical mechanics ultimately?

Where does all this leave us with respect to ontological possibilities? It leaves us with substantial uncertainty. In particular, it leaves us uncertain about whether the world unfolds according to deterministic mathematical equations or not. Out of the 14 (at the time of writing) established interpretations of quantum mechanics listed on this Wikipedia page, only four are deterministic, seven are indeterministic, while three are agnostic. Consequently, although the deterministic interpretations include the relatively popular Many Worlds Interpretation in which all the mathematically possible outcomes of the formalism are realized, it seems overconfident to have anything near complete certainty that the right interpretation, to the extent there is one, is deterministic.

Indeed, among the 14 interpretation cited above, one of them, the transactional interpretation, is, at least as its proponent Ruth Kastner defends it, explicitly realist about ontological possibilities – a “Many Possibilities Interpretation”, if you will.2 Thus, according to this interpretation, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics is in fact the mathematics of ontological possibilities (apropos, perhaps also see possibility theory).

Now, my purpose here is not to settle which interpretation that is most plausible, much less which one is correct, but simply to argue that near-total confidence in the truth of deterministic interpretations is not defensible. On the rough sketch of a credence breakdown above, for instance, the transactional interpretation was given about one percent probability, and I don’t think one can defend giving it several orders of magnitude less than that. And even if one could, there are still other indeterministic interpretations that also deserve at least some weight, as well as a big space of “yet unknown interpretations that could be true” – what was assigned a 50 percent probability above – of which a substantial chunk should be expected to consist of indeterministic interpretations.

Combining these considerations, it seems overconfident to maintain a 99 percent credence in the proposition that the right interpretation of quantum mechanics is deterministic, and the same can reasonably be said, I believe, of any such credence above 95 percent as well.3
One could, of course, argue for uncertainty about this question through other routes as well, such as by invoking the idea that we always should maintain at least some degree of doubt, however minute, about any claim (an idea I have defended here), or the related claim that our entire conception of reality – not merely our physics – might be wrong, or perhaps not even that. Yet, as the argument above should make clear, one need not resort to these claims in order to reach the conclusion that it is reasonable to have a non-trivial degree of uncertainty regarding the matter of determinism and ontological possibilities.

[Another case for the existence of ontological possibilities, a case not made at the quantum level, is Helen Steward’s argument for the reality of “agential settling”, which she has presented in the book A Metaphysics for FreedomThus, one can be forced to increase one’s credence in the existence of ontological possibilities further by assigning a small credence to this position as well.]

Implications for (Objections Against) the Meaningfulness of Ethics

The conclusion above means that, if ontological possibilities are required for “the meaningfulness of ethics” – the conditional assumption that was our point of departure – the uncertainty we should maintain concerning the reality of such possibilities means that a rejection of ethics on the basis that ontological possibilities do not exist is unwarranted.

To be sure, one may reasonably argue that, if ontological possibilities are required for “the meaningfulness of ethics”, then it seems likely that no such meaningfulness exists. Yet that is a far cry from a refutation of such meaningfulness. For consider by analogy the claim that risks of terrible future outcomes are low, and hence that such outcomes most likely will not be realized. Even if such a claim were true, it by no means follows that such risks can reasonably be dismissed.

When the stakes are sufficiently high, it is not reasonable to dismiss low probabilities. And when we are discussing the meaningfulness of ethics, it seems that the stakes could not possibly be greater, as the subject in question comes down to whether there indeed are any stakes at all. In light of such stakes, even extremely low probabilities should be taken seriously; and yet the level of uncertainty we found reasonable to maintain concerning ontological possibilities was not extremely low, much less Pascallian by any stretch.4 Thus, if ontological possibilities are indeed required for the meaningfulness of ethics, the epistemic possibility of the reality of such ontological possibilities should be taken very seriously indeed.

Moreover, when considering the outcomes of the options before us, an emerging asymmetry appears to make the choice clear. For if ontological possibilities are real, and ethical action indeed amounts to trying to realize the best of these possibilities – to create the best ontologically possible world, if you will, or at the very least avoid the worst ones – it would seem that we have good reason to try to act accordingly, and no compelling reason not to. If, on the other hand, ontological possibilities are not real, trying to realize the best possible world appears to have no cost. We thus seem to have a strong reason in favor of trying to create a better world, and no reason against it.

Lastly, if we entertain the negation of the assumption that served as our starting point, namely that ontological possibilities are not required for the meaningfulness of ethics – again without saying whether this claim is true or not – we appear to arrive at the same conclusion: we have no reason to consider ethics meaningless or to not try our best. In conclusion, no matter our starting point, the meaningfulness of ethics seems on firm ground.

1. Alternatively, I could also say “the meaningfulness of trying to improve the world” or of “trying to improve one’s own situation.” These things ultimately all mean the same in my view, cf. You Are Them. Yet even if one considers these statements different, the argument I make here still applies equally to them all. That is, one can readily swap, say, “the meaningfulness of ethics” with “the meaningfulness of trying to improve one’s own situation”, and the argument would run just the same.

2. Although it should be noted that other indeterministic interpretations also hold ontological possibilities to be real, at least implicitly.

3. I have not discussed eternalism here, which is a deterministic view, but suffice it to say that, at the very least, one ought to maintain substantial doubt on this matter as well, one reason being that the mere fact that the physical equations do not appear to require an ontologically real present does not, contrary to what seems widely believed, imply that there is no ontologically real present. Much confusion about this issue seems to emerge from the belief that “ontological present” must mean “all clocks show the same”; presentism in that sense is surely as dead as can be, but presentism in general is not – there is no contradiction whatsoever about an ontological present in which there are (initially synchronized) clocks that show different times.

Beyond that, to turn the tables a bit, one might also ask why someone who holds an eternalist view would act to influence the future rather than the past, given that past and future both already exist on this view. It seems to me that eternatlists are aligned with common sense rather than their own view of time in this respect. Also, to what extent does it make sense to say that all moments exist “always”? After all, doesn’t “always” refer to something occurring over time? The meaning of claims of the sort that “every moment exists always” is, I believe, less obvious than proponents of eternalism appear to think, and seems in need of unpacking.

Yet, once again, the main point I wish to drive home here is not that people should consider presentism most plausible, but merely that we should maintain substantial uncertainty concerning this question as well.

4. What might perhaps be considered Pascallian, or at least more so, is the proposition that we are living in the multiverse described by the Many Worlds Interpretation and that ontological possibilities exist within this multiverse. Yet in this case the stakes appear to become more than great enough to justify even Pascallian probabilities. Hence, this possibility appears worth taking seriously as well.


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