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Thinking about free will

- Deborah Minors

Do prior events beyond our control cause us to act as we do, or are we free to decide? The nature of human free will is one of Philosophy's oldest problems.

Lucy Allais, Professor in the Philosophy Department and Director of the Centre for Ethics at Wits delivered her inaugural lecture, entitled: Laws of Nature, Human Freedom and Human Laws, on Tuesday 16 August 2016 in the Senate Room.

“The way we think about causation and laws of nature in the physical sciences is often taken to threaten the idea that human free choice is really possible: it seems to suggest that everything that happens is a determined function of the way things were in the past,” says Allais.

“On the other hand, the idea that we have the capacity to freely choose how we act – that our choices are not settled by the past and the laws of nature – is fundamental to the way we think about ourselves as human and moral beings, as well as to the way we hold each other responsible.”

For example, when you are angry with someone, or grateful to someone, you see them as responsible; you see their action as having been up to them – not an inevitable outcome of the Big Bang or of social conditions, explains Allais.

“We see people as having agency; as capable of making changes. This is central to human life. But is it consistent with taking causal explanation and causal law in science and social science seriously? Could our responsibility attributions be entirely based on an illusion?”

Allais’ lecture aimed to sketch a way these two different kinds of explanation can be reconciled, by drawing on her scholarship in the history of philosophy, metaphysics, and the work of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804).

“What we take from past philosophers is not so much answers to particular questions as careful ways of thinking about the reasons for the answers they give,” says Allais.

Kant was gripped by the free will problem, which he saw as a metaphysical problem. Metaphysics is concerned with the nature of being and the world that encompasses it. Although deeply engaged in science, Kant wanted to make room for genuine free will. A focus of Allais’ research to date has been on Kant’s metaphysics; her current research explores his account of free will.

Assuming humans are purely physical beings – just stardust – then everything has been caused by a prior event. Further, if we are made up of matter, and matter is governed by physical laws, then it seems that everything that happens in our physical reality is a function of the laws governing particles, together with the initial positions of the particles. Allais challenges this assumption.

Allais argues that the assumption is a function of misunderstanding what we learn from science and (mis)taking a ‘model’ for a complete account of reality. She argues, firstly, that not every event is caused by a prior event (sometimes agents have causal efficacy), and secondly, sometimes the agents who make decisions have not themselves been ‘caused’.

“We think there is a significant sense in which our actions are up to us, but it is hard to see how to fit this together with causal explanations in physics,” she says.

Kant theorizes that our natural thought pathway lead to contradictory conclusions. Understanding the relation between the mind and the world enables us to diagnose paradoxes to which our thinking naturally leads us: On the one hand, we think that we can’t really be more than matter and motion, and a profusion of chemical reactions. Yet on the other hand, we recognise that our capacity to make this observation suggests we have free will. Kant introduced the term ‘dialectic’ to refer to what he calls this logic of illusion. He argues that there is a natural dialectical tendency in human thought to alternate between these two illusory views.

“There are two sides to this dialectic: We find ourselves pulled – even if only implicitly – by the  thought that to have some kind of autonomous mental life, our thoughts and emotions must be something that transcends electro-chemical reactions. On the other hand, we find ourselves pulled by the thought that there must be a scientific explanation at the level of electro-chemical reactions. And if this is so, then we have exhausted the causal-explanatory space; electro-chemical reactions are just what thoughts and emotions are. That’s all there is,” says Allais.

Kant’s aim it to avoid both sides of the metaphysical illusion while doing justice to the thoughts that seem to pull in both directions. This is the theoretical framework of Allais’ research, the aim of which is to show that the causality of freedom is not ruled out by the metaphysics of science. Allais also shows how this relates to an account of freedom in politics, and relates it to the effects on human psychology of living in conditions of injustice.

Allais is the author of Manifest Reality: Kant's Idealism and his Realism (Oxford University Press, 2015). She has published twice in both Philosophy and Public Affairs and the Journal of the History of Philosophy. Both have acceptance rates of less than 5% and are the leading international journals in their fields. In 2014, the Journal of Moral Philosophy, a leading international publication, published Allais’ article: What properly belongs to me: Kant on giving to beggars.