Is free will an illusion? Some original arguments
Updated: Jul 22, 2022
Part of the Philosophy Papers series
Free will is not an illusion. An illusion is something that appears to exist but does not exist in reality. However, free will does truly exist, and therefore it is not an illusion. I will argue for the existence of free will using three main arguments. The first is that rational judgement requires free will, and as humans have the capacity for rational judgement, they must also have free will. The second is that a world without free will would not be able to conceive of the idea of free will, and as we are able to conceive it, it must exist. Finally, contingent events that depend on human actions must also have alternative outcomes. If alternative outcomes are possible, then the individual must have been able to choose differently, and this is what we call free will.
To begin, I want to define what I mean by free will. An individual's will contains two functions: the teleological function and the voluntary function. The teleological function is the intrinsic nature of the will to incline towards some apparent good. This apparent good is what the intellect considers as something desirable, which causes the will to incline towards it. The voluntary function of the will is the faculty of choice within an individual. This faculty is not a mere sensation of choice but is a causal agent which can produce different effects based on the reasoning of the intellect. The teleological function is a necessary part of the will that cannot be a matter of choice. However, the voluntary function is a matter of choice, and this is what we call free will.
My first argument is that rational judgement requires free will. Reasoning considers the goods arising from the teleological function of the will as principles. These principles are then syllogistically combined with an individual's knowledge to come to conclusions on practical actions that align with these principles. The free will then compares these actions and judges which course of action it will choose. To illustrate this process, I will use an example. Say that there is a soldier that has come under heavy fire while patrolling with his platoon. He instinctually finds cover to escape being shot. Before he begins to deliberate about what he should do now, he already has established goods that he desires. These goods could be his health, the safety of others, the fulfilment of duties, a sense of control, and many others. These goods act as principles that can be syllogistically combined with his present knowledge. Two conclusions he could come to are:
P1a: If I attack this enemy, there is a chance that I could die.
P1b: My continued health depends on not dying.
C1: Therefore, for the sake of my health, I should not attack this enemy.
P2a: If I attack this enemy, I can lessen the risk of my comrades dying.
P2b: The safety of my comrades depends on the reduction of their risk of dying.
C2: Therefore, for the safety of my comrades, I should attack the enemy.
These two syllogisms arrive at contrary courses of action that the soldier must compare and judge between. Notice that no matter which course of action he chooses, his knowledge of the situation as shown in P1a and P2a and the principles as shown in P1b and P2b all remain true. Since both of these conclusions are true, there needs to be an additional judgement to cause one of these courses of action to actuate. If he did not have the ability to choose, then it would be impossible to act from these alternate courses of action. Therefore, we come to this argument:
P1: Rational judgement is ordered towards knowing what is true.
P2: True premises can result in contrary courses of action.
P3: For one of the multiple courses of action to be acted upon, there requires a further judgement to choose that course.
P4: The act of choosing is the act of free will.
P5: If there was no free will, then it would be impossible to come to multiple courses of action that could be acted upon.
P6: If humans are unable to come to multiple conclusions from equally true premises, then they can't have rational judgement.
P7: Therefore, if humans have rational judgement, then they must also have free will.
P8: Humans do have rational judgement as they can know things to be true.
C: Therefore, free will exists.
The second argument I will make for the existence of free will is that a world without free will could not conceive of the concept of free will. To explain this further, I think it's important to make the distinction between things that exist, things that could exist, and things that can't exist. Examples of these would be a bus, a unicorn, and a three-sided square. The bus is something that exists in actuality. The unicorn, on the other hand, does not actually exist. However, it has the potential to exist as the component parts of the unicorn are already known to exist, being the horse and the horn. The concept of a horse growing a horn is not an impossible phenomenon, and thus the concept of the unicorn can be considered to be potential. Finally, the three-sided square doesn't exist and can't exist. The reason is that it is in the nature of a square to have four sides, and it is inherently contrary to its nature to have any other number of sides. Therefore, the three-sided square is impossible.
This distinction is important because it allows us to understand what a world without free will would need in order to conceptualise free will. As per my unicorn example, free will would need to be conceptualised by the combination of component parts that don't contradict the nature of what already exists, such as the contradiction in my three-sided square example. However, it seems that any combination of components in such a world would create a contradiction as implying some element of choice would be contrary to the nature of human acts. As human acts are not chosen but just done in this world, the combination of choice and actions would be as incomprehensible as a three-sided square. Therefore, as a world without free will could not conceptualise the idea of free will, and our world can conceptualise it, it follows that our world must have free will.
My final argument is that contingent events require a possibility of them not happening. Take, for example, my own existence. My existence is contingent upon my parents' meeting, and their existence is contingent upon their parents' meeting, etc. If a contingent event is due to human action, then there must also exist the possibility of that human action not occurring. However, if this individual had the possibility of doing one of two actions, then there must have been a choice involved. This choice is what we call free will. Therefore, if contingent events exist, then so must free will.
However, Spinoza (1996) objects to my reasons for the existence of free will with the following argument:
sP1: God exists necessarily.
sP2: God and His attributes have always existed.
sP3: God is the efficient cause of the essence and existence of all things.
sP4: God causes things immanently and not transitively.
sP5: Any effect caused by a thing must have been determined by God to produce that effect.
sP6: The existence and effects of all things have been determined by the necessity of God's existence, and as God can't be contingent, neither can anything he causes.
sC: The Will is necessarily caused and thus, cannot be called free.
Spinoza defines God as an infinite being (1996, 1). He also mentions that God's essence is His existence but that nothing created by Him contains an essence that involves existence. However, these two points seem to contradict sP6. God's existence is something necessary because the nature of God is to exist. However, the essence of created beings does not contain existence, and thus they can't exist necessarily. Therefore, if these created beings don't exist necessarily, then they must either exist contingently or potentially. This distinction is why God is not contingent, but his causes can be contingent, such as the contingency in events which I am arguing will lead to the existence of free will.
Another objection is raised by Balaguer (2014, 50-54), who would argue that P3 in my first argument does not consider the difference between a compatibilist definition of free will and a non-predeterminist (NPD) definition. He would argue that P3 does not tell us how that judgement was made and whether it was similar to Hume's compatibilist description of free will, or whether that choice is neither predetermined nor random, which is how Balaguer defines NPD free will. He would also say that a compatibilist definition is irrelevant and that NPD free will is what needs to be defended to truly prove the existence of free will (Balaguer 2014, 62). However, the reason P3 doesn't make this distinction is that it doesn't agree with either definition. This further judgement in P3 is based on two things; the rational syllogisms that produce several courses of action and the desires of the individual. This definition is different to Hume's definition in that desires are not the efficient cause of choice, and different to the NPD definition in that when put into a 'torn decision', reasoning about the options is not contrary to free will (Balaguer 2014, 64). Instead, free will is a causal agent that is counselled by the rational syllogisms as to the different courses of action but also afflicted by the irrational desires of the body. Neither the desires nor the syllogisms are an efficient cause of free will, but the free will moves itself in relation to these considerations. Therefore, I reject Balaguer's false dichotomy between those two definitions and further reject his assumption that only NPD free will is relevant.
In conclusion, free will is not an illusion because free will truly exists. I have argued that free will exists because rational judgement requires free will, a world without free will could not conceptualise the idea of free will, and that contingent events require free will.
Aquinas, Thomas. 2012. Summa Theolgiae. Translated by Laurence Shapcote. edited by John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcón. Lander, Wyoming: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.
Aristotle. 1950. Metaphysics. Translated by M. R. Cathala and Raymund M. Spiazzi. Cathala-Spiazzi ed. Turin.
Balaguer, Mark. 2014. Free will.The MIT Press essential knowledge series. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Spinoza, Benedict. 1996. Ethics. Translated by Edwin Curley. edited by Edwin Curley. New York: Penguin Books.
 ST I, Q.82 A.1  ST I-II, Q.13 A.3  ST I, Q.83 A.1  ST I-II, Q.13 A.3  Metaphysics, 9.1  P:11  P:19  P:25  P:18  P:26  P:29  P:32  P:20  P:24