Class Warfare Blog

July 29, 2016

Free Will … Redefined

Most discussions of free will get up to their hips in philosophical fine points rather quickly, which is fine by me as I am somewhat of an armchair philosopher (even took some courses in college so I am a partly-trained real philosopher). But the author of God’s Gravediggers: Why no Deity Exists (Raymond Bradley) turns this on its head, very productively, I believe.Gods Gravediggers Cover

Many have pointed out that if free will doesn’t exist, then our criminal justice system has a big, big problem. If we are deterministically programmed to do certain things, either by our genetics or our upbringing or by the laws of nature, whatever, then we can’t be held responsible for our actions. Sure we killed that person, but they had abused us as a child and we suffer from an abuse syndrome (don’t know any impressive names for one, but I am sure someone out there does).

Mr. Bradley does us a service and turns this around. He suggest that our definition of free will should be the judicial one, not a philosophical one. When a judge says “You are free to go,” after being arrested and put on trial, you can choose what to do and nobody will stop you unless you violate some other law or tread on someone else’s prerogatives. While in custody of the authorities, your free will was significantly truncated. You could decide what you wanted to eat, but were limited to an “eat or don’t eat” choice of what was being served in the prison meal room. You could decide to exercise any time you wanted, as long as you could pull it off without disturbing your cell mate in the space provided (no touch football or soccer, for example). Yes, you still had significant parts of your ability to decide for yourself, but many other parts that you once had were taken away.

If a jury decides you are guilty of killing your neighbor’s dog, they are saying you had the ability to choose otherwise and did not, that your will was free.

In a number of cases, such decisions are not so easy. People with diminished mental capacities and people who have been treated abusively their whole lives are sometimes found to be not guilty because of either temporary or permanent insanity. That is they were judged to no know the difference between right and wrong, and free will or no, they can’t be held accountable for their actions. In other words, their wills weren’t really “free” in this case.

This is to be expected because when it comes to any aspect of human behavior or abilities there are no sharp dividing lines. The law allows for decisions to be made in such circumstances, philosophy not so much. Philosophers, especially logical philosophers, want nice sharp lines of demarcation. Imposing such a requirement on a discussion of free will at best will result in a stale mate. Looking at things more pragmatically (we all think we have free will, therefore we do) may be much more productive. At least at first glance, it is.

I have been promising you a review of Everybody is Wrong About God by James Lindsay (which will be coming in parts) but one of Mr. Lindsay’s arguments is the battle over whether god (any god) exists has been settled and god lost. If you want confirmation of that battle and its outcome, read God’s Gravediggers. The author gives you both laymen’s (aka short) explanations as well as brick-by-brick tightly reasoned arguments for why even the concept of a god doesn’t hold water (or souls, or angels, spooks, pixies, gremlins, etc.). He also seems to cover all of the ground involved.


  1. The delusion is that causal inevitability is a constraint. It’s not. It is exactly identical to you being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose. Free will cannot be taken to mean freedom from causal inevitability, because that is an irrational concept. To be free from reliable causation would mean you can no longer reliably cause anything to happen. That means you can’t actually do anything. And that means no freedom at all. So the whole idea of freedom from causal inevitability is an oxymoron. THEREFORE, free will never did and never can mean that.

    So what does it mean? It means deciding for ourselves what we WILL do, FREE of coercion or other undue influence. And that is pretty much how everyone uses the term in normal conversation, and in establishing moral or legal responsibility. It hasn’t anything to do with the supernatural or metaphysical.


    Comment by Marvin Edwards — July 29, 2016 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

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