Contemporary philosophical debates about free will can frequently resemble the old parable of the blind men and the elephant. Various blind sages are asked to examine an elephant: one grabs the tusk and declares the elephant is very like a spear, another grabs the tail and says that the elephant is like a rope. In the case of free will debates, we witness various schools of thought groping around a central question. Determinists examine free will -- the human capacity to choose a course of action from different ethically-weighted possibilities -- and decide that every cause has a prior cause, and thus free will is a myth. Libertarians examine free will, and decide that determinism is a myth. Meanwhile compatibilists examine determinism and libertarianism and find some middle route whereby the two possibilities can be made consistent with each other. In this paper I will examine the three possibilities, and endorse compatibilism as the only logically persuasive possibility. But it is important to realize that, in the free will debate, the elephant in the room could possibly called God; in conclusion, I hope to show that the free will debate itself could be effortlessly recast as a debate about theology, in which few of the participants seem aware of the fact that they are engaged in theological debate.
The compatibilist position stems from a desire to establish some kind of moral agency for human beings. But it also crucially intends to represent the way in which moral choice actually feels to human beings: part of the argument against determinism, even when it is unstated, always seems to hinge upon the sense that most human beings have a firsthand experience of something called moral choice. In other words, people feel like they can do something called taking action, they feel like they have a will that can be exercised in making choices, and thus the question of whether or not those choices are ethical might ultimately have some consequence. This is how Ayer rather sensibly chooses to approach the terms of the debate. For him, compatibilism could only be disproved if we could demonstrate that actions taken by people in a deterministic world could somehow still yield up a way of somehow holding those people responsible for their actions:
…It seems that if we are to retain this idea of moral responsibility, we must either show that men can be held responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or else find some way of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will. It is no doubt with the object of effecting this reconciliation that some philosophers have defined freedom as the consciousness of necessity. And by so doing they are able to say not only that a man can be acting freely when his action is causally determined, but even that his action must be causally determined for it to be possible for him to be acting freely. Nevertheless this definition has the serious disadvantage that it gives to the word "freedom" a meaning quite different from any that it ordinarily bears. It is indeed obvious that if we are allowed to give the word "freedom" any meaning that we please, we can find a meaning that will reconcile it with determinism. (Ayer 113-4)
Ayer seems acutely aware that much of this debate may simply come down to how we define our terms. However in stating what he sees as an inferior route to compatibilism -- one in which freedom is defined (or re-defined) as "consciousness of necessity" -- he seems to be suggesting that it is self-evident that freedom means something other than "consciousness of necessity." But it is important to recognize that "consciousness" is itself an interior state, necessarily so. The effort to make determinism compatible with free will is seemingly an effort to make the question compatible with how free will feels to the mind exercising it. As a criticism of Ayer, this is only worth mentioning because it shows that in some way he relies upon psychology, while later in his discussion it is revealed that his own model for human psychology is one that is now wholly out of fashion: "Suppose, for example, that a psycho-analyst is able to account for some aspect of my behavior by referring to some lesion that I suffered in my childhood" (Ayer 117). I point this out to demonstrate that -- as can be seen throughout discussions of free will -- there is no consistent model of mind agreed upon by all parties, despite the fact that free will must arguably a psychological faculty before it can be an ethical one. After all, if a person had no psychology whatsoever, but still wandered around behaving to the external observer much as people do, that person would clearly be existing in a state of pure determinism -- yet from the outside, it is unclear how an observer could tell the difference.
This paradox is touched upon by Chisholm, who brings up the possibility of someone who (to the external observer) seems like a paragon of ethical good behavior, but may not in fact fit with a definition of what we expect from good behavior:
The author had said of Cato, "He was good because he could not be otherwise," and Reid observes: "This saying, if understood literally and strictly, is not the praise of Cato but of his constitution, which was no more the work of Cato than his existence." If Cato was himself responsible for all the good things that he did, then Cato, as Reid suggests, was such that, although he had the power to do what was not good, he exercised his power only for that which was good. (Chisholm 26)
Reid's quip about Cato seems to indicate that Cato was not actually exercising free will. His inability to do anything other than the correct thing is seen as a form of programming almost, like robots who observe Isaac Asimov's science-fiction laws for robots: if robots are programmed never to harm a human being, then any robot that avoids harming a human can hardly be deemed to have free will, as there is no choice being made. But introducing robots into this discussion is already making a step toward endorsing a psychological model (in which mental activity can be defined as analogous to computer programming) that might turn out to be as partial, or as easily consigned to the dustbin of history, as Ayer's invocation of psychoanalysis. What is more interesting is that Chisholm follows this insight by venturing into territory which, I will suggest, is closer to the terms of the free will debate than most writers are willing to admit:
All of this, if it is true, may give a certain amount of comfort to those who are tender-minded. But we should remind them that it also conflicts with a familiar view about the nature of God -- with the view that St. Thomas Aquinas expresses by saying that "every movement both of the will and of nature proceeds from God as the Prime Mover." If the act of the sinner did proceed from God as the Prime Mover, then God was in the position of the second agent we just discussed -- the man who forced the trigger finger, or the hypnotist -- and the sinner, so-called, was not responsible for what he did. (This may be a bold assertion, in view of the history of western theology, but I must say that I have never encountered a single good reason for denying it.) (Chisholm 26).
Chisholm's nervous quip here seems to indicate that he finds theology to be irrelevant, but I would instead like to focus on the term which he shares with Ayer: "responsible." Chisholm believes that theology can be removed from the terms of the free will debate because he finds it somewhat amusing that God (who is usually thought of as all good) might be held "responsible" the wicked actions performed by sinners. But what is the term "responsibility" being asked to do, in both Ayer and Chisholm? For both, the concern is whether or not someone can be "held responsible" for actions, which seems to betray a legalistic framework of thinking. But such legalism implies teleology: there must be a reckoning for moral action in which responsibility can be rationally assessed, and a person can either be "held responsible" or not. Chisholm at least is honest enough to concede that "the ascription of responsibility" is what "conflicts with a deterministic view of action" (Chisholm 27). But he does not pause to wonder if maybe he has understood the dynamic backwards: "the ascription of responsibility" is something that one can only do in retrospect.
At this point, it is worth examining someone who objects to the compatibilist position. Peter van Inwagen is someone who holds to a deterministic view, so it is interesting to see him rely in the same way on the idea of "holding…