A Ku Indeed!

Free Will and Knowledge

Posted in Course Material, philosophy by Chris on October 5, 2008

I’m teaching my Free Will seminar this semester, and an issue came up in class that is an interesting one. The question is this: is it necessary to having free will that you be aware of the presence of your free will at the time you have it? I don’t mean theoretically. A person could be convinced that in general they are free, but not know whether they are free right now. I’m curious whether it is important to resolving the “free will problem” that a person be able to go beyond theoretical knowledge — to have a phenomenological awareness of their own freedom. For those in the class (or who know the issue), this problem emerges in Kane’s work. Kane thinks that our freedom relies on the existence of certain events that can occur in our lives, events that are sub-atomic in nature. As it turns out, though, there’s really no way of you even knowing whether any of those events have ever happened — or are happening — in your life right now. Does this make the solution to the problem unsatisfactory?


4 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on October 5, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Very interesting question. My initial reaction was that it would be odd to be doing something freely and not know it. I can’t help but think of Kant, though, and for him it turns out that not knowing you’re free is pretty much the norm. (In terms of morality, we are free when we are acting from the motive of duty and we can never be quite sure that we are acting from that motive.)

    Looking at it the other way around seems helpful: surely we can think we are doing something free when really we aren’t. So the “feeling” of freedom isn’t necessarily a good indicator of whether an action is free or not. A cognitive psychologist came to Uconn to give a talk on a book that made this claim: The Illusion of Conscious Will. But false positives may not imply true negatives here.

    For me it comes down to whether freedom is a property of the will or particular actions (or “willings”). Consciously constructing strong dispositions to do your duty may result in free actions down the road that don’t feel particularly free. If I decide early on to dedicate myself to living a life free of murdering annoying people, I may be acting freely in not murdering someone even though I really, really, really want to. The later parts of a freely chosen plan (like writing a book?) may not feel very free until after the plan is completed.

  2. Chris said, on October 5, 2008 at 6:53 pm


    The literature is mixed. Some agent causationists seem to think that you can sense your own agent-causings phenomenologically (so it’s necessary and sufficient). Others think that this phenomenological feeling is a necessary condition for freedom, but not sufficient. Others seems to suggest that the feeling isn’t even necessary.

    I think for most people, however (not philosophers) to be free without knowing it — or without the possibility of knowing it — would be a free will “not worth wanting” (to use Dennett’s phrase). Non-philosophers have limited patience for accounts that are _merely_ grounded in metaphysics.

    I was that talk, by the way, while at UConn. I’ll bet we were there together. He had good power points and movies!

    I’m not sure about your distinction; are you pointing to the difference between libertarians and compatibilists, where the former think FW is a matter of some metaphysics (conditions of the will) and the latter think it is a matter of being able to give the right descriptions to an action sequence (e.g., it was not coerced, say)? Your last example sounds more like Harry Frankfurt, which would fall into the latter category.

    Many of my students, though, would not be satisfied with compatibilist answers: they want libertarian free will. The “acting under the idea of freedom” sort of thing (compatibilism) doesn’t appeal to many of them. Sure, there’s a phenomenological feeling, but in this case there isn’t even a metaphysics for it to confirm!

  3. Adam said, on October 5, 2008 at 9:05 pm


    I wasn’t trying to take sides in the libertarianism/compatibilism debate. I was just trying to point out that long term projects (if they can be freely accomplished) will probably not feel terribly free in the end.

    What I’m thinking of is an analogy with contracts. I feel like I’m forced to make a mortgage payment every month. But this is a result of a long term contract that I agreed to a while ago. Assuming that there is such a thing as free will and that it was active when I signed the original papers, fulfillment of my contract can be seen as one, very long, free action. Yet, paying it each month feels a lot like a forced action. So it seems like, at least for very long-term actions, something freely undertaken can feel unfree.

    This assumes that actions can take a very long time to accomplish (I’m viewing the contract as an extended action), but that doesn’t seem like too weird of a move in the debate. Certain longer actions have steps, and it’s asking a lot for all of those steps to feel free.

  4. Richard Messing said, on October 6, 2008 at 1:11 am

    If I may try to clarify the problem, let’s compare the phenomenon called ‘free will’ to the phenomenon called ‘balance’. In both cases, we can agree on how these words are defined. However, agreeing on the definitions does not guarantee that the words mean the same to each of us, because a definition of a word is not the same as its meaning. Definitions are found outside the body, usually in dictionaries, whereas, meanings of words occur inside the body as in an experience. Therefore, two people can agree on the definitions of a word even though their meanings (interpretations) differ. The only way to know if two people are meaning the same when using the words is by having a dialogue about their respective meanings to ensure that their respective meanings are the same, or to observe their behavior to confirm that their behavior reflects the same meaning that the other has for the words. So now let’s say that two people agree on the definitions and they’ve confirmed that they both render the same meaning when using the words. There is one more problem, which is whether or not they actually know what it is they are talking about. For example, if they are talking about free will and they agree on the definition and the rendered meanings, how would they know if they actually know what free will is. Surely, free will is not its definition and surely, free will is not what a person means when they use the word. Free will is a phenomenon that cannot be detected through the senses, therefore, one can only know what free will is by deducetion. Balancing on a bicycle is similar. You can agree on the definition of balance and confirm that each party means the same when using the word, but notice that you must deduce that you know what balance is only when you observe yourself no longer falling off the bicycle. The knowledge of balance is acquired if and only if a person has enough faith to overcome the fear of what appears impossible, unknowable or risky. The exact same is true for free will. For example, keeping a secret from a spouse for fear of retribution is clearly not an act of free will, however, telling the same secret to the spouse despite the risk of retribution is an act of free will. A person doesn’t have to have the word for balance to know how to balance when riding a bicycle. Nor does a person have to know anything about free will to have free will and to exercise it. When a child discovers the word ‘no’, that child begins to exercise free will and may attempt to do so with abandon, never knowing the concept. The inverse is also true for people who are motivated to enter psychotherapy because they can no longer exercise free will in whatever aspect of their life is problematic. In both cases, neither the child nor the patient knows that free will is the source of their empowerment or disempowerment, respectively. In summary, being aware that one is exercising free will is not a requirement. Like a child who discovers the word ‘no’ and experiences the enormous power such a choice provides, the same is true for adults. One can know one has this new power without knowing it is called free will. However, a master is someone who knows what free will actually is and its properties and is always aware and able to exercise it. (Sorry for pontificating! 8^)

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