Rethought Free Will

The apparent paradoxes emerge from a false theory of mind and language that assumes that freedom can be defined abstractly on its own terms, frame free and metaphor free.  [5]

The reason why there is such a divide on free will is that we all think of it in our own terms.  The existence of free will is a matter of framework.  If we prefer a materialist worldview, then free will is an illusion or an experience at best.  If we prefer to use the language of intentionality, then free will exists as freedom of action and maybe freedom of choice.  The problem is that philosophers believe that an absolute objective concept exists independent of our understanding and experience (i).  Cognitive science says that this is false.  Since I privilege science over any other body of knowledge, then I am justified in saying free will’s existence depends.

Free Will As Metaphor

Free will is a concept made up by humans, but it wasn’t arbitrarily created.  It is actually grounded in our real-life experiences.  Since it is grounded in our real life, then it is physical yet still metaphorical.  You will see how soon.  The problem is that philosophy is trying to make free will an objective truth.  Although concepts, by the objectivist approach, are defined by their inherent properties, we understand them by how we interact with them.  Not only that but we only understand concepts in light of what we already know.

Philosophers are usually doing us a service by clarifying concepts, but they need to do a better job in communicating this.  Because everyday understanding relies on our frames, metaphors, and point of view.  If we have a materialist mindset, then free will strikes us as an abomination.  This is especially true if we view ourselves as a third party—that is, as passive observers of physiological mechanisms.  But once the system is viewed as “you” and we adopt the use of intentional language, then “you” have some freedom.

To break down free will, we must figure out where freedom comes from.  It is based literally on the physical act of moving [5].  If freedom is about moving, then we need the metaphor “freedom as freedom of motion” for it to make sense.  Freedom as freedom of motion breaks down to freedom to do what we want or freedom from being pushed off our path.  What we want is the freedom to achieve something, which means we have a motivation to get and do what we want.  So freedom is bodily motion towards a goal.

We need the metaphor motion in space to allow for the will to move around.  The will is governed by reason (reason as force) though since we should be rational.  If our will is weak, then the battle between better judgment and passion is lost.  We may not want to achieve a physical purpose but a higher purpose, say reach the pinnacle of our career, so we extend the metaphor even further.  We now project freedom onto the will, and we have free will.  Free will of course chooses rational and reasonable goals.

Freedom of Action 

  • Freedom is freedom to do what we want and freedom from being prevented to do what we want.
  • Freedom is a physical phenomenon because it is rooted in the metaphor freedom as freedom of motion.
  • Language is replete with references to freedom from: “in chains”, “repressed”, “trapped”, “held down”.
  • If we want a cup of coffee, we have the freedom to get it as long as we have the freedom from being blocked.
  • If free will is defined as a capacity to control our actions, then free will exists as freedom of action.
  • We must define the reference of “our” actions as the ‘self’ being the entire mind and body (i).
  • If freedom is defined in different terms, such as freedom from the laws of physics, then it won’t work.

What Is Real Anyway

So free will is metaphorical although it is rooted in our understanding and experience of motion toward a goal [5].  This narrative on how the will works is not an accurate picture according to neuroscience.  In fact, it came from the Enlightenment era and has its influences from “faculty” psychology.  Faculty gave each one of these entities, the will, passion, etc. a role to play out.  Despite this, metaphorical thought is a necessary part of understanding our world and all of science uses it to glean insight into processes.

What do we think neural computation, the brain is like a computer, and even Einstein’s theory of general relativity is?  These are all metaphorical and not physical entities.  Metaphors are used to help us to understand things because they allow us to see concepts in terms of other concepts.  Since the mind only understands things in light of what it already knows, then we can hardly do without metaphorical thought.  Although some concepts are literal, to understand them we often frame them in terms of something else.

If a model or theory allows us to explain and predict phenomena, then the phenomenon is real.  But it’s intentional agency—humans’ capacity to act in goal-oriented ways—that predicts human behavior, not free will.  Philosophers may argue that they are identical but then fail to mention the baggage that comes with free will’s use.  To be sure, concepts that are not literal are socially constructed because there is a consensus that agrees to believe in their existence.  Even so, free will as a concept is rooted in a physical reality.

Concepts Need Frames

A framework or frame means that there is a compatible context in which we use concepts.  There are two frameworks for free will, the physical and the intentional, but many frames.  A frame or framework is how we interpret concepts.  For example, the concepts price, buy, sell, goods, and services have to be interpreted.  Intuitively, we think about the free market because we have a frame that dictates what these facts mean and how they relate to one another.  Think of each concept as having a role to play in a scenario [5].

If we need to understand new concepts, especially abstract ones, then we use metaphorical reasoning.  To illustrate, if we say that the “water level is rising”, then this is literal, but if we say that the “stock prices are rising, then this is metaphorical [5.1].  We mapped water rising to the abstract level of stocks rising.  But we could only do this in terms of what we already knew; that is, we had to have known the primary metaphor “more is up”.  We intuitively acquire primary metaphors as we experience the world at an early age.

This is how language is built, and a majority of it is metaphorical and not literal.  There are two points from the opening quote.  One, all concepts need frames and metaphors to understand them.  Two, because concepts rely on frames, then they can’t be absolute objective facts since they are relative to those frames.  But this doesn’t stop philosophers from attempting to define concepts, such as free will, in objective terms.  They do this by finding a concept’s inherent properties with necessary and sufficient conditions.

Philosophers have yet to etch out free will with necessary and sufficient conditions.  This is because free will is a multi-faceted, metaphorical concept.  If it was literal, say biological “life”, then this would be easier to give inherent properties.  For example, water is a necessary property for life but it is not sufficient.  When philosophers create arguments, they also make sure that the coherence requirement is met, which means that no concepts contradict.  My focus, however, is exclusive to how philosophers neglect frames.

Physical and Intentional 

It is only agents that have the property of intentionality which is to say that they act on their intentions.  On the other hand, neurons and neurotransmitters don’t have the property of intentionality.  When an agent has the intention to do something, then we say that it is “caused” by a mental state, which is a desire, intention, or belief.  The language of intentionality will only work within its intentional framework.  If we, for example, believe that the capital of Oregon is Salem, then this mental state contains a proposition that is either true or false.  If we have a desire to travel to Oregon, then this mental state contains a proposition that we desire to make true.

A system is intentional if some of its states, such as its belief-and-desire states, are directed towards something: they encode an attitude towards some meaningful content. [6]

The content of these mental states has the property of aboutness which means it is about something.  More specifically, the content is “an attitude towards some meaningful content [6].”  In the case of beliefs, the attitude is representational since we represent some fact, and, in the case of desires, the attitude is motivational since we want to get something [6].  The intentional framework allows us to understand concepts in the following ways: rational (explains the behavior), relational (references to things), and semantic (gives meaning) ways.  In sum, “intentional properties stand in rational and semantic relations [6]” but this isn’t true for physical concepts.

By contrast, physical concepts only stand in a causal relationship with other physical concepts.  For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine caused an action potential in the neurons in the mesolimbic pathway.  If we, on the other hand, want to say that the capital of Oregon is Salem, we would make a reference to this belief (relational) which is about something that has meaning (semantic).  Intentional language also gives explanations for our actions called rationalizations.  We went to, for example, Oregon because we wanted to see the beautiful forests (rational).  Desires don’t just cause action but make them instrumentally rational [6].

It stands in various causal relations to other physical properties, but it stands in no semantic or logical relations, such as relations of rational coherence with other intentional properties or relations of reference to objects such as Washington or the United States. [6]

Instrumentally rational means that we follow means-end rationality, which is that we act in accordance with our motivations.  These motivations are mental states (beliefs and desires).  It is said that mental states supervene the physical level of neurons and neurotransmitters.  This means that mental states take on a similar role to that of a bitmap image, where the pixels are the neurons and the image is the mental states [6].  The image “supervenes” the pixels.  It is an apt description because mental states are the outcome of the physical.  Many philosophers, however, want to claim that mental states and not physical states cause action.

Frames Plague Philosophers

The above matters because it helps to explain why there are so many disagreements amongst philosophers and laypeople.  Let me go through an example of a challenge that philosophers face.  Philosophers have created categories based on the assumption that determinism is true, which means that given the past and the laws of nature, that only one possible future exists.  Determinism, as they use it, is not necessarily a force and is different from causal determinism, which says that all events have preceding causes.

The first concept is compatibilism which is the thesis that freedom of action and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism.  The second category is incompatibilism, which says that neither moral responsibility nor freedom of action is compatible with determinism.  The third category is libertarianism which is the thesis that freedom of action and moral responsibility exist but are not compatible with determinism [7].  The example I give applies to some aspects of free will: AP, UR, and CC.

The consequent argument (CA), given below [4.1], is a challenge that libertarians put forth for compatibilists to show that free will is not compatible with determinism.  The fifth statement is an inference made from three and four, which is called the Transfer of Powerlessness (TP) inference.   Premises one and two are obviously true, while number three follows from two.  The fourth premise is a consequence of determinism.  The problem is that the inference, number five if interpreted by another frame, could be false.

  1. There is nothing we “can” now do to change the past.
  2. There is nothing we “can” now do to change the laws of nature.
  3. There is nothing we “can” now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
  4. If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
  5. Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.

That is, we are “powerless” to change the past and laws of nature, but we are not powerless to get a cup of coffee, which means there is something we can do now.  Philosophers phrase this as “you would do it if you wanted or tried to” and conclude that the TP fails.  The counterarguments that libertarians give are verbose, and they claim that compatibilists’ analysis is incorrect or not meant in their “sense”.  Whenever we see the word sense, we should think of frames.  The consequent argument is plagued with framing issues.  It uses the first-person pronoun “we” which is an intentional human being.  The CA is a physical and intentional composite.

Libertarians only mean to speak in terms of the physical level where we must be passive mechanisms taking inputs from our environments.  If we are physical mechanisms taking in information and responding, then we are not intentional beings.  The operative word which has been one of the most difficult metaphysical concepts to grasp is “power” [4.1].  It must have a frame of reference like any other concept, and “we” must have its own concepts that take on roles within its own frame.  We can change the future if we intentionally try, but we can’t if we are interpreted as passive mechanisms, which is the language of the physical level.


i). Absolute objective truths don’t exist because all concepts, including free will, are relative to our conceptual understanding.  So we interpret concepts within our own framework, which is our own understanding.  But this isn’t fatal to any philosopher’s arguments because the concepts become relative objective truths.  I make this point because it explains why there is so much division on the concept of free will.  I also use it to argue that since everything is relative, then I am justified in saying that free will depends on what framework we choose to apply to the concept.

ii) In metaphysical terms, mind and body are one and the same.  This distinction is made here because we commonly think of ourselves with these categories in mind.


[1] Roy F. Baumeister.  “Free WIll and Consciousness”

[2] Ib Bondebjerg.  “The creative mind: cognition, society and culture.”

[3] Holton, Richard, “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[4] Kane, Robert.  “The Oxford Handbook of Free Will”

[4.1] Kane, Robert; Pereboom, Derk; Vargas, Manuel; Fischer, John Martin. “Four Views on Free WIll”

[5] Lakoff, George.  “Whose Freedom”

[5.1] Lakoff, George.  “Your Brain’s Politics”

[6] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”

[7] Mele, Alfred R. “Free Will and Luck”

Rethinking Free Will

I thought an outline of the problem of free will would help anyone that is interested in the debate.  To answer if free will exists, it depends on what we mean by free will as well as what framework we use to interpret the concepts, and it even depends on our point of view.  If you want to say that free will exists without saying that it depends, then you are motivated to show that it exists.

The Problem of Free Will

Philosophers rarely address all of the problems and pick one or two and call it a day.  So I would be suspect of anyone saying that free will exists or doesn’t without qualification and explanation.  There is a reason why some philosophers have spent thirty years on the problem but seem to have made little progress.  It is a difficult problem.  To be clear, I have come to the conclusion that free will exists within a certain linguistic framework, but once we start explaining things at the physical level, it cannot exist.  I concede that number “1” below is true, which is freedom of action, and I will explain why the rest are problematic in the next posts.

First show:

  1. show the capacity to act freely (easy to show)
    1. also known as freedom of action (FA)
    2. there is empirical evidence that we experience free action which includes [1]
      1. Acts that show the person resisting temptation and resisting external pressures.
      2. Acts that involve the pursuit of long-term gain, rather than short-term impulse.
      3. Acts that indicate conscious reflection and thought are regarded as free.
    3. the fact that we have self-control implies that we have some degree of freedom
    4. e.g., If I will a coffee, then I am free to get it if no constraints.
    5. the question becomes how much control do we have over our actions
  2. show the capacity to freely make choices (difficult to show),
    1. this is freedom of choice or alternate possibilities (AP)
    2. includes “could have chosen otherwise”
    3. requires that options are open to us in the first place
    4. requires the characterization of choices
    5. obstacles of making it work with determinism
  3. show that mental states cause action
    1. also known as causal control (CC)
    2. do mental states—our intentions, beliefs, and desires—cause us to act?
    3. a majority of philosophers think that mental states do cause actions
    4. epiphenomenalism, endorsed by neuroscientists, says that mental states don’t do the real work
  4. show that conscious intentions lead to action
    1. “If all behavior were produced only by nonconscious processes, and if conscious decisions (or choices) and intentions (along with their physical correlates) were to play no role at all in producing any corresponding actions, free will would be in dire straits. ” [1]
    2. the above quote illustrates what a pro free will philosopher believes would be the end of free will
    3. because if we have no awareness of what is happening, then free will is meaningless
    4. even if that were true above, it may not affect freedom of action, “1”
  5. but it depends on the framework (level of analysis) used
    1. “1” above depends on using the framework of intentional agency to understand it
    2. intentional agency framework relates concepts to one another by semantics and logic
    3. the physical level relates things by physical causes
    4. we can not reduce intentional agency down to the physical
    5. the intentional agency level is said to supervene the physical level
  6. but it depends on our point of view or frame of reference
    1. there are three ways in which we can shift perspective on the self
      1. we can view ourselves as the entire body
        1. this means that it is always us choosing
      2. we can view ourselves as a series of mental states
        1. if we are our mental states, then it is us
      3. we can view ourselves as an executive
        1. a passive executive that witnesses action so not us
        2. an active executive that decides action so us
  7. but it depends on your definitions of what is real
    1. for some neuroscientists the physical level or materialism is the only thing that counts as real
    2. for others, like cognitive science, multiple truths exist since truth is defined as “to understand”

Then answer:

  1. if we are free, then show that freedom is sufficient for moral responsibility?
    1. also known as ultimate responsibility (UR)
    2. we do have the capacity to control some actions but not others
    3. but it is not fair because we have different genetic dispositions, which is the problem of “moral luck”
    4. there is the problem of infinite regress in terms of ultimate responsibility


[1] Roy F. Baumeister.  “Free WIll and Consciousness”

[2] Richard Holton. “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[3] Kane, Robert.  “The Oxford Handbook of Free Will”

[4] Leary, Mark.  Selfhood.

[5] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”