This is quite the complicated topic and I advise having some philosophical background before reading but i do try to make it as accessible as possible. I really want to share this essay on my blog, mainly because I am proud of it and maybe some fellow philosophers will engage with me on it. Most importantly this also follows the theme that i am going to be pursuing on my blog. One of having a new ontological paradigm that fits with science but allows for free will. It allows for mythology and religion and spirituality. It puts meaning and divinity back into the structure of the world. In this essay, I will be using process philosophy to provide an ontological structure that gives us a different way to look at the world, which opens it up to a different way of having free will. Firstly I will outline important definitions that are commonly used in the philosophical discussion around free will, such as determinism and indeterminism. I will then outline what is meant by free will and propose two accounts of free will. Compatibilism and libertarianism. Ultimately it will be found that none of these can account for free will, as the ontological framework they are working within can always ask the question of where does free will lie? Thus I will propose a new ontological structure, One found within process philosophy. This will propose a framework that places free will within the very composition of how events happen. After I take some time explaining process philosophy, I will use an analogy alongside the biological findings of Martin Heisenberg to provide scope to a vision of how free will is an evolved feature. Concluding that a Process philosophy view on free will is one that correlates with our phenomenology and that deeper investigation using this ontology is worth being pursued.
The first two definitions I would like to outline are that of determinism and indeterminism.
Determinism is essentially the view that the universe moves in a way of cause and effect, whereby the first cause makes up the proceeding effect in its entirety. A simple analogy to use is that of falling dominoes: the first domino falls, causing the next to fall and so on. The outcome of this means there is no plurality of possibility in the future; there is one future that, in theory, is predictable if the entirety of the past is known. Hence determinism is essentially pre-determinism. Determinism comes from the idea of a universe whereby the only things contained within it are material and mechanistic, bound by strict laws of physics.
Indeterminism states that while determinism does exist, there is also randomness in the universe. To go back to the analogy of the dominoes, imagine a gust of wind blows one domino so that it falls in a different direction, setting off a whole different chain of events. Indeterminism entered the picture around the early 20th century alongside quantum physics and it was soon found that there was a sense of quantum indeterminacy within atoms. As things such as biological changes happen at the quantum level, this inspired changes to views such as Darwin's theory of evolution; whereby it is said that genetic mutations in animals are random. This genetic mutation is then either beneficial or not beneficial to the animals survival in the deterministic universe by either helping or hindering the being.
Then we have free will. Free will is the proposal that we as agents are in control of our actions. Certain questions arise with the notion of free will such as: to have free will, do we have to have the power to have done otherwise in a certain situation? For example, for there to be free will, we are required to possess the ability to choose between door A, B and C; but determinism on the other hand would propose that we are already destined by our genetic makeup to only ever make one decision. This then begs the question of there being true agency in our decision that is not predetermined by the domino that falls behind us.
The current philosophical positions on free will are as such:
Determinism -- We have no free will, everything is predetermined
Soft determinism/indeterminism - While things are not determined and there is a chance of randomness, there is still no free will.
Compatibilism -- Determinism/indeterminism is the true nature of the universe. But we have the illusion of free will. There are different models of compatibilism; but to keep this short, as long as the agent’s freedom is not inhibited and they have the process of reasoning as to why they make their decision, it is enough for them (us) to be morally responsible for their (our) actions. Compatibilism is not free will it is just the acceptance of determinism that tries to argue we are still morally responsible for our actions.
Libertarianism -- Libertarianism argues that actions of free will are not causally determined and libertarian accounts such as that of Kane argue that our free will comes in acts of long deliberation; which he calls ‘self forming actions’. One must keep in mind that a necessary condition for libertatian free will here is that indeterminism is true, and that there is randomness in the universe. According to Kane, self forming actions are “formed in times of long deliberation, when we are torn between what we should do or become” (kane,p147,2019). He states that during these times of deliberation there would be “multiple goal-directed cognitive processes” (ibid) - which he calls violitional streams - and that in a battle between these multiple streams our free will chooses which one to take. This decision then in turn programmes our everyday reactions so that acts of long deliberation, while not free in the same sense, stem from an action that was free. The problem with this is that even if there are these violitional streams, how do we know that our decision to choose one is truly free? We are still within an ontological framework that is guided by the laws of physics and determinism/indeterminism. What is the mechanism that allows this decision to escape that of a cause and effect chain? Even if there are possibilities available, this does not necessitate that the decision was a free one. While Kane does offer a sophisticated account, unfortunately, he is stuck in an ontological worldview that can always just ask the question of ‘how is this not determined by your biology and environment?’. I don’t think Kane would argue that a baby is incapable of self forming acts. So, if a baby's motivations grow up in an ontology that is either random or determined how does this first free self forming act appear?
Clearly the problem lies in the ontological structure of the world and to account for free will we are going to need to drastically change how it is that we view the universe. Thus I would like to provide an account of Process free will.
An introduction to the framework of process philosophy:
The concept of process philosophy is that ongoing processes synthesize past events into a unique perspective within the present moment. Every event includes past events and is to be included in future ones. Thus, effects include their causes. Events in the present are in the process of becoming; and each event is also a perspective on the past which is expressed or felt. Therefore, our phenomenology of feeling regarding how we have made a decision, is a fundamental part of the ontology in process philosophy. This feeling is the identification of the past so that we can decide a future.
I will now spend some time trying to explain some of the ontology of process philosophy so we can try to grasp how they propose this. The process view of reality is based on a recognition of the asymmetrical relation between ultimate conceptual contrasts such as the table below:
(The table wont post onto my blog page so you have to do without the table now
What is on the left side is in an asymmetrical relationship with the right. What's going to follow are the very complicated theories of process philosophy and my meagre brain trying to comprehend it and write it down as something which can be understood on more simpler terms. Read slowly and if you dont quite understand it carry on for a bit because an explanation might be right around the corner. Or you might just be confused forever.)
Relative (dependent) (intrinsic value) Absolute (independent) (instrumental value)
The latter or absolute side is included in the former; and this is because they are special cases of their contrasts, as explained in an example given by Peter Kakol :‘Being’, or that which does not become, can be understood as a special case of ‘becoming’, in the sense of being the extreme limit, or zero point, of ‘becoming’. (Kakol,2018,207)
But ‘becoming’ can't be understood in the same way. Not all beings are in the process of ‘becoming’ but all becomings are in the process of ‘being’.
Becoming includes being as a whole includes a part; like how a chair includes its legs as parts of its whole. Thus the relative has primacy over the absolute. “Becomings exist that are not owned by beings, for example, the flash of lightning or the raining of rain”. (IBID)
This is complicated so i'm going to try to simplify it at several points. So far we have a view whereby ‘becoming’ is the zero point of ‘being’. What this is trying to say is that being in itself is a special product of becoming. This puts becoming in the driving seat for pulling events forward. Becoming, finding itself in an asymmetrical relationship, pulls itself out of being, taking all of being with it into a new perspective. This is very important because it flips the view of the universe. Events are no longer being pushed forward by previous events, rather they are being pulled out. This means that Becoming supersedes being, it is dependent on being like how a whole is dependent on its parts and it is this that provides the primacy over absolute being.
Every event is inclusive of past events and is to be included in future ones. That is, subsequent events include the antecedents, and effects include their causes as necessary but not sufficient conditions. Events in the present are in the process of becoming. An ongoing event in process philosophy has a perspective on its past events which is expressed or felt (I will delve into this later); thus ultimately proposing that existence is ‘views of views’ or ‘feelings of feelings’. Those of you familiar with some buddhist views here will see similarities to the path of emptiness.
Therefore, an event is a dependent/concrete and particular ‘becoming’ which includes the independent/abstract and universal ‘being’. “It is a basic insight of process thought that ‘dependent on’ is not the same as ‘included in’ rather, the dependent is the inclusive and the independent is the included” (Kakol,208)
What is highlighted above, is that during the present moment there is an event that is in the process of becoming. In this present moment is everything in the past, and what is afforded to it in the future is all the possibilities of the world. This might entail that within process thought, indeterminism is a necessary condition; as the possibilities that are in the future are ones of an indeterminate nature. I will now try to use an analogy within quantum mechanics as to what is happening in this present moment before an event is actualized and the universe is pulled into a new place in time.
The present moment can be represented as the moment before what in quantum physics is known as a ‘wave function collapse’. This is the moment where there are possibilities before an actuality. The possibilities are represented in quantum mechanics as probabilities within a quantum system, the collapse is, for example, when an electron has appeared around an atom. The wave function collapse is a helpful way to imagine the creative contingency that exists within process philosophy. However, in no way does this mean that one electron appearing around an atom is what pulls the universe forward. Remember, the present moment contains within it all the quantum uncertainty. Currently occurring processes synthesize past events into a unique perspective. As there are multiple ways of synthesizing these events, there is thus an element of creative contingency or quantum uncertainty.
What I find attractive about this view is that it offers an element of an answer to the question as to why do things happen. Why, for example, did the big bang happen? The reason is that there is a force pulling the universe into a direction, reflecting many phenomenological and biological behaviours that will become apparent later. Now to address this element of feeling that is within the universe, I think ultimately it comes down to the fact that only a force such as one of willpower - which needs with it a perspective on the past and an idea of where it wants to go- can pull the universe in the way that has been described above.
As soon as we reach the moment of quantum indeterminacy in the process, the entity or the actual occasion wills the universe in a way that pulls it forwards. Some process theologians suppose that the entity giving the perspective in the moment is God. I will mention this very little, but by using God in a pantheistic sense, (by saying that this willpower is within the universe) we can see that the unique perspective required is always there. Let us assume that the very first process of becoming, suppose the big bang, this very first ‘becoming’ had to have a perspective that looked forward to the possibility of being sprung into ‘being’. From this becoming spawned the universe, and the next stage of being; which as described by peter kakol is the 0 point of becoming. This means the very first event in the universe is one of having been pulled into being, not pushed into being. This unique perspective looks out into the universe in terms of the possibilities afforded to it by indeterminism, such as the moment before a wave function collapse(s) and will’s/pull’s the universe into the direction it favours. This ‘willing’ is then actualized, and comes into being; such as when an electron appears around an atom. This process of willing has slowly become more complicated through evolution (which i will soon highlight) As the universe cooled, possibilities expanded; and as possibilities expanded so did complexity. More complexity is needed to take on the ever increasing array of options that the universe is affording to us as it becomes more and more complex. Indeterminacy represents what can come into being while will is the process that actualises it into being. This process can only be done if events of the past are synthesized and felt so that a perspective can be gained to decide on the future. If this perspective is God, it would propose a God who is not all powerful or all knowing, but one who is a process and continuously in a process; a god that is in an asymmetrical relationship with the universe - one of constant exploration and self discovery.
This does mean there is a certain uncertainty about what, who, or where this unique perspective lies. Did the unique perspective start off as a very simple form of free will: choosing almost blindy, constantly evolving and separating, increasing its perspective and ability to choose? Was there an ultimate intelligent perspective that first emerged from the universe and eventually sent out entities such as ourselves to help with the exploration of possibilities? While I wont be answering these questions in the essay (I will briefly explore one) I do believe that within the complicated findings of process philosophers, such as Alfred North Whitehead, a lot of the answers may be found. As for the answers that are not there yet, I hope that enough scope is provided to put forward a compelling enough argument that these answers should be pursued in this manner. What is important for now, is that through this metaphysical understanding, the direction of dependency is being reversed, and each new event in time is now being pulled out of the structure of the universe.
I would now like to explore the possibility that at the very start was a very simple perspective and that through time this perspective, learned, split itself into multiple perspectives, and expanded through the possibilities of the universe. I will only do this briefly by way of the biological findings of Martin Heisenberg, who believed in free will and that at a fundamental level, this behaviour is shown in animals as simple as those that are unicellular organisms. Now that we have built an ontological framework, we can go forward with this in mind when we look at how biological systems appear to behave.
Heisenberg described movement in a unicellular organism as such:
“The unicellular organism has in effect a random tumbling motion when the flagella rotates clockwise. Which generate alternative possibilities, the bacterium moves forward and evaluates the gradients of temperature, nutrients, toxins, etc along its body. If things look good, it ‘decides’ to continue in that direction. If not, it tumbles again.” (p1)
This highlights a foundation for free will in a very basic biological structure, one that does not even contain a nucleus but seems to find its way to warmth and food.
From here I will introduce Heisenberg’s four evolutionary levels where we can see how this evolves into the free will we have as humans today. He also performed lab experiments “that demonstrate fruit flies in situations they have never encountered, they can modify their expectations about the consequences of their actions, they can solves problems that no individual fly in the evolutionary history of the species has solved before” (p22) This behaviour seems to show that there is more than just response going on, there is perspective and decision making
Heisenberg's four levels of the evolution of free will are:
“1)Instinctive selection - for organisms with only genetically inherited behaviours
2) Learned selection - for organism that remember their past to guide their future
3) Predictive selection - for animals with foresight who anticipate consequences
4) Reflective and normative selection - for humans who can think twice, then think again about the thought, evaluating it in the light of personal and societal values” (ibid)
So as human beings- the most complex animals in the animal kingdom- we sit at level 4; possessing the extraordinary ability to will the universe in more possible ways than is available to less evolved life forms. I can further illustrate this idea with the ontology of process philosophy to bring everything together:
As you can tell by my awesome picture. The circle in the middle represents the consciousness/unique perspective while the waves below represent the past. The diagram represents the unique perspective of all the events that have happened before it. The waves in front represent a different time period: the further away the wave, the longer the time. The wider wave represents the spectrum of choice that is available to the conscious entity. This choice is what is afforded to us by the randomness in the universe that we can will to come into effect. The beauty of being able to introspect on past events and synthesize possible future events is that we are able to connect with the indeterminacy of the absolute world (as we pulled ourselves out of it) and imagine all the possibilities of the future. To give a little nod back to Kane, this could be the very point of deliberation before a self forming act, but with process philosophy, every moment has this perspective and does not need to deliberate in such a complex way to have free will. We are sat within the circle, looking out at all the lines in front of us, choosing where we want to end up. We do not however, always get where we want to go, as we are habitual creatures and are prone to changing our will at any moment. For example, we might make steps to one direction but then feel - thanks to our perspective and connection with the past - that this is no longer the direction for us, thus we go in a different direction.
If you take your eyes back to the picture but shrink the width of the waves in front, you would have the choice afforded to lesser evolved animals. This would mean that after the big bang, events were pulled forward by the very small range of possibilities that we started out with. As the universe cooled, possibilities expanded, as possibilities expanded more complex structures and eventually organisms occurred.
This sort of phenomenological recognition that fits with an ontological worldview and correlates with Heisenberg's evolution of free will is not one of mere illusion. It provides scope to the questions of the following:
Why do we weigh up options and reject these options? In other words it gives credence to our intelligence and credence to the view that we are authors of our own decisions
It fits with the view of biological engineering proposed by Heinsenberg that making rational choices as we appear to do, is what we actually do; and that this comes from the lesser rational decisions of lower evolved life forms
It permits morality, allowing us to understand why we feel guilt for past mistakes and affect our behaviour accordingly. This owes to the fact that previous events are always felt.
Ultimately it provides a perspective as to where consciousness comes from.
The beauty of a process universe is that a decision bound by our past is not possible; as it is not the past that pushes us into the future, but rather, the future is pulled out of the past and present. There may be a relation between past and randomness that = the possibilities of the future; but there is no falling over of dominoes and therefore no preceding materialistic cause. The only thing that limits possibility is what is randomly available to happen, and the only thing that can cause a becoming to come out of being is something that has a will to pull the universe in the direction that it wants to go. Free will is a process, like everything else, one that is continuously expanding, evolving and exploring. If it is said that the universe is infinite, then so is free will; and if free will is infinite, then we have ultimate free will.
In this essay I showed using a process framework that we can view the universe in a way where ‘being’ is pulled out by ‘becoming’ and that this process has to be done by something that has a perspective on the past that is felt so that it can look to the future to and take all of being alongside its will. This view places freewill as a necessary part of the universe. The ultimate conclusion is that this view fits with our phenomenology and how it is we come to a decision. It also fits with a biological view of how animals' decisions seem to evolve.
Doyle, B., 2010. Jamesian free will the two-stage model of william james. William James Studies, 5, pp.1-28.
Kane, R., 2016. The complex tapestry of free will: striving will, indeterminism and volitional streams. Synthese, 196(1), pp.145-160.
Kakol, p (2018) ‘A Phenomenological reading of the Nyaya critique of the no-self view: Udayana and the phenomenal separateness of self’, in P. Bilimoria (ed.). The Routledge History of Indian philosophy. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.205-215
Heisenberg, M., 2020. Martin Heisenber. [online] informationphilosopher.com. Available at: <https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/heisenbergm> [Accessed 18 May 2020].