Two Steps to Free Will

From Harvard Magazine:

WillAstronomy naturally inspires cosmic thinking, but astronomers rarely tackle philosophical issues directly. Theoretical astrophysicist Robert O. Doyle, Ph.D. ’68, associate of the department of astronomy, is an exception. For five years, Doyle has worked on a problem he has pondered since college: the ancient conundrum of free will versus determinism. Do humans choose their actions freely, exercising their own power of will, or do external and prior causes (even the will of God) determine our acts? Since the pre-Socratics, philosophers have debated whether we live in a deterministic universe, in which “every event has a cause, in a chain of causal events with just one possible future,” or an indeterministic one, in which “there are random (chance) events in a world with many possible futures,” as Doyle writes in Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy (2011). The way out of the bottle, he says, is a “two-stage model” whose origin he traces to William James, M.D. 1869, LL.D. ’03, philosopher, psychologist, and perhaps the most famous of all Harvard’s professors. Some of the confusion, Doyle believes, stems from how thinkers have framed the question—in an either/or way that allows only a rigidly predetermined universe or a chaotic one totally at the mercy of chance. David Hume, for example, asserted that there is “no medium betwixt chance and an absolute necessity.” But Doyle also finds the term “free will” unclear and even unintelligible, because the condition of “freedom” applies to the agent of action, not the will: “I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free,” in John Locke’s concise phrasing. “The element of randomness doesn’t make us random,” Doyle says. “It just gives us possibilities.”

Doyle limns a two-stage model in which chance presents a variety of alternative possibilities to the human actor, who selects one of these options and enacts it. “Free will isn’t one monolithic thing,” he says. “It’s a combination of the free element with selection.” He finds many antecedents in the history of philosophy—beginning with Aristotle, whom he calls the first indeterminist. But he identifies James as the first philosopher to clearly articulate such a model of free will, and (in a 2010 paper published in the journal William James Studies and presented at a conference honoring James; see “William James: Summers and Semesters”) he honors that seminal work by naming such a model—“first chance, then choice”—“Jamesian” free will.

More here.