by Laurence Houlgate
(Emeritus professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University)
John Searle vs Thomas Hobbes
Several years ago former University of California philosophy professor John Searle posted a YouTube video on the difficulty of finding a solution to the problem of free will. In the video, staged as an interview by an interlocutor, Searle begins with a description of the centuries-old stand-off between philosophers who say we have free will and those who deny this.
1. Philosophers who are pro-free will are often referred to as libertarians. Searle says that one of the libertarian arguments is based on our daily experience of free will (e.g. throwing a baseball, going to class, playing the piano). If I feel that I am free to either throw or not throw the baseball, then it must be that I am free to throw or not throw the baseball. If I feel that I am free to change my mind and not go to class today, then I am free to either attend or not attend.
Philosophers who are anti-free will are referred to as determinists. The determinist argument begins with the premise that every event has a sufficient cause. A decision or choice is an event. An event that has a sufficient cause is not free. Therefore, a decision or choice is not free. It follows that what one feels as one goes about one’s daily life is irrelevant. No matter how we feel when we throw the baseball or change our mind about going to class today, these choices have a causally sufficient explanation.
2. One popular way out of this dilemma is promoted by a theory called compatibilism. This theory says that the phrase “I threw the ball of my own free will” is compatible with “There is a causally sufficient explanation for throwing the ball.” When I say, “I threw the ball of my own free will” I mean that no one was stopping me from throwing the ball. This does not contradict the determinist claim that there is a causally sufficient explanation for my choice to throw the ball. If a neurobiologist says that she can explain why I threw the ball by examining my brain functions and the neural circuits that show how I decide or choose to behave, then this is perfectly compatible with my response that no one was stopping me from throwing the ball, that is, when I threw the ball I was doing so of my own free will.
One of the first philosophers to promote compatibility was the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan 1651). Hobbes wrote that the concept “free will” simply means that there are no impediments to what I am doing (ch. 21). When the jailer says to the prisoner who has served his term, “You are now free to go” he means that there is no impediment to prevent the prisoner from walking out of the jail. The impediment is the jail cell. The cell door is open. The prisoner is free to go.
Hobbes also draws an analogy between (a) a man who “freely” gets out of a bed where he has been tied down by ropes and (b) “floodwaters are freely spilling over the riverbanks” (ibid.). Hobbes claims that if there is no objection to the use of “freely” in (b), then there should be no objection to the use of “freely” in (a). In both examples, the word “freely” does not mean that the events have no antecedent sufficient cause. The word simply means that there is no impediment preventing the man from getting out of bed or the water from spilling.
This being said, the so-called “problem of free will” evaporates. “You are free to go” is perfectly compatible with the claim that the prisoner’s choice to leave the jail is an event that has a sufficient causal explanation.
3. But Professor Searle does not agree. He says that compatibilism is a “copout.” It is a theory that “evades the problem” that every decision we make has an antecedent cause that compels the decision. If we can’t escape the chain of causation, then our actions and decisions are never free. Therefore, freedom to choose is “an illusion.” When I choose to throw the ball, decide to wash the dishes, or skip class, I am no different than a robot programmed to make the same choices.
4. Searle gets the last word. In the video he says that there is a “gap” between the chain of causation and one’s choices or decisions. The gap is not an empty space. It is “the conscious process of decision-making.” Searle’s example of this process (gap) is a situation in which you are weighing the pros and cons of two candidates for political office prior to making a decision to vote for one of them or (perhaps) not vote at all. Whatever you decide, your decision is not compelled by the process. The decision you make is entirely “up to you.” And that, Searle says, is free will.
Questions for thought and discussion:
1. Is Hobbes right about his version of compatibilism? Are there any defects in his theory that there is no conflict between libertarians and determinists about the meaning of free will? Are they both right?
2. Is Searle right about his version of libertarianism? Are there any defects in his “gap” version of libertarianism? How would a determinist respond to Searle’s gap theory?
3. Why does Searle say that compatibilism evades the problem of free will? Do you agree?
4. If determinism is right that no one can act of their own free will, then is it fair or just to punish people for wrongdoing?
5. How does a determinist spend their day? Do they just go about their business as if they had free will or should they sit down and wait for something to happen?
Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan.
Houlgate, Laurence. 2021. Understanding Thomas Hobbes (Amazon Kindle).
O’Connor, Timothy and Christopher Franklin, “Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022 Edition)
Searle, John. 2023. Closer to Truth: What is Free Will. (YouTube with transcript).