One argument for the existence of the soul comes from the existence of free will. In this article I’ll argue that the existence of free will implies the existence of the soul.
Suppose a dark, gray cloud shoots out lightning that strikes down a heavy tree, which in turn falls down on Bob’s favorite car. Can Bob rightfully blame the tree for the destruction of his car? No, the tree didn’t have a choice in the matter. Its fall was simply caused by the lightning, which was caused static electricity, which resulted from the clouds, which came about by weather patterns etc. Unlike the tree, we humans have a special ability that can cause us to be responsible for our actions. Rather than being pipelines for chains of natural causation that go back before our birth, we can initiate our own causal chains. That is the sort of thing I have in mind by free will. First though some philosophy lingo:
- free will: the view that we have control over and are responsible for our actions; thus if we freely do some misdeed, we can properly be held blameworthy for that action.
- determinism: the belief that effects are determined by prior causes. By initial conditionals determining a result I mean that the result couldn’t have been otherwise given the initial conditions, and thus that the initial conditions will always yield the same outcome.
- indeterminism: the view that initial conditions do not determine outcomes, and thus the view that identical initial conditions will not always yield the same outcome.
- hard determinism: the view that determinism is true with respect to our actions and that we have no free will.
- compatibilism: the view that free will and determinism are compatible. This view is also known as soft determinism.
- incompatibilism: the view that free will and determinism are not compatible.
- agency theory: the view that we have free will, that indeterminism is true with respect to our actions such that we can choose among genuine alternatives, and that free will is an act of agent-causation whereby an agent (person, self) causes effects.
By my lights agency theory is the correct and commonsense view of free will. But what about compatibilism? If we are purely physical beings who have free will, it seems that compatibilism would be true since if our minds are merely our brains, then electrochemical reactions cause all of our behavior, and these electrochemical reactions are determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. But if we are purely physical beings it seems to me we would not have free will. Consider for example our very first brain state, BS1 being short for “brain state 1,” as follows:
- BS1: determined by circumstances prior to your mental existence and thus by circumstances you had no control over; thus whatever BS1 was, it was not up to you.
- BS2: your second brain state is determined by BS1 (which you had no control over) and the laws of chemistry and physics (which you have no control over), and thus whatever BS2 was, it was not up to you.
- BS3: your third brain state is determined by BS2 (which you had no control over) and the laws of chemistry and physics (which you have no control over), and thus whatever BS3 was, it was not up to you.
And on and on it goes for all of your future brain states. This all seems to imply that if we are purely physical creatures, then our brain states—and thus our mental states—are not up to us at all. They are determined entirely by forces outside of our control. We would merely be pipelines and puppets of natural causation that extend outside of us and even before we were born.
A compatibilist could dismiss this as all too simplistic; BS2 was brought about by BS1, which is itself a prior brain state. While determinism is true with respect to our behavior, a compatibilist could argue that our inner brain states that cause our actions come about via our desires, including the desires for our own actions, and what more could we ask for then our actions taking place in accordance with our wants? Wouldn’t we be doing what we want to do? Part of free will however is being responsible for our actions in the sense that if morality exists, we are morally accountable for our actions. If we are being held accountable for our actions because of our wants, but we had no control over what our wants would be (or what those wants would result in), it seems we wouldn’t really have the type of accountability that would lead us to be morally responsible for our actions; it would seem too much like mind control.
To illustrate, consider for example the first brain state of a person in which a compatibilist would hold that person responsible for that person’s actions, thoughts, etc., BSR1. Why should we hold the person accountable for what BSR1 produced because of the desires present in BSR1 when whatever those desires are, they are entirely beyond the person’s control? It would be like holding a man responsible for what a heart attack produces when the heart attack was beyond the person’s control. If we should not hold the person having BSR1 accountable for what BSR1 results in, then anything produced by BSR1, including subsequent brain states, can’t be correctly held accountable to the person who has BSR1. But then the same would go for the next brain state one is putatively responsible for, BSR2, since the desires present in that brain state were also outside of the person’s control. To describe this in a more orderly fashion, let BSR1 represent your own first brain state in which a compatibilist would hold you accountable for your actions:
- BSR1: the desires in BSR1 are determined by circumstances entirely beyond your control (this is true even on compatibilism!). Whatever the desires are, they are beyond your control, and whatever those desires produce (thanks to the laws of chemistry and physics) are also beyond your control. Thus, whatever comes about from BSR1 is also beyond your control.
- BSR2: the desires present in BSR2 (if line 1 is true) are outside of your control, for they were produced by BSR1 (something outside of your control) and the laws of chemistry and physics (also beyond your control). Thus whatever the desires are, they are beyond your control, and whatever those desires produce (thanks to the laws of chemistry and physics) are also beyond your control. Thus, whatever comes about from BSR2 is also beyond your control.
And on and on it goes. In sum, the idea that our actions take place according with our desires isn’t real freedom—at any rate not the sort of freedom that allows us to be morally responsible for our actions—when our desires are not up to us and what those desires result in is also not up to us. Compatibilism is therefore false.
Free Will and the Soul
If we were purely physical beings with free will, compatibilism would be true, but compatibilism is not true, so if we are purely physical beings then we do not have free will. Yet if we do indeed have free will, the following deductive argument presents itself:
- If we are purely physical beings, then we do not have free will.
- We do have free will.
- Therefore, we are not purely physical beings.
The best alternative to hard determinism, it seems to me, is agency theory, where it is we who cause our own actions, and we cause actions in a way such that we are not determined by prior causes. But for this to work the essence of “we” has to be nonphysical, otherwise free will doesn’t exist (confer the deductive argument above). But the nonphysical essence of oneself is by definition the soul (at least, that is how I am defining the term “soul”). On this view, our souls (which is really and essentially “us”) are to some degree capable of working “outside” the corporeal tapestry so we can initiate our own causal chains and create effects that are not determined by prior causes.
An objector could accept premise (1) but bite the bullet and say we do not have free will. But as I’ll argue in my next post, no free will means no rationality.