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The Metaphysical Freedom

The belief in the uniformity of nature is the belief that everything that has happened or will happen is a single case of a general law that has no exceptions at all.

Bertrand Russell.(1)

The history of philosophy is full of eternal controversies that in most cases go back to ancient Greece. One of them is the problem of determinism, intuitively perceived in the old myth of destiny which is also present in Heraclitus’ system of inexorable laws, and eventually becoming an embryonic determinism as conceived by Parmenides, for whom the universe is a solid, eternal, limited, homogenous and motionless sphere, where all change is but an illusion and a deceit of the senses. The first modern presentations of what we may consider different variations of this theory are to be found in Hume, Kant, and Priestly. The problem prevails in our day, and in the span of our century, theoretical physicists have joined philosophers in this debate.

We will briefly deal with the problem involved in the two classic positions: determinism, and its opposite, indeterminism; we will then understand freedom as an intermediate position that we shall call “volitionism.” This metaphysical signification of the term freedom differs completely from the meanings that political philosophy may bestow upon it. Actually, any discussion about the other meanings is superfluous, if this freedom does not exist. Needless to say that metaphysical freedom precedes political freedom.

The problem is of fundamental transcendence in order to comprehend the nature of the Universe and that’s why it has intrigued philosophers of all times. Perhaps the essence of the problem lies in the attempt to respond to the decisive question of whether life is worth living. What is at stake here is the freedom of man, that is, his capacity to express volitions. The experience of imagining a world without volitions is definitely unpleasant; a world of automatons where man in all his manifestations would be subject to the laws of nature, just as plants or the solar system are. A world in which physical laws would govern feelings, passions and thoughts in the same way as a body in free fall. We could define determinism as the metaphysical theory that states that future in its totality is contained in the present, since it is determined to its last detail by the laws of nature.(2) Nobody wants to think of life as a previously written play, where we are just actors representing an unalterable script.

On the other hand, determinism gives a mortal blow to ethics, because without freedom there is no responsibility, and therefore actions would be merely necessary: virtues would lack merit, and crimes would not be imputable.(3) If the problem hasn’t been sufficiently discussed in spite of its relevance, it is because common sense tends to consider man’s freedom as a given fact, a reality, natural and unquestionable. Nevertheless, the issue is not so evident and this point of view is far from being satisfactory.

Towards the end of the 17th century, as a colophon to a period thriving with conquests in the fields of physics and astronomy, Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published (1687). His work constituted, among other things, a magnificent synthesis that unified the accomplishments of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, just to mention a few; it was an extraordinary success. His three laws of movement and his law of universal gravitation revolutionized the conception of science and gave the universe a new countenance: all the mystery, disorder and complexity of the cosmos could now be explained and mathematically reduced to a few equations. All this re-dimensioned the problem of determinism, which quite soon became a nightmare for the philosopher, as it forced him either to reject Newton’s new mechanics, or to consider himself just a sophisticated machine which in itself is merely a single component of the total system. Physicist Arthur Holly Compton, a victim of this nightmare, provides us with an eloquent description of this dilemma:

“If (…) the atoms in our bodies follow physical laws which are as immutable as the movement of the planets, why try to do something or to change ourselves? What difference can it make, no matter how great our efforts may be, if our actions are already predetermined by mechanical laws (…)?”(4)

“If the assertions of the laws of physics were accepted as correct, one would have to suppose (as most philosophers did) that the feeling of freedom is an illusion, or that if free choice was indeed a reality, then the observations of the laws of physics were not (…) trustworthy. The dilemma has been uncomfortable (…)”(5)

The tragic situation of the scientist derives from the fact that the discovery of causal laws is the fundamental principle of scientific knowledge. To improve the relations of causality is the modus operandi of science. When regularities cannot be established science cannot penetrate and the scientist has little or no opinion to give. For this reason, the mind of the scientist has been determinist by antonomasia. The determinist affirms that our ignorance about certain aspects of reality is only transitory and that it will eventually be conquered as scientific knowledge increases. He asseverates that human action will be, in the best of cases, the last stronghold to fall into the domains of science. In such a situation, it appears as if the scientist is heading towards his own ruin, and it’s when he becomes aware of this contradiction that he faces his nightmare. To Russell, however, it is barely a sentimentally disagreeable problem, and he attenuates his comments with considerations such as the following:

“People imagine that if will has any causes, they can be forced to do things they don’t want to do. This, naturally, is a mistake; desire is the cause of actions, even if desire itself has causes. We cannot do what we will not get to do, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to complain about this limitation. It’s unpleasant for our desires to be thwarted, but it’s not more probable that this will happen if desires are caused instead of uncaused. Nor does determinism impose on us the feeling of being impotent.”(6)

Naturally, the problem of determinism is different to asserting that man is conditioned by the environment and by his genetic inheritance; those who do so generally do not question the existence of volitions. However, progress in genetics and psychology —along with their new causal laws— is constantly providing new arguments in favor of determinism.

Just as Newton’s mechanics had complied with determinism for more than two centuries, the quantic revolution of the thirties displaced the balance, this time in favor of indeterminism. The pioneer discoveries of Max Planck on energy quanta significantly promoted research in the field of particle physics. The quantum laws introduced a fundamental indetermination; finally, a scientific argument that made indeterminism possible had been found and it gave philosophers a safe-conduct to continue believing in freedom. At last, something was capable of eluding the rigid laws of nature, and that something was elementary particles. After all, we are ourselves made up of atoms governed by quantic laws.

However, both physicists and indeterminist philosophers proclaimed victory much too soon. For instance, Compton would say: “In my particular way of thinking about this vital issue, I am now more intellectually satisfied than I ever could have been in the previous states of science.”(7) Yet not only were there good reasons to believe that ignorance concerning the atom was transitory, but, on the other hand, they were also facing a problem of logic, which is in fact a problem of statistics and the theory of probabilities. We are acquainted with physical laws that explain the behavior of objects in a macroscopic scale, but nevertheless, it is contended that the particles making up such objects are indeterminate. Common sense suggests that this is logically impossible, that the sum of indeterminations cannot produce regularities, and that indetermination is but apparent. This myth was given the good name of “Law of the Great Numbers,” without anybody suggesting a satisfactory explanation.

Physicists have not been able to explain why, if particles are genuinely indeterminate, they comply as a set with the laws of great numbers. That is, elementary particles seem to be unpredictable but at some moment in the transition to the macroscopic world, determinist physical laws suddenly subordinate matter.(8)

Let’s consider the following imaginary situation in order to illustrate the state of things after the birth of quantum mechanics. Let’s imagine a player in a casino, as he gets ready to toss the dice on the table. If, on the exact moment the dice separate from the hand of the player, we could have —like Laplace’s Demon— a complete knowledge of the circumstances affecting the dice (namely, initial position, force of the throw, direction, distance that separates them from the table, weight, characteristics of the materials, atmospheric pressure, position of the moon and any other relevant data), we could predict with absolute certainty the number that will be rolled.

Before the dice leave the player’s hand, the number that will be rolled remains unknown because we do not know, and have no possible way of knowing, with what strength the player will toss the dice. We are supposing that the decision of the individual is indeterminate, and more precisely, that it is quantifiably indeterminate, in other words, that it is submitted to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This doesn’t mean that the final result is uncaused; once the aleatory process is concluded, the result does have a cause, but even so, ex ante, the result is unpredictable.(9) But what interests us at this moment is the fact that in a scenario of quantic indeterminacy, where results depend on randomness, the will is of course automatically excluded.

It is therefore clear that even in the realm of indeterminism, where enthusiasts of quantum mechanics thought they were glimpsing at the solution,(10) free will has no room, and we find ourselves in a similar nightmare as the one of physical determinism. From determinate automatons we have passed to indeterminate ones.

As we mentioned, supporters of quantum mechanics thought they had found the solution to the problem, when in fact, indeterminism is slightly better than determinism. In a way, quantic indeterminism is a type of determinism: we would be determined by fortuitous events. We say “slightly better” because freedom of man is incompatible with determinism but not so with indeterminism, in other words, in order for free will to exist, indeterminism is necessary, and as Popper indicates, “indeterminism is not enough.” Additionally, it is also better in the sense that without determinism the future is not contained in the present, although with no volitions this is a frail consolation (as we pointed out, this future, although indeterminate, would depend on fortuitous or aleatory results and not on our own volitions).

We may now introduce some modifications to the hypothetical case of the dice player to depict the situation of a world endowed with physical laws —as ours seems to be— and endowed also with free will —as we would wish it to be—.

Before the dice separate from the player’s hand, the number that will be rolled remains unknown because we do not know, and have no possible way of knowing, with what strength the player will decide to toss the dice. We now suppose that the decision is once again indeterminate and, additionally, that the decision is his in every sense or, in other words, that it is autonomously generated by his will. In one word, it’s a volition.

It’s curious that we try to find the causes of man’s freedom in matter, but we don’t speak about its freedom, but about its indeterminacy. By means of what mysterious mechanism the alleged indeterminacy of matter is transformed into will —if this happened to be possible— remains still a question to be answered. And that’s why the problem continues to be metaphysical.

Aleatory indeterminism entails a nightmare as ghastly as that of the ‘physic determinist’ because both of them leave the human being in a situation of total indolence. More than a certainty, the volitionist position expresses the desire of a life that is effectively our own creation; that is, that we are the true authors and that all passions and desires are free and authentic feelings. We would like to live in a world in which, besides physical laws and aleatory events there’s also something more important: an autonomous human will, capable of modifying the course of events, instead of conscience being a mere accessory. In other words, a world in which we are not slaves of the laws of nature nor victims of randomness. What we want, is the future to be determined, at least in some degree, by ourselves.

Nevertheless, as long as science keeps discovering causal laws that allow us to explain the past and to predict the future, the field of action of volitionism is dangerously being reduced. So that if science knows no limits, truth condemns us to necessity and ignorance makes us free. This throws us into another nightmare as terrible as the previous ones: the desire of a volitionist Universe makes us wish the end of science as well. Or expressed in a different way, we must long for the existence of a terrae incognitae that will forever be impenetrable to science. But if the end of science is equivalent to the limits of our intellectual capacities as a species, then volitions could eventually be nothing but fiction.

The situation, paraphrasing Aldous Huxley, literally obliges us to chose between insanity and madness. Nevertheless, we seize upon the Renaissance ideal that man is master of his own destiny. Finally, though by no means satisfactory, a way of facing the nightmare and to surrender to a comfortable state of volitionist ignorance, is to believe that freedom does indeed exist and that man does not necessarily have to be capable of understanding the reasons that make it possible. The explanation could simply be beyond our capacity to comprehend, just as trigonometry is beyond the capacity of a hound.


1. Bertrand Russell (1910), Los problemas de la filosof’a [The Problems of Philosophy] (Barcelona: Labor, 1953), p. 72.

2. Russell defines the determinist hypothesis as follows: “There are discoverable causal laws which, given enough calculation powers (but not superhuman), a person who knows everything that is happening within a sphere in a given time, will be able to predict everything that will happen in the center of the sphere during the time taken by light to travel from the circumference of the sphere to the center.” Bertrand Russell (1935), Religi’n y Ciencia [Religion and Science] (M’xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ’mica, 1956), p. 104. Actually, in determinism, as we understand it, it doesn’t matter for causality to be incognizable; the future is contained in the present even if we are not (or can not) be conscious about it.

3. For centuries, ethics has been assailed by theological morals, but certainly, the determinist nightmare should only affect the non believer, since the belief in an omniscient and omnipotent God (more powerful even than Laplace’s Demon) implies, as is natural, that he knows also the future, in spite of the “free will” of his creatures. If God did not possess this ability, then he would no longer be omniscient and omnipotent. For the sensible believer, determinism is a divine fact, although this constitutes a contradiction.

4. Quoted by Karl Popper in Popper, Escritos Selectos [Popper Selections], comp. David Miller (M’xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ’mica, 1997), p. 269. The original source is Arthur Holly Compton, The Freedom of Man, 1935, pp. 26 ff. Popper, following Charles Sanders Pierce, does not think that these are the only options, because he considers “logically possible that the laws of a system may be Newtonian (and therefore, prima facie, determinists), and that, nevertheless, the system itself may be indeterminist, because the system to which these laws are applied can be intrinsically inexact, in the sense that, for instance, one cannot say that its coordinates, or its speeds, are rational numbers (opposite to irrational numbers).” (Popper, ibid., p. 270n).

5. Popper, ibid., p.270. The original source is Arthur Holly Compton, The Human Meaning of Science, 1940, pp. IX and 42.

6. Bertrand Russell (1935), Religi’n y Ciencia, op. cit., p.113.

7. See note 5.

8. Since the 1980’s, model situations have been studied which allow us to describe the emergence of classic mechanics from quantic laws; this transition is referred to as “decoherence.” See, for instance, Roland Omn’s, “Une nouvelle interpr’tation de la m’canique quantique,” La Recherche, N’ 280, octobre 1995 and Serge Haroche, Jean-Michel Raimond et Michel Brune, “Le chat de Schr’dinger se pr’te l’exp’rience,” La Recherche, N’ 301, septembre 1997, pp. 50-55.

9. Newton stated in his Principia that “the same results in nature are generated by the same causes.” Later, Hume repeated it and added to his conception of determinism that “every event has a cause.” For Hume, “freedom is the same as chance,” and that, as we shall see, is a nightmare as bad as the one of determinism. Apparently, for Russell, free will is also a synonym of uncaused volitions. In his Religion and Science (op. cit. p. 113) he writes: “Of course, none of these discoveries [the study of internal secretions, the increasing knowledge about the functions of the different parts of the brain, Pavlov’s investigation on conditioned reflexes and the psychoanalytical studies on the effects of repressed memories and desires] dismiss the possibility of free will, but they make it quite probable that, if uncaused volitions exist, they ought to be very rare.” It’s undeniable that we are facing the problem of whether a volition may be caused, or if it must necessarily exclude causality. The solution could perhaps be to understand a volition as a self-generating cause —a cause ex post—. Freedom understood as the absence of necessity. However, it would be desirable that volitionism was the conclusion of our reasoning and not its point of departure.

10. Such is the case of Sir Arthur Edington, for example, whom Russell describes as the leader of the indeterminist attack.

Garc’a Morente, Manuel, Lecciones preliminares de filosof’a. M’xico: Diana, 1961.

Haroche, Serge, Jean-Michel Raimond et Michel Brune, “Le chat de Schr’dinger se pr’te ‘ l’exp’rience”, La Recherche, N’ 301, septembre 1997, pp. 50-55.

La Recherche, Sp’cial: “Sommes-nous pilot’s par nos g’nes?”, N’ 311, juillet/ao’t 1998.

Omn’s, Roland, “Une nouvelle interpr’tation de la m’canique quantique”, La Recherche, N’ 280, octobre 1995, pp. 50-56.

Popper, Karl, (1969) B’squeda sin t’rmino: una autobiograf’a intelectual.Madrid: Tecnos, 1994.

———. Popper, Escritos Selectos. Comp. David Miller, M’xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ’mica, 1997.

Russell, Bertrand, (1910), Los problemas de la filosof’a. Barcelona: Labor, 1953.

———. (1935), Religi’n y Ciencia. M’xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ’mica, 1956.

———. (1959)La sabidur’a de Occidente. Madrid: Aguilar, 1964.

Wahl, Jean, (1948) Introducci’n a la filosof’a. M’xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ’mica, 1993.