Matters of Choice and Free Will

Abstract. In his paper, ‘The Act of Choice’, Richard Holton takes up and well discusses an important issue which the great bulk of the literature about free will has tended to ignore. That issue is the matter of choice: the experience and the nature of choice. Holton veritably berates the excessively speculative characteristic of metaphysical musings by libertarians, determinists, and compatibilists; his discussion strongly suggests that a capacity to choose is a necessary condition for free will, and Holton’s capacity is here extended into a discussion about how a capacity to choose would become a capability to choose and how such a capability is essential to the manifestation of increased freedom. Finally, this essay notes how the matter of choice actually works against compatibilist notions – contrary to Holton’s own conclusion.

1. The natures of choice, capacities, and capabilities

In his paper, The Act of Choice1, Richard Holton notes that Samuel Johnson long ago said, “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” Holton thinks that the “true importance” of Johnson’s remark “has been missed”, because, despite the fact that “Johnson is right to insist that we have an experience of freedom[,]2 … [o]nce we start to contemplate the experience of free will, much of the literature on it seems beside the point.”3 Holton’s contention is that most of the literature gives, at best, only passing and superficial consideration to (when it is not out right dismissive of) the experience of freedom, particularly with regards to the context of human will. Rather than concerning itself with the experience of freedom, the literature extensively concentrates most adamantly upon metaphysical speculations, whether in the form of determinism, libertarianism, or compatibilism.

According to Holton, “choice is the primary ingredient in the experience of free will”4 and “choice comes when the question of what to do arises.”5 He also notes that “[o]ften in our day-to-day activities that question never arises at all.” In fact, “the question of what to do need not arise, not even in difficult or challenging situations.”6

As a general example, Holton points to situations, such as in the case of fire commanders and nurses, in which “[e]xperienced actors frequently just know what to do” and seem to do it without having to decide or choose what to do. This sort of knowledge attains from what amounts to a well rehearsed stereotyping wherein “new situations are recognized as similar to situations that have been encountered before, and so the actor knows what to do on the basis of what worked in the past” without there arising any questions about what to do.7

Of course, if humans ever act without there arising any questions about what to do, then humans do act without choice – certainly in the sense of conscious deliberation. And, if choice is the primary ingredient in the experience of free will, does this then mean that when humans act without choice they do not have free will? Or, does it mean that they do not have the experience of free will when they act without choice?

Holton identifies two broad categories of human acts: there are “acts that we choose to perform, and those that we perform without choice”. Those that we perform without choice are “automatic heuristic-based responses” (including habits), whereas choice “involves conscious consideration”.8 Holton goes on to say that even actions performed without choice are matters of agency if there is “the capacity to choose” even if that capacity is unexercised.9

From the foregoing discussion about choice, acts, and agency, it logically follows, as Holton says, that we “should not say that choice is a necessary condition for free will”10 even if “choice is the primary ingredient in” or is necessary for “the experience of free will”.

However, what also follows here is the question of whether “the capacity to choose” (rather than choice) is “a necessary condition for free will”. This question, in turn, calls up still another question about the nature of capacities. Holton says:

Automatically taking my habitual path home is [a matter of agency] because I have the capacity to choose which path to take, even though I do not exercise that capacity. It is tempting to cash this out as a counterfactual: if I had chosen to take another path, I would have done so.11

Holton delves no further into the nature of capacities than to say “if recent work has shown anything about capacities, and dispositions more generally, it has shown that simple-minded counterfactual analyses will not do.”12 Holton is correct about counterfactuals being insufficient for there to be capacity. Since a counterfactual is essentially nothing more than a conceivable alternative, it would seem plainly irrelevant to the constitution, characterization, or circumstance of an individual’s capacity to choose if the individual himself has no awareness that there is any possible alternative, or if the individual is himself without the capacity – and, more importantly and relevantly, the capability – to have conceived of or otherwise imagined any alternative.

With regards to whether the capacity to choose is a necessary condition for agent free will, it seems prima facie the case that individuals at least perceive themselves to have a greater degree of contextual freedom when they conceive of, or are in any way made aware of, plural options or alternatives for their yet-to-occur acts (putting aside the possibility of the paralyzing affect that some may suffer as a result of an overabundance of options). However, an individual’s having conceived of – or in any way having become aware of – multiple options for ways to act indicates not just a capacity or disposition; rather, it evidences a capability developed from a capacity.

With regards to situations in which agents act without choice but nonetheless have the capacity to choose, Holton says that “it is unclear quite how to understand [such an] experience of agency”, and he asks, “What is it like to experience an unexercised capacity?” Holton supposes “we might say … experience comes in the breach: it is not that we have a direct experience of agency, but rather tha[t] we have a direct experience of loss of agency” 13 or “the experience of loss of control”14.

While that may hold true about the experience of agency in general, capacity – whether exercised or unexercised – is not the experience of something lacking. It is actually very much the opposite. We become aware of capacity when a capability becomes manifest and, thereby, indicates the actuality of a primal capacity. We recognize a capacity to choose upon having the experience of having become aware of there being multiple options for the way in which we can act.

To expand upon the fire commander example employed by Holton, it can be (said) that a person who has no experience fighting fires – a trainee, for example – might have a capacity for fire fighting, but that person has no capability for fire fighting until the person becomes aware of at least some options for containing and extinguishing fires. The experience of combating an actual fire can enhance the trainee’s capability still further, which is to say that one becomes capable by the experience that effects learning, where learning is clearly a matter of development.

Holton quotes15 Gary Klein describing findings in a study of experts conducted by Klein:

We asked people to tell us about their hardest cases, thinking that these would show the most decision making. But where were the decisions? The commander sees a vertical fire and knows just what to do…. He never seems to decide anything. He is not comparing a favorite option to another option, as the two-option hypothesis suggests. He is not comparing anything.

Actually, Klein’s claim that nothing is being compared is not quite right, because, according to Klein himself, for experienced actors “new situations are recognized as similar to situations that have been encountered before, and so the actor knows what to do on the basis of what worked in the past.” This method is actually a type of comparison; it is a comparing made on the basis of experienced learning.

Nevertheless, the point that Holton is trying to make is that, for an experienced actor, if the current circumstance seems extensively similar to a previously encountered situation, there will be less intense decision-making and apparently greater automaticity involved in the initiation of action. In the case of an experienced actor, this veritable automaticity does not derive from a lack of awareness about the assorted possibilities; rather, a more developed capability is largely identical to a greater awareness of how to discard variables suspected to be situationally less relevant or irrelevant.

A less experienced actor in the same circumstance may very well have to expend greater effort to assess the situation in terms of which possibilities are expected to be less relevant. But, with regards to the capabilities of the more experienced and the less experienced actors, the rapidity with which either initiates responsive action is not necessarily a comparative measure for their respective capabilities; the speed of the response might only be indicative of a familiarity.

There will certainly be circumstances for which a more rapid correct response can be critically important, and we might even describe the more rapid correct response as a more capable response. However, that description would speak more to the exigencies of the particular circumstance than to the nature of capability in general.

In fact, it is not hard to imagine that some very experienced actor might take it upon himself to systematize what has been learned from experience in the form of a decision tree. Such a systematization could, of course, be used to develop the capabilities of others, even in those who think of the systematization more as a list of prescriptions – as a protocol – rather than as an insight into how to think in terms of relevant possibilities. And, it is easily imagined that one person thinking in terms of learned prescriptions could in some particular situation initiate a correct response as rapidly as – if not more rapidly than – another person who thinks more directly in terms of having identified the sorts of variables which gave rise to the sort of prescriptions from which the other person operates.

Would this mean that the person who works in terms of prescriptions has a capability that is as well developed as the capability of the person who does not rely so extensively on such prescriptions?

Consider the “commander [who] sees a vertical fire and knows just what to do”. In one way or another, the commander knows what to do because of some experience that resulted in the development of a capability. This may be the experience of previously having dealt with vertical fires; it might be the experience of having learned prescriptions or protocols established for dealing with vertical fires. In both cases, there is more than a capacity for fighting the fire, because a capability has been developed. It can be presumed that the average human has a capacity for fire fighting which no deer has, but it is necessary that there be some sort of development of that capacity before the human can be any more capable than is a deer at fighting fire.

Of course, once there is any developed capability, there is the matter of whether – and how – that capability can be even further developed. Someone who knows the protocol for handling a vertical fire knows how to initially respond to the situation. But, a still greater capability depends on an awareness that, more often than not, there are possible subsequent events which are not expected to certainly occur. This is why an agent’s capability is ultimately directly related to – if it is not identical to – an understanding based on possibilities.

Indeed, it is generally the case that someone whose understanding incorporates more possibilities has more freedom of action (including the act of willing) than does someone whose capacity (or capability) is not as fully developed.

This is not to say that such an understanding can only occur as the result of conscious analysis conducted formally in terms of possibilities. For many people, this particular form of analysis may most often occur only retrospectively, if it occurs at all, and merely retrospective analysis, in and of itself, is clearly insufficient to effect an enhanced capability with regards to future agent actions. Furthermore, such a heavily conscious analysis depends extensively on an already well developed verbal capability. A well developed verbal capability can certainly significantly contribute to improved understanding, but the verbal capability which might thereby seem necessary for analysis conducted in terms of possibilities is actually more likely necessary for adept communication of the understanding which incorporates apprehended possibilities. This verbal capability is itself more fully developed when it can be adapted to accommodate the different understandings – and not just the differing verbal capabilities – of other individuals, but it would still be a mistake to conclude that the development of capabilities is always directly related to and dependent upon the development of the verbal capability.

There can be any number of reasons why even expert agents can seem to know just what to do without appearing to choose or decide what to do. This seemingly unchosen action will seem all the more certainly unchosen absent the agent having a capability adequately developed for communicating an analysis of his own action. Understandings developed in terms of possibilities can become habits, but even then a more fully developed capability is one which remains sufficiently sensitive to alternatives so as to be able to more readily break from habituated responses.

This brings us right back to the point that the extent to which an agent is free to will or otherwise act can often depend on how well developed is the person’s capability to be aware of alternative possibilities. Very much related to this are the manners in which individuals on their own – whether with full intent or not – effectively limit their options and, thereby, often restrict their own capabilities.

For example, in the novel, O Pioneers!16, Willa Cather depicts the characters of the Bergson siblings in a way that captures the essence of the relationship between the development of capability and the wisdom born from an understanding of possibilities. One day the Bergsons go to visit an old man named Ivar whom the community regards as beyond eccentric and more likely insane. Addressing Ivar, Alexandra, the sister, brings up a matter that troubles her:

“We have a big bunch of hogs, Ivar. I wouldn’t sell in the spring, when everybody advised me to, and now so many people are losing their hogs that I am frightened. What can be done?”

Ivar’s little eyes began to shine. They lost their vagueness.

“You feed them swill and such stuff? Of course! And sour milk? Oh, yes! And keep them in a stinking pen? I tell you, sister, the hogs o this country are put upon! They become unclean, like the hogs in the Bible. If you kept your chickens like that, what would happen? You have a little sorghum patch, maybe? Put a fence around it, and turn the hogs in. Build a shed to give them shade, a thatch on poles. Let the boys haul water to them in barrels, clean water, and plenty. Get them off the old stinking ground, and do not let them go back until winter … Hogs do not like to be filthy.”

The boys outside the door had been listening. Lou nudged his brother [Oscar]. “Come, the horses are done eating. Let’s hitch up and get out of here. He’ll fill her full of notions. She’ll be for having the pigs sleep with us, next.”

Oscar grunted and got up. … They did not mind hard work, but they hated experiments and could never see the use of taking pains. Even Lou, who was more elastic than his older brother, disliked to do anything different from their neighbors. He felt that it made them conspicuous and gave people a chance to talk about them. (pp. 25-26)

The Bergson boys … were meant to follow in paths already marked out for them, not to break trails in a new country. (p. 27)

[Oscar] was as indolent of mind as he was unsparing of his body. His love of routine amounted to a vice. He worked like an insect, always doing the same thing, regardless of whether it was best or no. (p. 31)

Of course, this disdain for difference and experiments amounts to a restriction. But, it is not so much a matter of limited possibilities as it is the frankly much worse limited access to alternative possibilities. Alexandra, the sister, is more capable than her brothers because she seeks out alternatives for consideration, and because of this, when there are realizable alternatives, she is more free to act in the same situation precisely because of this capability she has developed and which her brothers have not. The brothers might be described as having some sort of innate (pre)disposition that interferes with their being able to allow the development of an understanding constituted with more possibilities, but it nevertheless remains the case that there can be a greater freedom as the result of a greater capability which itself derives from a greater awareness of alternative possibilities.

2. Metaphysical considerations

Whereas Holton posits that an awareness of self-agency comes about indirectly, as the result of a direct experience of the loss of control, it seems clearly the case that the most direct experience of freedom occurs with an awareness of multiple realizable options.

It could be argued that, beyond the mere perception or experience of freedom that results from awareness of there being options, there is an actual freedom – realized or not, perceived or not – so long as the nature of reality is such that all which is to occur in the perspectively future is not definitively and objectively set or fixed or (pre)determined. Such a condition of indeterminateness17 is necessary for there to be free will and free agents – especially in light of the fact that, as Holton points out, counterfactuals, in and of themselves, are insufficient to provide for the capacity – much less any capability – to choose. The capacity to choose can be said to be necessary for there to be the capability to choose, but the capacity to choose can never come to fruition as a capability unless the perspectively future is not definitively, objectively, and entirely set or (pre)determined.

This is to say that indeterminateness is necessary for there to be (non-illusory) freedom and a capability to choose.

Can determinism accommodate the indeterminateness which is necessary for choice and freedom?

Holton elsewhere18 describes determinism as the notion that “the world is deterministic”, meaning that “given the initial conditions, and the laws of nature, the way that the world will unroll is determined.” For instance, given a fire, the fire will burn for howsoever long conditions support ongoing combustion. When a building is on fire, the fire will – if left alone in generally stable conditions – burn until the combustible components which constitute the building are consumed, if the fire does not spread either to proximal buildings or to other proximal combustible materials.

This fire is apparently a deterministic process, but this process is most definitely not sufficient support for the sort of determinism which would assert that the initial conditions of the world, reality, or the universe, in conjunction with the laws of nature are sufficient to establish all that is ever to occur. This sort of determinism, often referred to as hard determinism, is posited as being devoid of the indeterminateness which is necessary for freedom and choice.

Just to be clear about the scope of what is being discussed here, it is essential to note that the indeterminateness at issue is a metaphysical matter; it is not an epistemic issue; this indeterminateness has absolutely nothing to do with whether someone thinks that there is indeterminateness owing to the fact that this person does not know how “the world will unroll”. As noted above, the (metaphysical) freedom at issue is independent of realization and perception. Likewise, this freedom is independent of counterfactuals, although the indeterminateness necessary for this freedom could, in effect, move counterfactuals from a merely logical domain and into an apt description of actuality. This is to say that counterfactuals would no longer be restricted to an abstract logical realm; instead, at least some counterfactuals would correspond to – or be constitutive of – metaphysical reality.19

As discussed, a fire is a deterministic process, but it does not inescapably follow from this fact that a building which is on fire will be consumed and destroyed by that fire. This is because, despite being deterministic, the fire process is itself rife with indeterminateness. The timely presence of some person(s) with an awareness of options for fighting the fire (in conjunction with having the resources for enacting options) can effect a result other than that which would have been produced by the fire were it a wholly determinate process.

To say that something such as a fire is a deterministic process is to say nothing more than that it has momentum, metaphorically speaking. To say that something is a deterministic process is not to say that how the process “will unroll is determined” by virtue of the fact that the process begins at all.

3. Conclusion

In order for there to be an actual, non-illusory capability to choose, it is necessary that there be the sort of indeterminateness (a metaphysical indeterminateness) which makes freedom and alternatives realizable. The strictest sort of (metaphysical) determinism precludes – and is incompatible with – the indeterminateness necessary for freedom which is made most manifest with the realization of alternative possibilities.

In his paper, The Act of Choice, Holton describes compatibilism (also sometimes referred to as soft determinism) in the conventional manner as the notion “that free will is compatible with determinism”.20 However, insofar as the belief in determinism denies the indeterminateness that is necessary for choice and free will (a belief which is in contradistinction to the belief that the processes of nature are, as has been discussed, deterministic), it is anything except apparent how free will and determinism can be compatible (except where some meaning and experience of freedom is asserted other than what has been discussed here).

Inasmuch as Holton notes that counterfactuals are not, in and of themselves, sufficient for freedom (and, certainly, the experience of freedom), there seems to be no reason at all for Holton to assert that his account about choice makes compatibilism “more persuasive” while also rendering “libertarian accounts less persuasive”.21

At the beginning of his paper, Holton says that libertarians “insist that a truly free will is one that is fundamentally uncaused; is the true originator of action.” Holton is quite correct when he says that these libertarians are not “describ[ing] an experience”22 and that such a libertarian thesis amounts to nothing more than “a bit of speculative philosophy”.23 However, Holton could level the same non-experiential and speculative philosophy charge against determinism and determinists and, therefore, compatibilism and compatibilists.

The fact of the matter is that no discussion which incorporates any consideration about the experience of freedom and choice (including considerations which dismiss or eliminate freedom and choice as illusions) will indubitably establish as truth either libertarianism or determinism or compatibilism. Nonetheless, and despite Holton’s statement to the contrary, it remains beyond the pale to assert that the freedom which is made manifest in the capability to choose is in any way compatible with a metaphysical determinism which denies the indeterminateness which is necessary for choice and freedom.

1Holton, Richard, ‘The Act of Choice’, The Philosophers’ Imprint 6, 3 (2006)
2 Holton, p. 2
3 Holton, p. 1
4 Holton, p. 2
5 Holton, p. 3
6 Holton, p. 3
7 Holton, p. 3
8 Holton, p. 3
9 Holton, p. 13
10 Holton, p. 4
11 Holton, p. 13
12 Holton, p. 13
13 Holton, p. 13
14 Holton, see footnote 46, p. 14
15 Holton, p. 3
16 Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2003.
18 Holton, Richard, ‘From Determinism to Resignation; and How to Stop It’,
19 See Revisiting the Cosmological Argument (, in particular the final section on ‘The Nature of Possibilities’.
20 Holton, ‘The Act of Choice’, p. 4.
21 Holton, p. 15
22 Holton, p. 1
23 Holton, p. 2

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2 Responses to Matters of Choice and Free Will

  1. Pingback: Is Derek Parfit a Speculative Realist? | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: On the experience of free will |

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