DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2024, from

12. Free will

Epicurus was arguably the first to make free will a central philosophical issue (see Free will). He takes it that determinism must be false. It is incompatible with basic moral attitudes; the data of self-awareness falsify it; and it is a position which cannot even be argued coherently, since to enter an argument is to assume that both parties to the debate are responsible for their beliefs and could adopt others (On Nature XXV).

Determinism is arrived at by two routes, each of which must therefore contain a false supposition. The first route is via a logical law, that of bivalence: since all propositions, including those about the future, are either true or false, if it is already false that a given event will occur, it cannot occur, and if true, it cannot fail to occur. Therefore everything that occurs occurs of necessity. Epicurus’ response is (like Aristotle’s in De interpretatione 9, as widely interpreted) to reject the law of bivalence as regards future-tensed propositions. Predictions whose accuracy depends on human decisions yet to be made are, at the time of utterance, neither true nor false.

The second route is physical. We – our souls as well as our bodies – consist entirely of atoms, which move according to mechanical laws. How then can anything be genuinely ‘up to us’? Are we not automata, our actions the outcome of infinite atomic causal chains? This time the Epicurean response is that the laws of atomic motion are not after all entirely deterministic. Atoms’ motion through weight and blows is mechanical and invariable, but there must be a third, indeterministic, aspect of their motion, the minimal ‘swerve’ (see §4).

But how do swerves help explain free will? The question is much debated by scholars. Epicurus may appear to be merely substituting an unpredictable mechanism for a predictable one, not putting us in charge. Perhaps, as with the denial of bivalence, he is merely attempting to remove an obstacle to free will, not to explain it. Whether the swerve enters more directly than this into his account of volition will depend partly on whether he thinks that mental events such as volition are reducible to atomic changes in the soul, in which swerving atoms could play a part. There is in fact strong evidence (On Nature XXV) that he regarded mental events as irreducibly different from the soul atoms underlying them, and even as having their own causal efficacy onthe atoms. (For his rejection of atomic reductionism, see §5 above.) If so, it may be safest to conclude that volition is already by its own nature autonomous – not part of an antecedent causal chain at all – and that this is the primary explanation of free will. Unfortunately its autonomy would be rendered impotent if either the laws of logic or those of physics had already determined our future actions independently of it. Therefore both sets of laws must be so rewritten as to circumvent this danger, and to keep alternative possibilities genuinely open. In the case of physics, the indeterministic swerve just is the most economical realization of that requirement.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Free will. Epicureanism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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