Thomas Nagel, one of the greatest living philosophers, approaches the subject of free will with humility. He writes:
“I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be seen as a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.”
He ends his contribution to the discussion of the subject – 28 pages of tightly argued complex philosophical writing – with the remark, “As I have said, it seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has been said on this subject.”
The problem, as Nagel frames it, is one of perspective:
“In acting we occupy the internal perspective, and we can occupy it sympathetically with regard to the actions of others. But when we move away from our individual point of view, and consider our own actions and those of others simply as part of the course of events in a world that contains us among other creatures and things, it begins to look as if we never really contribute anything.
From the inside, when we act, alternative possibilities seem to lie open before us: to turn right or left, to order this dish or that, to vote for one candidate or the other – and one of the possibilities is made actual by what we do. The same applies to our internal consideration of the actions of others. But from an external perspective, things look different. That perspective takes in not only the circumstances of action as they present themselves to the agent, but also the conditions and influences lying behind the action, including the complete nature of the agent himself. While we cannot fully occupy this perspective towards ourselves while acting, it seems possible that many of the alternatives that appear to lie open when viewed from an internal perspective would seem closed from this outer point of view, if we could take it up. And even if some of them are left open, given a complete specification of the condition of the agent and the circumstances of action, it is not clear how this would leave anything further for the agent to contribute to the outcome – anything that he could contribute as source, rather than merely as the scene of the outcome – the person whose act it is.”
As Nagel sees it our problem concerning free will is a “bafflement of our feelings and attitudes – a loss of confidence, conviction or equilibrium.” The problem is that when we take an external view of our actions, we clearly see that our actions are events in a natural order caused by any number of factors outside of our control. Thus we get the “feeling that agents are helpless and not responsible.” And we can’t find ways of making sense of our internal view where we act autonomously. Neither can we get rid of our felt sense of autonomy in action. “We are apparently condemned to want something impossible,” says Nagel.
So if we can’t have the autonomy that we crave, the next best thing, according to Nagel, is to be able to reconcile our internal view with the external perspective. “This does not meet the central problem of free will,” according to Nagel. “But it does reduce the degree to which the objective self must think of itself as an impotent spectator, and to that extent it confers a kind of freedom.” So what we must do, is to learn to act from an objective standpoint as well as to view ourselves from an objective standpoint. Nagel adds, that, since we can’t act in light of everything about ourselves, the best we can do is to try to live in a way that wouldn’t have to be revised in light of anything more that could be known about us.
Nagel proposes an ascent towards this greater reconciliation of internal and external views along four steps:
“We might try, first, to develop as complete an objective view of ourselves as we can, and include it in the basis of our actions, wherever it is relevant. This would mean consistently looking over our own shoulders at what we are doing and why (though often it will be a mere formality). But this objective self-surveillance will inevitably be incomplete, since some knower must remain behind the lens if anything is to be known.”
This seems like a burdensome procedure, as well as one that might undermine confidence in action and make it hesitant. But this self-surveillance could potentially become a practice that runs in our mind quite routinely. The examples Nagel gives of things we might catch through the look over our shoulder are influences over our actions that we would resist if we became aware of them: prejudice, irrationality and narrow-mindedness. We can avoid acting under their influence by increasing our self-awareness.
Self-awareness, though, can never progress so far towards objectivity that it wouldn’t include a blind spot.
2.) Practical rationality – stepping outside of impulses and desires
Nagel refers to “ordinary practical rationality” as “roughly analogous to the process of forming a coherent set of beliefs out of one’s pre-reflective personal impressions. This involves […] actual endorsement of some motives, suppression or revision of others, and adoption of still others, from a standpoint outside that within which primary impulses, appetites, and aversions arise. When these conflict we can step outside and choose among them.”
3.) Prudential rationality – stepping outside of the present moment
An important subset of practical rationality, is prudence, where we don’t just step outside ourselves to arbitrate between a number of our motives for action, but we step outside of the present moment to consider future considerations that may have a bearing on our actions. (So this is where I judge the present desire to eat the second piece of cake against the future consideration of feeling like I’ve eaten too much.) Nagel warns against over-using the ability to do this: “The dominance of a timeless view of one’s life may be objectively unwise. And compulsiveness or neurotic avoidance based on repressed desires can easily be disguised as rational self-control.”
“But in its normal form,” he concludes, “prudence increases one’s freedom by increasing one’s control over the operation of first-order motives through a kind of objective will.”
4.) Morality – stepping outside oneself
The next step goes even further than just accepting considerations from outside the present, to accepting considerations from outside one’s life: “More external than the standpoint of temporal neutrality is the standpoint from which one sees oneself as just an individual among others.” This step leads to the formation of impersonal values, and the modification of conduct and motivation in accordance with them.
The Paradox – Morality as Freedom
There is a paradox here: Nagel started us off on this ascent with a promise that it would get us to a more comfortable place with regard to our problem with freedom of the will. But we end the journey under the yoke of moral and ethical considerations. Nagel is fully aware of this paradox: “there is an internal connection between ethics and freedom: subjection to morality expresses the hope of autonomy, even though it is a hope that cannot be realised in its original form. We cannot act on the world from outside, but we can in a sense act from both inside and outside our particular position in it. Ethics increases the range of what it is about ourselves that we can will – extending it from our actions to the motives and character traits and dispositions from which they arise.”