Reconciling Free Will with Determinism

Free will and determinism seem to conflict with each other. But the apparent conflict disappears when we understand that determinism and free will simply describe the world from radically different perspectives and at fundamentally different levels. Free will makes sense only within the context of the physical world, whereas determinism makes sense only from a perspective that is outside the physical world. Consider the determinist statement, “The future exists and has always existed”. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but only because our language forces us to express the idea misleadingly in terms of the past and future. If we assign special meanings to the temporal words in the statement—namely, if by the future we mean “objectively real events that from the perspective of our present have not yet happened”; and if by always we mean “transcending time itself” rather than the usual “existing across all time”—then the contradiction resolves. Assigning these special meanings allows us to express determinism as atemporal and objective: as a description of a physical reality of which time is an attribute. Conversely, free will, which is by far the more intuitive concept, is needed to explain certain kinds of events (i.e., choices) that occur within time, and thus within the physical world that determinism describes from the outside. Determinism and free will are compatible. We really do make choices. It’s just that, from an atemporal determinist perspective, these choices have “always” existed.

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