Phenomenological Psychology

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Free Will and the 9.11 Hijackers

October 14th, 2011 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

The “problem of free will” has vexed psychologists and philosophers for centuries.  In this note I will discuss it briefly and apply it to the dreadful events of 9.11.  Free will presents as a problem because of the apparent tension between determinism and choice.  “Determinism” means one can cite causally sufficient antecedent conditions to explain why something happens (Watson, 2003).  Thus, for example, upon choosing between two different options, the determinist simply might say, “my brain processes made me do it.”  The determinist didn’t have to “decide” to do anything.  In principle one could build a robot to do it (albeit a very complex one).  Hard-core determinists go so far as to maintain one’s selection was foreordained or predestined in a cosmological sense – in principle, by antecedent conditions dating back to the “big bang,” which created the universe 13.7 billion years ago (Hawking, 1988).

“Choice,” on the other hand, is the experience of acting voluntarily.  For example, Paris had to choose between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite and select who was the most beautiful.  He picked Aphrodite, who as a reward gave him Helen, wife of Menelaus.  The Trojan War started when he abducted her off to Troy (Judgment of Paris, 2011).  He had a subjective, phenomenological experience of deciding between competing alternative possibilities.  He had to evaluate reasons and “make up his mind” what to do; he “could have done otherwise.”  He couldn’t simply sit there and wait to see what happened. [1] Contrasted with determinism, this perspective is called “libertarianism” (Wiggins, 2003).

This leaves us in the paradoxical position where there is no freedom at the neurobiological level, because psychological states are determined by neurophysiological states, which follow a causal sequence.  There is, however, freedom (underdetermination) at the psychological level, because in the ordinary course, each psychological state is insufficient for the next psychological state, even though the underlying neurobiology is sufficient.

Historically, reconciling determinism with libertarianism has proven difficult.  “Compatibilists” hold a deterministic universe only provides a background or network of states of affairs, within which agents still have freedom of action (Lewis, 2003).  From an ethical standpoint, compatibilism also rescues our sense of individual responsibility, because it allows for moral choice (Nagel, 2003).  This is an important feature of being human; to deny it threatens the meaning of life.  Compare the determinist, who simply can reference antecedent causes, and thus remains free from personal accountability.  “Incompatibilists,” on the other hand, adopt a “consequentialist” deterministic-type of argument, and hold that everything an agent does is necessitated by a prior physical state of the universe (Inwagen, 2003).

I think incompatibilism is wrong and that some version of compatibilism is right.  The main reason why – not typically discussed in these debates – is that free choice doesn’t occur in a vacuum.  At a decision juncture, an agent is presented with finite range of possible choices.  It’s not like agents can choose anything they want. [2] There is an additional complication, which is that determinists fail to take into account the issue of randomness.  Randomness means that events, which seem to be determined, in fact lack causally sufficient antecedent conditions (Mlodinow, 2009).  They just happen to people, haphazardly and unpredictably.  Randomness should be sensitive to the laws of probability, just like any other phenomena in an actual world (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2010), and some people are in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

Seen from this perspective, the various classes of persons on 9.11 who seem as though they were able to exercise free will actually might not have been able to do so.  Rescue workers believed they had some control over the outcome of their actions (indeed, it was their job to affect it causally).  Even so, they were constrained by orders from their supervisors, operationalized protocols regarding what to do in a disaster, even the camaraderie and shared ethos of their colleagues.  The hijackers also may appear to have had some control over their actions.  In fact, though, they were motivated by religious zeal, a constrainer similar to that of the public service ethos of the rescue workers.  A central tenet of the Islamic faith is divine predestination:

As the omnipotent creator of all things, God must be the progenitor “of the good and evil, “of the little and the much, of what is outward and what is inward, of what is sweet and what is bitter, of what is liked and what is disliked, of what is fine and what is bad, of what is first and what is last” (Aslan, 2006, p. 154).  Those who died instantly at the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon, on the other hand, had no chance to think about anything.  They were random victims. [3]

In summary, I envision a continuum between pure determinism on the one hand, and pure free will on the other.  Situated somewhere in-between are compatibilism and randomness.  Often, events in decision space, which appear to be freely chosen, in fact are driven by a complex, group-psychology type of dynamic.  One’s beliefs about what is possible are constrained by personal, contextual and cultural factors.  Many outcomes are neither determined nor chosen; they simply happen as a result of the impact of random events.  We characterize these if “fortuitous” if they are desirable, or “unlucky” if they’re not.  The various categories of persons present at 9.11 differentially illustrate these outcomes.


Aslan, R. (2010).  No god but God.  New York, NY: Random House.

Graves, R. (1993).  Greek myths.  New York, NY: Penguin.

Hawking, S. (1988).  A brief history of time.  New York, NY: Bantam.

Hawking, S. & Mlodinow, L. (2010).  The grand design.  New York, NY: Bantam.

Inwagen, P. (2003).  An argument for incompatibilism.  In G. Watson (Ed.).  Free will (2nd ed.) (pp. 38 – 57).  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Judgment of Paris (2011).  Retrieved from

Lewis, D. (2003).  Are we free to break the laws?  In G. Watson (Ed.).  Free will (2nd ed.) (pp. 122 – 129).  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mlodinow, L. (2009).  The drunkard’s walk: How randomness rules our lives.  New York, NY: Vintage.

Nagel, T. (2003).  Freedom.  In G. Watson (Ed.).  Free will (2nd ed.) (pp. 229 – 256).  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Watson, G. (2003).  Introduction.  In G. Watson (Ed.).  Free Will (2nd ed.) (pp. 1 – 25).  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wiggins, D. (2003).  Towards a reasonable libertarianism.  In G. Watson (Ed.).  Free will (2nd ed.) (pp. 94 – 122).  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[1] Even so, his fate was ruled by the Moirae (Μοῖραι), classically envisioned as three white-robed women who spun and wove each individual’s thread of life from birth to death, controlling their destiny (υπέρ μοίραν) (Graves, 1993).

[2] For example, even if I had selected it as a potential career option (which I never would!), it’s highly unlikely I ever could have become President of the United States, no matter what my desires.  I am situationally and contextually restrained.  I function within a cultural matrix specifying familiar dynamic factors such as age, gender, race, SES, etc.

[3] I am not impressed by arguments that they could have exercised free will by not, for example, going to work that day.  That’s not a decision vector where people make a conscious choice; one simply does it, because that’s what one does.