Are We Free to Break the Laws?



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Are We Really Free to Break the Laws?


David Lewis’ article titled “Are We Free to Break the Laws?” has sparked controversy and discussion regarding his position on free will and the laws of nature. In this paper Lewis attempts to argue a point for the acceptance of compatibilism and its support of soft determinism.

Lewis defines compatibilism as, “the doctrine that soft determinism may be true” (Lewis). Thus, Lewis must also provide a definition of soft determinism that he says is, “the doctrine that sometimes one freely does what one is predetermined to do; and that in such a case one is able to act otherwise though past history and the laws of nature determine that one will not act otherwise” (Lewis). It is also important to have a handle on what determinism is in order to evaluate Lewis’ argument. Determinism can be defined roughly as that if a certain set of conditions exist that only one event can result from those conditions. Having these two definitions in place we can then attempt to divulge into what Lewis is really getting at.

After establishing these definitions Lewis must clarify his own position on this issue for purposes of the discussion and defending his position; According to Lewis a compatibilist could doubt soft determinism as he defines it because it can be doubted that a person has all of their future actions predetermined or conversely that we ever have the ability to act freely. Lewis himself is a compatibilist and rejects determinism. However, he must explore the determinist position in order to argue against it.

Lewis’ first example, which he utilizes to explore his intended phenomena, follows as such;

I have just put my hand down on my desk. That, let me claim, was a free but predetermined act. I was able to act otherwise, for instance to raise my hand. But, there is a true historical proposition H about the intrinsic state of the world long ago, and there is a true proposition L specifying the laws of nature that govern our world, such that H and L jointly determine what I did. They jointly imply the proposition that I put my hand down. They jointly contradict the proposition that I raised my hand. Yet I was free; I was able to raise my hand. The way in which I was determined not to was not the sort of way that counts as inability (Lewis).

If we consider this particular paragraph from Lewis for a moment we can make several observations; that Lewis put his hand down on his desk, which was a free but predetermined act, for purposes of this example, and that he was able to do otherwise if he had chosen to, i.e. he could have raised his hand should he have chosen to. Lewis seems to be aiming at making the point that even if some act was preconceived to occur, such as setting your hand on your desk, that you were nevertheless free to act in another way, such as raising your hand, should you have chosen to do so. This position assumes that a person is under normal conditions and is not impaired in any way, by evil genius or exterior control, which would prevent you from acting freely. Yet, it still seems that we cannot sufficiently conclude whether or not you setting your hand on your desk, or deciding to raise it, was a preconceived act.

Next, Lewis asks the question of his example that, “What if I had raised my hand?” If this were to have occurred, he then says that one of three things would have been true; 1. Raising your hand caused a contradiction in that H and L occurred together, or 2. “the historical proposition H would not have been true”, or 3. “the law proposition L would not have been true”. Any one of these three could have been true if he had raised his hand, but which one? If the first assertion is false, then we can dismiss a possible contradiction that raising a hand would cause between H and L. If we dismiss the second one, we can rest that the world will continue just in the way it was intended to, because in Lewis’ argument he claims that proposition H speaks to the intrinsic state of the world long ago as it was preconceived to be. Since Lewis feels that neither one nor two are to be upheld he claims then that if we agree with three that we can have a determinist argument that may be plausible.

If we return again to our definition of soft determinism per Lewis, that soft determinism is, “the doctrine that sometimes one freely does what one is predetermined to do; and that in such a case one is able to act otherwise through past history and the laws of nature determine that one will not act otherwise” we can evaluate the move that Lewis made through his first example. If we support determinism we can safely say that even if Lewis chose to raise his hand, determinism allows him to do so on the grounds that we could argue that there were a set of conditions surrounding his raising of his hand that did not allow for anything other than that event to happen.

However, Lewis feels that the opposite is true. He argues that if we believe L to be true that inherently a law of nature would be broken on the grounds that L concerns itself with the specifications of the laws. He goes on to say that,

“That is not to say that anything would have been both a law and broken- that is a contradiction in terms if, as I suppose, any genuine law is at least an absolutely unbroken regularity. Rather, if L had not been true, something that is in fact a law, and unbroken, would have been broken, and no law. It would at best have been an almost-law.”

Here the problem seems to be how we decide to define a law and what an “almost-law” would entail. Yet, ignoring this for now, Lewis grant that he is committed to saying that, under soft determinism, his raising of his hand breaks some law. Following this, Lewis quotes one of his opponents who says, “That is to say you claim to be able to break the very laws of nature. And with so little effort! A marvelous power indeed! Can you also bend spoons?” Obviously the latter half of this quoted critique represents the distaste Lewis created in attempting to argue that laws can be broken. However, his critic does raise the elephant in the room question that how indeed can Lewis try to argue that he is breaking a law in his example of raising his hand.

To respond to this critique, Lewis clarifies his thesis into two, a strong thesis and weak thesis. The strong thesis is defined as, “I am able to break a law”, and the weak thesis as, “I am able to do something such that, if I did it, a law would be broken”. Lewis says that his critic inserted the strong thesis into an argument that relied on the weak thesis. Lewis agrees that if the strong thesis were used that he too would reject its conclusions and furthermore that it is not consistent with the framework of soft determinism. To support his point and emphasize the difference in his two theses Lewis presents another example;

Perhaps I am able to throw a stone in a certain direction; and perhaps if I did, the stone would hit a certain window and the window should break. Then I am able to break a window. For starters: I am able to do something such that, if I did it, a window would be broken. But there is more to be said. I am able to do something such that, if I did it, my act would itself be a promise-breaking event (Lewis).

Then, Lewis must explain how one can break a promise. He says that if someone is able to throw a stone he could break a promise to not throw a stone. He would then be able to break a promise by throwing a stone. Thusly in the same way as the window example he says, “I am able to do something such that, if I did it, my act itself would be a promise-breaking event.” Next, Lewis uses a third example. He asserts that if one could throw a stone extremely hard, so hard that it would travel faster than light. This event then would break a law. And similarly as before he says, “I would be able to do something such that, if I did it, my act would cause a lawbreaking event.”

Each of these three examples demonstrates his cunning ability to twist words and find an example that yes indeed events can be found in which the results of an event all break something. His point in presenting these examples is to make the case that he has the ability to bring about window or promise or law breaking events via the rock hitting the window, throwing a stone thusly breaking a promise not to, or throwing a stone faster than light which breaks a law of physics. This brings us to Lewis’ ultimate cause in referencing these events, in that, if he had raised his hand, the raising of his hand wouldn’t have been the source of the broken law but the events leading to him raising his hand. The events preceding him raising his hand, the law-breaking event, are called divergence miracles. Divergence miracles are those divergences preceding an event that allow an event to occur different than the one set forth by the laws of nature or the predetermined act that should have occurred if there was no divergence miracle that preceded the event.

To support this though, Lewis claims that, “I said that if I had raised my hand, the divergence miracle beforehand would not have been caused by my raising my hand”. It is important to make the distinction that the divergence miracle is not the actual event, but some other occurrence. The counterfactual line of reasoning is,



  1. if I had raised my hand, the divergence miracle would have occurred, but

  2. if I had not raised my hand, it would not have occurred.

Since this line of reasoning is not valid, Lewis can assert that it is not the case that the miracle was a result of, or cause of, his act.

Since it still seems unclear what Lewis is trying to do here, we can look at Van Inwagen’s argument to evaluate another opinion on this matter. According to Lewis, Van Inwagen’s argument runs as follows:

I did not raise my hand; suppose for reduction that I could have raised my hand, although determinism is true. Then it follows, given four premises that I cannot question, that I could have rendered false the conjunction HL of a certain historical proposition H about the state of the world before my birth and a certain law proposition L. If so, then I could have rendered L false. (Premise 5.) But I could not have rendered L false. (Premise 6.) This refutes our supposition.

In response, Lewis says that Premises 5 and 6 cannot both be true. Lewis’ issue with Van Inwagen’s logic comes from his use of the phrase “could have rendered false”. Not having a clear definition of what Van Inwagen meant by this phrase troubles Lewis in his ability to evaluate Van Inwagen’s argument.

In an attempt to clear this up, Lewis assumes that you could use the phrase “could have rendered false” to mean simply that, “iff I was able to do something such that, if I did it, the proposition would have been falsified (though not necessarily by my act, or by any event caused by my act)”. This line of reasoning looks awfully familiar to the one utilized earlier in each of Lewis’ examples. Essentially, this issue comes down to the difference between the weak and strong thesis discussed earlier.

If we consider the utilization of the strong thesis, that said, “I am able to break a law”, we can say that you purely render a law false. This position is the one that Lewis rejects. If we consider the weak thesis, that said, “I am able to do something such that, if I did it, a law would be broken” we can see the grounds created that it is possible to have a law be broken in the way Lewis’ examples stated. This latter version of law breaking is something that Lewis sees more as a rendering of a law false in that there is a way in which to break it.

It seems that, through evaluating Lewis’ argument, the possibility certainly exists for laws to be broken under the weak thesis and soft determinism. However, it seems that taken in a bigger picture context, the conceptualization of determinism and the grounds for supporting it are somewhere where we could draw criticism. Yet, it seems that one of the strengths of soft determinism lies in its definition in which it does not flatly assert that one always freely does what they are predetermined to, but that sometimes one freely does what one is predetermined to do. We cannot refute every situation or support every situation concerning free will or determined actions, thusly the definition of soft determinism allows for variation in how we can look at the issue of predetermined actions.

Yet, one can’t help but wonder that even if we are predetermined to act in such a way, it seems that one could act in a different way that could break a law, such as the stone promise or rock that Lewis references. This breakage of whatever we consider could be purely linked to the human condition in that humans have some sort of free will, with which, making decisions, or gut feelings, are allowed for. It seems silly in a sense to consider these acts as predetermined, but it also seems very valid that we really cannot definitively decide what is predetermined and what is not. This could lead down a slippery slope into beliefs and possible worlds, and maybe this direction could be taken in order to yield a slew of answers to some of these questions. However, for now, to answer the title of Lewis’ paper, yes it does seem to be the case that it is possible that conditions exist such that we are free to break the laws.



This paper is from the collection, Theoria, 47 (1981) 112-121. I do not have an actual copy, just an online version, so page numbers are absent for this reason.

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