Freedom of ActionFreedom of Action is sometimes regarded by philosophers of "agency" as the real problem of Free Will, but this is a major confusion. The confusion may have begun as early as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, the modern founders of compatibilism. For Hobbes and Hume, to be free to act on one's will is simply to be free of external constraints. Absent any external coercion, an agent is free to do as one wills, even if the will itself is determined (or predetermined) by causal laws of nature. This was the foremost view in the age of Newtonian deterministic physics, and continued to grow stronger in modern times despite the discovery of real quantum mechanical indeterminism in the early twentieth century. Note that the action itself is just as predetermined as the will, since all events are causally linked in a chain going back to the beginning of the universe. So the idea of human freedom as absence of coercion (so-called "negative freedom") is unsatisfying. Immanuel Kant called it a "wretched subterfuge," and William James called it a "quagmire of evasion" and "soft" determinism
By contrast with mere freedom of action, freedom of the will is the positive freedom to do otherwise in the same circumstances. This requires alternative possibilities for thought and action that Hobbes and Hume denied could exist. It implies the existence of absolute chance in the universe, which they thought impossible since all events have necessary causes. And it implies more than one possible future, which may conflict with religious views of God's foreknowledge.
Hobbes called free actions "voluntary" and the actor a "free agent."
David Hume agreed:
Elizabeth Anscombe wrote an essay on "Soft Determinism," in which she said, perhaps simply agreeing with Hume's view on prisioners in chains, "Everyone will allow that 'A can walk, i.e. has freedom of the will in respect of walking' would be gainsaid by A's being chained up." Rogers Albritton severely criticized Anscombe in his 1985 presidential address to the Western division of the American Philosophical Association - "Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action." He clearly distinguished freedom of action (the freedom to do what we will) from freedom of the will itself.
Most philosophers seem to think it quite easy to rob the will of some freedom. Thus Elizabeth Anscombe, in an essay called "Soft Determinism," appears to suppose that a man who can't walk because he is chained up has lost some freedom of will. He "has no 'freedom of will' to walk," she says, or, again; no "freedom of the will in respect of walking." "Everyone will allow," she says, "that 'A can walk, i.e. has freedom of the will in respect of walking' would be gainsaid by A's being chained up." And again, "External constraint is generally agreed to be incompatible with freedom", by which she seems to mean: incompatible with perfect freedom of will, because incompatible with freedom of will to do, or freedom of the will in respect of doing, whatever the constraint prevents.Albritton made it very clear that we could will something even if it proved impossible to do. "Where there's a will, there just isn't always a way," as he put it.
But I do want to dispute, first, what Anscombe thinks "everyone will allow." I don't allow it. I don't see (do you?) that my freedom of will would be reduced at all if you chained me up. You would of course deprive me of considerable freedom of movement if you did that; you would thereby diminish my already unimpressive capacity to do what I will. But I don't see that my will would be any the less free. What about my "freedom of will to walk," you will ask (or perhaps you won't, but there the phrase is, in Anscombe's essay); what about my "freedom of the will in respect of walking"? I reply that I don't understand either of those phrases. They seem to me to mix up incoherently two different things: free will, an obscure idea which is the one I am after, on this expedition, and physical ability to walk, a relatively clear idea which has nothing to do with free will.