In my own philosophical development, I've had to give up the notion of free will. One will hear, for example—and even from people who are otherwise believers in science—that things like painting, symphonies, and poetry imply that we have free will.

Science seems to be telling us otherwise, not only because everything else in our world seems to be determined by preceding events in causal chains that go all the way back to The Big Bang, but because what we are learning about the brain tells us that what we think we are doing freely was actually determined in our brain prior to our being conscious of it.

For me, the most fundamental problem comes from the illusion that by simply juxtaposing the words "free" and "will" we have a rational and understandable concept called "free will." Consider if we put the words "exuberant" and "soap" together. What have we got? Nonsense! I think the main reason we don't see "free will" as nonsense is that we never stop to ask ourselves what this word "will" means.

What does "will" mean? It's hard to resist thinking of psychokinesis when referring to will.

What do free will believers believe? Apparently that a novel or string quartet or a murder (to take a negative example) happens through an act of willing these works or events into reality quite apart from a causal chain or through some act of personal intervention into a causal chain.

Free will believers believe in personally-caused miracles.

I myself believe that people originate works and events by being who they are. They are part of the causal chain but not outside or above it.

If you feel free will exists, then let's start with a definition, not a simple refusal to believe that we don't have it. And in your definition, please avoid negative definitions centering on what free will is not or on what is not explained if you don't believe in it. In regard to the latter, please avoid stuff like "If we can't refer to free will, then how do we hold criminals responsible for their misdeeds?"

I think you'll soon see that the main problem with the notion of "free will" is that you can't define it well enough to turn it into a proposal that can be disproved. And if you haven't asserted something which lends itself to disproof, you really haven't asserted anything at all. As if one were to propose that there is an invisible, ineffable, and totally undetectable being in control of everything.

That is the kind of notion of free will is, it seems to me.

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I don't believe in free will. I believe that our decisions are a result of how our brain is wired & how it has been trained over the years.

I like how you defined free will implicitly by making claims about what "free will believers" believe, then go on to say that free will can't be precisely defined, though this is exactly what you have done when you say that "free will believers" view free will as a kind of force acting outside of physical causation.

In any case, what's the problem with compatibilism? You clearly endorse determinism, and most likely physicalism, so why not compatibilism? Given your position, that's the view that you should be addressing, since you've ruled out the libertarian conception of free will by accepting determinism. 

As for defining what free willers seem to believe, that was pretty much to lay out the problem in that sort of position by showing how simple-minded and absurd it seems to be.

Compatibilists define free will in a manner that makes their definition compatible with free will, and they define free will as, basically, lack of external constraints. For example, no one forced Beethoven to write the Ode to Joy, so therefor it was a free act. However they ignore physical law as a constraint. One can't really step outside the causal chains of physical law. Beethoven's mind was not acting in spite of or outside the causes and effects operating in his brain, and most of us, I assume, reject the idea of a spiritual reality that can intervene in such processes.

I don't think compatibilism solves anything. It attempts a solution through definition rather than by presenting any sort of evidence.

If you want to go with a linguistic approach, Derrida would tell us we can't understand what Free Will is without understanding its binary opposite, which would be pre-determination. Unseen says, and I don't disagree, "we are learning about the brain tells us that what we think we are doing freely was actually determined in our brain prior to our being conscious of it." However, I'd say - and this is just me waxing philosophically - only somethings our brain does are pre-determined. When we sit down and focus our creative energies on poetry, painting, etc., or when we react after hitting a patch of ice while driving, we are using free will or learned responses. Are learned responses a kind of pre-determined action? It could be seen that way, but they also vary according to experience, so I'd say no. Anyway, what I'm getting at is this: even if some chain of cause and effect are out of our control, we do have choices when it boils down to thinking and acting on those thoughts.

Consider this: The Spanish Inquisition was most probably not pre-determined from the onset of the Big Bang. People thought creatively (freely) - although insanely - and acted upon it.

Determinism is a concept that seems to flow from how we understand the world works: things happen due to prior circumstances, which we call causes.

You are analyzing the slick ice example on a behavioral psychology plane, my plane is far deeper than that, down where whatever the response is, it is the result of physical goings on in the driver's nervous system.

In the definition of free will as the opposite to determinism, or more generally a type of "slavery" to forces of nature, I definitely believe we possess it. I prefer to think of it as consciousness, the ability to actively interact with the world around us, and not merely being passive objects pushed around by nature. We may exist within a deterministic universe, but we have free will within that framework to interact in a non-predetermined fashion. Think of nature as a road network and free will as the ability to get in your car and go wherever that network takes you.

In general I think both expressions are a bit on the wrong track. It certainly belongs to a field of science comparable to the understanding of molecular biology 500 years ago. My best guess is that we are so far off track in the definitions that the knowledge surrounding the subject is most likely fundamentally flawed and requires a whole paradigm shift before humanity is on the right track of understanding it.

I don't refer free will in opposition to or in reference to determinism. At the core of my analysis is that the two words "free will" are nonsensical to start with, mostly to do with the word "will" requiring a spiritual or miraculous reality a la psychokinesis to be true.

Saying that we'll understand free will after a paradigm shift is akin to saying that people will agree with you someday, but that will require ditching our understanding of how physical reality operates, or else it'll mean lapsing back to believing in what we currently refer to as a spiritual reality which can interfere with the normal physical laws upon which we build our understanding of the world in which we live.

"I don't refer free will in opposition to or in reference to determinism."

I know, I did. :)

For lack of a better definition I call it free will, though I agree it is somewhat nonsensical. As noted, I prefer to think of it as (a part of) consciousness.

"Saying that we'll understand free will after a paradigm shift is akin to saying that people will agree with you someday,"

Not at all, I'm equally in the dark. We could just as well have differing opinions on the nature of phlogiston or luminiferous aether, the point is that the debate is based on a premise which perhaps will be looked back upon with a smirk, and the probability that we both are on a completely wrong train of thought is fairly similar since neither of us can point to much hard evidence for our opinion. 

"that will require ditching our understanding of how physical reality operates"

That statement rests on an assumption that we have a good understanding of that today, which, both when it comes to the functioning of the brain and the quantum mechanics modern determinism tends to be based on, is certainly not the case. Indeed, we still haven't reconciled the laws of physics which is quite telling of how short we have actually come.

"lapsing back to believing in what we currently refer to as a spiritual reality which can interfere with the normal physical laws"

Well, the "normal physical laws" you refer to explain around 20% of our universe and everything inside it, thus there is plenty of room for maneuver without invoking anything pseudoscientific or spiritual. The weight of evidence certainly does not rule free will out, but neither does it rule it in, and the same goes for determinism. One possibility is, of course, that you are correct, though perhaps we are fooled into believing in free will due to a near infinite possible deterministic outcomes. You may also be incorrect and merely committing a Ludic fallacy.

Our understanding of the universe involves explaining only 10%-20% of reality, the rest being that "dark" matter and energy. However, the leftover 10%-20% area happens to be the area we need to understand in order to deal with everyday life. The notion that dark matter and energy will somehow rescue free will (which has yet to be satisfactorily defined, anyway) makes me giggle.

You know, whenever someone wants to defend something and are out of rational resources, they often turn to the fringe. I remember when it was fuzzy logic that was often brought out to defend indefensible propositions. And this was typically by people with no academic background in logic, so that my explanations of why that didn't rescue anything at all fell on conveniently deaf ears.

Dark matter and energy are of interest to cosmologists pondering the ultimate fate of the universe and the nature of physical reality. I don't see any implication at all for ethics or aesthetics. Ethics and aesthetics are the only reason to really care about free will anyway.

But to pound my point home one more time, the juxtaposition of the two words in "free will" doesn't result in a comprehensible concept. If I say "Beethoven composed the Ode to Joy, but he didn't have free will" haven't I said exactly the same thing as if I simply said "Beethoven composed the Ode to Joy"? If not, enlighten me.

The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means. Free will is not all it’s cracked up to be but there’s no doubt we have a modest form of it. I prefer to call it “self-determinism”. This self-determinism is empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I've found this is hard to explain because so many people assume that any free will must contradict causality and, thus, determinism. I claim that the only free will we have is actually self-determinism and that it isn't in conflict with causality: in fact, it’s a product of human intelligence interacting with causality. I'll try to explain . . .

I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our heredity and experience (which are both products of causality). Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

Experience represents the past. Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know. With the exception of instinct and reflex, I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act beyond our experience. Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present. This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of consciousness: our identity. Experience influences us so much because it’s been layered into our identity just as the present will be. THAT is the self in self-determinism.

Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules. We might think we’re in control until that fire or disease or earthquake or tsunami or accident or economic crash changes our lives. Causality is the ultimate big dog. We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure. We can’t anticipate everything.

So how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)? How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?


Mental feedback is the key. Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans. Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it. Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback. Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly. THAT is the determinism in self-determinism.

It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled, libertarian, free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of independent agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future. We’re so good at it, we’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . merely expressions of it.

I am not studied in philosophy and delving into it makes my brain hurt. That being said, would free will not be considered a part of our subconscious? As atheist exile commented, our thoughts are influenced by our past, ie experiences. It is the combination of our past experiences and the input from the present that allows us to make conscious and subconscious decisions.

Too deep for me; I need another glass of vino....   :^ )


Daniel Dennett devoted a book to this specific issue, "Elbow room. The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting", 1984. Which can be summed up as: "as large a margin for error and as little relevant uncertainty as we can get".

But basically his point is that a scientific and materialistic approach to humankind means that we do not run into the contradictions that an abstract philosophical discussion is bound to generate.

In this respect, Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" is wonderful.


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