This discussion has been superseded by "Free Will: Explained".


Free Will: (Literally) An Intelligent Choice


In the determinism versus free will debate, determinists believe causality and choice are mutually exclusive – while compatibilists believe they are intimately intertwined. I will attempt to present a rational argument for my particular brand of compatibilism. Mine is a unique (I can’t find my central tenet repeated by anybody else on the Internet) and forceful argument that explains how free will is compatible with determinism without contradicting it in any way.


Divergent Assertions:


Determinism asserts that causality is responsible for all events of the past, present and future. At the beginning of time, the Prime Mover kick-started this universal cascade of cause and effect. To most theists, the Prime Mover is God. To most atheists, the Prime Mover is the (inflationary model) Big Bang.


Compatibilism asserts that free will is compatible with determinism and that choice is its sole essential requirement. The central tenet of my particular brand of compatibilism emphasizes the observable and scientifically verifiable fact that animate beings respond to cause and effect differently than does inanimate matter. The ramifications of this fact holds the key to free will. Many determinists vehemently deny this fact because they sense it threatens their dogma. It doesn’t. Free will is compatible with determinism without undermining determinism itself. I’ll elaborate on this point, below (under, “Compatibilism – Logical Conclusions”).


Determinism – Logical Conclusions:


Determinism is all about causality: cause and effect. Causality governs the physical laws that rule the universe: every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. Not only does effect always follow cause – the effect is always 100% predictable in every detail. In other words, for every action, there is only one possible reaction. Outside the quantum realm, causality is inerrant.


Determinism allows no uncaused effects. This means that if you could gather and understand all factors extant in a closed system (such as the universe) at a specific point in time, it would be possible to extrapolate, with absolute certainity, the state of that closed system at any other point in time (past, present or future). Not only is the state of the closed system predictable, but every factor within the system is also predictable – extending even to our acts and thoughts. Let’s take a look at what happens when we take determinism to its logical conclusion.


A Surrogate Religion


Since the dawn of civilization, mankind’s greatest, most monumental, achievements all required the planning and coordination of man-hours, brain-power, material resources, engineering and construction, etc. World Wars I and II are other examples of colossal efforts, logistics and events that (arguably) eclipse our greatest achievements. Take any of these, or all of them, and put them in a deterministic context.


In a deterministic context, the events of these achievements and wars were scripted at the beginning of time. Every last imaginable detail – even the thoughts of those involved – has always been predetermined.


Wait a minute . . . doesn’t the Old Testament and Quran make the same claims? Hmmm, just a coincidence, I guess. Not! Hell, with a 13.75 billion year-old script so detailed, specific and inerrant, you might as well say God wrote it.


With absolute determinism, we don’t have the slightest chance of exerting any influence on our own lives. We are at the mercy of destiny. Not as appealing as creating your own destiny . . . but better than no destiny at all.


May the force be with you.


Compatibilism – Logical Conclusions:


Free will and compatibilism have gotten a bum rap because of dogmatic materialism: a physical doctrine that denies the clear distinctions between inanimate matter and animate beings. For some reason, most determinists don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the differences between a living being and a lifeless rock.


Inanimate Matter Has No Options


I must confess: I was reciting determinist dogma whan I stated, earlier, that “Not only does effect always follow cause – the effect is always 100% predictable in every detail. In other words, for every action, there is only one possible reaction.” That statement is actually false. The truth is: it is only inanimate matter that has only one possible reaction to an action. Inanimate matter has NO options.


Animate beings, on the other hand, react to causality with an entirely different mode of response. For every action encountered by an animate being, there is NOT just one possible reaction: there are variable numbers of reactions. In other words, with animate beings, causality leads to options – NOT a single, immutable, reaction. Unlike inanimate matter, animate beings have options.


I’m not certain that cause and effect, as a scientific prinicple, was ever formally extended to, or meant to include, living creatures. Regardless, the animate mode of response violates no laws of nature: it was introduced by, and is part of, the phenomenon called “life” – and I think we can all agree that life is quite natural. If the prevailing view of causality includes animate beings, without recognizing the animate mode of response to cause and effect, then it’s the prevailing understanding of causality – not causality itself – that is false. If so, our understanding of causality needs to be expanded to acknowledge the animate mode of response to causality.


It’s not as if causality, as an absolute, has to apply to everything. We already know that causality does NOT apply, at all, to the quantum realm; so it’s positively NOT true that absolute causality applies to everything. Living beings, therefore, set no precedents by responding differently to causality. Causality produces variable potentials (causal options) when it encounters an intelligence with mastery over causality.


Animate Mode of Response: Causal Options


The advent of life introduced motility to the universe. Motility is simply the ability to move without the influence of an external force. Even single-celled organisms can move to avoid harsh or noxious conditions. The significant difference is that the movement is NOT 100% predictable. Unlike inanimate matter, there is more than just one direction the organism can take. Nor will identical organisms move identically under identical conditions. This is an undeniable departure from the precisely predictable reactions of inanimate matter.


Motility is just one obvious factor distinguishing animate beings from inanimate matter. Consciousness and intelligence are also factors. Their complex contributions introduce more variables, giving us more options to consider. Options are what it’s all about . . . because options mean choices and choices means free will. Options and choice are as natural to intelligent beings as their lack is to inanimate objects. Animate beings need not react like inanimate objects in order to qualify as natural: that would be downright unnatural. Think about it!


A natural function of intelligence is to choose from the options that causality continually presents us. Our intelligence allows us to extrapolate causality into the future so that we can predict which option should be best to choose . . . and, therefore, guide our own "causal paths". This mastery over causality, combined with choice, gives us free will -- even if our choices sometimes lead us to unexpected consequences.


The advent of animate beings augmented causality with options. This is not unnatural or supernatural . . . it’s just a different mode of response to causality: an evolution of causality, if you will. Intelligence includes the ability to learn from, adapt to, and harness causality for our own purposes. The mental process for this ability is not yet understood but appears to include a feedback mechanism. Humans understand causality and use it in self-directed ways. When causality meets intelligence, determinism becomes self-determinism. That’s what free will is.

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Replies to This Discussion

I was pointing out -- poorly, it appears -- that animate beings are also a part of nature despite responding to causality differently than the rest of nature (i.e. the rest of the universe). I'll rework that part.

As for nature giving us causal options . . . I was speaking metaphorically. I'll rework that as well.

By the way, once reworked, the post above will be edited . . . so it's a living document until the critiquing/revising cycle is completed.
Hey Larry,

Yeah, I've already revised it. Here what I changed it to:

"Animate beings need not react like inanimate objects in order to qualify as natural. Think about it! A natural function of intelligence is to choose from the options that causality continually presents us. Our intelligence allows us to extrapolate causality into the future so that we can predict which options would be best to choose."
Yes, Larry,

That additional angle should be included. I've revised the relevant sentences as follows:

"Our intelligence allows us to extrapolate causality into the future so that we can predict which option should be best to choose. This mastery of causality, combined with choice, gives us free will -- even if our choices lead us to unexpected consequences."
Hi Neal,

You remember just one gentleman denying free will? :-) I'm accustomed to being the ONLY one (or at least, ridiculously outnumbered) defending free will in such discussions.

My argument has evolved over the course of these discussions. The one thing I was always sure of was that determinists make a major error when they treat animate beings as inanimate matter. It's only with this post that I've finally realized why and how their attitude is just plain wrong.

When it comes to philosophical discussions, what can be said of everything can be said of nothing. It's meaningless and dogmatic to apply such pat answers to dismiss all objections. That's the problem with this argument claiming free will is an illusion.

I'm sure you've encountered the materialist claim that causality predetermines all events -- even our acts and thoughts. Based on this simplistic interpretation of causality, determinists then assert that the experience of choice, and therefore free will, is an illusion. Aside from illustrating that "what can be said of everything can be said of nothing", that argument is also recursive reasoning. It's circular logic that begs the question by paraphrasing it's conclusion as its premise -- "Our acts and thoughts are (i.e. "Everything is") predetermined, therefore our acts and thoughts are (i.e. "everything is") beyond our control."

If you've ever made a plan and executed it, revised a strategy or out-maneuvered an opponent, then you've got empirical evidence of free will. Everybody lives as if they have free will. They work, play, think and plan as if they have free will. That's a LOT of empirical evidence for free will. What's the evidence for the claim that free will is an illusion?

I've become convinced that determinism is a surrogate religion for far too many atheists. It's replete with all the trappings of religion: dogma, denial, fatalism, vehemently closed minds and recursive reasoning.

My biggest question is why people would want to deny their experience, not to mention the empowerment of free will, in favor of a worldview of illusions and fatalism. Maybe it's because, like Christians, they get to keep their Prime Mover and a simple doctrine absolving them of personal responsibility.
Hey Neal,

I've supposed to get notifications, via email, when somebody posts here but I missed yours somehow. Sorry for the delay.

Since writing this opinion piece, I've had a epiphany about free will. I've posted a new explanation of free will that finally explains how it emerges from deterministic processes in the brain.

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