This discussion has been superseded by "Free Will Without Dualism".



Determinism is the principle that causality is responsible for all events in the universe: that everything is determined by causality.

Free will is a more slippery concept than is determinism and has different meanings to different people.  This essay will try to explain free will from my compatibilist point of view.

Because time is linear, the future hasn't happened yet. Future events unfold everywhere simultaneously, yet is locally unique. The birth and death of an entire galaxy is irrelevant to us if it's so remote we can't even see it. While the senseless death of a starving child in Africa is tragic and heartbreaking, you'll undoubtedly never know about it. The point is that causality permeates the entire universe and makes its mark on everything: whether or not any particular event seems momentous or even noteworthy. But how do these events affect the future? Will anything we do make a difference in the grand scheme of things? The Big Bang has predetermined the demise of the universe . . . so aren't our own lives equally predetermined?

With this frame of reference, I propose that the future does NOT exist and is NOT predetermined everywhere, for everything. The futures of inanimate objects, however, ARE predetermined unless they fall under the control of animate beings. Wherever intelligent life leaves an impression, the future is far from predetermined. What I'm talking about is the distinction between animate and inanimate modes of response to causality -- the difference between us and rocks. This distinction is most clear when we use humans as the example. This is because humans, unlike other lifeforms, embody ALL the key phenomena of life -- motility, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will.

The law of causality states that: "every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause". This is true of both animate and inanimate objects. The difference between the animate and inanimate modes of response to causality is that inanimate objects have only one potential reaction to an event while animate beings have variable potential reactions to an event. One major reason for this is that animate beings are complex systems. They have many functional parts that integrate, holistically, into single entities. Animate beings are much more complex and much less predictable than inanimate objects. I'll be discussing determinism versus free will, so, for animate beings, let's stick with humans.

Whether or not you believe in determinism or free will . . . or believe free will is compatible with determinism (as I do), it's pretty difficult to deny causality (and, therefore, determinism). Without a single scientific experiment for support, we can, at any time, observe that cause always precedes effect. Conventional wisdom holds that free will is antithetical to determinism . . . but I hope to show that determinism (causality) actually creates free will.

Human identity and experience presents a problem for determinism. We all live as if we have free will: we work, play, think and plan as if we have free will. On the other hand, we can see that causality determines all events. How do we reconcile the difference? First, we need to acknowledge there might not be a difference. What if causality creates free will?

That's my basic premise: causality (determinism) creates free will. Nothing I've written above is essential to what follows -- I just wanted to frame free will in context of time and animate beings: of life.

Allowing no exceptions to causality, we must accept that effects can't exist without a cause.  Therefore, the processes of the brain, such as memory, thought, analysis and imagination, can be thought of as effects caused by the brain. Of these effects, imagination is most relevant to free will . . . because imagination can be prescient. We can extrapolate cause and effect into the future to imagine potential scenarios that might occur. We then evaluate these potential scenarios and gauge the likelihood (and to what extent) they might actually happen. This is, essentially, the process of planning. We use our experience and intelligence to estimate future outcomes, then plan the steps and contingencies necessary to best ensure -- or avoid -- those outcomes. Of course, short term, simple, plans are more likely to succeed than long term, complicated, plans. Depending on our skill at prognostication, our success rates vary from person to person. But, on the whole, short term plans usually succeed. I know this, without question, from my professional experience as a project manager.

How does planning relate to free will? Here's the interesting, awesome, part. Our ability to mentally anticipate cause and effect represents an advantage over causality. Causality must wait for the future to unfold in the present but we can keep steps ahead of causality by extrapolating it into the future. In other words, we can (in our imagination) go where causality can't . . . and bring back conclusions that greatly affect our decisions. Steered by these conclusions, our choices guide us, step by step, through potential futures.

When causality meets human intelligence, we make decisions based on forecasts of events likely in our futures. There are other causal factors involved, like experience, heredity, education, circumstances, etc., but it's prescient imagination that steers our decisions in self-directed ways. When determinism meets human imagination, it becomes self determinism: free will.

The claim that free will (volition) is antithetical to determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from any assertion that assumes free will is undetermined or indeterminate.  If that's how you define free will then, of course, free will would be impossible.  After all, EVERYTHING is determined.  Right? Free will is not a conscious process or goal of itself, requiring effort to exercise: it's an on-going, natural, human, reaction (effect) to the world around us (cause).

Volition, of itself, is not free will.  That would make free will indeterminate -- and we know that's not possible: EVERYTHING is determined.  Volition, desires, plans -- whatever you want to call them -- are just causal factors
that combine with other causal factors to influence our decisions.

The compatibilist view sees free will as natural and within the confines of physical laws. Undetermined or indeterminate choices or actions would be anything but free will: acting without reason or purpose is not free will. Neither is acting randomly. So, claiming that free will is not deterministic means that, if we do have free will, then we must act without reason or purpose, or we must act randomly, or some combination thereof.

But we KNOW we act with purpose. We don't stumble through life continually shocked to find ourselves doing things we don't want to do. That would make planning impossible! We KNOW we've planned our own dinners, careers, families, retirements and funerals.  Our experiences represent continuous empirical evidence for free will.

Our ability to plan is so natural and human that we take it for granted. We're inured to it. The future and planning is a larger consideration in our lives than most people realize. Planning, as a prescient form of imagination, is caused by the brain's interaction with the world (causality). Free will is the effect -- the product -- of our prescient imaginations.

It's a paradox. We have no choice but to be self-directed. We are causally self-determined.  Free will is a part of human nature.

Our individual destinies are NOT written in the stars (may the force be with you) -- our destinies are ours to make. We (as well as ALL life forms) might eventually face extinction as the universe grows cold and fades away. Our collective destinies might be extinction but our individual destinies are ours to make. Most of us will die obscure deaths but a select few -- as long as humanity survives -- will be remembered by history because they exercised their free will to fundamentally change our world.

Tags: causality, destiny, determinism, free will, paradox, self-determinism

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You do such a great job explaining what's trapped in my brain lol.

Our particular form evolution has allowed us to override the inevitable cause and effect of inanimate objects. It's not magic, but it is pretty amazing. Hydrogen and Oxygen have no say in whether they will become water (steam, ice) when combined. They will... end of story. We get to decide what will happen, to a large degree, from moment to moment. Yes, there are circumstances and variables that might heavily influence our decisions, but nothing is set in stone... because we're not stone!

If we compare ourselves to, say, a rolling rock, the difference is that we control the speed we travel. Although inertia does still play a large part in this, we still have a larger say in how fast we go or how quickly we slow down. When you fling a rock down a hill, there it goes, neither accelerating nor decelerating of its own volition. It might hit a tree, it might fall off a cliff, it might land in a lake. Of course, when we're running, we can pretty much anticipate that we will strive to avoid hitting a tree, falling off a cliff or landing in a lake (though we may do all of the above on accident or on purpose anyway), but the course we choose and the speed we travel is all up to us. Sometimes we have a destination (which a rock does not) and sometimes we simply frolic for fun ( while a rock would not). We can dance, walk, jump, stroll, race--all for different purposes, many the product of varying moods--and it's ridiculous to claim those steps are predetermined, especially if taken because of joy!

The human is much too complex to accurately predict what choices it will make. I've heard the argument that circumstances leading up to a choice (any choice) predetermine the choice that will be made, but let's think about really trivial decisions. If you're in line a Starbucks, trying to decide whether to choose between a Java Chip frap or a Caramel Machiato, and you enjoy both equally, is it predetermined which you will choose... especially considering, next time, you'll choose differently? I think the answer is obviously no. On this level, it is entirely up to the individual which they will choose. It doesn't matter that you tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, or that millions of miles away a star is dying, or that your DNA is constructed a particular way, or that your mom used to call you names... you like fraps and machiatos the same and you have to make a free-will decision. It's completely 50/50. And this goes for many other decisions we make. Sure, we can predict what will happen, but that doesn't negate the fact that a decision is being made... sometimes because of planning, and sometimes randomly, and, yes, sometimes because of causation.
YES Cara,

Beautifully written :-)

We KNOW we have free will at certain levels even if we can't rationalize how. What has always bothered me the most about this controversy is that so many people (determinists) are willing to surrender the evidence of their experience -- as well as the empowerment of free will. What do they get in return? The comfort of knowing they're accepting scientific principles (causality/determinism). The ironic part is that they can accept scientific principles AND have free will.
I dunno... do you think it's because they think free-will is linked to religion in their mind? Are they so afraid of mythology that they're willing to throw away anything that reminds them of it? As "supernatural" or "magical" as they feel the characteristic of free-will is, it's no more miraculous than life itself. Science has not yet discovered how it is that inanimate objects become animate; we're thinking, feeling, experiencing minerals and chemicals. If I can believe animation sprung from inanimate elements, I can believe in free-will.
Well there ya go. Thank you for pointing that out, too. I don't like to say "believe in", but I do out of habit. I'm going to keep trying to strike it from my vocab!
Hi Larry,

I can't explain the neurological processes in decision-making, so I try to present my argument using ideas we all know and accept: prescient imagination and planning. The rest is essentially the same principles determinists use. Compatibilism, by definition, must adhere to causal determinism. I think the key concept is the temporal advantage over causality that results from our prescient imaginations.
When I was studying programming, I wrote a chess-playing game. The most fun part of it was trying to define rules for decision making. It made me think a lot about how I actually made decisions myself. I used the random function to decide options that appeared equal according to the rules. I wonder if we ever use anything analogous to the rand function in human cognition. Anyway, it was a mechanism for my game to depart from strict determinism. At least that was my hope.
Hi Bill,

I wonder if the brain has a function equivalent to a random number generator. I don't thinks so. But that's just one introspective opinion. I suspect there's nothing random in the brain (above the quantum level, of course).
@CaraColeen,

It occurs to me that the determinist's desire for logical, scientific, reason would indict their own rationale if they applied logical, scientific, reason across the board. Here's why.

Any theory that claims to explain everything, explains nothing. That's why we have the scientific principle of "falsifiability". Yes, causality is a fundamental principle of physics . . . but so is the principle of falsifiability. By applying determinism (causality) to deny any and every possibility of free will, determinists have compromised the scientific foundation they're so proud of. Absolute determinism is unfalsifiable.

This does not mean that determinism or causality are unscientific or illogical, only that absolute application of them, in the case of free will, leads to a dogmatic misinterpretation of free will. Like any dogma, absolute determinism closes minds. The determinist mantra that free will can't be deterministic prevents them from looking for ways that it can.

If determinists want to claim the scientific high ground, they need to be less selective about the scientific principles they adhere to. They can't embrace causality and reject falsifiability. Even their embrace of causality is less than heart-felt if they argue as if causality stops at the brain. They can't have it both ways: if causality rules everything in the universe, it rules the brain too. Free will is just another causal factor in a long chain of cause and effect.
Seriously, Bravo on this piece.
Thanks, Rev. :-)
I have shizotypy. By taking Celexa, I've change my determinants of morbid shyness and paranoia. The effects of those two caused me to want therapy. So, I caused my determinants to change for the better.
The law ever tries to change criiminals determinants.
The problem of Heaven notes that were there God, He could've had us having free will and a quarantee to to do wrong.as putatively in Heaven.
What do y'all thnk about God b being able to know our futures without that impingning on our free will?
Hi Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth,

Schizotypy, huh? I don't hear of that disorder very often. It's interesting how you've changed your determinants by seeking out therapy. That's a very interesting aspect of free will that I've barely mentioned: the mental feedback loop.

In neuroscience publications, I've read about feedback mechanisms in various brain modules, as well as an overarching feedback mechanism that integrates the various signals from the brain's modules into a unified, cohesive, experience of consciousness. Without this "master" feedback loop, our thoughts and emotions would probably dissipate immediately and we'd be something other than human.

Of all the causal determinants that influence our actions, the most prevalent ones must arise from the brain itself. Many other causal factors (such as heredity, education, experience and other foundational influences) can be thought of as causal "baggage", in comparison to the real-time causal influence of our mental processes. In my opinion, it's the real-time causal influences (circumstances and thoughts/emotions) that normally prevail on our actions. There are exceptions of course -- neuroses leap to mind as an example. Compulsive/obsessive behavior, for instance, often overrides "normal" real-time influences. In your case, schizotypy, can have the same effect.

This is another reason why I think it's important to understand that free will -- self determinism -- is not a matter of willpower. Free will is not something you invoke. It's something that happens to you when your brain interacts with the world around you. You seem, by the wording of your post, to understand this.

As for God's omniscience and free will, this involves one significant difference as opposed to causality/determinism and free will -- an immutable future. For us free agents, I believe such a future can only exist through supernatural means. In the real world, time is linear and only moves forward. When you look out at the stars, no matter where you look, you're looking into the past. If free will is self determinism, then we choose our potential futures -- which means that the future is NOT immutable for us. The future may be immutable for inanimate objects but not for animate beings . . . well, human beings at any rate.

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