Human beings have a powerful sense of free will, and in at least one important sense, they are responsible for their actions. Despite this, however, the concept of free will as it is commonly understood is baseless and incoherent. It is certainly true, of course, that when beings make choices, it feels to them as though a variety of outcomes are possible. In fact, however, only the actual outcome was ever really a possibility. For a different choice to have been made, a somewhat different set of initial circumstances would have to have been the case.

It is crucial to remember that nonexistence of free will does not negate the existence of choice itself. When confronted with circumstances, beings make decisions based on their preferences, beliefs, feelings, and so forth. Indeed, beings constantly make choices about what to do, and to the extent they are not prevented by external circumstances, they can (and do) act as they wish.

Neither does this position negate the importance of choice. Humans and many other kinds of beings definitely need some measure of choice in order to be happy. Drastically restricted choice appears to result in great suffering, and Beingism is emphatically in favor of allowing beings to make decisions about the things that affect their lives to whatever extent they are able.

If this seems to you like a contradiction, keep reading. It isn't.

Why This Discussion Is Important

The reason for this may not be immediately apparent, but in fact belief in free will is a major obstacle to having compassion. It is very often taboo to analyze the causes of unethical or unpopular actions, as if understanding the causes involved somehow means condoning or approving the actions themselves. For example, we are often discouraged from considering the motives of terrorists or other criminals. When someone asks why a dangerous criminal like this would do such a terrible thing, the tendency is to assume that the perpetrator is simply a horrible human being and that there is nothing more to consider. Similar assumptions are often made about others in situations of every scale: The poor, volunteer soldiers in unpopular wars, genocidal dictators, drug addicts, drivers who cut us off in traffic, criminal presidents, and even ourselves when we err. Unfortunately, this is merely to substitute stigma for rational examination, a substitution which tends to result in increased suffering—because it often guarantees that the problem behavior will continue. A thorough debunking of free will shows that though human behavior may often be extremely complex, it is in principle as comprehensible as any other part of reality. When we understand why people act as they do even if we disapprove of their behavior (either on ethical or simply pragmatic grounds), we can work to create the kind of world in which they are no longer prompted to act in that manner.

Similarly, understanding that free will isn't really a meaningful idea makes it possible to dismiss as largely irrelevant the debate about whether social problems (such as poverty or crime) are primarily generated internally (as a result of individual decisions) or externally (due to systemic factors). While Beingism holds that the latter is considerably more important, this is a complex and multifaceted question, and in any given situation the answers are not always apparent. By showing that the idea of free will is incoherent, we establish that beings living under unpleasant circumstances do not deserve their positions there, and that holding them morally responsible for their plight is inaccurate as well as counterproductive to the goal of maximizing happiness or creating a better world.

Basic Underlying Concepts

All beings consist of some combination of different elements. As in the “nature versus nurture” debate, we often separate these elements into categories of “innate” and “acquired.” Our innate characteristics are usually defined as our genes, while our acquired characteristics are those we possess because of the ways our experiences have affected us. We are constantly taking in new information which changes our cognition in both conscious and unconscious ways. Experiences may also change us by altering our bodies, such as when a chemical alters the original genetic structure of an egg or sperm, or in later life as when a wound results in a permanent scar or brain damage.

At any given time, a being consists of an intricate combination of realized genetics and past experiences. New experiences reciprocally interact with this sum to produce new decisions. In complex organisms such as humans, this process is extraordinarily complicated. Some people believe that there are elements besides experience and genetics which make up some portion of the psyche and play some role in directing behavior. We will refer to these elements collectively as the "soul," although different people may prefer different terminology. Given Occam’s razor and the lack of evidence for any such thing in spite of a great deal of science, Beingism maintains that the possibility of a soul’s existence is very low. However, because there is nothing logically inconsistent about some possible definitions of a soul, we must accept such things as possible agents in human behavior, even if their existence is highly unlikely.

This is not, however, relevant to our discussion of free will. Regardless of which, whether, or how many factors influence an action, it is clear that any action must either be caused by factors, not caused by factors, or partially caused by factors and partially not. Physical or spiritual, all elements must fall into one of these categories by definition. Whichever of these options is true of the elements of the psyche overall, however, the will is not “free” in any meaningful sense.

If Decisions Are Completely Caused

Let’s suppose that some actions are completely caused by some combination of factors, like a stone acted upon by the laws of physics. Consider, for a moment, a stone catapulted into the air from a particular place, with a particular amount of force, at a particular angle, into a particular wind velocity, gravity, and inertia, and so on. If we are aware of every relevant factor affecting the stone, we will be able consistently to determine its landing point with perfect mathematical accuracy. Further, if we repeat the experiment without changing any factors, we will always obtain the same result.

In the same way and for the same reasons, choice—if caused—must work the same way. Of course, a decision almost inevitably has many more individual elements involved in its causation than a catapulted rock, but this in no way alters the inevitability of the result. If an action is completely caused, a being possessing total knowledge of factors relevant to the action at the moment before it takes place, as well as sufficient ability to process the data, would be always be able to predict that this action would take place. But if an action is the inevitable result of all the preceding causes, it cannot, of course, be "free."

If Decisions Are Completely Uncaused

Suppose, on the other hand, that an action occurs with complete independence from all other aspects of reality. No causes preceded it; those events which transpired before it in time have nothing to do with what happens after. So far as we know, any given result is as likely to occur as any other — no one would be able to predict the outcome, even with all the available knowledge at the beginning of the event and perfect processing power. In this case, of course, the action is random. Obviously, though, randomness is not what is meant by “free will.” In fact, randomness is probably about as different a concept from free will as we might imagine.

If Decisions Are Partially Caused

Because total randomness would presumably result in completely unpredictable behavior, few would argue that a person’s behavior is entirely random. Some, however, might claim that some combination of causation and randomness is at work. Proponents of certain interpretations of quantum physics might argue that this is the case — that is, that some elements of behavior are ungoverned by laws. Though some people attempt to claim that they know this to be true, it is in fact inherently impossible to establish beyond reasonable doubt that no causes exist for a given circumstance because it is impossible to prove a negative. Regardless, however, willed actions which are partly the inevitable result of other causes and partly random do not result in “free will.” Those parts which are caused are determined, and those parts which are uncaused are random.

In Brief

When you get right down to it, the concept of free will is not a meaningful one. There is, quite simply, nothing except causality from which the will could be free. But if the will is free of causality, it is random — not what is typically meant by the phrase “free will.”

Another Way to Look at Free Will

Here’s another way of looking at it. The assumptions maybe seem counterintuitive at first glance, but read about them before you dismiss them:

• Assumption One: You always do what you most want.

• Assumption Two: You can't control what you most want.

• Conclusion: You can't control what you do.

Assumption One (Revisited): You Always Do What You Most Want.

Now, it may seem as though you often do things that you don't want to do. You might say, "Sometimes I force myself out of bed at five a.m. to go to yo-yo practice. But I despise waking early! So obviously I don’t always do what I want." This is an example of conflicting desires. One part of your brain says, "Ugh, I want to go back to sleep," while another part of your brain says, "But what will the other yo-yo players think? I promised I'd show them how to walk the dog at today's practice. And that attractive player who was at last month's yo-yo extravaganza might be there." So, while a part of you may not want to get out of bed, your strongest desire (considering all the factors) is to go to practice, so it overrides the others. Even so called “selfless acts” can be explained in terms of overriding wants, such as the desire to help others or avoid feeling guilty. Thus while you may do things you don’t enjoy (like getting blood drawn), your overriding want is to do them (because then you can get tested for Dung Flu, or help someone who needs blood). Of course, you inevitably have a very large number of options from which to choose, which can sometimes make it difficult to determine your overriding desire. For example, if while walking down the street you glance upward and notice a grand piano plummeting toward you, you have a variety of escape options (assuming you want to continue living). In this case, you may decide upon a direction arbitrarily because your overriding want is to expedite the decision making process, avoiding a failure to act. This may mean that you might make a choice you later see was bad. Sometimes, because you want to avoid making an incorrect decision, you may fail to act in time. But no matter what, once you choose your action, you do what you most want to do.

Assumption Two (Revisited): You Can't Control What You Most Want

In fact, strictly speaking, you can’t control any of your desires. This may seem strange, but imagine someone you know for whom you don't have any romantic feelings whatsoever and try to feel attracted to that person: You’ll very quickly discover that you can’t. Similarly, if you dislike the taste of lima beans, you can't simply decide to like them. Now, you may be thinking, "Aha! If I really want to, I can learn to feel attracted to that person, or to enjoy lima beans!" And at least sometimes, you're right; if you really want to change one of your desires, you may be able to do so. However, you can only do this if you want to do it in the first place. In other words, you must have some desire to change your feelings about lima beans in order to try to change them. While there may be a chain of wants leading up to any particular action, its point of origin is buried in your subconscious, and remains out of your direct control.

Conclusion (Revisited): You Can't Control What You Do

If you accept the preceeding assumptions, this conclusion is inevitable.

Admittedly, however, the phrase “you can’t control what you do” is a bit misleading. The collection of causes that results in a particular action is part of you. That part of you is, in a very important sense, controlling what you do. Hence, you are in fact making a choice — but that doesn’t alter the inevitability of your choice.

So no, jutting your arm out to the side at seemingly random intervals won't prove this wrong.

A Third Way to Look at Free Will

If you’re scientifically inclined, it may be helpful to look at it like this.

Current physics models tell us there are five forces in the universe, which are: Gravity, electricity, magnetism, weak force, and strong force. While you may argue that we simply have not discovered the “free will force” yet, it seems very strange to imagine that a sixth force of the universe is created whenever a choice is made. Of course, even if it were, that choice would be either caused or uncaused — and now we’re back to the first argument.

It's Not Depressing

Some people think that the idea that there isn’t any such thing as free will is pretty depressing, and it might be if you’re used to believing so. But once you understand that you’ll always feel in control of your actions even if there is no “you” independent from their causes, the idea of free will ceases to be appealing, as does the unpleasantness of the alternative. Assuming (as seems likely) that your choices aren’t random, you get to do what you want. In fact, by definition, you must do everything you want! There’s nothing so unpleasant about that. If you didn’t want to do what you wanted, it wouldn’t be what you wanted.

Distinguishing Blame-based Responsibility from Causal Responsibility

“Responsibility” is a tricky word. Depending on what is meant by it, the revelation that there is no free will either affirms or undermines it. Failure to make this distinction can cause a lot of confusion.

What we may call “blame-based responsibility” is a myth. We often speak of people as “deserving” of particular consequences, but when we consider that their behavior is the inevitable result of preceding causes, this becomes ridiculous. A person may desire a consequence or prefer to avoid it, and that desire is important. Yet condemning someone for making a choice which was inevitable is obviously foolish. Further, just because something happens doesn’t mean it should. Simply put, “is” doesn’t imply “ought.”

On the other hand, to whatever extent actions are caused by preceding events, what we may call “causal responsibility” is very real. Beings — which are combinations of characteristics — do cause the effects of their actions. In a causal sense, therefore, they are responsible for what they do, and we cannot ignore their role in bringing about consequences. This means, among other things, that it is sometimes necessary to restrict some kinds of actions in order to prevent results we consider undesirable. For example, we will probably find it necessary to keep people who have demonstrated through their actions that they are likely to murder other people away from any means of doing so, and we may also need to create deterrents to prevent such things from happening. By the same token, we find it useful to reward desirable behavior. Yet we must also consider that it’s important to remember that no being is the first cause of an action, and that anyone — but for the “grace” of causality — would do the same under the very same preliminary circumstances.

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