The I of the Storm: The Misconceptions of Free Will

free will

Photo Credit: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/01/case-against-one-way-streets/4549/

We are continually faced with choice in our day to day lives. From the mundane to the critical, choice rears its head every step of the way. We quickly discover that it is the choices we make and the actions we take that mold who we are. It is this role that choice plays in our day to day lives in determining who we are that makes the idea of free will most appealing. But do we really have free will? This is what I want to look at today.

In my experience, there seems to be three different positions on this topic. The first position is the belief in ultimate free will. Typically held by the religious, while the degree to which we have free will is more so as you move closer towards religious fundamentalism. In the middle there is a strong second position, typically held by intellectuals with a passion for philosophy, which is compatibilism. As the name suggests, compatibilists believe that we can live in a deterministic universe while still maintaining wiggle room for the freedom to choose. Simply put, compatibilists believe that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, that is, it is possible to believe both while maintaining logical consistency. I currently reject these first two positions and find myself in the third position which is determinism, sometimes called hard determinism. As a determinist, I, in short, hold the belief that everything we do is determined. Looking at the laws of physics, I claim that in principle, we could calculate, and therefore determine, every single thing you do, from when you will take your next breath, to what you will decide to have for lunch in two weeks. I will go deeper into this later in the post, but first I would like to look at the first two positions. My goal is to first disprove these positions and then conclude by explaining why I believe the third position, my position, is the most reasonable to believe.

Ultimate Free Will

The first problem that I think many will find when analyzing the idea of free will for the first time is that free will isn’t very well defined. What does it actually mean to have fee will? When asked to define it immediately, most will say something to the extent of, the ability to choose. This is empty in my opinion and doesn’t really grant anyone the power that they believe free will gives. Choice exists, that is the first thing to understand. We are constantly faced with choices, whether it be what to watch on TV or where to go out to eat. We are constantly presented with choices, and thus we must make a choice. Therefore, regardless of whether or not we have free will, choices must be made. But this means nothing with regards to your freedom with the choice itself.

So we now realize that what makes free will so appealing is that it appears to give us real control or some kind of power over our lives. So to have true free will, everything must be of one’s own doing. Hence, to have free will, one must be the author of their own thoughts and the ultimate decider of every choice they make and every action they take. To claim to have ultimate free will, I do not know how it is possible to not hold these attributes. Because these attributes are so rigid, as they must be to truly define free will, it acts as the weak stability that makes it so easy to bring the idea of ultimate free will down.

There are a few thought experiments one can do to easily bring down the idea of ultimate free will. My favorite experiment is to ask you to think of a city (feel free to actually try this while you are reading). Now when you read this, surely a few cities began to emerge into your mind. And you can just kind of observe this experience, just cities coming into consciousness, Orlando… New York… Portland… etc. They almost came into mind in the same manner to which you read the cities I listed a moment ago. Now choose a city, you can take as much time as you’d like. This whole experience immediately begins to expose potential weaknesses in the idea of ultimate free will. The feeling of cities simply coming into consciousness, without authorship. Granted there was still that point when you chose amongst the list of cities that were in your mind, this may appear to be the moment where free will kicked in, you might say. Well if you are to be the author of your thoughts, how could you be when you didn’t author the cities that merely came to mind. Now you might argue that you did author the cities that came to mind. To this, I meet you with a counter; surely you are aware that, for example, Atlanta is a city. For many of you, Atlanta probably didn’t come to mind and thus Atlanta was off the table in terms of cities that you would choose. I propose this question then; how were you free to choose cities which did not occur to you? To someone who believes in ultimate free will, this is a question which demands an answer.

Another shot in the leg to those who believe in ultimate free will comes from the mouth of science. In scientific experiments it has been shown that your mind has determined what you will choose, sometimes as many as seven seconds before you are consciously aware. In this link here, it acts as many similar experiments, a person is asked to select something, typically as simple as a left button or right button. They are told to go back and forth on their decision making but as soon as they make their decision to press the button. What studies have found is that your mind had already made the decision several seconds before you were consciously aware. As they point out in the video, this shows that conscious decision making is secondary to brain activity.

The most significant point which I believe buries completely the idea of ultimate free will is the fact that we are not perfect. The fact that we make mistakes, we become addicted to bad things, or in the mind of the religious, we sin. The idea of mistakes, sin, or temptation does not fit in a reality where people have ultimate free will. I like how Sam Harris puts it in his short book Free Will  where he states,

To say that someone freely chose to squander his life’s savings at the poker table is to say that he had every opportunity to do otherwise and that nothing about what he did was inadvertent. He played poker not by accident or while in the grip of delusion but because he wanted to, intended to, and decided to, moment after moment.

These sort of things do not make sense in a world with ultimate free will. Why would someone do such a thing? It is absolutely illogical. Someone might claim that the person is evil or easily tempted. But how can these bad attributes exist when you can simply will them away? If you can not will them away, you are proclaiming that you are at the mercy of thoughts or desires that are not truly yours, therefore eliminating ultimate free will. If you say, maybe he was aware of this and yet still wanted to do the wrong thing. This still does not fit in a world with ultimate free will. What does it mean to want something when you have free will? To want something while having free will, you must choose to want something. To choose to want to do something bad before truly desiring to want something bad is illogical again. We can continue this argument for days but you will always find that to do something bad begins at an illogical, dare I say impossible, starting point.

Temptation is perhaps the biggest point here. Especially when speaking to the religious. Temptation should either not exist or be irrelevant in a reality with ultimate free will. Temptation should probably not exist because if we are the conscious authors of our thoughts and intentions, we would have to, from an illogical starting point, choose to think of something tempting (and we can assume bad or wrong or sinful). But suppose “the devil” could plant thoughts that lead to temptation in your mind. With free will, one could simply will those thoughts away. Thus to proclaim that someone was tempted to sin and therefore did, should in fact not be held responsible by God as their actions were the result of a mental hijacking, therefore eliminating sin. And to claim that someone could not easily will the temptation away is admitting defeat. If you can not will temptation, or any bad desire away effortlessly, you admit to not having ultimate free will. You then must concede that you are subject to thoughts and desires that are in fact not your own.

Compatibilism

I find compatibilism to be much like mainstream religion is today when debating atheists. Typically, if an atheist quotes scripture and interprets it literally, the religious person will turn up their nose and explain how scripture is much more nuanced and intricate and cannot be interpreted literally. Though they may be right in some cases, ultimately they are missing the point. The same goes for determinists in speaking with compatibilists. Perhaps as a compatibilist was reading my arguments above they were saying the same things; “free will is much more nuanced and intricate. One cannot look at its bones bare and interpret it fully.” I am here to argue that with free will, yes you can.

We humans tend to like free will so much because of what it implies. There is an idea that we have evolved to a degree greater than any other creature on the planet. This ability to pass by the laws of physics because our thoughts are beyond the constraints of natural laws. It can almost make someone feel special. I had not, until recently, heard arguments from a compatibilist. I had always been confused as to how they believe that a person could possibly blend determinism with free will. What I came to find was that compatibilists appear to be redefining free will. What I want to argue is that how they define free will is not only wrong, but it’s not even a free will worth desiring. I claim that the compatibilist is searching to hold on to that feeling that we are special, along with a concern of losing moral responsibility, and doing this through mental gymnastics that tangle in ways that even they cannot find their missteps in logic.

Daniel Dennet is one of the leading names on the side of compatibilism, and it was in reading his critique of Sam Harris’ book on free will that I was able to peer inside the logic behind compatibilism. For the sake of not taking too much time commenting on every passage to which I believe Dennet errors, I will try and choose the most pertinent to the point that I am trying to get across. I do not want to cheat, I do plan to take on what I believe to be his strongest argument as well.

The first problem that arises when reading Dennet’s critique is his claim that what Sam Harris is a compatibilist more than he realizes. As far as I have learned, Harris and I share congruent interpretations of free will, thus I would argue that if Harris is a compatibilist, he is right in wanting to remove the term free will, as it is flagrantly misleading and absolutely antagonistic to reality. This will become more evident soon.

Dennet then displays the arrogance of a compatibilist by continually not answering to points made, but rather disregarding them as pointless. For example, in response to an excerpt from Harris’ book; “We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions.” Dennet rebuttals as follows,

We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises.  [True, but so what?]  To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose [my italics]. (p. 13)

Again, so what? Maybe we are authors of our thoughts and actions in a slightly different way.  Harris doesn’t even consider that possibility (since that would require taking compatibilist “theology” seriously).

So what?! This absolutely baffled me. This is a strong point to which a determinist leans on. To reply this way in a debate format, as a professional, is intellectually lazy and borders on unforgivable. It gets worse as he begins his excuse of an explanation with “maybe”. If you begin with maybe and do not lead to justified fact or incredibly solid reasoning, you have intellectually met the equivalent of pulling shit out of your ass.

While I find the majority of Dennet’s arguments rather tiresome, he does make a couple that are worth my comments. One of these arguments lies in the idea that we “could have” done something. This is logically flawed. Here is what Dennet presents however;

Consider the case where I miss a very short putt and kick myself because I could have holed it.  It is not that I should have holed it if I had tried: I did try, and missed. It is not that I should have holed it if conditions had been different: that might of course be so, but I am talking about conditions as they precisely were [Dennet’s italics], and asserting that I could have holed it. There is the rub. Nor does ‘I can hole it this time’ mean that I shall hole it this time if I try or if anything else; for I may try and miss, and yet not be convinced that I could not have done it; indeed, further experiments may confirm my belief that I could have done it that time [Dennet’s italics], although I did not. (Austin 1961: 166. [“Ifs and Cans,” in Austin, Philosophical Papers, edited by J. Urmson and G. Warnock, Oxford, Clarendon Press.])

This is wrong. Just wrong. Saying that I could’ve holed it after you didn’t is absolutely false. Why? Because if you could have then you would have. And if you make that same putt later, this does not mean that you were correct in saying that you could have, the correct statement would be saying you can make the putt. Say the putt was five feet away, if you believe that you have the ability to make putts from five feet away, it makes perfect sense to proclaim that you have the ability to potentially make the putt. Therefore you could say, “I can make this putt!” But if you miss the putt and proclaim, I could’ve made that putt under the very exact conditions, you are wrong, because you didn’t. And those conditions will never be met again (it is probabilistically proven, I have personally witnessed the mathematical proof involving continuous distribution functions), thus to say that you could have made the putt is so grotesquely wrong that my need for response is almost unnecessary. But to give one reason, is the ball in the hole? This shows, quite clearly, how compatibilist seek to grasp onto this idea of having more control, or being more special, than they truly are, using mental gymnastics that appear to have solved their fear at face value alone, while in depth, solve nothing.

Dennet does attempt to save himself from his very example, though, with what I believe is a better example, yet it still misses the point, and I still debate in my mind whether he is contradicting the point he attempted to make above. Dennet states;

Suppose I am driving along at 60 MPH and am asked if my car can also go 80 MPH. Yes, I reply, but not in precisely the same conditions; I have to press harder on the accelerator.  In fact, I add, it can also go 40 MPH, but not with conditions precisely as they are.

If you can say this, and still believe you have free will, I am at a loss. To say that you have the ability to do things does not imply free will at all. If you couldn’t do something different in precisely the same conditions, where does your freedom come in? Where is the free will? If you call being able to do only what the precise conditions allow, which is only that one thing, free will, you are intentionally misleading yourself. If you can find the freedom in this, please present it. This is the putting mishap all over again, mistaking abilities with actual freedoms moment to moment. A free will that is worth having should not be this difficult to find, and not require the mental gymnastics we are observing. This type of free will is as necessary as molding bread.

Dennet also shows that many believe that self-control is evidence of free will. He states;

We can improve our self-control, and this is a morally significant fact about the competence of normal adults—the only people whom we hold fully (but not “absolutely” or “deeply”) responsible.

This is common and I have seen this mistake before, even in myself. I recall one day inquiring about tourettes syndrome with a friend of mine who believes we do not have free will. I was still unsure at this point in time, so I had many questions. I thought I found it, I found free will! I thought about people with tourettes and how they cannot control what they say at times. I pointed this out to him and I said “You see! This is what not having free will looks like! This person has no will to prevent himself from cursing loudly in public, yet I do!” I was met, far too quickly for my prides sake, with, “You are simply wired differently, you couldn’t not control yourself in public. That is who you are (I should note here that this is not exactly the explanation given, I am of course paraphrasing).” Fast-forward to the future and I have discussed this fact to a friend who at one time had an eating disorder. Her response to me as we talked about her eating disorder was that she was drawn to it, partly because she felt like the only thing she could control in her life was what she ate. She could control whether or not, typically not, she was going to eat food. Now, as she was leaning towards determinism, I pointed out that in that time, or whenever she would feel like she could use self-control with food, if, say, she chose not to eat food, she was bound by that choice. She believes that she is in control of the food she chooses to eat when in reality she had no choice but to deny herself food. She had no more choice either way.

This is so often used as evidence of free will, but self-control does not mean free choice. We are as bound to choosing “Yes” as we are to choosing “No”, and there is no reason that should be otherwise.

As a quick note before I move on, this is used as a manner of looking at the thought process of a compatibilist and not a critique of Dennet’s critique of Harris, if you read Dennet’s critique (linked above) and wish for me to argue a point of his which I ignored here, comment and I would be more than happy to. I believe the above is sufficient to making my point however.

Determinism and its Implications

I would prefer, personally, not to attach myself to the belief that I am a hard determinist. I personally do not know all that it entails. What I will say is that I simply do not believe that we have free will, or at least any definition of free will worth my time. The idea of not having free will is scary for many people. They come to the conclusion that this implies that we are hostages in our own bodies. This is untrue. All this means is that we are not truly the authors of our thoughts and actions, but we are no less us than we have ever been. We need not worry that we will do something that we vehemently oppose by the minds so choosing, because we are our mind. Sam Harris puts it best in his book (and it was the inspiration to the title of this post) when he says,

You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

One of the most common misconceptions of determinism is when people confuse determinism with fatalism. Even the compatibilist will be next to me to help correct the misinformed. Determinism does not mean that we can simply lay in bed and everything that we were “supposed” to accomplish in life will be accomplished. If you want to eat, if you want a job, you need to get out of bed and make those things happen. But suppose you simply stayed in bed, this does not mean that you have “beat” determinism and therefore have free will. This gets back to what I was saying about self-control; just because you stayed in bed doesn’t mean you beat the system, I could look (in principle) at the data and determine that you had no choice but to stay in bed when you did, and I would be right, because you wouldn’t have done anything differently (how could you have?).

Many incompatibilists believe that without free will, we are not responsible for our actions. This is simply misguided, but this is in fact a fear shared by a majority (if not all) of those who fear free will is an illusion. But to believe this is to be intellectually lazy. You may not be the author of your actions, but no one else is responsible for your actions. Remember, you are the storm. Therefore, if you intend to harm people, you are dangerous to society and you are to be held accountable for your actions. This is why prisons would still be necessary. Rather than being used as a means of justice, they would be used as a means of protection. And even if we want to eliminate responsibility, that does not take away from what we know about conscious experience. If you enjoy life, not having free will wouldn’t change that, and we would in fact have a responsibility to our society to protect others from those who are “unlucky” in the sense that they are dangerous to us. And to not be able to take responsibility for our accomplishments is to make the error I stated above which is to confuse determinism with fatalism. If you won a Nobel prize, you had to put the work in, and thus everything that truly is “you” is responsible for what led you to earning the Nobel prize. It wasn’t going to fall on your lap had you not put in the work.

A large reason that many people fear that free will is an illusion is this sense of losing responsibility. But this concern does not imply free will exists. It is the same when a Christian proclaims that moral responsibility would be lost if there was no God. Just because you need (in your mind) X to have moral responsibility does not mean that X actually exists. Simply put, free will does not exist simply because you feel we need it to be held morally responsible. With or without free will, you desire peace and the well-being of conscious creatures. Losing free will would not erase this desire, thus some new kind of responsibility could represent this. At the end, what really falls to the ground is the logic of wanting revenge. We would be more compassionate towards those who have been wired to be psychopaths. We would still have to lock them away for safety, but the idea for revenge should dissolve with a full belief in determinism. But it is important to remember that wanting free will so that you can feel morally accountable in no way proves that we have free will.

One of the biggest pieces of this puzzle that left me unsure in the past was the idea of choice. Because I knew that I was constantly faced with choice, I could not see how there couldn’t be free will. I had to make a choice. What I realized however, was that choice exists. We are constantly presented with choices and we are left to make this choice. We must. But while choice exists, my actual freedom in making the choice that I inevitably make is void of freedom. Now I don’t wander through my day consistently reminding myself of this. I don’t wake up and decide to make oatmeal but utter “like I had a choice” in the back of my mind. It is merely something that I am aware of and need concern myself with it only when it matters. I find personally that this understanding allows me to much more easily have compassion for those who have not had the same “luck” as I have had. And because I don’t have free will, it has become much clearer to me why this in fact makes life as enjoyable as it really is. I talked more about this in a previous post here.

When we truly investigate free will, it becomes clear that it is an illusion. And when people try to argue that there is a more complex and convoluted version of free will that we don’t yet understand, we can quickly see that they are grasping at straws, holding on to something that they are too afraid to admit just isn’t a free will worth fighting for. But we just need to remember that everything is ultimately okay. Not having free will is the reason why life brings us so much genuine joy. It is why we have emotions that are so beautiful and yet so unexplainable at the same time (again, I go deeper into this in my earlier post linked above). We need not fear it. We will always behave consistently with who we are and how we desire to be. We are simply aware that at the heart, we are not the author, but merely witnessing another beautiful miracle of nature. Remember, we are not lost in the storm. So in the mean time, I recommend you do as I do, and enjoy your time in the I of the storm.

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43 thoughts on “The I of the Storm: The Misconceptions of Free Will

  1. Admittedly I haven’t researched this to any great extent. I have a really hard time wrapping my mind around the thought of any determinism that says we don’t have a choice in the way in which we behave. I’ll have to do a bit more reading about this, though, because I’m not totally sold on the idea of ultimate free will either.

    If we say that determinism would cause us to have more compassion toward people to behave the way that they’re wired to behave what, then, of murderers, abusers, etc.? Not that I’m hung up on punishment, per se. I’m not. I’ve really no interest in seeing people get their “just desserts”.

    What about the man who repeatedly abuses his wife, or the priest who abuses children?

    • The murderers, rapists, abusers, etc. have all been dealt a bad hand in life. To better understand the constraints of their circumstance, if you were to switch places with one of these people, atom for atom, then you would be that person and behave no differently in those horrific situations.

      But if these people are truly subject to determinism, and do not have the free will that many believe we do, this idea of punishment seems to lose all of its weight. These people are still dangerous however and we as a society need to be protected, thus, they should be imprisoned or given psychiatric care while confined from society. Procedures from there would vary case to case.

      • I understand the concept that punishment loses it’s weight under those circumstances. I’m not really even advocating punishment. I lived with an abusive spouse for 20 years and gave him many opportunities to receive psychiatric care. In the end I couldn’t decide if he had control over it or not.

      • I would say that the answer to that is in the facts. There is no question that you were in undeserved circumstances and he was a danger and for that reason should be locked away and psychiatric care should be pursued. But I think it is clear that he had no real control over it. If he did, what logical reason would he have to not will these abusive urges away. I think with investigation into this you would find that everything originates from causes that were not of his ultimate authorship. This is a very complex topic, which is why my post was so long, and thus it is difficult to answer a question like this with complete clarity while not writing a book. I hope my replies have been clear. I truly am sorry for what you have had to endure

      • Moreover it would explain why he never understood what the big deal was. Maybe because he was “wired” with those thought processes he couldn’t, for the life of him, understand or comprehend not having those urges?

        At any rate, it’s not so much that I’m dwelling on it. It’s done, but I did always and still want to understand it.

      • I understand why you would want to understand it. Wanting to know why someone would be driven to do such things. I think that your hypothesis is pretty on point. I would add that his “wiring” is a result of his genetics and life experiences. I think of it all as a causal string.

        From a scientific point of view, the human mind and consciousness and choice is one of the most fascinating topics to ponder and study. There really aren’t too many clear cut answers on this subject either.

      • Whether you keep or discard “punishment” depends upon its usefulness. If punishment serves no purpose, or produces more harm than benefit, then sure, we can discard it. But if some punishment plays a significant role in correcting the behavior, then it is as useful (if not more useful) as your prison.

        One of the points in favor of “free will” is that it presumes a person’s behavior might be modified by teaching new, better behaviors and by censoring or penalizing inappropriate or bad behavior.

        Free will assumes a deliberate choice, which means that by intervention in the case of a bad choice, a better deliberate choice will happen in the future.

        Unless we plan to accompany that person throughout life and make his decisions for him, we must depend upon our ability to change how he makes these decisions for himself. This implies he has free will and might choose different behavior next time. That is why the concept is useful and significant in the ordinary, secular world of moral and legal responsibility.

  2. Good post but a few thoughts came to mind.

    I’m not completely confident that reality is absolutely deterministic, but even indeterminism won’t grant anyone free will.

    I really don’t know what point Dennet could be trying to make other than trying to preserve free will in some way.

    Personally, I try avoiding the word ‘choice’ depending on who I’m talking to, mainly because people seem to think it’s synonymous with free will as you even said it caused confusion with you. By the way, I’m not saying I think you shouldn’t have used the word ‘choice’.

    I also like Sam Harris’s point, “..the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

  3. Pingback: More on Free Will | Intellectual Outlet
  4. “The most significant point which I believe buries completely the idea of ultimate free will is the fact that we are not perfect. The fact that we make mistakes, we become addicted to bad things, or in the mind of the religious, we sin. The idea of mistakes, sin, or temptation does not fit in a reality where people have ultimate free will.”

    Very true. It is impossible to explain addiction if people could choose to stop at any time. As you mention, we also make mistakes and are unable to do what we wish to do. No matter what the definition of perfection is, we can’t achieve it all the time and there is no reason to feel bad about this once you drop the belief that you cold have done otherwise.

  5. “Temptation is perhaps the biggest point here. Especially when speaking to the religious. Temptation should either not exist or be irrelevant in a reality with ultimate free will. Temptation should probably not exist because if we are the conscious authors of our thoughts and intentions, we would have to, from an illogical starting point, choose to think of something tempting (and we can assume bad or wrong or sinful). But suppose “the devil” could plant thoughts that lead to temptation in your mind. With free will, one could simply will those thoughts away. Thus to proclaim that someone was tempted to sin and therefore did, should in fact not be held responsible by God as their actions were the result of a mental hijacking, therefore eliminating sin. And to claim that someone could not easily will the temptation away is admitting defeat. If you can not will temptation, or any bad desire away effortlessly, you admit to not having ultimate free will. You then must concede that you are subject to thoughts and desires that are in fact not your own.”

    Yes! This is precisely the point on which it makes no sense for sin or temptation to exist in a world without free will. The person has to be responsible for the temptation to sin in the first place. Whether the temptation is caused by a devil, god, unicorn, or whatever else, it came from a source which the human could not will away.

  6. “A large reason that many people fear that free will is an illusion is this sense of losing responsibility. But this concern does not imply free will exists. It is the same when a Christian proclaims that moral responsibility would be lost if there was no God. Just because you need (in your mind) X to have moral responsibility does not mean that X actually exists. Simply put, free will does not exist simply because you feel we need it to be held morally responsible.”

    Yes. Wanting something to exist does not make it exist.

  7. Michael: “Looking at the laws of physics, I claim that in principle, we could calculate, and therefore determine, every single thing you do, from when you will take your next breath, to what you will decide to have for lunch in two weeks.”

    So what? How does that fact change anything? I agree with you that deterministic inevitability is a fact. But it is a spectacularly useless fact. It changes nothing. And there are no useful implications that can be drawn from it. Everyone who attempts to draw useful implications ends up following a rabbit down a hole into irrationality.

    There is more useful truth in saying “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” than there is in saying that everything that happens is inevitable.

    And it changes nothing in regards to free will, because free will is only the will that is free to act on its own without being forced to carry out someone else’s will rather than our own. This simple, ordinary free will is at the center of both secular moral responsibility and secular legal responsibility and corrective penalties.

    Michael: “When we truly investigate free will, it becomes clear that it is an illusion.”

    But “if everything is an illusion then nothing is”. Because the mind is rooted in the physical structure and operation of the brain it is as silly to say that thinking and choosing are “illusions”. One might as easily say that standing and walking are “illusions”. They too are rooted in the physical structure and operation of the body.

    • I will use this comment as the grounds for us furthering this discussion. I will provide a response soon, no later than this weekend. Thank you for your input, I am excited to discuss this with you.

      • Great! Looking forward to it.

        One other thought. I’ve said before to others that once you make free will disappear, the concept of will, and then the concept of self disappear by the same logic. I still think that “I” am a real biological organism of the human variety. We call ourselves “persons” and refer to ourselves with pronouns like “I”, “He”, “Us”, “Them” etc.

    • As I have skimmed through your discussion with EP and Chandler, I can begin from a more reasonable point on this topic given that I have a better understanding of your position.

      With regards to your comment on that first quote: “Looking at the laws of physics, I claim that in principle, we could calculate, and therefore determine, every single thing you do, from when you will take your next breath, to what you will decide to have for lunch in two weeks.” It looks like we agree for the most part, with a potential disagreement in the details; details which may not be important for this discussion here.

      Where we seem to both agree is that we exist in a deterministic universe. Correct me if I am wrong here. Now depending on your further thoughts on free will, I may say that the point above has some important implications, but I will reserve that for now. Regardless, The quote above is at the very least an argument for determinism, but nothing more.

      You go on to say, “And it changes nothing in regards to free will, because free will is only the will that is free to act on its own without being forced to carry out someone else’s will rather than our own. This simple, ordinary free will is at the center of both secular moral responsibility and secular legal responsibility and corrective penalties.”

      Now if you read my post “More on Free Will”, you see in my comments after the last video that I say; “In this video, Alfred Mele makes many good points and says a lot of things that I agree with. For instance, as he defines it, I would agree that we all have this “regular” free will. At least us sane folk. That is, when we do something, we were aware of what we were doing, we probably understood the consequences, and no one was forcing us to do what we did. Yes, we can all behave in this way.” So in many ways, it is clear that we agree. And the conflicts, if any, may lie in the details.

      You end by saying, in reference to my claim that free will is an illusion; “But “if everything is an illusion then nothing is”. Because the mind is rooted in the physical structure and operation of the brain it is as silly to say that thinking and choosing are “illusions”. One might as easily say that standing and walking are “illusions”. They too are rooted in the physical structure and operation of the body.”

      Now off the cuff, this just seems to be the logical fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. Thinking is not an illusion, nor is choosing. An illusion is something that when investigated, you discover it’s not what it seemed, and that’s what I tend to argue with free will.

      As I have skimmed through your conversations on my other posts, it seems you have an attachment to the term free will, and you really need it to exist. My question to you then is; how do you define free will? What is it about free will that you think is so important? I think the majority of our disagreement is probably an illusion (choice of wording is just a bit of humor on my part). I think most of this is a semantics game and we probably view reality in very similar terms. I think that what you may call free will, I may not feel comfortable calling it that. Also, due to the many conversations that I’ve had with people on this topic, I’m interested to see if you are “smuggling” anything else in with your definition of free will. So again, I think the most important questions for you to answer in your response are the following:

      How do you define free will?

      What do you believe is lost if free will does not exist?

      • “Free will” refers to the ordinary ability to deliberately decide for ourselves upon a choice, or a course of action. Our choice is our “will” at that moment. And it is “free” if it is our own and not a choice forced upon us, against our will, by someone else.

        I think we can both agree that it would be irrational to suggest that the will must be free from causation in order to be free. Nothing in a rational universe is free from causation. All events are caused. Even in a metaphysical universe, the fact that mind is subject to purpose and reason also implies causation. The fact that the physical world is deterministic means that it is also rational. The supposition of a metaphysical universe which is rational would also imply that it is deterministic.

        And the will, if it is to be meaningful at all, must intend to effect some change. If there is no causation then the will has no possibility of causing anything, and the concept of will would be meaningless. Therefore the concept of will presumes reliable causation and reliable causation implies determinism.

        It would be equally irrational to suppose a will that was somehow magically separated from self. Whose will would it be if not our own? And being our own it is subject to all of that which is us: our reasons, our feelings, our beliefs and values, our memories and experiences, and everything else that could count as an influence upon us.

        And if a choice is indeed our own will, and not forced upon by another, then it is free. And that freedom is pretty much the same as the freedom of the prisoner who is let out of jail. The prisoner was forced against his will to confinement in a cell, to eating when all the others ate, to exercising at a time imposed upon him by others. That is called “not free”. When the prisoner is released, he is again “free”.

        So why isn’t that freedom, to choose for yourself rather than have choices imposed upon you by others, sufficient for the word “free” in “free will”?

        Why are we not claiming that the prisoner can’t be free unless he is also free from causation (libertarian free willers) or free from being himself (hard determinists)?

        Either we are free to choose for ourselves (free will) or we are not (under someone else’s compulsion our will is not free). The words “free will” are useful because they make this distinction.

        In a perfectly deterministic universe, with universal inevitability, we are still acting freely of our own will. Our free will demands determinism to effect our will upon the things in the reach of our influence. And apparently this deterministic universe has inevitably evolved us as biological organisms capable of thinking and choosing for ourselves. Free will sits upon determinism. Without determinism, there is nothing reliable to sit upon. Its like all the stools would have one leg and gravity would randomly attract and repel.

      • You present, here, a reasonable method of viewing free will. As you seem to define it, you are basically saying, if you can make a choice and act on a choice of your own volition, then your will was free. Hence, free will. An argument I have made in the past is that arguments for free will are either clearly false (Libertarian free will), or uninteresting (Typically compatibilist free will). Your argument is certainly in line with the compatibilist point of view, and in that same vein, falls short of my interest currently.

        The reason that this falls short is I believe that there are better ways to say what people have than saying they have free will. For instance, acting of one’s own volition, or acting of one’s own intent. When we use “mysterious” terms like free will, there are a lot of critical points that are overlooked.

        For instance, I like to think about what is occurring at the level of the brain when I make a decision. To keep it simple, we have choice A and choice B. Choices exist regardless of the existence of free will, which is something that should be clear to both of us. Now when presented with the two choices, thoughts begin to arise into consciousness, usually the pros and cons of each choice. With each thought that arises in consciousness, typically an emotion of some kind arises after, be that good, bad, or null. As this process continues, at some point, emotions become strong enough so as to move you to decide. Now many people believe that there are all of these emotions and from these reasons and emotions, there is a separate observer of sorts that is not part of this causal string, it is not another falling domino, but rather something that can look at the whole and make its own decision. I think this is an important difference. I think that the choice is merely another falling domino.

        To look at more serious cases, what does this tell us about murderers and sociopaths? It is key to recognize that these people were doomed. From their DNA, to the life experiences, they were doomed to be as they were, to make the decisions that they were going to make. So when you see someone, and you think they have made poor life choices and you would’ve done otherwise given their EXACT circumstances, it is important to recognize that you wouldn’t have made any different decisions. Because if you trade places with a murderer or a sociopath, atom for atom, then you would be them, and there would be nothing that is who you currently are that would have transferred over.

        Now yes, it is important to recognize that the decisions that we make, matter, but it is also important to recognize, at least in retrospect, that everything was going to happen as it did happen. This makes emotions such as hate and the want for vengeance lose their reason.

        And it is clear that people have their own intentions, which are more theirs than anyone else’s, clearly. But it is important that we recognize what is going on at the level of the brain, and terms like free will make it too easy to overlook these important truths.

        Now I know by reading over some of your other comments that making sure bad people are locked away is important, and I agree. People who intend to kill,
        people who intend to cause others harm, need to be locked away for our safety, but not because they DESERVE to be punished. Bad people were doomed to be bad, and that is something worth recognizing.

        Similarly, it is good that there are speed limits on the road and it’s good that we can be threatened with punishment if we disobey, because we know that these facts will alter people’s behavior for the better. They are another cause in the chain of causes.

        So in my experience, the term free will seems so hinged on giving people more capabilities than they really have. Because many who believe in free will believe this, it opens the door for emotions like hate and vengeance, and they are incredibly justified if they are right, but they are not justified if they are wrong about free will.

        Similarly, if free will is just another way of saying that people can act of their own volition or act of their own intent, then clearly the term free will is meaningless, we can get the point across in a much clearer, much more concise way.

        Now you seem to have failed to answer my second question from my first response, which was:
        What do you believe is lost if we do not have free will?

        To be clearer; Why is the term free will so important? Are there not clearer ways to discuss people’s intentions?

        This can certainly be a convoluted topic especially when trying to limit everything to a reasonable comment size so I hope my points were clear and I am more than happy to explain myself if need be.

      • In the school lunch room, one kid takes another kids sandwich. The victim’s emotional reaction causes the thief to get a bloody nose. The victim’s reaction was not based upon a consideration of the other kid’s free will, but upon the loss of his own sandwich, the frustration of leaving the lunch room as he came in, hungry. So he became angry and did something about it.

        It is the injury, not the concept of free will, that evokes the emotional response.

        A teacher intervenes. Her job is to find out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Unlike the victim, she is not ruled by emotion, but by school policy. As a teacher she has some responsibility to examine the causes behind the child’s decision to take another child’s sandwich. If this is a new bad behavior from the child, she’ll apply counseling in correct behavior and warning of more serious actions if the behavior is repeated.

        These two things will hopefully lead the child to behave differently tomorrow.

        The child is treated with respect, as a person who chooses his behavior, and who can learn to choose better behavior.

        She does not try to convince the child that he was “doomed” to steal the sandwich or that his action was merely the result of his being a “domino” pushed against his will by a long string of other dominoes. Instead she presents his behavior as being the result of his own choices. Because that is the only premise that leaves him independent to choose better behavior on his own in the future.

        To tell someone that they were “doomed” or the victim of the “domino” effect is called “fatalism”. I’m sure you object to fatalism as much as I do, but that is the result of the language you used.

        There is no actual conflict between holding people personally responsible and determinism. The whole point of “holding responsible” is to apply the appropriate correction to the actual causal agent to prevent future harm. And what the offender DESERVES is (a) to be required to repair the harm if feasible, (b) to be subject to reasonable corrective penalties, (c) to be separated from society for society’s protection until he corrects his behavior, and (d) a penalty that does no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

        The offender may deserve reasonable corrective punishment to convey our seriousness about not tolerating the bad behavior. Even a child undergoes a “time out” or other penalty when necessary. And it is viewed to be punitive by both the adult and the child. So, sometimes punishment is deserved, especially in a deterministic universe.

        The discussion of “free will” by theologians is mainly to get God off the hook. Without it, God becomes the responsible cause of all human evil and only he deserves the penalty. Atheists, looking to saddle God with the responsibility seem to be arguing to take free will away to leave him with no way out. But they’ve clearly gone overboard. We still need free will in the secular world.

        Nobody that I know of claims that free will gives them magical abilities. It only gives them the option of making their own choices for themselves. Arguments based on “what you would do if you could go back in time” or “what you would do if you were them and not you” are metaphorical and a bit fruitless since they can never be tested except in your own head, and you admit that their head is thinking differently about this in the first place, so it will always be a stalemate.

        Michael: “Why is the term free will so important? Are there not clearer ways to discuss people’s intentions?”

        Free will is not confusing to ordinary people. Dr. Eddy Nahmias’s paper on “Willusionism” shows that “telling people that free will is an illusion leads people to cheat more, help less, and
        behave more aggressively”. Because most people interpret free will as their own power to take responsibility for their own choices. Here’s the PDF link:

        http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf

      • I feel the need to repeat what I said earlier, which is, we agree, probably on 99% of this topic. With regards to this post, when you say;

        “It is the injury, not the concept of free will, that evokes the emotional response.”
        “As a teacher she has some responsibility to examine the causes behind the child’s decision to take another child’s sandwich. If this is a new bad behavior from the child, she’ll apply counseling in correct behavior and warning of more serious actions if the behavior is repeated.
        These two things will hopefully lead the child to behave differently tomorrow.”

        “The whole point of “holding responsible” is to apply the appropriate correction to the actual causal agent to prevent future harm. And what the offender DESERVES is (a) to be required to repair the harm if feasible, (b) to be subject to reasonable corrective penalties, (c) to be separated from society for society’s protection until he corrects his behavior, and (d) a penalty that does no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).”

        I agree

        When you say;

        “The offender may deserve reasonable corrective punishment to convey our seriousness about not tolerating the bad behavior. Even a child undergoes a “time out” or other penalty when necessary. And it is viewed to be punitive by both the adult and the child. So, sometimes punishment is deserved, especially in a deterministic universe.”

        I would say I mostly agree with potential for some caveats that I don’t feel are important for this conversation.

        Now what I tend to argue against is Libertarian Free Will, which even you believe does not exist. As I have said in blog posts before, compatibilism tends to work on the surface, but I find that people tend to have more baggage that flies under the radar of their presented argument. Now it seems you have done a good job of not doing that, and if this remains true, then as I’ve said, you have a free will that I would agree with. But I’ve already said this before.

        Now my last response, I am aware that I had a portion that sounds like fatalism, I even knew that you would say it was, but it actually isn’t. The reason I went in the direction that I did was to try and look deeper into your actual thoughts on free will. Now the difference between determinism and fatalism is the belief that people’s choices matter. So when I say someone is “doomed” to do the things that they do, that is an acknowledgement in retrospect of results, and I never advocated that we should tell someone that they are “doomed” to do what they do. Now fatalism basically says that you could just lay in bed all day and if you were going to win a nobel prize, you will win a nobel prize, regardless of your actions. where as in determinism, the proper way to look at this is to realize that every thing you ACTUALLY DID, which MATTERS, led to the nobel prize, and we can acknowledge that everything you did.. you were going to do. But you had to do what you did. You couldn’t sit back and wait for the nobel prize to fall in your lap.

        Now I really want to get to the crux of the free will argument. The part that will truly show whether we agree or not. It is because of my answer to this question that I am about to ask that I find the term free will to be a description of something illusory or something that exists but is not worth my time. This question is:

        Do you believe that you could have chosen otherwise in any given moment?

        My short response is: No, and because of this, there is no definition of free will worth my time.

      • “the proper way to look at this is to realize that every thing you ACTUALLY DID, which MATTERS, led to the nobel prize, and we can acknowledge that everything you did.. you were going to do. But you had to do what you did. You couldn’t sit back and wait for the nobel prize to fall in your lap.”

        Precisely. When the guy asked “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”, the answer is “Practice, practice, practice.” The fact that you had (inevitability) to do what you did is not inconsistent with the fact that you had (causality) to choose to do (by free will) what you did in order to do what you did (whew!). On the other hand, if you did it because someone literally held a gun to your head (unfree will) then the responsibility might lie significantly with the guy holding the gun.

        “Do you believe that you could have chosen otherwise in any given moment?”

        And that is a trick question.

        We are presuming that I am the decider and that it is not a casual, but a serious issue, one where there are significant differences in the outcome of my choice, and, one where there is significant uncertainty at the outset as to which I should choose. It will require conscious deliberation. Fair enough?

        At the beginning, if you ask me what my choice will be, I can honestly, “Well, I may choose A, but then again, I may choose B. I don’t know yet which I will choose.” From my perspective, as the decider at this moment, I can potentially choose A or choose B. As a philosopher, I can also say that at the end of my deliberation whatever I decide would have been inevitable. But right now I cannot predict the outcome. So I state honestly that I “can” choose either A or choose B.

        If someone were to stop me at the beginning and say, you must choose one right now! Then I’d probably flip a coin, and the question becomes whether the coin has the ability to choose A or B at this point.

        As I go through my deliberations, weighing the pros and cons of each, testing my feelings about the results that might occur from choosing one or the other, one choice will emerge (hopefully) as the only real, inevitable option. And I will choose it, of my own free will, as long as I am free to do so (no gun to my head forcing me to choose the opposite).

        At the end of the deliberation, if I’ve done a good job, I will be convinced of the inevitability of the choice. If you posed the identical question to me at this point, I would repeatedly give you the same answer, without deliberation.

        So, when you ask the question, “Do you believe that you could have chosen otherwise in any given moment?”, my question is WHICH moment, the moment at the beginning before my deliberations, or the moment at the end when I had made my choice?

      • No it is not a trick question. It is a question that gets to the heart of what we are talking about. We want to determine what degree to which you are free. Now if you want to say that you can behave as we want to behave, I agree. Sane individuals can behave as they intend to behave, Like I said, in this post in fact, you are not controlling the storm, and you aren’t lost in it, you are the storm.

        Now the claim I make is that free will is an illusion and you seem to walk right into this with your comment here. You say;

        “At the beginning, if you ask me what my choice will be, I can honestly, “Well, I may choose A, but then again, I may choose B. I don’t know yet which I will choose.” From my perspective, as the decider at this moment, I can potentially choose A or choose B.”

        but then you go on to say, immediately;

        “I can also say that at the end of my deliberation whatever I decide would have been inevitable.”

        An illusion is something by which you think something is one thing, but upon closer inspection, you realize it is another. You cannot claim that because YOU didn’t know what you were going to choose, that you were free to choose A or B.

        Yes, no one is forcing you to choose A or B, but the choices were, as you said, inevitable. Now the correct way to say what you said is that you FELT like you were free to choose either choice A or B, but you never were. You were going to choose what you chose. As you said, it was inevitable, thus the feelings you had about your ability to choose A or B were in fact illusory to the fact of the matter, and there in lies the illusion.

        “So, when you ask the question, “Do you believe that you could have chosen otherwise in any given moment?”, my question is WHICH moment, the moment at the beginning before my deliberations, or the moment at the end when I had made my choice?”

        As I said.. ANY moment. at what point are you beyond inevitability? if you ever are, that is a free will that is interesting. I don’t need to acknowledge a term like free will to believe that people’s choices matter or that people are responsible for their actions. The only free will that people believe in that would be interesting to have, clearly doesn’t exist.

      • At the beginning, I didn’t merely feel that I was free to choose either A or B. I was in FACT free to choose A or B.

        Proof: At the beginning, if I were stopped and not allowed to deliberate, but forced to choose immediately, then I would have to flip a coin (a reasonable strategy under the circumstances).

        If it is true that the coin could choose A or B, then it is also true that I could choose A or B (the coin is my reasonable method of choosing).

        If we wish to split hairs, then we can both agree that the result of the coin toss is physically deterministic. In fact, we can agree that there is NO point in time when the end result, whatever it is, or however it is derived, is not inevitable.

        That’s the thing about the fact of inevitability. IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. Inevitability itself is always a banal, irrelevant, and totally useless fact.

        It is a fact that is made useless by its omnipresence. It cannot change anything. It is not omnipotent but rather totally impotent. It offers no enlightenment about anything. It suggests no useful or helpful methods. It is just a fact, with no particular significance aside from its fact-ness.

        Free will is not banal. It is the source of our empowerment by which we choose to change our coping strategies or choose to change our environment to meet our needs. It always remains only us making the actual choice that actually changes things in the real world. — Except when someone else is forcing us to choose or act against our will. In that case our will is not free.

        As long as “free” and “unfree” are in reference to a single (or set of) meaningful and relevant constraint(s), then the term carries meaning and relevancy. And there is clearly a distinction between someone acting of their own “free” will versus someone being forced to act against their will (“unfree”).

        So, “free will” exists. The term refers to anyone’s ability to freely make choices for themselves, without being forced to choose what someone else forces them to choose. And we become the final responsible cause of the results of actions chosen of our own free will. (Because, if our chosen act causes harm, we deserve to be corrected).

      • It really seems like you are trying to have your cake and eat it too. You acknowledge inevitability, while proclaiming an empowerment to free will that the inevitability ultimately negates. And yes, I wish to split hairs in this scenario because we are talking about what is.

        Marvin: “At the beginning, I didn’t merely feel that I was free to choose either A or B. I was in FACT free to choose A or B.

        Proof: At the beginning, if I were stopped and not allowed to deliberate, but forced to choose immediately, then I would have to flip a coin (a reasonable strategy under the circumstances).

        If it is true that the coin could choose A or B, then it is also true that I could choose A or B (the coin is my reasonable method of choosing).”

        Interesting that you “prove” this and then in the following sentence, disprove it:

        Marvin: “If we wish to split hairs, then we can both agree that the result of the coin toss is physically deterministic. In fact, we can agree that there is NO point in time when the end result, whatever it is, or however it is derived, is not inevitable.”

        What you merely argue for is that people can be who they are. But that is what I say. You will behave as YOU want to behave. But you will only behave as you would behave when not under the demands of another.

        Marvin: “That’s the thing about the fact of inevitability. IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. Inevitability itself is always a banal, irrelevant, and totally useless fact.”

        This is true in many ways. The inevitability makes no difference. It is merely a point in retrospect. But where the implications lie and where people like me find the illusoriness of free will so important to discuss is in understanding the chain of causality.

        A strong grasp and understanding of the chain of causality and our adhesion to it leads to many telling implications about how we interpret the actions of others. Many of which are quite important, and in my life personally, quite enlightening.

        Marvin: “Free will is not banal. It is the source of our empowerment by which we choose to change our coping strategies or choose to change our environment to meet our needs.”

        This was the telling statement that led to the “have your cake and eat it too” comment. A firm understanding of the chain of causality, an understanding that our choices and our actions matter, THAT is where empowerment lies. Not in a belief in free will. As you said earlier, perhaps in another thread talking to someone else. People are known to cheat and deceive if they are told there is no free will, according to studies. And while I have much to say about that, to stay on point here, I will only point out that people INDEED do not have a correct understanding of what free will is if this is there reaction to this fact, and if there is a definition that of free will that we can agree exists. And clearly, a definition that satisfies determinism is not satisfying to the majority, per their reaction.

        Marvin: “So, “free will” exists. The term refers to anyone’s ability to freely make choices for themselves, without being forced to choose what someone else forces them to choose.”

        So if you feel that you need to argue for a term that merely tells us that we are making a decision without a gun being at our head, you have given me a needless term.

        Marvin: “And we become the final responsible cause of the results of actions chosen of our own free will. (Because, if our chosen act causes harm, we deserve to be corrected).”

        Again, people need a better understanding of the chain of causality and must hold onto the fact that our actions matter. Free will, by your definition, seems to be dead weight to what really matters here.

      • Unless I’ve misunderstood you, we do seem to agree on what is happening:
        (a) Everything that we choose is inevitable.
        (b) We choose for ourselves of our own will, when left free to do so by others.
        Both (a) and (b) are factually true. One does not “negate” the other.

        A person’s mental process of deciding is deterministic, even when his methods of deciding are less than optimal (people often make bad choices). At the very same time it is actually the decider, and no one else, making the decision as to what seems best to them at the time.

        As a deterministic process, it has its place in the metaphorical “causal chain”, having been brought about by specific conditions prior to the decision event, and in turn, determining what events will necessarily follow upon the chosen action.

        “A firm understanding of the chain of causality, an understanding that our choices and our actions matter, THAT is where empowerment lies. Not in a belief in free will. ”

        The various empirical studies that Nahmias referenced (see link above) in his article on “willusionism” seem to contradict that. When told that “free will is an illusion” people tended to “cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively”.

        I believe this is because people understand “free will” to be their ordinary ability to make choices for themselves for which they can be held responsible.

        Your insistence upon stressing one fact, inevitability, and diminishing the other fact, responsibility for one’s own choices, leads to bad behavior.

        The bad behavior is not due to failing to appreciate that their behavior will cause bad results (“a firm understanding of the chain of causality”). But rather it is due to the impression that, if they lack free will then they are excused from the consequences of their choices.

        Free will is not a ” belief”. It is a descriptive fact. Either the person made the choice for himself or it was forced upon him by someone else, or by conditions actually beyond his control. His act was either of his own free will or it was forced upon him against his will.

        But that is not the whole picture, of course. A society must also take its share of responsibility for the conditions in a community which lead people to make bad choices. Unemployment, a lack of quality schools and after school programs with adequate supervision, can lead to the rise of subcultures that are destructive to the aim of raising people who make moral and ethical decisions.

      • I don’t think you’re grasping the extent to which people feel they are free. The fact of the matter is that most people in general don’t view themselves as free in the way you would say they are. Most people have some form of a dualistic view of themselves and that their actions cannot even in principle be determined. That is, you can’t determine what someone will do even if you knew their entire brain state. Most people don’t think they are essentially brain activity. This is why most people in general have a libertarian view of free will. This is also why it’s not uncommon for people to put blame on their brain for something they did wrong. This is commonly done in court. “He couldn’t have behaved otherwise, his brain made him do it.” Or something along those lines. They try to appeal to this notion that the person being prosecuted, as something separate from his own brain, is a victim of his brain. So in regards to your points that people react negatively to being told they don’t have free will, I think you are misinterpreting what’s going on here. If they simply thought that choice was sufficient for free will, then they wouldn’t react negatively. Simply being told that their is no free will shouldn’t be enough to convince them they don’t make choices. They must be reacting to something deeper that they think is being taken away.

        When people hear about science revealing that we don’t have free will, people are reacting this way is due to a confusion about what they are. That is that they are something separate from the causal chain and therefore cannot be determined. I’ve seen the studies where people are shown scientific studies casting doubt on free will. But these studies revolve around some idea that our actions can in some way be determined before they actually happen. Some studies talk about how certain signatures in the brain activity will give the scientists a way to predict what someone will do. Some are based around certain situations revealing the predictability of our psychology and so on. Since you believe everything is causal and determined and that you are essentially the totality of brain activity, this shouldn’t be a surprise to you. So these studies don’t make you think you can go cheat and do other bad things and then blame your brain. So if anything, the studies of how people react show the opposite of what you think about their perception of free will. It shows that people don’t view themselves as determined entities. It also shows that they are looking at themselves as something separate from brain activity and that the brain activity forces them to behave in one way or another.

        People’s perception of choice is that it is an in-deterministic process. When you tell them that they have free will because they make choices, you haven’t added any new information. You’ve simply reinforced their view. So your definition of free will adds nothing to what most people think about themselves. When it is revealed to them that their choices are actually a part of a deterministic process, you’ve now given them information they didn’t have before. So this is very insightful to human behavior for most people. Although, most people will fight that their choices could be determined. This feeling people have that they are not determined is the illusion that needs broken. It is the illusion many people are operating under that they call free will. Telling them that they have free will because they make choices and then telling them that their choices are determined only causes confusion.

      • My little sister (66 now) is, to my disappointment, into “The Course in Miracles”. She believes faith healing is real. So I suggested to her that she had an obligation to go down to the hospital and start emptying the beds. She made the usual excuses, “the patient has to believe in it also”, etc. So her beliefs changed nothing in the real world, except her own feelings of confidence and optimism.

        My point is that regardless of what someone says they believe is real, they still must adapt to the reality of … well of reality. And this applies to those people who claim any mystical kind of free will.

        We make choices for ourselves and act upon them. The phenomena that we experience is real. And that phenomena is identical for everyone. The person claiming “libertarian free will” is experiencing the exact same phenomena that you experience when you make choices for yourself. And they are calling it “free will” (nobody calls it “libertarian” free will except academics and philosophy students). And I am calling it “free will”. And you can call it “choosing for oneself”. But it is all the same thing in reality, regardless what it is called.

        And the implications of “choosing for oneself” or “choosing of one’s own free will” are also identical in reality. If a person is a sane adult, then they will be held responsible for inappropriate behavior that unnecessarily harms someone else. They will deserve a just penalty, one that (a) repairs the harm, (b) corrects the behavior, (c) protects society, and (d) does no more than what is reasonably necessary to accomplish that.

        When we use the term “free will”, the person is functionally hearing “a choice I made myself that I may be held responsible for”. That is the constant across all variations of free will once you strip it of the bells and whistles and miracles. When we say the person did not act of his own “free will” or “did not make that choice himself”, then we are saying the person might not be fully responsible for that act, and thus the penalty required to correct his behavior may be small or even none (according to the person and the circumstances).

        “Most people have some form of a dualistic view of themselves and that their actions cannot even in principle be determined.”

        So what? My sister believes in miracles, but when challenged, fails to produce them. We all live in the same reality regardless of our superstitions or beliefs. Those beliefs either make a difference in what happens or they don’t. I believe turning on the faucet gives me water in my cup. And it pretty reliably does that! My sister believes in miracles but can’t heal anyone (however, one’s attitude can affect one’s health and immune system, so a belief can aid healing, but through totally natural means).

        Both of us though, use the term “free will” to refer to our respective experience of making our own choices. And, frankly, I don’t think anyone is conscious of their dualistic beliefs while in the act of making a decision (unless, of course, they pray for divine guidance in choosing).

        “This is also why it’s not uncommon for people to put blame on their brain for something they did wrong. ”

        Really? I’ve only heard of that in regards to a claim of irresponsibility due to insanity. In what other way would a person blame their brain if not to claim a defect? And under what other circumstance would “blaming one’s brain” prevail at court?

        “Simply being told that their is no free will shouldn’t be enough to convince them they don’t make choices. ”

        To say there is no free will implies that their bad choices were against their will, and therefore they cannot be held responsible. (Wasn’t “Philosphia” making the case that moral responsibility should be rejected due to inevitability? If not, I’m sure I’ve heard it from several others, like George Ortega and Chandler).

        “Since you believe everything is causal and determined and that you are essentially the totality of brain activity, this shouldn’t be a surprise to you. So these studies don’t make you think you can go cheat and do other bad things and then blame your brain.”

        Well, for one thing, I know that the claim that we don’t have free will is a lie. And I know it with such certainty that the claims do not influence me. And, I am my extended neurological system, of course, so when my brain goes, so do I.

        But people who believe they will not be held responsible for their bad behavior are likely to continue it until they are held responsible and corrected.

        “People’s perception of choice is that it is an in-deterministic process. When you tell them that they have free will because they make choices, you haven’t added any new information. You’ve simply reinforced their view.”

        Everyone’s perception of choice is identical. Their comments about the abstract concept may vary, but everyone would describe their process in the same way: (1) I had a decision to make, (2) I thought it over, and (3) I made my choice. After all, it is an objectively observed phenomena in the real world.

        The question is whether you can be held responsible for what you chose to do. If you acted of your own free will, then yes. If you were compelled by someone or something else that forced you to act against your will, then maybe not.

        “When it is revealed to them that their choices are actually a part of a deterministic process, you’ve now given them information they didn’t have before. So this is very insightful to human behavior for most people.”

        The obvious is that they made their decision because of their reasons and their feelings. The insightful only comes into play if those reasons or feelings were unique in some fashion, perhaps due to events in childhood that they had forgotten. And people understand causes without needing to get into the deterministic inevitability angle. That’s just confusing for most people, especially when you try to convince them that their free will is an illusion.

        “This feeling people have that they are not determined is the illusion that needs broken.”

        The fact is that they are not compelled by external factors to act against their will, therefore their will is free. (Unless they are compelled, for example by a gun to the head, in which case their will is not free). There is no illusion here. Just simple facts.

      • “My point is that regardless of what someone says they believe is real, they still must adapt to the reality of … well of reality. And this applies to those people who claim any mystical kind of free will.”

        I would like people to adapt to reality, but not everyone does. This website gives many examples of that: http://whatstheharm.net/

        Surely, people who believe in this mystical kind of free will, will look at people in a different light which in turn affects their own well being and others. They will look at people who do bad things as ultimate authors of their evil and therefore deserve any pain they receive and may look to actually cause that pain. However, any person who behaves badly and suffers for it was ultimately not any MORE responsible for what they did than for their own height. People will be less likely to look for ways to actually fix problems with an understanding of how people work and instead just think, “they need to just make better choices.” Even if you disagree with that, as creatures that act based upon our world views and many other things, we will inevitably make bad decisions if our views are incorrect. So if people think they have this mystical free will, they need to be shown that it’s wrong.

        “We make choices for ourselves and act upon them. The phenomena that we experience is real. And that phenomena is identical for everyone. The person claiming “libertarian free will” is experiencing the exact same phenomena that you experience when you make choices for yourself.”

        This isn’t true. When introspecting and paying close attention to oneself, thoughts and actions can be observed to arise in a completely different sense. It reveals that everything is simply arising and that there isn’t a self that is forcing these things to arise. They are simply arising seemingly from a void. Most people don’t pay enough attention to themselves to realize this and have a more mystical perspective of themselves than they would otherwise. What we experience from moment to moment can change and therefore is not identical for everyone.

        “And the implications of “choosing for oneself” or “choosing of one’s own free will” are also identical in reality. If a person is a sane adult, then they will be held responsible for inappropriate behavior that unnecessarily harms someone else. They will deserve a just penalty, one that (a) repairs the harm, (b) corrects the behavior, (c) protects society, and (d) does no more than what is reasonably necessary to accomplish that.”

        It really depends on what you mean by choosing of your own free will. Again, people really think choosing of their own free will is something more than a deterministic process. That’s a bad idea and so it needs to be shown wrong. Of course people are causally responsible for their actions and I agree with the specifications of the penalty you describe. I’m no sure what you mean when you say they “deserve” it though. That seems to hold some baggage.

        “When we use the term “free will”, the person is functionally hearing “a choice I made myself that I may be held responsible for”. That is the constant across all variations of free will once you strip it of the bells and whistles and miracles.”

        There is simply more to free will for a lot of people than you are giving it. If you strip it of the bells and whistles and miracles, then you’re talking about something else.

        “When we say the person did not act of his own “free will” or “did not make that choice himself”, then we are saying the person might not be fully responsible for that act, and thus the penalty required to correct his behavior may be small or even none (according to the person and the circumstances).”

        If I say someone did not act of their own free will according to your definition, then that person had a gun to their head. If you referred to other definitions of free will, then you would agree that under those definitions people don’t have free will to act with. I feel this has been mostly a discussion of semantics.

        “So what? My sister believes in miracles, but when challenged, fails to produce them. We all live in the same reality regardless of our superstitions or beliefs. Those beliefs either make a difference in what happens or they don’t. I believe turning on the faucet gives me water in my cup. And it pretty reliably does that! My sister believes in miracles but can’t heal anyone (however, one’s attitude can affect one’s health and immune system, so a belief can aid healing, but through totally natural means).”

        The answer to “so what?” is as I said above. People will inevitably make bad decisions with incorrect views of reality. I think a reality where people see reality as it is would be a better one.

        “Both of us though, use the term “free will” to refer to our respective experience of making our own choices. And, frankly, I don’t think anyone is conscious of their dualistic beliefs while in the act of making a decision (unless, of course, they pray for divine guidance in choosing).”

        I don’t use the term free will to refer to my actions at all. I just don’t see the need. I make decisions. At no point do I need to refer to free will. Nobody is entirely conscious of all their beliefs driving an action. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.

        “Really? I’ve only heard of that in regards to a claim of irresponsibility due to insanity. In what other way would a person blame their brain if not to claim a defect? And under what other circumstance would “blaming one’s brain” prevail at court?”

        There’s a term called “brain fart”. Of course it usually is to blame a brain defect which is really only a special case, but that’s not acknowledged.

        “Well, for one thing, I know that the claim that we don’t have free will is a lie.”

        You have to at least acknowledge that the person making that claim may not be referring to the free will you think exists and is actually referring to a form that you don’t think exists. In that case you agree.

        “The question is whether you can be held responsible for what you chose to do. If you acted of your own free will, then yes. If you were compelled by someone or something else that forced you to act against your will, then maybe not.”

        It depends to what extent you think people are responsible. Are people responsible for the will that they are?

        “The obvious is that they made their decision because of their reasons and their feelings. The insightful only comes into play if those reasons or feelings were unique in some fashion, perhaps due to events in childhood that they had forgotten. And people understand causes without needing to get into the deterministic inevitability angle. That’s just confusing for most people, especially when you try to convince them that their free will is an illusion.”

        But many people don’t realize that their reasons and feelings are the result of physical law. To realize that does create a shift in perspective. What is so confusing about determinism or the inevitability of everything? It seems to only confuse people who are told they have free will by people who have a compatibilist view of it, but are then told everything is determined.

      • I was on a jury which heard the case of a young woman who shoplifted several things. She was caught on the store security video taking the items. So, what do we do now (if anything), and why do we do it?

      • You made two statements that I find difficult to reconcile because they seem to present different views of reality.

        (a) “When introspecting and paying close attention to oneself, thoughts and actions can be observed to arise in a completely different sense. It reveals that everything is simply arising and that there isn’t a self that is forcing these things to arise. They are simply arising seemingly from a void. ”

        (b) “I make decisions.”

        By the way, statement (a) is what I would call “mystical”.

      • “I was on a jury which heard the case of a young woman who shoplifted several things. She was caught on the store security video taking the items. So, what do we do now (if anything), and why do we do it?”

        I actually like what you said earlier. We would, “(a) repairs the harm, (b) corrects the behavior, (c) protects society, and (d) does no more than what is reasonably necessary to accomplish that.” My answer to why we would do it is because we want to live in a functional society and minimize the suffering of others.

        “You made two statements that I find difficult to reconcile because they seem to present different views of reality.
        (a) “When introspecting and paying close attention to oneself, thoughts and actions can be observed to arise in a completely different sense. It reveals that everything is simply arising and that there isn’t a self that is forcing these things to arise. They are simply arising seemingly from a void. ”
        (b) “I make decisions.”
        By the way, statement (a) is what I would call “mystical”.”

        I’m not sure what’s mystical about it. Paying attention to thoughts and actions is not really any different than paying attention to something in your field of view. There are many details we miss out on, but when we pay attention, we notice more.

        For (b), making decisions is a causal process, so how else could thoughts and actions do anything other than simply arise?

        “Well, some people, like yourself, can no longer use “I”, “self”, “decision”, or “choice” in a meaningful and consistent way. Care to offer some rational definitions for those terms?”

        Up to now in this discussion, I thought we saw eye to eye on these terms. I refer to the self as the only thing I can refer to which is this entire brain/body system. I’m not sure what else to refer to. As for decisions or choices, we agree that these are deterministic causal processes. So a decision or choice would be the causal process of a system recognizing the consequences of potential actions and then moving to the action that is perceived to give the best consequence. I don’t know how else to think about those terms rationally.

      • Cool. Like you said, there’s not much we disagree on.

        When I use the term “free will” I’m talking about the individual’s own role in the decision making process. It is certainly a deterministic process, but that is not the most important fact about it. For example, the inevitability of the woman’s choice to steal several items at the store is not something that we can take steps to correct in the court case. We can’t fix her personal history or her thinking prior to her bad decision. All we can do in the penalty is to hope to have some effect upon her future choices.

        If she is to be allowed to go shopping by herself in the future without a police escort, then something new needs to happen to her to [deterministically] produce a change in her present and future thinking.

        To do that she must be “held responsible” for what she did. She needs to realize that the “blame” for what she did is her own decision to steal and the “blame” for what society must now do also falls on that decision.

        To stress the “inevitability” of her act over her “responsibility” for the act would water down her sense of responsibility for her FUTURE acts. After all, “deterministic inevitability” will always apply to everything she does for the rest of her life. So if we stress inevitability we will likely be counter productive.

        On the other hand, we don’t want to produce someone incapacitated by feelings of guilt either. If she needs counseling to explore why she made her bad choice and how to make better choices, then her prior influences should be explored while at the same time strengthening her sense of self-control over her future options.

        What she “deserves” due to her behavior is a “just” penalty, one that repairs the harm (returns the stolen goods), corrects the offender’s future behavior, protects other stores from her further thefts, and does no more than is reasonably needed to accomplish that.

        Part of a just penalty may be punitive, in the form of prison time, or minimally some form of public service (cleaning up litter would be a good penalty for littering). The punitive part conveys our disapproval of the behavior and that it will not be tolerated in the future. It is important to convey that bad behavior might have bad consequences.

        What I hear from some who advocate “free will skepticism” is the removal of moral concepts of “responsibility”, “just deserts”, and “punishment”. All of these concepts, including “free will”, have operational implications to how we deal with bad behavior.

        And the studies reported by Dr. Nahmias indicate that attacking the idea of “free will” lowers people’s sense of responsibility (or expectation of being held responsible) for their own bad actions, which increases the likelihood of more bad behavior in society.

        Free will, for pretty much everyone, regardless of their metaphysics, means one thing: being responsible for making your own choices (and being held responsible for bad ones).

  8. Same problem here. Given a sane adult committing a bad act of his own choice, is he to be held responsible or not? Choose one.
    (a) “It depends to what extent you think people are responsible.”
    (b) “Are people responsible for the will that they are?”

    (Hint: WE are partially responsible for the will that they choose. And penalty is us carrying out that responsibility).

  9. “What is so confusing about determinism or the inevitability of everything? ”

    Well, some people, like yourself, can no longer use “I”, “self”, “decision”, or “choice” in a meaningful and consistent way. Care to offer some rational definitions for those terms?

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