Tuesday, December 14, 2004

More on Free Will

Max Borders posts his take on if we have free will at TechCentralStation. In short - we don't:

"Am I free?" you may ask. First, the bad news: no, you're not.

What you call making choices or exercising your Free Will is an illusion. I realize this seems highly counterintuitive, even absurd to suggest. But the following considerations may convince you that you are not, indeed, free.

First, we must agree that your body (and brain) is made up entirely of physical atoms and molecules. In other words, there is no supernatural essence like a "spirit" that animates your physical body. If we cannot agree on this, the rest of this article is moot.

So far, so good:

Now, all of those atoms that make up your body are subject to certain regularities we might call the laws of nature. These are the same sorts of regularities that are exhibited when you pick up an object and it falls after you let go (as you would reasonably expect it to). Or, if you were to push your hand against your coffee cup, you would expect it to move along your desktop. We think similar "nomic" or law-like regularities apply to human beings, as we are a part of the universe by virtue of being physical in our makeup. Another way of talking about all of this is the familiar
language of "cause and effect."

There are no causeless effects, it seems -- at least at the macro-level we live in from day to day. Chairs don't fly up into the air and coffee cups don't move across desktops unless some force acts upon them -- "causing" them to move.

So, our bodies and brains are subject to causal laws, as well. Even though the myriad cause-and-effect chains happening in the human body are extremely complex, it is not possible for us to break these causal laws just because we're human. The same can be said for apes, cats, chickens, bugs and bacteria, as all are creatures that belong to the causal-physical world.

Another way to define causation is to say: everything that happens is a result of some antecedent event. That means every single thing that happens in our bodies, from neuronal firing to DNA replication, is an event that is caused. If we were to extend these processes backwards in time, we would find these same regularities hold, otherwise the universe would have turned out to be a place of complete disorder and we would never have evolved.

Here's the problem. In our everyday language, we say we "choose" tea over coffee, or we "make a decision" to turn left or right. But since all of our so-called decisions take place in our physical brains, we are confronted with a very deep problem. When we say we make a choice, aren't we committing ourselves to what I call "self-starter theory?"

This is where he makes the natural dualist perception split. Since we have the ability of self-reference, or the ability to think about ourselves, as if we are an external observer to our mind and body at work, it is natural to assume that we are separate. Dualism is the illusion, the observer inside the mind is the illusion. There is no distinction between saying we choose tea over coffee, and our physical brains following a deterministic physical process resulting in the choice of tea. They are two aspects of the same process. The conscious experience of choosing tea is the subjective sensation of the physical process which results in the selection of tea. Because we both experience that conscious sensation "first hand" and at the same time have the sensation of observing ourselves in action as if as a detatched observer, we fall under the illusion that the conscious "I" is separate, and acts on, the physical mind, as a user acts on a computer keyboard.

It is a question of identity. What do we mean when we say "I"? What does our identity refer to, if not our mind and body? Why is the default, intuitive reflex to "disown" the body?


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Not just the default, intuitive one, but also the personally and socially healthier one--not universally but for most.

December 15, 2004 3:02 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

That is arguable, but what is not arguable is that it is the default reflex. It would be unhealthy and socially damaging to try to force people into a philosophy of non-dualism against their will. Some people, like I, are able to accomodate this way of thinking without problem (not that I don't have problems, just not problems related to this topic). The socially healthy way to answer the question of free will is "yes, we have free will". It is a necessary assumption. And I'm not trying to get around it with semantics, I really believe that we do.

An interesting thought exercise would be to devise an experiment with which to falsify this claim. If you don't have free will, how could you "catch" yourself in the act of acting unfreely? To paraphrase my motto, if it "quacks" like free will, it is.

December 15, 2004 7:52 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I have always found the concept of free will wildly overrated. That isn't the same as saying the opposite, predestination, is true. Rather, the constraints on our conduct are so narrow as to largely determine the decisions we do make. It seems the observer inside is so used to these constraints that they become invisible through hiding in plain site.

We act the way we do because of the way we are. The way we are is the consequence of unique makeup and experiences. So the way we act is completely unique, and that uniqueness is what is mistaken for free will.

December 15, 2004 6:52 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

(aka, Brit on BrosJudd)

Peter’s arguments are often essentially utilitarian. In discussions of Darwinism for instance, he frequently implies that whether or not Darwinism is true, a widespread belief in its truth would be so dangerous to society at large, that it ought be to be treated as false.

I normally reject this utilitarian line. Science aims to discover facts, but leaves us to choose our own values. If Darwinism is true, that fact doesn’t tell you anything about how you ought to behave.

However, I do have more sympathy for this angle when it comes to the free will/determinism debate. That’s because it’s much, much harder to separate a fact of ‘hard determinism’ (if it could be shown to be true), from a subsequent imperative to abandon, or at least weaken, our concept that people are morally responsible for their actions.

In a way, I agree with Peter’s point, but only as the weak conclusion to a roundabout discussion.

If you think dualism is false, and you also think that people are morally responsible (ie. You are not a ‘hard determinist’), then you need to find some other way of combining free will and determinism. That’s my position, and it seems to be the position of Jeff and Robert too.

The problem is that I don’t find any of the compatibilist arguments (those denying that determinism affects free will) especially convincing.

I’m sure that the key to the problem is to acknowledge that when we speak of ‘freedom’ there are really two concepts: first, there is the notion of complete freedom to originate any action (‘origination’) and the other is the much narrower notion of ‘voluntariness’.

An action is defined as ‘voluntary’ if ‘I could have done otherwise.’ For example, if I raise my arm now, it is the case that I could have done otherwise. On many occasions in the past, I have not raised my arm. In this sense, I volunteered to raise it.

So the argument goes that although determinism eliminates origination (which is very dependent on dualism), it does not eliminate voluntariness. And it’s in voluntariness that free will, and hence moral responsibility lie.

But I still can’t quite bring myself to accept that this really is ‘freedom’. J S Mill argues that in each action, we follow our strongest motive. If these motives are determined, then in what sense do I have any choice about any of my actions, even if I could conceptually have done otherwise?

I don’t know, but I do know it am heap big problem...

Ted Honderich is the top man on free will/determinism, and he has an excellent site here:


December 16, 2004 1:52 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks Andrew. I'll check out your link. An important point is that we are not subject to a single motivation, but to multiple, competing motivations, and that through consciousness we are able to reflect on those competing motivations and attempt to make conscious, values based choices between them. But it is true that some of our inbred motivations are more powerful than our consciously decided goals - someone may make a conscious decision to quit smoking, but the physical drive to light up a cigarette is too powerful.

Accountability to moral decisions assumes that free will is a given. Where I see danger in Peter's argument is that it may lead one to conclude that someone who does not believe in dualism has, by extension, disavowed free will and therefore cannot participate in society as a morally accountable actor. Peter, let me know if I am reading too much into your argument.

December 16, 2004 8:38 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Thanks for the link--the one selection I read was outstanding.

Honderich in one article discusses both origination and determinism. In particular, the argument in favor of determinism seems very persuasive--all effects have causes. Including mental effects.

I must be missing something, because he is undoubtedly both smarter, and far more expert in his field, than I. About halfway through the article, it occurred to me that determinism cannot be so ironclad.

As a trivial example, last summer I designed and built a cabinet for my daughter. Stick with me here, I do have a point.

She had an old, but servicable cabinet, she didn't need a new one. In what way was my decision to provide her with a new one determined? I could have bought, instead of built, one. I could have used someone elses design instead of doing it myself. I could made any number (well, not any; I'm a rank amateur) of design decisions, or finished it in any number of ways.

Since such causes as there were could have been equally satisfied by number of different decisions. If that is true, than how could the decisions I did make have been determined in any meaningful way, if alternate decisions would have led to different, but more or less equally suitable outcome?

Less trivially, I agree with Peter's argument for a healthy society we have to assume free will exists and, absent profound mental illness, is capable of adhering to the law. Let's presume I'm on a business trip and I meet a woman who promises me an evening of sublime delight. But being either a) a good husband, or b)sufficiently wary of the consequences in the off chance I should get caught, I decline.

Lets take b). How is it that making the decision based on the small chance of something that can only happen in the future be a cause of a decision in the present? I thought determinism's cause & effect relationships have a rather tightly determined relationship with time.

Full disclosure: I sure didn't make much headway with understanding the problems with origination.

I hope I'm not making too much of this, but the topic is interesting, particularly given the takes on it. Christians presume we have complete free will. Islam presumes predestination.

Which is it?

December 16, 2004 7:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I confess I find it hard to keep up with you guys, and you can take that as a compliment. I also find it hard to separate discussions on dualism/determinism from those on self-interest/altruism.

Andrew, the free-wheeling nature of the Brosjudd debates may have made me look more utilitarian that I think I am, but I suppose I'm a little squeezed here. Paul Johnson's history of Christianity tells of how, after the 17th century religious wars, theologians began to focus more than how people behaved that what creeds they held. This led to some of them questionning the literal doctrine of Hell, but arguing nonetheless that their musings were dangerous and should be kept from the rabble. If this is what you mean, I think I can confidently say I reject it, at least insofar as it leads to political or social theories.

But I do have big problems with the human experience and your notion of Truth, which always comes down to the objectively testable and observable--basically the scientific definition. The argument that the truth of a proposition relating to human affairs can in some ways be measured by the consequences of belief in that proposition seems offensive to the modern mind, but I think there is something there--I just can't work out what systematically, which means I'm better on defence than offence. The born-again Christian whose new faith enables him to kick a drug habit is a good example. He experiences it as a miracle or a conferring of grace. If you convinced him, truly, that it was all objectively determined by prior discoverable causes, his chances of a relapse would increase. Call me a simple old lady, but I am not prepared to say that that is not in any way evidence of some "truth" in his belief.

As you know, like Dante,(pomposity alert)I have always been fascinated by the problem of the "virtuous atheist". But the virtuous determinist blows my mind completely when I drop the philosophy and look at the minutiae of everyday life. There is no such thing as a completely selfless act--even medieval theologians worked that out-- but to try and use full-blown determinism to explain why one neighbour mows the lawn of the widow next door while the others ignore her is something I just can't take seriously. That's also why I enjoy teasing the determinists about the anniversary cards they send their wives. The only answer that makes sense to me is Orrin's--there is some free-loading going on here.

One of the best criticisms of Bertrand Russell's radical theories of progressive education I've ever seen was George Grant's charge that it really only appealed as a corrective to the excesses of traditional education and took many of the benefits of the latter for granted. But to actually drop those and take his ideas literally and comprehensively would be a an anti-intellectual disaster. In other words, he was free-loading. I think determinists have the same problem. If we all really lived and conducted our affairs in full consciousness of a belief in determinism, life would be unbearable. If the only answer to that is "damn the consequences--it's the Truth", then I'm on the other side for that alone. It's also why I think Duck's observation that dualism is the default position is more than just a quirk of human nature.

December 17, 2004 3:34 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I distinguish Truth and Knowledge. Rational inquiry can provide knowledge in that within significant contraints it is able to distinguish the truth value of competing explanations.

But knowledge is rarely Truth, any more than a hammer is a house. Let's presume for a moment that the Theory of Evolution is a correct explanation for natural history since the beginning of life on Earth. That is knowledge. But is there any Truth such knowledge would either confirm or deny?

As someone who finds Evolutionary theory to be the most persuasive available explanation of the material manifestations natural history, I have not the tiniest problem comprehending the "virtuous atheist," any more than I do the vicious religionist.

We are social animals, and just like our physical characteristics, our mental characteristics have to be sufficiently fit for us to be here. As Harry Eager once memorably said, to speak of a lone human makes no more sense than a lone ant.

So just as each of us have a unique value for height, eye color, etc, each of us occupies a spot on the spectrum for empathy.

I have heard self-referential stories are bad taste in blogs, but here goes. Sixteen years ago I bought some travelers checks in preparation for a trip. On getting home, I discovered I had one book--$250--too many. I could have kept them; there was no chance of my being caught. Yet, despite being completely areligious, I left them at home, and returned them after I got back.

Why? Because the first thing that crossed my mind was how much trouble that poor teller would be in. And I had absolutely no choice in the matter about how I would deal with that.

Had I been born with the ability to find personal worth in religion, and less empathetic, I'll bet the outcome would have been far different.

Was that an exercise in free will, or determinism?

I think the latter. But I defy anyone to find the cause that led to the effect.

So I don't think determinists/materialists are freeloading. Rather, I think religion is an overlay putting a gloss on what is already there. Christianity has been every bit as powerful in South America as here. So why not the same outcomes?

Jeff G.

December 17, 2004 9:38 AM  
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November 27, 2005 9:24 PM  
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December 27, 2005 4:06 PM  
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January 01, 2006 3:48 PM  

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