Thursday, April 25, 2013

Free Will

For as long as I can claim to have attempted to be a calm, collected, and objective thinker, I have been a determinist. Determinism, for those who don't know, is the philosophical position that everything is in the state that it is because, giving the conditions up to that point, it is the only state it could be in. Another way to look at it, is that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. In a nutshell, there is no such thing as free will.

Now, this has been a subject of which I haven't considered for a time, but due to certain events, it has come back into the forefront of my attention. (I recently read Sam Harris' book, titled "Free Will", and, coincidentally, my ethics class started covering the idea of "Moral Luck", with consideration of the man to coin the phrase, Thomas Nagel, and the existentialist who opposingly says that humans have "total freedom with total responsibility", Jean-Paul Sartre.)

If you ever find yourself reading "Free Will" or taking a philosophy or ethics class, you will discover, had you not by the grace of logic, that it is an immensely important and controversial subject. Primarily, if there is no free will, then there is no accountability. Many argue that this revelation would ruin our entire ethical system. A few others, myself included, think differently.

Some might ask:

"But Josh, without accountability couldn't people just do what they want without worrying about the consequences?"

Well, first you are doing what you want right now, and you are concerned with the consequences. Also, when you say "do what they want", you are suggesting that what people are doing, being harmonious components of civilization, is not what people want to do, but rather doing something harmful or discordant, is. And second, at a closer look, wants are the products of prior uncontrolled events. This does not mean that people are not deliberating, just that the reasons that have compelled their deliberating are the products of previous experience.

For instance, you have two options in front of you. It doesn't matter if they are very similar options, or extremely different. In this hypothetical situation you must choose, or pick, one option. So you start to contemplate which is better. Better being a subjective preference. "Better" is a good place to start. The reasons you find something better all depends on influences. Whether or not the option is preferable to your mood, your tastes, your physiology, nostalgia, or it could even be something you think someone you want to like you would like, none of these factors are, even remotely, in your control. Whether they cause you to pick one or the other, or not pick one or the other, is also not within your control. Though control is something you never really have. To be the author of our abilities and our actions, we would likewise have to be the authors of ourselves and everything else. However, we are not, and we are constrained to the physical laws of nature.

Others might ask:

"If we don't have free will, why do anything?"

Sam Harris attacks this in his books and lectures, and I will attempt it as well. First, apart from dying, there is no such thing as not doing anything. You can "choose" to go home with the intent to lay in the bed for the rest of your life, but that is a reaction to learning there is no free will. If you logically conclude that free will is not present and then think that you can "choose" to just do "nothing" for the rest of your life, you would be contradicting your logic. In which case, it is exactly what you would have done, because prior events cause you to respond as such. Something Dr. Harris has said, and I'm paraphrasing, is that not doing anything, which you are suggesting, is an action, and attempting to do nothing is nearly the most difficult action for a human to do. If attempted, your body will start compelling you to move, and as time passes this urge will get stronger and stronger until you do move.

The overall picture of what we call "choice" is actually just "response", and the responses we make are determined by everything that precludes them. Dominoes would be a good analogy here. If after reading this, you do something you think is not what you would have done otherwise, with intent to discredit me, then that is a response to reading this, because had you not read this, then there would be nothing for you to desire to discredit, and the action could not be made with the same intent.

As of yet, I have found any attempt to counter this argument against free will, as well as those that simply propose free will on other bases, self contradicting and unsatisfying. My ethics professor in college and I argued this subject a few times, and with a doctorate in philosophy as well as law, he is quite good at arguing. His method of teaching is to assume a role of someone backing the arguments for the day's topic. Despite his prowess as an arguer, when the topic was on Sartre's "total freedom, total responsibility" theory, the arguments were unconvincing to me.

For instance, his argument (when arguing Sartre's total freedom theory) against Nagel's article "Moral Luck" is that Nagel is stating that there is no choice, and that you should choose to believe his point. Which, if it is looked at like this there seems to be a contradiction, but it is being misinterpreted. Still, Sartre is not accounting for what causes the choice. Say someone reads the "Moral Luck" article and chooses to believe it. Why did they choose to believe it. Because they liked it? Because it was logical? Because they wanted to?

  • If the person chose it because the he/she liked it, why did he/she like it? Was it something that fell inline with some beliefs that were gathered in the experiences of this particular life? Experiences, mind, that were acquired entirely on luck. Unless, of course, the person planned his/her own conception and every external interaction for his/her entire life, a time that also must have been foreknown. 

  • Was it because it was logical? Then, did the person  choose to have a disposition toward logic? Again, if the disposition was not due to experiences, and it was a chosen value, why was it chosen rather than not?

  • Was it simply because the person wanted to? Do we choose wants? Are we in control of why we crave the things we crave? Do these cravings have nothing to do with our physiology, culture, epoch, education, and all the other experiences we can not claim accountability for? Can a person choose to like the flavor of a food never tasted? If the person chooses to taste the food, can he/she be held accountable for disliking the taste?

My attempt to make this claim, as I was the only person in class in favor of "Moral Luck", or at least the only one voicing it, was rebutted by saying that I made the "choice" to believe "Moral Luck". An action based on a disposition that I cannot be accountable for.

The argument really fell into tragic waters when he argued that we could choose whether or not to believe facts. When I attempted to attack this idea of choosing belief, I placed a pencil on the ground and asked "Can you believe that is not on the ground?" and he replied yes he can, based on quantum physics (which states that things, on extremely microscopic levels, don't actually touch one another). I understand now, that I should have held up the pen and asked "Can you believe this is not an object?" I may still attempt this. Still, the route taken with this argument is that the things we perceive as real, as knowledge, and as facts are all chosen or accepted beliefs rather than beliefs based on evidence. I starkly disagree with this. If things are not as they seem, then there is evidence (or obtainable information) of them being in a state that is "not as they seem". If things are as they seem then there is also evidence of this. If within the perception of the unaltered human eye something is a color, a shape, a texture, or in a relative position, it can, within the universally shared perception, be considered knowledge. If scientifically it is a tentative state, and the knowledge is tentative, then there is evidence of it being tentative knowledge.

For example, the walls in my house are white. It could be argued that it is off white, grayish white, and so forth. It cannot be argued that the walls are purple. Despite how hard I try to believe they are purple, the evidence that the walls are white, has outweighed such nonsense. A belief is a calculation of observations, influences, and habits to determine something that is not being sensed or observed by an agent and by association, cannot be known as true. Still, belief can be very compelling. For instance, I strongly believe my car is still parked outside. The reason is, I have been parking it there for years, and it's always been there when I go to it. This belief is the product of habit. Belief cannot contradict subjective knowledge (e.g. I cannot believe my laptop is the moon of Jupiter, Io). I state that it cannot contradict subjective knowledge because many people believe in propositions that are in opposition to evidence. Most the time because of a lack of education in the field of the concerned subject. In which case it is understandable because, if you do not know something, you cannot take it into account when calculating.

Even if you have a pseudo Cartesian perspective on reality, and believe that nothing is real, but rather everything is some sort of delusion, within the scope of said delusion, things can be measured and observed, which leads that in this possible delusion there is what is, and there is not what is not, despite the possibility of it not being this way. More to the point of the topic, their can be no claim to this perspective without using methods which are governed by disposition. Whether logic leads you down this route, or "choice", or the lack of other options, in no way does this give ground to the idea of free will.

All this talk of knowledge and belief is important, because if the evidence was obsequious to (chosen) belief, rather than belief being servile to evidence, then the grounds of communication, observation, consciousness, and existence altogether fall apart. Nothing would make sense, and the world would be shifting and changing in ridiculous ways. If knowledge was a slave to belief, I could simply believe I was rich, and everyone would then know that I was rich. Also, I would somehow, inexplicably, have a fortune.

This applies to my argument against free will in that, we cannot decide to believe as Sartre has led on. Belief, like everything else, is a function that we have no control over. If I believe that there is no presence of free will, then it is a response to certain influences. If someone believes that having belief is in support of the presence of free will, they have not thought it all the way through yet (a disposition they cannot be accountable for).

So again, there is no free will. There is no choice. There is only response.

This is all for now. I hope it has been enlightening. If you have any comments or complaints, please let me know, I will be happy to address them.


*I have been asked some good questions below, which allowed me to focus on some key points further. So by all means continue reading. I commented in some good points that I do not have in the main body.


  1. Your entire argument here makes a lot of sense... and i am not saying that just because i am your brother. It only makes sense that someone could easily understand that we do not simply come out of a womb with the knowledge to respond to every situation. If that were they case then we would have no reason to ever move off of the couch. With that being said... you have to get out... live... and learn how things affect you personally before you can make any sort of decision about them. The things you learn over time obvious cause you to "respond" to things they way we do. Its actually not that complicated of a thought if you just break it down to the fact that something, somewhere, sometime has adjusted your thought process. When you approach any situation, whether it be to walk or run... or just lay on the couch or stand on your head, you have already developed a reaction or response to that scenario that is more "logical" to you. It seems very easy to mistake free will with response until you take time to back track your life process. We do not walk because we have free will... we walk because we have at some point in time gathered the information in a situation prior to actually making the choice to walk. A very easy way to break it down is to just assume that every split second of your life is just another "scenario" that you are reacting to... which is actually the case indeed. To say that one has free will means that you would have to have complete memory loss at all times... which would keep you from having any recollection of anything that you have every done, seen, smelled, thought and so on. This being said... you would die... because your brain would not allow you to breathe due to the lack of memory. Some people will say that breathing, like many other day to day actions, are involuntary... but really its the development of your thoughts that you have gathered prior to you even being born that allows you to breathe and continue to breathe. If we had free will... we could just choose not to breathe... good luck with that.

    I like your blog here bro...

    keep the stuff coming!!!!

  2. i don't know that i agree with this. i understand the observations, and i agree with your stance on belief vs. fact, but the idea that we are "pre-programmed" seems to lend itself to the concept of a programmer. to try and quantify all human decision making within the confines of physical and emotional response seems to be problematic in that it does not calculate the free thinking mind (dreams, dementia, stream of conscious etc.). i feel that this sort of philosophizing requires a heavy-handed, and simplistic approach in order to objectify human emotion and thought in hopes of rationalizing a point that is ultimately impossible to prove. yes we are influenced by the world around us, yes we are all a part of the human system, but if it is true and we don't have free will then how does mind over matter work? how does altruism work? how does love work?

    if the answer to all of these questions is that we have no choice, it is just the nature of the collective unconscious (Jungian theory), then it removes absolutely all romance from the idea of being human. i don't believe that as an emotional, thoughtful and dynamic species that we were meant to be restricted by the paramater that we never really had a choice. That in and of itself is free will. i'm choosing not to believe this because it is not synergistic with my personal philosophical views.

    also the concept of response based reactions ultimately falls victim to an age old question. what came first? the chicken or the egg, or in the case, the reaction or the action. this is why chaos theory tends to work much more effectively in explaining the events that transpire within the world and human culture (because it needs no starting point, no "spark" if you will. other than that, i feel like there is some cool stuff in here, not necessarily anything that i agree with, but informative. i'll keep coming back to read.

    1. Hey Matt,

      Thanks for reading man. Also thanks for sharing your thoughts. There would hardly be a point to all this if everyone simply agreed, just to agree. Also, I wrote a lot so there are two replies.

      I am going to try my best to address the points you have made.

      First, the idea that being pre-programmed leaves room for a conceptual programmer. Well, the idea of a programmer does not mix well with my logic, and most likely not yours either. So it makes sense to respond against this idea. However, evolution is a type of programming. Populations experience speciation, whether from the bottleneck effect, or genetic drift, or the founds effects, and so on, and the changes made to these diverging variables, down to the smallest wants and desires, are programmed by the environment. Not a single want or need claims any servility to will, human or otherwise, but rather to necessity and chance. We are programmed by the physical states we live in and I think when viewed this way, people like you and I tend to see it in a more positive light.

      Next, the free thinking mind that you spoke of. There is nothing about streams of conscious, dreams, dementia, and all other examples of this nature that suggests any control of thought. Rather it seems these are examples in opposition to free will. It is possible to say that because of these examples we cannot predict the actions a person will make, but it does not support that the actions made could have been different actions.

      I don't see how this ruins the idea of romance from human beings. Maybe it reconfigures our view of ourselves, but that doesn't make us less than we are. For instance, if you learned it was scientific fact that there is no free will, would you feel the things you’ve done and lived through were any less romantic. Most likely not. We cannot accurately calculate everything that will occur, and we will never be able to do so, this leaves plenty of room for romance.

      There is, amazingly, scientific evidence against free will. There are studies that have used tools to accurately and consistently determine what individuals would do and choose up to five seconds before the individuals reported consciously choosing. That is because most of our brain works behind the scenes, the conscious thought being is a very, very small corner. Conscious thought is required for deliberation, and the brain allows proper responses to drift into one's consciousness when needed. We do not choose these thoughts, however, because this would require us to think the thought before we actually think the thought. For the argument of free will, it could not simply end here. We would also have to think the thought before the thought that thinks the thought and so on and so on. This would spiral on forever.

      You also stated that this argument is in hopes of rationalizing a point that is ultimately impossible to prove, but even without scientific evidence, you will find that free will is the concept that is impossible to prove.

      Lets say in spite, you say "In 10 seconds I am going to think car." and in ten seconds you think “car” just like you said you would. You cannot, however, account for thinking that you were going to think car unless you happened to think to yourself 10 seconds before that "In 10 seconds I am going to think 'In 10 seconds I am going to think car'." And to continually account for your thoughts you would have to infinitely preclude them. The time and object are variable of course. Ultimately, if it is in spite, then the thought is a response to reading this.

    2. I know you're a smart kid Matt. I doubt you needed this much "spelling out" to get my point, but I’ll carry on for clarity sakes.

      You state that you do not agree [with me] because it is not synergistic with your personal philosophies. This is actually my point. You have thoughts and views, which govern your responses, but those philosophies and views are not of your own making. They are the product of incalculable things. Timing, emotion, mood, epoch, physiology, and so on. I, for instance, don't like abysses, not because I chose not to like abysses, but because of factors in my life. I may feel like I choose to not go into abysses, but this is the only action that can be done by someone who has no opposing influences. Had I some influence that pushes me to overcome my fear, I may go into abysses, which is now the option for someone who dislikes abysses, but drives to overcome fear. Also, depending on my level of courage, if someone is in the abyss, and I am the only person who can help, I may or may not go into the abyss.

      Another good example: Lets say I am walking down an unknown road. Up ahead I see a fork in the road. I have decided to take a left about 20 paces away, but about 5 paces from the fork I change my mind and go right.I do not know where either lead, and apart from preferences that I cannot account for, I do not know why I “chose” left before and then changed my mind. This is not an expression of free will. Up until 6 paces away, I was someone who intended to go left. Had the fork had been 6 paces closer, I would have gone left.

      The response concept is really the only thing that can account for our actions post influence. It may be disarming to say well, which came first, the chicken or the egg (biologically the egg), but we have both, likewise we respond. We perform countless action that we either have no control over if we are ever aware of them at all. We forget things, definitely not an intent. If someone says something, like elephant, you do not choose to understand what that means. Plus, there are all the things you do know, but for some reason your brain doesn’t allow access. Like a word that is on the tip of your tongue. If you really controlled your brain, things of this nature would not occur.

      None of this exempts or even opposes the idea of the chaos theory or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, or a constant universe, but people did start. In any case, the indeterminist version of chaos no more accounts for the presence of free will than the deterministic version. To be more specific, determinism is not out to determine what will happen, it simply states that things are temporal, or that we are the product of previous events. There is causation to everything, even randomness. Lets use the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Hypothetically, If an electron is at point “A” at second 1, and moves to point “B” at second 2, then to point “RQ57” at second 3, and then to point “apple” at second four, we cannot determine its next position (second 5) precisely, but we do know that for the electron to be at point “RQ57” at second 3, it must have been at point “B” at second 2.

      All it really takes is a little subjective experiment. Pay attention to where our thoughts come from, and we will notice that they simply “appear” in our consciousness.

      Hope this clears it up man.

      Again thanks for reading.