Exploring Free-Will (or lack of)

What is free-will? Do we have it? Of course many people admit to losing free-will in various aspects of their life. This comes down to the nature vs. nurture debate. What if we could solve the question of free will with an understanding of some of the basic sciences, and an open mind.

First, a couple of simple questions must be answered:

  1. Do you believe in magic? By magic I simply mean forces that occur outside of nature and it’s laws. Things that supersede the natural. Not believing in magic is not claiming to have solved the answers to the universe, but is simply saying that you believe all things inside of the universe fall under certain rules or laws that have an explanation. With this understanding, we are able to posit that all things (matter) act according to the laws of nature. Next we will see how this understanding can be applied to our free will.
  2. Where do thoughts and decisions come from? Simple. The brain, consciousness, our id, ego, and super-ego. Any of those answers will suffice.
  3. Is our brain made up of matter? Yes. Our brain and its components however complex they may be, adhere to the same laws of nature that a baseball thrown into the air does (e.g. gravity, trajectory, inertia, etc.). So, if our brain is made up of matter and all matter follows laws (even if they are unknown) then where is there room left for free-will? There isn’t any. This is the point in debate where people generally are scratching their heads. The response I get is one of the following:
  • *taps on table* “See, I chose to do that!”
  • or….
  • “Sure, maybe ideas are presented to me at a sub-concious level, but ultimately I make the choice as to which idea/decision I follow.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that these arguments are faulty. First, if you are the “tap on the table” kind of person, you must ask yourself why you tapped on the table to prove your point. Why didn’t you instead stomp your foot? Or snap your fingers? All actions have a cause/motivating factor. You were presented with an argument (external stimulus), your brain interpreted the argument to the best of it’s abilities (intelligence also being a factor you can’t determine, but I’ll hit that topic a bit later), and using you’re best logic you came to the conclusion that the appropriate course of action was to tap on the table.. WHERE did this decision come from? All of these neurophysiological changes are happening so quickly that the “decision” simply arises into consciousness. Next lets tackle the argument that in the face of a question your are simply presented with options, and in the end you ultimately get to choose. The first step in proving the faultiness of this argument is to define what “you” is. You say that “you” ultimately pick, but what makes up “you?” Assuming you do not believe in the supernatural (even if you did you would not obtain the free-will we are speaking of) then what makes up “you” is simply matter. Neurons firing, sub-atomic particles flying around, constant stimulus from the outside world, etc. All of what makes up “you” (being the decision maker) cannot escape the laws of nature. The only way that “you” could actually make a decision without being influenced 100% by the laws of nature is to exist outside of nature.

I am just diving in to the topic of free-will and do not claim to be an expert in any sense. BUT if you would like to study further into the subject of “no free will” (also known as Determinism) I advise that you watch this video of author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.



  5 comments for “Exploring Free-Will (or lack of)

  1. January 25, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Interesting thoughts. As a student of philosophy I must advise that you be careful with Sam Harris, he is ignorant of much of the philosophical literature on free will and has made some careless errors critiquing the theories of free will because he has not sufficiently understood them, likely due to a lack of trying to do so. For someone who makes damning arguments against free will through a thorough understanding of the views on offer, check out Derk Pereboom.

    • expandingperspective
      January 25, 2014 at 11:35 pm

      I think that Sam’s most contributing ideas in the topic of free-will arise from his ability to give a neuroscientist’s input. Free-will is most definitely a philosophical issue when it comes down to morality etc., but I think that Sam Harris’ comments on how thoughts simply come into consciousness are very important. Sam (to me) has a talent of putting these otherwise complex ideas into a condensed, almost experimental theory. For instance, he uses his experience with meditation to actually let people see what it’s like to get a glimpse at thoughts arising into consciousness, which I believe strengthen his argument tremendously. He may definitely have an unorthodox way of presenting information, but I nevertheless found his arguments compelling. Thanks for the comment. I am currently watching a lecture on free-will by Derk Pereboom.

      • January 26, 2014 at 12:01 am

        Glad to hear you’re checking Pereboom out!

        I think a neuroscientist’s input is useful, but I am skeptical that the problem of free will can be resolved by science, or philosophy for that matter, as it does seem to be a genuine ontological paradox of the incompatibility of two metaphysical concepts that seem true: deterministic cause and effect, and free will. The free will literature is still recovering from Libet’s misguided experiments on free will.

        The thing that troubles me is that more and more I’m seeing people reference Harris and Haidt, like their word is gospel, when both of these men attack philosophy without understanding it. The methodology you describe Harris using as “experimental theory” was pioneered by philosophers in the late 18th and 19th centuries, culminating in Husserl’s phenomenology. The methodology of phenomenology is purely philosophical, so it irritates philosophers to see persons like Harris criticize philosophy and then do philosophy under the guise that it is neuroscience. Nothing against you, I just worry that people think philosophical antinomies and problems can be easily resolved by ignoring philosophy.

  2. NeuronTree
    February 26, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    I see that you and I see eye to eye. As I began reading this post, I was going to make my argument about the Will as I have learned it via Crowley, but you tapped into that a little with answer #1.
    Though, I will say that what makes us think is a bit more than a simple answer of the ego or consciousness. After all, what is consciousness? If you’ve ever come across the Ghost in the Shell series, I think the title alone sums it up nicely. We are a shell, and there is a “ghost”, or consciousness (dare I say soul? for lack of alternative word) which causes it to do as it does, causes the Will.
    I capitalize the word for the same reason I do the word Universe. There is something greater to it than simply being another noun. As Crowley teaches, if the true Will is not found, then happiness will never be achieved, nor will success.
    In a long answer and reply to the question of free will – if we have to find it, discover what our Will is, then how can we not have free Will?

    • February 27, 2014 at 4:02 am

      I’m not familiar with the Ghost in the Shell series, but I assure you I’ll look into it.
      With regard to consciousness, my simplest, most summed up argument is this; if you were to switch your brain Atom for Atom with a serial killer’s, then you essentially would be that serial killer from a neurological perspective. Assuming we agree that consciousness is a product of the brain.
      This is a simple argument that has major repercussions in my opinion. Of course no one likes to be told that their consciousness is simply a matter of well…matter, but if you accept the materialist world view then I think a lightbulb should turn on when imagining this hypothetical.
      As for the possibility of a soul, lets imagine that free will doesn’t exist in a materialistic world due to the constraints placed on every atom by the laws of nature. The soul would bring about freedom right? I argue no, because just as you don’t decide the neurophysiological state that your brain is in, we also have no say as to what state our soul is “given” to us in. Wherever I look, I never find freedom.
      Thank’s for checking out the post! I always enjoy discussing sensitive/influential topics.

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