Wiggle room for free will?

Compatabilists! Authors of your own lives—living in a world of partial free will. Wiggling around in your wiggle room—I wish to converse. This will be a look at the problem of free will.


We begin with things that no one can choose. Some facts about the universe offer no room to “wiggle” about in. When an individual walks off a cliff, he cannot “choose” to rise into the air. Only one thing happens; this individual falls. He had no choice in the matter. Gravity yelled “down!” and the individual obeyed.

“Of course there are things like gravity that are beyond your control” replies the compatibilist, “But some things are within your control.” So the laws of nature are simply being followed when one obeys gravity, but other physical processes are more than the laws of nature being followed? They are somehow supernatural?

Stephen Hawking describes the following situation as an example of free will. A man wakes up late one night and walks to the refrigerator to get a drink. He opens the fridge and looks at its contents. He thinks about which drink he wants, picks orange juice, and closes the refrigerator door. Hawking calls this situation an instance of free will, and this is the scenario in which compatabilists claim the “wiggle room” for free will is evident.

But, this man had an inclination to pick the orange juice. If his taste buds didn’t agree with the taste of the juice, it would not even be up for consideration. The man will only pick a drink he is physically inclined to consider. The wiggle room gets smaller. “But which drink he likes more is ultimately his decision!” they say.

Is it? The man upon opening the fridge is faced with an assortment of drinks, and he picks the orange juice. When he saw the orange juice, the man’s brain responded, “I want that one!” Did the man choose how the various assortment of drinks would be weighed in his mind? Did he choose to have an inclination to one over any of the others?

If certain choices are weighted differently in our minds when we are presented with them, how is it us that chooses them. Our mind will pick whichever choice weighs more. In that instance the man thought to himself, “Pick the orange juice.” He did not think about every choice he had. Only a few things popped into his mind. He acted upon whichever one his brain felt most inclined to pick.

When free will is attacked, people often feel it necessary to demonstrate their possession of it in front of you. Many will do so by waving an arm in the air and saying, “Look I can do this whenever I want.” This is like watching a blindfolded puppet say, “See? I have no strings!” as its strings are pulled to make him wave his arms and say such a thing.

Ignoring the fact that waving the arm in the air is an impulse—and that one does not choose when an impulse arises—I ask them, “Why didn’t you stomp your foot?” They will reply with, “I didn’t think about it.” As we just saw, you only act upon the thoughts that arise in your brain in that particular moment. You do not dictate impulse. The wiggle room gets smaller.

Nature tells us that everything is made up of atoms. These atoms are wonderful and follow natural laws we can observe. Compatabilism says no! Compatibilism says some atoms are more wonderful than others, and some of them don’t have to obey the same laws! It says everything in the universe is made up of atoms, but you are a special case, your atoms are special. Narcissism!

You authors of your own life, did you choose to begin writing this book? Did you choose to be made up of the instincts and experiences that will dictate your next choice? Every choice has an antecedent, and all antecedents can be traced back to before your existence. If someone were to travel back in time and change important parts of your life, you would be a different person. You are the effect of causes, and your choices are dependent on these causes.

Free will adherents claim this; if you were put into that exact situation again, as you were the first time—with the same knowledge and same arrangement of atoms—you might choose differently. That if we were to replay the instance of you waving your arm in the air, that somehow—despite the same exact impulses—a different choice would arise.

We all want happiness, but some of us do not have the willpower to make the journey. You say you could choose to practice self-discipline and strengthen your willpower, but I ask at one point do you choose to have the willpower to practice self-discipline? Why doesn’t everyone choose to be happy if it’s simply a matter of choice and not beyond our control? You authors of your own lives say you do what you want, and yet you still have dreams.




  56 comments for “Wiggle room for free will?

  1. July 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Excellent. I personally think free will is an illusion.

    • July 21, 2014 at 6:07 pm

      As do I. Thank you for reading!

    • July 24, 2014 at 2:16 am

      Normally, an empirical phenomenon that can be objectively confirmed by multiple observers cannot reasonably be called an “illusion”.

  2. July 21, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    I have a question for you, Alex, since I am a compatibilist and you seem to be a determinist. Given that some action or another has been made by a person, is that person responsible for their action according to your worldview?

    Given determinism as you describe it, since “every choice has an antecedent, and all antecedents can be traced back to before your existence,” how can a court rule a single person guilty of anything? Your determinism has some really negative moral implications here.

    And one more question, if every choice is the result of experiential preferences, then according to your worldview, if a person really didn’t care which of the two options were chosen or if there were exactly an even amount of reason for either of the options, would the person then not be able to make a choice one way or the other? If so, this seems absurd since it should be a given that a person could always choose something arbitrarily.

    • July 21, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      Your question is irrational. If you assume that there is NO free will, then, of course, the court also has no free will and thus no choice but to rule that person guilty. Cause and effect, quite simple. Effectively, determinism totally kills morality in any way – but it doesn’t chance anything about the result.

      Personally, I think of free will as an illusion – but one that we cannot act without. The question “What should we do when there is no free will?” makes no sense. So, I assume it is an illusion but act, as if it wasn’t – until shows me a better way.

      • July 21, 2014 at 6:50 pm

        I suppose the court can say whatever they want — you’re right there — but could anyone really be “guilty” in any meaningful sense under determinism? It seems that no person has any responsibility for their own actions.

      • July 21, 2014 at 6:56 pm

        Depends on how you define “responsible”. Yes, if your definition of “responsible” somehow includes free will as a prerequisite, then “responsible” as a concept doesn’t exist, too.
        But if you only define “is responsible” as “Did the action” then yes, being responsible exists – and will lead to a chain of events that may (or may not) result in getting sentenced by a judge. Other factors may of course influence that sentence.

      • July 21, 2014 at 8:39 pm

        All you did is extend the problem by two definitions instead of one. “Did the action” doesn’t exist in a deterministic material world any more than responsibility does.

      • July 21, 2014 at 8:44 pm

        How strange. What else did an action then? A human did, but, of course, with exactly the same amount of free will as pebble which caused an avalanche. The definition is here simply “X is responsible for Y, if and only if X is a cause of Y.” Of course, there are often more than one cause for most things, so you might want to add degrees of causation here.

        And no, I did no such thing, I was analyzing various definitions of “responsibility” and wrote about my conclusions. As I said, I personally live as if there was free will and thus the common definition is enough for every day – the rest is more philosophical.

      • July 21, 2014 at 9:30 pm

        Well put!

    • July 21, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

      To address you first point; I have a post on the very subject you brought up. In the truest sense of the word, yes, morality cannot condemn actions. But just because morality isn’t objective doesn’t mean we should do without. If we didn’t convict criminals they would commit more crimes and spread more misery. I believe we should only punish them to the extent they cannot repeat their crime. This view helps me view bad people as victims of bad conditioning, meaning we should be more forgiving, but do our best to stop this bad conditioning. The post I wrote on the subject is here: https://reagentpost.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/determinism-and-the-criminal-justice-system/

      But in short, we still have practical reasons to punish criminals, reasons that don’t have to do with morality exclusively. Morality should come in to ensure the punishment is JUST by our standards today.

      And to address your last question. Whichever choice you make is due to which one choice “weighs” more on your mind. You will see the choices you have, brain activity will ensue and then you will act. Even if the choices appear balanced in your mind, the choices will trigger different reactions in your subconscious and one will be picked over another.

      When you see your choices you act upon an impulse. Even contemplating your choices is a reaction to the thoughts that rose in your brain when you were presented with the two choices.

      Also I don’t know if you are a naturalist/materialist or not, but if you are then you agree science can tell us a lot about the world. Like how thoughts are brain activity and the activity of neurons. You do not dictate what is going on in your brain at the cellular level, the molecular level, and certainly not the atomic level. It’s all the physics of brain chemistry. Where a certain neuron will go is not your choice, but it will make you act upon your next choice. Then, if you look at it in a linear fashion, you see that everything is a string of reactions, no free will.

      To claim you have free will is to claim that the molecules which make up your brain matter obey you, and not the laws of nature.

      Thank you for reading! This is an incredibly difficult subject to articulate and I appreciate your interest in the conversation.

      • July 24, 2014 at 2:14 am

        Reagent: “if you look at it in a linear fashion, you see that everything is a string of reactions, no free will.”

        Free will is not merely the effect of prior events. It is also the cause of the next events.

        Reagent: “To claim you have free will is to claim that the molecules which make up your brain matter obey you, and not the laws of nature.”

        That would be rather silly wouldn’t it. You are not a molecule. You are several levels of molecular collection above that. You got your atoms, which collect into molecules, which collect into substances, which collect into materials, which collect into organs, which collect into a body.

        The body need not command its own molecules to chop down a tree, invent an atomic bomb, produce global warming, etc. These are things we choose to do or choose to avoid doing, of our own free will.

      • July 24, 2014 at 2:17 am

        And we choose these things because of the processes occurring in the brain right? This would mean our choices are the result of physics wouldn’t it?

      • July 24, 2014 at 2:42 am

        Physics cannot explain decisions. It is about forces in the universe which account for the motion of unthinking masses.

        Neuroscience cannot explain decisions either. But it can provide some of the bridge knowledge that links the physical structures to our mental processes. And it helps establish that mental processes are in fact rooted in physical reality.

        Not even logic can guarantee to explain a decision, because our choices may sometimes be irrational. Or they may vary according to our mood, which may depend upon what we ate an hour ago.

        Choices are certainly not random. Cause and effect are absolute, but often “unpredictable” in any practical sense.

        But we are always right there in the muddle, actually making the call ourselves. The mental process has to happen before we, the decider, can know it’s results — even if an objective observer with infinite knowledge and calculation power (or your wife) could predict it in advance.

      • July 24, 2014 at 9:25 pm

        Well thought. Thank you. You got me thinking on this point, “You do not dictate what is going on in your brain at the cellular level, the molecular level, and certainly not the atomic level. It’s all the physics of brain chemistry. Where a certain neuron will go is not your choice, but it will make you act upon your next choice.”

        I was wondering what research has been done that supports this conclusion.

        It has also occurred to me that perhaps you aren’t as much of a determinist as I originally thought since you discuss things like “you” or “me” making “choices.” A domino never chooses anything–the laws of nature (gravity) does that for it.

        It seems to me that as long as there is an “I” and a “choice” in any matter, there is free will. Perhaps a perfect knowledge of past events would give a person foreknowledge as to what will happen, but foreknowledge isn’t causal by definition. This might sound a little obscure, but think of an infallible thermometer that read the temperature of the room 5 minutes into the future. This would be amazing, but the function of the thermometer would essentially be the same–to give an accurate reading of the temp in the room. No one who understands what a thermometer is would think that because it says “73 degrees” that it’s the thermometer that is making the room 73 degrees. Even foreknowledge is passive in this sense. Even if I know infallibly that “x” will happen, then “x” will happen, but not necessarily out of MY knowledge of it. So even in a fixed system, free will can thrive.

      • July 24, 2014 at 9:51 pm

        Yes I still use the word choice. I also use the word free will sometimes (just not in philosophy). When a rock accelerates downward due to gravity I call it physics. When a person follows the same laws I call it “free will” (notice the quotes! Free will in a loose sense of the word!).

        I do not think there is free will in the sense that we are ultimately responsible for our choices. That responsibility falls on nature itself (a passive process though, I do not wish to anthropomorphize nature)

        Neuroscience and psychology have both shown the brain to be an enormously complex organ that follows natural laws. Libet’s study is often brought up, the author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has a book on this very subject.

        If you present me with choice a or b, I will ‘choose’ one. This choice though is explained by mechanics that are beyond my volition.

        If you have the time here is a video by Sam Harris. This is of course not the win all argument for the debate but I think Harris articulates many of the points I want to make better than I:

        I would argue we are exactly like a domino. Whatever the dominos next course of action is is determined by physics, I believe our brains respond to these natural laws in the same way.

        Something I find helpful is to replace the word “choose” with the word reaction. You do not choose chocolate over vanilla, your brain reacts to one over the other.

      • July 25, 2014 at 3:31 pm

        Thank you for the video. Instead of listening to the whole thing, I downloaded the book he is discussing, Free Will. Maybe I’ll do a review of it on my blog some time in the future.

        Alex, this quote is very confusing to me, “I do not think there is free will in the sense that we are ultimately responsible for our choices. That responsibility falls on nature itself (a passive process though, I do not wish to anthropomorphize nature)”
        I agree that you don’t need to anthropomorphize nature, but I do think that your worldview isn’t properly anthropomorphizing humans (isn’t that what the Greek “anthropo” truly means?). Humans are humans. Humans have human attributes. Whether fixed by nature or not brings nothing to the discussion of whether or not a human can choose something or not.

        Here’s another curious thing you said, “If you present me with choice a or b, I will ‘choose’ one. This choice though is explained by mechanics that are beyond my volition.” I would classify this as a genetic fallacy. You can pinpoint where and how the mechanics led to such a choice, but that does nothing to invalidate the choice itself.

        I think the primary clash between our perspectives might be my willingness to consider both physics and metaphysics when considering free will and your strictly sticking to physics. “I” is a metaphysical concept; so are thoughts; so is consciousness. The mechanics of the hardware can be observed in the physical world, but consciousness itself is non-physical. I totally agree with you that our brains respond to physical laws. After all, they are physical. Our minds, however, are not physical so there is no reason to rely solely on physical sciences to understand them. I would never deny that the physical sciences are wonderfully beneficial, but the person who claims that the physical sciences is all there is to learn new truths about the mind is missing out on what and “where” the mind truly is.

      • July 25, 2014 at 5:01 pm

        Hi Andy. I also did a review of the Harris book on my blog:

        Your comments on the linguistics of the problem are spot on.

        As a Humanist, though, I discard the metaphysical. I believe the mind exists only as a product of the physical world. However, nothing about it being rooted in physical structures changes it’s functionality in any way. We still have free choice, for example.

        Separating the mind from the body doesn’t really change anything about the silly paradox. If the mind is metaphysical, then the determining factors just become metaphysical: feelings, reasons, attitudes, etc. would still make any decision at least theoretically inevitable.

        The key is that our choices are still essentially responsible for the inevitable outcome, whether we are physical minds or metaphysical souls.

      • July 25, 2014 at 10:09 pm

        “Whether fixed by nature or not brings nothing to the discussion of whether or not a human can choose something or not.”

        How is that so? If you are fixed by nature to make a choice it isn’t a choice.

        Consciousness itself is not physical (as far as we know). It is a process that is created by physical reality. The act of thinking at this very moment is the product of the physics in your mind, you do not dictate what is going on in there. The subconscious will cause you to ‘think’ a thought and your predispositions will cause you to act or not act on that thought. Consciousness I believe allows you to witness this, but not dictate it. Our bodies are programmed to feel like we are in control, and it certainly does feel that way, but every stimulation occurring in your mind is a result of the physical.

        Your next thought will arise due to both your environment and your neurophysiological condition. You will then act upon this thought in the only way someone with your exact structure (atom for atom) could.

      • July 26, 2014 at 1:04 am

        Reagent: “If you are fixed by nature to make a choice it isn’t a choice.”

        If you are fixed by nature to make a pancake, is it not a pancake?

        If you are fixed by nature to make a choice then obviously it is a choice.

        Reagent: “Consciousness itself is not physical (as far as we know). ”

        So you are arguing in favor of a “soul”? That’s a surprise!

        Consciousness is entirely physical. When the brain stops, consciousness stops.

        If consciousness is not produced by the body’s brain and neurological system, then where the heck do you suppose it comes from??

      • July 26, 2014 at 1:24 am

        You just said consciousness wasn’t physical! I usually say consciousness is an illusion but I don’t entirely agree with that.

        But you did catch me. Consciousness is a physical process, generated by other physical processes. No you can’t “touch” consciousness with your hands, this was what I meant.

        And who knows we might find there is a soul one day! I seriously doubt it with every fiber of my being though

      • July 26, 2014 at 2:23 am

        Reagent: “You just said consciousness wasn’t physical!”

        No. I quoted you saying that. It was Andy Rhea who suggested a metaphysical world might exist. I jumped into your conversation because I’m getting a little impatient.

        Reagent: “I usually say consciousness is an illusion but I don’t entirely agree with that.”

        The problem is that everything meaningful becomes an “illusion” the way you’re headed. First free will, then consciousness, then self. It all disappears into the so-called “illusion”.

        And you started out from that position when you tried to reduce everything to the level of physics and chemistry, two sciences that deal solely with inanimate substances.

        The problem is that there are much more complex causative factors in the deterministic universe than just atoms and molecules.

        DNA is a program for a reproductive life-form that adapts to its environment and every life form causes purposeful changes to it’s environment, the genetic purpose being survival.

        Higher life forms evolved organic sensors and an organic calculator that can learn and imagine and create tools to get what it needs to survive.

        And those that evolve conscious minds develop strategies, and means of cooperation, and ethics, laws etc. And they create colleges and hospitals and cars and global warming.

        That is all coming from an intelligent life-form composed entirely of biological substance and producing conscious thought with a physical brain.

        And part of that conscious thought is choosing options which satisfy it’s will.

        Every spec of this is part of the deterministic, physical universe, including the will. And the will is serving the purpose and intent of the living organism.

        And that is you and me. Our wills are significant causal forces, just like gravity. And just like gravity is no illusion, our will is no illusion.

      • July 26, 2014 at 2:31 am

        I agree, but I don’t think we dictate this will. We obey our will.

        All the processes mentioned above are processes in nature, and we do not “choose” this nature.

      • July 26, 2014 at 2:48 am

        Reagent: “I agree, but I don’t think we dictate this will. We obey our will.”

        And how do you split yourself from your will? (You’d need a metaphysical lawyer!)

        We do not “obey” our will. Our will is US intending.

        Reagent: “All the processes mentioned above are processes in nature, and we do not “choose” this nature.”

        We do not “choose” to be ourselves. We “are” ourselves. And our selves do in fact make willful choices.

      • July 26, 2014 at 3:00 am

        I think we have the same understanding of the universe, but we are interpreting it much differently.

        We are repeating ourselves. I do not know what to say when we disagree on so many fundamental points.

        We do not “choose” to be ourselves. I agree. We “are” ourselves. This is dangerous language here. And ourselves do in fact “act” according to the laws of nature. Conscious activity is produced by the brain, the brain follows physics. In my interpretation of reality, all activity is a reaction. This does not mean agents are inside the system dictating the events. The events are playing out.

        A computer of immense complexity, is still following the code.

      • July 26, 2014 at 11:22 am

        Reagent: “I do not know what to say when we disagree on so many fundamental points.”

        Hopefully you’ll be able to learn something helpful from the discussion. My view on Ethics is shaped by a number of things, including (a) being raised by Christians, (b) having to deal with the concept of Hell after my father shot someone and killed himself, (c) dealing with the determinism and free will issue in reference to determining God’s responsibility in anyone going to Hell, (d) a college philosophy course in Ethics, (e) being chairman of my college’s Honor Court and having to explain it to the incoming class, (f) discovering the difference between honor and justice and choosing the latter, (g) convincing the student government to change from an honor court to a student court, based on the concept of justice and abandoning the single sanction of expulsion on the first offense.

        My point is that I’m 68 years old and I’ve thought a lot about this stuff, especially the purpose of penalty and how it is justified (or not).

        Reagent: “In my interpretation of reality, all activity is a reaction.”

        But it is not a “knee-jerk” reaction (except when it literally is). The conscious mind makes choices, like whether to go to college or not, and which college is best for me, etc. And other conscious minds learn to build colleges. Etc.

        I don’t think “reaction” is the correct word for that type of process. The mental process is serving the genetic need to survive in very complex ways. It studies, it makes plans, it adjusts those plans, it communicates with others, and so forth. And, ironically, sometimes it enlists in the army and gives up it’s survival for the survival of others.

        So “reaction” is not the right word. But there are plenty of right words, like courage, dedication, free will, responsibility, etc.

        And none of these words describe mere “illusions”. All of them apply to what is actually happening in our deterministic universe.

        Oh, and welcome back to reality.

      • July 26, 2014 at 11:29 am

        Reagent: “A computer of immense complexity, is still following the code.”

        And when the computer is programmed for artificial intelligence, it learns new things about it’s environment and acquires new skills to deal with it, reprogramming itself when necessary to adapt more successfully. (Oh, I was also a computer programmer. When I started we were still punching lines of code into a stack of cards).

      • July 26, 2014 at 1:26 am

        And I must disagree. If you are fixed to act, it is not a choice in the way we define the word

        If I have no control over what my ‘fixed’ actions are I don’t think choice is the right word to describe them

      • July 26, 2014 at 2:39 am

        Reagent: “If I have no control over what my ‘fixed’ actions are I don’t think choice is the right word to describe them”

        But you are in control. You are the only one able to make the inevitable happen. It is precisely your mental process of bringing up alternative actions, evaluating them according to your values, and then choosing one that makes the choice happen.

        If you had not made the choice, then what would have happened? Nothing. And if you were literally in a “sink or swim” situation and decided to sit back and wait for the inevitable to happen, you’d sink. And your choice, though irrational (as many are!) would have caused your sinking to be inevitable.

        Determinism causes nothing. It is not a causative factor in anything that happens.

        It is instead a descriptive term. It is a generalization from an observation of things being caused by other things. It is how we talk about cause and effect.

        But it effects nothing itself. It can only summarize a type of observation.

        We are as much a cause as we are an effect. And we cause what we intend to happen. That is the nature of all living organisms with sufficient brainpower to imagine one or more alternative courses of action and sufficient muscle to shape the environment to our liking.

      • July 26, 2014 at 2:45 am

        Our choices are the result of nature. Even when contemplating, physical processes beyond your control dictate the outcome. You do not ‘choose’ your thoughts. They come to you and we weigh them in our mind. We then act upon whichever thought ‘weighs’ most in our mind. Our will has no choice but to ‘react’

      • July 26, 2014 at 2:55 am

        Reagent: “Even when contemplating, physical processes beyond your control dictate the outcome.”

        I repeat: “You” are NOT separate from the brain and nervous system which is dictating the outcome. It is not controlling you. It IS you.

      • July 26, 2014 at 3:01 am

        And this ‘you’ is not in control. It is reacting

      • July 26, 2014 at 11:38 am

        Reagent: “And this ‘you’ is not in control. It is reacting”

        If I dig a hole to plant a tree, who is in control? The shovel? The tree? The soil?

  3. July 21, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    I wouldn’t consider myself a straight-up compatibilist, but I do see way more problems in considering determinism than compatibilism.

  4. July 21, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    Question: If free will is nothing more than… “you might choose differently.” (in the exactly same situation)… How is free will different from randomness? If the past does not (completely) determinate the present, what factor is there involved, besides pure chance?

  5. July 24, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Pause for loop reset.

    No wiggle room is necessary.

    1) Free will is both an effect of prior events and a cause of future events. There is no separation at all.

    2) All mental processes, including the act of choosing, are firmly rooted in the physical nervous system. Therefore the act of thinking is just as real as the act of walking. And neither is an “illusion”.

    3) The will begins in the genetic program of all living creature. The tree pushes the soil out of its way to grow roots deep in the ground to get water and minerals. The amoeba stretches out it’s pseudo-pod seeking food. The baby cries out for food and warmth.

    4) In higher life forms, the nervous system has evolved the capability of conscious thought. The will is given sight, sound, touch, smell, etc. The will is given imagination and creates new options for dealing with its environment. New options mean new choices. When the child is given the choice to wear a jacket or not, what he does next is a product of his own will, free to choose. If the parent requires the child to wear the jacket, then it is the parent’s will making the choice.

    5) There is but one illusion in the paradox. It is the illusion that free will and determinism are somehow at odds with each other. It comes from the concept of “inevitability”. Normally, when we say something was “inevitable”, we mean there was nothing we could do about it. But deterministic inevitability must logically take all relevant causal factors into account. And a thinking being, choosing to push here and pull there, is every bit as much a cause of future events as he is an effect of prior events. Therefore you cannot have one without the other. It is only the paradox that is the illusion.

    • July 24, 2014 at 2:15 am

      How do you define free will?

      • July 24, 2014 at 2:26 am

        We call the ability of a person to choose his next action, without the coercion of another, free will. This is a common definition used in every day speech and also in law and justice when discussing things like responsibility, etc.

      • July 24, 2014 at 2:33 am

        I agree with this definition in the schools of thought you just mentioned, but I disagree with it in philosophy.

        In a sense, no one can choose their next action without the coercion of some force beyond your control.

        Studies have shown thoughts to originate in the subconscious which in turn are acted upon by the conscious mind. The conscious mind simply reacts to its environment and this reaction is dictated by things outside the conscious mind’s control.

        Thank you for reading by the way. It will be interesting to see if we can come to an agreement!

      • July 24, 2014 at 11:24 am

        I think some modern philosophers have made the problem more complex than necessary, by introducing multiple definitions of free will (“libertarian”, “compatibilist”, etc.) .

        The paradox arises from the misunderstanding of the concept of “inevitability”. It is a matter of linguistics, and nothing more.

        And then there’s the politics of atheism vs theism. One political debate ploy is to take the opponents words literally to make them sound absurd. I think the theists are basically talking about the common free will rather than one exempt from cause and effect.

        No free will is exempt from cause and effect, even the free will of a disembodied soul.

        My concern is that I don’t want atheists to sound stupid, because that makes me look stupid by association.

        Another thing that ticks me off is those suggesting that Jesus never existed in history. The name was very popular back then, and the idea that not a single traveling preacher had that name is an unreasonable assertion. It should be sufficient to dismiss the supernatural without dismissing reason. But that’s another issue.

      • July 24, 2014 at 11:35 am

        Reagent: “Studies have shown thoughts to originate in the subconscious which in turn are acted upon by the conscious mind.”

        And the conscious mind may then review and dismiss the action. (That was also in Libet’s study). So we are still speaking of conscious control.

        Libet’s study also involved subjects who were told in advance what they were to do, squeeze their fist 40 times at random intervals. So the problem entered through the conscious mind, was rendered for solution to the subconscious, and then acted out under conscious review.

        Reagent: “The conscious mind simply reacts to its environment and this reaction is dictated by things outside the conscious mind’s control.”

        The conscious mind is also motivated by an innate will. The will is that thing which drives animate objects to, well, animation in order to survive. It’s part of the built-in programming of genetics, to be sure, but it is a cause that is part of the thing called “self”.

      • July 24, 2014 at 4:41 pm

        But does one choose which thoughts arise in the conscious mind? Or how the impulses will dictate the next action?

        If you present me with a choice, the instance will result in activity in the brain. I will then act upon whichever action my mind came upon. Even if I considered the options in my conscious mind, the process was a response to impulses. I didn’t get to say “so and so many neurons to this part of the brain”, the choice was in a sense made for me by nature.

      • July 24, 2014 at 6:10 pm

        1) (a) And that would be the loop. If you have to choose what thought you are going to think before you can think it, then you’d never think at all. Right? So the answer to “does one choose which thoughts arise in the conscious mind?” must necessarily be “no”.

        (b) On the other hand, I can decide right now to think about what I need to get at the store rather than what I’m currently thinking about. So, you can consciously choose to spend time thinking about specific problems.

        2) Hopefully, no one’s actions are dictated by “impulses”. That can be dangerous, and probably led to the extinction of those versions of mind. One purpose of imagination is to try out things in your head before you try them out in reality, so you can avoid foreseeable problems.

        3) (a) If I present you with the choice of voting for a Republican or a Democrat in the next election, will you be responding to “impulses” or will you be responding to conscious strategies to make the world a better place?

        (b) If I hit a cue ball precisely I can cause a second ball to knock a third ball into the pocket. If I hit you with the cue ball instead, the result is unlikely to be as predictable. You may respond on “impulse” or you may take a moment to evaluate the outcomes and consciously choose what you do next.

        In Zen there is a thought problem that the master presents to the student called a “koan”. You’ve probably heard the one “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The student dwells on the problem a long time and tries to answer it. It usually doesn’t have a single answer, but is intended to free the student from getting hung-up in abstract concepts and questions that have no answers.

        The paradox of determinism versus free will has a simple solution. There is no problem. Determinism is not an illusion. Free will is not an illusion. The only illusion is that they conflict.

      • July 24, 2014 at 6:24 pm

        Even contemplating is a neurophysiological process. You do not choose how these thoughts and impulses will weigh on your mind and dictate your next choice

        3a. I do believe my choice would be an impulse. If my brain likes democrats I’ll vote democrat as opposed to republican and vice versa

      • July 24, 2014 at 7:09 pm

        Reagent: “Even contemplating is a neurophysiological process.”

        Absolutely. Conscious mind is a product of the physical universe.

        Reagent: “You do not choose how these thoughts and impulses will weigh on your mind …”

        Correct. They are as they are. Each thought and memory is a collection of neural-electrical-biological matter and energy. The presentation and sequencing is acquired through experience with the external world and finding out what works. The infant knows he needs to raise the spoon and open his mouth but not yet how to navigate the spoon to the mouth. Eventually he learns the mechanics of feeding himself. I presume the same learning experience applies to the mechanics of thinking.

        Reagent: “… and dictate your next choice”

        No, because [that thing which we call] “I” am doing the dictation according to my own will (assuming I am not being coerced by the will of another, in which case their will is free to decide and mine is not). “I” am choosing.

        The fact that my choice is inevitable does not make me or my choosing disappear. In fact, I and my mental process of choosing, is quite necessary to that inevitability.

        For example, gravity is essential to the apple falling from the tree. The fact that it was inevitable for the apple to fall does not make gravity disappear. Nor does my conscious process disappear when I choose to pull the apple from the tree.

        Reagent: “3a. I do believe my choice would be an impulse. If my brain likes democrats I’ll vote democrat as opposed to republican and vice versa”

        A “habit” is a choice that was made earlier, and need not be made again. At some point in your life, you choose a political party, for very conscious reasons, and you have been voting for members of that party by habit ever since — based upon the earlier conscious decision.

      • July 24, 2014 at 8:32 pm

        But do I choose how my mind has been shaped to view these different political parties?

        I believe the act of choosing happens, but the mechanics which make up the process are beyond my control.

        I will choose the things I am inclined to choose by my nature. This means I am not truly the author of my life, but only the pen used to write the book of ‘my life’. Yes I am writing the words down, but someone else (physics) is holding the pen. Does that analogy make sense?

        The conscious process does not disappear when you pull the apple from the tree. I agree. The conscious process is required for a self aware creature to pull the apple from the tree. But the conscious processes follow the same laws of nature the apple follows when it falls and is drawn towards the earth by gravity.

        In short I think we should say things are still “our choices”, but that the universe is ultimately responsible for them. My next course of action will be what my neurophysiology dictates.

      • July 24, 2014 at 10:58 pm

        Reagent: “I believe the act of choosing happens, but that the mechanics which make up the process are beyond my control.”

        “You” ARE the process and the mechanics. The process and the mechanics, i.e., “you” are doing the choosing. An essential part of the process and mechanics is the pre-programmed (genetic) “will” that seeks survival through attaining the essentials of life. Another essential part of the process and mechanics is the conscious “will” or “mind” which calculates specific actions to take in the complex environment of fellow human beings and their needs and their wills.

        Reagent: “I will choose the things I am inclined to choose by my nature.”

        “You” ARE your nature, or rather your “natural self”, which includes both your genetic and conscious “will” to survive, and survive well, within your environment.

        So, to put it simply, it is “you” that is choosing.

        And that is the shorthand, common speech way of referring to the “process and mechanics of nature that you embody” doing their/your thing.

        And the freedom is the ability of their/your will to do its/your thing without coercion by another “embodiment of natural process” forcing you to do its thing instead.

      • July 24, 2014 at 11:04 pm

        If we agree that only one choice is inevitable based off the configurations of ‘selves’ and their natures then I think we agree on the concept, but we disagree on each others use of language.

        Since my nature is dependent on nature itself I would say I am not responsible for my next course of action. Nature itself (which includes my nature) is

      • July 25, 2014 at 12:35 am

        And how shall we hold “Nature” responsible for your bad act?

        To “hold responsible” means to identify a point where correction can be applied to prevent a harmful event from being repeated.

        In a traffic accident, many factors may play a role: the weather, the road condition, the traffic control mechanism, the condition of the car, and the condition and behavior of the driver. If it is night and the red traffic light has burned out, then we would hold that light (and those who maintain it) responsible and take steps to correct it. If the driver was texting and drove right through the red light then we would hold the driver responsible and take steps to correct him.

        But there is no practical way to hold “deterministic inevitability” responsible for anything. You can’t step outside it to repair it, because everything is always “inside” it.

        So it is totally meaningless to hold “Nature” or “Determinism” responsible for anything.

        It is only meaningful to “hold responsible” the people and things which can be corrected.

        In the case of free will, the driver chose to text while driving, thinking no harm could come of it. When the accident happened he learned that harm indeed could happen. To make sure his behavior is corrected, the judge may penalize the driver.

        “Just” penalties do what is reasonable to (a) repair the harm done to the victim, (b) correct the offender, and (c) provide reasonable assurance to the rest of us (potential victims) that the behavior will not be repeated, including imprisoning the offender until correction takes effect. Anything beyond what is reasonably necessary to accomplish this would be inflicting an unjustifiable harm upon the guilty.

        The offender cannot claim “determinism caused me to do it” to escape penalty, because the judge can make the same claim for the penalty.

      • July 25, 2014 at 5:17 am

        I agree. But I think the philosophical context differs from a judicial one.

        Every choice you make is a reaction to the laws of nature and you do not dictate how your nature will respond with these laws. A bad person is a result of bad conditioning, and it is helpful to remove his ability to hurt other people, but it is also helpful to realize he is a victim of immoral neurophysiology. I believe punishment should only extend to the point it protects us from a bad individual. Violent criminals are victims of a bad nature. I think realizing people are confined to their own physiological nature is a more humanitarian and scientific way to look at it.

        An individual can be held guilty in a court of law. But he cannot be held guilty in a court of ethics if we acknowledge the implications of a lack of free will. I am sure accepting determinism would not lead to an abolishment of the criminal justice system.

      • July 25, 2014 at 10:59 am

        Reagent: “An individual can be held guilty in a court of law. But he cannot be held guilty in a court of ethics if we acknowledge the implications of a lack of free will. I am sure accepting determinism would not lead to an abolishment of the criminal justice system.”

        Why would the behavior of someone who commits murder but is not apprehended and brought to trial be considered “ethical”? Why is he not considered “guilty” in your system of ethics?

      • July 25, 2014 at 12:08 pm

        Because he like us is a slave to his condition. If you were him, atom for atom, you would make the same choices

      • July 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm

        And the ethical response to his murdering someone would be what?

      • July 25, 2014 at 9:58 pm

        I do not believe you can condemn the self for a crime. The action itself is what is condemned by ethics. I am presupposing a deterministic universe when I say this

      • July 26, 2014 at 12:53 am

        a) There is no need to “presuppose a deterministic universe” because that’s the only friggin’ kind there is.

        b) The correct wording is not “condemnation”. The correct wording is that the person is held responsible when he deliberately chose to commit the crime. And the point of the penalty is to correct the person so that they make a different choice next time.

        Please note that the inevitability of the decision to commit the crime is not in question.

        Please note that the point of penalty is to introduce a new causal factor into the decision making process for the next time he is tempted to commit the crime again.

        And, of course, this is totally deterministic as well. We’re relying upon cause and effect to accomplish the correction in behavior.

        So please note that determinism is totally in play at all times: (a) in the decision to commit the crime and (b) in the decision to apply corrective penalty and (c) again when the person rethinks his choice next time he has an opportunity to commit the crime again.

        The mental process we refer to here is totally produced by the person’s neurological system. Conscious thought is a product of the brain. And if you stimulate the brain here or there, or damage specific areas, you can alter the nature of conscious thought.

        When thinking is specifically about making a choice between two or more options or actions, we call that willful choice. If no one interferes with our willful choice, we say it is free.

        And it matters not one bit that our choice is deterministically inevitable. Because the “us” involved happens to be a package of willful substance that invokes mental processes to make these decisions. And that is as free as any will gets.

        Free will is part of the totally deterministic universe. The only question is whether you’re willing to wake up to this fact, or continue wandering around in the silly paradox.

  6. July 26, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    When I was taking Richard Carrier’s class on Free Will, he had us read Dr. Eddy Nahmias’s article on “Willusionism“. The article points to several studies that show bad moral results from people who are told that “free will is an illusion”.

    Here’s the link to the Nahmias article:


    Here’s the link to my write-up on his article:


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