The problem of free will


I believe in free will.  I can’t say what it is, but I believe in it.

comic-freewillPhysical and chemical reactions are governed by scientific laws.  Living things are governed by biological laws.  A virus, a bacterium, a tree and an earthworm are all alive, but they don’t make choices.  A housefly has freedom of motion, but does it have free will?

Does a mouse have free will?  If you knew everything there was to know about a mouse, could you predict what it was going to do?  How about a dog or cat?  How about us?

If free will exists, how and when did it arise in biological evolution?  When I decide things, it is for a reason—sometimes a reason of which I was not conscious at the time.  Does that mean my decisions are not free?  Suppose I made decisions at random (whatever random means).  Would that make them free?

comic2-897Religious people believe that human beings have souls—a supernatural quality independent of biological evolution.  Would that change things?  Would beings with souls do things that are neither caused nor at random?

These questions have practical consequences.  If I think that I exercise free choice, I take responsibility for my actions and try to improve.  If I think my actions are predetermined, maybe I do and maybe I don’t.

dilbert-free-willPossibly the most radical philosophical proponent of free will was Jean-Paul Sartre, who taught that human beings are completely free to choose, with no excuses.  “Man [sic] is condemned to be free,” Sartre taught.  “Condemned” is an appropriate word if Sartre is right in saying there are no objective criteria that make a decision right or wrong, and all decisions are at bottom arbitrary.

Sartre praised authentic persons who wholeheartedly commit themselves to a set of values, which they have chosen arbitrarily but live up to without hypocrisy.

By his standards, I’m not an authentic person.  My belief in free will is selective.

fatalism_large1When I do something of which I am proud, I give myself credit for the good moral character as well as the ability that made my achievement possible.

When I do something of which I am ashamed, I think of all the reasons why I couldn’t help doing the bad thing.  I was tired, so I think; I was under pressure; I was afraid; I was needy; I didn’t think and  I wasn’t myself.  (This last ties in with President Obama’s favorite response to national wrongdoing — “This isn’t who we are”)

My reaction is different when somebody does something bad to me.  I think it is pure malice, freely chosen.  Yet if I could see things from that person’s perspective, I might think that all the personal excuses that I find so justified are ten times or a hundred times more compelling for the other person.

freewill.predestination031The law holds people responsible for their actions, but defines some people and some circumstances in which people are not responsible.  I’m responsible for my actions when driving while intoxicated because I supposedly had the choice not to become intoxicated, but if somebody drugged me without my knowledge, I wouldn’t be responsible.

Where is the dividing line?  When, in 1978, Dan White killed Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor, he pleaded not guilty because he was not responsible for his actions, partly because he had elevated blood sugar through eating Twinkies.

xkcd-free-willI think this is ridiculous, but I have to say that my own state of mind, and therefore my actions, can differ, depending on whether I have sugar, caffeine or alcohol in my system, or whether I am tired and hungry or rested and full.

The insane, in law, are not regarded as responsible for their action.  How about someone who is legally sane but a prisoner of compulsive behaviors?  Addicts are not free.  In 12-step programs, alcoholics and other addicts do not try to free themselves through will power alone.  They ask for help from a “higher power” not themselves.

Christians believe that it is impossible for individuals to free themselves from sin by will power alone.  They need the grace of God in order to be free.  Buddhists believe that freedom of the mind from compulsion is possible, but only through extremely difficult spiritual practice.

I myself have sporadically practiced meditation exercises, and learned that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for me to control what thoughts and feelings come into my mind.  If I am not my thoughts and feelings, what am I?

Neither do I have free choice in regard to my beliefs.  I could not will myself to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 or that the Olympian Greek gods exist.

Neurologists find that most human cognition takes place below the level of consciousness, and neural activity precedes the conscious thought.   Eric Kandel, a neurologist and psychologist, believes human beings are not capable of free will, but only of “free won’t”.  That is, the unconscious part of the mind presents a decision to consciousness, you have a brief moment to choose whether to act on it or not.

In spite of all this, I have the experience of making choices.  Indeed, I’ve found it hard to make up my mind about all my major life decisions.  But, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn wrote, the experience of choosing does not prove free will.

People under the influence of post-hypnotic suggestion think they’re freely willing to do the thing the hypnotist told them to do.  They give reasons why they do it.  Yet their wills are not in fact free.  How do I know that all my decisions aren’t like this?

I have to admit that when I look back on my major life decisions, it seems inevitable that I decided the way I did.

Maybe free will is a pragmatic question.  Free will and responsibility apply to all my actions that can be affected by a sense of right and wrong or a fear of punishment.  So when I’m driving my car, my decision to stay within the speed limit (or not) is a free choice.  My decision to write this blog post is a free choice.  My shouting in pain if I burn my finger is not a free choice.  Pragmatically.


But although I do not understand free will, I believe in free will.  I feel compelled to believe in free will.  I have no choice but to believe in it, or at least to act as if I believe in it.

It is no more possible for me to act on the assumption that my behavior is pre-determined than it is possible to act on the assumption that there is no such thing as objective reality, or there is no such thing as wisdom and goodness.

The fact that there are certain ideas that I can’t get my mind around is a fact about my limitations, not a fact about how things are.

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4 Responses to “The problem of free will”

  1. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Maybe all living things have free will – in my experience dogs, cats, horses, cattle, goats, hens, dolphins – perhaps every living thing. You see it when the creature acts autonomously – in the case of domestic animals, deliberately breaking what they know are the “rules” when the rules get in the way of their own personal objective.


  2. hal Says:

    I agree with Pray Warrior.

    As the Harvard Professor William James wrote, opening his chapter on the topic of ‘HABIT’ in his 1890 classic, PRINCIPLES OF PSYCHOLOGY, “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.” So, I share Kandel’s view that free will is a bit of an epi-phenomena of being, in a natural monist theory of mind. (I used Kandel’s, third edition of PRINCIPLES OF NEURAL SCIENCE in teaching it Ohio State University in the last millennia.) James then said that “the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed.” Oh dear, we are animals!

    Such a view isn’t, ipso facto, the same as the inevitability of any particular choice. Here I have liked the view Cornell Professor Max Black, who presented and published a related article, “Making something happen” in Sidney Hook’s 1961 collection based on a 1957 NYC conference, DETERMINISM AND FREEDOM IN THE AGE OF MODERN SCIENCE. Black thought you would have to study the beings and their context, and, I would add as an ethologist, their physiology, development and evolution. Now this may seem a terrible burden for casual conversation, and it certainly is.

    Scientists, as T.C. Schneirla wrote in the New York Academy of Sciences in 1950, who view the study naturally occurring behavior, like ethologists, by considering that “Experimentation is a special case of systematic observation.” This allows us to study complex, neural, natural and social systems, where we cannot manipulate independent variables, and thus experimentally control. Think, if you will, of astronomy, for example.

    In lieu of such prodigious research, why might reasonable hard core folks stand in a weekly, Sunday, noon, peace vigil for over a decade since before the Iraq invasion by the US? Well, as we don’t understand the larger, causal matrix, and in light of this great unknown, we hope standing for such ideals may with other efforts have a telling, though mysterious, effect towards amicability.

    We might watch out for more amicability, and improved health with nutrition, as in the last hundred years or so, humans have combined sex, as natural habit, with overly prolific reproduction. When I entered high school, in 1960, there were only three and now there are over seven billion of us. This sex habit, and its denial in policy, will likely due us in, as our excess numbers and associated release of fossilized carbon fuels causing Green House Gas inducing climate change are now such part of human consumption and food production. It doesn’t have to be, if there weren’t the “Citizens United” Court decision, allowing shareholders claiming the fossil fuels as fiscal reserves to pay Congress to ignore this dire fate.
    The hopeful might check out the good, future vision of: The Solutions

    My old Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich gave disquieting admonishment about the population problem: “It will be solved, by death or birth control.” Is this fate or free will?

    I wish, as Naomi Klein’s (2014) book title touts, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING! The September NYC Peoples Climate March was promising but far from enough.


  3. Marvin Edwards Says:

    Rational Determinism

    Determinism makes free will inevitable. Here’s how:

    Many living organisms have evolved a nervous system capable of specialized functions that include sensory input, motor control, memory, imagination, cognition, self-awareness, planning, experimentation, and deliberate choosing.

    Thinking is a process rooted in the physical structure of the nervous system, especially the brain. We know this because injury to specific areas of the brain can disable the corresponding function.

    As a thinking organism interacts with its environment it learns by trial and error. When we first cross a stream we must guess how hard to jump from one rock to the next. Jump too hard or not hard enough and you end up in the water. We choose and we try. The successful choices become habits of muscle memory.

    Choosing is as real as walking. Both are phenomena relying upon the physical structure of the human body, which is a product of evolution within our deterministic universe.

    Some things, like walking or jumping, we have to learn on our own. Many other things are taught by parents, schools, churches, and peers. Later we may re-examine their choices and make our own.

    When making new or difficult decisions on our own, we go through a process of deliberation. We start with uncertainty. Then we consider possible options. We imagine the outcomes of each choice. We may consciously list reasons, perhaps even writing them down. We may examine how thinking of each choice makes us feel. Finally, we make our choice and we act upon it.

    This is called our “will”, because it intends to determine the future in a specific way. And if our choice was our own, and not forced upon us by someone else, then it is called a choice of our own “free will”.

    Again, the mental process of deliberation and choosing are rooted in the reality of our physical, deterministic universe. Our reasons and feelings caused us to make this specific choice, at this specific time, under these specific circumstances. Therefore our choice was “deterministic” and “inevitable”.

    However, we were the final cause of that inevitability. The reasons and feelings were ours, and they could determine nothing on their own. It was only after they informed our will and we acted upon it that they had any impact upon reality.

    Our experience of hearing our own reasoning as we consciously deliberate, and our feeling good or bad due to our unconscious evaluation of one option over another, are real. They are the product of our physical bodies.

    Therefore we cannot dismiss the mental process as some kind of illusion. Thinking is as real as walking. And thinking about more than one option leads to choosing. And that choosing must be happening within our physical minds, because where else could the mind be?

    The process of choosing determines our will. Our will determines our action. And our actions determines what inevitably comes next. And what comes next may be as simple as having chocolate rather than vanilla or as significant as raising the temperature of the planet.

    But when people hear that they have no free will, or that they are not responsible for anything, it can lead to a sense of fatalism and apathy. The belief that determinism means free will is an illusion is irrational. The belief that free will means that determinism is an illusion is equally irrational. The fact is that both are quite real, and only the belief that they are somehow in conflict is an illusion.

    In summary, to say that free will is merely an illusion is a lie. Free will is us choosing, and us choosing is a product of the physical and deterministic universe — which means that free will is an inevitable product of our deterministic universe.


  4. Knife sharpening Says:

    The problem of free will | Phil Ebersole


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