Free Will Redux

(This is the second post on free will.  Read the first one HERE)

A few weeks after the original post about free will I wrote a follow-up .  No, I had not solved the problem.  I wanted to instead voice some thoughts on some of the implications of a lack of free will.  This is perhaps not as focused on the issue itself.  More like thinking aloud.

Two years later and I am no closer to “knowing”.  However, from a practical standpoint we go on . . . I go on as if I have some measure of control in directing my and my life’s progress.  Additional comments follow the piece below.


Free Will Redux

My first part on Free Will elicited a few responses with some thoughtful views on the subject. I figure I would post the second go-around as a general response to people who have e-mailed me or otherwise replied to my posting of the first entry in the Skepticality Forum.

First I want to address some friends who basically took the approach of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the whole topic. The really had no opinion on the matter, and did not care to speculate on it.

There is some validity to the argument “I don’t know, I don’t care”. Essentially an illusion of free will is as good as having it. The fact one can’t prove it one way or another does not diminish what we experience in our everyday life, and the absence of knowledge does not alter how we live our lives.

That said, once the question is raised there is some impetus in the mind of most humans (or at least this human) to find the answer. The very fact we can contemplate the question appears, at least on the surface, as good evidence for free will. I don’t know if it is a robust logical argument, but along the lines of “Cognito ergo sum”, I am contemplating free will, so I must have it.

For me there is further evidence in the continued improvements of our lives. It might just be attributed to excellent problem solving skills, but even that has a component that favors free will, or as I interpret it, the ability to think beyond what ones knows, to conjure up something previously unknown from the known. It would seem to me the deterministic viewpoint is on shaky ground when linking cause and effect to the discovery (the idea) of something knew.

The greater question is what we would do if we could conclusively prove there is no free will? Really, that is the question I am asking. From a practical point of view, likely nothing would change, but what of our own view of ourselves? How would it affect the values we place on societal norms, interpersonal relationships, love, hate, etc. etc. One person mentioned absolute knowledge on the matter might cause a breakdown of the social structure (I presumed he meant in the case there is no free will). That seems to me a bit like the “Tree of Knowledge” argument; we’re better off not knowing. I do not agree with that particular viewpoint; whatever the truth, our pursuit of knowledge is a human trait I wholeheartedly support and encourage in everyone. Like I said, regardless of the answer, I want to know.

I do disagree with the whole absence-of-culpability tack some people take with the absence of free will. I see it completely opposite; whereas some question why someone would be in jail, I question why we would let them live. If free will is an illusion, and our actions are the result of endless cause and effect, I would view a murderer, thief, etc. as a faulty and dangerous individual that should be eliminated.

We would do so not with hate or revenge motivated action (although for me that would play a part), but as a response similar to what we do when we put down an animal that has attacked a human. There is no changing the person, no offering rehabilitation; they have acquired an undesirable trait, and much like an animal, it is now part of their make-up. Without free will, there is no assurance those acts would not be repeated, hence for the good of the tribe, the threat needs to be eliminated.

Mind you, in that argument there is some indication of the lack of free will . . . the majority of criminals end up being repeat offenders (excluding crimes of passion and crimes of necessity). We have a fair amount of data to that effect.

The counter to that argument is the case where a tribe is in itself “bad” or plain misguided. Let’s say there is a particular group of people who believe, despite ample proof to the contrary, in the inerrant truth contained within a given book. They might happily partake in stoning women, or ostracizing people with what is deemed an unacceptable social, religious, or sexual preferences, or worse yet, outright justify the killing of people who do not conform.

Well, my statement was directed primarily at secular matters, and application of laws enacted to protect and deter people abusing either their power to hurt others. While there are extreme societies and individuals as described in the above paragraph, most reasonable people would recognize the validity of individual freedom, personal responsibility, and the value of tolerance for differences in thinking provided such differences did not result in harm to others. At least I maintain they would were they given the opportunity to reflect on such matters. Perhaps not . . . in which case I revert to the “dangerous to the human society” argument, fully recognizing they would apply the same argument in return. But we digress; back to free will.

Some people equated the discussion as being similar to the discussion regarding the existence of god, and as a reason why some thinkers can believe in god despite a decided lack of evidence.

I don’t see the parallel . .. we discuss free will relative to an investigative process aimed at finding out if it does exist or not. I am certainly open to data which may one day be available clearing up the issue. Conversely, religion is untouchable by any experiment we might be able to perform. God is, by definition, not of this universe. The difference between believers in a higher power outside our universe and me believing in my own free will is in the possibility of an eventual resolution to the question of the existence of the later. Conversely, the very definition of religious belief precludes examination . . . one of the few commonalities between various religions; you are not allowed to question, to “know” . . . you are just expected to believe and pay the shaman his stipend so they can live in largess exceeding that of the majority of their followers. Sort of like with elected officials.

Free will is an hypothesis still open to exploration, discussion, and testing, and perhaps those efforts will offer a resolution based on data acquired through ascientific process. Religion is not an hypothesis; for the people who believe it, it is a fact, and as I said, one they define in such a way as to be untestable.

Finally, to get back to the primary discussion, I’ll make a comment to the statement that if we don’t have free will “nothing matters”. I’m not sure that is the case. We can certainly affect other people’s lives independent of their own determinism (another reason I think there is a free will beyond chance). As humans we have a certain amount of self-restraint relative to our actions toward ourselves and our actions toward others. Empathy plays a big part in it, but there are other evolutionary influences recognized through plain reasoning and common sense.

True, it could be argued it is the result of cause and effect, but from a practical standpoint it does not matter how or why we come to a decision . . . the people we affect experience real pain, or real joy, or real fear, or real hope, etc. etc. It is in that truth I most of all see evidence of free will . . . be it illusion or not.


There is a certain amount of internal conflict when I think about this topic.  Honor, responsibility, doing the right thing, all are important and central to the way I live my life.

It is certain my decisions conform to, and are driven by, the sum total of my life’s experiences.  It is less certain every decision I make is inevitable, and can be traced back to the Big Bang.  It does not lessen their importance to me, nor does it diminish the effect my decisions have on those around me.  To that end, if we live in a construct of our own making, it is nonetheless the only reality we have.

Since I first heard/read the material against the idea of free will there has been a lot of material added dealing with exactly this problem.  Naturalists maintain humans can still have purpose, can still innovate, can make the most of the very determinism which got us here.  That to me seems a circular argument, one closely akin to those made by the religious.

Central to the idea one can make the most of our supposed determinism is that we should embrace who we are, and what and where we came from.   A lot is written how freed from the shackles of free will we can accomplish the very things we want; a stable society, benefit for all, in tune with the environment, etc. etc.  Indeed, naturalism and acceptance of determinism as a positive rather than a negative, is touted as the only way we can progress to a better life.

But if one buys into determinism, we have no such choice.  Our actions are constrained by determinism itself, and accepting that world view does not somehow make us capable of escaping it.  As I read these arguments, they are essentially saying that accepting we have no free will will allow us to act differently.  How?  If you buy into the naturalistic view, we, our actions, are still bound of the long stretch of cause-and-effect dating back to the Big Bang.  The idea we have no free will, that our actions are determined by the world we live in (within the fluctuation of quantum mechanics randomness), that idea seems to negate the possibility of the very improvement they taut.  

(side note: I’ve not read much about how this improvement would take place; again, it seems to be a lot like religion’s “Believe, and it will be better”, but without the usually added “or we will kill you”.)

Worse yet, if determinism is a scientifically proven fact (as they say), I can’t decide to go against this construct I have created for myself, the reality I live to.  If I did, it would imply I have a measure of free will.  Come to think of it, naturalists must as well, for they shed the idea of free will.  Or where they pre-determined to arrive at their position?  Even if they were, how can they then expect others to turn away from their own determinism-based world views?

I often tell the religious that whatever god they believe in made me an atheist.  They should accept that.  I now have to target naturalists with the same argument.  

Determinism made me a free-will proponent . . . don’t expect me to change, for I can’t; like Popeye, I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.

Now I have a headache, probably predetermined from long before I was born.  I think I’ll go take some pictures and write some fiction.  I’ll try to do something unexpected and outside what would be my norm.  Oh wait . . . supposedly, I can’t.

About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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10 Responses to Free Will Redux

  1. Ian Gardner says:

    From The WP blog, Consider This:
    Free Will.
    We all have free will and we can use it negatively, positively or neutrally.
    Be careful.


    • disperser says:

      The first point is debatable; that’s the topic of the two pieces. I tend to agree, but it’s difficult to go beyond the “I want for it to be free will” and into to the “here’s why”, so it is indistinguishable from self-delusion.

      That aside, the “Be careful” piqued my curiosity? Be careful about what?


  2. Ian Gardner says:

    And one from the WP blog, The Quo Vadis? File III:

    Free Will and Its Consequence.
    We have been given free will and the creative ability of the Great Spirit.
    We create our future, so when we face that future there is no purpose in pleading for the Great Spirit’s help for “As you sow, so you shall reap!” applies.
    However, the field is ploughed and fertile so sow!


  3. disperser says:

    Ah . . . the Great Spirit.

    Please understand, without meaning disrespect, I absolutely believe you have the right to believe that. Just as I absolutely have the right to call it into question. As with many things in life:

    – saying it does not make it so.
    – believing it does not make it so.
    – desiring it does not make it so


    – personal experiences, epiphanies, revelations, etc. do not make it so. If they did, to my latest count we would have something like 6 billion “realities”, and interpretations thereof.

    At best I would agree the merit of living as if we have free will, but one can do that without calling into question any power outside themselves. In fact, I would prefer people would hold themselves responsible and accountable as oppose to relying on an outside agency.

    My humble opinion, of course.


  4. Ian Gardner says:

    I respect opinions :-)


    • disperser says:

      I would still like to know what you mean by this:

      “Be careful with how one exercises the free will, my friend :-)”

      Understand that it comes across as a veiled threat. Not from you personally, but it resembles the statement religious people are fond of making, warning others of potential judgment (typically not favorable to the person the statement is aimed at) from unseen forces with which they claim affiliation. The only reason anyone ever makes that sort of statement is to admonish others.

      Therefore, it comes across as judgmental. I say that because you don’t have any cause to believe I would exercise my free will to either now, or ever, perpetrate harm on others, act dishonorably, dishonestly, or with malice. Hence, it is a cheap attempt to assert a superior position, probably to satisfy your self-image, and to reinforce the importance you place on your understanding of the world around you.

      Now, I’ve read a bit of your blog; based on my assessment of your character and personality, I would typically let things slide . . . But, I am annoyed you chose to comment, and to do so not to discuss or debate, but to admonish me on my own blog.

      I will state it as plainly, and as kindly as I can;

      know that whatever understanding you have of the universe, and no matter how fiercely held, it does not carry any more importance to my eyes than the ramblings of countless shamans, rabbi, priests, ministers, witch doctors, seers, sages, and Taco Bell workers.

      I am willing to discuss tenets of belief, but one-sided, vaguely enigmatic statements do not a discussion make.

      If all you wanted was to add a link to your blog, then your mission here is successful and finished.

      If you have doubts about what you hold as truth, then I am here for you, and we can discuss how thin the line between truth and delusion really is.

      Attempt to proselytize your position, and you’ll only trigger my contempt and ridicule.


  5. disperser says:

    I see beyond words, understand more than is said . . . someday you may come to understand there are no simple words; only simple people unaware of the power of words. They are recognized by their use of smilies punctuating the expression of their errant thoughts.


  6. Pingback: Some action, a bit of intent, a dash of motivation . . . and the tick to bind them all. | Disperser Tracks

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