Project 313 – Post No. 026

I mentioned Sam Harris in Post No. 025. 

Another area of thinking where Harris and I are a bit at odds is the notion of Free Will. Now, there are many definitions of Free Will and if you want to spend a number of hours exploring all the nuances of those two simple words, just click on that link. 

As it turns out, I discussed and thought about Free Will long before I ever heard of Harris. In fact, for them who don’t have a life, you can go read my thoughts on the matter HERE and HERE

Those posts are from 2012 but the original content is from 2009 and I reference stuff I was reading in the early 1980s . . . and here we are, many years later and not much has changed as far as the arguments, counterarguments, etc. etc. 

So, here’s the thing . . . as part of trying to understand the issue, I’m at the point where I could argue both sides of the issue. That’s what you do if you want to discuss/debate someone who holds a different point of view; you must learn enough about the other side to be able to argue their point as well as they. 

BUT . . . I’m not in the contra-causal free will camp.  

Meaning, I do believe we have a certain amount of agency, a version of free will that allows us to make decisions unconstrained by past events, or at least reasonably so. 

The reason I’m hedging my words is that “free will” has broad interpretations and also severe limits as a notion. I’m “free” to decide anything I want at any given time but those decisions may be limited by physical, emotional, and societal constraints. 

Then you’re not free . . . someone might say. 

The argument goes like this: you did not choose your parents, where you are born, the schooling and upbringing you received. Nothing about you is really your choice. You think you’re smart? That’s obviously a mix of genetic and environmental influence, neither of which you controlled. Who you marry, the job you have, your habits, preferences, everything about you is the direct result of things you had no control over and that even now direct your thoughts and actions. You cannot help but do what you do and be who you are. You cannot deviate from the path of past events any more than you could decide to fly. 

Obviously, this goes against our sense of agency. We “feel” like we make decisions, opt for one thing or another, and do so without constraints or coercion, but some maintain that is all an illusion. 

To be fair, they can marshal pretty convincing arguments. And believe me, you start going down that rabbit hole, and you can easily get lost in labyrinths of arguments and counterarguments. 

I generally wave my hand and decide (freely or not) that the reality we have is good enough. We live with the assumption of free will and for broad matters that is close enough to be true, and it’s close enough for me to accept as a working thesis.

You can read THIS (pretty good) summary of the arguments that we don’t have free will. 

Central to the argument against free will is the fact that particles obey the laws of physics and we are made up of particles, and as such, we have no example of emergent properties that arise independently of the constraints physics puts on particles and their behavior. This sounds highfalutin, so let me rephrase it (and cheat a bit). 

We know there is a lot of empty space in atoms. Atoms combine to form molecules and those combine to eventually form objects . . . which are basically 99.999% empty space. 

Now, a physicist will tell you that the forces that bind and repel atoms and molecules are what give objects the appearance of being solid. Repulsive forces are what enable us to sit in a chair as opposed to passing right through it. Basically, you don’t have enough energy to displace electrons in a stable configuration around a single atom, let alone electrons in the many atoms comprising the chair, so you can sit.

If you did have enough energy to displace electrons, you’d break the atom and BOOM! . . . a nuclear explosion and devastation whenever you sat down. Sort of like Grampa after eating beans, only even more powerful.  

Think of “solid” as an emergent property of the material. A lot of atoms together in particular configurations will give rise to the property of being “solid” even though the individual atoms are mostly empty space. This emergent property is a direct result of the underlying particles obeying the laws of physics. No emergent property can violate the laws of physics governing the individual behavior of particles.  

Free will has no mechanism that explains it as an emergent property of the individual particles that make up a person. I mean, our consciousness (whatever that is) obviously comes from the brain and the brain is a physical thing and hence subject to the laws of physics. But, we can’t explain consciousness, either. 

To review, the movement of each particle and its interaction with its surroundings is predicated on existing conditions . . . a particle cannot behave in a manner that is not consistent with the laws of physics and independently from the conditions of its environment.

Thus, simply put, you are born into a world you don’t control, and every subsequent action is predicted by your genetic makeup and situations you have no control over. Essentially, you cannot help being who you are and do what you do because the basis for each action can be traced back to before you were born.

Many explain free will by tying it to something non-physical; for example, a soul.

If, like me, you don’t believe in a soul, you’re stuck without a good explanation for free will. Even if you believe in souls, you’re stuck without a good explanation of free will because if you believe in god (and souls) there are all manners of contradictions relating to free will. 

So, what do I do? 

Like I said, I don’t care. We live in a world where our brains (be they free will brains or not) give us the illusion of free will, and that’s how we live. For the most part, with a few annoying exceptions, be it an illusion or not, it works fairly well.  

At some point, we’ll figure it out, but it’s not going to be today and likely not tomorrow either. Maybe, if we’re lucky, the day after. Beyond that, I’ll not worry about it because it’s not in my nature to do so.

And now, the photo:

Project 313 026

I keep being impressed by the P900 . . . as often as I’m disappointed. In the case above? Impressed.

I can relate to today’s cartoon as I struggle with coming up with titles to my doodles. Also, for titles to my fiction, although that a little easier as my fiction is seldom abstract in nature.

I am so going to draw a straight line, a box, and a circle and title it The Emotions of Reality in Time and Space!

However, meantime, something I drew on my Note 8. I call it I’m Melting!

I’m Melting!

And . . . that’s it

Some of these posts will likely be longer as the mood hits me, but most will be thus; short, uninteresting, bland, and relentless.

You can read about Project 313 HERE.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


Note: if you are not reading this blog post at, know that it has been copied without permission, and likely is being used by someone with nefarious intention, like attracting you to a malware-infested website.  Could be they also torture small mammals.


Please, if you are considering bestowing me recognition beyond commenting below, refrain from doing so.  I will decline blogger-to-blogger awards.   I appreciate the intent behind it, but I prefer a comment thanking me for turning you away from a life of crime, religion, or making you a better person in some other way.  That would mean something to me.

If you wish to know more, please read below.

About awards: Blogger Awards
About “likes”:   Of “Likes”, Subscriptions, and Stuff

Note: to those who may click on “like”, or rate the post; if you do not hear from me, know that I am sincerely appreciative, and I thank you for noticing what I do.

. . .  my FP ward  . . . chieken shit.

Finally, if you interpret anything on this blog as me asking or wanting pity, sympathy, or complaining about my life, or asking for help and advice, know you’re  likely missing my subtle mix of irony, sarcasm, and humor.

About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
This entry was posted in Project 313 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Project 313 – Post No. 026

  1. There is no such thing as free will, our lives are all predetermined!


    • disperser says:

      I knew you’d say that . . . But those are two different premises. One speaks to inevitability, the other of predictability.

      . . . I was inevitable I would say that, but I wasn’t destined to.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew, in a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, every event that ever happens is always causally necessary/inevitable. However, nothing is causally predetermined. No event is caused until the last necessary prior cause has played out.

      One might “predict” the future (predetermine as in “know it in advance”) but one cannot “pre-cause” the future (predetermine as in “already cause” it to happen).

      Free will still operates in a perfectly deterministic world. If your choice is inevitable, then it will also be true that it was inevitable that you would be faced with a decision, and it was inevitable that you would consider your options in terms of your own interests, and it was inevitable that one of those options served your interests better than the others, and therefore you chose it.

      And if you made the choice of your own free will, then it will have been causally inevitable that there was no one there holding a gun to your head and telling you what to choose, and causally inevitable that you were not subject to any other undue influence, such as hypnosis, or mental illness, or delusions, etc.

      So, it will either be the case that it was causally inevitable that you would make the choice of your own free will, or it would have been causally inevitable that you would be subject to coercion or undue influence.

      Causal inevitability does not imply the lack of free will. We still require the concept of free will to distinguish between the causes that are incorporated within a normal you, versus the causes that are external to a normal you.

      And these are not matters of illusion, but of empirical observations and how to classify the causes of different events. (By the way, “causal inevitability” never causes anything. It is about how we and everything else operates, but it is not a “thing” itself that is capable of performing any causal operations).


      • Thanks for clearing that up!


      • disperser says:

        Marvin, you’re again choosing specific interpretations of the relevant terms.

        I suggest a bit of reading of the concept of free will extending beyond whether we can choose and do so without being coerced.

        The simple example is that you could have chosen not to comment, but you did . . . the problem is that you cannot explain “why” until after the decision is made.

        That’s rationalization, not free will.

        If interested, I suggest looking into Sam Harris and his writings on the matter.


        • Reading philosophy books in the public library as a teenager is how I ran into the problem. I don’t recall specifically where I got this solution from, but it happened something like this:

          I was a teenager in the public library, reading about the determinism “versus” free will paradox. The idea that everything I did was inevitable bothered me, until I ran across this thought experiment:

          Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

          No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

          Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?


        • disperser says:

          Well, the short answer is we don’t know.

          Now, you claim to know, but that’s your understanding and as much as you may be at peace with it, the argument you offer up is neither new nor “an answer” or “solution” to the discussion of free will and consciousness. I mean, it obviously is an answer for you, but that requires you to dismiss counterarguments as “silly” which you’ve now done a couple of times.

          They may seem silly on a practical level but not if you actually want to discuss the various layers and implications associated with the issue of free will.

          What’s strange to me is that you seem to accept the causation and deterministic argument all the way up to the instance where we are required to make a decision, at which time you say the model fails and we somehow take the reigns and act as free agents. Of course, you narrow the definition to where that’s true insomuch as no one is overtly forcing us toward a particular choice, but, again, at issue is not just that narrow definition of free will. It’s that we cannot explain even where our thought processes come from.

          For instance, I’m writing this on the fly and I have no clue what I will write next until I actually do it. I then look back at what I’ve written and say something like “yeah, that’s what I wanted to say”. Occasionally, I add something like “well, that’s bloody brilliant!”

          Not that I agree with everything he says, but:

          Here’s a defense of his arguments:

          Now, you can easily find videos countering these arguments, but I want you to pay attention to both your objections and the arguments presented “for” free will. Many reduce to no more than wishful thinking (often based on religious beliefs).

          There are many, many more, videos, and while I could keep debating the issue here, until you actually address the broader interpretation as opposed to the narrow definition with the predetermined conclusion, I’m not inclined to continue this conversation.

          For one, you’ve already expressed your argument twice, and you’ve failed to convince me, and for another, there are far better and more encompassing discussions online that anything that you and I might engage in.

          Thanks for commenting.


  2. Intelligent and interesting thoughts/discussion on free will! Thank you! You give me food for thought!

    I’ve tried to charge ($$) for my will, but so far no one has been willing to pay me what I think it’s worth!

    Now I’m thinking about those people I’ve met who think they can control everything exactly the way they want it to be, even controlling other people. I laugh and tell them, “I don’t understand that, because I can’t even control myself most of the time!” (HA! winky face!)

    PHOTO: Eek! I’ve been mooned! (Cool photo!)
    CARTOON: HA! That’s funny! I think Willy does a great job naming his artwork! So do you, Emilio! I always laugh at those famous old artists who stated the obvious in their paintings…”Man in Blue Jeans” (painting of a man wearing blue jeans) “Woman Sitting on Blanket” (a painting of a woman sitting on a blanket). HA! I always thought, “They are such creative artists, why can’t they come up with more creative titles!” You know, like, the painting of the man wearing only blue jeans…the title should be: “My Tux is at the Cleaners.” Ha!
    DOODLE: OOH! You melt in bright, beautiful technicolor and not in B&W! YAY!

    HUGS!!! :-)


  3. robert87004 says:

    So – am I free to leave a comment or simply think I’m free to do so and more importantly, if our food is 99+% empty space why does peanut butter have so many calories/unit measure? Then repulsion of matter must factor in gravity which might be attraction of matter or is that something entirely different?

    It’s all so confusing. Maybe it’s all magic and we are fooling ourselves?


    • disperser says:

      It’s all a simulation. We’re actually figments of someone’s imagination. We could also be having an elaborate shared dream.

      . . . but, calories is nothing more than us harnessing the energy holding molecular bonds together. That’s why you don’t gain as much weight if you swallow your food whole.

      Of course, passing a watermelon might be a bit painful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. macquie says:

    Nice melting!


  5. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we “will” do/choose, when “free” of coercion or other undue influence. It is literally “a freely chosen will”.

    Reliable cause and effect (determinism) poses no threat to free will, because it is neither coercive nor undue. It happens to be how we, and everything else, operates. What we will inevitably do is what we would have done anyway. Causal necessity/inevitability is neither an object nor a force. It is a comment, a description, but it is in no way an “actor” in the real world.

    We are physical objects, that happened to be organized internally as biological organisms, animated to seek what we need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. We are also an intelligent species. We’ve evolved a neurology capable of imagining alternatives, estimating how each option is likely to turn out if chosen, and choosing the one that best suits our own interests.


    • disperser says:

      Hmmm . . . you’re playing a bit fast and loose with the term. Free Will encompasses both more and something different to what you define.

      It is, of course, everyone’s prerogative to define terms they use, but it limits the discussion if everyone chooses (freely or not) a definition specific to helping them make their point.

      Determinism by definition (not yours, apparently) is a blow against free will. Some people play a slight of hand admitting to the logic and science of determinism but them saying it doesn’t apply to real life.

      Where we seem to agree (somewhat) is that it doesn’t matter since regardless of the underlying mechanism, we think and proceed and arrange our lives as if we have free will. Even fans of determinism struggle with offering up an alternative and only suggest tweaks, usually relating to social issues.


      • I am actually using the definition of free will that is commonly understood and has operational meaning, “freedom from coercion or other undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, etc.)”.

        The definition that you are using, “freedom from reliable cause and effect”, is an oxymoron, because without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all. So, I’m not falling for that bit of nonsense. Every freedom we have requires a deterministic universe, a universe of reliable cause and effect.

        The concepts of “free” and “freedom” are meaningless until you reference some meaningful or relevant constraint. As in, “the bird was set free (from its cage)”, “the slave was set free (from his master)”, “the bank is offering a free toaster if you open an account (free of charge)”, “in America we are guaranteed freedom of speech (free from political censorship)”, and so on.

        So, what is it that we expect our will to be free of? The answer cannot be “free from reliable causation”, because without reliable cause and effect we could never implement any intent. So, logically, we must discard that definition as meaningless nonsense.

        And that leaves us with the commonly understood definition of free will (the one that appears first in most dictionaries), which is simply deciding for ourselves what we will do, or what we will choose, when free of coercion or other undue influence.

        As to determinism, determinism asserts that all events occur through reliable cause and effect. This faith gives us hope that we might discover the causes of things like diseases, that affect our lives, and once we have this knowledge, we can avoid, predict, or control these events.

        But reliable cause and effect also imply that every event that occurs is also “causally necessary” or “causally inevitable”. This is a logical fact. But not a meaningful or relevant one. Something that is always true all the time in all circumstances and in all events makes itself meaningless by its own ubiquity.

        The rational mind does the only thing we can do with such a fact. It acknowledges it. And then it ignores it. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

        The irrational mind, on the other hand, can draw any number of ridiculous implications from such a triviality. And it did. And that’s why Einstein sounded so stupid when he said that, as a determinist he could not believe in free will, but was nonetheless compelled to act as if he and everyone else had it.


      • disperser says:

        Again, you are defining free will to suit your argument even as you admit to the causal nature of things. However, that too is a simplistic view of the reality that surrounds us.

        There’s a circular logic to what you say that presumes the “inevitable” conclusion. That’s not how we arrive at answers/solutions to things. We can certainly formulate a hypothesis and then test its predictive ability (the scientific method) but that only works if we examine all the counter-arguments.

        You’re basically using the same argument many religious people use, to wit: I cannot conceive a world without god and hence, everywhere I look, I see the hand of god. Another way to state it is: since there is a god and it created everything, everywhere I look I see evidence of its works.
        The most dishonest is: it’s not logical to think there is no god, so I will dismiss that argument out of hand as being silly.

        Note that none of that advances the pursuit of knowledge and understanding; it merely solidifies a comfortable belief system by refusing to examine its validity.

        This approach to the issue of free will doesn’t offer up any explanation for what we now know about the way the brain works. You should do some reading on experiments involving consciousness (surely you agree that is a large and crucial component of free will) and specifically, experiments with split-brain patients. There’s also a large body of work correlating decision making with imaging of the brain that conclusively shows the “decision” occurring before the person is aware of it.

        Your model has no explanation for any of this because you begin with the assumption that isn’t possible. The problem is that not only is it possible, but documented.

        So, that leaves us with the practical approach (what we think we experience) as a comfortable and recognizable understanding of “the way things work.”

        In that respect, as I said, I agree. I’ll go on in my comfortable albeit mysterious modus operandi because an alternative is not offered. However, that doesn’t qualify as an explanation for how the brain works, how we make decisions, and most important, the nature of consciousness.

        Mind you, it’s a great approach because it lets us go on until such a time when we might learn more.


        • The two neuroscientists I’ve read are Michael Graziano (“Consciousness and the Social Brain”) and Michael Gazzaniga (“Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”). Both are great books, informative and easy to read. And both assert that the brain’s processing involves both top-down as well as bottom-up processing.

          Neuroscience can enlighten us as to how our mental processes play out in the many specialty areas of the brain, and that conscious awareness is one of many distinct functions performed by the brain. We are not consciously aware of everything that happens as it happens.

          But, while neuroscience will continue to enlighten us as to HOW we work, it is unlikely to suggest that it is something other than our own brain that is doing this work. So, it is reasonable to expect that neuroscience will never tell us that choosing is not happening, or that choosing is happening in some other location outside of “that which is us”.

          Nor can the logical fact of causal inevitability challenge the empirical fact that it is “that which is us” that is doing the choosing. The mental error that everyone makes is when they picture “causal inevitability” as something external to us that is actually doing the choosing, rather than us. But there is no such object and no such force as “causal inevitability”. It is not an actor in the real world.

          But we are. We are physical objects, that happen to be organized into living organisms, which have evolved a neurological system capable of imagination, evaluation, and choosing. We can actually cause stuff to happen. But causal inevitability never causes anything. It just describes how we work.

          And the bit of enlightenment I picked up as a teenager in the public library. And I was astounded that so many people still could not see today what became obvious to me back then.


        • disperser says:

          I don’t even know were to begin . . . perhaps the first thing you should consider that if something seems obvious but so many people fail to see it, then perhaps it’s not obvious to begin with.

          Look, I’ll try and summarize it one more time, but I really must insist that you at least properly formulate the position you’re arguing against.

          Most people arguing the position against free will are not arguing from a position that there’s something outside ourselves. For many, it’s quite the opposite. The argument against free will is essentially an argument about who we are, how we operate, and especially how the brain works. It’s an argument that consciousness itself may be an illusion. As an aside, it challenges the tenets and beliefs of most religions.

          Graziano’s AST performs a bit of sleight of hand and while it may eventually be useful in the development of “functionally thinking” machines, I don’t see it explaining “why” we think. At best, it tackles “how” and then only at the actionable level, meaning, the empirical aspect of what we do as supposedly conscious and thinking beings.

          You can read what some characterize as flaws in AST’s ability to explain consciousness here:

          The person who answers this question on Quora may also be of interest as he’s written a lot of opinions (not all I agree with):

          One thing I’ve read is that there are as many theories about awareness, consciousness, and free will as there are people on the planet because we all interpret our own reality. Hence why I caution your certainty that you — or anyone — has worked things out. At best, you have an untestable theory that satisfies your curiosity but that many, many people will find factually and logically faulty for precisely for the same reason I do.

          You mention Gazzaniga but he argues there is no free will and we should just accept that and move on. It’s a bit odd because it gets to the problem of intent and how we deal with responsibility.

          For instance, a bear might attack and kill a person, but that’s just what bears do. There is no intent in the form that the bear discerned the identity of the individual or was even aware of the thing it killed as an individual. To the bear, it was just meat. So, there’s no use putting a bear on trial. On the other hand, we can make an argument for putting a person who kills someone on trial, but without free will, the argument then becomes not one of intent or culpability, but rather social cohesion and retributive justice for the sake of the community.

          If I’m reading him correctly, he argues for working our practical measures of responsibility based on results as opposed to intent. I’m not sure how that would work because people attribute intent and hold grudges in large part based on an emotional response (emotions, as they relate to free will, are a whole other can of worms).

          So, again and for the last time, you can keep repeating the same thing, but please understand that I see your reasoning and explanation as overly simplistic and narrow when it comes to the subject of free will, awareness, and consciousness. You are addressing a functional aspect as if it explains the broader question. It just doesn’t, at least not for me.

          If you find solace in your view and you are satisfied you have everything explained, great for you, but you are a long way from satisfying my many and varied questions on the subject. Questions which, by the way and by all accounts I can find, we’ve still not answered and looks like we are no closer to answering than the philosophers from a thousand years ago.

          Also, understand that none of this keeps me up at night worrying as to whether I do or don’t have free will. At least for the present, the subject is an intellectual curiosity and no more.

          All I can say for certain is that this curiosity shouldn’t keep us from navigating through life as best we can and be mindful of others are trying to do the same.


        • I make no claim to explain everything. I only claim to have resolved the paradox at the center.

          If you define determinism as “the absence of free will”, or, if you define free will as “the absence of determinism”, then you will never find the two concepts compatible.

          But if you define determinism as the belief in perfectly reliable cause and effect, and you define free will as deciding for yourself what you will do, when free of coercion or undue influence, then the conflict disappears.

          (A) if I make a choice according to my own purpose and my own reasons, then it is authentically free will.
          (B) if I make a choice according to my own purpose and my own reasons, then it is also deterministically caused.

          It is as simple as that.


        • disperser says:

          I have a question . . . have you watched any of the videos I linked?

          I ask because this paragraph:
          “But if you define determinism as the belief in perfectly reliable cause and effect, and you define free will as deciding for yourself what you will do, when free of coercion or undue influence, then the conflict disappears.”

          . . . tells me that you haven’t or missed their premise.

          Your paragraph says, and I’m paraphrasing:
          there is determinism in the form of reliable cause and effect . . . but because no one is holding a gun to my head, I’m free to make the inevitable choice dictated by determinism. Since determinism is not an entity per se, then my decision, while I can’t help but make it, is technically my own.

          But, that’s not solving the paradox. That’s redefining it so that there’s no paradox.

          Good for you, but the original question remains . . . do we have an actual choice when it comes to our actions (or even our thoughts; especially our thoughts) or do we only think we do (illusionary free will). Could we actually act differently than everything we know and all there is would seemingly dictate? If not, then we have no free will.

          You choose to call that inevitability “free will” but naming it thus doesn’t make it so any more than me saying an apple is actually chocolate makes that factual.

          As an aside, consciousness itself might be an illusion; a convenient shortcut for the brain to maintain the body.

          I am now done. You keep explaining the same thing as if I don’t get what you’re saying. I get that it’s predetermined that you would assume I must be dense, but I can assure you it’s actually predetermined that I not only understand what you are saying but also that I don’t find it convincing.

          Paradoxically, I have no choice in that evaluation as my brain will not let me accept things that don’t make sense to it. See? The absence of free will is proven.

          It’s also proven by you because — apparently — no matter the strength of the argument I provide, your brain will not entertain ideas contrary to what you believe. See? The absence of free will is proven, yet again.


        • Since we both seem to agree that it is a matter of “what we call things”, my question to you would be: Why do you choose to define free will in such a way that it is impossible? Why not use the definition that allows it to be compatible with reliable cause and effect?

          Ordinary people understand, and correctly apply, the pragmatic definition every day. It is also the definition used in questions of moral and legal responsibility. (For folk intuitions, see

          As to your video recommendations, I’ve seen some, and you’ll even find my comments on several of them. I’ve also read Sam Harris’s “Free Will”, and taken Dr. Richard Carrier’s on-line class on the subject.

          According to a study a few years back, most modern philosophers are compatibilists, like me.

          So, I ask you again why would choose to define free will as “freedom from reliable cause and effect”, rather than “freedom from coercion or other undue influence”?

          And by what criteria would you test either definition to prove it to be true or false?

          By the way, you can’t. Definitions are not proven. They are adopted and put into operation. The issue is which definition provides meaningful and relevant information that can be used in practical matters.


        • disperser says:

          I am not defining it in such a way that’s impossible. I’m defining it in such as way that we don’t know or understand but that we can observe. Meaning, we have data I choose not to ignore and the question is why some people want to ignore it. Data is not knowledge, but any knowledge that is claimed must be able to explain the data.

          So, for instance, if we speak of questions of legal (and to some extent, moral) considerations, we’re speaking about a different realm and one for which I have no objections . . . except that IF there are indications we are wrong about compulsions, cause and effect, and what we “know” about free will, there’s a chance the very laws we operate under are unjust. As a practical matter, I’m saying that while we don’t know, we’re not about to change laws or the way society has established the development of codes of laws and implementation of their enforcement.

          HOWEVER, and this is a big HOWEVER, you agree, in fact, insist, that all of it it’s just a matter of definition. We decide something means this and then implement rules and regulations based on that decision. But, we have evidence that it’s not universal. Laws are derived, applied, and enforced in different cultures in different ways based on all manners of environmental, evolutionary, and societal pressures that may or may not conform across populations and even epochs.

          The simplistic example is religion . . . on the surface, we are all free to choose what to believe in, but in practical application, your religion is mostly based on where you were born. In fact, you are not given the choice as to what to believe. But, ask any believers and they will swear up and down and sideways that it is their choice and it’s freely made (not all, of course).

          So, to answer your question, on a practical level, I have to accept the status quo precisely because I don’t know any better. But, if new information arises bringing into question what we “know” I have an intellectual duty to pursue that avenue of research and let it take me where that knowledge leads me. The fact that I can’t provide a ready answer doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist; it just means we don’t know (yet) what it is.

          Again, saying “let’s get rid of the questions and problems by redefining them” seems lazy and somewhat self-serving.

          Also, you admit you can’t test even your criteria, but you want me to agree to it not so much for my comfort and peace of mind, but yours. If that’s the case, where’s my free will?

          The basic question you ask I’ll throw back at you . . . is it intellectually honest to frame a question in such a way that the answer is “obvious”? Why would you want to do that?

          And if the justification is “most modern philosophers are compatibilists” then you’re just appealing to numbers and an authority that has shifted in its opinion in the past and will likely do so again. Plus, you know, when I hear that it’s equivalent to hearing people prefer pasta with marinara sauce at which point I would say numbers don’t make right and they are wrong; the only way to eat and enjoy pasta is to serve it lightly buttered and salted. If people want me to conform just because it makes them feel justified with their belief, then they don’t know me very well. Also, I eat and like Spam.

          And with that, can we agree that we at least understand each other position and that neither is likely to convince the other. For one, we’re somewhat talking past each other because in terms of how we should (at this point) construct society, we have no disagreement.


        • My concern is the attack upon all moral notions that results from the assumption that no one has any control over what they do.

          There is a “no-free-will” exception to personal responsibility. And it is supposed to be just that, an exception, to cover cases like when the Tsarnaev brothers, after bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013, hijacked a car, and forced the driver at gun point to assist them in getting to New York, where they planned to set off their remaining homemade explosives.

          The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the terrorists, because he was not acting of his own free will. And that is how it should be.

          But with your definition, it is no longer just an exception, but would apply to everyone, including the Tsarnaev brothers, who deliberately chose to inflict that harm upon others.

          Studies suggest that when people are told they have no free will, they behave badly. Dr. Eddy Nahmias reports on several of these here:

          Click to access Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf

          I’ve run into a lot of “free will skeptics” making statements that are basically fatalistic, and that I believe are unhealthy. The assertions that we are just “puppets” or “meat robots” and that something external to us is pulling the strings, seems to me to undermine self-confidence and initiative, and undermines rehabilitation for those who are trying to make changes in their lives.

          It is not “just semantics”. Semantics is about meaning. And that’s why getting our definitions correct is important.


  6. disperser says:

    For them who want to explore a small side-issue with some of the things discussed above, this video might be of interest. I like the end result . . . if you really want to learn stuff, make it difficult. Of course, these days and for many people, that won’t work because they are not so much interested in learning anything but rather confirming what they already know . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  7. disperser says:

    Marvin, I’m responding to your last comment here because the nesting of comments annoys me somewhat as the long and narrow comments are more difficult to read.

    I can’t begin to tell you how much this statement of yours bothers me:
    “My concern is the attack upon all moral notions that results from the assumption that no one has any control over what they do.”

    For one, it tells me you are not debating the issue from a neutral position, but rather with a measure of self-interest in the outcome and as such you presuppose an answer for the central issue. That alone would make me invalidate all your arguments. But, for another, the reason you’re doing that is a huge problem for me . . . namely, you fear the loss of free will results in chaos as we lose our supposed ability to distribute retributive justice when people behave badly or commit crimes. There’s also the hint that without our current understanding of free will humans will turn into entities no better than animals.

    Have I heard something like this before? Why, yes! I’m told that if there is no god, where, oh where would we get our morals from? Humans would regress into murderous, cheating, lying individuals who would take the opportunity of “no consequence” and “no responsibility” to commit all sorts of evil.

    If you cannot see the fallacy in those statements, then I’m not sure there’s any point to our conversation.

    Again, this sentence “I’ve run into a lot of “free will skeptics” making statements that are basically fatalistic, and that I believe are unhealthy” underlies a dishonesty in how you approach the argument.

    As a reminder, the argument or premise or investigative reasoning is whether we have free will as we understand it and tied to that are related questions about consciousness and self-awareness.

    BUT, what you seem to focus on is no different than those made by the so-called “free will skeptics” you cite. You are focusing on what might be the consequence of such a belief if it is proven or demonstrated. But, you go one step further . . . you assume it will be bad. By the way, those skeptics you cite are not any I’ve heard or read. They certainly don’t imply a loss of responsibility. At best, they call for a rethinking of how we approach behavior that falls outside the societal accepted norm. That is a whole other discussion.

    What you told me with that comment is that you’re defending the notion of free will not on its merit but because of possible consequences if that notion is dispelled or modified.

    Let me state what should be obvious; these are the questions: 1) is there such a thing as free will as we understand it today? 2) if not, what is the nature of what we call free will? 3) what should we do when we find out the answer to items #1 and #2?

    I’m strictly discussing #1 since we don’t know enough about #2 as of yet. You seem to be discussing #1 based on an assumption about #3.

    I’ve read the paper you link, and great, it’s making your argument. But, again, it comes from a dishonest place. It’s also doing something that makes me lose respect for the writer . . . it groups people under labels that assume a universality of thought and belief that’s just not true or even realistic to assume of even two humans, let alone large groups. It then oversimplifies the characteristics of those groups in a self-serving manner to bolster their conclusions. And then, it commits the greatest error of all . . . count up how many times the word “may” occurs in the paper.

    I’ll save you the time . . . 24 times. This is an opinion paper based on sketchy ideas and assumptions that are not universally shared. I might not go as far as saying “worthless” relative to our current discussion, but nearly so because it doesn’t speak to the central issue but rather on an extrapolated significance of the findings even before we have a complete picture of what the findings mean.

    The fact is, we don’t know what kind of agency a person has or where it comes from. That’s what we’re trying to find out. What humanity will do with that information is a whole different kettle of fish.

    It’s also useless to discuss until we understand more about what we are and how we function. I get you’re afraid of what we might find out but fear is not a basis for an argument.

    Now, if you want to discuss how things might be adjusted, modified, improved once we know more, then, by all means, let’s jump from #1 to #3, but we still then have to make some assumptions about the answer to #2.


    • Then let me answer your questions:
      1) There is clearly free will as I, and most other people, understand it today. But there is no free will as you, and other incompatibilists understand it.

      Here’s how I understand free will:

      (a) A mother and her toddler son are having a picnic lunch. The child sees the cake set out for desert, and he immediately reaches for it. The mother says, “No! You must eat your carrots first.” The boy, reluctantly, eats the carrots, but not of his own free will.

      (b) A professor, let’s call him professor Libet, wants to conduct psychological tests using his students as subjects. He tells them that participation is required, and will count as 50% of their final grade. Some students participate of their own free will, but others only participate because they are forced to, if they want to pass the course.

      (c) Two brothers wish to make a name for themselves by committing a terrorist act in the name of their religion. They build lots of homemade bombs. They set off two large explosions at the Boston Marathon, and then slip away with their remaining bombs, which they plan to set off in New York. To avoid detection, they hijack a car from a Chinese exchange student, and force him, at gunpoint, to assist them in getting to N.Y. The two brothers are acting of their own free will, but the exchange student is being forced to act against his will.

      (d) A young man is having paranoid/schizophrenic hallucinations, and believes his father is trying to kill him, so he takes a knife and stabs his father repeatedly. Because he was unduly influenced by his mental illness, such that he was unable to form a rational will, he is treated in a mental hospital rather than being sent to prison.

      Questions for you:
      1) Are you able to recognize these as cases involving the question of free will?
      2) Can you supply any similarly practical examples of how your own definition of free will would operate in these, or, in any other specific scenarios?


    • disperser says:

      I hope you are not seriously asking these questions as a way to bolster your argument which is not really an argument since you’re still narrowly defining free will.

      Assuming, however, you think this is what the discussion is about, let me answer thus:

      a) the toddler is acting of his own free will because he understands the consequences of disobeying (this is what essentially you’ve been arguing all along, that cause and effect lead us to make the “right decision”).

      b) Sounds to me as still free will. No one is forcing these people to participate. In fact, no one forced them to take the course that includes this as part of the study plan. They could choose to drop the class, for instance.

      c) all three are acting — per your definition of free will — as free will agents unless you want to maintain all of them had no choice in what they did. After all, per the determinism rules you put down, the situation arrives and then each is free to choose their course of action. You might be inclined to change your position in the case of the third person but that’s hypocritical, isn’t it? I mean, that would mean that the person had absolutely no choice in the matter which is obviously not the case. He could have chosen to die.

      Before I get to d) I will point out that all of those examples speak nothing as to the process itself of arriving at the decision and the evaluation you ask me to make is based on outside observation and an assessment made based on — drum roll — consequences.

      And, that’s fine. But, that is a social and ethical construct by which some of us live our lives. The toddler could just have been in an environment and social interpersonal construct where his rights carried more weight than in the one you describe. Meaning, just like the other examples you give, the described event is subject to the current way we understand the relation to play out based on established rules. You create a situation under rules you make up that will give the answer you desire.

      Now, d) is an interesting case because it points out my exact argument.

      Namely, someone has to make the determination as to what would be “normal” behavior and that determination is made entirely based on established and accepted patterns of behavior. But that “normal” behavior has no inherent authority other than being an accepted and agreed-upon way of behaving within the community.

      You also seem to tie all these examples to the application of justice in the form of punishment.

      Let me give you a different example. The daughter of a devout man gets raped thus — under the constructs of the society he lives in — he feels bound to kill her so as to restore the honor of his family. One of his sons helps him. Neither wants to kill the woman and they love her very much but they go ahead with the deed. When they do this, rather than being punished by the community, their honor and stature are restored.

      Did they act of their own free will? Or were they all bound by the circumstances they found themselves in? Did their societal norms pressure them into doing that action as much as the two brothers forced the other person to drive them?

      I ask because if we transplant that family into a different society, while their decision process is the same, the results are much different. The consequences are not restoring their stature in the society, but rather going to jail for murder. Their decision didn’t change, their process didn’t change, their cultural pressures are still the same, but the consequences changed based on an arbitrary set of societal rules.

      Look, at the base of this argument of free will is a desire to understand the mechanism by which we arrive at being who we are and doing what we do. Within that comes the realization that a lot of what we call free will is counterintuitive and fails in many cases.

      You speak of the paranoid/schizophrenic but the same thing can happen because of low blood sugar or even dehydration and any other number of chemical imbalances that may or may not be the result of a person’s choices. In fact, they might not even be known to the surrounding witnesses.

      So, where is the line you draw where a person’s actions are completely due to their own application of free will as opposed to something that is essentially out of their conscious control? Can we explain the wide range of human behavior by free will when we have examples where we clearly understand free will played little to no role in someone’s actions? Again, how do we draw the distinction between complete free will, partial free will, and no free will when we don’t understand how the brain works with relation to self-identity, consciousness, and making actionable decisions?

      And when you state where that line is, can you find universal agreement? Or, for that matter, how do you come to that line with any kind of certainty? How do you hold to that line in the face of changing data and new information?

      And that’s the crux of my argument . . . as of right now, you can no better explain the process of your decision-making than the paranoid/schizophrenic person. Sure, we make a judgment about what we should do in response to someone’s actions (if normal, let them be, if not, some form of punitive justice or medical treatment) but underlying that judgment is not an understanding of “why” a person did what they did, but rather what does it mean to the society they live in.

      That’s why we’re still going around and around this whole subject and that’s what the discussion about free will entails . . . not the consequences of a given decision, but the mechanism used to arrive at that decision.

      The consequences of a decision is an entirely different matter that depends less on our understanding of the decision engine and the mechanism that drives it and more on what is beneficial to the group/community/society. Oddly enough, in this, I agree with you with the only difference being that I think we should seek to expand our understanding of the process so that we can make better rules for behavior and align consequences to push individuals toward improving behavior that benefits the group.

      You choose to use the consequence as a means of defining intent, and in that, I think you are not just wrong, but perhaps purposefully dishonest in limiting the full scope of available information and exclude anything that doesn’t satisfy your conclusion.

      Then again, I don’t think you have a choice in the matter. Think about the irony of this . . . if you could freely decide that we have no free will it would be strong evidence in support of free will. Crazy, no?


      • I’m going to keep this terse, just to cover everything you’ve thrown into the mix:

        The quiz:

        The toddler did not have free will because he did not get to choose for himself what he would eat. He was subject to the authoritative command of his mother, who made his choices for him.

        In the same fashion, the students who did not wish to participate in the study were coerced by the the professor’s threat to flunk them if they did not do his will in place of their own.

        The terrorists deliberately chose to injure and kill the people at the Boston Marathon. They “freely chose what they will do”. The driver was forced at gunpoint to assist their escape, against his will. His will was subjugate to theirs, and thus, not free. (Rational moral calculation results in temporarily surrendering freedom rather than permanently surrendering life).

        The psychotic individual was unable to form a rational will, because he lacked access to knowledge of what was really happening.

        Other Matters You Brought Up

        Penalty: Operationally, justice seeks to protect and optimize rights. Thus, a just penalty naturally would seek to (a) repair the harm done to the victim if possible, (b) correct the behavior of the offender, (c) protect others from damage by the offender until the behavior is corrected, and (d) do no more harm to the person and rights of the offender than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

        Objective Morality: Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. That is the only goal that can command universal agreement. To the degree that benefits and harms can be objectively measured, moral judgment can also be objective.

        Rights/Rules: All practical rights arise by agreement. We agree to protect and respect certain rights for each other. Criminal laws define behavior which violates these rights. Ethics seeks the best set of rules, that is, the set that accomplishes the best good and least harm for everyone.

        Conscience: Moral conviction motivates people to confront evils within their society, to resist pressures to conform, to speak truth to power, and sometimes to sacrifice their own freedom for the greater good.

        Motivation: All social sciences, like psychology, sociology, economics, criminology, etc., study in their own way the variety of good and bad influences that affect people’s choices. They’ve done this forever, without any need to challenge free will. They study, understand, and recognize the specific causes of specific social effects. And that is useful knowledge.

        Brain Science: Neuroscience studies how the brain works. But it has never asserted that it is anything other than the brain that is doing the work.

        Useless Knowledge: The logical fact of universal causal inevitability is not a meaningful or relevant fact. Everything that ever happens is always causally inevitable. So what?


      • disperser says:

        Great. I’ll leave it at that.


Voice your opinion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.