Christopher Hitchens once averred that you don't.  Religionists claim that it is divinely endowed. Others claim that all are freelancers subject to subornation by others. Your thoughts?

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Dear Atheist Exile, I enjoyed your reply. It reminds me of a recurring theme in Humanism, our place in the universe as possibly the only self aware being. The entire universe is no more self aware than a grain of sand yet every person enjoys this ability. 

Diderot stated in the Encyclopedia "If one banishes from the face of the earth that thinking and contemplating being, man, then the sublime moving spectacle of nature will be but a sad and silent scene. The universe will be hushed; darkness and silence will fall upon it. Everything will be changed into a vast solitude where unobserved phenomena come to pass unseen and unheard."

This is a very persuasive restatement of your earlier thesis.  The one thing I would quibble about is the passing reference to essentially unconscious, automatic, habitual actions such as staying in your lane on the freeway when you are daydreaming.   They are quite different from consciously anticipating future events and choosing among alternative actions to attain your goals--such as taking the right exit.  That does not happen when you are daydreaming. Could I speculate that the actions of less intelligent animals are based on the same unconscious but aware state of mind that we have when we are daydreaming?

    @ Atheist Exile;

     "Self determinism means that, within the constraints of causality, we are the architects of our own lives and are thus accountable for our actions. To me, this is what it means to have free will."

This dovetails precisely with my view. The trouble is "free will" is such a multi-tiered concept and certain levels favour one side or the other in the debate. Circular reasoning will not work on linear concepts and the problem may be the attempt to build steps between the lines.

My whole point in initiating this discussion was from the atheist perspective of religion's attempt to quash individuals' self determinism through suppression of the accountability of the individual to any other but god. The god is there to rigidly and militantly guide a person's thoughts and actions.

This is what sparked the late, great Christopher Hitchens to quip, "Without religion you have no choice but to exercise free will." The master of irony thus spake.

It is also important in this vein to shoot down the supernatural concept of kismet or karma. Ultimately it is up to the individual to hew their own path, no matter how inspired or how misguided.

 I had no idea such a panel of thoughtful and intelligent people would form the discourse I've seen.

 Bravo one and all!

Two questions about the notions of free will, determinism, and predictability.

1. The argument in favor of determinism is that successive states of the individual brain must be determined by past states and by sensory input. However, we do not know the state of the brain at any particular time—it's far too complex—and thus we cannot trace the path from one state to another. That seems to make determinism nothing more than an assumption, a plausible inference from what we know, but far from a certainty. Is it reasonable to say that it is incompatible with free will in any definition of free will?

2. The investigation of cellular automata shows that simple fully determined systems can exhibit complex and unpredictable behavior as they pass through many iterations. This shows clearly that determinism does not imply predictability. The cellular automata are clearly well determined, but not predictable. There may be emergent properties of cellular automata that are impossible to describe in terms of their basic structure. Could that be the case with the brain? Is it possible that free will is simply a higher level emergent property of a very complex system?

I believe that free will is a prerequisite component of human intelligence in as much as it seems impossible to have human intelligence without free will. What is human intelligence? Can we have it without the ability to make choices? Not to my way of thinking.

The ability to make choices, to me, implies an ability to anticipate causality. We make decisions based on expectations and pursue plans to usher those decisions to fruition. Planning would not work if choices were ephemeral. Clearly, we plan all the time, so part of intelligence must include keeping track of choices relative to our plans. This means that, at many points along the way, our choices are reentrant or recursive; otherwise we could accomplish nothing.

This, to me, suggests that feedback is part of the causal stream of stimuli we're constantly responding to. After all, causality doesn't stop at the skull. If we interact with causality, then feedback has to be the mechanism by which we direct ourselves. Feedback informs our decisions.

This interactive mode of response to causality becomes easier to understand once you acknowledge that animate beings offer causality more potentials than can inanimate matter. With advanced intelligence, such as is found in humans, we virtually dance with causality. Innovation, invention, creativity . . . these all indicate that causality is a plaything to us.

Determinism doesn’t take reciprocal causation into consideration , , , and as long as you’re dealing with inanimate matter, that doesn’t matter. The mistake is treating living things like non-living things. The brain is more than a collection of atoms. Life, consciousness and intelligence are emergent phenomena. Why not free will?

If there is no free will at all, then the best we can do with people is to train them to behave the way we want. It no longer matters what they want, since in fact they truly cannot want in any real sense—what they seem to want is not their free choice but the result of how they have been conditioned. We have as much right to recondition them as we have to program a computer. And we could not be blamed for this since our desire to recondition them is only an apparent desire over which we have no control whatever. 

In brief, without free will there is no longer such things as courage, selflessness, kindless, compassion. We are all just the way we are and could never have been any different given the circumstances of our past. There is nothing to praise in human behavior and nothing to blame.

It seems to me that we sacrifice a great deal of human culture in adopting this idea that because of processes we cannnot observe we must assume that everything is determined.

If it gets to the point where we can observe and follow in detail the processes which take a brain from one state to another and correctly use that to predice all future states, then perhaps we must admit that we are automatons, but until then…

I completely agree, Dr. Clark.

I've found it curious that so many intelligent people are so quick to surrender their identity on the altar of ABSOLUTE determinism. There's a couple of quotes that sum these folk up for me . . .

  • “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
  • “Knowledge is a relatively safe addiction; that is, until it becomes idolatry.” ~Anonymous
  • “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~Albert Einstein

The Bergamin quote reminds us that certainty is a fool's game. Absolutism is the pretense of certainty.

The anonymous quote reminds us that what we think we know is subject to new paradigms.

The Einstein quote encapsulates hard determinism perfectly. By applying the linear causality of inanimate objects to animate beings — as if there's no difference between them — hard determinists are making things simpler than possible. Emergent phenomena is not possible without the feedback of reciprocal causation. Life, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will all require reciprocal causality.

We all live as if we have free will. Jurisprudence, competition, incentives, rewards . . . these all pay lip service to free will. We ponder our futures and evaluate our options for the best available opportunities that fit our priorities and abilities — then we set about to achieve them (hopefully, with success). There are constantly choices to be made. Free will (self-determinism) seems to be a fact of life.

The challenge is to explain it: NOT deny it.


Earlier, when I agreed that free will (self-determinism) is an emergent property of the brain, I didn't specify how that emergence occurs. And I really don't know for sure. But I think that emergence occurs in the feedback loop between our brains and the external world (causality).

Consciousness isn't all in the head. It's the interaction of 3 components: 

  1. The external world (causality — something to detect)
  2. Our sensory apparatus (to detect causality — a.k.a. stimuli)
  3. Our brain (to interpret stimuli)

 If we never had any one of these 3 components, we could never achieve consciousness. Note that all 3 components are centered on causality. We are evolved to detect, process, analyze, understand, anticipate and harness causality for our own purposes. THAT is self-determinism: the only form of free will we actually have.

What to do about the overwhelming majority who through a sincere belief in the validity of their metaphysics feel the need to baffle and control the self determinism as defined by you? ( a definition with which I concur)

I think that the concept of self-determinism, through reciprocal causation, needs to be put out there where people can become familiar with it. The emphasis should be on what can be achieved via linear causality in the inanimate realm versus what can be achieved via reciprocal causality in the animate realm.

The main thing to keep in mind is that even though linear causality surrounds us, that doesn't mean that we can't have reciprocal causality. We can. All it takes is feedback looping in with causality. That changes everything. That is what allows us to influence ourselves.

Linear causality still unfolds as it will . . . in fact it MUST. We can't anticipate causality if it doesn't unfold in a linear way. Intelligence and free will (self-determinism) depends on this predictability of linear causality. 

Thank you, Dr. Clark.  Your first paragraph encapsulates my objection to the denial of free will.  I am enraged by being treated in the way your describe.  It seems to me that if I did not have free will, I would not be enraged by being denied it and being manipulated by other people who assume I do not have it.

People, especially educated people, glom onto the linear causality of physics. It's simple and straight-forward. It seems as clear as can be. But that's a false impression stemming from the inanimate nature of physics. Physics deals with the inanimate realm, so it's not surprising that so many educated folk perceive the linear causality of physics to be the only kind there is. But they should be aware that many physicists recognize the distinctions between causality in the inanimate and animate realms.

In his famous and thought-provoking essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, Nobel Prize winner, Eugene Wigner mentioned the inanimate nature of physics 5 times:

  1. “The physicist is interested in discovering the laws of inanimate nature.”
  2. “However, the point which is most significant in the present context is that all these laws of nature contain, in even their remotest consequences, only a small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world.”
  3. “It should be mentioned, for the sake of accuracy, that we discovered about thirty years ago that even the conditional statements cannot be entirely precise: that the conditional statements are probability laws which enable us only to place intelligent bets on future properties of the inanimate world, based on the knowledge of the present state.”
  4. “It surely is not a “necessity of thought” and it should not be necessary, in order to prove this, to point to the fact that it applies only to a very small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world.”
  5. “A much more difficult and confusing situation would arise if we could, some day, establish a theory of the phenomena of consciousness, or of biology, which would be as coherent and convincing as our present theories of the inanimate world.”

Note, in particular, that last one (#5). The possibility of understanding the many phenomena of life is a far-off dream and far from assured compared to the progress we’ve already made in physics. Biology deals with animate, phenomenal, complex systems. Physics deals with inanimate, physical, matter/energy . . . not because of some arbitrary classification but because they are fundamentally divergent.

Without free will there is also no longer such things as: motive, reason, individuality, credit, blame, morality, altruism, empathy, preferences, invention, innovation, creativity, personality, responsibility or accountability.

Many atheists associate free will with religion -- and it was St. Augustine who popularized the notion of free will -- but, if you really think about it, hard determinism is more consistent with religion and an omniscient God. Without free will, we're just automatons acting out a script written at the moment of the Big Bang (i.e. the Prime Mover).

May the Force be with you.



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