I know this has been discussed before, but I have read Sam Harris' book Free Will and Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and I must say that I agree with both authors. Studies show that our brains make a decision on an unconscious level three tenths of a second and sometimes more before we even consciously know we're going to act. To take a short quote from Shermer's book: "The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act".

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Constraint means that there is something keeping you from doing what you want to do. 

No, you can be constrained in what you will want, you can be constrained in the action you take even if it was what you want, and so on.

If you think determinism implies no free will, you need to show some constraint on people's will. 

The constraint is regarding the will itself being constrained by causal factors that produce it (a very specific "will" that can't be otherwise). We don't will what we will.

Suppose you put a fence around a tree.  Is the tree constrained by the fence? 


Only if the fence is preventing the tree from growing in some direction. The tree, however, is constrained by it's own physical factors (which output it's height, width, etc)

Similarly, in what way does determinism prevent us from doing what we want to do? 

I don't think anyone is making the claim that it prevents someone from doing what they "want to do", it simply says that what you "want to do" is constrained by events that ultimately stem outside of your control.

No, you can be constrained in what you will want, you can be constrained in the action you take even if it was what you want, and so on.

Then, you are using an exotic definition of freedom.  It's not freedom as we normally understand it. 

Instead of "free will", you should call what you think doesn't exist, "transcendental will".  That would be more accurate.  I will call your concept of free will, "transcendental will". 

Calling transcendental will "free will" gives people the wrong impression, because the "freedom" involved is an exotic definition of freedom. 

I don't KNOW that transcendental will doesn't exist, just as I don't KNOW that God doesn't exist.  But I have no reason to believe that transcendental will exists. 

I don't think it's an exotic definition of freedom. It's just wrong to use it in the instance of the will - and hence the reason why the "will" itself is not "free"...it's "constrained" (there is no "free will").

Most people who think they have "free will" think they could have, of their own accord, done otherwise (that they had the freedom to choose those other options). So if we were able to rewind time to before they made a decision, they could have, of there own "free will" chosen differently. They would be "free" to choose otherwise.

Of course this ability is logical incoherent (rather than transcendental, which is different, because even transcendental will would be logically incoherent).


Freedom as normally conceived means not having impediments to what you want to do. 

Constraint is "the state of being checked, restricted, or compelled to avoid or perform some action". 

Someone is in handcuffs, therefore they are constrained not to scratch their back :)

Why do you think transcendental will is impossible?

Freedom as normally conceived means not having impediments to what you want to do. 

Even if we assume that definition of freedom, it simply means that saying the word "free will" or "freedom of the will" makes no sense, as the "will" itself has impediments. It's contained. 

That being said, I think the word "freedom" a problematic word itself. Imagine you have a chip in your brain being controlled by a scientist. The scientist remotely controls the chip in a way that adjusts your brain chemistry and sparks various neurons. In doing so, he's able to make you "want" to step out into the rain. You feel as if you "want" to do this, and in fact it cannot be argued that you don't want to do this.

Per your definition, that is "freedom". The person was just as "free" to step out in the rain as someone without a chip stepping out in the rain. Both feel they "want to" step out in the rain. Both decide to do so, and couldn't have done otherwise. Both were contained by causal factors to lead them to "want" to step out in the rain.

Yet most people who believe in free will would say that the person with the chip that caused them to "want" to step out in the rain did not have "free will", while the other did have "free will".

Why do you think transcendental will is impossible?

To clarify, if you are saying that transcendental will allows someone to, of their own accord, be able to do otherwise - that is what I'm saying is logically incoherent. It's not the fact that it transcends the physical, but rather that such transcends logic. ;-)

In my opinion, the laws of physics. Free will would entail that, somewhere in your brain, there exists particles that could produce force without being acted on. This goes against everything we know. Quantum physics doesn't help much either, as indeterminate particles cannot be determined by your will, obviously.

Someone once suggested that and I quote, 'Free will' can possibly be defined as the ability to consciously manipulate the laws of physics. We are physically constrained by them, but not our consciousness.

Of course there are other limitations, like the ones society and your life circumstances impose on you. Ultimately, it's always a question of the definition. But if you tweak the parameters so that we only consider choices that are actually possible, then someone might argue that this is somehow "free will."

I think of it in terms of potentiality. There is a potential for perhaps a myriad of outcomes within the laws of physics, perhaps the variables in any given situation can be extrapolated to infinity. Nevertheless, consciously we only consider the ones relative to our situation, and then act based on that. But this potential we draw from is what gives us the impression of free will. If determinism is the case, then despite the myriad of variables we entertain, ultimately one path will inevitably unfold. Now, how determined was this path? If you take the hard determinist point-of-view, then this path was entirely predetermined in that even all the variables you considered before taking an action were, too, predetermined despite how spontaneous you may have thought they were.

So, what does this mean for determinism or what Stephen Hawking refers to as "adequate determinism"? You could perform a quite ridiculous act of spontaneity as running outside in mid-sentence of reading this post, and bend over and chomp on some grass or skip to the kitchen and make yourself a banana and spinach sandwich, etc. All these examples could be "determined probabilities," but if it's merely probable that you'd choose one over the other, then would that leave any room for, if not total libertarian free will (whatever that means), then a compatibilism?

There is a potential for perhaps a myriad of outcomes within the laws of physics, perhaps the variables in any given situation can be extrapolated to infinity.

Cause X cannot be both the cause of Y and not the cause of Y (of Z instead). That would make cause X a self-contradictory cause.  In an entirely causal universe there is only one possibility (the others have no "potential"). This is regardless of the laws of physics - rather this is laws of logic (which we must extend outside of physics as well or all identity is lost and we simply can't address the topic with any coherence).

If there are acausal events (indeterminism) you have multiple "possibilities", but no acausal event can be a willed event, so it's equally as incompatible (and more detrimental if such has any effect on our thoughts).

Laters. :)

What I mean by potentiality is that the variables that are entertained in the mind, as long as they're within the laws of physics, they can become concrete. Of course, only one course of action will become actuality, but nevertheless one is able to entertain between a myriad of possible unfoldment.

So, consciousness is a dipstick into a field of infinite potential, but like I said, although there is an infinite potential, people only entertain a subset of these possibilities, not the entire infinite spectrum. Considering determinism, it could be that this entire process is determined, that every thought that passes through the stream of consciousness, every action that takes place is all causally linked together.

So, in saying potential, I'm not trying to imply that you could have acted otherwise. I'm speaking more towards a compatibilism. I'm not sure how to articulate it this, but I suppose one way to say it is that we entertain determined possibilities that truly have their basis in infinite potential that gives way to the appearance of spontaneity.

I'll try and give an analogy, because I realize that last sentence might come off as vague. Just for the sake of argument, I want to use 'predeterminism' instead of 'determinism' to avoid ambiguity. You have an infinite spectrum of colour. You can select one colour at a time, and this would be analogous to engaging into one act to another act moment to moment. Now, you have the infinite spectrum at your disposal, so it may seem as though you possess "free will," because you can access any given colour from this infinite spectrum at any time. However, despite that you have access to this infinite potential, the process in which you choose these colours is already predetermined. So, in one aspect, it looks as though you "freely choose" any colour at will, but the caveat is that every colour you choose is already predetermined.

So, as in the case of compatibilism, you have a "free will" in the sense that the spectrum from which you draw from to make a decision is infinite, and at the same time this decision was already determined on the basis of causality. Choosing spontaneously (free will) within the realm of causality (determinism). So, you have "free will" and "determinism" occurring simultaneously in the perspective of compatibilism. 

True, but the spectrum you draw from had to be that specific spectrum and what you draw from such had to be that specific option. The others were never viable.

In other words, if you think "I will draw a circle, square, or triangle" and you draw a circle, those options and the weighing of them causally had to come out the way it did. The weighing of the three options couldn't have causally led to you drawing a triangle or square.

Which I believe is what you are saying, but I wouldn't call it compatibilism if you couldn't have chosen otherwise (but again, compatibilists often use a different definition of free will - I just don't think such appropriate).

Yes, this is precisely what I'm getting at. You're right that we do not draw from the entire infinite spectrum, our consciousness is like a dipstick into a finite subset of this infinite spectrum, so I like your example of simplifying this to the circle, square, and triangle. Do you own a Playstation, by any chance? Although, I'd add that most people do not draw from the entire spectrum. I'd suspect that if it were possible, most human beings do not display that sort of genius. Maybe some extraterrestrials out there could do it, but that's a whole other thing to get into.

However, what I think compatibilism is saying is that in weighing out whether you're going to draw the circle, square, or triangle, the choice you finally arrive at is at once spontaneous and determined, and so the fact that you couldn't have chose otherwise is irrelevant in this case.

Are you familiar with eastern philosophy, the concept of the yin-yang? The yin-yang represents duality. In eastern philosophy, a duality is the most simple principle of the universe, but the point of the yin-yang is that these seemingly complete opposites, the black and the white, are implicitly a unity. They're united by the circle. In other words, for every duality, you have interconnecting opposites in that you cannot have one without the other. They arise mutually and this applies to every conceivable duality:

Hot and cold, light and dark, sound and silence, hard and soft, life and death, and yes, free will and determinism. I've posted this clip before on this thread, I believe, but I'll post it again, because I find the eastern view on the notion of "free will" very interesting: 

Non Dual mystery

Do you own a Playstation, by any chance? 

LOL...no but maybe I got the idea from the buttons. hehe ;-)

 the choice you finally arrive at is at once spontaneous and determined,

Spontaneous implies non-causal (which can't be willed). I'm not a big fan of the s word. ;)

Are you familiar with eastern philosophy, the concept of the yin-yang? 

I used to be greatly in to eastern philosophy (not so much any more as I prefer analytic philosophy), but I disagree with what the yin-yang represents and even did back then. I don't think everything has an opposite, and I certainly don't think there is any balancing act happening in the universe between opposites. I think even the notion of opposites is often flawed for many examples.

Thanks for the link to the vid, I'll give 'er a listen. 




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