If you see a difference, then please explain the difference between the ability to choose and free will.

I have noticed a tendency of many people to suggest that the ability to make a choice and the property or concept of free will are two different things.

I want to be clear: I am not implying that they are or are not. I am curious to understand how people view this. It seems that you could see:

A. No difference
B. A distinct difference
C. A distinction without a difference
D. Something else

I would love to see your explanation, no matter what your answer. I have no interest, in this context, in what any philosopher you can quote had to say. I am curious about your understanding and your ability to state it. 

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I agree about the religious dichotomy. It actually goes further - if a person can make a truly free choice - then god would neither be able to take credit for it nor foresee it. Yet he is said by the same people to be omnipotent and omniscient.

I think we may see a non-religious dichotomy, of a different sort, crop up here as well.
Again - I agree that extortion - your money or your life - is not a real choice. But religious dichotomies aside - I assume that you are saying that free will and the actual ability to make a choice are one and the same. Right?
I'm fascinated to see definition #2. I'm especially interested by the fact that it specifies humans to make choices not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.

So, anthropocentric, not theistic (in the 'master plan' sense), and not deterministic either.
Assuming that by 'free will' you mean contra-causal free will, then the difference is that choices, or decisions, are simply selection from one of many options, based on some criterion. For example, computers make decisions all the time, by choosing the IF path or the ELSE path in basic IF-THEN decision circuits. The criterion for choosing one path over the other is how the computer was programmed, and what inputs it has received.

In contrast, contra-causal free will is magically unrestricted by physical causation or determination. Such a being would be able to choose path A or path B without being caused to do so by conditions in the physical universe. Computers do not have contra-causal free will, but they can make decisions, or choices.
Actually, I asked what you mean by free will - so the assumption of what I meant is moot.

I return an assumption - either you don't accept that anything is contra-casual - in which case, the universe is, on some level, eternal or steady state ... or, perhaps, you reduce it to one contra-casual event i.e. the singularity, or, perhaps you are simply unwilling to accept any localized contra-causality (that one is weird to me - but I can sort of see it as possible - somewhere in the periphery of my vision)

If then statements are strictly conditional. If x>1 then y=y+1 else y=y-1. There might be a pseudo-random element - for example x may be generated by getting a number from a pseudo random string based on what time it is and then multiplying it by a constant factor so it fits the correct order of magnitude or scale. I admit, I am hesitant to reduce my thought processes to that level of pigeonholed simplicity.

Nevertheless, I get your point. Contra causal free will suggests the ability to make a choice for absolutely no reason. Surely it is possible to make a choice based on incorrect information - or information supplied by the imagination. Discovering the 'true' nature of imagination would be helpful to distinguish it from 'no reason.'

But preprogrammed choice is difficult to call choice. The option that will be chosen is predetermined by the conditional statement. Even the introduction of the pseudo-random number simply means that it is more difficult to spot the predetermining factors.

So, while I understand your objection to contra-causal free will - I'm not sure I would call what you term 'choice' actually a decision.

Put it this way - your idea of choice restricts the 'chooser' to preprogrammed selections based on predetermined criteria. What does it do when it finds itself faced with options it is not programmed to consider?
"But preprogrammed choice is difficult to call choice. The option that will be chosen is predetermined by the conditional statement."

Not if it incorporates past or present inputs from the environment.

Responding to input means the naive idea of being 'preprogrammed' opens up vast new areas of complexity. If you're really interested, read about Complexity Theory and mathematical Chaos. A simple IF-THEN switch doesn't seem so simple when you consider looping and recursion which are mere extensions of IF-THEN logic.

A Turing machine can be described as being a simple IF-THEN machine: IF the symbol on the tape is 0 and the state is A, THEN write symbol 1, move tape left, and switch to state B. IF the symbol is 0 and state is B, THEN ....

Turing machines (basically what your computer is), have been proven to be able to compute anything that can be computed. If consciousness is a computational process (a core premise of cognitivism), then it can be implemented by a Turing machine, or basically a glorified bunch of IF-THEN circuits.

Considering that neurons are basically complex blobs of chemicals, and the synapses between them are basically chemical switches, the idea that the mind and consciousness is a chemical computational process (cognitivism) isn't far-fetched. Perhaps it may seem so at first glance, to someone unfamiliar with practical computation, or who has an emotional aversion to seeing minds as machines, but there is nothing inherently special about our brains that separates them from other chemical/physical mechanical processes. There is no soul. There is no ghost in the machine, there is only the machine.

If you feel like you would be losing something by seeing the mind as built on a simple foundation, all I can say is, "Don't knock it till you've tried it." Like atheism, you're not losing anything or giving up anything. Instead, you're opening yourself up to a whole new world of learning and mind-blowing understanding of reality.

For example, you could stick with your gut-feeling on this statement: "Even the introduction of the pseudo-random number simply means that it is more difficult to spot the predetermining factors."

Or, you could take it as an opportunity to learn about the concept of stochastic algorithms, which use *randomness* to arrive at highly *precise* and *accurate* answers to difficult problems in an efficient manner. Either true randomness or pseudo-randomness can be used to arrive at *the same* answers. It's like using randomness to generate deterministic results. Many powerful examples include: Monte Carlo simulations, Markov chains, stochastic calculus, simulated annealing, genetic algorithms, and more.

The idea of stochastic processes inverts the usual thinking of randomness and determinism. Deterministic processes can be unpredictable, and therefore appear random. Truly random processes can nevertheless be harnessed to produce precise and accurate results that are indistinguishable from the results of a deterministic process.

Under quantum theory, the universe may be truly random. On the other hand, in a different interpretation of the same quantum theory, the universe may still be entirely deterministic. The most amazing thing is: It doesn't matter! Either way, the universe can still function as it does. Perhaps the reality is an endless layering of apparently random, on top of apparently deterministic, on top of apparently random, on top of apparently deterministic, ad infinitum. Who knows?

I happen to favour determinism, but if tomorrow I found out that the universe is fundamentally non-deterministic/random, by understanding the nature of stochastic processes, my worldview wouldn't fall apart; it would barely sway in the breeze. Or, the universe could be a giant Turing machine, and my worldview wouldn't grind to a halt. Just a slightly different layering of stochastic processes, with a slightly different emphasis.

Simple IF-THEN decision circuits can be combined in complex ways both to introduce chaos and to produce pseudo-random results that are in principle unpredictable without knowing the algorithm. The naive notion that 'special' humans are different from 'mere' machines is long past its expiry date. We don't have a complete understanding of the mind or consciousness yet. We are like Darwin without knowledge of DNA. Even if we don't know the specific mechanism yet, we still know that the foundation of the mind is physical, and that any presumed contra-causal freedom is probably explainable in terms of complex, chaotic, deterministic, stochastic processes of a purely physical nature. By the way, evolution itself is a very good example of a complex, chaotic, deterministic, stochastic processes of a purely physical nature.

"your idea of choice restricts the 'chooser' to preprogrammed selections based on predetermined criteria."

How does your spam filter know how to filter spam for Vicodin, or the latest diet fad, or what not? These types of spam were not specifically programmed into the spam filter. The spam filter learns from past experience with spam and how previous spam got sent to your spam/junk folder. The spam filter is a purely deterministic process, and yet to call it 'preprogrammed' is naive. It responds to input, it uses probabilistic/stochastic algorithms, it collects prior experience and adds to its database of likely spam words and phrases. But in essence, a spam filter is nothing more than a glorified series of IF-THEN circuits.

"What does it do when it finds itself faced with options it is not programmed to consider?"

Are you aware that this is a common problem with all sorts of different practical solutions in modern programming techniques? Not only can we not consider all possible situations a program is likely to encounter, but there are many different practical heuristics which can be used to handle such cases intelligently.

Yours is a common and misconceived objection to computational ideas such as cognitivism. It assumes that deterministic processes cannot produce results that are both unpredictable and also useful. It's rather like the creationist complaint about evolution that "evolution can't produce new information". Here's an example of novelty invented, literally, by a purely deterministic process called genetic programming.

Strict deterministic, mechanical processes are simply not limited in the ways your gut-feeling tells you they are.
Hmmm - (I should make sure I peruse every page in order) - this line of reasoning is very interesting to me. Basically, including chaos theory in with determinism (which makes sense) to show that unpredictable utility is not contrary to determinism is the best explanation I have yet heard for deterministic choice. Unpredictable utility. I like it.

The spam filter example is a little crude. Often, my spam filter can exhibit behaviors that are as annoying as some viruses. Heuristics remain fairly crude as well - even though I've seen some that appear pretty sophisticated.

I think that self-aware consciousness (and I'm not positive that 'consciousness must be self-aware - though self-awareness probably requires consciousness) goes a little farther than heuristics will allow. The instinct for self-preservation might be part of it. And 'artificial imagination' might be a long way off. What I mean by that is, heuristics re-examine programming in light of new evidence. It solves problems not previously encountered using problem solving techniques that can be remarkably reliable. But I haven't heard of one that speculates about possible problems it has yet to encounter in advance and, so, makes preparations for the unexpected.

Alright, given that determinism can produce unpredictable, utilitarian results - I concede that I might actually exist. But now I'm not certain I see a pragmatic difference between contra-causal events and deterministic unpredictable utility. I see the distinction - but not a pragmatic difference. Either way, for all intents and purposes, the configuration of reality referred to as 'self' appears to actually play a role in how the universe unfolds - beyond being a straightforward conduit of causality. Therefore - choice is virtually actual. "Free will" may be a term rendered useless by its connotative "baggage". But, if choice is real - responsibility is back on the table as well.

I still don't require determinism to justify forgiveness or a desire to understand motive and mitigating circumstances when examining the nature of a given behavior. Simple pragmatism has always been enough for that. But now I can see it as a viable, uncontradictory support of such a stance.
"But now I'm not certain I see a pragmatic difference between contra-causal events and deterministic unpredictable utility."

I don't see the problem. What do you mean?

At the very basic level, you'll probably find the actual difference boiling down to Occam's Razor, which is a pragmatic principle. Why believe in contra-causal free will if it doesn't get you anything? We could have magical souls, but I don't see any evidence for that.
I don't see a pragmatic difference between 'unpredictable utility' and 'magic.' I see a distinction - but no difference. I didn't say it was a problem.
Do you agree that Occam's Razor is a pragmatic principle? If so, then there's your difference.
No. When Occam's Razor works - its pragmatic. I think it is an aesthetic, actually. In the meantime, like I said, I see a distinction, but no difference in practice. If something is both unpredictable and useful, how it came about is of no real consequence.
When doesn't it work?


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