Note: This post has been superseded by "Free Will Without Dualism".

Free Will is an Illusion?

When it comes to philosophical discussions, what can be said of everything can be said of nothing. It's meaningless and dogmatic to apply such pat answers to dismiss all objections. That's the problem with the claim that free will is an illusion.  It's a scientifically unfalsifiable claim.

I'm sure you've encountered the materialist claim that causality predetermines all events -- even our acts and thoughts. Based on this simplistic interpretation of causality, determinists then assert that the experience of choice, and therefore free will, is an illusion. Aside from illustrating that "what can be said of everything can be said of nothing", that argument is also recursive reasoning. It's circular logic that begs the question by paraphrasing it's conclusion as its premise -- "Our acts and thoughts are (i.e. "Everything is") predetermined, therefore our acts and thoughts are (i.e. "everything is") beyond our control."

If you've ever made a plan and executed it, revised a strategy or out-maneuvered an opponent, then you've got empirical evidence of free will. Everybody lives as if they have free will. They work, play, think and plan as if they have free will. That's a LOT of empirical evidence for free will. What's the evidence for the claim that free will is an illusion?

I've become convinced that determinism is a surrogate religion for far too many atheists. It's replete with all the trappings of religion: dogma, denial, fatalism, vehemently closed minds and recursive reasoning.

My biggest question is why people would want to deny their experience, not to mention the empowerment of free will, in favor of a worldview of illusions and fatalism. Maybe it's because, like Christians, they get to keep their Prime Mover and a simple doctrine absolving them of personal responsibility.

N O T E :
My position has evolved since this discussion started.  I've since found a way for self determinism to emerge from determinism.  You'll find the assertion repeated in later posts to this thread but, for the sake of this topic outline, I'll repeat it here.

Imagination is a causal effect of the human brain.  The ability to imagine the future results of cause and effect plays into the mix of other causal effects such as heredity, experience, education, etc., to influence the choices we make.  This ability is a temporal advantage over causality that allow us to anticipate and be prepared for causality when it arrives (in the present).  By factoring into the causally determined decision-making process, our imagination guides us down the causal paths to our goals.  This is self determinism.  Free will.

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Replies to This Discussion

My first reply in a group discussion - guess I won't go for provocative and just sum up some current thinking:

1. Even if there is a 'causal gestalt' that, on an absolute level, suggests pure determinism - the logical, relative conclusion is - 'You can predict anything, if you know everything.'

2. Religion breaks down at free will because either your god is omnipotent and omniscient, in which case, there is no room for free will, since that would mean we can create without/beyond god and be unpredictable even to god OR god isn't one or the other, or both. If your god is not omnipotent and omniscient - then why call it god? And if it is - and all things are predetermined, then love, responsibility, self, choice, etc. are all moot - there can be no virtue or vice - it's all written.

3. If there is no room in a causal gestalt for anything to happen that doesn't happen as a result of a previous cause, then all occurrences are determined - in advance - by previous events. Again, even without a god, you are back at predetermination (no matter how people attempt to avoid this word) and fatalism sets in. The answer to that? See 1. and be an existentialist - because at a relative level, the causal gestalt is impenetrable and cannot be predicted.

4. An example of 3. is the fact that even empiricist scientists will attempt to illustrate probability by flipping a coin. Actually, given the starting position of the coin, the exact amount and angular vector of the force applied, the exact weight and volumetric dimension of the coin - the coin toss is entirely predictable. So - even given two possible results and what can be known and calculated about coin tosses, even a scientist - at a relative level - will consider the likelihood of either result to be equal. I am certain I can beat those odds with practice.

5. 'Free' is rarely seen to mean 'entirely without constraint' in most realistic contexts - yet there are those who will insist that 'free will' must mean 'choice entirely without constraint.' This baffles me.

6. There will be those who will insist that 'will', rather than a synonym for 'deliberate choice' must mean 'the ability to affect events using nothing more than thought.' Again, I am baffled by this.

7. Some will, finally, insist that everything is either determined or random - that there can be no hybrid of mostly deterministic with some examples of nonsense - such as randomness, error, illusion, a dying man's last thought, vacuum, etc. which all are examples of either 'causes without effect', 'effects without cause', or 'uncaused events without effect.'

All of this can fall into a nuts and bolts universe that has 'asymmetries.' I think we should always pursue as clear an understanding as we can of what leads to what. I think we can always expand that picture. I think there is an asymptote, however, that will always leave us with more to know. Therefore, even if 1. is true, then the corollary is 'You cannot predict everything, if there is anything you don't know.' Act accordingly.
Hey Howard,

I've never bothered to look up the word, "gestalt", before. The definition reminds me of the kind of "complex system" that produces emergent properties and thus become greater than the sum of its parts. Although I've read several definitions for "gestalt", I'm still unsure how to use it in a sentence. :-)

Anyway, you raised some pretty good points. I'm sure many people who have squared off against determinists can identify with all of your points.

This particular post of mine (you appear to have noticed it's "provocative") is a bit hard-hitting or aggressive . . . mostly because I'm trying to draw determinists into a discussion/debate. I really feel like I'm onto something that addresses the standard determinist objections to free will.

Back to your post . . .

Your point #1, above, I would modify to state: "You can predict anything about the inanimate universe if you know everything." Animate beings (especially intelligent beings) have options, thus the best predictions you can achieve will rely on probabilities. People may surprise you more often than one might want to admit.

When you say, "the causal gestalt is impenetrable and cannot be predicted", I think there is an exception (though not a reliable one) for free will. With free will, we can "load the dice", so to speak. We can choose options now that will enhance the probability of a future goal. By carefully monitoring events and adjusting our choices accordingly, we can enhance the probabilities even further. From a free will perspective, nothing is certain but just about anything is "doable". Luck becomes a matter of causality cooperating with our plans :-)
As to 1. - I only state it that way (and revisit with the corollary in my closing) to make the point that no one can ultimately prove (though they can induce) ultimate causality and, even if it is, ultimately true, it is not specifically useful. The only thing it suggests is that it is worthwhile to continue to attempt to understand everything we can.

Yes, free will can make us more predictable; reliable, steadfast, loyal, tenacious - these are words that speak to your point. But I would say the that the ability to deviate from them is what gives these states of will any meaning in a contrasting context. Thus, love can mean something since we can choose it or not; responsibility can mean something since we can shirk it or not, etc.
Hi Howard,

Yes, I agree with you.

Something Adriana said keeps coming to my mind. Living things are more complex than mere thermodynamics. We are complex systems: we have more bacteria cells in our bodies than any other kind of cell; our digestion system has its own neurons to offload control from the brain; our nervous system has numerous subsystems filling specific roles; we procreate through sexual reproduction. It takes all these things, working together, to make us what we are. We can't be reduced to our components. Our actions require the simultaneous coordination of all our components. Reaction, for us, is clearly different than reaction for rocks, comets or stars. Life delineates the animate from the inanimate for the same reasons it delineates biology from physics.

Life IS special. It's not a conceit to recognize how life introduced new phenomena to the once-lifeless universe. Nobody would deny that life introduced motility, consciousness and intelligence to the universe but when it comes to free will, determinists suddenly draw the line. Before life, NOTHING moved without an external force applied to it. Before life, EVERYTHING had the mental capacity of a rock. Before life, NOTHING had the ability to learn.

Those who claim that causality allows no effect without a cause -- that every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause -- should consider how motility violates or changes the absolute causality that preceded life. Motility requires no external action. Motility is its own cause and effect. So is intelligence. We're hard wired to understand, anticipate and use causality. We master causality by forecasting consequences. We go, mentally, where causality can't and bring back free will by basing our choices on our estimate of future consequences.

Our choices certainly are influenced by causal factors. If our brains are hard wired to peer into the future, then this ability is also a causal factor that figures into the mix of influences. By guiding the causal path we pursue, our intelligence turns determinism into self determinism.
You seem to accept my existential 'So what?' After all - if the 'veracity' of determinism is absolute - determinists who 'accept responsibility' really don't have a choice - do they?

Also, if determinism is absolutely true, practicality is just what you call the actual reason you get things done as well.

You see - if determinism is absolutely true, then nothing you say about why you do anything that sounds like a choice means anything at all. Even your words - every syllable - are just dominoes falling out of your mouth.
Yes, Howard,

Good points. Seems contradictory to me too.
Hi Rhett Samios,

Our brains are wired a CERTAIN way, with a CERTAIN individual chemistry? Doesn't sound like much of an argument. One thing IS for certain, though . . . the topic is a much-debated matter of opinion. I have what I believe are good reasons for compatibilism and you have what you believe are good reasons for determinism.

I had actually gotten well into a comparison of pros and cons for and against compatibilism and determinism, when I realized that it's a waste of time. They're MY pros and cons. Let's hear YOUR pros for determinism and YOUR cons against compatibilism. I've already thoroughly stated mine in recent group postings.

I say that the only thing determinism has going for it is an outmoded interpretation of causality that treats animate beings like inanimate objects and fails to recognize the additional complexity added by life.
1. Your brain is wired a certain way.
Today. Which is not the same way as yesterday. Or the same as tomorrow. Wiring is not just chemistry, wiring is also physics. Chemistry and physics are, in some ways, the same thing -- just different ways of looking at the issue. But sometimes, the scale of examination is crucial. Under a strict equivalence theory, the Golden Gate Bridge stands because of the quantum mechanic properties of a massive number of atoms. Under a more useful theory, structural engineering and materials science are a more correct description of the structure.

2. You have a certain individual chemistry, that determines your wants, your preferences, and whatever else.
You have just begged the question. Anything following is irrelevant, especially a conclusion that wants, preferences, and actions, etc. are determined by the historical interaction of chemicals.

I was going to do a more complete analysis but when I got to #2 I realized there was no need.
Hi again, Rhett,

My opinion on compatibilism and determinism has been evolving, thanks to discussions such as these. I think I might finally have arrived at an answer that satisfies both camps.

I'm glad you say that our brains are wired a certain way. We always come back to the brain when discussing consciousness and free will. One of the ways the brain is wired is called imagination. Imagination allows us to express creativity; do "mind experiments", a la Einstein; fantasize about Heather Graham; and make predictions by mentally extrapolating cause and effect into the future.

In a universe where everything occurs due to cause and effect, imagination is an effect of the brain. Specifically, it's the predictive ability of imagination that gives us a temporal advantage over causality. Whether it be in terms of seconds or years, we routinely anticipate causality so that we can be ready for its arrival. To the extent we're successful in anticipating causality, we guide our own unfolding paths into the future. This is self determinism.

Imagination is one of the causal factors (such as heredity, circumstances, preferences, etc.) that contribute their influences on our choices. Together, these causal influences determine our choices.

It's the temporal advantage of predictive imagination that sets us on the path to our goals. Self determinism is a human consequence of determinism.
Hey Glenn,

1. I agree that different scientific approaches are needed for different kinds of scientific questions. An inductive emphasis on "holistic thinking" is more efficacious with complex systems, like humans, but a deductive emphasis on reductionism is more efficacious with simpler objects like stars and atoms. As Adriana said, complexity is greater in biology than in physics.

2. It's too simplistic for Rhett to say we have a certain individual chemistry that determines our choices. I read, the other day, that there are 25 "modules" in the brain doing distinct processing. If you read much of the literature from the fields of neuroscience, you'll find there are many feedback mechanisms at work in the brain. I believe imagination is a feedback mechanism that can extrapolate causal consequences and feed them back for inclusion in our decision making. This seems the simplest explanation for the human ability to make plans.

I think the reason for all the controversy and disagreement is that we're framing our positions incorrectly. Determinism and self determinism are not in conflict.
I've been taking a breather from these discussions for awhile but thought I might get the feet wet again (and I couldn't figure out an appropriate strategy to push for 'cheap will' since 'free will' is such a hot spot for folks.) Anyway, I think the penultimate stumbling block is #1 above -- if one could know enough, then everything is predetermined. Since there seems to be no way to ever do that (it would require a duplicate, equally sized universe to hold the "information"), there is no practical consequence of the determinist's conclusion except that most of the time for most things things seem deterministic.

The ultimate stumbling block may be the nature of Nature itself. Scientists have just succeed in an experiment that forced a short, localized breaking of the laws of nature. They have succeeded in forcing quarks to "recognize" left and right -- in other words, to violate parity.

Link here.
Cool - thanks for this - always interested in new info and discoveries.

if one could know enough, then everything is predetermined. Since there seems to be no way to ever do that (it would require a duplicate, equally sized universe to hold the "information"), there is no practical consequence of the determinist's conclusion except that most of the time for most things things seem deterministic.

This is where I am. However, if one holds to the absolute 'certainty' of determinism - then there is no viable reason to argue for it as a rationalization for anything - as many do. They may say, for example, that it is a pragmatic argument for forgiveness. However, if forgiveness (along with everything else) is actually predetermined (or simply determined as some point out) then an argument for anything at all is moot.

Meanwhile, I hold that absolutism in any form (even this, ironically) is not empiricism. I also hold that the deterministic nature of nature doesn't have to be an all or nothing as some would suggest it must be. I believe that some forms of 'nonsense' (unpredictable events) may be components of a mostly deterministic universe - the exception rather than the rule. 'True random' would be one example. 'The initial singularity' may be another.




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