Note: This post has been superseded by "Free Will Without Dualism".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


Philosophically, what can be said of everything can be said of nothing. However, some physical laws, like causality, purport to do just that: apply universally, to everything. I think there's a difference between causality as a law and causality as a pat answer. Pat answers inhibit thinking.

Determinism, via causality, has defined and molded the free will debate so absolutely that most people assume free will is antithetical to determinism. It also doesn't help that free will itself is a murky concept.

Self determinism defines a minimum requirement for free will: the ability to assert identity. Self determinism is all it takes for free agency.

Yeah, absolutes and dogma seem to go hand in hand. Absolutes cut off discussion. Dogma fills the void. However, I think causality really IS an absolute. Either free will fits in with it or it doesn't exist. Dogmatic absolutism gets in the way of understanding and, in the case of free will, prevents people from seeing how the temporal advantage of imagination empowers human intelligence with self determinism.
Hi Glenn,

"Cheap will"? LoL . . . I like it.

I nominate the term, "self determinism", to replace "free will". Self determinism embraces determinism and acknowledges the options we face moment to moment . . . while at the same time, suggesting the liberty won from the intelligent anticipation for causality.

As for knowing enough to predict "everything", I say it's only necessary to predict one's own consequences. I get your point, though: predicting everything is a non-starter. It's out of the question.

If, as Rhett suggests, our choices are made for us, then I say even that allows free will if our consideration of future potentials is part of the mix. And such considerations MUST be part of the mix, or else we wouldn't be able to execute plans AT ALL. If my estimation of consequences is part of the mix, then it informs my choice . . . even if my choice is forced. If my choice can be forced by experience, heredity, circumstances or some combination of these, then it can also be informed by my intelligent consideration of future potentials. Can it not?

It's only the intelligent application of forecasting that can be considered beyond causality's reach. Causality works in the present and has to wait for the future to arrive. To the extent we forecast the future with efficacy, we wield an advantage over causality (which is confined to the present).
Hi Rhett,

My position is that there's no logical reason to abandon the empirical evidence of our experience in favor of the claim that free will is an illusion. Everybody, everywhere, has empirical evidence of free will. But nobody, anywhere, has ANY evidence that free will is an illusion.

To my experience, the biggest stumbling block to arguing for compatibilism is to show how free will is compatible with determinism. Henceforward, I will be using the term "self determinism" instead of free will: this should help remind the reader that I claim free will is limited by and compatible with determinism.

Determinists argue that heredity (genetics), experience, education, circumstances, evolution, instincts, preferences, morality and/or other "causal factors" force our choices for us; that choice is an illusion. They're absolutely correct. That's exactly how it works.

What they neglect to consider is that human intelligence includes the ability to mentally extrapolate cause and effect into the future to gauge potential scenarios. In short, people make plans. We anticipate causality and mentally play out various scenarios. We all do this quite naturally and effortlessly (with varying degrees of success). Given how automatically we prognosticate, it appears to be hard wired into the brain. It's human nature.

And therein lies the key: prognostication is one of those "other causal factors" thrown into the mix of influences that make our decisions for us. Of all the causal factors that go into decisions, prognostication is the one that gives us self determinism.

How? I'm glad you asked. Prognostication, puts us at least a step ahead of causality because causality can only operate in the present: it must wait for the future to arrive. For simpler matters, we can often size up our prospects without much thought at all. Regardless, we mentally lay out "causal paths" that (usually) lead to our goals. I would venture to assert that evolution has led to extra significance or weight assigned to our prognostications when they're part of the mix of influences that determine our actions.

In this way, even though causality has led to our choices, our estimates of future potentials leads us down causal paths that are self determined and purposeful.

No hocus pocus. Nothing unnatural. Determinism still rules. But when determinism meets human intelligence, it becomes self determinism.
I think that animals (including humans) respond to their situations based on stimuli and their brain chemistry, their memories of previous experiences (conditioning), etc. New pathways are constantly formed in the brain. Also, just as we do, animals (to the extent of their intelligence) solve problems and learn. Mammals and marsupials ingest 'drugs' that alter their brain chemistry. (The obvious example is the Koala.) Mammals experience REM sleep which suggests that they have some form of imagination. Certainly, they can be 'misinformed' and act accordingly. Pets have been shown to have mental disorders - such as OCD that have been successfully addressed with Prozac, etc.

In any case, animals pursue alternatives (make choices) based on a huge variety of variables that extend beyond their nervous systems just as we do. Brains don't operate in a vacuum.

So no - I do not accept that animals just do things as a result of their chemistry or that we are the only animals that exhibit intelligence. All animals exhibit some level of heuristic intelligence at the very least. Most mammals exhibit most aspects of self-awareness, environmental awareness, temporal awareness, imagination, problem solving capabilities, communication, socialization, emotions, and the ability to learn from their mistakes and experiences. Many animals also exhibit the ability to teach their offspring newly discovered information. Animals, in some cases (possibly since they are free of religion), are better empiricists than we are.

I feel you are truly oversimplifying the reality of intelligence and seeing the world in far too anthropocentric a way.

Like I said before, you may be able to predict anything, if you know everything. But absolutism is not empiricism. One cannot know everything - which is precisely why the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. In this case, I suggest that the claim is absolute determinism, which, if it is absent, leaves plenty of room for self-determination, as Free Thinker suggests.
Hey Howard,

Nice reply.

The paragraph that starts with, "So no - I do not accept that animals just do things as a result of their chemistry", lists some very good points that support some level of intelligence in many animals. Perhaps most significant is temporal awareness. But I have to wonder just how far into the future animals can project.

I'm not making any point . . . just wondering out loud.

Your final point about omniscience is well taken. That's what absolute determinism boils down to: a claim of potential omniscience. That gets a little too supernatural for my taste. I would also distinguish between predictability in the inanimate and animate realms. Animate beings add extreme complexity to future potentials (as opposed to inanimate matter).
Don't you think that, in practice, a lot of this comes down to psychology as much as anything else?
You act in the way that you have been conditioned to (in the broadest possible meaning of the term), but consider the variables - decisions that appear minor at the time, and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, might go either way, but end up having significant consequences; coincidental interactions or intersections of 'determined', linear trajectories that influence each other somehow, etc.
The factor of co-incidence is crucial - several things happening at the same time that somehow influence their further outcomes, which, had they happened in isolation, would otherwise have unfolded differently.
It's not the big issues that change 'randomly', it's the small things with significant consequences that make the difference...
Hi Sigmund,

I'd have to agree with your points. However, even though we make our plans, the plans of others might challenge ours or, our plans might not anticipate causality well enough to allow measured adjustments when necessary. Our plans meet varying degrees of success, depending on their proximity to reality . . . and, yes, luck.

I disagree that change is based on the significance of consequences. That assumes foreknowledge built into causality. This is simply wrong. If causality had foreknowledge built in, time would elapse in a split second. There would be no reason to draw out sequences of events.

The linear (and forward-looking) nature of time is a constant in the universe. Gods may disregard time but natural objects (including us) are constrained by time. Time is sequential: reversing it allows no change in events other than their reversal.

The linear nature of time means that the ability to mentally project causality into the future is key to independence from causality. The limitation on causality has no bearing on imagination. We understand cause and effect, so we can predict, with reasonable accuracy, future events. In doing so, our decisions, in the present, are guided toward preparation for the future. This process is to natural to us, it's ingrained into our being. We're inured to the great gift intelligence has bestowed upon us.

It's not hubris or conceit to recognize that human intelligence puts us in position to execute plans with a reasonable assurance that they will be realized.
Presumably this is where our idea of 'fate', predetermination etc. comes from in the first place. Our fascination with cause and effect developed to the point that we thought it was inescapable. Can't beat the human race when it comes to taking things too far, eh?
Yeah Sigmund,

It's not exactly intuitive to think that free will results from causal effects in the brain. I struggled for over year, refining my ideas about free will through online discussions and debates.

At first, I held a dualist belief that life represented a departure from all else that preceded it in the universe. I based this on the observable differences between inanimate objects and animate beings.

I looked for a neurological mechanism to explain how free will can emerge from the causally determined brain. I found hope in the CEMI Theory, which asserts that the brain's electromagnetic field is where the disparate modules of the brain integrate their data into a cohesive "experience" of reality that is pushed to the conscious level in a continuous feedback loop.

Then I realized that there's an exception to the claim of a universal, all-encompassing, determinism: namely, quantum mechanics. The quantum realm appears to be genuinely bizarre, indeterminate and random. This didn't really argue for free will except to illustrate that there ARE exceptions to causality. Although the universe we normally observe is above the quantum realm, the quantum realm is nonetheless a very real, fundamental, level of reality.

Later, I noticed similarities between religion and absolute determinism: the kind of determinism that denies free will. While this provided some good points against determinism, it didn't argue for free will directly.

But always, the question came back to the brain: even with a feedback loop, at what point to we depart from causality and produce free will?

The final refinement of my argument stemmed from the temporal advantage we gain over causality by our ability to plan future goals. With this feature of the human brain, our plans become just another causal factor determining our choices.

I'm not sure what weight our prescience, as one of many causal factors, has on our decisions but I suspect that evolution has added extra significance to it, through natural selection, over the course of human evolution.

So, in the end, the determinists are right that our choices are determined by causal factors. The difference is that one of those causal factors comes from the brain itself: prescient imagination. What gives us free will is our ability to extrapolate causality into the future and include our forecasts in the mix of causal factors, in the present, that determine our choices. In so doing, our intelligence leads us down causal paths that are potential futures we have chosen in self-directed ways.

When determinism meets human imagination, it becomes self-determinism.




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