If there’s one thing that’s obvious to every conscious human being alive, it is that we have free will. We have choice. We can do whatever we want. (Well, to the extent of our abilities, that is.)

But do we? This is a question we might never find the answer to. Why? We can only live every moment once, and make a choice at any given moment once.

Today, I had a sudden realisation. Is our free will an illusion? Has every decision and its respective outcome in the world been inevitable, and not actually a choice? Is everything we do an inevitability, and not for us to define.

We often wish history would have taken a different course. I know I have. But maybe it is impossible for things to be any other way.

Maybe the laws of the universe could be no other way. Maybe time could be no other way.

Will we ever know?

Is it even a viable hypothesis?

Does it really matter?

Originally posted HERE.

Views: 23

Tags: free, life, philosophy, question, reason, will


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Comment by Matt VDB on August 29, 2010 at 7:09am
No, you're wrong (and it's a common mistake when talking about determinism, so rest assured you are in good company) and here's why: you can change your mind because I am one of the factors that influences your behaviour.
So when you come into contact with my ideas, and (because of my upbringing and the way I have been taught to develop good arguments) I make my arguments compelling enough, then you (because of your upbringing and the way you value good arguments) might very well be convinced.
Or, if you (because of the way you've been learned to evaluate arguments) find my arguments unconvincing or if you have a stubborn personality for whatever reason, then you might not be convinced.

See where I'm going with this? Just because what you believe will be caused by a variety of causes (pleonasm ftw!) does not mean that you can't change your mind when you come into contact with other ideas; to the contrary: the fact that you come into contact with my ideas is one of the factors in the causal chain.
Comment by Matt VDB on August 28, 2010 at 5:42pm
"It does not always work but if one practice it a lot then one get at least a bit more control over the determined inevitable things that would happen if one failed to avoid doing it again."

The question then becomes: what makes you want to gain more control over those things in the first place? Probably your education (determined), upbringing (determined), concern over your body image (determined), maybe genetics (determined)? Yep, all determined as well.

You're a meatpuppet with eyes, Fred.

Comment by Richard Lawrence on August 28, 2010 at 4:42pm
It sure feels like we have freewill in much the same way that we feel like we are moving when it is really the train next to us that is pulling out of the station and we are still sitting still. I think if there were free will there would be no need for Weight Watchers, smoking cessation drugs/programs or Procrastinators Anonymous. A good example for those who believe in the existence and power of free will to put forth would be the creation of a new primary color or something along those lines. Because, as it seems to me from the above examples, "free will" can neither stop anything of its own accord nor accomplish anything outside the constraints of the "material" universe like any other "material" phenomenon. That doesn't bode well for dualism, either....I'm just sayin'
Comment by Matt VDB on August 27, 2010 at 4:51pm
"It helps our minds build structure around a working system that we can only witness pieces of. Thus, concepts like justice, punishment, good, and evil hang of this model of free-will. Of course, all of these virtue concepts are models as well. They all tie into this powerful (and ultimately approximate) idea that we have this thing called free-will."

I don't know if that is a good idea. If concepts like our sense of justice and our sense of good and evil are dependent on ideas that aren't true, then we need to adapt our beliefs, see what can be salvaged from the old ones, but ultimately move on to a new understanding that is fully compatible with reality.

What you seem to suggest is that these concepts are so important to us, that we should hold on to them as hard as we can - regardless of evidence that shows they are antiquated.
It actually reminds me (and obviously this is an analogy, it's not ill meant) of proponents of theism who propose that we should hold on to the concept of god-given theist morality regardless of whether or not this is antiquated.

I don't actually think that what is good or evil, or what justice is, is completely dependent on contra-causal free will. Our present understanding of these terms might be dependent on it, but that just means that we need to think harder about these concepts and define them in a way that is consistent with the way the world actually works.

If that means leaving behind simplistic views of right and wrong, and justice and punishment, then so be it. In fact: let's welcome that.
Comment by Jo Jerome on August 27, 2010 at 3:46pm
John D - I pretty much figured in referring to Augustine you meant "Free Will" as it pertains to the Christian Red Herring/Trump Card answer to many nature-of-God paradoxes.

Even then, is it really "Free Will?"

Comment by Matt VDB on August 27, 2010 at 1:48pm

Yes, because 'influence' is not the same as a rigid, mathematical certainty that must be followed no matter what. An alcoholic who is heavily influenced by his environment, his basic desires, his nature, his personality to keep drinking, might still choose to quit drinking, against every other fiber of his being. Or he might not.

That's what I find the fascinating thing. We can always assert that behaviourial studies only prove influences and not the absence of contra-causal free will, even when we find that people primed with agressive words will be more likely to interrupt an interlocutor in a later conversation. We can always say: "but they could still have chosen otherwise".
I find that to be fundamentally unfalsifiable. And sort of ironic, because we know for a fact that these people were not aware of what they were doing, and thought that they were perfectly in control of their own actions. So if we know that people cannot distinguish between an influenced decision and an uninfluenced (if there is any such thing) decision, what does that tell us about our intuitive feeling that we have this contra-causal free will?

I'm on shaky ground here though, because I haven't looked into compatibilist views very much.


That can be so in theory but in social situation like here in or on or at AN then fellow atheists don't act that way.

They do punish those that behave in ways they don't approve of. They don't show compassion despite them having same info that you presented.

Oh, no doubt. Many of these things are hard-wired. I was actually talking more in reference to formalised systems, like courts of law. These are already designed so that vengeance is largely excluded (that's why we don't let the victim decide what to do with the accused), and I see no reason why we couldn't design our courts in such a way that judges keep in mind the implications of determinism, and so will favour - say - corrective punishment instead of retributive punishment.

That said, I don't agree with your observation that "these theories have been around for 20 years". I mean, sure, they've been around, but I rarely mean someone who has actually thought determinism through and considered its implications on ethics and morality.
Comment by Jo Jerome on August 27, 2010 at 12:11pm
I find it very interesting that you make an entire post pointing out exactly how determinism influences us in a profound way, but then [say that "ultimately, we are free to make a different choice, swim against the current."

Yes, because 'influence' is not the same as a rigid, mathematical certainty that must be followed no matter what. An alcoholic who is heavily influenced by his environment, his basic desires, his nature, his personality to keep drinking, might still choose to quit drinking, against every other fiber of his being. Or he might not.

For all that we know about the human brain and its inner workings, there is far more that we don't know.

Cute cartoon. Love Dilbert. ;-)
Comment by Matt VDB on August 27, 2010 at 2:06am
"But ultimately, we are free to make a different choice, swim against the current."

I find it very interesting that you make an entire post pointing out exactly how determinism influences us in a profound way, but then tack the above sentence on at the end :D

There's a great Dilbert cartoon about this.
We all feel that we ultimately are free to make a different choice, but if you stop and think about what part of the brain handles this (which would have to be a part that is uncaused; which would seem to put it outside the realm of physics), you can't find it.
Comment by Jo Jerome on August 26, 2010 at 6:19pm
John D said: "The concept of "Free will" was invented (or at least well laid down) by St. Augustine."

I assume you mean the Christian concept of "free will?" Without having a moment to look it up right now, I'm willing to safely say that a philosopher or three (or a caveman or three) pondered the question long before Christians came along.

As to the question itself: It would take a lot to convince me of the existence of true fate. Coincidentally, I'm about to watch the season series finale of FlashForward (one rule of fate: If I really like a TV series and get invested in it, it is sure to be canceled immediately). The kind of 'fate' where, say, I forsee ahead of time that I'm going to be hit by a bus in a week, and no matter what I do to alter my future it can't be altered.

Given my armchair interest in quantum physics however, I have little trouble with the concept of a current or flow to the universe, like that of a river. The flow, the people, things, decisions before us and events around us, combined with our own abilities, personality and inclinations, 'push' us in a natural direction.

This was explored in another series which, because I was really loving it was naturally cancelled; "Dark Angel." One of the mutant child-soldier people was able to forsee the future not by actually seeing it, but by having a savant ability to calculate probable outcomes based on people's routines, personalities, what decisions they are likely to make. Interesting plot device.

But ultimately, we are free to make a different choice, swim against the current.

Where I do feel our free will is limited is in how we are often so limited by our environment, our present circumstances, people around us. E.g.; I would like to be working for the Park Service right now, at the job I was in last Summer, only with a different boss. However, I have/had zero control over the boss who was/is in charge, and his decision to not hire me back. It doesn't matter how much ability or job qualification I possess. He hires personal friends. I'm not a personal friend. Ergo, no job. I can not 'will' the job to happen. It's up to other people.

I can however tell you with some certainty which new Fall TV shows are doomed to cancellation. Let me just review them and tell you which ones I'll be watching...
Comment by Matt VDB on August 26, 2010 at 5:40pm
You touch on the - very interesting - subject of free will in a deterministic universe.

Yes, I think free will - in the contra-causal sense of the term - is an illusion. Each and every decision of ours has its causes, whether they be due to our environment, our genetics, or our brain chemistry on any particular moment. Everything follows the laws of nature.

This has some pretty profound implications. For one, it destroys the idea of retributive punishment: punishing people out of revenge or a sense for 'justice' is immoral, because they ultimately could not have done otherwise, given the set of circumstances they were in.
Two, I think it makes us more compassionate and understanding when we realise that people aren't simply acting the way they want to, but that their want itself as determined.

It's a fascinating subject, and I'd refer you to the work of Daniel Dennett as an introductory course.

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