Free Will

Sequel to previous post: God Determines

willfulAlmost 400 years ago, the venerable philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza (1634-1677), in his ‘Improvement of Understanding,’ wrote of free will: these are words to which no idea is attached.

That the phrase, free will, has no meaning has been demonstrated by philosophers for several hundred years: Locke, Hume, Hegel, Leibniz … In recent times popular expositions are by Daniel Dennett, “Freedom Evolves” (2003) and by Sam Harris, “Free Will” (2012).

Harris says that you can sense, by introspection, that your will is not ‘free’. You don’t know what thought you’ll think next. Thoughts emerge into consciousness; you are not authoring them. Laboratory research shows that you become aware of a decision only after your brain has already made it. You are not making conscious decisions; you are only witnessing them. If you can’t control your next thought and you don’t know what it’s going to be until it arrives where is your freedom of will?

Dennett emphasizes the idea of ’emergence’. New phenomena emerge from the complexity of many elements assembled together. Like the wetness of water emerges only when many water molecules are present. Two water molecules don’t have the property of wetness. So whatever it is that we call ‘free will’ is an emergent property, due to complexity, in a completely determined system.

Nevertheless, whatever choices I make are determined by the constellation of molecular processes, genetics and experience that I have suffered in all my existence. So then, what, indeed, is it that we call free will? The phrase free will is meaningless. How can we understand something to which no meaning is attached?

Remarkably, by paraphrasing Lactantius (see previous blog post), the answer emerges: The feeling of free will is the gift of the deterministic world. The precious illusion of free will is the way nature carries out its – determined – mission.

The philosophers are right, but the use and reliance on this meaningless phrase is the lubricant in the social machine. The idea of free will governs the behavior of everyone (other than philosophers!) so its existence can’t be denied. The illusion has existence. It is a namable phenomenon. It governs how we think and our method of reaching conclusions.

Having the blessing of talent you are rewarded for it as if it were you who produced it. By your own free will. Who but the gifted are awarded prizes for great feats of intellect or prowess.

Torture is testimony to belief in free will. The victim could confess if he chose to. Torture encourages choice.

You are urged to choose the path of righteousness, or to choose the path of financial gain or to choose martyrdom. You can’t stand there and wait for it to be chosen for you. Rather you exercise your free will and do the choosing. Free will or choice is something you exercise; you can’t exercise determinism.

In all its laws and customs the social structure presumes the existence of free will. Our concept of morality and acceptable social behavior rely on the idea of responsible judgement. You are expected to choose (via free will) the morally proper thing. Persuasion and motivation depend, in our thinking structure, on the idea of free choice. You are asked to sign a release at the hospital or at the auto repair shop to document your free will acceptance of conditions. One must couch the message in terms of free will or it will not be understood; you tell the child ‘behave yourself’ as if it were his choice.

And yet free will is an idea to which no meaning is attached. Let us give it meaning. Definition:

Free will is behavior without evident coercion.

The critical idea is this: that non-evident coercion is the other contribution to behavior. The two together account for behavior being deterministic – completely coerced. What we mean when we use the term ‘free will’ depends critically on what we take to be evident in the coercion. The boundary between evident and non-evident coercion is the crucial divide. It varies with time, with place and among individuals.

In primitive times and in primitive places free will was rampant. Even stones had it. That you tripped over one evidenced it’s will to do you harm. The child who didn’t learn was beaten. That he had free will to learn but chose not to was the premise. Evident coercion – beating – would change his behavior or at least penalize stubborn free will. The mentally disturbed were treated in much the same manner. That there were hidden psychological coercions or medical ones – a brain tumor – which prevented learning or compelled deviant behavior was not recognized. Only with advances in science has thinking changed. Enlightened societies admit psychological coercions in among the evident ones governing behavior. What constitutes evident coercion has been growing as we discover ever more about how determinism works.

In the expression, free will, is submerged our ignorance of the workings of nature. With increased understanding more of the non-evident becomes evident. Ever less of behavior is attributed to free will. The boundary line shifts. (Shown graphically at Nature’s Imperatives) The mechanisms by which nature runs its determined course are increasingly exposed.

Medical research, biological, psychological and sociological research are revealing them. Market research is the study, precisely, of how human behavior may be coerced non-evidently. Its business is to expose the non-evident coercions motivating choice. Trained salesmen know and use coercions evident to them but not at all evident to the buyer. “This offer will expire. Your opportunity will be lost,” says the salesman to drive the buyer into anxiety. Public opinion can be swayed and molded precisely because our behavior is deterministic: the coercions, not evident to the public, are evident to the persuaders and exploited by them. That the boundary between evident and non-evident is flexible means that free will is not objective.

So in a sense, free will didn’t have meaning because of the meaning we attached to the word, meaning; something on which all could agree. Free will is subjective. We don’t all agree on it. Like taste it differs with time and from person to person. Also like taste, as understanding is increased, we are able to attribute ever more of the phenomenon to nature’s imperatives.

This experience – of freely choosing – is how nature carries out its program in human behavior. Why should it be different in other animals – or in plants? Any organism that appears to respond deliberately to its environment must be operating on what it feels as free will. Deliberation is its expression. Free will is nature’s way of coordinating the myriads of electrochemical processes needed to effect the organism’s role in its environment. I conclude that any organism that makes choices must feel free will. A worm, a flea. Like the sense of pain redirects behavior so free will is the sense counterpart of the body’s electrochemical processes which direct behavior.

“We have to believe in free-will. We’ve got no choice.” writes Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The feeling of free will is the gift of the deterministic world.





5 responses to “Free Will”

  1. On reading this my friend, Jeff Prouty, poses the fundamental question: “does quantum mechanics undermine the idea of a deterministic universe?”

    Most physicists must answer, yes, to this question. Albeit, some would say we live in a deterministic multiverse. That quantum mechanics compromises determinism was what disturbed Einstein about quantum mechanics. Just how it does so is called the measurement problem. How events come to happen when quantum mechanics yields only the probabilities for events to happen is not understood – it is merely postulated, the von Neumann projection postulate. So the matter is really not resolved.

    Does this have anything to do with free will? I think not. On the macroscopic scale determinism governs what happens. Chemical reactions take place. They happen predicably. Electrical currents flow in wires as they do in nerve tissue – predictably. Deterministically. The laws of electricity and magnetism and of thermodynamics and of hydrodynamics and of gravity operate deterministically. As does relativity. Our physical constitution and thus our physiological and psychological and emotional constitution depend only these deterministic physical laws. Thus it is these from which ‘free will’ must emerge. I expect free will is no more dependent on the uncertainty of quantum mechanics than is the ideal gas law or Ohm’s law of electrical circuits. So free will can only be an illusion created by deterministic processes. Or so it seems to me.

  2. Steve Strasnick

    This account of free will feels right to me. Our actions are neither free (undetermined) nor willed (caused by a self). The (philosophical) belief in free will might stem from the Cartesian duality of mind and body, wherein a non-physical mind guided by reason is able to control the behavior of a physical body (actually, this goes all the way back to Plato). But, as you say, the real issue is the “feeling” of free will, which some say follows from our own ignorance of the workings of 95% of our (unconscious) brain. We ascribe agency to our actions simply because we find no other cause for then but our “will”.

    The real mystery for me is why the brain gives us this feeling of self and agency. Is it evolutionarily advantageous somehow, or is it simply an epiphenomenal echo?


  3. Steve Strasnick

    I have a question about your comment regarding QM and determinism. Can a process have a random component and still be determined? We know at the sub-atomic level that the vacuum is jittery so that the movement of particles at this level will always have some element of random perturbation to them. Does this make this movement undetermined? Or simply non-reversible in an abstract sense, or unpredictable (uncertain)? Some (not me) might argue that this random jittering might cause a brain circuit to flip one way or another, thereby causing one action instead of another. The butterfly effect at the neuronal level perhaps… If this makes an action non-determined and thus free, I’m not so sure that should make the free will advocate feel much better. Having our actions chosen by the random jittering of the vacuum doesn’t lead to a very ennobling view of the soul. Better I think that our actions are determined by the sum total of our genetics and experiences, that is, by who and what we are.


  4. “The real mystery for me is why the brain gives us this feeling of self and agency.”

    I would ask ‘how’ rather than ‘why’. How is the feeling of self-agency generated by the circuitry of the brain? The sense of free will must represent the computational mechanics of gathering and processing stored information to make a decision and generate an action. This brain activity gives us the feeling of free will. Much as activity in the visual cortex represents the feeling of seeing.

    “Having our actions chosen by .. random jittering .. doesn’t lead to a very ennobling view of the soul.”

    Nor does it give rise to directed action; only to random action.

  5. Jeff Prouty

    In regard to my question mentioned above, a query was recently posted on Quora which I found interesting:

    “How can quantum theory or randomness be used to prove the existence of free will?”

    Tom McFarlane answered, “The randomness of quantum phenomena does not prove free will. On the contrary, if the indeterminacy in quantum events opened the door for the influence of our personal will to be exercised, then through the exercise of our will to preferentially and repeatedly select a particular one of the possible outcomes, we could alter the predicted probability distribution of those events, in violation of the predictions of quantum theory. That would imply quantum theory as we know it is incorrect and we need new physics.”