Nature’s Imperatives

This drivable motion graphic embodies an idea. It illustrates the content of the earlier post called Free Will. The idea is that we live in a deterministic world. And free will, properly understood, is not in contradiction to this notion. Free will is behavior not evidently coerced. But all behavior is coerced. By coerced is meant determined by nature’s imperatives. Behavior may be divided into two parts. One part is not evidently coerced. The other part is evidently coerced. The first part – where we don’t perceive the coercion – we call, free will. And that part has been diminishing inexorably as civilization acquires knowledge.

Evident coercions are the commonly understood ones of punishment, reward, threat of harm, blackmail, etc.  But science exposes formerly hidden coercions that only become evident with better understanding of nature. For example, that irrational behavior can be caused by brain damage has become evident in civilized communities. Multiple clicks on the button in the graphic above expose coercions that have become evident. They weren’t considered coercions by people of past generations.

This graphic confronts the ‘determinism vs free will’ paradox, resolving the contradiction between the two. Free will is not opposed to determinism but rather an expression of it. Volition is what we experience when we carry out the imperatives of nature. Free will is the label that we give to that part of behavior that is not evidently determined. The green slice of behavior.

Can we imagine the increasingly more exposed scientifically explained slice ever becoming the whole pie? Or will there forever remain behaviors without evident coercions?  It is the latter. That, although it must get continually smaller as science progresses, there will always be a large share of green remaining. Behaviors whose causes are not evident. ‘Free will’ will not disappear.

The reason is simply this: Free will is needed in the business of living. Like memory or proprioception (the sense of ones body parts) or exteroception (sight, hearing ..) or interoception (pain, hunger ..). One can’t function without a feeling of free will – the inspiration to do one thing or another. What happens is that the colloquial meaning of the phrase evolves with time and with perceptual acuity in the population.

Here is an example.  Christian Evangelicals believed that homosexuality is behavior uncoerced by anything evident to them – something to be controlled by the excercise of free will under penalty of the wrath of God. In Uganda in 2009 an anti-homosexual bill was introduced before parliament calling for the death penalty for homosexuals. Its preamble said ‘children are the most vulnerable to recruitment into the homosexual lifestyle.’  Scott Lively, an american evangelical pastor, published a book offering ‘seven steps to recruit-proof your child.’ Homosexuality was viewed as a matter of free will. A matter where you could choose otherwise.

It is no longer viewed that way. We now commonly recognize that it is behavior coerced by the biology of the person. No longer to be punished as obstinate free will. Coercion became evident in what formerly had been considered behavior without evident coercion. There remain societies which don’t recognize this finding and refuse to accept it among them. They consider homosexuality a matter of free will and thus punishable. Cultural and intellectual norms govern the divide.

The attitude toward cigarette smoking is another case in point. It is now considered an addiction (biologically coerced behavior) – not easily curable. What we consider free will evolves in time. It’s an ever decreasing aspect of behavior.

To the person exercising ‘free will’ there is an intimate meaning to the phrase that cannot be described using formal or technically precise language. Precision formulations destroy its substance. It might sympathetically be described this way:

Free will is choice from nowhere. But inspired from within. Inspired by the individual entity that defines one as a being distinguishable from all other beings. Chance is not free will. Free will presumes a soul, an essential ‘you’ that is expressed by your behavior.

One may object to the logic behind this formulation but one can’t deny the feeling of free will described by these words. The feeling of free will is the source of choice and creativity. With this feeling we get things done.

That fact suggests that our experience of free will has a biological counterpart. The feeling must mirror a function in the mechanics of mental processing. It must relate to the central coordinating and organizing center governing what we do. Perhaps equivalent to consciousness itself. Besides inspiration, decision making or choice is the essence of free will.

The salmon ‘wants’ to swim upstream. It chooses by free will to do so. It is, in fact, compelled – coerced – by inner drives to do so. Its drive materializes, in the salmon’s awareness, as free will.

Corresponding to the feeling of free will there must be a command structure from which signals must emanate to execute the choice. Signals are exchanged with eyes, vocal cords, hands, various muscles and a myriad other body parts. That all these are coordinated in effectuating choice is the feeling of free will. This suggests that there may be a sense of free will in the brain. Such an apparatus must exist in any complex organism – fish, frog, bird, elephant. I imagine that they all know the feeling of free will as they execute their decisions. Volition is the experience of carrying out the imperatives of nature. Perhaps even plants, as they turn their leaves to face the sun, do so via a feeling of free will.

“Alas our frailty is the cause, not we;
for such as we are made of, such we be.”
Twelfth Night, Shakespeare





3 responses to “Nature’s Imperatives”

  1. JDProuty

    “Free will is not opposed to determinism but rather an expression of it.” – Love this!

  2. JD

    Very interesting. You seem to argue that as our scientific knowledge increases, the scope of the feeling of free will narrows, but it will never narrow to the point of being non-existent because it is a necessary feeling. You also talk about the cultural influences on the scope of the feeling of free will. Do you think that the scope of the feeling of free will could widen in some circumstances, even as our scientific knowledge increases?

  3. It seems to me that the scope of behavior that we ascribe to free will is an entirely subjective matter. But each individual ascriber is influenced by the persuasions and passions of the society in which the indvidual is immersed. Those passions could be retrograde. The society may ascribe an act to free will even though science has discovered a biological basis. Attitudes toward homosexuality in Nigeria are an object example. So my answer to your question is, yes.