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Based on some of the comments left on my earlier post about free will ultimately being an illusion, I think I didn’t adequately explain myself. Hopefully this post will help convey my perspective and not just further muddy the waters.

In short… When it comes to human choices, if you can explain why one option was chosen over all the others, then you cannot believe it was a “free” choice. Like a computer, the human brain made the final selection based on the external circumstances and the internal state(s). In other words, given the circumstances and the internal state(s) of mind, the choice was inevitable. On the other hand, if you cannot explain why one option was chosen over the others but you still attribute it to free will; that is an argument from ignorance.

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There is more than one way of looking at free will–more than one way of explaining the process of making a decision or selecting an option. For example, let’s look at the process of selecting one shirt to wear from a whole row of options in your wardrobe.

If you are the average guy, your selection might be based on a few simple rules such as; Is it comfortable, or is it of appropriate quality for the job at hand? While the average guy might narrow his selection down to half a dozen shirts based on these rules, there is a good chance that he’ll choose at random from those remaining options (i.e. grab the closest one at hand).

If you are the average girl, your final choice will likely be the result of the application of a fairly complicated set of rules with no element of randomness at all. Your rules, for instance, might be based on questions like; Does it go well with my pants? Does it go well with my shoes? Does it make me appear slimmer? Is it appropriate for the function I’m wearing it to? Does it make me feel pretty?

There are two different ways of looking at this selection process. The most common way of looking at it is to claim that ‘they exercised their free will and each chose a shirt’. Another way of looking at it is that ‘selections were made based on the application of rules, randomness, or both’.

What if the situation was a little different? What if a man was holding a gun on these people and threatening them with death unless they wear shirts of his choosing. This time, both the guy and the girl will likely select the shirt that the maniac wants them to wear.

Again, there is more than one way of looking at this selection process. Instinctively you might think the couple had no free will–that they were forced by the maniac to wear specific shirts. That is not the case, however. They could have defied the gun-toting madman. The first way of looking at it is that they exercised their free will and made the choice to select the shirts they were ordered to select, rather than to risk death. The second way of looking at it is that they simply made their selection based on external circumstances and internal rules (i.e. man with gun + I don’t want to die = do as he says).

What I’m slowly but surely trying to get at is that one way of looking at the choices we make is to think of them as a selection process that utilizes a set of rules with perhaps an element of randomness involved. You could call this process “free will” and many people do, but it’s not truly free will–it’s a (perhaps unconsciously) calculated selection based on pre-existing internal rules and external circumstances.

Let me use the analogy of computer software here. Suppose that I am writing a computer program and this program needs the ability to choose from several possible options. The outcome of the program depends on which option the program chooses. I can code the software to select from any given options in several different ways. I could code it to select randomly from the available options, I could code it to select an option based on the values of variables within the program as well as data from external sources, or I could code it to select based on a combination of both (rules and randomness). I could even call this section of code the “free will module”.

Now you might argue that the software doesn’t actually have free will–that it makes its selections according to randomness or a set of rules based on the external circumstances and the internal states, or a combination of both, and you would be completely right. That is after all; my argument. It is often useful to refer to the concept of free will but there’s no true freedom of will involved in our decision making process. We are just very complex computers that aren’t quite smart enough yet to understand all of the “rules” written into our “code”.

The first and most common way of looking at choices and the human decision making process, is the concept of free will. The second way of looking at it is that given the external circumstances and the internal state(s) of the decision-maker, the final decision was actually inevitable, and thus; not truly a free choice. At first glance, the second way of looking at it seems more complicated and harder to follow. However, I believe it is a better explanation of the human decision-making process because it removes the complex and under-defined concept of ‘free will’, thereby being overall; a more parsimonious explanation.

Just to be clear; I consider the “rules” (that our brains use when selecting from a number of possible options) as being part of our internal state(s). Our internal states are constantly changing as we experience new things and as a result, the choices we make are changing as well. We make different choices than we would have years ago, given similar external circumstances, because our internal states have changed.

Within the context of humanity–that is, when speaking about people and their choices in everyday language, “free will” is a useful concept. When in the wider context of all existence and trying to understand how it all works together, it becomes apparent that free will is an inaccurate oversimplification of the human decision-making process. It becomes apparent that no part of the human mind (e.g. the will), is truly free. All parts are constrained to act in accordance with the laws of nature. The human mind is just another part in the tightly interconnected machine that is the universe. There is no room in  the gears of nature for true freedom.

For the human will to truly be free it would require that the human mind (or a portion thereof) operate independent (i.e. outside) of nature. This does not seem to be the case. The human mind is a part of nature and I have not found any evidence that it somehow transcends it.

In a way, ‘free will’ is simply a semantic artifact that arises from the way we tend to oversimplify the human decision-making process. That being said, it is often useful to use this concept. It is easier to attribute a choice to someone’s free will than it is to analyze the choice, enumerate the external circumstances, and deduce the internal states of the person. “Free will” is useful in everyday language but it is an oversimplification–an example of a sort of lossy semantic compression.

The concept of free will is also helpful in assigning blame and determining intent in morality and law. Saying, “He committed the crime of his own free will,” is just a simple way of saying, “Given the same external circumstances and internal state(s), it is inevitable that he would do it again.” The justice system can then go on to estimate the probability of that person finding himself in the same circumstances and take the appropriate steps (e.g. prison, therapy, etc.), to either reduce the chance that he’ll find himself in the same circumstances, or change his internal state(s) so that he reacts more appropriately when he finds himself in those circumstances again.

That concludes this rambling collection of thoughts on the semantics of “free will”. I hope it has been helpful in conveying the ‘other way of looking at it’.

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