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.
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’.
I’m curious…what do you believe about the origin of life/matter? I haven’t read too much of your blog, so I’m sorry if you’ve addressed it before. If so, feel free to just post a link to that blog. Thanks 🙂
Hi Sarah! I have not really addressed the origin or matter and life in my blog. Given that these are questions best addressed by trained people (i.e. scientists), and I do not have the level of training they have, I defer mostly to the scientific consensus on the matter. The universe appears to have “erupted” in a big bang of energy which over time and in accordance with the laws of nature, coalesced into the energy/matter we see today. As for life on Earth, I think it is likely the result of abiogenesis or panspermia. If it was panspermia, then I believe the ultimate origin of it (i.e. the first life in the universe) was likely the result of abiogenesis.
on xamishatheist’s blog, if you click on ‘my philosophy’, jd and I had a whole conversation on it. I start talking about it on my 4th post, and he responded. If you are interested, I advise you to look into it:)
HOGWASH. Like I told a atheist, IF I AM WRONG I HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE, IF U R WRONG U HAVE A LOT TO LOSE!!!! It is faith.
Here are some of my thoughts on that argument: https://xamishatheist.com/2012/05/07/pascals-wager-is-god-the-safe-bet/
Sarah D. said:
I so appreciate your blog and the deep questions you are raising. I can tell you are really thinking about things from an inward standpoint, which is so rare…and maybe you have to go through something really extreme to be able to have that introspection and valuable perspective.
Good job, much respect for you…keep at it.
Most of the people on the earth are full of fixed ideas, which are not even their own ideas, which are not even their own thoughts, but planted in them by some outward authority.
Outward oneness by force does not inward oneness create.
Don’t stop, cuz you rock.
Thank you for your kind words!
You deserve them! While you and I don’t share many ideas, reading you blogs over the last couple of weeks has really made me think. I have come to respect you and your ideas, and you have helped me grow in the area of understanding others.
Free will when it comes to God is just this, we have the free will to obey him or not obey him. To do as he instructs us or not do as he instructs us. To love him or to hate him or to be indifferent and not care either way. Free will when it comes to God is God letting us decide without interferring with our choice. At least that is how I see it. He gave us his instructions, teachings, yet he lets us believe whatever we want. Has nothing to do with the big bang or the laws of nature, or any other thing of nature or the universe.
Daniel Boggs said:
So I very much disagree with your premise 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.”
I disagree, because as an archaeologist who values a chaos theory approach in anthropology, I fundamental disagree with your concept of inevitablility in nature. Particularly as applied to such incredibly complex subjects as human will and culture. The reality is, to cite your example, a person would not always choose exactly the same shirt in exactly the same circumstance every time. Your argument defies 150 years of research in the social sciences.