No such thing as Free Will
Amazon Science Books
What Is Will?
What is will? This is perhaps one of the most fascinating questions to ask, and it leads to all kinds of other questions. Again, what we are usually told about will it is a crock. For instance, we are told that we have free will. It seems obvious to anyone. We can choose the way we act and we are held responsible for how we act. Our justice system is based on the fact. But is it a fact? What is our will free from? In what specific way is our will free?
The most common definition is that free refers to coercion by others, or free from restrictions by others. Truth is that it can be free from the influence of specific others but not all others. We are brought up by people who deeply influence our choices in later life by conditioning us to their way of thinking. We can rebel and reject their way of thinking, or we might embrace it. Both are ways we are influenced by them.
If we think about it, there are many different kinds of influence. Humans have a long history of choices behind each new choice. We make choices because we have no alternative. We are forced to make them and even not making a choice has consequences for us, and who knows for who and what else? Making no choice is in fact making a choice by default. The presentation of a choice in itself is the catalyst that forces us to make one.
People usually make choices based on subjective desires. Subjectivity is the basis for freedom in will so far as we are told. What happens to us, to the individual, is what that individual must react to in their best interest. One person’s best interest isn’t always the other person’s best interest. But the individual supposedly has every single option that exists, open to them, as long as they know what those options are or are inventive enough to create novel options. Therefore there is every possible freedom in the choices we make.
Is that a fact? I see a lot of influences that prevent choices being made. Physical limitations are an obvious hindrance to your possible number of choices. You can’t flap your arms and expect to fly. You need an aircraft for that. You can’t put a rope under your feet and lift yourself up. You also can not decide to do something you don’t know is a choice open to you. So we again narrow the field.
Then there is conditioning. As I said: We are conditioned to respond in certain ways by our environment. People in our lives teach us, become our heroes and heroines, become hated adversaries whose behaviour is to be avoided. The list of influences on the environment front is endless. Do they limit our possible choices? Certainly; you are not likely to choose something you intellectually or rationally/irrationally hate. This changes, of course, if you are forced to do something because of fear. Or you are driven, out of need, to do the unthinkable. But they tell us we can supposedly do anything; the possibilities are endless, right?
No. Our conditioning limits our personal set of possible choices. But we can alter how we look at things, learn, and change our conditioning. But that only alters our possible set of choices; it doesn’t open up the field. More on that in a second.
Conditioning is a predisposition. We are conditioned by our culture and other factors of our outside environment. I’ll call it cultural predisposition or environmental predisposition. Whether that conditioning is pro or con toward the person’s own culture is irrelevant. What is obvious is that the environments conditioning produces cultural likes and dislikes which influence choice, opening one door or possibility and thereby closing another.
What I mean by this becomes obvious when you consider for example that once ‘Saint Paul’ found Jesus on the road to Damascus, he could no longer make the choice to help the Romans find and kill Christians. Any time we have a change of heart about a subject we open a door to one possible choice and close the door to another other.
Now, the second kind of predisposition is even less debatable as to its accommodation of freedom in will, and that is: genetic predisposition. We have likes and dislikes that are hard wired by our particular genetics. We can sometimes acquire a taste for something by forcing ourselves to try it over and over again, but we need a reason to do it, so that reason may eventually override our revulsion. Yet some things we just can’t acquire a taste for.
We do not choose our likes and dislikes. We simply have them and we base most of our choices on them. I will say now that we base all of our choices on them. Why? Because even when we do something we don’t want to do we are doing so to avoid something we consider to be worse. Everything we do has a reason behind it even if we are not aware of what that reason is. So where is the freedom in our likes and dislikes?
Why do we make the choices we do make? We make choices because we must. We have no free will in that aspect at all. We do not choose the choices life brings. We are conditioned genetically and environmentally to make the choices we will make. We are limited by the physical reality of the world. We can certainly be reconditioned through learning and educating our instinctive reactions. We often do this through the lessons of life experience. But contrary to some New Age beliefs we can not de-condition ourselves. We can only change within the confines of what our total conditioning allows.
We are supposedly free to choose the colour of shirt we will wear today. Just watch us! However, the choice we will make depends on many variables including the availability of the shirt and our preference of style and colour. There might be one you want to wear that is still in the store or in the laundry. Our mood has a lot to do with our final choice as well, and most people would admit that they do not choose their mood for the day. Yet they believe they choose their shirt for the day without influence.
Does the person run into the burning building to save people because they are free to do so, or does something in the back of their mind push them to do it? Is it instinctive reaction to a dangerous situation perhaps? Is it a fight response? Could the person really choose to do anything else? If a person chooses to run into that building, could they have lived with themselves if they hadn’t? Most people say exactly that when asked. The possibilities are there, supposedly. Many people just stand around like a deer caught in headlights. But some people take action automatically. Flight or fight instinct? Is it a free choice? Free of what? Saying you can’t just stand by and watch people die means you are not free to just stand by and let people die.
What we can say is that the potential choices out there are almost endless for the human species, but each individual human has a very limited range of possible choices they can make in the end. Some that are open to us are not open to others. That sounds strange but it’s obvious. A person in a wheel chair can not choose to walk around a room while a person with good legs can. There are dozens of examples we could think of.
I would also venture to say that the choice we finally make is the one we had to make once all the influences that produced it came together and were weeded out by order of dominance.
Subjectivity does not guarantee freedom of will. Any reason we have for doing anything is the trigger that makes us do something with that reason’s aim in mind. Most people claim that their reason, their likes and dislikes are an expression of their free will. But that is not so. Their reasons, likes, and dislikes, are coercive.
The only way one could make a completely free choice would be either by accident, which isn’t freedom at all by any standards, or by making an immaculate choice; a choice without any history behind it at all. But of course that would be absurd as it wouldn’t relate to anything, wouldn’t solve any problems or resolve any needs. A choice addresses an issue with history behind it. The choice made has history behind it. No getting around it.
The best we can say is that yes, we have a will. We have a lot of it. But it is in no way free. So what is it? Do you want to know? Will is the manifestation of our needs.
Why do we do anything at all? We are stimulated to do things in one way or another; either internally or externally or both at the same time. We do nothing without stimulation. We only bat an eyelash because our body has a need to do so periodically to keep our eyes moist. Our needs have to be fulfilled. We feel them as discomfort, joy, pleasure or pain; in any emotion we can name. All emotions are a call to action, a choice to be made, a need to fulfill. In fact, that’s what our lives boil down to.
The musician and the artist have a need to create art or music. They love it and they love expressing themselves through it. What they do fulfils a need in others as well.
Desire is an extension of need. Some desires are the same as needs, and some are needs imagined as opposed to required. You may want a car, but you may not need one to go to work if your job is next door. You may still want one for other reasons and therefore work toward getting one. Getting the car becomes a need no matter the underlying circumstances for wanting a car.
In other words, desire is processed the same way need is whether it turns out to be a real need or an imagined one. When we are talking about needs and desire in the context of the way they are processed we can treat them the same way and call desire a subsection of need, essentially one and the same thing for the sake of this exercise.
Needs are the stimulus that makes us do and think and react and create and innovate. Need is the mother of creativity. Without them we wouldn’t blink. With them we hunt for food, look for shelter, and run or fight our enemies; some freedom.
Am I saying we should not be held responsible for our actions? Of course I’m not. He who is a danger to me and mine or to society should be removed from it. Jail is not an accident. Capital punishment is not an accident, though we may well wonder if we have a right to employ it or whether it really acts as a deterrent. That’s both beside the point at hand and another related topic we will not get into at this time. It is our nature to try to stop others from harming us. It is part of our survival instinct. Whether we have free will or not is irrelevant to the fact that we as humans are forced to react to potential harm. If I have murdered someone; then in order for society to protect itself I must expect society or an individual to make sure I am not a danger to them or anyone else. Even those who are found not able to make rational choices are not let back into society right after it is deemed they can’t stand trial by reason of insanity.
One is held responsible for one’s actions by themselves and by others. Freedom of will or not does not alter that fact. “I ultimately had no choice” does not alter the fact of the action. However, specific circumstances may alter the judge’s sentence. When a mad dog attacks a child we might say it isn’t the dog’s fault, but it must still be removed from the streets so it doesn’t do it again. We would be fools to allow it to remain loose on the street.
So freedom of will is irrelevant to whether or not we are responsible for our actions. We are whether we like it or not, and in fact our likes or dislikes about the matter are irrelevant as well. We are back to every action has a reaction. Our need for security is what ultimately drives us to dish out justice.
Is everything determined then? It certainly looks that way. If all is cause and effect then it must be. Our actions are a result of cause and effect and they themselves just add to the web of cause and effect present at every moment of our lives
We can’t know the future or how the web of chains of cause and effect we create will affect the world, let alone ourselves, with any certainty. In the mean time we must make choices and add links to the chain. It may not be free will but we have to act almost like it is. Otherwise we would come to a standstill. It is what I call free will through ignorance. Does it make a difference in how we should act if we know everything we do is determined? Of course not, because we don’t have a clue what the end result of any choice will be. After all, our will is not the only will at work. Everyone and every living thing has a will, because they all have needs to fulfill.
Because everyone has a will yours is impinged by theirs. Free will is a nonsense term and should be scrapped. We all have will; full stop. We are responsible for our actions; full stop. But as I said above, we live in ignorance so it looks like our will is free and we have to act as though it is. Cause and effect demand it. Does knowing you have no free will change anything? No. Not a thing. But it is important for the seeker to know.
Is there room for indeterminacy anywhere? I have heard many arguments about this and many theories as to how there might be a way indeterminacy slips in. Some have tried using the idea of what we know of the quantum: The Uncertainty Principal. But that gets us nowhere. How a moment is determined is relative to all the variables as they exist at that moment. The uncertainty we deal with is lack of direct knowledge of all the variables at play.
The only reason people try to find indeterminacy is to prove a sort of possibility of free will. Even if you could prove there is indeterminacy at the quantum level how would you be able to use it to make a choice? Unless you control the choice it isn’t your free will. It isn’t even your will. If some mechanism in quantum reactions is causing indeterminacy at some level, it isn’t you doing it. This is why Penrose fails to prove free will via the quantum, even though he has some interesting ideas other than that one in his books.
Others have postulated that error of the mind causes indeterminacy. But plainly error doesn’t afford free will. Free will through error isn’t free will at all. But are they right about error affording indeterminacy? We are talking about two different things here.
The way I see it, it doesn’t. Error is still caused by conditioning. Conditioning influences our choices. Even mistakes, errors in reading comprehension, distractions that make us miss something, all caused, all effects determined by long chains of causes and effects right back to at least the big bang, and if Penrose’s new theories on that are true, likely beyond.
For there to be indeterminacy there have to be uncaused actions. Actions not related to any chains of cause and effect and not caused by anything at all. Magic, in other words. As I have said here before, no one, not religious figures, not philosophers, not scientists, no one will say there are actions which are not caused.
But let’s do a little speculation here. If somehow at the quantum level there were a causeless event at the beginning of the universe, would that make the universe indeterminable? I don’t see how unless we could run the beginning of the universe over and over again. In that case we might get a different universe with different laws every time.
But once the universe started, unless there continued to be causeless events, it would be determined from there on in what ever state it was in.
If there were a universe with a lot of causeless events or the laws of cause and effect were not at play, there couldn’t be any order and there for probably nothing would be stable enough to last long, if anything substantial came into being at all. Cause creates stability and the opportunity for chain reactions to take place.
If we were able to travel back and forth in time, would the universe be indeterminable? A lot of science fiction has been written about this and we know what messing with our time line would potentially do. The smallest change in the past may create vast change for the future. So would the universe then be indeterminable if everyone was running around backward and forward in time? It would certainly be indeterminable for me.
But in fact, only earth history would change drastically. Probably the effects wouldn’t grow to be universal. So only human history would be indeterminable? It would potentially be a mess alright, but from each change the time line would still continue from then on to be determined until someone went back and changed something else.
However, we can’t go back in time and we can not run our universe over and over again; and so far as we know there are no uncaused acts even in the quantum. So speculation along those lines is not going to be the answer and it won’t get us anywhere. As far as I can tell the universe is a determined line that follows from the at least the big bang or how ever time got started. If someone can actually find a way to indeterminacy I would love to hear about it. So far no attempt on my part or anyone else’s has proven fruitful.
A fundamentally uncertain universe does not give us any more possibility of “free” will then an absolutely ordered one does. In fact, less. Cause and effect and the order they produce allow us to be pretty sure that when we turn on the tap we aren’t going to get steak pouring out, and then flying away. Cause and effect affords us the kind of power that comes from being able to understand the world and thereby facilitates creativity. But it restricts us at the same time. But that’s a good thing.
Another definition of free will is having a will different from that of god, so free of god’s direct will. He allows you to make your own choices.
But what are those choices based on if not the influences you do have? If not your conditioning both environmental and genetic, what would you base a choice on? Does religion not try to condition us to what god’s will supposedly is so we can try to do it and not our own anyway?
Religion becomes a form of conditioning which becomes a factor in how we behave and the choices we make. Seems even though a god granted us free will, he doesn’t really want us to use it except to choose his will. Sounds rather odd to me. Rather a waste.
Will is not a thing in and of itself like a lung or a heart. So what is it if not the manifestation of our conditioning; of our likes and dislikes which we do not choose?
But for those with existential angst about not having free will there is good news. Each of us is a unique individual with our own unique conditioning and therefore our own unique will. Like snowflakes and finger prints no two people are exactly the same. No two people have the same conditioning because no two people, even twins raised together, can occupy the same space at the same time. So no two perspectives are identical.
And isn’t uniqueness what “free” will is supposed to give us? Turns out we don’t need it after all. We just need will. And that we all have plenty of.
More by this Author
There is a big problem with some sayings that seem perfectly logical. Let’s look at this common example: There is an exception to every rule. Most people would just start thinking of all the rules they can recall...
By most definitions religion is set of beliefs about the universe and humanities place in it. It is about the origins of mankind and the meaning of life. It is the study of the mechanics of existence and how it all...
There is no such thing as a selfless act. Humans always do things for a reason, and it is usually thought of by definition as being a subjective reason. We get something out of it.