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Do we have free will or not?

Updated on July 19, 2017

Do we have free will or not?

This is a question on many philosophers’ minds these days. And of course it’s been a topic of conversation and speculation throughout the ages.

These days though, it’s also being debated by neuroscience and even physicists in their search for how consciousness works.

There are two major camps, of course: We have free will, usually championed by the duelists, including theists, and the naturalists who say we don’t.

I want to take a different position: Yes we do, no we don’t. So both, and therefore neither. And I’ll try to explain that so it becomes clear.

So what is the dualist position? The theist says the soul is the author of will, not the brain. Some dualists even think mind and will are outside the brain. For some scientists it’s a quantum state. And I won’t try to explain their thinking. Lot’s can be quickly learned about it on YouTube if you are interested. It’s basically a cosmic consciousness built into the quantum itself. For the theist “free” will was given by god, even though nowhere in the bible does it tell us that. But we all do what we want, right? So “ free” will is obvious?

In law it means we could have chosen to do other than what we did, and as long as we are sane, we are responsible for our actions. If you are insane, you’re not yourself. So can’t be responsible. If we could not do otherwise the fear is no one can be responsible for their acts. My DNA made me do it.” Would get you off mass murder charges. Justified fear or not? I’ll talk about that later.

So for dualists mind and will are inextricably connected, and brain is just a machine serving the mind/will.

People who say we have no free will see mind and brain as one. Will is of brain. So we have no free will because brain is a machine following nature and so, the laws of physics.

So lets ask ourselves a few questions like: If we do have free will, in what way is it free?

The best answer I’ve ever heard was from a theist who said free will means having a will separate from god’s will. Well, it instantly dawned on me that we do have individual wills, separate from everyone else’s. In that respect our will is free from being directly controlled by others.

But if you substitute god’s will for nature’s laws, is our will directly controlled by natural law? As far as I know, the brain doesn’t do anything that violates natural law. But does that mean free will is dead? Yes and no.

We are individuals. In fact, unique individuals. Anything that does anything has to have a way or mechanism to do what it does. That’s why we can figure out how things work. Without a structure and rules, or in other words: a predictable stable order, nothing could work or even exist for long. Does that mean everything is mechanical? No.

Nature is dynamic. Biology is hardly mechanical. It adapts and learns.

So the question no one seems to be able to answer be it theologian or scientist is: What is will?

To me it’s quite simple: Will is a “manifestation” of your genetic predisposition played against experience and learned environmental conditioning. Doesn’t sound very free, does it?

Well, we do have genetic predispositions like our general leanings. We have inherited traits. The big thing is our likes and dislikes are not something we choose, or can choose. We just like something or we don’t. But they can be altered through learning and how that changes our perceptions and beliefs. And, they are what we base our choices on. We do things we want to do. But where do those wants come from?

They come from who we are; a manifestation of who we are. A manifestation of all the influences that make us who we are. Doesn’t sound free, but it’s not predetermined, is it?

In one sense it has to be. If the universe is cause and effect, everything follows from initial conditions. And we see this in our lives. What we do has consequences that go on long after we’re gone. Once an act has been done, it’s out of our hands. Every action we take, or choice we make has a long history we aren’t often completely aware of.

So is there no hope for free will? Well, we are individuals. No two eggs or sperm are genetically identical. We’re unique. One of a kind. Our will is unique because our conditioning is unique, because our perspectives are unique, because no two things can occupy the same space at the same time.

We make our own choices. No one else thinks for us. And that’s pretty much the extent of how our choices are “free”. But we all have will. Lots of it. It’s dynamic. Our will can change. We can want to improve ourselves, and actively work at it. We can adapt and learn.

It’s not about “free”. It’s about individual. All those histories, inherited predispositions, experiences, all those unique perspectives, are us. An individual. Will is who we are. We wouldn’t be who we are without all the above, how could we be anything? Those aspects of who we are make us/our personality possible.

Free of all influence is impossible, and meaningless. What makes a human is all our influenced played against each other.

The theistic idea of a soul has problems. Will is free because it is not driven by natural law. It’s supernatural. Will has nothing to do with genetics, it’s ultimately free of all influences.

Does that sound even remotely possible? We see inherited traits in ourselves and we’re often proud of them. How can a soul have no mechanism/structure/rules and therefore no order? It can’t be anything , let alone individual, without a structure. And if it has one it follows rules, even be they supernatural rules, rules nun the less. And if it must exist within a system, its tied to that system because the system is what makes it what it is. It facilitates its individuality, and its very existence.

So soul or no soul ; there’s really no difference when it comes to being influenced by our structure/genetics/form. And really, no one can deny the influence our experiences have on us. What we experience, what we learn, and how we naturally feel, is what we base choices on.

A perfect soul/mind outside of body and its influences wouldn’t need to worry about temptation. It’s obvious that whatever mind is: brain or soul, we are physical beings with physical needs, and those needs drive most of our choices and goals.

The theist knows this, as they are always warning about the influence of the world on our souls. So how free is that? Doesn’t this also tell us souls are influenced, and set up to be influencable by their nature? Must be so.

The question is: When you act, could you have chosen to do something else? Or was that the only choice you could make?

Obviously, when we are confronted with a choice there are often several courses of action one could take. Each one is quickly sorted out, and one choice emerges as actual. Much like quantum theory.

The one we choose is the one that feels right at the time for whatever reasons. So could we choose something else? Well yes, we could have. But for that split second, or for that experiment with robbery or some other crime, what we choose to do is our best shot at that time, in our opinion. Even if not in reality.

But we can learn. That means we may never choose to do that again. Doesn’t mean we won’t do some other horrible thing later on and learn from that experience. No machine can do that.

So the answer to the question of, could we have done other than we did is yes and no. We could have, but we didn’t want to. Had we though it through we might have, but we didn’t. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Law is safe. We are responsible for our individual acts because we did them, social order holds us responsible with good reason, and we wanted to do it, or felt we had to, or it seemed like the best or the only way forward at the time.

Now, little kids have no concept of theft, so we have to teach them shoplifting is wrong. Eventually they understand what paying for something means, what taking what doesn’t belong to you means, and what the consequences can be. So we know what society expects of us, and what the consequences of breaking the law can be. Yet some people are willing to risk it of their own individual will, of their own individual volition. No absolute direct control of other human minds, gods, or disease. Just because they thought it was a good idea at the time.

So yes, we all have genetic predispositions that give our general likes and dislikes. But those likes and dislikes are altered all through life by our interactions and experiences. In other words, we’re constantly learning and changing. It isn’t “free” will, but its individual dynamic will. Better than “free” will?

Well again, the argument for free will I think works is free from mind control by gods or other people. Clearly that’s a fact. And that gives us individual will, rather than hive mind.

But it’s not free of the influences and wills of others. Teachers, bosses, parents, spouses or significant others, kids, friends, you name it. If you’re religious, even by what you think god thinks. Our choices are always influenced, and ours influence others. That’s a fact.

So what is mind, and where does will reside?

This is the current quest for neuroscience, and some astounding discoveries have already been made. Most astounding of these done over and over again by countless researchers by now, but not unpredictable from what we should already know, is that the brain knows what you are about to do up to several seconds before consciousness is made aware of the choice it thinks it alone made. What’s going on? What does it mean?

It means, for one thing that mind isn’t just about consciousness. It has several layers, in fact. And this has been obvious since Fraud. We have a subconscious mind as well. And this subconscious is fully aware of what’s happening. It has to be, because one of its main roles is auto response in emergency situations.

A ball is headed toward you. Your eye catches it. A split second later your arm reaches out and you catch it. Well, at least I your practiced at catching balls. If not, you move out of the way just in time. Then you congratulate yourself on being able to just react like that. Man am I good. But your conscious mind didn’t have to ponder the problem, it just gets done.

That’s the instinctive side of us. From it, or even a deeper layer, come our emotions. Named for the fact that they drive us to do things to resolve them. In many instances they represent likes or dislikes we aren’t choosing to have. We just have them, and feel we need to do something about them. We feel good or bad about things and don’t often know why. It’s part of who we are. But we don’t choose what we are. An apple doesn’t choose to be what it is. Neither do we.

We are what we are, which includes all the parts that aren’t conscious. So how does this work?

When you learn any new skill you first have to think about it, test. Riding a bike for instance. You need to think about brakes, balance, steering, etc. You fall off, get back on and try again. The more you ride the more comfortable you get, and less you think about it. Thinking too much at a certain stage, as in second guessing one self can lead to falling off again.

But when you master it, it becomes second nature to you, like it’s become an extension of your body. Pat of you.

What happened? You educated the subconscious auto response. Now you don’t think about it anymore, unless you need to add or alter your behavior slightly, like driving stick when you’re used to automatic. Auto response is much faster than conscious thought.

And this is the same with any skill we learn. Once on trained automatic you are free to improvise. Only then have you mastered the skill. Ask a musician, an artist, a martial arts expert, anyone who has mastered any skill. And we know this is happening to us. We feel most comfortable when we don’t have to think about it much, and can just do it.

So the subconscious layers of our mind act automatically once trained. But that’s not all. One of those layers, and I am proposing there’s not just one, also sends consciousness emotions, and accesses memory, it also throws answers at us.

As a trouble shooter by way of day job most of my life, I’ve developed a strange technique to get answers when faced with particularly difficult problems. If I just can find a solution I actively forget about it. I push the problem to my subconscious. After a while an answer seems to appear from nowhere. Sometimes in a dream. The subconscious part of self has access to all of you experience. It’s been learning since you were born. But it’s only as good as its training. Consciousness then has to process that idea and test its veracity.

A test was done in several major universities. The question is amazingly simple. A ball and bat together costs one dollar and ten cents. The bat costs exactly one dollar more than the ball. How much is the ball? Don’t think, just say the first answer that pop’s up.

Over 90 percent of students, even those in math and physics said ten cents. Which of course is the wrong answer. Seems the subconscious is geared to giving us answers that are close, but not exact. That’s probably enough for survival most of the time. But it isn’t good enough for math.

And that’s something consciousness can deal with. It’s the seat of deliberation, rationality, and logic; if it has learned those tools. The subconscious throws up a close answer, but consciousness then gets to verify or refute it.

The currency of human consciousness is language. Doesn’t matter which one. We think in language. I think in English. Language makes it possible not only to communicate with others, though that’s huge, It also allows us to explain the world to ourselves; to create complex concepts and solve complex problems. Imagine trying to think without it. You really can’t. You’re left with emotions, feelings, perhaps images, like most animals. Very aware, of course. You’d be living in you subconscious. Exactly what meditation accomplishes if practiced properly

But with language we can use mental tools like logic.

This is how the layer of human consciousness developed. It deliberates and educates the subconscious (but aware) layers of mind/brain. Not separately aware either. It also identifies as “I” It does this because it’s isolated from the rest of self. It believes it makes all the choices, but that’s not it’s preview.

It helps, obviously. But it’s not the only part that is you, and the final word on your choice after full deliberation, is the feeling that it’s the right choice. Feelings don’t come from the conscious layer. And neither does will.

Will is manifest as feelings and emotions. It’s a manifestation of the entirety of what you are, conscious, subconscious, aware, and unconscious. All of it us. Nun more important nor less than any other. All working together as one unit, which is what we are. Will then, is a manifestation of that individuality.

So what about cause and effect? The leading argument against free will is that since the big bang, or beginning of the universe everything follows. Therefore whatever happens is predetermined. But predetermined without anyone doing the determining and utterly unpredictable.

But is everything predetermined? Everything is determined. But that may not be the same thing.

Now, theists are very firm believers in free will. But if anything, god or otherwise knows the future with absolute certainty, which Christians say god knows, then free will is out the window. The future is already written in stone. Nothing you do can change it, because then it would prove god wrong. And prove the future unpredictable. It would also suggest the future already exists, and the past still exists.

The likelihood is, the only thing that actually exists is the ever changing now. This now can be sped up or slowed down , We can only, however, move forward in time, as far as we know. Why in the world would every preceding second exist forever? I don’t buy it.

Yes, in theory some particles move backward in time. But it’s not a proven fact. None of those particles has been proven to exist. And then, what do they mean by moving backward in time? It’s not clear, It’s just that quantum theory doesn’t prevent it on the quantum scale. , But it doesn’t seem to mean humans can. In fact the laws of thermodynamics say we can’t, and that’s a pretty solid and proven field.

Some have tried to argue that the uncertainty principal helps or facilitates free will. But that level isn’t controlled by us. If we’re not able to use it ourselves, it’s not us doing it. It amounts to free will by quantum accident.

Something more promising is chaos theory. But it can’t give us free will either, for the same reasons. But what they both give us is a world of unpredictable absolute order.

So is everything predetermined? Possibly not due to the discovery of chaos theory. It actually explains how the simple becomes the complex following simple rules over and over under diverse conditions. But it also tells us non-local events can leave a chain of cause and effect similar to the flapping of a hundred butterfly wings in South Africa might effect the weather in Canada, or even an election in France.

Launch two identical balloons starting an inch away from each other, at the same time, same speed, same direction. In theory they should just keep going side by side forever. But test after test shows that not too long after launch they start to diverge, and are soon on their own courses. Why? Small unpredictable perturbations is the answer. No two things can occupy the same space at the same time, so all things have a unique experience perspective, and of course history.

Will isn’t free in any way but meaning individuality. And I’d be happy to drop the word free and replace it with the word individual. We all, without a doubt, have individual will.

There is no such thing as a selfless act. That’s how individual we are, and how willful. All acts, even altruism give us something in return. Even if that something is just feeling like you’ve done the right thing. Any reason you have for doing good for others is a goal, and achieving a goal feels good. Nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself. You’ve done your will. If we don’t want to do something we don’t do it, unless it’s our opinion that doing it anyway is our duty or the best or only option left to us.

And that will is a manifestation of what we are. Our will is determined by what we are, but not necessarily predetermined. Certainly unpredictable. Definitely not mechanical. Dynamic, constantly learning and changing. Influenced by many things but not tied to always making the same choices. We can improve ourselves; feel better about ourselves.

So, is our will free or predetermined? “Free” will is impossible, the word free meaningless and misleading. But will is very real, and individual will is obvious to all of us. Will is a manifestation of who and what we are. What in the world else would it be? It’s self evident.

Did we choose to be born? Did we choose our personalities? Did we choose our feelings, likes and dislikes, gender, species, body type, blood type, hair colour, quirky traits inherited from quirky ancestors, etc? No. But we accept that those things are part of who and what we are. We identify with them.

We’re unique. No one else is identical to us, even an identical twin. No two eggs are exactly genetically the same. No two sperm are genetically identical. It’s better than free will. It’s neither free nor not free. It’s determined but not completely predetermined. We make our own choices determined by how we feel, which is determined by what we are. How much more natural can you get?

We recognize that we are responsible for our actions and take credit or blame for them. Nothing changes when we drop the word free and simply say will. Except perhaps our understanding of what will is and how it works. Which can only help us understand ourselves and others.

It’s not free, its not predetermined, it’s neither. It’s us.


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    • Slarty O'Brian profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Hooft 

      14 months ago from Ottawa

      Exactly. Thanks for reading

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      Free will isn't Free it's individual


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