Tuesday 9 October 2018

Do We Have Free Will?

Over on another post I received some comments from a reader who calls himself ImmigrationFacts, I include below the full exchange.

The extent to which people are unknowingly/unreflectively influenced by others is grossly underestimated. We like to pretend that we've come to our conclusions based on evidence and informed opinion, but that's B.S (mostly).

We are influenced by what we are exposed to - period. Yes, we can reject a minority of things we are exposed to based on previous experience and reflection, but we pretend we do this much more than we actually do.

We are a blank slate and we are mostly not in control of the quill. We don't realise this because of our myth of 'free will', which is a lie, but a lie nearly everyone in the West believes in.


  1. ImmigrationFacts

    If you have no free will what force compelled you to comment?

    Mark Moncrieff
  2. perhaps, an 'unfree' will? why must it be free - why not partially or full determined?

    I don't like analytical philosophy because it's generally pointless, but in this case, using Ockham's Razor, can't I just say 'something compelled me' or 'there was some psychological need that was fulfilled by me writing'?

    Does a thought come when I will it? Or does a thought come when it does and I may (or may not) reflect on it?

    You don't need 'free will' to explain human behaviour. We are animals afterall. And I'd argue that the concept of free will leads to an erroneous understanding of human behaviour.

    Some cultures don't have the concept of free will as we understand it and they function just fine.

Blank State! Unfree Will! We are animals afterall!

No, non of these things are true.

People are born ignorant, we do not possess knowledge, however we do possess instincts and preferences. One thing I have always found interesting is how babies react to men. Some babies love men and others find them the scariest creatures in existence. No knowledge, maybe instinct but definitely a preference. If babies have a preference how can they be blank states?

They cannot be, it is simply wrong, I would go so far as to say it is absurd!

Now I agree that people are much more influenced than they think, they take more notice of popular opinion, personal opinion and advertising then they think. But there is a very good reason for people to do that, in most cases it helps them to fit in and it normally has no cost. It is a sort of stereotyping, a shorthand that even when wrong is rarely disastrously wrong. However that does not mean that every action is done without conscious thought. If that were true then individuals could not operate as individuals, but people do.

However, if we have no free will then how do we think and how do we carry out actions?

The argument made here is a good one, that we do not have full control of our faculties, which is true, thats why it's good. However it has been taken to it's illogical conclusion.

We are biological creatures, we have instincts that we do not need to think about to carry out, it is hardwired into us, an automatic response. If you have ever fallen over you will have experienced this. If you have ever been tongue tied then you would know that not everything is automatic. Many of the things that we do in life need both thinking and action, it's not enough to know what to say you also have to say it.

Sometimes we think thoughts that we don't like or we act in ways that aren't the "real us". Why don't we do that all the time? If we have no free will how do we have self control? If we have no free will how can there be a real us? If we have an unfree will or a partial will does that mean we are automations? Or that some other force or will controls us?

That there are limits to free will is true, that we are not always in total control is also true, but to think that we have little to no control is not true. Who robbed the bank, me with my free will or me with my unfree will? Thats the argument of children and the guilty.

Are people animals?

We are certainly biological and we are much in common with animals. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, we also share 56% of out DNA with fruit flys. In other words, DNA, the basic building blocks of life are really basic. However it is not the things that make us similar that define us but the things that make us different. Did you know that if a human child 9 years of age was the oldest human on Earth that that child would be the most intelligent creature on the planet?

We are much more than animals, we are even in a biological sense so much more complex than them that we are unique. Maybe in the universe there are other creatures as intelligent, or even more intelligent than us. Unless they are also human then we would remain unique. Our ability to solve problems, to make and use tools, to think, to build societies, cultures and civilizations, to know that the future is real and not simple another day. To call humans animals is to misunderstand both animals and humans. I would also add something that history has taught, when people begin to think that people are animals then people start being treated as animals. We treat animals as animals because that is their nature, but it is not ours.

I hope ImmigrationFacts does not feel picked on, I wanted to give a more complete answer than a blog comment can make.

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  1. "Don't think of a pink elephant"
    Did you just think of an elephant?
    What is it your ‘free will’ that made you think of an elephant, or just the impression your brain made by seeing the words and applying the learned response of reading comprehension?

    Re: ‘blank slate’ – I mean only in regard to children and adults and their everyday experiences involving the prefrontal cortex, not the more emotional amygdala. Most of my statements are qualified, as I still allow for ‘hard-wired’ responses which are universal and not overcome without significant training (e.g. the weird and wonderful ways Buddhists train their mind). The baby example is interesting, though I’d need more to ask more questions to comment.

    You can call still have a framework of moral accountability without free will. Who deems one guilty? Other people. If a person commits a crime when they are drunk/drugged we still hold them accountable, even though they were less in control of themselves at the time.

    Hell, if you’re a white man, you’re guilty for everything despite being an unthinking monster!

    We are animals in a strict scientific sense. Do chimpanzees, dolphins and pigs have free will, or only humans? Does ‘complexity’ give rise to free will?

    Consciousness is an interesting topic, but I really think we can’t go wrong in delegating to neuropsychology or neuroscience and leaving the rest as speculation. What gives rise to thought? The brain. How do we know there are thoughts? Through reflection, a hard-wired function of the brain.

    Reflection is a fascinating topic. The Metamorphosis and The Stranger are two of my favourite literary works on the topic. Those novels also consider our notions of the self. Arguably, it is reflection that distinguishes us from many other animals (but not all). Of course, I agree with the distinctions you’ve made between humans and other animals, but fundamentally we are still animals. I don’t mean that in a crude, disparaging way.

    When you see humans as animals - foremost determined by their biology and environment which, not an omnipotent independent will - you really understand their behaviour. This understanding is not available from the rationales, justifications and consoling stories we like to tell ourselves and others. Basically, human behaviour, like most herd animal behaviour, boils down to reproduction and social status (acceptance/dominance/protection/access to mates, resources, etc.). Humans have the unique ability to fool themselves about this though – the more ‘educated’, the greater the delusion.

    I thank you for challenging me on this because I am looking to refine my philosophy of Life. My philosophy is naturalistic/Darwinist and I just don’t see the need for ‘free will’ to explain anything. I still believe in responsibility, accountability, not blaming others, internalising the locus of control, etc. I am an amateur Existentialist and Stoic, but deviate from the Existentialists in regard to free will, seeing it as a Western moral concept that has been reified. It is a useful concept for Western explanations of morality, but it is also deeply misleading.

    You want things, do things, and have certain opinions due to marketing, mass media and ideology which you are not reflective of, at all. (Same goes for me). You may be able to recognise some of the influence and perhaps even come up with some compelling reasons for some of your behaviour, but the bulk will be unreflective and simply herd-following. Reason and free will has nothing to do with this behaviour.

    This understanding has significant implications when we think about why the Political Right has been losing for 50 years: we simply don’t expose enough people with enough of our ideology. The Right has relied on principles, reason, common sense, etc. to persuade people while continuing to be drowned out by the Left. That obviously hasn't worked, because despite some token electoral victories, the Left has just about won the culture war.

    1. Immigration Facts

      Excellent reply!

      Mark Moncrieff

    2. It appears to me that humans are mostly guided, mostly, by the same genetic and biological impulses that guide other living things. What makes us different, is how elaborate they are. That is the biggest difference, our means by which we live and grow, and expand our niche are far, far more elaborate, but deep down, it is the same drive.

      The drive for growth, status, the drive to protect the group we belong to, particular responses to existential threats. If we were truly "blank slate", then we would see great variation in responses and behaviours, but we only see differences in how they are elaborated. Whether you are a Fascists, Communist, Muslim, Economist, Hippie, the responses to group dynamics and threats, and the end desires all follow biological patterns.

      There is also growing evidence that our "Thinking" is in part a response to sub-conscious decisions that are made before we even begin thinking! That is, you might think you've made a decision, but in reality, your brain is constructing a narrative to justify an already determined decision. After all, if we truly had full free will, why can't we will what our desires and wants are?

  2. Blank Slate. That was Boaz from over one hundred years ago. Proven to be just not so and for some time too. We are about 80 % nature and 20 % nurture.

    1. Could spend a lot of time debating this. It does depend exactly what we're talking about, e.g. language learning versus political opinions versus religion, etc.

      I haven't exactly been precise in my claims, so fair enough counter-claim. I guess my overall point is that we don't reflect on how we are influenced as much as we may think we do, therefore much of our behaviour is 'auto-pilot' or as the recently popular meme goes, NPC!

  3. There is a bit of confusion philosophically here given the notion of free will is inherent in making sense of the world for us.

    Otherwise we risk sitting back and doing nothing.
    Now, most things are deterministic, as per Newton’s laws just as our life is guided by instinctive actions and our genes. We didn’t have any say in the matter as we were thrown unto the world at birth and we can only live our life in existential terms on the basis of making choices as if we are free to do so. Age old philosophical arguments between determinism and free will lead nowhere. All one might say from a scientific point of view is that via quantum mechanics our consciousness allows us freedom in what we can think at any time or choose, but for the rest of our biological state it is deterministic.

    1. I wasn't aware that quantum mechanics made claims about freedom and consciousness - will look into it.

      The ancient Greek/Roman notion of fate/providence or determinism was quite subtle, not a straight dichotomy as we may assume.

      Some were deterministic/fateful about the past and current, but also believed in 'free will' in regard to the future. They saw no contradiction in this stance. This is foreign to our thinking, but plausible imo.

  4. Of course we don’t understand what consciousness is or how it works, just as that is true for quantum mechanics. The two explain one to another.
    Many physicists posit our consciousness arises from quantum theory and so that the brain makes decisions from within and from sources in the outer. You come up with the idea our quantum brains concurrently hold two exclusive ideas at the same time. We can opt for one or the other. In other words, a degree of freedom.

    But generally speaking you either believe in determinism or free will. However some of the existential philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard (as in his synchronism) made a distinction between those things which he regarded as eternal(n deterministic ) and the extent to which we have free will. That was in in his factors of being.
    Nietzsche thought we should love our fate (inferring determinism) but at the same time affirming life in the tradition of the ancient Greeks circa 600-700 BC. Sartre and others believed in radical form of free will. But at the end of the day whether you believe in it or not it makes sense to accept our freedom as a given.