Free Will or Free Won't?

When I was younger, the issue of free-will was easy for me to answer: of course we have it, and we are 100% responsible for each and every action and immediate consequence thereof.

Of late, I took to wondering if we really do have free will because people tend to behave predictably (if irrationally). Growing up in the 70s and 80s, my explanation of "popular culture" and trends was that people's judgement was clouded by drug use (how else would you explain people liking Elton John or Genesis?). The 80s in my mind was the aftershock of the 70s. By the 90s I started to wonder what was wrong with people, after all, 20-30 years should have been plenty of time for people to shake themselves from their torpor. In the 00s, I began thinking that maybe popular "culture" actually was popular and people actually enjoyed it. Then I started thinking maybe there is something different about me, about the way I process and react to the world around me. Culminating with my thought that perhaps free-will is an illusion and humans only think they have it; each of us acts the way we do because we are wired to behave that way and I am just wired differently.

Some friends who have decided to bite and engage me on this have suggested that we have a partial free-will - our nature and nurture limit the free choices we have available, but do not eliminate free choice entirely. For example: assume there are 100 different free will ways to make a certain choice. Because of conditioning and biological determinism, a number of those choices are simply not going to happen, maybe person A is left with 43 free will choices, person B with 72. It is an interesting idea since I had not heard it advanced anywhere previously. But it did not satisfy me, as far as I am concerned, either we have free will or we don't.

What distinguishes us from other animals (so we are told) is all that lovely grey matter in our frontal lobe. It is documented (though, not without controversy) that when this area is damaged, personality changes occur - people lose behavioural control and begin acting inappropriately; they may become aggressive, violent, profane, substance abusive, lusty, etc. For this reason, this area of the brain is believed mediate our impulses.

So perhaps we do not have free will. Perhaps the mindless primitive which lies deep within our brain stem, generating primal urges to copulate, to eat, to kill, to fight or to flee is the real controller. Our impulses are not of our control, but rather we control whether we act on them or not.


Cavalock said…
We have no free will. I work in media, its part of my job to ensure that the public has as little free will/choices as possible. Haha..

But seriously, we all have different number of free will choices as different points in our life. A child would of cos have less than an adult but somehow I don’t think you are referring to that. Your last paragraph is very true. That would account to the mob mentality. Instances during a war where normally peaceful civilians and military took part in mass murder or worse.
Richard said…
cavalock:It is precisely because of mob mentality or collective action that causes me to question free will.

I am an outsider, I always have been. Ever since I was a little kid I always wondered why everyone suddenly moved in one direction. I am totally clued out. At first I thought it was linguistic (I came to Canada not speaking English). Then I thought it was cultural (I was not born in Canada, nor where my parents). Then I thought it was because I was more independent. Lately, I think it is because I am just wired differently.

An interesting thought that came to me while I was reading up on quantum mechanics was the idea of waves. Every particle can be considered as a solid or a wave. Scale this up to humans and imagine that they are particles or waves. Now imagine an emotion as a wave front which moves through those particles, imparting information. Crowds react that way. They seem to react faster than information transfer would seem to allow (you know, getting the message across, then analyzing and understanding the message). Instead it seems that emotion is a real thing, a wave with physical properties, that sweeps through a crowd and influences it.

It seems to me (certainly because of my Stoic bias) that humans cannot have free will if they are externally influenced. For me, free will must be internal in origin.

Isaiah Berlin sums up my gut belief about humans, "Men are rational, they do not need control; rational beings have no need of a state, or of money, or of law-courts, or of any organised, institutional life."
Re: your reply to Cavalock:

And hence the wave people just do at baseball games without thought! I imagine you at a game, not doing it and question of why must I do this?!! I do think you are wired differently ...and are so highly intelligent, you listen to your own voice of reason and rationale. I can't imagine you doing something without thinking about it and you are likely not very impulsive. I'd guess that you are mostly ruled by your head not your heart, except perhaps in your own tight circle of family to whom you are emotionally bound. You tend to look at things as a scientist would..looking for the black and white facts and posing questions and hypotheses.

Most of us are influenced by others as well as emotion. I am strongly wired in the opposite direction from you and am ruled by my heart not my head. I often consider what others would think and do and what is socially acceptable when facing a decision. I am a little impulsive but social mores and emotional factors are so entrenched it is hard to say if one can really be exclusively impulsive without the influence of those factors.

I don't exactly believe Berlin...I think we have the capacity to be rational, but in reality, hardly ever let that dictate our actions exclusively..there are just too many other forces at work to muddy the waters and make things grey as opposed to black or white. Nature vs nurture thing sort of...You can tell I'm not in the least black or white! I constantly try to consider all angles.

### This is one I had to come visit again after thinking, before I commented! ###
KayMac said…
Where do you see God in all of this?
Richard said…
MOI: I don't consider myself bright. I don't think I have any extra mental capacity or faculty over other people. I do think I am better read than most people though. As for being wired differently - should this make any significant difference if we have free will? If we have free will, shouldn't we be able to overcome inbuilt biases? Or are most people lazy and function on automatic pilot? Or … there is no free will, we all run on automatic pilot, but have the illusion of free will because it has some sort of evolutionary benefit? In other words, does my wiring mean I am incapable of acting / reacting differently - even if I am capable of recognizing and enumerating different actions / reactions.

kaymac: that is easy and potentially troubling (but, I never fear to tread anywhere). For me, belief in God necessitates a belief in free will. If there is no free will, then there is no God, or, at least, no God relevant for me, since I am nothing more than a biological automaton - just wind me up when I'm born and let me run until I wind down and die.

A hopelessly nihilistic vision of life.
I do think we have free will but it is tempered by those factors of emotion and nurtured beliefs that often interfere and disable the Absolute Free Will thing. You can never separate the 2 and see it clearly. There are too many levels.

If you are wired such that you don't rule by emotion, then I think you'd probably be able to actualize exercising your free will much more easily and purely. The emotional factors are going to suppress that in me for I am wired with more emotional influence. We don't have the capacity to overcome the biases. It's not simply a matter of willing ourselves or choosing to overcome them and not let them affect our decisions...they are too firmly ingrained and a nerve impulse can't slow it down and discuss with yourself what you WILL yourself to do. In that way, maybe it is automatic pilot with some other factors combined so that we can't even decipher them as 2 separate entities.

God gave us our capacity for 3 things..1)to think rationally and 2)feel emotion, and 3)ultimately gave us the free will to work with these things to decide on an action to take or decision to make.
God must shudder sometimes when he sees what we do sometimes with our "Free Will"!

Simple answer is yes. there is free will but we never really use it without also using some emotional and socialized beliefs so very tightly woven that we might be totally unaware of these influences.
TorAa said…
Free will in to days societies do not exist. The "autorities" are after you all the time.
It is still possible in most "modern2 societies to live by hunting and fishing and growing - if you accept to live that way.. but you have to pay taxes...
Richard said…
MOI:Calls to mind the little exchange that happened in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (the TV serial) where mice want to remove Arthur Dent's brain. He is not quite so willing to part company with it:

"I thought you said you could just read his brain electronically," protested Ford.

"Oh yes," said Frankie, "but we'd have to get it out first. It's got to be prepared."

"Treated," said Benji.


"Thank you," shouted Arthur, tipping up his chair and backing away from the table in horror.

"It could always be replaced," said Benji reasonably, "if you think it's important."

"Yes, an electronic brain," said Frankie, "a simple one would suffice."

"A simple one!" wailed Arthur.

"Yeah," said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, "you'd just have to program it to say 'What?' and 'I don't understand' and 'Where's the tea?' — who'd know the difference?"

"What?" cried Arthur, backing away still further.

"See what I mean?" said Zaphod.

"I'd notice the difference," said Arthur.

"No you wouldn't," said Frankie mouse, "you'd be programmed not to."

Are you sure that we are not programmed not to notice that we have no free will? In other words, free will is an illusion that makes us feel better about ourselves.

The trick is to try and show that our actions are (or, at least, are capable of being) autonomous from the physical workings of the universe. I would suggest that the weight of historical evidence seems to indicate humans do not act autonomously. Of course, part of this may have to do with the lack of leisure (in the sense promoted by Josef Pieper - nice review here). There is little time for free will if our existence is comprised of finding enough to eat, avoiding being eaten or killed, and ensuring some offspring survive to the next generation. Ancient and modern societies also add diversionary rituals to keep people occupied. Indeed, now-a-days, we are much more occupied with being distracted, than we are in surviving. However, we do not turn toward leisure.

Don't worry, I am not losing sleep over it.

toraa: Sartre would argue that you always have free will - even if the choices and consequences are not to your liking. Even if you were bound in chains, and you had consented to it, then you have no right to complain of your loss of free will - since you consented to it. The only time, according to Sartre, that you do not act freely is when someone physically overpowers you and manipulates you to do something - for example, they force a gun in your hand and then, holding you and your arms, they manipulate you to point the gun at someone and they squeeze your fingers to pull the trigger; only in this case you were not free to choose your action.

Some would counter argue and say, what if they threatened you? Pointed a gun at your head, or at the head of your child and insisted you did something or they would shoot? In this case, Sartre would argue, you still have free will - you can choose to do what they want or choose to defy them.
Barbara said…
I believe we are all programmed to act in particular ways, but ultimately the choice is ours. I grew up with a religion that espoused predestination. I could never buy it.
Richard said…
barbara: one of the corollories, for me, in believing in free will, is that God cannot know my future actions. Therefore my God cannot know the future. Notwithstanding Thomas Aquinas' argument that God's knowing I am going to do something is not the same as my actually doing it.

No, I do not believe in predestination.

On the other hand. If we have no free will and are instead deterministic, then all manner of augery will be proven true - astrology, entrail reading, tea leaves, etc - since it will be a case of mapping from one domain to another.

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