What It Means To Me To Be Free

I think that in some meaningful ways, human beings are free. In a couple of previous posts and in subsequent comments in their comments sections, I have been arguing for the ways that we are not free in a libertarian sense, i.e., our actions are not “undetermined” by forces outside our fundamental control. We are not free to ultimately choose the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology which determine how our brains work. We are not free to decide what, at any given time, will be the overriding desire that motivates us to action or what set of reasons for action will most decisively strike us as the ones worth acting upon.

In these ways, I have been stressing that our actions are a function ultimately of our programming and how it interacts with (and is affected by) our environment. I have been stressing that “we” do not ultimately control our desires or our reasoning processes but they control us.

But that is a bit misleading and I was delighted to read one of my commenters, Beth, put the points I was going to make in my next post so well that it was like she was reading my mind. In reply to sections of my piece where I contrasted “me” from “my programming”, she wrote:

What is “me” if it is not composed of the basic biology of my organism, the particularities of my own idiosyncratic neuro-chemistry, my socialization, my past experiences, etc.?

It seems to me that those are the things that make each of us what we are. What does the concept of free will mean when separated from our physical bodies and past experiences?

While it’s true, we cannot entirely choose those things, I don’t see why that invalidates free will. Do we lack free will because we cannot choose to breathe underwater through gills?

That is exactly my view, we are our minds, we are the sum of our biology, our individiual neuro-chemistry’s idiosyncracies, our socialization, our past experiences. So, when we act from these things, we express not some alien programming but we express and realize ourselves through the program of what we are. We are each some kind of complex order which is every moment developing itself further, and so to express our unique complex order, our program, is to express ourselves.

When I spoke previously about how we are not in control but our programming is, I was identifying the “self” in there with our consciousness that the libertarians want to identify ourselves with because I was attacking the libertarian conception of free will, not because I thought we had no (determined) free will or because I accepted their notion of the self as somehow distinctly the conscious part of ourselves which is somehow distinctly undetermined by our neural programming and its interactions with the environment.

I think our selves are the programming and so when we follow it, we freely realize ourselves. I feel freest when I can follow my inner compulsions without external encumbrances. Insofar as I can also rationally realize there are greater ways to be objectively powerful within my existing potentials and values, I can have the goals to become a stronger, more positively effectual program in the world which creates greater goods. This is where my ethical motivation comes from. It comes to me by a rational apprehension. It is a result of my choices to the extent that my programming in the past and present makes choices to rationally inquire about the good and to seek it. But I am not the ultimate source of that more fundamental programming itself—it is the source of me and what constitutes me.

I am relevantly unfree not just in any case when I am determined by my nature to be who I am and do what I do but when other people can coerce me to obey their will against what I would do according to my internal programming either left to its own choices. I am also unfree to the extent that impersonal forces beyond my control, the chance of circumstance, also thwart my unencumbered self-expression and interaction with environments according to my desires.

The only place where I differ with Beth’s comment is in her closing paragraph:

When an engineer decides to build a bridge, he wants it to stay erect, not collapse from it’s own weight. The equations describing the design will guide his decisions on what materials will be used, etc. So? It is his decision to build the bridge in the first place that is analogous to free will while the rational choices about how best to achieve that goal (what materials to use, how to fasten parts together, etc.) are what is guided by reason.

It seems to me that free will is consciously choosing what goals we will attempt to achieve and which actions we will take among different options available to us, not about the use of reason to identify the most effective choices given our resources and constraints [em]after[/em] goals have been decided on.

Free will is not in the consciousness, the consciousness is not itself the will, it is only the internal screen on which we observe only a partial bit of only a few decision-making procedures out of the myriad number our brains make. Our default mode is to act of our own free will without any conscious awareness of the computations of our programming’s reasoning process. And even in the cases where we are consciously aware of that process and have emotional states as the various alternative possibilities are contemplated, this is not the same thing as us determining it with our consciousness, even in those cases. We are making the choices, but we are making them as rational programs, not as conscious selves distinct from our programs (as at least some libertarians want to say). Our goals are as much set by our programming as the reasoning process by which we determine how to achieve them is.

And when I say that we are rational programs, I do not mean that we do not take emotions or value feelings into account—we are the kinds of programs that consider emotions and value feelings as important parts of the algorithms by which we make decisions. By “rational programs” I just mean programs that follow some sort of implicit rationally explicable order, even if they take into account more than logical considerations and even if oftentimes they come up with outright irrational, fallacious, or factually mistaken conclusions.

But if we are only free in this way, and not in any more ultimate sense, can we really blame each other for anything we do? My answer.

Your Thoughts?


About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Beth

    I don’t think we disagree at all. It’s not that I think ‘free will’ resides in our consciousness or that our consciousness represents our will. I simply didn’t manage to express my thoughts very well in that last paragraph.

  • Konradius

    To me what is free will is our ability to change our own programming of our own accord. Some time ago I made the decision I should work out more. So I changed my schedule, I set up my environment so I would be more likely to choose to work out after I finished work.
    Sure you can argue that when I reached whatever decision it was some specific neuron that got triggered and some deterministic process that led to that neuron getting triggered, but that’s missing the point.
    Given sufficiently advanced knowledge of anything you can predict what that anything will do in the future. This includes a brain, but it is essentially true for everything. If you want to argue against freedom of will with this as evidence, then you have essentially defined freedom out of existence.
    The point is that intelligent beings can look at a choice. They can gather information, discuss with friends, review earlier experiences, and then make that choice based on whatever they wanted to use as their selection criteria.
    Perhaps they just pushed one of the buttons.
    Free will is where the environment influences the individual and the individual changes the environment. It’s the brain changing itself to make better choices in the future. And it’s the brain having changed itself in the past to determine the choices we make today. You can look at the brain through a scanner in real time and see what a person will choose seconds in advance. However you will never know what that brain will do farther in the future. Why? Because asking that question in itself will change the answer. Any prediction you may have about someones actions will influence their actions and make the prediction moot.
    And that is the freedom of will.

  • http://isaacdomagalski.blogspot.com Isaac Domagalski

    Well, I agree with you on libertarian free will and that the universe, including human thoughts, desires, and behaviors, operates under the laws of physics. I don’t think that on a fundamental level that there is really any room for free will, since everything in the universe is ultimately constrained. For any action that a person does, unless there are stochastic processes in decision making, that person could not have done otherwise, no matter how free they felt when “choosing” to do what they did. Yeah, for me it feels as though I have free will, but it also feels as though the earth is not moving.

  • usagichan

    I sometimes wonder whether the sense of “self” is in itself an artefact of the physical mechanisms that interpret and control my body. These mechanisms need to be both adaptive (in order to process and respond appropriately to stimulus combinations as yet unexperienced) and imperative (in order to produce coherent behaviour that optimises the chances of success in any given environment). Could my sense of self simply be the unintended side effect of a sophisticated set of internal controls?

    In this sense, perhaps free-will as a concept is meaningless – by that I mean that the systems which comprise myself, by their structure and function, act in a way to optimise my behaviour. I perceive that optimisation function as the balance of apetites, desires, emothions, values etc. that I perceive as making free choices. But these “choices” are in practice, an optimising control function – I can’t not make choices, and having made a choice that I perceive as bad I will avoid similar choices in future – my “self” as an illusion of identity which is the emergent property of these control systems.

    Of course, in practical terms whether I am Zhungzi dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is Zhungzi doesn’t matter, in that whichever set of perceptions my self is operating will be the determinants for my sense of self. I am what I perceive myself to be. Whatever “self” exists has no choice but to exercise free will, because in that sense free-will and self are two sides of the same coin – after all without identity the concept of free-will would be meaningless, and how could one experience identity without a sense of free-will?

  • reighley

    I think I more or less agree with the foregoing.

    However, as I contemplated this post I managed to confuse myself. When you make statement like “free will is not in the consciousness”, it seems like you have ejected dualism through the front door only so that it can come at you from behind.

    Surely you can’t be arguing that the consciousness is only a passive observer of the self, as though Plato’s cave just had another cave outside it. To the extent we divide the phenomenon of choice and will from the observer of consciousness, we seem constrained to accept the independent reality of both.

    If the consciousness, as well as the will, is actually a component of the nervous system, it would be shocking if it were not exercising some function. Functions of the nervous system are going to reflect themselves in our actual behavior. Therefore there must be such a thing as conscious choice, even if most choices are not made this way.