Free Will

I guess I just wasn’t predestined to be a Calvinist.

It isn’t that I didn’t try. In my teens, I encountered some very staunch Calvinists who persuaded me that God didn’t simply foreknow everything, but foreordained it. Nothing was outside of God’s sovereignty, nor could anything thwart the divine will.

But however much I thought that, I could not live it.

I found myself, ironically, worried about which of two routes I should take when going somewhere. What if God wanted me to encounter someone on one of them? But surely I couldn’t choose wrongly, if God was in control? But I still felt like I was choosing, and no amount of theorizing eliminated that feeling.

Although such teenage theological anxiety may seem foolish (it certainly does to me, with hindsight), I am happy to say that it didn’t take long for me to realize that one cannot live as though there is no such thing as free will. One cannot eliminate the sense of making decisions, whatever one’s view of neuroscience, or of divine sovereignty, happens to be.

I don’t think that we can prove that we have free will. And having free will, on any plausible account, does not mean that we are infinitely free, completely unconstrained by genes, culture, habits, circumstances, and who knows what else.

But ultimately, I find – perhaps ironically – that I cannot live as though I do not have free will. And so it turns out to be this constraint, placed upon me by my own experience, and thus perhaps limiting or eliminating choices, that persuades me that I do indeed make choices.

That is my response to the Patheos discussion of the question “Does Free Will Really Exist?” I believe that free will really exists, not because we can prove it (there is a lot about consciousness that we simply do not yet understand), but because I tried to live as though I didn’t, and failed.

And because I may not have as good an excuse to share it any time soon – sorry, I mean because I freely choose to share it – here is Rush singing “Freewill”:

YouTube Preview Image
Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:

Religion and Tampering with Nature
Killing Wonder With a Giant Ark
Can my idea of God "live long and prosper"?
Mapping the Origins Debate
  • newenglandsun

    the rush drummer, like many heavy metal drummers out there, is trained in jazz music

  • Straw Man

    The discussion about free will is philosophically interchangeable with the discussion of randomness. Math/Physics nerds at this very moment are debating whether anything can genuinely be described as “random.” We’ve never seen a random number, and we have no way of proving whether a number (or rather, a process for getting numbers) is in fact “random.” And at the end of the day, we’re not even sure what “random” even means.

    The best stand-in for randomness is radioactive decay, by the way, because IF modern physics is correct, THEN we at least know that it is genuinely, literally impossible to predict when a nucleus will undergo decay. Which most of us would agree is close enough to “random” as makes no difference… but many would still argue whether that truly qualifies as “random” either…

    Which highlights the irony of your sauropod thinker. With enough port in us, we mathematician types are likely to speculate that the fundamental randomness of quantum phenomena could in fact be the engine of free will. Just as radioactive decay can’t be predicted, even by an omniscient being, so your future decisions can’t be derived from perfect knowledge of the exact state of the universe at this moment. And just as these quantum phenomena add up to predictable behavior at the macro level, there are constraints on free will that cause us to appear generally rational much of the time.

    • James F. McGrath

      I’m not sure that the randomness and unpredictability of things like radioactive decay are the same thing as is meant by “free will.” Human beings make choices in a way that it seems like that some other animals do not, to say nothing of radioactive isotopes.

      • Ian

        “Human beings make choices in a way that it seems like that some other animals do not”

        Really? On what possible basis might animals ‘seem’ not to make choices freely, where other humans do? What feature of the choice of any choosing agent would you use to identify if the choice was free or not?

        I get arguments to what it feels like to make a choice. But I’m baffled how you can decide that another agent doesn’t enjoy the same experience of choice making.

        • James F. McGrath

          It may just be my lack of contact with animals, but I have never seen them, or read about them, doing something that is like the human deliberation over a purchase, or what to eat. It was that sort of reflective decision-making that I was referring to.

          Feel free to set me straight, or tell me that I need to get a cat and it will sort out my thinking on this.

          • Ian

            I think the problem is one of access to the mental states of the agent. I’ve certainly seen animals struggle with a decision, balancing their desire, their fear and their capabilities, before making a choice and acting. How could I tell whether they were deliberating?

            ‘What to eat’ or ‘what to purchase’ simply begs the question, surely. Considering decisions that are at home in human culture is unfair to the question.

            I’m not sure that says anything about free will, personally, but the claim that animals don’t ‘seem’ to make choices seemed odd to me.

            Part of the problem of consciousness generally, is that it is very difficult to comprehend what it might mean to have non-human consciousness. And therefore we have an innate bias to consider ourselves the only ‘truly’ conscious species. Its a topic I’ve come back to many times in writing short stories, thinking about how we’d recognize / understand / relate to a non-human consciousness.

            At root, I suspect there’s a kind of speciesism there, that is related to racism of previous generations. Folks who simply couldn’t understand that a black person’s mental life was similar in quality or status to their own. But that’s a statement requiring a lot of caveats.

          • James F. McGrath

            I may well be wrong, but I don’t think that recognizing another sentient human being’s mental life as like one’s own, means that we need to go too far to the other extreme, and assume that crickets and katydids make choices in the same way that human beings do. But we simply do not know what the mental life of other species is like, and so I think this discussion simply illustrates why free will is such a difficult subject. There is so much that we do not know, and perhaps cannot know.

          • Ian

            Hmmm, a disappointing response. You can do better than that, James.

            1. You’re now alluding to the mental life of arthropds. Presumably to establish some limit of absurdity. Well, sure. Clearly amoebas are very unlikely to have qualia of choice. But so what? If you’re serious about determining whether human beings are unique, then how about starting with those that are most similar, like other great apes, or other mammals with neural tissue in high bodyweight proportion, such as Dolphins? Arguing to arthropods is roughly equivalent to having a discussion about the unique features of the gospels by comparing them to Dickens.

            2. Why do you suggest we are considering ‘assuming’ that another species has choices? The question you raised was exactly the opposite. You said that human beings ‘seemed’ to you to be unique in having free will because other animals didn’t ‘seem’ to make choices. I’m encouraging you *not* to assume that animals don’t make choices, but to justify that assertion. So you can’t just flip the burden of proof. I’m not assuming other species experience free will, I’m simply not letting you assume they don’t.

            Analogical reasoning is important in the biological sciences generally, and ethology in particular. But one must a) find analogs that are feasible, and b) find behaviours that are similarly functional between the analogs.

            In our case, if you want to make the point that animals don’t behave as if they have choices you need to a) pick the animals you think *most* likely to make choices, and b) pick choices you think they are *most* likely to make.

            Crickets clearly don’t spend a lot of time choosing what purchases to make, therefore human beings are unique in their choices… Erm, no, you can do better than that.

          • James F. McGrath

            My point all along has been that there seems to be a spectrum, with “some other animals” not exhibiting the same degree of free choice that humans do, and that there do seem to be emergent properties, probably not unique to humans and probably not found in all living things, of which free will of a certain type might be one.

            I wonder if we aren’t getting away from the original subject – if that is due to a lack of clarity on my part at some point in the discussion, I apologize. I never intended to suggest human uniqueness when it comes to this, hence my use of “some” and my indication that human beings are in the category of animals.

          • Ian

            It is probably more me missing the “some” and violently agreeing…. the disadvantage of asynchronous communication.

            Okay, fair enough. Rereading…

            So your point seems to be that there are kinds of unpredictability (e.g. quantum) that are qualitatively different to the unpredictability of agents acting under free will.

            And the threshold of this ‘qualitative difference’ lies somewhere in the animal kingdom, so an arthropod can be said to have only randomness, while animals such as man (and possibly others) can be seen to have an quality of unpredictability that is indicative of free will.

            If that’s what you’re saying (roughly), which on rereading it seems to be, then I apologise. Your point makes sense, and I missed it!

          • James F. McGrath

            No problem – if I didn’t make it clearly enough that it couldn’t be missed, then it is my fault, not yours!

    • Straw Man

      Agreed. However, free will is just the capacity for our brains to do something OTHER than deterministically crank out a predictable output from a given set of inputs. It’s entirely possible that this possibility exists because, at a quantum level, truly unpredictable things occur within the neurons of our brains. At the macro level, wherever it is exactly that consciousness occurs, we then harness this element of unpredictability in a way that we refer to as “choice.”

      Note that I pointed out that despite *truly* random things occurring at the quantum level, *predictable* things occur at the macro level. For example, the movement of air molecules does have an element of genuine randomness–and yet if you fill a balloon with it, we can predict all sorts of things. It will take a spherical shape; the air won’t suddenly move in a pattern that makes it a cube. And it will just sit there (if there’s no breeze); the air won’t suddenly move in the same direction and send the balloon skidding away.

      Just so, random quantum phenomena in our brains doesn’t mean that our consciousness is itself random. It doesn’t mean that we will spontaneously forget English and begin speaking Tagalog, for example. It’s critical to keep straight these issues of scale.

      • Ian

        It is also important to keep separate predictability and determinism. Purely deterministic systems maybe entirely unpredictable. It is in that distinction that I think the illusion of free will lies.

    • Plutosdad

      Except the counterargument people use to that is randomness is not exactly what we think of as choosing. We are no better off if our “choices” are randomly determined on a subatomic scale than we were if we had no choice at all.

      We can go all the way back to Anaxagoras for these arguments. Some things never change.

      The only aspect of society where I think free will is important is how we hold people accountable for their actions. How much we are free to choose? and how hard is it to overcome our upbringing or nature, do different people respond differently, or how much we are guided by instincts when “reacting” “instantly”, etc. are important if we are to minimize harm some might cause to others, to say nothing of justice.

      But we can have those discussions without really going into whether free will exists or not. And we can study those issues in experiments and studies without deciding on free will. Though I think being open to the idea may make one more open to the idea that not “everyone is as in control of themselves as I am”

  • Pseudonym

    I recommend Daniel Dennett’s answer to this, because he has a frame of reference that will help unmuddle your thinking on a lot of questions.

    Many people want to define “free will” as something that is not reducible to the laws of nature. If it is reducible to the laws of nature, then it’s not truly “free”. If you define “free will” as “that which can’t happen, according to the laws of nature”, of course you’re going to conclude that free will doesn’t exist! You’ve defined it to be so!

    The problem isn’t free will. The problem is that your definition of free will is literally asking the impossible. If you’re going to ask if free will is real, you could at least start with a definition of free will which could be real.

    • James F. McGrath

      I am not convinced that we can rule out free will on the basis of our current scientific understanding. It may be that science will show the sort of free will that I am talking about to be impossible. But I think it is premature to say that it has already done so.

      • Pseudonym

        I recommend watching at least the first part of his seminar.

        The point he’s making is that many otherwise smart people define “free will” out of existence, and then conclude that free will doesn’t exist. Dennett’s point is that it’s also possible that your definition is unreasonable.

        If it helps, consider the argument by Dawkins in The God Delusion as to “why there almost certainly is no God” (his phrasing). He defines “God” as a supernatural designer… and that’s the point where (I suspect) you would start raising objections. If that’s how you define “God”, then of course God doesn’t exist.

        • James F. McGrath

          I’ve read Dennett, and so I wonder whether the video includes something that I won’t already have encountered.

          I do not disagree at all that there are definitions of “free will” which are problematic or incoherent. My point was simply that the attempt to eliminate all possible definitions of free will, despite our experience, based on the assumption that freedom is excluded by the closed system of either causality or the laws of physics, seems to me at best premature.

          • Straw Man

            “I do not disagree at all that there are definitions of “free will” which are problematic or incoherent….”

            It’s worse than that. The problem is that (like randomness), there ISN’T ANY coherent definition of “free will.” Or just “will.” Or, not coincidentally, “consciousness.” Most of the arguments about its existence boil down to a lot of tail-chasing in which someone argues that X doesn’t exist, and someone else replies that X isn’t “free will” anyway… rinse and repeat.

            Free will (like randomness and consciousness) exists. Take it from me: I’m certain it exists, and I’m happy to impart that certainty to you.

            As for proof, well, I can’t help you. I can’t even define “free will.” Like pornography, I know it when I see it.

            But I say it with full awareness that my choices are influenced by my culture, education, upbringing, state of health, moods (which are in turn influenced by chemicals in my head), etc. So powerfully so, that my choices can often be predicted by my wife. I can’t actually prove that these factors (at the macro level) or electrochemical processes (at the micro level) don’t fully determine my behaviors. And yet I’m as convinced that “I choose” as I am that “I am.”

          • Pseudonym

            It’s worse than that. The problem is that (like randomness), there ISN’T ANY coherent definition of “free will.”

            Wrong on both counts.

            Kolmogorov randomness is a coherent and precise definition. And Dennett’s definition of “free will” (as moral agency) is perfectly consistent, and as coherent as any philosophical concept can be.

  • R Vogel

    I guess in the end the question is “Who cares” I agree you cannot really live like you don’t have Freedom of Choice (I have a problem with equating Free Will with Freedom of Choice which I will not go into here), so even if you are deluded (enter Descartes’ malevolent demon), so what? What would you do differently? What could you do differently? I think about it as a character in a book. The book has been written, all of their choices are set in ink, however you as the reader and they as the characters existing only in your mind have to believe and act like they have complete freedom. The real problem this creates, in my opinion, is one of responsibility. Could the characters in the book truly be held accountable for their actions? The horrific concept at the heart of pre-destination as I understand it is that G*d created thousands upon thousands of people for the sole purpose of sending them to eternal torment since they have no choice in the matter.

  • R Vogel

    Great song, by the way, even if Neil Peart was giving a nod to the ridiculous pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand….

  • dapowellii

    I wonder what Heisenberg or Shroedinger would say about all this. In a quantum physics sort of way, both free will and Calvinism could be true simultaneously.