How free is will – a philosophical starter kit

Do we determine our own free will?  Causality and physics from our pop philosophy guru.  By Lisa McLellan

There is no such thing as free will…as far as we know.  Don’t believe me?  Read this and prove me wrong!

It is widely accepted that we can explain why any physical event has happened by citing some other prior physical event.  The sum of these prior events will make the first event inevitable.

For example we can work out the trajectory of a snooker ball by looking at the speed and direction of the cue ball that hit it, and the angle at which the two hit.  The way the cue ball moved can also be worked out from the force and angle with which the snooker cue hit it.  So once we have done this, we need do nothing further.  We will have explained fully the cause of the event in question – accidentally potting the black, for instance.

We are physical beings.  It seems that the movement of our bodies should be determined by the laws of physics as surely as the movement of a snooker ball.  My hand is typing this as a result of certain movements in my muscles  – and this movement is caused by certain neuronal firings in my brain – all physical.

But were those neuronal firings ultimately caused by me?   As neuronal firings are physical events they are bound by the laws of physics.  So if we can always explain one physical movement with reference to the movement that came before it (Physicists say yes we can) – then they must be caused by some other physical event.  Perhaps other neurons firing somewhere else in my brain. Did I cause those neurons to fire?  If I am the ultimate cause of my action then we must find a point in the chain of events at which something was solely caused by me.  If we accept the principle of physical things having physical causes – the causal closure of the physical – then this is an impossible task.

So are our actions really just physical reactions…

If we want to believe we do have free will we have to prove that causation is not all physical.  We must establish that there may be times a choice turns up between reacting one way and another – where neither option is impossible or unavoidable by the laws of physics and the current state of affairs.

Now we have to say that the option we chose was solely dependent on our will and nothing else.

Establishing this would be significant progress, but the battle would still not be won…

Do I choose my choices?

We must establish that our will is caused by ourselves and is not pre-determined by some other factors.  If it is then we are left with a pretty muddy sense of free will.  Compatibilists argue that our choices are caused by our mental states. Our mental states might be pre-determined by our past, our genetics, the laws of nature – making it impossible for us to act differently.  They are, however, in a significant sense, our own mental states.  Because our mental states are ours, the compatibilists argue, we can say we act of our own free will.

Unfortunately for compatibilists, this does not really help us with the problem of responsibility.  If what I do is pre-determined by my genetics, the laws of nature, and the experiences that I will inevitably have, then can I really be held responsible for my actions?  Can I be held responsible for something that was bound to happen even prior to my being born? Intuitively one would guess not.  For this reason, many people think that a compatibilist free will is not really free will at all.

It’s up to you!

What do you think  – do you accept that we have genuine free will?  If so, do you reject the principle of causal closure of the physical?  What actually links the mental – beliefs, desires, values – and the physical – neuronal firings, muscle movements?  Or do you take a compatibilist view that all actions might be pre-determined but it doesn’t really matter because we own our mental states?


18 responses to “How free is will – a philosophical starter kit

  1. By the nature of science, what we do is just reaction. We have no free will. We are just animals with different adaptive capacity. That is pure physiology, ecology. That adaptive capacity is higher intelligence which we use to find enhance ourselves but temporarily or externally. That is pure function of the body.

    The person is a metaphysical entity, pure science has nothing to do with it. Now that person is the one who thinks and decides. This is one that can have free will and take responsibility in that sense.

    One who is predetermined cannot take responsibility for actions; this is approaching it with metaphysics ie. man becomes a being who has some control, who has forethought, who can act not react.

    Genetics says the person is also born in the genes so predetermination in metaphysics but not to science. Metaphysics then sees no person or own thought. You are because something is causing you to so you are not your own.

    But genetics and pure science still think you own yourself as your genes are you and you can be blamed for what you do. Your genes are to blame but they still are you.

    Metaphysics however views man as owning his thought and the beginning of thought. I say metaphysics because science has left that domain completely. To science, man is not a being, just a representation of an aggregate of chemicals.

    Mixing the two up by viewing one through the lens of the other will lead to problems.

    Using metaphysics and staying there you have responsibility as you have choice being the first cause of action.

    The geneticists in their domain also say we are our genes and that genetic choice is still choice.

    As for experience, it cannot play in metaphysics like genetics because it brings too many contradictions like you talked of.

    The compatibilists are correct in their own sense but wrong in metaphysics. The metaphysical side cannot in science because their person is obliterated by the presence of genetics. So using their own lens of causes, they obliterate themselves.

    Psychology finds nothing but the product of that genetic experience interplay and cannot be viewed metaphysically which brings the conundrum.

    You did bring all these out in your work but you ended by mixing up the two. Experiential man cannot play in metaphysics even though it is a metaphysical analysis by definition.

    • Thank you for this comment, I can see what you are saying. In our defence free will is a subject argued by philosophers and sometimes, for a subject like philosophy, it makes more sense to argue through one “lens” and let someone else take the argument through a different “lens” – which I guess is what is happening here. In future we will try to keep summing-ups nice and clear!

    • So; You point out that there are inconsistencies in the scientific and metaphysical assumtions here. Science suggests we are ‘automata’ – we react to stimuli like lab rats, we do not act by the force of our own will, we act because of chemical/electrical stimuli in the nervous system causing neurons to fire in the brain.

      You claim a person is a metaphysical entity (quite rightly, of course, unless you consider a person to simply be a ‘human organism’) It is the person, not the brain or the neurons, that thinks, wills, chooses decides, and acts.
      But when we break down the causes that lead to the final action, we are left with the scientific/physical process in the brain, the nervous system, and the body. There seems no room, or necessity, to include a metaphysical ‘person’ in the causal explanation. What his metaphysical entity is is still very unclear and becomes a discussion in its own right. This is something i may discuss further in future posts. Of course compatibilists, though they do not wish to tie themselves to a specific explanation of what constitutes ‘you’ will claim that your mental states are going to be a signifficant part of any such explanation, enough so that we can claim that an act caused by those mental states is essentially an act caused by ‘you’.
      The idea here is that if I eat a chocolate bar because I am hungry, I love chocolate, I believe that it will taste good and satisfy my hunger, then I eat it of my own free will. I may have no choice in the fact that I love chocolate, that I am hungry, and that the combination of such mental states will inevitabely result in my eating the chocolate bar, but the compatibilist will say that this was a free act.
      As you rightly point out, determinism excludes responsibility. This is where the compatibilist account of free will runs into problems. Many reject this view because it does nothing to combat the threat of determinism, and therefore leaves the possibility that all your actions may in theory be predicted from the moment you are born. Every decision you make is determined by your genetics and experiences (to simplify it greatly!), and so you can never avoid the inevitable decision that you finally come to, despite the subjective feeling of freedom involved in making such a decision. If you cannot avoid coming to the decion that you do, then intuitively you cannot be held fully responsible for your decion.
      So if compatibilists are right, we need to thoroughly revise our notion of responsibility, and this would have implications of the legal system, as you say. Alternatively we must try and explain how we, as metaphysical persons, can affect the physical workings of our own brains simply by using mental (non-physical) force.

  2. Let me just add that science makes it possible to contend morality and law. So then, those who kill, are they really wrong even though they are guilty?

  3. firstly, free will is not meant to be taken literally.

    it doesn’t mean a nicely rinced out clean will with no evil outside factors (like the devil) guiding it.

    Without our memories, past exeriences & emotions am i me?

    without these how can I make a free will choice if I am not me?

    My free will is my choice on what i have learned from reflecting on my past & understanding of my emotions linked with these experiences (i.e. mental state) & freely choose what i hope to be the best course of action to take.

    Cba but to make mine look all fancy like yours, pretend all refrences to me & my are in bold 🙂

    I agree with your first point that snooker balls don’t have free will but apart from that……..

    ……EPIC FAIL!


    • For the purpose of this philosophical argument we are taking free will literally. What would be the point otherwise? Fair do’s though. I’ve edited out some of this comment. Because I like the fancy bits in bold.

      • the point is to take it how it is and not with an askew view of what it might mean.

        what’s the point of taking someones definition & changing it to mean something that is impossible & then arguing that the original statement is false because you’ve now made it impossible?

        P.S. take my comments with a grain of salt as lisa knows im a flamer, devils advocate & love to argue lol

    • I agree that it seems free will cannot be, as you described, ‘clean’ with no outside influences, and I also agree with what you say about your experiences and emotions being central to being ‘you’. This is essentially the compayibilist position, which personally I am inclined to agree with. Even though it is inevitable that you will act the way do, this is because your actions are determined by your mental states, your past experiences and your emotions – in other words, your actions are determined by you. The only difficulty here is that you cannot change your emotions, your values, or your past experiences – somebody else with exactly the same emotions, past experiences, mental states etc as you would act in exactly the same was as you. This has strong implications for our concept of responsibility, because you can’t hold someone responsible for an act they could not avoid. Perhaps tyhe compaqtibilists are right and we should then rethink our notions of responsibility…..

      • you don’t know that someone with the exact same pish as me (like a clone) would nessesarily do the same thing in same situation, a lot of the time i don’t know & do a coin toss in my head on wether to react or not to something I don’t like for example lol.

        I also usually come up with several theories on things so whos to say everytime i will come to the same conclusion.

        heh thats life, everythings random & to chance yet strangely uniformed & in sync. (too stoned to figure out if that means anything or just sounds nice lol)

        wait whats all this hold someone responsible for their actions stuff? what your basically saying is you can’t hold someone responsible for their actions because they are controlled by there outside factors like past experiences, but wait past experiences is their previous choices in life which at the time would be free will. thats just daft.

        Does this apply to good things people do or just bad stuff like murder? lol

        stop pretending we are learning something here & talking about some crazy gangs from life of brian, they aint no shit, they too scared to meet up at the parking lot & have a gang fight, these compaq loving compaqtibilists.

        I run with 12 gangs & we only commit hate crimes.

        Porch Monkey 4 Life

  4. Fact is, I agree that it’s up to the decision-maker but what are the implications for law?

    I am making the piece a tad too real but if that is the case, consider my second post.

    Will law have sound backing to even exist?

    That was on my mind from the start but I decided not to add it, I think I should have.

    Thoreau said best government is that which governs not at all. That statement is alluring to the thought factory. The possible scenarios are interesting.

    • An interesting thought there! This goes back to the nature/nurture argument, I suppose. Are we the people we are because of our genetic predisposition or because the circumstances of our life have made us that way. How far do we take into account the circumstances of a persons life in order to judge them? Is it fair to assume we are how we are and can’t change! Crime and punishment, reasonably, rests on us having choices…

    • too right! see my earlier reply/essay (sorry, get a bit carried away sometimes!) but this could certainly have implications for the law and any mechanism of praise/blame. The law would perhaps not have sound backing if determinism is true. unless we could justify it on the basis that it deters people from commiting crimes – don’t forget that knowledge of the law and that you will go to prison if you do wrong consitiutes part of a persons mental state and can influence the outcome of a decision…

  5. As with any discussion, ground rules need establishing…

    “It is widely accepted that we can explain why any physical event has happened by citing some other prior physical event”

    …and this is the first of the rules that I would call into question – the assumption that we understand cause and effect, or that cause and effect is a legitimate explanation of actions within the physical world.
    I find Alan Watts’ view of this to be the most seductive – if we imagine a fence at the bottom of a garden with a broken paling that allows us a very restricted view through the fence, and of a cat that, throughout the day, passes by this viewing aperture. If we have no experience of cats, we might deduce that the first thing we see (the cat’s head) is the cause of the last thing we see (the cat’s tail). So ‘head’ is the cause, ‘tail’ is the effect.
    Assuming that our view of the physical world is at least as compromised as our view of the cat, then all we can say is that the world is full of ‘head tailed cats’ – so our first task, before we can even look at cause and effect, is to find agreement on what constitutes ‘cat’.
    If we can step outside the garden we can see that head and tail are not consecutive events, but aspects of an indivisible event (‘cat’).
    We cannot understand ‘cat’ from within the garden, we need a larger view…
    So our first task is to find a ‘metagarden’ which allows a more unified view of the events perceived within the garden.

    • yup – we deffinately need to look further into our understanding of causation. I have had to make pretty gross generalizations here, the idea that every physical event with a cause has a full and sufficient physical cause is one of them. The point is, we have yet to establish an account of physics which can account for a mental state or event (my thinking a certain thought, my willing something to be) causing a physical change (resulting in particular elecrochemical activity in my brain, causing my arm to move etc).
      We can explain my arm moving, but only by reffering to physical changes in my muscles caused by physical activity in my brain. The question is, how is this chain of physical events started? How can this be initiated by an mental (non-physical) event, unless this mental event is simply correlated with further physical brain activity. In which case, the cause of the chain of events would be the brain activity rather than the mental event associated with it.
      This is an area which I find fascinating, and the notion of mental-physical causation deffinately need further investigation.

  6. Lisa, you are spot-on for me. We do need to revise our notions of responsibility if we go compatible. Those notions mix up metaphysical person and scientific human, thus the problem arises.

    The notions look at scientific mechanistic human from a personal perspective and run themselves into problems. But as you say, looking into connecting the non-physical with the physical may be profitable for those notions.

    But remember that the law was also brought by people and their mental states so what then is justification for that law

  7. Wookie, don’t know if you’re playing with this but some real nice points have come to light. Then I guess you won’t be playing if some serious stuff have come up.

    They will make for interesting thought experiment.

    • Not sure if I know if im playing or not either haha.

      My general message is to warn people not to go too far, too fast down 1 line of thought, to the point where your view is far from what it really is.

      And i frown apon referring to other groups points of view as when I theorise on something, i use no outside oppinions, just think about it a lot from several angles — (at first, then listen to the person im talking to but not some group of over the top YA’s who usually try to come up with a theory that is controversial to make some fame around the YA world. i.e. we arent responsible for what we do lol)

      if you want a real good mind f**k in theory watch the documentary “What the F**k do we know?” about quantum physics. Its a interesting theory, but again they have gone too far too fast down 1 line of thought to the point where they think their theory is real (a lot of the interviewed are american nutjobs like 1 woman who thinks we are all gods rofl), when realistically its pretty rediculous lol.

      Was still worth watching tho.

      so ye Don’t Belive the hype!! sucka!

      • I’ll have to have a look at that documentary. Couldn’t find it on web but linked to Wikipedia entry if anyone wants a look, just click on the link in WoOkies’s comment above!

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