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reader comments: free will

18 July 2010
Hi Robert

I have written to you several times. Skeptic's Dictionary is my bible, has been for a long time and always will be.

I have some comments regarding Free Will. So many people use the phrase "god-given free will" as though it is something magical. I don't believe that we have free will at all. It is my belief that every action we take is not one of free choice but the result of balancing cost/benefits relating to any given situation in which we are required to make a choice.

reply: So, you believe everyone has a built-in rational calculator and that we always act in what we think is our own best interest. In any case, we always weigh the costs and benefits, and act accordingly. I don't see what this has to do with free will.

Our assessment of the outcome can affect the balance of choices and that explains why different people can make different choices. One can [go] left where the other goes right, not because of their freedom to choose but because of their assessment of the benefits in making that choice.

reply: So, since we're not free to choose anything where the costs outweigh the benefits, and since we always choose what we calculate to benefit us more than it costs us, we never have a free choice. If we never have a free choice, then there is no free will. Is that your position?

The existence of free will is an illusion because of the existence of alternative assessments of the outcome of any given choice. You CAN turn left or right but you make the choice based on the benefit to you in making that choice.

Now, the benefits can vary immensely, including the ability to make a particular choice to prove me wrong. There is the force behind the given choice. You can't make a random choice even when you are making a random choice. There is always the assessment of outcomes - is there a danger in making this choice over that one, is there some improved comfort level in this choice over that one and so on.

Some choices are easy to make, others are virtually impossible to make. For example, do you have peas or beans. Well that might be easy because you like peas and not beans. But let's say, which pea do I eat first? This one or that one? The consequence in eating this pea or that is minimal to the point where it really doesn't matter. So you pick the pea you happen to be looking at. Or you pick the other to prove me wrong. Always some weight to the choice.

But try taking a kitchen knife and cutting off your right thumb. If you really had free choice you would be able to make that choice and cut off your right thumb, but I am willing to bet any money you like that you would be unable to make that choice. Your free will would fail you completely in that case. And if it didn't, then you would be judged by most people to be malfunctioning.

reply: Even if I cut off my thumb, I wouldn't have free will. Some people have cut off a limb in order to survive. Whether they do or don't cut off a limb is irrelevant to the free will issue. No matter what they do, their action won't prove or disprove free will. You can say that a person always acts on his strongest motive, and that motive is not something he chooses, but is the result of his brain's calculation of benefits versus losses.

You COULD jump off a cliff if you thought you had a parachute on your back. You COULD cut off your right thumb if keeping it meant losing your life, but all the examples of free will you could possibly come up with are a subset of cost/benefit choices - some trivial, some critical and infinite shades in between.

I can construct a model and run an entire life on cost/benefit choices without ever making a single random choice. If you think you have free will, try jumping off that cliff without a parachute or other means of protection. I bet you can't make that choice...

Alan Lowe
Perth, Australia

reply: Whether I jump or no, whether I jump with or without a parachute, would not determine whether I do or don't have free will. In many ways, free will is a smokescreen, a distraction. The fact is, we can never know what motivates us, so even if we think we are, say, acting altruistically, there is no way to know whether our act is purely selfish, purely altruistic, or aims at benefiting both the self and the other. Likewise, there is no way to know what causes us to desire this or that, or to choose one thing over another. Looking back at things that have already happened, we can construct satisfying stories that account for what we did or didn't do. But there is no way to know whether the stories are true. Even so, consciousness brings with it the illusion of freedom and control for most of us most of the time.

To tell someone that, whatever he does, he couldn't have done otherwise is to tell him nothing of interest. To tell someone that if he doesn't jump off a cliff without a parachute, he has no free will, is to tell him nothing of interest. To tell someone that he must kill you or his children will be mutilated, will test not his free will but his priorities. You might even say that that's all you ever find out when someone does something: his priorities. To ask did he choose his priorities is to ask a strange question, indeed.


20 Feb 2001 
Your analysis of free will and moral responsibility there runs thus: 

To have free will, one must to some extent comprehend and have control over one's own acts.* One is morally responsible for an act only to the extent that the act was freely-willed.**

However, this analysis rests entirely upon notions of comprehension and control that are left unpacked.

reply: True, but I am not writing for the Journal of Metaphysics. I leave a lot of concepts "unpacked." My goal isn't to write a definitive piece on "free will & determinism" but to give the reader some idea of where I am coming from in the many articles where these issues arise.

What sort of 'control' do mechanical, completely determined*** organic systems like humans have that make them 'free'?

reply: You may as well ask why call someone who is not in jail "free"? Or, why do we say that someone who thinks she can fly and jumps off a cliff was "not in control of her senses"? Why do we distinguish between accidentally kicking somebody and intentionally kicking him? To assert all are equally unfree and determined is to assert what is either unknowable or true by definition. To assert that there seems to be some difference in control of actions may need unpacking but it doesn't beg the question, as hard determinism does.

What sort of 'comprehension' could be a contributing cause of 'freely-willed' (but pre-determined) effects? And how does this sort of 'freedom' make fully pre-determined moral agents morally responsible for their actions?

reply: The will is an abstraction. To talk of comprehension as a cause of freely-willed effects is nonsensical. The rest begs the question. The issue is whether any of us at any time is responsible for his or her actions.

These loose strands (1) leave the compatibilist reader free (!) to rely on vague intuitions about a determined-and-yet-somehow-free-willed-and-morally-responsible-self, while at the same time (2) keeping the free will skeptic (c'est moi) in the dark as to just what it is you mean when you say, e.g., "Determinism is compatible with ‘free will’. . . ."
Mike Drake

reply: Free will does not mean a volition free of all causal connection to the past. A person is free insofar as they are not constrained by internal or external factors. Nobody is absolutely free and the degree of freedom anybody has seems determined in large part, if not completely, by factors beyond one's control, such as genetic, environmental, social and historical factors. Some constraints hinder one's ability to comprehend things. Others hinder one's ability to control one's thoughts or actions. I may be wrong, but I think this is clear enough for most of my readers.

23 Jan 2001
Thank you for creating and maintaining this wonderful resource.
The Skeptic's Dictionary is a lifeboat of reason in the vast deluge of nonsense. Your articles and recommendations for further reading have been a joy and an education (and, occasionally, ammunition). Among the items I particularly value are the links for young skeptics, and I have introduced my enthusiastic nine-year old daughter to them.

One entry that I would like to share some comments about is the article on free will. This is an area I have thought much about, though I lack your formal education in philosophy.

In it you state that, "To claim that to be truly free one must not be bound by laws of cause and effect is absurd and unnecessary." Certainly I agree with your contention that it is absurd, an action cannot both happen without a pre-existing cause and also be non-random. If the action has cause, the cause precedes the action and leads to it. If there is no pre-existing cause to initiate the action it is causeless and random. I find little room for even a theist to insert a miracle.

But I disagree when you add unnecessary. If actions are the product of pre-existing causes, then they are inalterable. Though my conscious mind has "the ability to understand and control my thoughts and actions" it does so based upon opinions, preferences, knowledge, capacity, and situation that are all products of causation. Any straying from that causation would generate a random thought or action, and that would still not be free will. If you are arguing that I can be said to have free will if my conscious mind has control over my actions, even though my conscious mind is acting solely as a complicated conductor of causation (pardon the alliteration), then you are working with a very weak definition of free will. A definition of free will that can encompass actions that could not have been altered or omitted by the actor seems in fact, absurd itself.

I think that if modern views are proceeding along this line, it is for one reason. You point to it when you say, "All our concepts of praise and blame, punishment and reward, depend upon our belief in human responsibility." People accept a poor definition of free will in order to maintain their flawed concepts of justice, morals and responsibility. It is an argument from adverse consequences.

Perhaps, instead of trying to balance some cosmic, spiritual, scales of justice, we should accept the rational materialist view of determinism and alter our view of punishment, reward and responsibility. These have always been, at their roots, tools for enforcing conformity in matters important to society. Maybe if we recognize this, we can transform some of our baser laws from ones based on intolerant traditions to ones based on actual needs of a free society. And maybe we can transform our current criminal justice system, which is based on retribution, to one based on scientific research into what will stop crime. If we focus on proven methods of deterring crimes and/or segregating criminal where shown to be needed, rather than revenge, we might actually be able to improve things--and those consequences would not be adverse after all.

Jeff Omalanz-Hood

reply: I don't deny that actions are the product of pre-existing causes, but I deny that that is all they are. Focus on previous causes makes us lose sight of the obvious fact that some actions are more free than others and some people are more free than others. To assume otherwise would, as you note, require us to abandon notions of praise and blame. No doubt we praise and blame people who don't deserve it because they really are not in control of their actions or really don't comprehend what they have done. Likewise, we probably don't praise or blame some people because we mistakenly think they are not responsible for their actions. Nevertheless, I think it is obvious from observing human behavior that there are degrees of freedom.

I'm doubtful that either the libertarian or the determinist will do significantly better than the other in improving the criminal justice system.

free will


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