On Free Will, Continued

Over on The Uncredible Hallq, I have run out of room in the comment thread, and there are two or three people there who clearly do not understand me. More after the jump:

I have to go teach now, so I’ll just repost this bit of doggerel from a while ago; if time permits, I will gladly answer some of the complaints here. For now, though, I will merely say that it amuses me to see the assumptions that come packaged with people’s perceptions of my point of view. Not many are accurate. Having spent a bit of time on this topic over the years, I will say that most of them are quite predictable.

Our free will, or its illusion,
Is the source of much confusion;
We make choices all the time, but can we say that they are free?
Mind and body in cohesion
Make us think we are Cartesian,
But the whole of modern science makes me want to disagree!
A causal mind’s existence,
Though a meme of some persistence,
Has the weight of long tradition, but the evidence is slim.
Our environment controls us;
Though Cartesian thought consoles us,
The truth is, we’re reactive, and we never act on whim.
Even my creative rhyming
Is controlled by sound and timing
And a history of consequences leading to this end;
Rhymes appear as chosen freely,
When the truth is different, really—
There are multiple parameters to which I must attend!

(Parenthetically, I mention
That “free will” will draw attention
To the action and its consequence, but little to its cause;
The resulting shift of focus
Makes it seem like hocus-pocus;
Through a bit of misdirection, it appears we break the laws!)


  1. says

    I saw the link and wanted to put this down quickly on the topic of freewill or just “the ability to make a random choice of action” which is what we’re really getting at with it once we leave behind substance dualism.

    The very nature of our composition makes the notion of our will being free virtually impossible. Everything we do or think is constrained; with our thoughts, those are constrained by the construction of our brains and the memories therein. When one makes a choice, one is drawing on a lifetime of experiences that must shape that choice. A person simply can’t wipe away everything that makes them the person they are without incurring severe brain damage.

    I like to think about it as similar to the process of a stampede. Do stampedes have to happen? No, and you can’t even have them without a huge buildup of bodies. But at a certain point, there is no return to a state where the stampede will not happen. The actual cause of the stampede, though, is due to so many factors that you can’t really pin it down on any one factor as “the cause”. In terms of human willpower, we could say that the makeup of a person inclines them toward doing certain things, but as long as they take the necessary steps to weigh their actions before getting to the point where the “stampede” in their brain cannot be stopped, they do have a choice of sorts in what they will be doing.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    I saw the link and wanted to put this down quickly on the topic of freewill or just “the ability to make a random choice of action” which is what we’re really getting at with it once we leave behind substance dualism.

    One quick note–I would take issue with equating free will and your quoted phrase. “Random” behavior is not “willed”; that’s the same distinction as between random mutation and directed. It seems to me that at least three categories of behavior could exist–determined, random, and freely willed. The trick, of course, is that without sensory access to our thinking process, we simply do not have the ability to distinguish the last from the prior two.

  3. Epinephrine says

    I’m with the determinism crowd. At the most basic level, the building blocks behave according to strict rules, and there is no volition. Despite the system seeming to be making decisions (and most likely, in fact, “deciding”, in at least the sense of having an output selected based on inputs) it is a function of the structure of the system, which is both innate and based on experience. That which we think of as consciousness is likely an a posteriori rationalization (is that the right way to explain it? I’m not even an amateur philosopher…), a model we can use to explain our action, and the actions of those around us. We don’t even seem to have a lot of choice in deciding on behaviours, we have some evidence that our conscious intentions are generated after the actions associated with them. I recall reading about “free won’t,” the idea that we have a more consciously determined ability to stop actions we have initiated. In a sense, this “free won’t” would be a decision we seem to have control of, as it stems from consciousness, but the consciousness itself is still determined.

    It’s odd that we likely wouldn’t ever make an argument that a computer had free will, no matter how well it imitated people. Why is a biological computer any different?

  4. says

    So, determinism all around then. The more I learned about the deterministic nature of the universe in self-directed learning with regard to particle physics, with the barest exception for the quantum scale, the more I realized that our brains are meat-based processors acting on all the stimuli we’ve collected in our existence, and therefore free will is just an illusion. It’s one illusion I’m happy to suspend disbelief to enjoy, but now and again, I remember that fact.

    At about the same time, I realize I’m breathing, and breathe manually until my autonomic systems kick back in eventually. It’s my version of “losing the game”.

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