A Simple Choice

Free will justification is fundamentally the inability to admit that others have been, or will be, less lucky in life than you. Belief in free will means never having to acknowledge your own great good fortune, or recognise the far greater misfortune of others.

It should surely be sad enough that some have forced upon them the losing hands in the lottery of birth and upbringing, while many of us—generally the wealthier, the better-educated, the more attractive, the lighter-skinned—coast though life with barely a hiccup. [1]

Free will exists from the standpoint of our legal system but not from some neuroscientists.  Here, I am ambivalent if free will exists or not, but in the next post, I have decided to argue that it doesn’t exist.  I am sure that my hypothesis that “it exists for all practical purposes and that we should believe in it”, will be confirmed.  But depending upon how we circumscribe what “choice” is and what “you” and “I” as agents are, I believe a case can be made that it is but an illusion that is used primarily for social control. (iv)

Free Will and Self-Interest  

Free will is a self-serving concept.  Theologians use it as a tool to make their religion work, and we use it to hold others accountable.  Free will is shorthand for blameworthiness—we blame others—or creditworthiness—we take credit for our smart decisions.  The quote spells out the other problem with its belief—as in we end up ignoring the luck (v), good or bad, that biology bestows upon us.

After all, we are rational individuals, which makes us superior, and deserve credit for our good decisions and behaviors.  To say that it was luck is to say that it wasn’t us, or worse, it is to say we are superior.  By contrast, to admit to bad luck is to admit to inferiority.  The bad decisions and behaviors in life?  Well, they were irrational.  They were irrational because we are supposed to be rational.

The Will of Adam and Eve

Free will is having the ability to choose.  In everyday use, that is what it is left at and is where philosophy starts from.  That is how Catholics can condemn us to eternal damnation.  Catholics say that we have a choice to love God or not.  If we don’t, then it was our choice.  But love is not a choice made but a phenomenon to be explained—an either-or decision only to those who serve to benefit.

What about the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis where they made a choice to not obey God (i)?  They made a conscious choice to disobey God and took from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  According to Augustine of Hippo (ii), this was “the fall” of humankind and the “original sin”.  What thoughts do you think Adam and Eve had before they took from the tree of knowledge?

They must have been flooded with dopamine and endorphins over the excitement as the tree sounds tempting.  The nagging voice of fear of God’s wrath, if their minds were working well, would seep in but at the young age they were at, decision making isn’t as rational (iii) as the economists want you to believe.  There are details in-between a causal chain of events of a choice that matter.

The pleasure center, which consists of the dorsal striatum and nucleus accumbens, has a high density of dopamine receptor sites when we are young, making us hypersensitive to pleasure and allure.  So we are on an unequal footing when young.  Was it fair for God to give youngsters a choice like that?  He must have understood the concept of the pleasure center as he is all-knowing.


i) No, I do not view Genesis as something that literally happened!  These are fictional characters meant to tell a story about Israel’s beginnings in a very symbolic way.

ii) Most old testament scholars believe that the author did not intend this act to be the original sin, passed down to other generations, nor is there any mentioning of the term “The Fall” in the text.  This is Augustine’s interpretation.

iii) If by rational we mean that we respond to incentives, trade-offs, and consequences, then, yes, we can be rational.  But not in the sense that is used by an economist when they discuss homo econonomicus.

iv) Of course it is used for good things too, as it is all about morality, but that is no fun now is it.

v) Luck is both biology and other chance factors.


[1] Miles, James B. The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality.


  1. robert79 says

    A while back, I was at a party and I ended up talking to some philosophy grad students. The topic of free will came up (yes… I got to *those* kinds of parties…)

    I rather liked their take on it: free will means it makes sense to hold you accountable for your actions.

    • musing says

      Exactly! When we talk about consciousness, then I can see a scientific value to it. But when we talk about free will, it seems like it is a way as you say to hold us accountable. I haven’t thought about it long enough, but besides that, it has the ability to also allow us to take credit for our actions because of course, they were all of our doing. And then when we make poor life-decisions then we can chalk it up to being irrational, but not us. As the quote suggests, the flipside is that we don’t acknowledge that other people aren’t born as lucky and aren’t awarded with what culture deems as superior attributes: looks, intelligence, and abilities.

  2. Anonymous says

    Every night, I freely choose to try to fall asleep when I am tired and ready for bed, and I feel that this choice is free will. But every time I get surgery, with anesthesia, I always want to stay conscious and chat for one more minute first. But then the anesthesiologist injects my blood and thus brain with something that puts me to sleep before I’m ready. I think being forced asleep by chemicals in my brain is not free will.
    So if I break my diet by letting a brain craving overpower my resistance to eating something extra, is that my free will being morally weak, or is that a neurochemical imposition against my will?
    Am I overweight because of free will, or because of the lack of free will?
    Of course, to discuss free will, people must first decide if they want to define words as they are normally used in conversations with normal people, or if the want to discuss in a way and language that normal people can’t interpret?
    Personally, I intuitively feel that words outside of professional journals need to be in language that non-specialists will recognize. I also feel that normal people would laugh at anyone who said that addicts of heroin or tobacco or food or alcohol are free to quit any time, because they can just freely choose to not feel desire for such items.

    • musing says

      After I’m done with this, I think we will be able to answer those questions. Those are “the” questions. I agree with your last comment if you are saying that free will is severely diminished with chemicals. Addicts after awhile certainly lose self-control and willpower. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Bruce says

    On a separate issue, some have said that Jesus had miraculous powers, and thus could have freely chosen to walk away before being crucified. If so, then Jesus died by his own free will choice. This is suicide. Suicide is a sin. Sinners go to hell, they say. Therefore, after he was crucified, Jesus must have gone permanently to hell and never been resurrected. So if Jesus acted by free will, then Christianity never existed. Jesus was temporarily murdered by God his Father, but after a two day sleep by Jesus, God’s sacrifice was revoked. It’s like putting money into a church collection plate and then robbing it back from the church on Tuesday. Why doesn’t everyone just “sacrifice” everything they own, such as the deeds to their car or home, if they can get and keep credit for the sacrifice, even after undoing the sacrifice? How many times do I have to put a $100 bill on a string into the plate, fishing it back, and repeat, before I am destined for heaven? If God’s too smart for such tricks, then why does he expect everyone to fall for the Jesus “sacrifice” trick?
    So, was the crucifiction a free will suicide, or an irresistible compulsion to be a puppet in a God’s pointless parlor trick?

    • musing says

      Hey Bruce! Now, I like that! Yes, when you start to analyze these things, then it is easy to see how absurd it all is in the end. But the trick is, to be a Christian, you are not supposed to analyze but instead, let the theologians come up with an explanation. I remember a time attending church, a Catholic church, and the priest said jokingly during a homily that “back in the real days when we had power”. There is always some grain of truth when we joke. Their power has been eroded and for good reasons, because people are allowed to think for themselves.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    What thoughts do you think Adam and Eve had before they took from the tree of knowledge?

    According to the story, they had no ability to discern between right and wrong – by contemporary US standards, they were legally insane.

    • musing says

      That made me laugh! Here is a common interpretation from a Christian on Quora. It’s amazing how people put so much weight on a story and say that the human race became tainted as a result.

  5. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Aside. Quoting Gerrard Capashen of the Weatherlight: “Destiny, chance, fortune, fate – they’re all ways of claiming your successes without claiming your failures.”

  6. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Re Free Will.
    I’m with Dennett on this. Under the ordinary understanding of free will as something incompatible with physics, then of course free will doesn’t exist. However, if we tweak the ordinary understanding of free will just a little, we can find something that almost completely matches our expectations, and which actually exists in the real world.

    The key part is focusing on the ordinary (mis)understanding of “choice”. What is a choice? Is a random, unplanned accident a choice? No. It’s the exact opposite of a choice. A choice is an intentional, planned, action, taken according to the determinations of the will. The problem is the common misunderstanding of “choice” as non-deterministic. Rather, if one thinks deeply and honestly about it, the only coherent option that one has is that “choice” is an inherently deterministic thing – a result of an highly deterministic process, taking into account one’s proclivities from birth and from upbringing, from their current knowledge, from their recent planning and intentional states. Again, an accident made unknowingly is not a choice, but an action taken as a consequence of one’s personality and knowledge of the facts and one’s values – that’s a choice.

    Our universe is seemingly not be perfectly deterministic, but choice, and free will, only makes sense to the extent that the universe is deterministic, and only makes sense in the parts of the universe where it can be approximated as deterministic.

    The only logically coherent options on the table are “true determinism” or “a true deterministic system with some bits of true randomness thrown in”. Advocates of “libertarian free will” want there to be a third option, but there is no logically coherent third option. Advocates of libertarian free will would be better suited to examine what they really want from free will, and they will find that they get everything that they really need from compatibilism.

    Daniel Dennett lecture on “Free Will” (Edinburgh University)

    • musing says

      Good comment. I don’t think I will have time to look at the lecture tonight. For comparison, Christian List argues that at the level of intentional agency (free will as we know it) is not deterministic. What is Dennett more precisely arguing?

      I agree that philosophers have made a case that free will exists. If you take a look at intentional agency, however, you will see that it is a tautology. “An agent performs an action intentionally if and only if they act on an intention to perform that action” – Richard Holton. All of the free will arguments use this intentional agent idea to make their case. [There is evidence that we can consciously implement our intentions, but how much and in what ways is what I’m still researching.]

      If we say it is us forming the intention to act, which it is, then how can we argue against that? We are reasoning with imprecise concepts, and I believe it comes down to how much conscious control do we exercise in real-life over our choices and actions. The more we put free will under the microscope the less I’m convinced since most thought is unconscious (95%).

      For example, the typical account of how choices are made goes something like this: 1) deliberating 2) judging 3) choosing 4) acting. But we usually bypass the judging (the evaluate or appraisal stage) and make a choice automatically. It is called intuition. This idea of evaluating arguments and making rational choices is not our natural mode of thinking. I think the behavioral economist Kahneman did a lot of work on this that is worthwhile to check out if you aren’t already familiar with his work.

      So we have beliefs, desires, and intentions. But our reasoning (we reason with our beliefs) is usually meant to rationalize a choice or action we have already made, so reason is usually in the backseat and passion and intuition are the driver’s seat. I am not saying that we do not deliberate and think, but I just don’t think it is a much as we think it is nor is it as rational choice theory explains it is.

      And where do our intentions come from and where does our self-control come from to make sure we don’t revise our intentions in our weakest moments? That is the level that neuroscience looks at and things start to break down at that level. I will eventually put something up that argues that our choices and control although not determined are influenced heavily by social forces, and we simply are not as free as what we claim when arguing at the intentional agency level.

      Thanks for the comment.

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