Monday Meslier: 80 – Free Will is an Idle Fancy

Theologians tell and repeat to us that man is free, while all their teachings conspire to destroy his liberty. Trying to justify Divinity, they accuse him really of the blackest injustice. They suppose that, without grace, man is compelled to do evil: and they maintain that God will punish him for not having been given the grace to do good!

Jean Meslier Portrait

Your host, Jean Meslier

With a little reflection, we will be obliged to see that man in all things acts by compulsion, and that his free will is a chimera, even according to the theological system. Does it depend upon man whether or not he shall be born of such or such parents? Does it depend upon man to accept or not to accept the opinions of his parents and of his teachers? If I were born of idolatrous or Mohammedan parents, would it have depended upon me to become a Christian? However, grave Doctors of Divinity assure us that a just God will damn without mercy all those to whom He has not given the grace to know the religion of the Christians.

Man’s birth does not depend upon his choice; he was not asked if he would or would not come into the world; nature did not consult him upon the country and the parents that she gave him; the ideas he acquired,
his opinions, his true or false notions are the necessary fruits of the education which he has received, and of which he has not been the master; his passions and his desires are the necessary results of the temperament which nature has given him, and of the ideas with which he has been inspired; during the whole course of his life, his wishes and his actions are determined by his surroundings, his habits, his occupations, his pleasures, his conversations, and by the thoughts which present themselves involuntarily to him; in short, by a multitude of events and accidents which are beyond his control. Incapable of foreseeing the future, he knows neither what he will wish, nor what he will do in the time which must immediately follow the present. Man passes his life, from the moment of his birth to that of his death, without having been free one instant. Man, you say, wishes, deliberates, chooses, determines; hence you conclude that his actions are free. It is true that man intends, but he is not master of his will or of his desires. He can desire and wish only what he judges advantageous for himself; he can not love pain nor detest pleasure. Man, it will be said, sometimes prefers pain to pleasure; but then, he prefers a passing pain in the hope of procuring a greater and more durable pleasure. In this case, the idea of a greater good determines him to deprive himself of one less desirable.

It is not the lover who gives to his mistress the features by which he is enchanted; he is not then the master to love or not to love the object of his tenderness; he is not the master of the imagination or the temperament which dominates him; from which it follows, evidently, that man is not the master of the wishes and desires which rise in his soul, independently of him. But man, say you, can resist his desires; then he is free. Man resists his desires when the motives which turn him from an object are stronger than those which draw him toward it; but then, his resistance is necessary. A man who fears dishonor and punishment more than he loves money, resists necessarily the desire to take possession of another’s money. Are we not free when we deliberate?–but has one the power to know or not to know, to be uncertain or to be assured? Deliberation is the necessary effect of the uncertainty in which we find ourselves with reference to the results of our actions. As soon as we believe ourselves certain of these results, we necessarily decide; and then we act necessarily according as we shall have judged right or wrong. Our judgments, true or false, are not free; they are necessarily determined by ideas which we have received, or which our mind has formed. Man is not free in his choice; he is evidently compelled to choose what he judges the most useful or the most agreeable for himself. When he suspends his choice, he is not more free; he is forced to suspend it till he knows or believes he knows the qualities of the objects presented to him, or until he has weighed the consequence of his actions. Man, you will say, decides every moment on actions which he knows will endanger him; man kills himself sometimes, then he is free. I deny it! Has man the ability to reason correctly or incorrectly? Do not his reason and his wisdom depend either upon opinions that he has formed, or upon his mental constitution? As neither the one nor the other depends upon his will, they can not in any wise prove his liberty.

If I make the wager to do or not to do a thing, am I not free? Does it not depend upon me to do or not to do it? No; I will answer you, the desire to win the wager will necessarily determine you to do or not to do the thing in question. “But if I consent to lose the wager?” Then the desire to prove to me that you are free will  have become to you a stronger motive than the desire to win the wager; and this motive will necessarily have determined you to do or not to do what was understood between us. But you will say, “I feel myself free.” It is an illusion which may be compared to that of the fly in the fable, which, lighting on the shaft of a heavy wagon, applauded itself as driver of the vehicle which carried it. Man who believes himself free, is a fly who believes himself the master-motor in the machine of the universe, while he himself, without his own volition, is carried on by it. The feeling which makes us believe that we are free to do or not to do a thing, is but a pure illusion. When we come to the veritable principle of our actions, we will find that they are nothing but the necessary results of our wills and of our desires, which are never within our power. You believe yourselves free because you do as you choose; but are you really free to will or not to will, to desire or not to desire? Your wills and your desires, are they not necessarily excited by objects or by qualities which do not depend upon you at all?

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Meslier’s argument seems to me to be basic incompatibilism: since our wills and desires are excited by things external to us, how can we possibly say that they originate in us.

I’ve never really cared for the free will debate; it seems silly. Why can’t we just accept that we are programmed to feel as though we have free will, so naturally we will behave as though we do? The whole reason we have spilled so much philosophical ink over the topic is because our brains are programmed in such a way that we feel obligated to spill philosophical ink over it. Our brains are also programmed to make us think we see things in 3D (whatever that is!) when, clearly, that’s just a construct. Why don’t people spill philosophical ink over “do we really see in 3D or not?” Well, we’re not programmed to care about that, apparently.

I know a guy who has 20/20 vision in each eye, yet the part of his brain that gives him the illusion of depth doesn’t work. He drives based on estimating the apparent size of the cars around him; he’s very good at identifying cars because he needs to know what’s a big SUV far away and what’s a compact car close up. It’s interesting to talk about it with him, because he understands in principle the idea of seeing in 3D but has never experienced it. I wonder if there are any people who are born without their brain being programmed to give them the illusion that they make decisions?


  1. says

    I don’t have depth perception either. Had to learn a few tricks in order to be able to drive without smacking into people’s back ends or leaving a massive gap. I also think the free will nonsense is just that, nonsense. As far as I’m concerned, it was cooked up to go with religion, long before christianity was on the map. (Points to Pandora story). It’s a ‘get out of jail free’ card for deities. “Well, I did things right, but those stubborn toys, they have a mind of their own, blah blah.”

  2. springa73 says

    I think one reason why free will arguments are so important to some people is that those people have a strong emotional attachment to the idea that they are autonomous and “in charge” of their own lives. Arguments that this autonomy is an illusion are profoundly disturbing to them.

    In a religious context, obviously some versions of Christianity have rejected free will while others have embraced it. One convenient thing about free will from a religious perspective is that, as Caine just observed, it allows one to assert that evil was created by the bad decisions of humans or fallen angels or some agency other than God. For theologians who reject free will, it becomes more difficult to explain how a good and just and all powerful deity could create a universe with evil in it. I’m sure there are ways that theologians can reconcile these things, but they might not be as convincing.

  3. says

    I don’t have depth perception either.

    Really! That must be … interesting.

    As far as I’m concerned, it was cooked up to go with religion, long before christianity was on the map.

    Yeah, I tend to agree with that. It’s just how people explain our experience of causality.

  4. says

    Sunday Afternoon@#3:
    I have used this as a tool to get me to fall asleep on trans-Pacific flights…

    Ooh, with a recommendation like that I’ve got to give it a listen!
    I sometimes fall asleep to certain podcasts.

    If you really want to fall asleep to some free will, try Dennet’s Freedom Evolves. I read the whole thing a couple times and kept falling asleep. All I can remember from it was that basically, “we don’t have free will as such but because we feel like we do, we have free will!” yay philosophy.

  5. says

    Arguments that this autonomy is an illusion are profoundly disturbing to them.

    Yes. I have always wanted to ask a taoist scholar what the taoist interpretation of the question is. Probably pretty typical mystical approach: it doesn’t matter.

  6. cvoinescu says

    What is the difference between “free will” and “calculated entirely from current state, inputs, and sources of randomness, but using an intractably complex function, and unaware of the bulk of the process”, anyway?

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Meslier? Podcasts? Dennett? Here‘s a podcast with Dennett (starting around 25 minutes in) talking about clergy who are atheists.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    For podcasts to doze off to, look no further than the BBC, and Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time”. I particularly recommend the Phenomenology episode. I must have heard the beginning fifty times but I don’t think I’ve ever made it to the end.

  9. John Morales says

    Well, Meslier clearly argues that being subject to external contingency our choices must be likewise, so that what we want to choose depends on circumstance.

    But note he implicitly accepts volition exists, as if choices were truly made.

    (Free will can be interpreted as many things — e.g. choices being uncoerced — but the philosophical concept relates to possible non-repeatability of choices)

  10. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#8:
    Meslier? Podcasts? Dennett? Here‘s a podcast with Dennett (starting around 25 minutes in) talking about clergy who are atheists.

    Generally, Dennet’s not too bad. I was surprised when I was listening to the Intelligence^2 podcast with him, (it’s not bad!) “on tools to transform our thinking” [i2]

    I don’t find him sleep-inducing because he throws too many things up for me to think about, and it keeps me awake.

  11. says

    For podcasts to doze off to, look no further than the BBC, and Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time”. I particularly recommend the Phenomenology episode. I must have heard the beginning fifty times but I don’t think I’ve ever made it to the end.

    I love the “In our time” series and I use them to keep myself awake while I’m driving!

    Melvyn is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever heard. He is very subtle, guides his guests effectively, his interjections are on point, and he really seems genuinely engaged. I’m probably projecting a bit – I would love to be in his position, and able to question such amazing experts in such a mix of fields.

    (My favorite one is the one on enzymes, which I want to do a posting about one of these days)

  12. says

    John Morales@#10:
    But note he implicitly accepts volition exists, as if choices were truly made.

    It seems to me that he’s trapped by his vocabulary. It’s hard to talk about this stuff without using language that implies a certain belief. coinescu@#7 describes free will in a different way.

    Damn, I just came perilously close to making a “he was a man of his time!” argument.

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