Free Will?

As I wrote earlier, free will is a vestige of bygone days—an anachronism. Even though though I’ve got a very low opinion of psychology as a discipline, if we introduce behaviourism into the equation, we can see how little agency a person really has.

Mary’s parents have fed her porridge for breakfast her entire life. She loves porridge.

When Mary is away, she freely chooses porridge.

Even as she ages, she chooses porridge.

One day, she is dating someone who she knows prefers fruit to porridge, so Mary chooses fruit instead.

Is this free will? At first, Mary is conditioned to eat porridge, and she develops a preference for it. Given choice, she chooses porridge. But is this a choice? Yes, she can break the cycle and choose something else. Still is that her choiced, or an act of rebellion against her upbringing?

When dating, she chooses fruit—perhaps even going against her own preference, her preference to make a good impression taking priority.

If we rewind we can see that her parents fed her porridge because that’s what they chose.

Another more charged choice is religion. Most people with a religion share the same religion as their parents. In some cases, they choose a different religion or no religion, but these are minority cases. And some of these instances are to differentiate from their parents, to assert their individuality. But is this a choice, or is this pathology? How can you determine the difference?

Thisis not meant to serve as some exaustive treatment. I am merely jotting down thoughts as I continue to distract myself from higher-value outpout. 😉

Compatible with Compatibilism?

Full Disclosure: I consider myself to be a determinist. I looked for something like Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability to evaluate where one might be oriented on a scale of free will to determinism to fatalism whilst also considering compatibilism.

Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability

Let’s lay some groundwork by establishing some definitions from most constrained to least:

  • Fatalism : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them
  • Compatibilism : a doctrine that maintains that determinism is compatible with free will
  • Determinism : a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws
  • Freewill : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

It seems that freewill and fatalism are bookends with compatibilism attempting to moderate or synthesise freewill and deteminism. But it also seems that one’s selection may be contexual. Ultimately, this argument is fraught with semantic challenges insomuch as some underlying concepts are yet unresolved.

Crash Course Philosophy does provides a nice summary of the challenges in defending even compatibilist positions away from detemininism and even fatalism.

As this video notes, our choices may appear to be free, but it doesn’t take much effort to perform a 5-whys investigation to remove anything but homoeopathic amounts of agency.

Taking a short example, let’s look at the cases of the trial judges mentioned by Sapolsky (Behave) and Kahneman (Noise). Given all of the factors entering into sentences, prior offences, sex or gender of either the defendant or the judge, education, income, and so on, but far the largest factor in determining the length or severity of a sentence was the time between the sentencing and the judge’s last meal—effectively their blood glucose levels.

Some may argue that this is a short interval, but behaviourists would argue that a person now is a culmination of all of their experiences to date. That the decision of the so-called criminal to rob the liquor store (going for the stereotype here) was not the result of low blood sugar. This may be true, but there is still an unbroken chain of confluent events that brought them to that place.

From a culpabilty perspective, even absent true agency, the offender should still be incarcerated or whatever to prevent this behaviour from repeating. Of course, if you believe in rehabilitation, you are necessarily a behaviourist in soem shape or form: the idea is to effectively repattern experience impressions. The other problem is one of probability. That you did X once, are you lilkey to do it again? If not, then there is no further risk to society, as it were. Given the probability of recitivism—and some argue that mass incarceration increases the probability or attempting criminal actions post-release—, is this even an effective deterence? It’s time to get out of the rabbit hole.

From my position, it is impossible to reconcile experience and freewill. The best you can argue is that one is free in the moment—like some strange improv exercise, where you are shown a film that stops abrutly, and you are instructed to act out the remainder of the scene. Is this free, or is this extrapolating on your experience.

Skipping to fatalism, how probable is it that absolutely everything is determined. Reality is just a film we are both in and observing or experiencing, but all of it is already laid down. We are just unawares. Every strange plot twist and early exit was not only already scripted, but it’s already been captured. There is no room for improvisation or flubbed lines. There is no opportunity to go off-script. Even these words are predestined. Even unpublished thoughts were not meant to be published.

There is no way to test this sort of system from inside the system, and there is no way to get a vantage above it, so here we are.

The notion of determinism affords humans some modicum of agency, perhaps akin to one part in a trillion trillions. Practically, we are taking credit for a butterfly effect—and punishing for this degree of freedom. As Sapolsky has noted, most instances of perceived agency are trivial. We can ‘instruct’ finger movement with our brain. Ostensibly, we think: move finger; bend; point; stop. And even so, what was the cause of the thought to move the finger? Was there truly a non-causal event?

Cognotive dissonance ensures that we can’t allow ourselves to be NPCs or automotons. We have to omuch hubris for that. We must have some free will. Some religions say we not only have agency here in this life but that we chose the life to begin with. Even so, we’ve not seen the script in advance; we’ve merely chosen which lessons we want learnt.

So what about compatibilism? Sort of, who cares? Whilst I can define some interstitial state between free will and determinism, it seems that it would not be even tempered or would otherwise skew heavily toward determinism.

What keeps me from being a hard determinist is that I hold out hope for statistics, chaos, and stochasticism. One might argue in return, that these, too, are determined; we just don’t see the underlying connection. And that’s my cognitive cross to bear.

To be fair, it seems that the notion of free will or even compatibilism are secondary, let’s say, reactions to the need for culpability, for moral responsibility. Societies are built upon these notions, as are legal systems. Necessary ingredients to invent are:

  • ‘Individual’
  • Agency and Volition
  • Choice, Motivation, and Intent
  • Responsibilty and Blame

None of these actually exist, so they need to be invented and constructed in order to associate self-control to actions. In fact, we have insanity escape clauses to recognise that there are cases where control is lost, whether temporarily or permanently, or never had in the first place for any number of ‘reasons’. At core, these attributes are necessary to exert power in a society. The next goal is to convince the actors or subjects that these things are ‘real enough’— as the saying goes, ‘good enough for the government’.

Even if we accept these things at face value, the interpretation and processing of these are different animals still. The notion of Will itself is likely speceous or another fabricated notion. Perhaps, I’ll address Will on another day. Probably not, as all of this is distracting me from my language insufficiency work.

When I think about free will, it is foisted on humanity in the same manner as gods and religion. With gods, we have been defending against theism for millennia. The gods fetish and free will are inextricably linked. As with the chicken and egg connundrum, the question is whach came first. Is God a reaction to fee will, or is it the other way around. Did we create free will to allow for responsibility and then fabricate Supreme busy bodies to act as ultimate judges? Or did we create the gods and build out the myth of free will to accommodate punishment of deviant behaviour. Or are these just parallel constructions? Enquiring minds want to know.

Je m’accuse

I’ve been an absent owner. I’ve not been fertilising this blog as I’ve been attending to my professional blog and many other things IRL. But my brain doesn’t stop thinking, and I don’t stop reading just because my fingers stop typing contributions here. Today, I type.

No Free Will

The topic is the absence of free will debate. To be fair, I believe the notion of free will is a holdover from religious belief. And, like religion, it is used to control people and to formulate social cohesion and serve as the basis of legal systems. Free will and agency are core to any justice system. There is a system of laws. Conforming is good. Nonconformance is bad. People have agency to decide whether to conform. Relative to the system, a person is either conformant or not. Justice prevails. Nonconformance is punished, as it were. Society wins.

But let’s say there is no free will. I’m going to skip the entire argument and present this piece as a hypothetical. There is no free will. The universe is entirely deterministic. Now what?

Does anything happen? Does anyone notice?

If there is no free will, the universe already has embedded ‘code’ that will either reveal or conceal this information. If we are destined to know this, we’ll know it. If not, our future will unfold all the same.

If people have no real agency, can we punish them? Sure. We do it already. We inadvertently punish the innocent. We even punish those known to be innocent. But if history is pre-written and you are destined to be punished, the script has not only been written, but it’s already been recorded indelibly on film. We’re just waiting for the scene to come into view.

Given this, the so-called knowledge that there is no free will is useless. What’s the goal—to break the fourth wall and and liberate ourselves from the script? Wouldn’t that have already been scripted? What do you get—a director’s cut?

No Agency

What if it’s not so strict but that people don’t have agency? If people are all automatons, is it still ethical to punish them? Can rehabilitation be a goal if people are ostensibly wind-up dolls? If a person is a wind-up doll run amok, are we justified for separating them from the population at large?

I can see an argument for removing axe-wielding automatons from the public. And I’m sorry if they have no agency over their actions—like zombies. We all know what happens to zombies—and unmanaged zombies.

This scenario is different to that of a person who robs a store for food to eat—think Valjean in Les Misérables. This is an indictment of the system. If something needs fixing in this situation, it’s the system not the thief. But that’s not what generally happens. It’s easier to scapegoat a person than a system—even if that system is comprised of other people.

Search for Meaning

I’ve been having a side debate with a Christian friend of mine who made these claims:

Whom do you serve?

Chrétien de Troyes — Perceval
  1. ‘[Non-religious people may] not define themselves as particularly “religious”, but…everyone is’, as he references lyrics from a Rush song, ‘even if you choose NOT to decide, you still have made a choice’.
  2. ‘One can choose to believe in nothing but themselves, but if they’re honest, “self” IS their religion. Everyone is religious.
  3. We all yearn for some meaning and we end up pursuing something or someone to fill that inward desire. Whether we organise that something and call it “religion” is beside the point, as he references Bob Dylan’s lyric, “Ya gotta serve somebody; it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.”

This had been the fluid exchange of ideas, but I’ll reply in turn.


even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

Rush — Freewill

I’ve won’t repeat my position on free will, but one can choose to be religious or not. To choose not to be religious is not also a choice to be religious. I can agree that some people substitute superstitious, metaphysical believe for, say, scientism, and this is just as ridiculous, but some people remain unconvinced in these metanarratives.

“Self” is their religion

Some Guy

Again, not everyone even ascribes to the notion of self, and there is little reason to believe that there is some element of religious worship involved.

We all yearn for some meaning

Some Guy

Again, this is fundamental attribution error, the assumption that because he believes there is some underlying meaning and yearns to find it that everyone else does. I understand that he surrounds himself with people who share this belief system, and they convince themselves that someone who says otherwise is mistaken.

Ya gotta serve somebody; it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody

Bob Dylan — GottA Serve Somebody

This is clearly dualistic thinking incarnate; a false ‘you’re either with me or against me’ dichotomy.

I remember self-assessing myself when I was in high school. Nietzsche notwithstanding, I could never agree with the frame or the assertion that there are leaders and there are followers. I did not identify with either. I do feel that within the society I was born, that I need to comply just enough to not be subjected to the violence inherent in the system for non-conformance, but that’s not exactly following. I also don’t care to lead.

It turns out that this (perhaps not coincidentally) manifested in my career, as I am a consultant—an adviser.

Destiny & Free Will

Destiny or free will is a question only as old as religion, and it’s a silly question. In my opinion, this is one of the ways that religion and religious thought sullies the world. Some dead bloke way back when had some seeming epiphany, and it was entered into the doctrinal record.

The concept of destiny is the silliest part. This is a throwback to the teleological notion of progress. I wonder if the whole concept of progress isn’t an offshoot of religion.

I’ve written elsewhere about the folly of progress. Destiny fails on the same level. Moreover, destiny in this context is first about individual destiny—what is my personal fate—and then we devolve further into some group notion, whether by race or nationality or some other social construct. It’s the same logic that led to Manifest Destiny and the slaughter of millions upon millions of people worldwide over the course of history1.

Progress Sign

Neither is free will sensible. Humans—living beings, categorically—have some autonomy over themselves. This, of course, presumes self and identity to actually mean anything. But, they are subject to the influences of genetics and environmental factors—including social indoctrination—, so how would one extricate these from some notion of sovereign free will?

One does not even need to be a strict materialist to see that one does not have free will. Not even Sartre’s no excuses Existentialism fully accounts for this. An Existentialist might argue the despite whatever historical baggage yo carry with you to any given point, you can always decide on what your next point might be. But this misses the point that any decision one makes can only be made in context to the experiences you’ve already had.

One can’t one day decide to speak Russian if one had never before learnt the Russian language.

So, as I said at the start, the question of destiny and free will are for juveniles. There is no reason to adopt the religious frame that makes them appear to be more than the specious notions they happen to be.

In the end, you just are. Enjoy the moment or at least just live it. It may be your last.


1. Please note the I am using the course of history in the idiomatic sense as one might employ corners of the earth. There is no course; there are no corners.