Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Free Will and Determinism"

Don’t run away. You’ll love it. I didn’t write it yet, but I’ve got a good reputation.

I took a UCLA extension course on this subject recently. Extension classes are what you do when your brain cells are dying and you don’t have a job.


“Free will or determinism?”

At the beginning, it seems like no contest. I chose to come to that philosophy class, didn’t I?

Free will. It’s over.

“Free will” is a slam dunk. It’s Hillary before Iowa. I could have said “It’s Patriots over the Giants before the Superbowl.” That would have been just as suitable an example. I chose “Hillary before Iowa.”

Free will.

Examples of free will are all over the place. I could have said, “Examples of free will are everywhere.” I chose to say “all over the place.”

Free will.

“Free will” was defined in our class as whatever we do, we had the ability to do otherwise. Or, “We had the ability to do it another way.” I chose “otherwise.”

Free will.

I’m going to stop giving “free will” examples now; they’re getting a little tiresome. I could easily provide further examples, but I won’t.

Free will.

Oops, sorry.

On that first day of class, it felt like determinism didn’t have a prayer. Literally. Religious people believe in free will. And they’re the people who pray.

Religious people support the idea of free will. Is there any reason we shouldn’t believe them? Have they ever been wrong about anything before?

Okay, there was that “sun revolves around the earth” thing. They got that wrong. But their hearts were in the right place. To people of faith, it was totally reasonable to believe that the sun revolved around the earth. The human species is special. Made in the image, and all that. Great Godfrey! Why wouldn’t the sun revolve around the earth?

Because it doesn’t.

Okay, so they got one thing wrong. Cut them some slack, will ya? Oh, wait. Religious people – not all of them, but enough of them to scare me – believe that the theory of “Natural Selection” is a fairy tale. No way the human species evolved from the lower forms. Human beings are special. Made in the image, and all that. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that humans evolved from amphibians, making a stop at chimpanzee.

Except that people who study that stuff have persuasive evidence that we did.

So here we are. The guys who insisted that the sun revolves around the earth, and who continue to insist that the human species didn’t evolve – we just showed up – now insist that we have free will.


I’m not saying they’re mistaken. Just because they got a couple of other things wrong doesn’t mean they’re wrong about this. But it does put a dent in their credibility.

Last weekend, I told my daughter’s boyfriend the NBA Finals would start on Tuesday. They started on Thursday. I told him the home-court schedule was two games – two games – one game – one game – one game. It’s two games – three games – two games. My daughter’s boyfriend should really stop listening to me. I’m thinking about not listening to myself.

Okay, so there are questions about the track record of some major supporters of free will. But come on, eh? I mean, it feels like we have free will, doesn’t it? I could have said, “Doesn’t it feel like we have free will?” I chose to say it the other way.

Free will.

I know. I promised I wouldn’t do any more examples. I changed my mind.

Free will!

Free will makes us the distinct people we are. Every human is the sum total of their individual choices, not merely reflexively responding biological organisms. Each of us freely determines exactly who we are.

Don’t we?

Well, there is genetics. That’s personal, in that we each have our own unique genetic code. But our genes are not in our control. You can “free will” your ass off, but if your genes say, “Short”, there is no way you can will yourself “Tall.” If your mother’s “pattern baldness” determines your hair to fall out, you will not be able to will it back in.

Brain chemistry? I know almost nothing about it. But I seem to recall when they cut serial killers’ heads open, they find a lot of untypical stuff in there. But forget the extremes. You can detect individual differences simply from observation.

You look at babies, lying in their cribs. Some babies are placid; others are nervous, others are bouncing off the walls. What’s causing these differences? Not free will. Babies don’t have free will.

“I think I’ll spit up now. Wait, maybe I’ll take a dump in my diaper. No, I’m spitting up.”

It doesn’t work that way. However it does works, we can determine from these observed differences that there are powerful “non free will” forces at play. It’s hard to believe that those powerful forces leave town when you stop being a baby.

Then there’s Dr. M’s area – the unconscious. Before Freud, nobody knew it existed; now, we pretty sure it does. Can a person control their unconscious? Give me a break. I can barely control my conscious.

You can’t be responsible for your unconscious. It’s like me grabbing all the blankets when I’m asleep. How can that be my fault? I’m asleep!

All these discoveries: genetics, brain chemistry, the unconscious – they’re new. Once, we didn’t know they existed; now, we do. This new knowledge keeps coming, and who believes there isn’t more new knowledge on the way, replacing the earlier knowledge that turned out to be wrong? Doctors once used leaches. Now, it’s “Get those things out of here!”


What if our belief in free will is merely a matter of incomplete knowledge? Imagine this possibility. We believe in free will now, but once we obtain the necessary knowledge, we abandon that belief, as we abandoned the belief in the healing power of leaches, and we replace it with a belief that is verifiably true.


Whoh! Whiplash!

Determinism. Really? Is that the answer? Or have I freely chosen to believe in determinism?

Let’s say determinism is the real deal. If our actions are totally determined, can we still punish people who engage in what we perceive to be unacceptable behavior?



Because we hate them.

And they’re dangerous. If we put them away, they won’t be able to hurt us anymore. Justice? Maybe not. But it’s still a really good idea.

If that’s not satisfying, here’s a story demonstrating that determinism, rather than precluding punishment, makes punishment inevitable. I remember this from my five weeks at law school.

The defendant stands before the judge, pleading for mercy.

“Your Honor, I am a product of my upbringing. My upbringing compelled me to rob that bank.”

“I have listened to your argument carefully,” replies the judge, “and you’ll be surprised to hear that I agree with you. I too am a product of my upbringing. And my upbringing compels me to sentence you to twenty years.”

It doesn’t look good. Determinism’s running the table.

Free will people:

Help me out, here.


Anonymous said...

I think you covered every possible example. Not much else we can do to help you out.

Anonymous said...

I chose to post this comment.
(*checks self for puppet strings - finds none*)

Free Will!

Gnasche said...

Speaking of the subconscious mind, I have a theory...

We subconsciously express ourselves through body language.

We can also subconsciously pick up information (subliminal messages).

Therefor, when people are within visual range of one another, their subconscious minds could be having an entire conversation without any of the people being consciously aware of it.

I'm trying to work this into a Sci-Fi script involving the subconscious overthrowing the conscious, but haven't been able to figure out what their goal would be.

I have another theory that the subconscious overthrow has already taken place and they have a strong desire for reality television.

Goedi said...

I'm out of my league here.
But, for various reasons, I recently picked up Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (without the help of an extension class) and ran across that same problem early on in the book.
To get around it, good ol' Freddy N. "chooses" not to distinguish between "free" and "unfree" will, but rather between strong and weak will - depending on the will-ers will-ingness to accept responsibility.

And then there's the issue of not being able to talk about "free" anything in a determined system such as grammar and syntax - in which subjects are determined to act and objects are determined to be acted upon.

As you can tell, I'm confused, but want to share my confusion with someone who seems similarly confused.

Laura Deerfield said...

I've always felt it was a combination of the two at play: our temperament and environment (including our bodies) are determined. But that determination provides a wide range of possibilities - and within that range, we make choices.

It's like the old game board with a series of squares. You can play chess or checkers, or dozens of other games.

Imagine walking onto a soundstage, already decorated, and being introduced to a set of actors with general character descriptions: slutty mom, brainy teen girl, young jock - and being told to write a script. Yes, a lot is determined, but that still leaves a huge range of stories to tell.

Earl Pomerantz said...

I appreciate the thoughtful comments on this subject. They'll expand my way of thinking about it.
There's always the thought that a person leans towards believing in determinism because they don't want to take responsibility. Some people like to be passengers on the journey through life, while others prefer to be, or think they're, the driver. But as I said in my legal story, free willed or determined, if you did a bad thing, you're still going to have to pay. So there's no hiding.

growingupartists said...


I wonder if you're referring to the collective unconsious, which we can tap into, bypassing our own personal experience. Exchanges of information do occur at this level, which in my opinion is the ocean where God swims.

As far as free will vs determinism, I think the Catholics have proven theoretically that there is no free will, but I can't remember why. My joke was going to be, "A comedian who has no idea where all of his jokes come from? I've never heard that one before!" But that's stupid.

My view of free will is that we always have the choice to follow God, or the choice to say "no, I will not follow God." I can't say exactly the outcome when we refuse to walk in Christ, but I have witnessed an order, a meeting of needs, and a healing coversation (in mind, spirit, or wherever) through surrendering your will to a more organized, proficient, top-of-the-pyramid, though floating a mere eternity above...architect of the Universe, and all of the systems we blindly follow within it. Like sheep.

David Philip Park said...

What if you are destined to defend freewill? to tell us all of this? But I also believe in free will. :D Just giving you something to think of. :)

David Philip Park said...

What if you are destined to defend freewill? to tell us all of this? But I also believe in free will. :D Just giving you something to think of. :)

Anonymous said...

What about awarding someone with the Nobel Peace prize because of something that they did? But, if the world believes in determinism then they should not be given any credit for it because they were merely pre-destined to do it. This thinking makes giving people credit or awards or honors pointless, because it must not have been from their abilities (choices) that it was done or achieved.
Someone who is put at gunpoint and is asked to give up his money is still faced with a choice. The choice is obvious as the gunman will end up with his money if he surrenders it or if he dies, but still, it is a choice of freewill.
What about environmentalists? They must be mixed up if they believe that humans can do something to prevent the icebergs from melting when according to determinism it would have been pre-determined that the icebergs were going to melt. But, it wasn’t. Humans can make choices that may or may not help improve our environment out of our freewill.

I vote for freewill!