Free Will Hunting

Question from John:
Do atheists have “free will” or is it just everybody else except them?

Answer by SmartLX:
I think we’re all agreed that as a human race the same state of affairs is true for all of us regardless of what we think, so either we all have free will or none of us do.

The reason a lot of atheists reject the idea of free will is that it seems to require a supernatural mechanism within the brain. The actions we take result from the decisions we make, and the decisions we make are determined by the physical state of our brains and the electrical signals within them at the time. To go against all that and avoid the choice which is pre-determined by the external and internal factors beforehand literally requires that the brain go against the laws of physics. Many people who do think we have free will get around this by thinking that the soul influences the brain in such matters, which doesn’t give atheists much confidence that free will is compatible with a materialistic view of the brain. But again, if atheists are wrong then they have a soul like everybody else, and therefore free will.

This scientific perspective on the problem sounds abstract and doesn’t strike people as having any bearing on the decisions they’ve made themselves, so I like to explain it this way instead. We have things that we want and we make decisions and take actions to achieve them – in other words we have will. It’s not free will because it is driven entirely by the things we want, and we can’t decide what to want. The only reason, the ONLY reason we ever act in a way that denies us something we want is because we want something else more. We refuse a delicious cake because we want to lose weight. We don’t pursue romance with someone we desire because we want to avoid rejection, or because we want to preserve an existing relationship. This is not necessarily selfish in the usual sense because what we want most might be for someone else to be happy, or to advance a cause that will benefit a group we’re not in. Nevertheless we are literally slaves to our desires, it’s just a matter of which desire wins out in the moment.

27 thoughts on “Free Will Hunting”

  1. Of course we don’t have free will.

    There can be nothing happening without a precious cause.

    Causes result in consequences, and this is why we decide this or that, this, but not something else instead (that).

    But, you, Smartlx, have succeeded in putting in words the CAUSALITY LAW in a way I would never dream of, so thank you for that!

  2. Studies that I’ve read suggest that our brain performs statistical calculations on every decision. It basically runs iteration after iteration and what ends up being the most likely outcome is what we “choose”. Of course since our brains are each unique in both their structure and previous experience, not every human calculates the same thing, hence the free will appearance.

    1. What about someone who decides to get drunk. There is a chance that they might hurt someone while they’re drunk. Which should make people logically not want to get drunk, or drink and drive, or put people at risk. Is getting drunk the best iteration we can come up with, or do emotions and desires get in the way? I don’t think humans make smart decisions a lot of the time. Computers on the other hand seem to fit that analogy better.

      1. Nobody said the decisions had to be smart or even rational, and when driven by base desires they often aren’t. Getting drunk has short-term benefits: it’s relaxing, it gives you a buzz, it helps facilitate social interaction (both by reducing inhibitions and by not being the one sober person in a group) and for some it feeds an addiction, compulsion or psychological dependency. The potential downsides are obvious, but all that matters is whether you want it at the start more than you want to absolutely prevent the potential consequences.

        A decision takes into account the perceived risks, just as every time we get in a car we accept the risk of being in a crash. If you forget or ignore the risks they carry very little weight in the decision, and the risks of drinking are far more apparent afterwards. So every night lots of people decide to get drunk.

        1. Do you think we’ll ever “evolve” past that? By that I mean making selfish decisions. If we don’t have free will, then not having free will includes thinking somewhat rationally and being a human being with emotions and desires which can lead us to make bad decisions. What is your definition of free will? What is your definition of what we “have” currently?

          1. That sounds pretty much like what actually happens, doesn’t it James? We try to think rationally in order to achieve what we want in the long term, but sometimes short term desires take priority and we go chasing those. We’ve already evolved a long way from focusing solely on short-term needs and wants like most animals do, and our distant descendants might be even better at taking the long view, but as long as we’re still animals we will always have that id to reckon with.

            I think free will is the ability to potentially make one of multiple choices in a given situation (where the “situation” includes the state of your own body and brain at the time). We can make choices and therefore what we have is “will”, but it’s not free because all choices appear to be predetermined, even if we don’t know what they’ll be until we make them.

            1. Predetermined by who? I think you were asking for that. It is what happens. I was saying if what we have is no free will then we would do those things. What if someone acts more rationally then someone else? Does that make them more free will or not? In other words if no free will is emotions and rationality, is all emotions or all rationality free will? Or at least not no free will?

              1. “By who?” There’s a leading question if ever I saw one.

                Predetermined means that with the brain in a specific state, the neurons will follow the laws of physics and fire towards a particular decision, and cannot do otherwise without breaking the laws of physics. What the brain wants most in that moment is driving it inexorably to a specific action, and unless the external circumstances change the choice will not.

                Rationality is not a measure of free will. If someone thinks more rationally then they are able to better determine which course of action is more likely to be beneficial, but they still make the choice based on what they want. Maybe they’re able to want something in the future more than they want what’s in front of them, or to realise that they don’t even want the short-term goodie. Thus their will serves them better but it’s still not free. If anything it’s a better slave to their desires.

                1. So all of are choices are driven by desire and there is no free will. Seems a little bleak. I think however you answer this, it comes from what you believe. As a Christian I say there is free will but I think that that view is almost an outside the box one. I think faith and a God, is much more then science and if you believe in something of the sorts you believe in other motives for why things happen. If there is no God or higher power then there is no way for there to be free will but if there is, it opens the possibility for it. I don’t think there is a way to prove this issue. At least that I can think of.

                  1. Whether it sounds bleak or not doesn’t change the fact that just as you say it takes belief in God, or some other supernatural power that can override the physics and chemistry of the brain, to allow for the existence of free will as we define it. To argue that free will is real because the alternative is bleak, or because belief in it encourages good behaviour, would be an argument from consequences. Fortunately the urge to be good to our fellow humans persists regardless, passed down from the social animals in our ancestry. It mostly manifests as empathy.

  3. I just read an interesting article on free will.
    It was interesting what it said about the belief in free will or no free will and it’s effects on morality. I think this kind of points towards the charity and “good” of religion. I would tend to say if you believe in a higher power you also believe in free will. Which seems to have a better affect on your life and others then a believe in no free will.

    1. I’ve seen other articles and abstracts saying much the same thing. I think the problem is that the articulated views on morality on all sides, religious and otherwise, assume we are all free agents who can always choose the most ethical action if we want to. That’s a really big if, because what we want can just as easily choose for us.

      Therefore (especially in the face of eroding religious faith) I think the whole language of the subject has to change with a view to directly encouraging good behaviour in a way that will have an impact, rather than just dictating what’s right and wrong. Just as the subjects of the experiment relaxed their moral codes when reminded of their non-agency, when others are reminded of their own long-term goals for society and of the plights of others, they will be mindful of the repercussions their actions will have and be much more inclined to act ethically. The idea is to encourage us to manifest the higher levels of our will, free or otherwise.

      1. We aren’t rational most of the time, which can cause loads of problems. I think they were saying that while it might not be an actual choice to do better and treat people with kindness, we subconsciously do or don’t do that, depending on what value we think other people have. If I think we have no free will, life loses meaning (this is what I think rather then what everyone would or does but I think it would be common) and I am no longer motivated to do good. It boils down to doing something for praise of some sort or not doing something out of fear. Ideally we wouldn’t need to fear but what if someone does something wrong? Is not getting praise that big of a motivator or does there need to be something in place like prison (depending on the wrong). Also, are you saying we don’t have the choice to do the most ethical thing, or we just don’t repeatably? If we don’t repeatably, then there would need to be a big motivator for the right choice.

        I believe you said in a previous article that you have a child. Have you tried to raise them with dictating right and wrong or encouraging them to do what’s right? I think they have to know what’s wrong, even though that would very on the culture and beliefs. I think encouraging could work but I think they should understand everything and know that some things are wrong and you shouldn’t do them, just as you should do what is right. I was spanked when I was young if I did something wrong. It hurt but it was effective and my mother was always told how well behaved her kids were. And no I wasn’t scared of my parents. I see a lot of kids that seem to be outright disobedient (which really bugs me) and spanking is frowned upon. The new system without much punishment doesn’t seem to be working.

        I wouldn’t say Christians are dictating (at least they shouldn’t be), read the Bible and see what it says, they should be telling you what it says. I would point out context is important.

        1. You’re completely leaving out the effect of empathy James. People apparently relax their morals in controlled settings with victimless consequences while considering lack of free will philosophically, but out in the real world people generally want to help others just because. Atheists don’t think there’s a punishment after death for murdering and raping as much as they want, but for the vast majority the amount they want to murder and rape is zero because they just plain care for their fellow Earthlings.

          As for incentives, positive and negative, they’re built into society at every level. Punishments for violent or otherwise cruel crimes help discourage people from offending or reoffending, and also remove offenders from society for various periods of time. Even when the law doesn’t catch up with people whose morals are far removed from the rest of society, these people are deemed outside of the social contract and either ostracised, targeted for rehabilitation or just plain targeted. On the positive side, getting a reputation as a good person will get you a long way, and acts of kindness are reciprocated sometimes without thinking.

          My kid’s too young yet to grasp the philosophy of morality. I’m sure I sometimes use words like good, bad, right and wrong when I tell him what to do and what not to do, because they’re useful terms in context. But rather than tell him what’s what and leave it at that, I try to make him understand why we make that judgement. If he’s done something “bad”, I emphasise the effect of the action: who’s been hurt or upset, what’s been lost or damaged. The objective goal in all things is to minimise harm and maximise happiness (not that I use those terms with a two year old), and everything ties back to that.

          The Bible is literally the dictator here, so Christians are dictators by proxy. For Christians what the Bible says goes as far as behaviour is concerned, and whenever there’s an opportunity to change the law to apply Biblical morality to non-Christians as well (e.g. on sexuality) there is always an attempt to do so.

          1. Relaxing their morals with victimless consequences. There was more to it then that. In that article it mentions work attitudes and how free will also effects them. I think you minimized the results of those tests. Yes most of the tests were small things but I would argue, that was just a scaled down version of that person’s beliefs. If it’s ok to cheat on a test, what else is it okay to cheat on. I don’t think it will end with just cheating on a test or less respect for others. After all, if cheating on something to “do” better, makes us look better, if that’s what we want, we’ll do it. Cannot desires overrule our zero want to commit crimes? Even if I may not want to do something, I may still. Without free will, I must actually want to do it, if I do it.

            Do you believe in absolute right and wrong?

            As far as your kid….I’ll get back to you in a decade or so.

            What do you mean changing the law on sexuality? It was changed so homosexuals can legally get married….not the other way around. Unless I missed something, which is possible (It’s sooo hard to get unbiased news these days). If the Bible is the errant word of God, then it’s way better than anything man could come up with.

            1. Okay, looks like I read it a little quickly and only focused on the controlled experiment. The effects on work and so on are correlations, not a direct causal link, but the philosophy professor Smilansky at the end thinks it’s causal. Thing is, Smilansky doesn’t believe in free will himself, he just thinks society should in general. This is unsustainable if free will is scientifically indefensible due to conflict with the laws of physics, because despite today’s rampant anti-intellectualism people just keep learning more science and abandoning organised religion. If lack of belief in free will affects morals, that doesn’t mean free will is real, it means morals must be taught differently from the start. We have to learn to use our empathy to combat our selfish desires.

              There might be an absolute right and wrong, but we have no way to know what they are. We can take a book’s word for it only by putting absolute faith in that book, and I don’t have that much faith in any book. (That “if the Bible is the INerrant word of God” is a big if.) Again, it’s taking all the uncertainty out of life with one big assertion – the existence and nature of God – and dismissing the massive uncertainty about that assertion. Starting from scratch instead, we can find objective goals for ourselves and society (minimisation of harm, etc.) and assign “right” and “wrong” based on how they affect those yardsticks. Fortunately, this works quite well in a population whose moral compasses are generally very similar on most topics (e.g. murder).

              I’m in Australia, and gay marriage isn’t legal here. Several political factions ideologically led by evangelical Christians are doing everything possible to prevent its legalisation. They’re in the US too, they simply failed during the Obama administration and now they’re looking for a way to roll it back. Meanwhile they’ve transferred much of their effort to oppressing transgender people with bathroom laws, and the battle against abortion is ongoing with new little laws making things harder for the patients and clinics, and tons of congressmen and senators on record wanting to overturn Roe v Wade. Right up near the top you’ve got people like Mike Huckabee on tape saying they want to amend the US Constitution to remove church-state separation and impose Biblical morality as the law of the land.

              1. I don’t think there is anything you’ll find any time soon to overcome desires. I think this world is a fallen one and as much as you disagree you won’t be able to overcome that. I know a drug addict who got clean and was doing great for months and then fell back to it. Even with support and a family there I think desires are to strong and when it comes down to it we as humans just can”t make the right choice.

                Thanks for catching that, I meant inerrant. It is interesting how differently your perspective is from mine. I would argue that abortion is murder and thus there seems to be a rift in how right it is. If there isn’t an absolute right and wrong and if I come from an area where murder is fine and I kill someone, am I doing something illegal? If so by whose standards am I wrong by? If I’m not in the wrong how is that possible given murder is very wrong?

                I can see why they would want those laws. I would tend to say they won’t work. There are to many people who don’t hold the same standards and while I believe they’re wrong, I don’t think I should have a law of the minority over the majority when they don’t believe in it. If I did have a law, they would probably go around it anyways. I think the idea of sharing a bathroom with someone who was physically born a different gender then they identify to now, would just be weird. But I don’t generally use public bathrooms. I think there are potential problems with allowing them plus it is a minority major time. In the US there is about 4% of the population who Identify with LGBTQ…….(they need to make that flow better). 4% over 96% seems absurd. Granted there may be more in the closet but that’s more then transgenders so likely less then 4%. The whole gender rights thing seems to be exploding with overrepresentation in TV shows and a hate to those opposed. All for roughly 5% of the population. It seems life is driven by fads, styles and desires.

                1. For every drug addict who falls off the wagon there are others (the proportion depends on the drug, the location and the demographic) who stays clean for good. Desires never go away as long as you’re alive but they can be resisted, the means to pursue them can be removed and they can be transferred to constructive (or at least less destructive) pursuits.

                  We all battle temptation, but based on what I said at the start there just has to be something we want more than the bad thing, and it can be something positive. A lot of people get clean, lose weight, stop swearing, etc. in order to be good role models for their kids, for example. The world’s not fallen if it was never perfect to begin with, and rather than chase an ideal that may never have been we can make the most of what we have and know.

                  There is no “area” where murder is fine anymore, that’s the point. Humanity as a whole (not a simple majority but a near-universal consensus) has determined that allowing murder is detrimental and done its best to put a stop to it, regardless of regional beliefs. It still happens, but it is harder to do and it is punished when found out. “Wrong” is a label applied to it based on its results, which go against the goals most societies set for themselves. This is why the constitutions and rights of many countries do not need to refer to God or any equivalent absolute authority when setting out the basic laws governing physical harm.

                  As for abortion, it’s only murder if you see a fertilised egg as a complete human being, and that usually requires belief in ensoulment at the moment of fertilisation. Even then it cannot be weighed against the life of the mother legally or it can potentially result in a forced sacrifice.

                  A multitude of anti-discrimination laws exist to protect the minority from a prejudiced majority. They were necessary to abolish whites-only bathrooms, and they’re necessary now. Being in a men’s bathroom with a transgender man (which is to say someone who has transitioned TO male) is no different than being in a bathroom with a gay man, or simply in a unisex bathroom. The only people who have tried to abuse these policies to put women in uncomfortable situations are evangelicals trying to prove a point, and it blew up in their faces. Laws against sexual harrassment and assault are there to protect people if anything does happen. And if you think it’s wrong to cater to such a small percentage of the population, try to think how large it would have to be before it became right. How many of you there are should have no bearing on what rights you have as an individual.

                  1. Temptation from what? Our evolved desires? If so are we fighting what we evolved into? I agree that some people can change but I don’t think that everyone can. Or that they will try. I think this new generation and the ones after it aren’t a great sign for the future.

                    At what point does the egg become human? It’s DNA codes for a human, it will grow to be a human, it just happens to be a small one at the beginning.

                    You should have rights but at what point is it encroaching on everyone else’s rights? At what point is it allowed to criticize those opposed?

                    I’m not entirely for laws against them and I am not for laws for them. At this point it seems like Rome happening again. As a Christian I believe that LGBTQ+ is very immoral and wrong. I don’t know what to do with society these days.

                    “How many of you there are should have no bearing on what rights you have as an individual.” That is a very interesting thought. I would agree with the statement but when it is applied today it seems less agreeable. Yes they should have rights but as I said before it is wrong to me.

                    1. Temptation to satisfy our immediate desires at the cost of our long-term goals and the welfare and happiness of those we care about. That about sums it up.

                      The egg is human tissue, but so is a cyst or a tumour. Everything which is ever surgically removed from a human (in any operation with a name ending in ‘-ectomy’) is human in the same sense (they all have the DNA for one thing), so that’s not a reason to hold it sacred.

                      Rights declared for one group go too far when another group is deprived of something which was not a special privilege to begin with. Think about what you have lost as a result of increased rights and concern for LGBTQ+ citizens, and if you do arrive at an answer consider whether it was just part of the privileges you had as a member of the previously unchallenged cis- and hetero-normative majority.

                      Finally, think VERY hard about what it implies that a statement on rights with which you broadly agree seems wrong when it supports something you personally oppose.

    2. I would disagree James. If I may attempt to boil it down to the most simplistic levels, everything a person does is for selfish reasons. Everything. Whether they do something charitable because they want to get to heaven, or because they want to increase the stability of their community (both reasons could explain someone volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity building site), the reason behind what they do is because there is a perceived benefit for themselves. So called selfless acts don’t exist in my opinion. Religion just moves the goal from selfish ends while you are still alive to selfish ends after you’re dead.

      1. Can anyone ever be truly selfless… I agree with you there. Although I don’t think I talked much about selfless or selfish acts. So we can’t be selfless and we can’t seem to make ethical decisions. We seem to be really bad at being good. Is that from evolution? How do we evolve to be relatively bad people?

        1. We evolve to survive. What each society or culture defines as “good” or “bad” doesn’t change that. There is no such thing as morals, or right and wrong, except in the minds of human beings. And which things fall under the”right” or “wrong” heading changes all the time. We haven’t evolved to be bad, or good, or pretty or ugly. We evolve to survive our environs and the changes in them.

          1. So if there is no such things as true right and wrong, then I can kill someone and be off the hook? You can follow science and physics far a ways but there has to be an ending point.

            1. If that person tries to attack you in your house, and you kill them, are you not “off the hook”? It’s all relative James. It depends on the rules or laws of the society or culture you live in when the action is performed. Kill your daughter for having premarital sex and it’s a crime in America. It’s not in other parts of the world. Shoot an Iraqi on the street and it’s not OK, put on a military uniform and do it is Mosul and it’s justified.

              There is no universal or objective right and wrong. I’ve spend a fair amount of time talking about this topic with many people over the years, and I have yet to see any data or evidence that a universal morality exists. Right and wrong is defined by people, and that definition is always changing

              1. You have a great understanding of self defense. If no universal right or wrong exists then you can’t go into a different society and say something is wrong, that they think isn’t. You can’t go to a cannibalistic society and say that’s wrong. But I think most people here would agree that it’s wrong and should be stopped. Don’t countries enter wars to stop genocide? But if that society is ok with it, then how do we say it isn’t. After all there is no universal right and wrong. Stalin killed millions (and he was in charge of the government and society to some extent) was he wrong? Would you have any right to stop him?

                1. Those are great examples of relativism. Societies and cultures don’t always agree with each other. Some cultures like the US believe in basic human rights, no matter where you are from or who you are. Even those have changed over time (gay marriage for example), but it is sometimes enough that a lot of people are being subjected to what we perceive as wrong and we use military or economic force (sanctions) to change what is going on. Sometimes there isn’t enough of an incentive (Rwanda) to do anything at all.

                  Regardless, if some people in America say it is wrong to do what the Serbs were doing in the former Yugoslavia, and enough agree, then we might impose our values over their’s. Is it right of us to do so? Depends on who you ask, isn’t it? It’s all relative.

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