Do We Have Free Will? Yes and No

For as long as people have thought about philosophy, they have argued about whether we have free will.  I think that both sides are wrong.

'If You want it to be truly interactive, You'll have to give them free will.'
Photo Credit: cartoonstock.com

In one corner of the ring, there are those who say that we do have free will.  They usually say that this ability:

  • Makes us personally responsible for our own choices
  • Makes us far more than mere machines
  • Makes us far greater than anything that we could possibly create
  • Gives us great intrinsic worth
  • Makes us deserve to be treated with dignity

In the other corner, there are those who say that we have no free will.  Today, these people generally believe that we’re machines, and thus:

  • Not personally responsible for our own choices
  • “Only” machines – that is, no better than the machines that we create, or could possibly create someday
  • Have no more intrinsic worth than them
  • Deserve to be treated with no more dignity than them

Now it seems that everyone with an opinion on this subject thinks that it’s pretty cut and dry – they’re right, and the other guys are totally wrong.  But there’s strong evidence for both sides.  This is one reason why free will (and lack thereof) has remained controversial.

Why we have free will:

  • We make choices
    If I feel like taking a nap, and do homework instead, I have -ofmy own will – made a choice.  If I had instead chosen to take a nap, I would’ve still made a choice.  Even though your mind must – due to the nature of computing -followsome kind of pre-defined algorithm to make a choice, that algorithm still is your will.  That being said, there are some reasons that I can think of where an action is not a personal choice:

    1. It’s involuntary
      That is, done by a part of my brain or body that I have no conscious control over
    2. Insanity/brain damage
      Generally a madman isn’t considered personally responsible for his actions
    3. Habit
      This one may or may not be considered a choice.  One one hand, habits run automatically, and you can’t always prevent yourself from following your habits.  On the other hand, they’re created by a personal choice to start doing whatever you’re in the habit of doing.
    4. Ignorance/disability
      Decisions made in this group are technically choices, but people often aren’t held fully personally responsible for them.  For example, if someone who’s severely autistic offends someone, they’re (hopefully) not treated in the same way as someone who does the same thing, but doesn’t have that disability.

Why we don’t have free will:

  • Thinking is fundamentally computing, and algorithms are by their nature predefined
    Even though the human brain isn’t built the same way thatman-madecomputerscurrently are, it’sstillsome kind of computational device.  The human mind, too,is made of thoughts, memories, emotions, and instincts.  All these things are not physical by nature, but are instead computational.  And it’s a universal principle of computing that if something isn’t very precisely predefined, it doesn’t exist.  “Predefined” could mean:

    • In a lookup table
      Also known as memorized, habitual, or instinctive.
    • Follows a formula
      Habits and instincts can fall into this category too, but so can skills and problem solving.  Google can’t build their business around a magical function findRelevantResults(yourSearch) that nobody ever had to write it.  Neither can you solve problems without using a problem-solving algorithm that’s either learned, or built into your brain.
    • Follows a learning algorithm that creates a lookup table, formula, or other learning algorithm
  • Even emotions – one of the 2 strongholds of those who believe we have free will – can certainly be implemented in a computer.  Here’s one technology that could probably be used as a starting point.  See also some examples of how neural networks can be used to do some fundamental electronic logic operations.  The human brain is a very advanced neural network.
  • Also, if anyone doubts that the brain is the seat of at least most of his consciousness, I point out the fact that there are many things that can be done to the head and brain which profoundly affect our minds, like getting punched in the face or getting drunk.

As far as I can tell, the truth is a muddled mix of the 2:

  • Our minds are decision-making machines, that run in our brains
  • Our wills are about as free as possible, given the nature of computing
  • For most practical purposes, we have free will…
  • …But there are plenty of ways that we can be manipulated by those who understand human nature

Next: Possible Objections, and What My View Means in Practice

EDIT: I’ve been having trouble finding time to write 1 post a week of lengths similar to this one’s, so I’m going to split the next post into 2: the first will cover some possible objections, while the second will cover some practical ramifications.

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11 thoughts on “Do We Have Free Will? Yes and No

    1. Thanks for asking. First, I’ll give my definition of free will, then I’ll try to clarify my claims and reasons, then I’ll give the back story – where I got this from.

      Free will – as I understand it – is the ability to make decisions for yourself. That is, a person with free will isn’t just a marionette on strings or a remote-controlled robot. You are in control.

      The claims that I want to make are:

      1. Based on what is now know about computing – specifically the fundamental principles that are obvious after doing some programming – the human mind isn’t a magical, nebulous, forever undefined blob. Instead, it’s an information system. It’s still far more advanced than current man-made AI, but it’s not so much more advanced that computer scientists can’t make some basic inferences about its nature.
      2. One of these inferences that everything that happens in our minds must follow some kind of algorithm. Everything in your mind doesn’t necessary follow the same one, but in computer science, the definition of something in code or bits is that thing. This is where I get my google example from.
      3. Because of this aspect of the nature of computing, determinists have a very strong point. However, they miss the fact that even though our minds are information machines, they’re decision-making machines. Even if your mind follows algorithms that are predefined, “you” are still making choices, by your own will. It’s just that your will is of a very different nature than most people who believe in free will think of.
      4. Therefore, I conclude that we still make choices, by our own wills. I also conclude that our wills are about as free as possible, given the practicalities of making a mind that works. It’s just that the nature of computing prohibits the nebulous definition of “will”, “mind”, “self”, etc. that believers in free will usually use. I argue that these 2 traditional camps of free will or predeterminism are each partly right, but still wrong. I argue that for most practical purposes, we do have free will, and our free choices are, by necessity, predetermined by the methods (algorithms) that we use to decide what we want.

      Back story:
      I haven’t had any formal training in philosophy, but I have thought quite a bit about philosophical and religious matters. I understand the concepts, I just don’t know all the lingo. According to one person who I talked with – who has read a lot of philosophy books – each of the great philosophers makes up a lot of their own lingo. So I might not actually be missing out on much.

      When I first started paying attention to the controversy about free will, something didn’t make sense to me. I could see some truth in both sides, but they seemed to be polar opposites. I also found that the Bible has passages that seem to say both. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16) (John 3:35-36) The apostle Paul even seems to affirm both of them in 1 passage (Romans 9:1-10:13), while at the same time claiming that God has absolute control over who chooses what.

      I’ve also done some computer programming, and the decisions of every information system that I know of are predefined. I also see no way that an information system could make a decision without having a precisely predefined method (algorithm) by which to make that decision. Thus, the only conclusion I can see is that the premise that the traditional controversy over free will is based must be flawed – the premise that we either have free will, or that our choices our predetermined. Is this contradictory? Quite possibly. But it’s the only explanation that I know of that fits the available evidence.

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      1. Hello Erik.
        Thanks for your indulgence. I am no philosopher so not talking philosophical lingo will not be a barrier to our communication.
        You say

        Free will – as I understand it – is the ability to make decisions for yourself. That is, a person with free will isn’t just a marionette on strings or a remote-controlled robot. You are in control.

        and I think this is where the problem is. I will explain. I think freewill, as commonly used, means our actions are uncaused.

        I contend that choice only refers to awareness of alternatives but do tell us nothing about how a person will act. Knowing that I can take tea, chocolate or coffee tells you nothing about what I will take. My action is determined. I can theorize as much as I want but that is just that, wishful thinking, when it comes to action, my action is determined by so many things among them my environment, my genetic make up etc.

        I conclude, different from you, that the debate has been on going because of the failure of the freewillers to clearly define what they mean when they talk of freewill.
        And, I don’t think quoting bible verses is going to bring us any close to arriving at a solution in this question.

        Thanks again

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  1. By the definition of free will that you use, you’re absolutely right: that kind of free will most likely doesn’t exist. Your comment got me curious about the official definition of free will.

    It turns out that according to dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com, “free will” has 2 definitions:

    • My definition
    • Your definition

    So it turns out that we’re both right about the definition of free will – at least according to the dictionaries. When you see “free will” used by others, is it usually by your definition, rather than mine?

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    1. I think freewill as commonly used is to imply that our actions are uncaused.
      The meaning you refer to is similar to the distinction between a freed man and a slave. It doesn’t really refer to the discussion of freewill as understood in philosophy

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      1. I’ve never heard before of “free will” being used to describe the distinction between a freed man and a slave. Where did you hear/read this? Also, I found a fascinating survey of some of the main opinions on free will. I haven’t finished reading it yet.

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      2. You didn’t understand what I said. I said your usage of freewill is similar to that distinction. You referred to freewill to mean being able to make decisions freely, that is, to be not under duress.

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      3. After re-reading your comment, I see what you mean. I agree that the definition of “free will” that I’m using is similar to the distinction between free and slave. However, as far as I can tell, it still is one of the main definitions of “free will”. You see “free will” from the perspective of an atheist, but many – including myself – see it from the perspective of a theist, or even Christian. And one of the main areas of the controversy about “free will” that Christians debate about is whether we make our choices, or God. See this chart for a good summary of the two extremes of this.

        When applied to this area, my understanding of “free will” would say that we and God make our choices:

        • We make our own decisions, and are thus morally accountable to God for them
        • God designed the human brain, and thus determined by engineering the choices that we’d eventually make
        • Because God is all-knowing, this means that God pre-determined our choices
        • He could, of course also intervene later to change what we would otherwise choose
        • Does this mean that we have the right to judge God for the way he made us? No. As the Apostle Paul wrote so well:

          “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”

          Romans 9:19-21

          There’s a little more to what he’s talking about than just free will in general. For more details, I highly recommend that you read the whole chapter.

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  2. Hi Erik,
    Thanks again for your response.
    But I think we have reached an end of our conversation. Whilst you are free to quote the whole bible, I don’t think it helps us one way or the other in this discussion. And by also arguing god this or that, we really are standing at two very opposite ends.
    Thanks a lot

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