How free is free will?

As we go about our days we are continuously faced with many decisions, one after the next. We feel as though we are authoring all of our actions and all of our decisions freely, drawing on an unlimited amount of possibilities.

Most of us spend our time in conversation with friends, family, colleagues or employees and we constantly form sentences thinking that every word spoken or thought was chosen by us from an unlimited source of possible words that could have been used. Is it possible for you to think of a word you have never heard of before? Maybe you have never heard of the word “elucidate’. Could you have thought of this word prior to learning it? Could you use this word in a sentence before knowing that it exists? Of course not. So we know that our freedom of will cannot be all encompassing at the least. It cannot give us the ability to choose from things that we do not know.

How much free will do we actually have? We don’t have the ability to act in ways that we do not already know exist. We don’t have the ability to think of things we do not know, or things we have forgotten. And we cannot create new things that we have not previously had inspiration for. Even the painter who paints things that do not exist draws her inspiration from things that do exist or her experiences or abstracts of what she sees or feels.

I literally do not know what I will think or remember or intend next. – Sam Harris

We don’t even know what the next thought to arise in our mind is going to be. We might suddenly think of the Eiffel Tower but we never question why we thought of it and if we do we think something like “oh France was on TV this morning” or “I went to France when I was younger”. These statements were merely added in after the fact in an attempt to link a cause and effect. But the thought arose of its own accord and we have no control over it.

My argument is that free will exists not in the way we feel it does. Most people feel as though they can drive in any direction. But the car is actually on tracks, going downhill and the doors are locked. They think they can move the pieces in any direction, only the pieces have their set movement and cannot be placed anywhere other than the limited options within their move set. The possibilities are more limited then we would like to think. Our free will exists in a bubble of things which we know and things which we have experienced and been exposed to and we cannot do that which we don’t know can be done. There is no way for you to know what you will think, do or think of doing next.

So how free is your free will?

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3 thoughts on “How free is free will?

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  1. Free will is not about absolute freedom. It is simply our ability to decide for ourselves what we “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence. That’s all it is. It involves nothing supernatural. It make no claims of contra-causality. It only makes the simple empirical distinction between a choice we make versus a choice forced upon us against our will, by someone or something other than us.

    And that’s all that’s required for moral and legal responsibility. Unlike the philosophical definition, this ordinary understanding is universally known and correctly applied by most people in practical scenarios.

    There are three impossible freedoms: freedom from causation, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality. Because they are impossible, it would be unreasonable to expect any use of the term “free” to imply any one of them. Because it cannot, it does not. Any way, that should clear up what free will is actually about.

    Sam Harris seems to have a rather mystical view of where thoughts come from. Our thoughts are typically related to what we’re doing, like me thinking of typing this comment. Having decided to do this, my conscious mind has primed certain associations from memory to compete for attention. And that’s why the words are appearing here. If thoughts were just randomly popping up out of nowhere, I could not form a sentence.

    We choose what we will do. That sets our intention and marshals the mental associations needed to get the job done. So, in that fashion, we actually do choose the collection of thoughts that will appear, even if we don’t do it one by one.

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    1. “Free will is not about absolute freedom”

      Yes I agree with you and I believe that was also the conclusion of my post.

      “It is simply our ability to decide for
      ourselves what we “will” do, “free” of
      coercion and other undue influence”

      This I don’t agree with. Everything we do has some sort of coercion or influence. Our environment, experiences and anything we are exposed to influence our decisions.
      Studies on identical twins separated at birth and raised in different locations until adulthood show they share incredible similarities, more even than the adopted siblings they were raised with. Their preferences of vacation locations, whether they are inclined to smoke or not, nail biting, car and sexual preference and even the way they move is genetic rather than learned. IQ and subjective wellbeing are also somewhat genetic. This implies that there are at least some preferences we simply have that influence what actions we take and that we have absolutely no control over. I cannot see how any part of our experience is free of coercion and other undue influence.

      “Sam Harris seems to have a rather mystical
      view of where thoughts come from. Our
      thoughts are typically related to what we’re
      doing, like me thinking of typing this

      To be honest I think I started to conflate two difference concepts I was working on at the same time. 1. The idea that our free will is free but within a much smaller range of possibilities and potentiality than most of us tend to think it is. And 2. The idea that thoughts tend to arise and we have no control over that.

      I still believe this second idea to be true. I can’t see any mechanism of action that causes thoughts to come into being. They may be related to the task at hand, but more often than that they are not at all related and the mind simply conjures one thing after the next for no apparent reason. And I cannot account for why I decided to reply to your comment the way I have over any other possible way. The way I reply can either be random or influenced by any range of things like genetics, experiences, circumstance or any other possibility that exists.

      Also if you have read Free Will by Sam Harris I would like to hear your opinion on the fMRI studies showing that our subconscious brain decides answers to questions before our conscious mind thinks it made the decision. This implies to me that our brain just makes our decisions subconsciously and then makes us feel like we made the decision ourself. I am not 100% sold on this and am open to other explanations but that’s how it looks to me based on what I have researched.


      1. I’ve actually read Harris’s book a couple of times as part of Richard Carrier’s on-line course on Free Will. In Carrier’s course we also looked at the issue from a variety of viewpoints, like mentions of free will in Supreme Court cases, studies of the effects of the disbelief in free will’s effect on behavior, and so on. I’ve also read Michael Gazzaniga’s “Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain” and Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain”.

        But mostly, I had seen through the paradox myself, back when I was a teenager in the public library, browsing the philosophy books, probably about 1961. I think I ran across the determinism versus free will issue in a book of Spinoza’s letters.

        It really bothered me that everything I did was inevitable. So I spent some time thinking about how one might get around it somehow. I don’t know for sure whether I read about this thought experiment in one of the other books, or came up with it myself:

        Anyway, it occurred to me that I might escape inevitability by doing something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. If I was choosing between A and B, and I felt myself leaning heavily toward A as the inevitable choice, then I would just choose B instead. Problem solved! But wait. My desire to spite inevitability has just made B my inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A. But then A becomes inevitable… It’s an endless loop!

        Whichever one I chose, inevitability would always switch to match my choice. So, who was controlling the choice, me or inevitability? It turns out that what I will inevitably do is exactly identical to what I would have done anyway. Causal necessity is not a meaningful constraint. It is just how everything works.

        So, I didn’t spend any more time on the problem until many, many years later. Then all of a sudden the issue was back, and everyone was writing books on it. And I wondered how it could be possible that so many people had still not figured it out, since I was able to do so as a teenager!

        Turns out that Libet had started doing his experiments, and had some notion that they were meaningful to the free will issue. They’re not. Having someone randomly do something 40 times in two minutes and report when they are conscious of their intent is not a matter of mental deliberation. It would be simpler to ask the question, “Were his student subjects required to participate in order to pass the course, or were they allowed to volunteer of their own free will?”

        The question has nothing to do with Libet’s actual experiment. It is simply a demonstration of what everyone already understands to be “free will”. Threatening to flunk them if they did not participate would be an “undue influence” upon their freedom to choose.

        Free will would be allowing them to choose for themselves to either participate or not. It would authentically be them making the choice, rather than someone or something else making the choice for them.

        And by “them” I mean their own purpose and reasons, their own genetics and life experiences, their own beliefs and values, their own thoughts and feelings, and all the other things that make them who and what they are. These are not sources of coercion or undue influence. These are who and what they are.

        Free will is when “that which is you” is identical to “that which does the choosing”.

        Liked by 1 person

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