On Free Will
I am reposting a conversation I had on a Christian facebook group. For some context, it began with me arguing against the idea of ‘a loving God who is all-powerful and all-knowing who lets the world continue in the state that it is.’
Josh: There is no argument I have heard of to explain this away, but sadly many Christians continue to believe that Free Will is compatible with any logical understanding of the world, and try to make this the solution.
Clyde: You think we don’t have free will Josh?
Josh: No, as I said, Free Will makes no logical sense. We are not the source of our thoughts, which are the logical results of the way our brain interacts with the world. Neither are we the source of our desires, which we have absolutely no control over. We can neither choose what we want nor whether we pursue what we want. There is absolutely nothing you or I have done that either you or I can take any credit for, or blame for.
Clyde: I can decide to go to the fridge and grab a drink? That’s free will?
Josh: No. If you go to the fridge and grab a drink, it’s because, through entirely logical mental processes, you (1) physically needed a drink, which created (2) the mental desire for a drink, and after careful consideration, you discovered that there was (3) no good reason not to have a drink, and so (4) logically, you entertained that desire.
Let’s say you decided not to have a drink purely out of rebellion, because you wanted to believe you had free will. Laughably, this would merely be another reason, and you would never be free to live outside of reason.
You have no control over 1, 2, 3, or 4. Let me ask a question that Sam Harris asks. By the way, Sam Harris isn’t the person who led to me rejecting Free Will, but I have discovered he is one of the most articulate with explaining how nonsensical it is.
Can you think a thought before you think a thought? No, that would be ridiculous. And because you cannot, you cannot choose the thoughts you have. Thoughts simply appear in your mind. You have the illusion of free will because no one is coercing you to have those thoughts, but in actuality you are not free to think different thoughts instead. Consequently, what you consider to be the source of your freedom is, in fact, not under your control at all.
It is difficult to accept, but this is one of the most important truths for everyone to come to terms with: we are not in control of our lives, we are only witnesses to it.
Clyde: I can’t believe you don’t believe in free will to be honest.
Josh: That’s just a silly thing to say. I have told you why it does not exist, and cannot exist.
Clyde: So u didn’t choose your wife?
Josh: No. And the answer to all the other identical questions will also be no.
Clyde: You didn’t choose to reply to me?
Clyde: You didn’t choose your clothing?
Clyde: You can’t choose to get out of bed at 7am?
Josh: No. No. No.
Clyde: You are controlled basically.
Josh: Almost, except that suggests that someone else with will is controlling me - no one has will and no one is controlling anything, that is precisely the point.
Luke: I agree in part with Josh on this. No one has true free will, even if you don’t take it to the full extent like Josh says. Regardless of our view on it, our “free will” is limited. Whether we have absolutely no choice as Josh suggests, or whether we think we have at least a degree of control in our thoughts and actions, our will is still limited by outside forces - whether that be unexpected circumstances or other peoples choices and decisions. Someone else’s ‘will’ can override our own whether we choose to allow them to or not, i.e. someone could point a gun a me, their choice, their will, is to pull the trigger and kill me. My choice and will is to live and not die. Sadly, if they pull the trigger then my “free will” to continue living means nothing.
Josh: By the way, I understand why people are reluctant to accept the fact of a world without free will, because many people have built their entire concept of morality on it, but here is why accepting this fact would be a good thing:
Redemptive Violence will fade ideologically, though will probably remain in random spurts of emotion. It will fade because Free Will is the basis for redemptive violence - without it you do not have the idea that a criminal ‘deserves’ to be punished. Criminals will be treated as broken human beings rather than evil people.
Simon: Okay so here’s my problem. If I do not have free will but can only be a witness to my life, then my acceptance of believing that I do not have free will is not my choice.
Josh: What you’re saying is correct Simon. The question is: what is so terrible about it not being your choice?
Luke: Wouldn’t all this make discussing it pointless? Or do we still require what other people say to us in order to get the results of what we’d normally call “choice” in a matter?
Simon: What I don’t understand is this: what is the point of you theorizing about what would happen if more people have free will when you cannot make a difference any way, because you don’t have free will. So my point is not whether i am afraid of there not being free will, but what is the point of this discussion when I am not free to engage with the material presented.
Josh: You seem to be defining ‘pointedness’ as something that can only exist while we have the option to do something else. In that case, everything is pointless.
But if we use the simple definition of ‘purposeful’, then no, of course this isn’t pointless. Each of us have a purpose in this debate. For each of us, that purpose is entirely determined and we do not have the option to do otherwise, but it is still a purpose.
Now Simon has responded, so I will answer that as well. No, you cannot choose whether to engage with what I am saying. If you engage, it is because you are determined to. This does not make whether or not you engage worthless: our beliefs, regardless of whether we have chosen them, dramatically affect our experience of life. It doesn’t matter in the sense of consciously changing the future, but it still matters consequentially.
Consequences, regardless of whether they could have been prevented, are meaningful. Here’s an example: If someone kills your wife and you were not home to prevent this, even if we were to imagine that you did have some level of free will, we can agree that you did not have the freedom to save your wife.
Now, are you going to just view this as a mechanical outworking of reality and disengage emotionally from your wife’s death merely because you could not have prevented it? Of course not - you will still cry, and the fact that your wife has died will still have a huge effect on you.
We could do the same with a happy event, and any other kind of event. Life is meaningful regardless of free will. We still experience suffering and happiness, and we still prefer one over the other.
Luke: But then we become no more than mere machines pre-programmed to do something, emotions themselves just become functions as the result of a predisposition already set in our brains that say “death of loved one = tears + sad emotion feeling” in the basis sense.
Whether we feel or events have meaning to us, it still makes existence pointless in the grandest sense, even if not in the personal sense; and we appear nothing more than robots with clever programming.
Josh: You are pre-programmed to think of being pre-programmed as a negative thing. But why is it negative? What is innately good about having chosen your life?
I think part of the problem is that many come to the debate with the presupposition that life must have meaning beyond itself, that there must be something to achieve or some truth to realize through our choices in it. Consequently, these sorts of debates seem to be taking something away from you, when all I’m doing to trying to help you see what you always didn’t have.
And what is wrong with ‘robots’? If a robot was created that was as intricate as you, it would effectively be a human. You could fall in love with ‘it’, have deep conversations with it, argue with it, fight with it. When you rudely say to it, ‘You’re just a robot’, it would cry.
The only reason you would not treat such a complex creature as a human being is the belief that it is not ‘sentient’, but it IS. I am not suggesting a robot that appears to be human, I am suggesting a robot that is configured physically just as the human is, so that it experiences sentience just as we do. You may argue that sentience is not physical, but you have little reason to believe that there is anything in your mind that transcends physics, bar religion.
The problem is not that my conception of the world would reduce humans to robots, the problem is that our present conception of the world views that which is merely physical (and not transcendent as we believe our souls are) as worthless, when in fact, the physical is all that we know and thus should be all that we attribute worth to.
*To clarify, by robots I meant artificial intelligence.