Free Will Versus Determinism Articles in One Post

My position is as follows (and bear in mind these are my present beliefs. If Determinism is true and all of our actions are wholly determined by natural laws of cause and effect, and if in fact we are not free agents, and if in fact the sense of having two or more realizable courses of action in a given situation is an illusion, then there is no freewill period, a possibility which I do not believe to be the case but which I do not discard out of hand):

Freewill, if it exists at all, is in full swing throughout virtually every waking moment of a person's life, given that we are talking about a normal, intelligent, rational, healthy individual. Life is an ongoing process of action and reaction, of thinking and deciding, of planning, reflecting, speculating, shifting perspectives, changing one's mind, reexamining things, evaluating and reevaluating situations, all the time, on a major or minor scale. Freewill is the ability to consciously choose a course of action from among two or more realizable alternatives. This applies to each and every situation, each and every event, however minute, in a person's conscious, waking life. It does not suddenly cease to exist when a person is in a crisis situation. In fact, it exists even more so, since a crisis situation requires - to a much greater degree than watching a movie or eating a bowl of ice cream - clear thinking and careful decision making. What some are suggesting is precisely the opposite, that when a person is compelled to make a decision (or forced to do something he would rather not do and which he would not have done had not the circumstance necessitated it) in a moment of crisis is exactly the time that that person is not acting of their own freewill. This position makes no sense.

Imagine trying to convince a soldier or a policeman, for instance, that they are not acting of their own freewill as they go about their jobs on a daily basis, because their jobs put them in situations of crisis as a matter of routine, situations which require intense training and extraordinary decision making skills? Is the couch potato thumbing through channels on TV acting of his own freewill? Yes? He is, but the man who dives from a bridge into icy water to save a drowning victim is not? If this is the case, then the words free and will are bereft of any meaning they could possibly have. At least for me.

As for the mugging victim [analogy], the facts are simple: Y forces X to make a decision. X can literally do any number of things, depending on what X is capable of. He can fight Y, he can take the gun and shove it up Y's fundament, he can run off (many muggers will not shoot if a victim runs, they are thieves, not killers), or he can try to talk Y out of it. This is one of those moments of crisis that require clear thinking and careful decision making. This is one of those moments where freewill comes into play, in a major way, not a minor one. This is a moment where the ability to chose wisely from various options is most crucial. Freewill is far more intensely in operation and is far more vital to one's survival here than when one is at a restaurant wondering which entree to go for.

In this situation X is compelled to act, but is not compelled to any particular action. In other words, I do not see compulsion and freewill as being mutually exclusive. One can be compelled to act and yet free to act. As in my mountainside/boulder/tree/man analogy. The tree is not an agent, it is not free to move away from the boulder, it cannot be compelled to move away; the man is an agent, he is free to move. You can say he was free to move or he was compelled to move, it amounts to the same thing: the ability to move. Freewill is the ability to choose and act, whether under compulsion or not. Compulsion is irrelevant to the issue, unless we are talking about acting freely in a political and not a metaphysical sense.

I'm reminded of Sartre's expression, "condemned to be free." I suppose some people do feel that way, because being a free individual confers upon a person an enormous responsibility, a lifetime of action and decision making. Many people choose to opt out of this responsibility and escape into determinism: I couldn't help it. It's not my fault. It wasn't to be. It wasn't in the cards. Others do not. They take their freedom as a rare and precious opportunity to do something extraordinary. I wish I were more like them.

Here's what I get from the majority of determinist arguments:

1) Everything is a "determinant", or has some degree of "causative" power (though not in the sense of a "first" cause), with the exception of a conscious being, because a conscious being isn't actually a "thing" so much as it is a sum of lots of other things, things like genetic make-up, environment, experiences, memories, desires, etc.

2) When we make a "choice", the feeling we have of possessing some sort of executive control over our actions is an illusion. What we sense as a decision-making process, one in which two or more courses of action seem available to us with equal potential of being actualized, is an illusion. It isn't that whatever action we do take has necessarily been "predetermined", but rather that every prior state of affairs determines the state of affairs that follow from them, and by "state of affairs" I mean every internal or external factor at work on a conscious mind or entity at every second, all the time. Therefore, to say that a person "self-determines" any action is to claim that said "person" is somehow "out of the loop", or is in some sense impervious to the constantly forward-moving, snow-balling momentum of time and events. Poetically speaking, to suggest that a person can be "self-determining" at any point in time would be tantamount to saying that such a person can side-step a tidal wave.

Determinists seem fixated on illustrating that there is no point at any time prior to making a decision wherein I am completely uninfluenced by any of the factors which contribute to how I decide, and that a "free" choice must be completely divested of anything resembling a reason for choosing what I choose; but in such an instance nothing resembling a decision would or could be made, "freely" or otherwise (which neither party involved in this argument is arguing for), since making a choice presupposes a set of options with forseeable consequences, negative or positive, better or worse.

We can only be said to decide something if we are conscious of two or more courses of action and if there occurs a mental process of weighing alternatives . Obviously we can't weigh alternatives or make any considerations without being cognizant of what we want or intend, and being cognizant of what we want or intend presupposes that our decision must somehow be in accordance with that, and therefore influenced by that.

What I believe the free-willers are saying is that, certainly, my decisions are influenced by any number of factors, but as far as which influences prove to be stronger-- at any point in time and in any circumstance whatsoever-- there is never a point, at any time prior to the choice being made,-- and I mean the precise, exact moment,-- at which the "state of affairs" is static enough for whatever choice we arrive at to have been in any true sense "determined". A choice is never truly determined until it's been made, because there's an incomprehensibly complex and enormous array of variables constantly at play across every instant in time. In my opinion it's far too disrespectful of all of these variables to sit back, after the fact, and declare that any choice whatsoever, however trivial, was the only choice that was truly available at any or all points prior to choosing.

This isn't to say that there is anything "random" among all these variables. Whatever happens, happens as a result of a prior state, or states, of affairs, -- for lack of a better term (more on that later). This seems like common sense to me and yet it's this self-evident and obvious fact which is sometimes palmed off as sufficient grounds for siding with determinism. Free-willers aren't saying that any of their actions are uncaused, only that their actions, though caused, have causative power themselves. That isn't to say that because their actions have causative power they can be thought of as "first causes", or that they somehow enter the flow of events by some magical intervention having no connection or relation to prior events. What they are arguing is that there is no predetermination. Nothing is fixed absolutely, except the laws of nature themselves. Anything can happen, as long as we understand that "anything" means within the confines of physical laws, laws which don't "determine" what happens so much as establish and underlie the limited context in which things happen.

Every conscious entity that is capable of self-generated (and thinking of "self-generated" in strictly mechanical terms is fine with me for the time being) motion is therefore capable, to widely varying degrees, of molding the course of events in a manner which might not have occured were it not for its involvement. This involvement might be so trivial as to be to all intents and purposes negligible, or it might be vastly significant and impact events worldwide, as in the case of a world leader like Hitler. That isn't to say that someone like Hitler came out of a vacuum and acted without desire, reason, influence or motivation. It just means that the course his life took contributed vastly (not to mention horrendously) to the course of events in general, a course of events which would not have transpired were it not for his involvement, or, at the very least, that the course of events that would have transpired without his involvement would probably have been significantly different.

If we are saying that Hitler's birth and career (or anyone's, for that matter), was "determined" from day one because of the fixed laws of the universe, that strikes me as pure nonsense; but it doesn't seem to me that many people are arguing for predetermination. What I get from determinists is that any state of affairs is entirely the result of a prior state (or states) of affairs. What I think the free-willers are saying is that while this is no doubt true, the phrase itself, "state of affairs" is misleading since it seems to refer to something individuated or "static", something which is somehow quantifiable.

I think this is the point from which stems a great deal of the disagreement among free-willers and determinists. I would gladly agree to throw the word "free" out the window since it's also midleading, and in much the same way. In the same way that nothing can be literally "free", as in unbounded, unrestrained, unlimited, there can't be anything like a literal "state" of affairs, since time is perpetually forward-moving and sweeps everything along with it.

Only if time could be stopped could there be an actual "state" of affairs. It isn't that one "state" affects the next, in some sort of one-on-one linear relationship that can in any way be accurately referred to as a "chain; and "affairs" occur in a mind-numbingly vast, inter-related, and convoluted manner, making "causal chain" yet another misleading term which ought to be dispensed with, in my not so humble opinion.

I think some form of compatibilism is what I'm pushing for, one which recognizes the fact that nothing happens without a cause but which also recognizes the fact that the actions of living organisms are themselves causative. And one which rejects the idea that making a choice is somehow proof that no choice was possible, which doesn't make a lick of sense.
The theological notion of free will is used in two ways, I think, one in a good way, and the other in a bad way. The good way it's used is: it imputes free agency to people, it imputes an understanding of morality and a moral responsibility for our actions. In other words, God does not foreordain the actions of people; how people choose to act is up to them. This absolves God from ultimate responsibility for human behavior. However, this set-up is complicated by the notion of Original Sin. For if we are free in our actions then we are free in our actions, but if Original Sin is true than this "stacks the deck" against us as moral agents. We do not inherit this sin nature by virtue of choice, and yet we are to be held accountable for our actions, which are heavily influenced by this innate tendency for behaving badly. A rational person must see the problem with this.

How can a person be punished for his actions if his actions were influenced from the start by an innate predilection for naughty behavior? It is obviously not just. After all, God does not have this innate tendency for naughty behavior, so it is no wonder he is never inclined to do something naughty. So why would a perfect being such as God judge a far lesser being harshly because said being acted in accordance with this sinning nature, the presence of which is clearly not the lesser being's fault? It does not wash.

So the good way in which this term free will is used in a theological context is that it grants free agency and moral responsibility to humans; the bad way it is used in the same context is that it removes culpability from God, which cannot be rational in light of Original Sin, which was brought about by some magical trees God made and a naughty snake God also made. God cannot be judged innocent of the flourishing of human sin, no way, no how (unless we do away with the concept of Original Sin, but even if we do that, we still have problems).

An interesting side-note to this is: God knows this, and his knowledge of this is the reason for Christ's torture and death. Hence, all we need to do is recognize that God apologized for his error by enduring punishment and cruel torture, and he did this through Christ's (His own) atonement on the cross. If we can believe this and believe on Christ we can be saved. Why we can't be saved and on good terms with God without all this razzle-dazzle, and the need for faith, is the real and ultimate theological question.

The reason I argue that the denial of free will is dangerous in a secular context (the real world), is because: Vast groups of people can be controlled only if they allow themselves to be controlled, or if they are controlled by brute force.

Absent brute force, a really useful (and oftentimes awful) philosophical and political ideology must be introduced if one intends to control the masses. History is full of such attempts. Religion is the biggest and most successful non-brute-forceful means of keeping people in order. This isn't to say that certain agents of religion haven't resorted to brute force, of course they have, lots of times; but over-all religious doctrines are devised as a means of encouraging good behavior and discouraging naughtiness without the cudgel; or at least as much as possible without it.

It worked before and it's still working for a good number of people. Note the posters in certain threads who admit that without God's command and God's morality they would do any number of nasty things. We must take such people at their word, if you ask me.

Another ideology (or ideologies) is statism, or collectivism, or socialism. And in the case of WW2 Japan, extreme militarism. None of these methods of socialization could possibly be set in motion without the consent of the people being governed (and this is not to say that the stick is never used: it is, as is the mere threat of the stick, but it can be easily seen that a bad idea is just as dangerous and has equal if not greater motivating force than a stick or a gun). The best way to get this consent is to convince people that individuality, selfhood, ego, and all those other good things, are actually bad things (or falsehoods). 

Convince people today that the really smart folks have figured out that consciousness and selfhood aren't real, that what we think is going on in our own minds is a fiction, an illusion; that we are nothing more than biological, organic machines (some of us "arrogantly-programmed to boot), and you are well on your way to installing your tyrant of choice. It can happen as long as people choose to let the three wise old bald men sitting at the top of the Ivory Tower in Academia decide what is true and what is not.

Every living human being has a right to philosophy, to big ideas, to reasoning and thinking. I'll close with something Frank Zappa said:

"If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to a library."

While it is certainly true that consciousness and behavior, and brain-function in general, is far more complex than most people realize, I don't think even the brightest people in neuroscience and neuropsychology have a good enough handle on the brain to be able to justify the hypothesis that the subjective sensation and intuition of conscious autonomy is an illusion.

There have been many studies over the past few decades, most notably by Benjamin Libet, which indicate that the sensation of being conscious of making a choice actually occurs after the brain has already made the decision: that the sense of autonomy is a sort of constantly updated narrative conducted by the brain to afford a feeling of self-control and free agency when in fact there is no control or free agency (freewill). Despite the seemingly overwhelming data giving credence to this idea, I don't buy it. And there are still plenty of well-credited scientists and psychologists who don't buy it either.

I'm with thinkers like David Chalmers and John Searle when it comes to consciousness and behavior: I think what causes consciousness in the brain's mechanism is not yet understood, in fact I think we are far from grasping it. This is what keeps the field of A.I. in a sort of limbo: the inability to manufacture anything like sentience or consciousness in a machine. I believe nature's technology is many orders of magnitude more advanced than man's technology, and it's sheer arrogance to think that since we can't fully understand how consciousness, high intelligence, and free agency arises in humans, then the normal (not to mention manifestly common across generations, nations, and cultures) sensation of autonomy and self-generated action, as well as the ego and sense of self and identity, is "an illusion".

V**: It seems to me that he's arguing against determism simply because it's harsh. I'm just saying too bad. That's life. No problem.

This is incorrect, as I stated in another thread somewhere on this freewill subject when something was said to the effect that certain people might just not like the idea that they are not free agents. I said that, well, I don't like the idea that I am going to die someday and go back into oblivion, but I argue for that position anyway because I believe it to be true.

And don't forget that saying something like, "You argue against determinism because you just don't like it" is strikingly similar to the typical theistic response to just about any atheistic argument: "Aw, come on now, you argue against God because you just don't like the idea of God! Admit it!" The user j** typed this very same sentiment a thousand times.

I argue for what I think is more believable, period. Whether I like something or not is not a consideration. And what's more, I don't think determinism presents a world that is any more harsh than the world as I currently see it.

And, in case there is any misunderstanding, I absolutely DO NOT advocate being kind to murderers and hardened criminals, since I believe that people are responsible for their actions, barring only very special cases. But if I were a determinist I would be forced to think differently, since I would believe that people acted in response to internal and external forces which were beyond their control.

D**: Did you notice that in William B.'s post he responds that if he were to believe that choices are made by the brain, he would advocate treating criminals with the "utmost kindness" since they wouldn't be responsible for what they did?

Wait a sec. I already believe that choices are made by the brain. Maybe this was a typo, or I am just missing the boat here? Is the brain being thought of as somehow separate from consciousness? If it is, I don't agree with that. Not that I believe that consciousness is material, only that it resides in the brain, is an "emergent property" of the brain, is wholly dependent on the brain, whatever.

I do believe in free agency, which is why I feel comfortable imputing culpability to people who commit crimes, being that alternatives are possible. What I did say was that if it could be definitively shown that people were not in control of their actions I would advocate removing criminals from society as a practical measure, but I couldn't see why we should be cruel to them, since in my view they wouldn't be responsible for what they did. When my old computer stopped working right and started to be a major pain in the caboose, I didn't render a moral judgment against it, I just put it out in the garage in the corner where it wouldn't cause any more headaches. I could've tried to get it fixed, but it was tax-season and I used my refund to buy a new one.

While I still hold he position I started out with, I'm more fascinated with this whole subject than I was before, though I can't get too excited about how the future looks in regard to criminal justice. Unless I'm mistaken, isn't eye-witness testimony holding up a lot less in court these days? And couldn't this be at least to some extent the result of so much doubt being cast on the reliability of the senses? It bothers me to no end that a woman who has endured being raped could potentially stand less and less of a chance of being trusted to identify her own assailant. Add to this what you guys have just been talking about, like:
D**: ...whether personal responsibility can remain fundamental to Law.

Maybe I'm making too much of it, but it seems to me that criminals might be dancing in the streets for joy in the not-too-distant future.

I am sympathetic to a lot of what you said. But I think I've gone past the point where any of this freewill/determinism argument causes me anger, mainly because I suspect that the reason this particular argument is one of the mainstays in philosophy is because, quite frankly, a lot of people use terminology carelessly and loosely, on both sides that is, and most of the time what's being argued over isn't so much a drastic difference in how we view the world so much as it is how we define certain terms and how we integrate those terms into our arguments. Aside from that is the fact that there is too much we don't know about how the brain works---or, let's just say for now that there's an awful lot that I don't know about how the brain works---, which means that there is a lot of presumption and speculation involved.

I don't want anyone to think that I'm caving in, mind you. I'm not remotely convinced that determinism, in the strictest sense, is true. I very strongly believe that human beings are causal agents, some to a much greater degree than others, and that human intelligence can and does interfere with and manipulate physical laws to affect change; but at the same time I'm fine with this being just a strong belief, and as such I consider it susceptible to change depending on what there is to be learned, and depending on my capacity to understand it, which admittedly is not very great.

As for meaning and purpose: No one can tell me my life is meaningless or purposeless, I don't care who they are. I decide what my life means to me and what my purpose is, no one else. And it's really nobody's damn business anyway to tell someone else what their life means and what it doesn't. People who do that are annoying and pretentious whether they are theists or atheists, or anything in between.

r.t: You mean humans possess some sort of Maxwell’s Demon?Or something akin to the “dust‿ or dark matter that settles on humans and brings free will to the characters in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials‿ trilogy?

No, I mean that we're conscious. Why do you think an extra entity of some kind needs to be added to the mix in order to explain will and volition? I don't; and even if I did, it wouldn't be anything supernatural, since I don't believe in the supernatural. I also don't believe in destiny or fate, or that rocks avoid rolling uphill.

We might not be able to explain how consciousness, including will and volition, works, but it's like others have been trying to say: just because we don't fully understand how something works is no reason to suggest that it's either an illusion or it's magic. We thought rainbows were magical at some point in the past; we now know what causes rainbows to appear.

We interfere with and manipulate natural processes all the time. That's how we've survived. Medicine, surgery, farming, the building of dams, digging of canals, electricity: we use nature to our advantage, make it work for us, exploit it, harness it. That isn't to say that we can change physical laws, only interfere (as in alter or instigate an action caused by those laws, not the nature of the laws themselves) with them and manipulate them to our advantage. Sometimes we do it in an ugly way, I'll admit. And sometimes we screw up.

I think some determinists are just uncomfortable with the ideas of freedom and autonomy, much as certain theists are. The more I think about it, there are quite a lot of similarities between determinists and theists.

m**:You just presented a list of things entirely consistent with deterministic law following. Did you have another argument?

It wasn't so much an argument for something as it was a response to rosy's humorous suggestions that I attribute volitional consciousness to some sort of outside agent, or supernatural internal agent. Why this is not completely obvious to everyone eludes me.

And, as it happens, my post is also competely consistent with the idea of volitional will and free agency. I basically described how we go about interacting and sometimes interfering with nature, at will, and not through recourse to a tiny demon in our heads or anywhere else, or any other fantastical thing. My post was a response to particular questions asked of me.

m: (By the way, the argument against counter causal free will is not: "we don't understand it", so you might want to work on that point too.)

If I understand you correctly, I've never argued for "counter-causal" free will. I've gone out of my way to explain that I agree that nothing is uncaused. All things, including human choices and decisions and actions, have causes; but what I don't believe is that something being "caused" and something being "determined" is the same thing. There are crucial distinctions: "determined" implies that something is ordained, decided, fixed conclusively, set; "caused" doesn't have those connotations, at least not necessarily.

So I suppose what I am saying is that: If we don't know exactly how intelligent humans can act as causal agents, that shouldn't mean we ought to rule out the possibility that it might one day be sufficiently explained.

I'll very gladly take your advice on working on any and all points.

r. t: When you said that “… human intelligence can and does interfere with and manipulate physical laws…‿ it sounded to me like you meant human intelligence molds, controls, alters physical laws.

Not at all, as far as molds or alters. 'Molds' would imply some authoritative creative process:


Main Entry: mold
Function: transitive verb
1 archaic : to knead (dough) into a desired consistency or shape
2 : to give shape to
3 : to form in a mold
4 : to determine or influence the quality or nature of
5 : to fit the contours of
6 : to ornament with molding or carving

Note that 'influence' above refers to the quality or nature of something. We can't influence natural processes in that manner, we can only influence how those processes act in a specific situation, as in the making of a dam, or an electric light bulb.
Here's what Merriam-Webter's has for 'manipulate':

Main Entry: ma·nip·u·late
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): -lat·ed; -lat·ing
Etymology: back-formation from manipulation, from French, from manipuler to handle an apparatus in chemistry, ultimately from Latin manipulus
1 : to treat or operate with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner
2 a : to manage or utilize skillfully b : to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage
3 : to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one's purpose

I was using the word in the sense of 1 and 2a. Naturally the word has negative connotations as well, and depending on how one views humanity's technical progress, you could say I was using the word in the 2b sense also. The third definition has no bearing on my use of the word, since this seems to be refering to outright deception and deceit, as in the manipulation of documents or evidence or something like that.
As for one of the words you used: yes, I am arguing that human intelligence can exert some degree of control over natural processes. Medicine, the use of electricity, farming, even an atrocity like the atomic bomb, are all examples of exerting control over physical laws. Note that doesn't suggest that these laws can be altered or changed insofar as their nature is concerned, only that we can control those laws in regard to their action in a specific circumstance.

I try to use words carefully and I don't mind any criticisms if I've used them carelessly, and when I do I'll own up to it, as I did in a very recent post. But in this case I think you took the words interfere and manipulate the wrong way because you might have preconceptions of what the free-willer's position is, or maybe because some people on this side of the FW/D fence really do believe that the human mind has some sort of authoritative creative powers in regard to natural processes, physical laws. I'm not one of those people.

I'll also grant that it's very possible that I am just not getting what your position actually is. On the surface you seem to be pushing for the idea that there isn't a great deal of difference in regard to human consciousness and an unconscious life-form such as a tree, or even an inanimate object, like a rock. I find that too fabulous a view to entertain, and I have to think that my phrasing must be inadequate in describing what you are really trying to say.

r.t: Certainly we can do things that affect our surroundings. I know you must mean more than just that, because all things living and non-living use natural processes that affect their surroundings. Certainly we do things to affect our surroundings often according to intentions we have.

Yes, I do mean more than that and hopefully by this time I've gotten it across. Now, is it just me or is there not a marked difference between the phrase: "do things that affect our surroundings", and "use natural processes that affect their surroundings."? Using things (even if we allow that non-sentient things can be said to "use" anything in the true sense of the word, and I'll allow it since I don't feel like quibbling over every word) that affect their surroundings" is clearly not equal to "do[ing] things that affect our surroundings." Can you see the difference? And even if certain living things behave in a way that increases their chances of survival to some degree, can it really be argued that what they do in comparison to what humans do is significant enough to trivialize the fact that humans build cities, write books, heal the sick, compose symphonies, fly to the moon?

r.t: If you just mean that I feel an intention to do something, while a rock does not feel an intention, then why not just say that humans feel intentions?

If I did, what would be the reaction in a discussion like this? "Hey, we humans feel intentions, therefore we have freewill." Obviously it's a lot more than that. For one thing, these intentions vary from person to person, and they vary greatly. Even if you could prove that a tree intends things, can you show me that there is a variety of intention among individual trees, or groups of trees? Some animals? Sure, I suppose they might have varying degrees of intentions, but I would bet only to an almost negligible degree. In short, just saying humans "feel intentions" fails miserably short of what our species has managed to do.

r.t: If you say that humans can choose what intentions they will feel, and their choice is not determined by their physical state, their DNA, their environment, etc, but by a will that is free from all that, it sounds like we’re back to a Maxwell’s Demon.

I think we're back to the importance of clear definitions. In prior posts I've given my position in regard to the words "free" and "determined". I'll admit that my position could be all screwy, but bear with me. I don't think 'free' means free from all those causes you mentioned, as far as the term freewill is concerned. In the reading I've done I haven't seen anyone suggest that this is so. Free, in the context of freewill, means not forced to one option and one option only, it means having options: real options, not the illusion of options. But any and all options as they pertain to choices and decisions are limited to reality, and by the impositions and boundaries of the natural world. We can't talk out of our bellybuttons, we can't turn into horses at will, we can't do anything magical. It just means that given option X and option Y, we are actually at liberty to choose either one.

At liberty doesn't mean that all those causes you mentioned are suddenly out of the picture, or don't factor in somehow. It just means that those causes will no doubt contribute to and influence the choices we make, in some cases very powerfully so, so powerfully perhaps that there is virtually no decision process going on. But the bottom line is that, in fact, it is in our power as creatures of volitional consciousness to choose X or Y, and that contingent on this power is the fact that choices have consequences. If it makes it sound any better, freewill is also the ability to make truly disastrous decisions.

The way I see it, freewill is the belief that choices are influenced, but not determined - determined connoting that something is fixed conclusively, set, ordained, decided - by their causes; whereas determinism (or at least it as I understand it, and as it pretty much says in most definitions) is the belief that choices (and everything else) are absolutely determined by their causes.

As I see it, free-willers aren't arguing against the fact that the universe acts deterministically, just that consciousness creates a degree of causal agency within it, the wherewithal to move at will as an example, whereas inanimate objects can only move as they are acted upon; and, in the case of human intelligence, freedom of choice and freedom of action, neither of which exempts us from having to obey natural laws and processes but which merely gives us the capacity to control our environment, and those laws and processes, at least to the degree that our interests and desires are served. No magical powers, no carte blanche to do whatever we damn well please, just leeway.

I guess what it boils down to is that I don't think freewill cancels out determinism. I believe the two co-exist and cooperate a good deal of the time, at least in intelligent human beings. I do believe that higher intelligence means more control, less susceptibility to internal and external influences, more will.
All I want to do at this point is clarify what I believe. My beliefs could very well be wrong, and I wouldn't be devastated at this stage of my life to learn that they were.

C** wrote: If you are "not forced or compelled to one course of action", then you tend not to take a course of action. If I choose something, something must have caused me to choose or I wouldn't have chosen.

By "not forced or compelled to one course of action I mean not one course of action in particular, and only that one. So I would argue that we can and very often do make decisions without being forced to one alternative to the preclusion of another. (I will admit that "compelled" was a poor choice of words on my part.) In your second sentence you seem to be using "caused" as if it were synonymous with being forced or compelled, which I think is a mistake. As I suggested in a post somewhere else, according to most definitions a determinist believes that all human decisions, are absolutely dependent on their causes, whereas a freewiller believes that all human decisions, are effected or influenced by their causes, but not absolutely, which just means that we don't believe that all of our choices or decisions are "determined". Caused, yes; determined, no, or at least not always. Determined connotes that limits are set, that outcomes are fixed conclusively, ordained, decided. Caused doesn't have the same connotations.
r.t wrote: If by “free will” people simply mean “conscious,” then why not just say “conscious”?
Because determinists believe in consciousness also.

r.t wrote: When people say that free will means a person could have chosen differently if he wanted to, this does not seem to mean anything except that people have desires and act on them. All living things do this. Unless you narrow the statement and say that you’re only talking about human desires and the sorts of human thoughts and feelings that happen when humans do things. Well, that leaves out rosebushes then, doesn’t it?

Of course. Rosebushes aren't conscious. The level of free (or volitional) agency increases in proportion to levels of intelligence and mental health. Animals might have some degree of limited, instinctually-biased free agency, but probably not much. Geniuses probably have the highest levels of free agency since it's evident in their work that they exert a greater degree of control over certain thought processes like concentration, focus, imagination, creativity. It takes a much greater control of mental processes to write "Paradise Lost" than it does to change a tire or make a grilled cheese sandwich, a much more powerful force of will.

N** wrote: The term [free will] is somewhat co-opted by arguments over determinism. In this case it seems to be used mostly to mean "a choice not traceable to a cause".

I would say a "free" choice is one which is influenced by a cause or causes, but not absolutely fixed and determined by a cause or causes. A choice "not traceable to a cause" would be meaningless. For instance, if someone holds out a bunch of playing cards to me and says "pick a card, any card", and if they're evenly spaced and all appear identical, there will be a definite degree of randomness as to which card I select. Let's say for the sake of argument that there either is no real "cause" for picking one card over another, or that we just don't know what it is. We still wouldn't be able to say that my choice was not traceable to a cause. The action of picking a card was dependent on many factors: being at this boring party, sitting on a sofa beside the annoying aspiring magician, lying and saying I enjoyed card tricks, etc. 

So, even though all of those prior causes were necessary for me to pick a card at that particular time, when it came time to actually pick a card that particular choice at that particular time was not "determined" by those other "causes", which means that while the fact that I'm now sitting here looking at a group of playing cards was dependent on prior causes, none of those causes have anything to do with which card I actually pick. If I pick card X, that choice is traceable to a set of causes; if I pick card Y, that choice is traceable to the same set of causes, and so on.

N wrote: If we can prove that all of our choices derive from an indentifiable causal chain, then we do not have free will.

That sounds like 20-20 hindsight to me. The reverse would be true: if we could predict a causal chain going a fair ways into the future and get good results, that might help to cast doubt on free will; but humans, completely unaware that they are being observed or that they are involved in an experiment, must be present in such a chain or it wouldn't indicate anything except what we already know, which is that the universe runs according to certain fixed laws.

What does the "free" part of the term "free will" really mean? I think that's the crucial question. To me "free" will always meant freedom from Original Sin: freedom from being constantly at the mercy of any number of internal or external gods, angels, demons, chimeras, irrational lusts, drives and desires. It meant the ability to use the faculties of reason and rational thought as a means of establishing long term goals, of over-coming the merely sensual or emotional influence of short term whims and desires, and of doing this in a consistent fashion thereby bringing about positive results: mental and physical well-being, enrichment, and even pleasure in one's life.

But I've heard people say something to the effect that we are essentially enslaved to our desires whether we're productive, creative, well-adjusted people, or criminals. The criminal is acting according to his desires, and the entrepreneur is acting according to her desires, and that neither of these types of people are free in any sense. Furthermore, the entrepreneur hasn't exercised any greater degree of control or choice: her genetic make-up, her environment, her experiences and memories, all contributed to her living a life of achievement and success, and she had virtually no hand in the matter herself. Some would even go a step beyond that and say that there is no "herself", that "she" is just another deluded bundle of neurons and synapses walking along on auto-pilot, a bystander who doesn't make things happen, but to whom things happen.

What I've observed is that there seems to be a strong aversion to the concept of freedom in general, from hard-line theists as well as certain types of determinists. The best way to abolish the concept of freedom entirely is to abolish the concept of the individual, which many people who argue for determinism seem dead-set on doing, in no uncertain terms. Observe how many people claim that there is no self, there is no "I". We are machines, automata, bystanders. Well, as anyone knows, machines don't need freedom. All they require is to be programmed and/or maintained so that they can carry out their function. Machines are never an end in themselves, they're only means to some further end. Machines don't need freedom, so eradicate the idea completely.

Teach people that they have no actual decision-making power, that reason is just another type of desire, that we are all at the mercy of our desires, that our bodies make decisions and our conscious minds find out about it later, that notions of freedom and autonomy are delusions, that to disassociate one's self from these antiquated terms with all due smugness and contempt will assure one's inclusion in the new enlightened "elite", that to entertain illusions of freedom and self-determination (or the concept of "self" entirely) is to espouse mysticism and irrationality, even though we can all look into the ancient story of Genesis and see that, in reality, notions of freedom and autonomy have been thorns in mysticism's side since the beginning.

The message in Genesis is pretty straightforward, and hardcore atheists who argue so adamantly for determinism like to believe that they are all about exposing hoaxes and hucksters, fables and myths, irrational beliefs of all kinds which hold humanity in chains, while in reality what they are doing is forging newer, stronger chains. Political ideas spring from philosophical ideas. Political ideas are philosophical ideas. Kill the concept of freedom in the Ivory Tower and eventually you will succeed in killing the concept down at street level. Kill the concept of the "self" in the halls of academia and eventually the concept will be wiped out altogether. It's only a matter of time.

I'd be willing to dispense with the term "freewill" for two reasons. First, because of its associations with religion and the mind-numbingly stupid concept of Original Sin; and second because as long as people take the term in a totally literal sense it's obvious to anyone that no living organism can be "free": no living thing is exempt from physically binding natural laws, no living thing exists without limitations of any kind. We are all subject to eventual decay, death, and a return to oblivion, not to mention all the normal boundaries, obstacles, and constraints we continuously face along the way.

This reality may be depressing to some, and some will fight tooth and nail against it by latching on to some religious or quasi-religious belief system which ignores nature and assures them that they will exist forever; still others may find reality depressing but accept it completely, though not without the feeling that it somehow renders life pointless and meaningless. I would never begrudge either type their right to believe whatever the hell they want to believe, so long as they recognize the fact that they don't have the right to try and shove their beliefs down the throats of the unwilling. If you're a theist and don't like the fact that I refuse to pay tribute to your personal god-figment, tough darts. Not tough darts for God, mind you, if She really exists; just for you. If you happen to be an atheist like me, but one who tries to convince me that my life is meaningless and pointless: Well, go piss up a tree. It's as simple as that. If you believe your life means nothing without God, or that it just means nothing plain and simple, then you're almost certainly correct. Just don't visit your self-contempt or your self-pity on me, because I don't give a damn. I'm not interested, and I'm not buying.

In case no one's noticed, what we have here isn't simply a healthy, open-minded contempt for an over-used and simplistic philosophical/theological term, it's a contempt for some crucial and important things which "free-will" is necessarily related to: the concepts of freedom and autonomy, the concept of the individual, or the "self", and the concept of "thinking" in general. We've seen a conscious, intelligent human being compared to a tree, to a rock, to a fucking toaster. We've seen the faculty of reason reduced to a purely emotional, and even a chemical, level. People aren't governed by thoughts, but by desires. And these desires are further reduced to merely mechanical drives and impulses. We don't plan and act, we respond and react to all sorts of biological and/or subconscious triggers and "motivators". We don't live, we function. We've seen "self-awareness" described like some sort of virus which threatens the collective unity and integrity of the human species. We've seen ostensibly rational people proudly claim that they don't recognize themselves as individual entities. "There is no 'I', there is no 'self'". This has been said explicitly and implicitly throughout all of these free will threads. It's been intimated that true "enlightenment" consists of sitting on the ground like a turnip. People who claim to think, to reason, to choose, to act, are simply deluded.

To insist that there is no self, that people are automata---and not significantly less so than rats or sheep---, that self-awareness is delusional and potentially hazardous, is the mark of a rational person, while those who insist on their individuality and claim to be self-motivated are called "mysterians". All this despite the fact that history has shown that tyranny depends on valuing the collective over the individual, and that religious fanatics and zealots of every stripe were, and still are, infatuated with and totally dependent upon the "mysterious" nature of God.

What I believe we "free-willers" are trying to say is that nature's technology is ages (many of them) ahead of our own. The smartest humans who ever lived have not figured out how consciousness, sentience, identity, arises in the organism. There are many theories, there is much knowledge, but there is no literal understanding of this phenomenon as of yet, at least not here on Terra Firma.

Nature and the processes of evolution have brought about quite an astounding organic machine called a human being. At least it astounds me, and it should astound every other person, but it could very well be that there is nothing particularly noteworthy about us to other beings in the universe; in fact we may seem puny to other life forms, or perhaps amusing, or cute; or we may be something like a pestilence. Or a food source at some point in our future? Who knows?

Consciousness, identity, ego, person-hood, self-hood, these are amazing tools, the result of unimaginable ages and ages of evolution. To call them illusory is an insult to nature, and a very grave mistake, for they are the very things that have brought about science, progress, and civilization. The theory of Rights (to name just one human invention) makes no sense without the I's and You's of the world having the intelligence, the **will**, and the moral fortitude to write it out, to understand it, and to obey it.

If determinists aren't calling consciousness, ego, self-hood, determination, identity (all the ingredients for the property of human actions called free will) illusions - manufactured by brains as a useful means of propagating the human species - then I apologize, but it seems I have seen that very idea stated quite explicitly many times by determinists.

Or is it just the word "free" that's troublesome? I don't care if the term free will is discarded forever. Free will is will, there is no difference. If it ain't free, it ain't will. The **will** being defined as the ability to govern one's actions deliberately, with reason or without, in accordance with one's desires or in defiance of one's desires. For good or for evil.

The facts that 1) I am alive and 2) I am conscious, are both caused; but to say that these facts were "determined" seems to me to suggest that I somehow "had" to be born, which I don't believe to be true. My parents could just as well have chosen not to have children. I think there might be a problem with definitions in regard to the words "determined" and "caused", at least for some.

'Determined' has connotations which 'caused' doesn't have; for instance to say something is 'determined' could mean "to limit or set boundaries, to fix conclusively, to fix beforehand, ordain, regulate, decide" (Merriam-Webster).

'Caused' doesn't have those connotations. It mostly boils down to: to "cause" is to "effect". Merriam-Webster's online dictionary says, "to effect by command, authority, or force." There is nothing to suggest that to 'cause' something is to necessarily limit or set boundaries, ordain or decide anything, just "effect".
Another problem is that the word 'cause' is being used as a noun *and* a verb. As a noun, a 'cause' is a reason, a motive, or an agent, "something that brings about an effect or a result" (Merriam-Webster). But again, nothing suggests that this effect was "determined" (see above) in any sense, just "caused".
In an online dictionary of philosophy, there's this:

Cause: (Lat. causa) Anything responsible for change, motion or action. In the history of philosophy numerous interpretations were given to the term. Aristotle distinguished among:
1. the material cause, or that out of which something arises,
2. the formal cause, that is, the pattern or essence determining the creation of a thing,
3. the efficient cause, or the force or agent producing an effect; and
4. the final cause, or purpose. Many thinkers spoke also of
5. the first cause, usually conceived as God.

There's no entry in the dictionary I searched (Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, 1942) for 'Determined', just 'Determination' and 'Determinism'.
Determinism: (Lat. de + terminus, end) The doctrine that every fact in the universe is guided entirely by law.

and further down in the entry:

The doctrine that all the facts in the physical universe, and hence also in human history, are absolutely dependent upon and conditioned by their causes. In psychology: the doctrine that the will is not free but determined by psychical or physical conditions. Syn. with fatalism, necessitarianism, destiny.

So it seems to me that the determinist is saying that everything is dependent upon and conditioned by their causes, while the free-willer is merely saying that everything (at least that which pertains to his own decisions and actions) is "effected" by their causes: dependent on them only to a degree, not absolutely; and not necessarily "conditioned" by them.

From Merriam-Webster again:

Main Entry: conditioned
Function: adjective
1 : brought or put into a specified state
2 : determined or established by conditioning

Free will also means to me: the ability to make decisions based on what kind of life I want for myself. It's the knowledge that actions have consequences, and that it's infinitely wiser to take actions and make decisions which have beneficial and positive consequences, and conversely to avoid taking actions or making decisions which bring about the opposite.

Free will to me is the understanding that ultimately I determine which course my life will take, though obviously I don't have absolute control over things I interact with or which act upon me. I know that I'm not a superhero: I have a limited course of action to chose from in any given circumstance. I'm not omniscient either, and since I know that my knowledge is limited I'm aware that sometimes I can only make a best guess as to what the most beneficial course of action will be in any given situation. I can make mistakes and often do. And given the unpredictable nature of any number of external things going on around me at any given time, sometimes even the most practical and well-informed actions or decisions will have negative consequences: sh.t happens.

I don't believe that because our choices are influenced either internally or externally they are therefore "determined", at least not as I define the word. I take "determined" to mean outside the province of choice, not a choice which is arrived at by virtue of simply having a reason for making it, whether that reason be a simple preference or a strong disposition.

If the argument is: our choices are determined by virtue of the fact that they are influenced by a whole bundle of factors such as personal tastes, habits, memories, predispositions, predilections, not to mention external influences such as the actions of other people, accidents of nature, environment, peer-pressure, legal obligations and limitations, social mores, well then I agree to that, but I agree only that our actions are influenced, sometimes heavily influenced, but not "determined" in the sense that these influencing factors are so overwhelming as to make our "choices" merely mechanical and automatic responses.
To me, the word "choice" itself often entails having to make a mental effort, having to weigh all sorts of various influences together and come to some sort of educated decision. Naturally some choices are trivial and easy and some are extremely difficult. But a choice made without any influencing factors whatsoever isn't a choice at all. It seems to me that to be completely free of influencing factors one would have to be unconscious, or dead. If free will is defined as a will which is totally uninfluenced either internally or externally, then I don't believe in it either.

Do determinists think an insane person ought to be held to a much lesser degree of accountability when they commit a crime? And if so, is it because we agree that an insane person is not in control of his or her behavior? And if this is the case, then shouldn't the same leniency be granted to any and all in a deterministic world?

If the answer is, "well of course not, we need to ensure a stable society after all, we can't have these criminals running loose. And besides, punishing wrongdoers will discourage others from doing the same..." then my reply to that would be: Despite protests to the contrary, to worry about the interests of society, to actively work towards ensuring the security and prosperity of society in the future, is to **project more than one possible state of affairs on the future.**

It presumes that there are things we can do and ought to do in order to prevent society from falling apart, and it presumes that failing to do these things could very likely have negative results, which means: the choice is up to us.

But if we aren't free agents as individuals, then we aren't free agents as a collective either.


I think the phrase free will is dubious in and of itself (in and of itself does not mean separate from [as in not including] any of its specific definitions, but that it contains or is comprised of all of its definitions, hence its dubiousness). It arouses doubt and uncertainty because one cannot be certain in what sense it is being used.

One of the reasons there is such debate over the phrase free will is precisely because it has so many definitions and means a variety of sometimes vastly different things. For instance, the accepted definition for some: the ability to consciously choose from among two or more realizable options, is much different from the compatibilist definition ventured by others, which refers chiefly to an action which is not *compelled.*

While these two definitions are substantially different, each is useful in its own way, and the fact that they are not in agreement doesn't take away from their respective utility.

I think we could say that a great many common terms and/or phrases are dubious in and of themselves and often require a good deal of pinning down. Take the word God. God is a famously dubious term and there is a different definition of God for practically every individual; yet this doesn't mean that a Calvinist's definition of God is dubious or non-useful to the Calvinist nor, for that matter, to the person with whom she is conversing. It is useful insofar as it conveys a particular, generally well-defined Being.

The act of choosing is free in that while I will necessarily choose one option, which option I in fact choose is not necessarily forced upon me nor inevitable. The act of choosing involves will in that it is an act of conscious intent. Hence, free will.

Contra Calvinism but with connection to FW:

The concept of Original Sin is insulting enough. To take a condition of unmerited guilt and depravity as man's natural state at birth, to accuse him in his infancy of being an offense to some benign and loving creator, and for nothing worse than having been conceived and born into the world, is revolting; but for the most part, this degrading view of humanity has been redeemed somewhat by the notion of free will, that man, though he is born guilty and depraved, can learn and become sophisticated enough, through faith and decency and good works, to achieve his creator's grace and love.

The belief in free will is the belief that man can and often does overcome his nature, to achieve communion with God. The concept of divine omniscience doesn't contradict this belief, because foreknowledge doesn't necessarily imply fore-ordination. God might know from the very beginning that you will reject him, but he is cleared, through the gift of free will, of responsibility for that rejection. If man is given a choice, not to mention a rational mind which enables him to conceive of the implications and consequences of his choice, then certainly God can hold him responsible for whatever choice he makes; but Calvinism tells us that God doesn't merely know who will be saved and who will be damned, but that he has fore-ordained, or decreed it, from the moment of creation. Not only does he decree that some will be damned, he holds the damned as having merited their destruction. This destroys any and all purpose religion ever had, makes a mockery of the human race, and makes Original Sin a concept devoid of any possibility of redemption.

Free will doesn't contradict the idea of omnipotence, either. God can do what he likes when he likes, in any manner he chooses, but by granting man free will God willingly withdraws his hand from man's affairs. Man lives and acts as he pleases, and how he lives and acts determines his punishment or his reward. Of what use would a divine law be in a world where no one acts according to their own will or volition? The act of making a law presupposes man's ability to abide by it, or ignore it. Creating a race of beings, casting them into immutable and predestined roles, with a variety of fore-ordained desires and actions, and then laying down certain laws for them to observe, is nonsensical. The notion of obedience is meaningless outside the context of free will. An entity with no choice of action can neither obey nor disobey, it can only act in the manner in which it has been designed to act. A law is only relevant to an entity that can determine a means of obeying or disobeying that law, of reasons for doing or not doing so, and act upon those determinations. If we claim that man is disobedient by nature, that he is defiant not through an act of will but by an inherent inability to conform, then disobedience and defiance are stripped of any meaning whatsoever.

The presence of anything like a divine law in the Bible is evidence that man has the ability to understand the law and the freedom to choose a course of action in reference to it. But even granting all this, one still finds it difficult to reconcile a loving and benevolent creator with the concept of Hell and damnation. No loving father would consign his own child to an eternity of pain and suffering, no matter how great the crimes that child committed. If I were to be the father of the next Hitler (and it's possible that I could be, being the father of two boys), I might never find it in my heart to forgive him for his actions, but I would never damn him to some interminable and inconceivably horrible existence. I might want him to be punished, but never would I wish him to be conscious and suffering forever.

Where do I get this concept I have of what love means? From God, a theist would tell me. Where else could I have gotten it? But if I get my moral instincts from my creator, how could my instincts be so errant? How could it be possible that my concept of mercy seems, on the whole, more merciful as God's? It can't be so. God's mercy must be infinitely more sophisticated than mine. But as others have said before, there is no reason to believe that God's mercy is so complex that it in fact appears to me as the exact opposite of mercy. What reason could God have for equipping me with a moral sense that determines the quality of mercy to be the exact opposite of his own? Why place such an obstacle between us? Either make me understand the damning of souls to perpetual suffering (souls which were disadvantaged from the start by the inheritance of a guilt they haven't earned, and hobbled with an inborn and automatic inclination toward disobedience) as merciful, or strip me of any moral sense whatsoever, so that my obedience and devotion can be pure, undiluted by my own creaturely conceptions of love and mercy. That we have, as a race, a definite consistency in regard to what constitutes goodness, kindness, love, and forgiveness, should be evidence enough to support the proposition that God invested us with a moral sense that is not contrary to his own, though it may be infantile and basic by comparison.

The laws are useless unless we can comprehend what they mean, and unless we are given a range of choices insofar as we act in relation to them. To love my neighbor presupposes an ability to determine what love is, and since God wants me to love, he must not only give me the ability to understand what he means by it, but also the means to experience love and exercise it according to his wishes, which implies that this must also be in accordance with what I desire, since I am free to either obey or disobey the law. I must desire to obey the law in order to obey it. If I have no will, I have no desire, and therefore no ability to obey; for me to desire to love I must understand what it is that I am desiring. How could I desire to experience something of which I have no conception? I couldn't.

That we have laws is evidence of free will, and that we have any moral sense at all is evidence that God allows us to comprehend what he means by the virtues he compels us to learn and cultivate. It still leaves us in a logical bind, since we cannot reconcile a loving and benevolent being with the creator of Hell and eternal damnation. But leave that to another time.

Some have said that Calvinism equals religion. Religion is Calvinism. To my mind, Calvinism makes religion pointless. Religion is predominantly about how man comprehends and worships his maker. Religions are moral systems which presuppose man as being able to comprehend what is meant by morality, as being competent to live moral lives and, coupled with faith (which is nothing if not a sheer act of will), achieve community with a divine being. Calvinism denies most of this. You do not achieve faith, faith is given to you by virtue of being pre-selected by God for community with him. You had nothing to do with it. Calvin explicitly states that man never merits his salvation, he merely obtains it as a gift from God. By the same token, it should stand to reason that man doesn't actually merit his damnation, but Calvinism insists that he does! God saves some men, not because they deserve it, but because of God's irresistible grace; the rest of humanity he damns, but not out of that which is the opposite of grace, which would be arbitrary cruelty or indifference, but because they have deserved it. God is loving, though his loving is clearly not impartial; and he is just, though he is certainly not fair.
**On the Calvinist view**, which is clearly and demonstrably mistaken. And corrupt.

When it comes to skeptics, it's usually easy to see what they are speaking against but often very difficult to determine why they even bother to do so, since some of them don't seem to believe in much of anything at all. For instance, most of the non-theists I encounter are determinists, and are as rabidly opposed to the notion of free-will as they are to any religious notions. These people will talk of human behavior with constant references to "synapses" and "neurons firing", as if a human being were little more than a machine with virtually no control over its own actions. In my opinion there is nothing more appealing or convincing in this view than in the idea of Original Sin. In fact, I believe that the two views amount to the same thing: that a human being is not truly an active agent but a passive entity who merely reacts to forces and influences beyond his/her control.

Oddly enough, the skeptical determinist and the bible-thumping fundamentalist both believe that people are to be held morally accountable for their actions despite their similar belief that people do not make free choices or act freely. The fundies actually reconcile the concept of free will with Original Sin, which is ludicrous but done as a way of keeping their god-figment blameless for all the evil in the world. Exactly why the determinists should hold a person morally accountable for his actions when he has almost no real control of his actions is a bit of a mystery, but I suspect it's because they know that no alternative to holding individuals accountable for their actions is possible in any civil society.

I think that sometimes people oppose the idea of free-will because they don't really understand what it means. I have seen more than one person claim that free will cannot be possible because if it were then that would mean people could do whatever they wished: that they would be able to fly or sleep with Salma Hayek, for example. Obviously that's not what free will means. Free-will doesn't mean a will that transcends ordinary boundaries or natural limitations, it just means one which is governed autonomously, one which acts on the ability to distinguish between various options and in light of the variety of consequences that such actions might incur, and under the wildly unpredictable auspices of human whims and desires.

There seems to be a major disagreement insofar as the distinction between an action being influenced and an action being determined. No free-willer believes that his/her actions are uncaused, or uninfluenced, either from without or from within. No free-willer believes that his/her actions or decisions come about in a vacuum; but because our actions are caused by prior states of affairs, and influenced by them, this doesn't mean that our actions are therefore "determined".

Determinism seems credible to some mainly because of 20-20 hindsight. At any point in time we can look back and see a chain of events, a causal chain wherein each action is caused by the one prior to it, and decide that the chain of events that did take place is the only one that could have taken place, or that it somehow had to take place; but at any point in time the state of affairs that exists is only one of a multitude of states-of-affairs that were possible at some prior point in time. The fact that the world is as it is currently is no reason to believe that it had to be so. At various points in the past, any number of possibilities and potentialities were in play, and if different people had chosen different actions, we might now have a drastically different state of affairs than that which we actually have.

What I'm getting at is that our political freedom is what is at stake here. The fundamentalist strain of American religious belief alone is dead set on wiping out the very idea of political freedom itself. Talk to a fundy and ask him his opinion on the concepts of freedom and autonomy. These are essentially evil concepts to the mind of a fundy, particularly one of the Calvinistic variety who firmly believes that our eternal fate was decided by God eons before we were even born. There are some fundies who believe that our concepts of freedom and autonomy apply only to man and his relationship to his fellow man, that God wills us to grant these things to our brothers and sisters but with the understanding that He is under no obligation to do the same. With these people I have no quarrel whatsoever. I'm only concerned with those who wish to undermine political freedom, not with those who would merely advise people to fear God's judgment but prefer to leave that judgment to God.

There are people active in the world today who believe that it is their responsibility to establish "God's kingdom on earth". In other words, they do not believe that the eventual torment of sinners in Hell is adequate. They want to make sure that these sinners suffer accordingly in this life as well as in the one that is to come. They refuse to acknowledge any ideas of political freedom or autonomy in regard to civil relationships among men. It isn't enough for them that a homosexual will endure an eternity of punishment for his offense to God. These particular fanatics want a hand in causing at least a modicum of pain and torment themselves, and are not content in their belief that God will eventually get around to it.

It's these people who need to be confronted in no uncertain terms whatsoever. We cannot afford to remain infatuated with the blithe Socratic notion that the only thing we know is that we know nothing. Now isn't the time to play semantic games or to treat philosophical issues as if they were relevant only in the austere and antiseptic halls of the Ivory Tower. This allergy to convictions of any kind is fine and dandy in the abstract world of academic debate, where intellectual integrity is measured according to how noncommittal a person can be while still presumably supporting a position; but unless we hold the conviction that human liberty is something worth fighting for, we will lose our liberty by default. And how the concept of liberty can be shown to be something worth fighting for, in the context of a human mind being a mechanical mass of "synapses" and "firing neurons", is beyond me.

It seems to me that if determinism is true, the concept of political freedom becomes irrelevant. In fact, I can't even imagine how freedom would be possible given the absence of free will.

I got more than a little side-tracked with that free-will versus determinism thing, but I think it's an extremely relevant argument in today's world. The bottom line is, if the radical right sees that the secular/humanist left is by and large a group of people who aren't sure of anything, have no sound epistemological foundation for their ideas, and can't even grant to their fellow man that he is an active, self-motivated, self-reliant, autonomous free agent who is completely responsible and therefore completely accountable for his/her actions, these crusading mystics will gain more confidence, will be more aggressive and cocksure than they already are, and will increase in number. I think it's already happening.

WAB - Early 2000's - Current