Free will – Do you really have a choice?

Here is the published version of this OnePageBook:

Thanks to everyone who contributed – from various discussions since 2009 and to recent input after I published the pre-release.

58 thoughts on “Free will – Do you really have a choice?

  1. To be free of rationality and purpose is to be irrational and pointless. Therefore, your definition cannot be correct. Operationally, free will distinguishes between a person deciding for themselves what they “will” do when “free” of coercion or undue influence. Everyone understands and correctly applies this ordinary definition in nearly all practical scenarios. You can either join with those who find free will compatible with determinism, and use a meaningful definition, or you can continue to spread the traditional confusion. It’s up to you.

        1. Wow, that is perhaps one of the best articles that I’ve read so far about “Determinism”, Marvin, and the way that I had always viewed this subject myself. A very simple subject to grasp, indeed. It takes away all the philosophical confusions and balderdash from a very simple subject; thanks!

          1. Thanks! I think that the original mental error that created the paradox was a misunderstanding of determinism. Once we expand the explanation of that link in the chain that is us, we discover that everything works precisely as it did before.

            “First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is.” Donovan expressing Suzuki. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_Is_a_Mountain ).

  2. Hi Geir. Firstly, congratulations for your book. Secondly, I would like ask you a couple questions which emerged in my mind after I have read your book:

    1.How would you define the “I” that have or do not have free will? What basic characteristics do that “I” have?

    2.What are the evidences of the existence of that “I” and its characteristics?

    3.What exercises would you use for exercising free will if the free will actualy exist?

    4.Have you ever conceived some experience in your life that very strongly indicates that the free will really exist?

    5.What do you think are some examples of the causation that is not obstructed by any past, present or future factors?

    6.Do you personaly believe in the existence of free will or not?

    Thank you very much for your answers. 🙂

    1. 1. Definition of “I” – Free will identified with “I”. No inherent characteristics.
      2. Evidence: Free will exercised.
      3. Do more improvisation in life. Start breaking rules – especially your own habits. Be more rebelleous. Do more spontaneous actions.
      4. Yes – every day when I decide something spontaneously outside my habits.
      5. Think an original thought. Truly original. (This is almost impossible due to the overwhelming amount of identification that the free will is continually engaged in – there is only an extremely tiny amount of truly free will – will that is not identified with anything past/present/future – left in any “I”).
      6. Yes.

      There is one error in the above – can you spot it?

      1. One grammar one: rebellous → rebellious

        One logical: I assume from your 5th answer that you consider as a free will only what is not identified with anything. But in the 4th answer, you as a free will have been identified with ”I”. Therefore you have claimed that you have free will (4th answer) but at the same time, you were evidently not free will (in the 4th answer) by your own definition of free will (as you defined it in 1st answer). Linguistic patterns that are trapping potential free will in the trap 🙂

          1. I would suggest using the passive form of sentence in order to avoid identification. Then define that the process is not happening by chance, but there is a cause without any identity label.

            For example: There are conceived experiences in life that strongly indicates the existence of free will. There are conceived when there is some decision that is made outside of the regular habits.

            *Note: It is perceived by the free will that is not/has not any identity and the notion of ”free will” is not defining an identity label, but there is something without any identity label at all beyond that notion.

  3. Geir,

    The problem is here where you say, “For the will to be truly free, a choice must be unrestricted by past, present or future conditions. Anything less would be called “restricted” will. Free will implies the possibility to choose without restriction. While “will” could be restricted to any degree, “free will” can only be free if it is unrestricted.” (your definition of free will).

    I am always the result of the “past condition” of who I have been up until this moment. My beliefs and values, the key criteria that I use to make my choice at this moment, do not magically appear at this moment from nothing. I am an accumulation of my prior experiences and my prior choices.

    It is still “all me” that is making the choice at this moment, and thus my choice is still autonomous. All of the external influences of my past, my parents, my schools, my churches, etc., are no longer in the room with me when I decide what I will do next. These prior influences must first be “internalized” before they can affect my choice. To have any influence at this moment, they must first have become part of me.

    I like to point out to people that there are three irrational “freedoms”: “freedom from causation”, “freedom from oneself”, and “freedom from reality”. Because these are impossible (except in the imagination) the word “free” can never reasonably be taken to mean any one of them.

    This is especially true of “free will”. (1) Without reliable cause and effect, the will would be impotent to implement any intent. Free will requires a deterministic universe. (2) If my will were free of myself, then it would be someone else’s will. (3) If my will were free of reality, then it is no longer a “will”, but only a “wish” within a dream.

    The operational definition of free will, the most common understanding that most people have in everyday life, is a choice we make for ourselves when free of undue influence. And you’ll find this appearing first in most dictionaries. For example:

    Free Will:

    Mirriam-Webster on-line:
    1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
    2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

    Short Oxford English Dictionary:
    1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
    2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

    Wiktionary:
    1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
    2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

    Your definition, Geir, is the “philosophical” definition, the one that creates all the confusion and paradox. And that is probably why the dictionary writers list it in second place, after the definition most commonly used and understood.

  4. One thing I see missing in your works Geir, and that is an acceptance of the possibility of factual nihilism.

    Everyone is afraid of Nihilism. They will do anything to avoid it.

    And to me, that is sad. IF the world is factually is nihilistic then we need not fear it and we can use it to create a story of free will.

    Why? Because I can choose to create an experience that doesn’t feel nihilistic if I want to. For IF we depend on the world and multiverse to NOT be Nihilistic for us to have free will, then we really don’t have it do we?

    Regardless, all we can attain is a story of free will. A certainty of free will is impossible to attain with completeness and consistency.

    1. In fact, I have a hunch that it would be impossible for free will to be self created if the world was not factually nihilistic.

      1. And sometime after I came to that realization, I saw this video and was overcome with tears. What IS an experience of free will we can manifest in any situation we either create or are forced into? I would say, the experience of free will…

        IS. EXACTLY. THIS.

    2. We can be certain of free will by simple observation. A woman sits down in a restaurant and opens the menu. After looking at her options, she makes her choice and places her order. Since no one was holding a gun to her head and telling her what she must choose, she was free to decide for herself what she will eat. That’s an empirical demonstration of free will.

      You’re welcome.

        1. Geir, EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS DETERMINISTIC. And this includes free will.

          Whenever we deliberately decide for ourselves what we will do, it is our own purpose and our own reasons that determine our choice. The mental process of choosing actually occurs within our own brains, such that we become the final responsible “prior cause” of what we choose.

          EXCEPT when someone else forces their choice upon us, against our will, subjugating our will (no longer free) to their own. Or when we are subject to some other undue influence, such as hypnotism, a brain tumor, authoritative command, etc. that replaces or compromises our ability to decide for ourselves.

          In either case, whether acting of our own free will, or whether forced against our will, reliable cause and effect remains constant. There is no such thing as “freedom from causation”. It is an “oxymoron”, a self-contradiction. Because without reliable cause and effect we cannot reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

          So, if you wish to discuss “freedom from causation”, you should call it that. Stop confusing “freedom from causation” with free will.

          Thanks.

          1. I believe you are using a very different definition of Determinism than what I am using in the book. I am referring to the definition used by Laplace and also Hawking (A Brief History of Time) where there is no choice, no will involved and only a strict sequence of events – like what is seen on a pool table where balls are hitting eachother in a totally calculated, mathematically determined way.

            1. I presume perfectly reliable cause and effect from start to finish (any prior point in eternity to any future point in eternity). There’s no break at all in the causal chain. I’m simply clarifying the nature of that link in the chain which is you. There is deterministic causation prior to you. There is deterministic causation within you. There is deterministic causation following you. One chain of unbroken cause and effect.

              Free will happens to be part of the deterministic causation that is within you. Any deliberate choice you make is determined by your own mental processing. That’s what “to deliberate” means. It means considering whether or not “to do” something, and whether to do “this” or to do “that”. The output of this mental process is what you decide you “will” do. Your “will” is a specific intention for future action.

              The issue of “free will” is (a) whether you were “free” to determine this yourself, or (b) whether this choice was made by someone or something else, and then “imposed” upon you against your will, effectively “subjugating” your will to someone or something else. Whether it is (a) or (b), it is still a deterministic outcome.

              But the distinction between whether it was you or someone else that was in control of the choice is essential for establishing moral and legal responsibility. In the case of criminal harm, we need to know what it is that caused the harm, so that we can know what needs correction. If someone else was holding a gun to your head, forcing you to participate in a crime, then all that is needed to correct you is to remove the source of coercion. But if you deliberately decided to commit the crime, then we need to address how you came to that choice and how to assure you will make a different choice next time.

              The fact that in either case it was deterministically inevitable is irrelevant. Causal inevitability is always present in everything that happens. It is like a constant on both sides of every equation that can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the results. Therefore, the efficient mind doesn’t bring it up in the first place, because it wastes time and energy to consider irrelevant facts.

              Empirically, there is choice. Choosing is any process that inputs multiple options, evaluates them according to some criteria, and outputs a single choice. Ask your local neuroscientist whether this actually happens in physical reality or not. She’ll confirm that it does.

              Empirically, either you made that choice yourself or that choice was made by someone else. It took place either in your brain or in theirs. Either you were free to decide for yourself what you would do, or they imposed their choice on you.

              So, there is no “illusion” involved here. These are matters of empirical observations of what actually takes place in reality.

              To say that there is “no choice” is empirically false.
              To say that there is “no will involved” is empirically false.

              And they remain false no matter who says otherwise. A bad idea does not become better by the number of subscribers willing to repeat it. Nor does a false statement become true when repeated by a mind that ought to know better.

            2. You complicate the matters unnecessarily. And you assume a lot to be fact without evidence. I will let this discussion rest as I see you as stuck in certain op
              inions that I do not have the motivation to attempt to move.

            3. That’s quite alright. You’ve taken the “traditional” view. I was able to see through that position when I was a teenager, over half a century ago. My position is actually much simpler and less confusing than yours. But it does require some independent thought and a little insight. In any case, thanks for the discussion.

            4. That was unsurprisingly arrogant answer – one that underlines my impression of you being stuck in certain opinions and unwilling to take in other views. Let’s leave it at that. No need to reply to this comment.

            5. Marvin, your view on this matter is perhaps the most practical, simple, and common sense approach to this subject of “free will” that I have ever seen anybody express. It demonstrate a very fine mind capable of an intense critical thinking and free from the undue influence of authoritative dogmas and group-think. I wouldn’t have be very much interested in exchanging with you in a future a few ideas that I have been working on to get your viewpoint and feedback on them. Having free and independent thinkers to brainstorm subjects with is very scare these days.

            6. Sure. Do you have a website? If not, then I have a WordPress blog at marvinedwards.me. I have posts on morality and ethics, determinism and free will, where do rights come from. Even have one on the problem with Honor Courts (like the one at UVa). Your place or mine?

            7. Sorry for the typos, Marvin. Instead of this, “I wouldn’t have be very much interested….”, it should have read, “I would be very much interested….”.

      1. Hi, Mr.Marvin Edwards. I would like to give you a bunch of questions:

        Is it possible that she has chosen the meal that has somebody advised her to taste?

        Is it possible that she has chosen the meal according to her current physiological state?

        Is it possible that she has chosen the meal according to her current mental state?

        Is it possible that she has chosen the meal according to its price?

        Is it possible that she has chosen the meal because it reminded her nice dinner with her loved one?

        Is it possible that also the mood of that lady influenced her decision?

        Is it possible that she has chosen the meal because she simply liked the name of that meal?

        Is it possible that she has chosen that meal because her parents conditioned that it is a good meal to choose?

        And final questions:

        Could she choose something which was not on the menu list?

        So was she really and fully free to decide for herself? 😉

        1. Here is the question that answers your questions: Which one of those things wasn’t her?

          She is sitting alone at the table in the restaurant. Therefore,
          (1) If someone else had previously mentioned the restaurant and recommended a meal, it was her own choice to remember that suggestion and to try out the restaurant.
          (2) Obviously, her current physiological state was her.
          (3) Obviously, her current mental state was also her.
          (4) If price was a concern to her, then that concern was also a part of who she was at that moment.
          (5) Obviously, all of her memories are also part of who she is as well.
          (6) Clearly her mood is also part of her.
          (7) If the name of the meal appealed to her, then that preference, as well as all of the other preferences she has acquired over her life, is also part of who she is at that moment.
          (8) Her parents are not there at the table. So their influence must first become part of who she is before it can have any affect upon her choice.

          For all of those questions, it remains the case that “that which was her” was identical to “that which made the choice”.

          The only thing that was not her was the menu.

          There are three impossible freedoms: freedom from causality, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality. Because these are impossible, it would be irrational to expect the word “free” to imply any one of them. Since it cannot, it does not.

          And this is especially true of free will. (A) If the will were free from reliable cause and effect, then it could never reliably cause any effect, and would be impotent to implement any intent. (B) If the will were free from who and what she was, then it would be someone else’s will! (C) If the will were free from reality, then it would not be a “will”, but only a “wish” within a dream.

          Free will is simply the freedom to decide for yourself what you will do, free of external coercion or other undue influence. Both of these are matters of empirical fact (they are not illusions).

          It does not mean freedom from causation (your purpose and your reasons, aka “you”).
          It does not mean freedom from who and what your are (see the list above).
          And it certainly does not mean freedom from reality (the menu).

  5. I didn’t read the book yet but maybe “postulates” enter the equation. Postulates are highly touted in a certain cult with claims for miraculous results.

    Here’s one that recently worked for me. I needed to replace a window air conditioner which was a different brand and size than the old one and I was fretting that it would be a pain to get it to fit. I caught myself in this negative thinking and “postulated” that it would be an easy fix. Sure enough, a minor adjustment and it fit perfectly. Postulates work!

    Joke!

    That episode revealed to me that the hour or so of fretting before getting around to installing the air conditioner was wasted thinking. I should have had a “positive attitude” from the start! The next home project that comes up I’ll “postulate” it being easy from the start. (joking again)

  6. I just read it and there are good philosophical points to ponder. On a scale of “deep to shallow” philosophical pondering I tend toward shallow and keeping it simple.

    However, I had scanned the comments above the day before my air conditioner episode. It came to mind when I spotted my fretting and gave me a more specific context, maybe realizing that it was my choice (free will?) to fret or be optimistic. You just never know where you’ll pick up a win.

  7. One definition of free will I haven’t seen before and came up with a few minutes ago is as follows: “Free Will IS ACTUALLY the self – there is no division.”

    The question of “Does the self have free will?” in this case is not the issue. The issue is rather “Is free will equal to the self?”

    For if I define self in this way, I have a new way at looking at death: Death occurs whenever I no longer have free will, and have thus my self is gone temporarily out of time and space.

    THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: My mum and I have a boat accident and are swimming deep underwater and desperate for oxygen. I wouldn’t normally kick my mom, but if she is above me and my body’s survival mechanics kick in, I may kick and pull on her to get to the surface twenty feet up. Once there, we both (hopefully) recover and talk about why I kicked and pulled the shit out of her.”

    So, according to this definition of the free-will-self WAS I DEAD in those desperate moments?

    Yes. My conscious choosing self was gone and only animal instinct remained.

    And, later, back on shore I came back to “life” and would not willingly kick or pull on my mother.

    ***

    Epictetus, Free Will Champion of the Roman stoics, said this once concerning the two men who worked to condemn Socrates to death, “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but hurt me, they cannot.”

    But Anytus and Meletus could torture Epictetus until he begged involuntarily for mercy or made other concessions.

    So … IF the self is dead during overwhelm, is the self actually hurt in this definition? No. Because a self that cannot choose does NOT exist. Existence IS choosing by this definition. They are the Yin/Yang of self.

    ***

    Epictetus defines what we control (AKA: Free to Use) as follows: “Things in our control are conception, choice, desires and aversions and in a word, anything of our own doing. Things not in our control are body, possessions, reputation, and office and, in a word, anything not of our own doing.”

    So, in the example above if the body’s needs dominates the will to where it can no longer choose and control is the self dead?

    Yes.

    And that would mean the free-will-self is dead also during anesthesia and deep dreamless sleep.

    So, reincarnation AT LEAST has one place where it occurs according to this definition:

    In. Your. Real. Life.

    1. If I may, free will is something that the self does. It is the mental process of choosing what we “will” do. And we are either free to do the choosing ourselves (“freely chosen will” or simply “free will”) or someone else has done the choosing and is imposing their will upon us (our will is subject to theirs, and thus not free).

      As to death, think of the self as a running process, like a program on a computer. You turn the computer off, and the process ceases to exist.

      1. That’s the standard definition Marvin. But I’m positing that it is free-will-self may be like space and time are actually space-time.

        “As to death, think of the self as a running process, like a program on a computer. You turn the computer off, and the process ceases to exist.”

        Exactly that. AND This.

        The computer functionally ceases to exist when a program freezes. It’s essentially dead.

        What’s the difference between a frozen computer and one that is turned off or unplugged? None.

        We go under anesthesia and the “computer” is functionally turned off as to free will choices. You get tortured and you yelp in pain as the choice to be Stoic and strong is taken from you.

        Once your free will is gone, YOU are gone. That’s the idea. Once it returns to any degree, YOU return.

        1. Sorry. Typo.

          That’s the standard definition Marvin. But I’m positing that a free-will-self may be like how space and time are actually space-time.

          This is, of course, a conjecture. I aint got no proof yo.

          1. And let’s take this batshit a little further. You could disappear for … MOMENTS.

            “Boo!”

            “Yikes (I am gone)! I was going to stand still! (I am back).”

          2. It’s not necessary to prove a viewpoint. Sometimes looking at the same thing from a different angle can provide new insights or stimulate other ideas. One of the things we learned in Group Dynamics is that in the creative stage of problem solving it is helpful to get all the ideas out there on the table, because often a bad idea will trigger a good one.

        2. Okay. I think I see both your points now. (Let me know if I’m still not getting it).

          (1) You’re suggesting that, while it is clear that free will cannot exist without a self, would it be possible to say the self is still existing if it has no free will. I think the self would still exist as long as it could experience itself within its environment. Which raises your second question:

          (2) Is a person still a living self if they’re in a frozen state, such as being startled (Boo!), or unconscious, or in a coma, or in a vegetative state, or literally cryogenically frozen. I think the general consensus is that a person is only dead when there is no prospect that they can be revived. I like to watch the medical TV series, and I’ve heard them say, “A person is not dead until they are warm and dead”, referring to the fact that there have been many cases of people falling into freezing water for a long time, but still being brought back to life, because the freezing preserves mental and body functions.

          Hope that helps.

  8. This might or might not relate to the topic of free will. I’ll just put it out here. That is the existence of peak/transcendental/samadhi and so on experiences. These experiences can and do happen with no causative factor. They are not asked for or prayed for but just happen. They have no relationship to any past experience so it’s not a matter of choosing or will. There might be a connection but I’ll just leave it at that since this might be heading more toward a discussion of consciousness rather than free will.

  9. I think I’m confused on the question itself. The only example I can think of of someone not having free will is someone who believes all their actions are dictated by God. Or maybe someone believes all future actions are dictated by past experience? All actions are dictated by social norms? Don’t know.

    1. Hi Richard,

      There are basically two distinct definitions of free will.

      The one that is most commonly understood by everyone is this: free will is when you decide for yourself what you “will” do, when “free” of coercion (someone holding a gun to your head) or other undue influence (under hypnosis, mental illness, etc.).

      The other definition is used mostly in philosophy, and it says that free will must be free of causal necessity/inevitability in order to be truly free.

      Determinism is the principle of causal necessity/inevitability. So, if you require free will to be free of that, then free will would be impossible.

      So, don’t do that. “Freedom from reliable cause and effect” is an oxymoron (a self-contradiction). Because without reliable cause and effect WE COULD NEVER RELIABLY CAUSE ANY EFFECT. And that means we wouldn’t be free to do anything at all. Therefore, the philosophical definition of free will is pretty much bs.

      So use the first definition instead. The first definition, the freedom to decide for yourself what you will do, when free of coercion or undue influence, is compatible with determinism. It also requires nothing supernatural. And it is sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility.

      1. Hi Marvin – Thanks for your reply. It showed up at the same time I posted my additional comment below – lol. It happens on blogs.

        I’m working on it. I might consider myself a slow (but careful) thinker. “causal necessity/inevitability” needs more work (thinking about it). 🙂

        1. I think I’m getting there. Maybe I’m trying to understand some philosophical belief or viewpoint I never had in the first place. Maybe some people try to ‘rise above” cause and effect or inevitability to obtain paranormal or super powers? No problem – give it a shot!

    2. A Krisnamurti type viewpoint that human intercourse is stimulus response? A neuoscience viewpoint that everything experiential is a bio-electrical function of the brain? An atheist viewpoint that there is no differentiation of body and self?

      I once knew a guy who did “healings.” He could detect “blockages” in the body. Most people would agree that the body is a bio-electrical mechanism.

      One time in a healing session I was feeling a wonderful “flow.” I said, “Steve, I’m feeling this great flow.” He replied, “Yes. It’s light red and flowing from your head through your feet.” That was an exact description of what I was experiencing. Obviously there are no current scientific instruments to measure such phenomena, but for me it was a physical reality which had occurred.

      1. I’m a little too skeptical for most of that. But if it makes you feel better, and doesn’t prevent you from addressing real medical issues with real medical doctors, then enjoy. After all, hypnotism has been used successfully as an anesthetic, and placebos can have beneficial affects. And what better way to address an irrational fear (of flying) than with an irrational belief (that God has your back). A part of pain is how you deal with it. My mother, who passed away in April, used to say “And it came to pass”, when dealing with temporary aches and pains of old age. I don’t mind using the word “spiritual” to refer to how we feel about things.

        1. That’s why I put “healings” in quotes. Many people think of it in terms of miraculous recovery from illness or whatever. This was just a general process, perhaps addressing lingering trauma in the body which might cause later distress, say for example arthritis in a joint. I only had two or three sessions with him. A friend of mine tried him out and had no benefit.

          My best friend is a skeptic and an atheist. He and his wife recently went on vacation in England and visited Stonehenge and took a guided tour through it. The guide placed two right angled wires in his own hands and when he walked though a certain area the wires started spinning. My friend wanted to try it himself and the guide let him do it. Guess what? The wires started spinning. My friend is now a little less of a skeptic, maybe even a bit less skeptical of some of my own whimsical, to him, beliefs.

  10. Free will is often discussed in the context of how could a “loving God” allow evil, war, injustice and so on to occur. The universe itself is violent and there have been four (?) mass extinctions on earth from cosmic or planetary cataclysms. There are now some possibilities for human caused mass extinction. I prefer extinction by cosmic or planetary forces. Then I won’t go out feeling guilty. (joke)

  11. Question: You posit that artificial intelligence cannot create free will. Do you think that artificial intelligence can create an EGO? A false self that thinks its real?

    … hmmm …

    1. Yes. I can’t see why not.

      As for AI not being able to emerge free will is obvious – just like it is obvious that you cannot create a 4D object out of 3D Lego pieces – no matter how many pieces you use or how hard you try.

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