Free will is an idle fancy


I have in the past argued against free will and I continue to maintain that we don’t have an iota of free will. Since I can’t say it better than this, let me share with you the words of our priest friend, Jean Meslier on free will. If there are any objections, please I would want so much to consider them and where I can I will respond or suggest farther reading of different texts I have looked at where this matter is discussed.

Theologians tell and repeat to us that man is free, while all their teachings conspire to destroy his liberty. Trying to justify Divinity, they accuse him really of the blackest injustice. They suppose that, without grace, man is compelled to do evil: and they maintain that God will punish him for not having been given the grace to do good! With a little reflection, we will be obliged to see that man in all things acts by compulsion, and that his free will is a chimera, even according to the theological system. Does it depend upon man whether or not he shall be born of such or such parents? Does it depend upon man to accept or not to accept the opinions of his parents and of his teachers? If I were born of idolatrous or Mohammedan parents, would it have depended upon me to become a Christian? However, grave Doctors of Divinity assure us that a just God will damn without mercy all those to whom He has not given the grace to know the religion of the Christians.

Man’s birth does not depend upon his choice; he was not asked if he would or would not come into the world; nature did not consult him upon the country and the parents that she gave him; the ideas he acquired, his opinions, his true or false notions are the necessary fruits of the education which he has received, and of which he has not been the master; his passions and his desires are the necessary results of the temperament which nature has given him, and of the ideas with which he has been inspired; during the whole course of his life, his wishes and his actions are determined by his surroundings, his habits, his occupations, his pleasures, his conversations, and by the thoughts which present themselves involuntarily to him; in short, by a multitude of events and accidents which are beyond his control. Incapable of foreseeing the future, he knows neither what he will wish, nor what he will do in the time which must immediately follow the present. Man passes his life, from the moment of his birth to that of his death, without having been free one instant. Man, you say, wishes, deliberates, chooses, determines; hence you conclude that his actions are free. It is true that man intends, but he is not master of his will or of his desires. He can desire and wish only what he judges advantageous for himself; he can not love pain nor detest pleasure. Man, it will be said, sometimes prefers pain to pleasure; but then, he prefers a passing pain in the hope of procuring a greater and more durable pleasure. In this case, the idea of a greater good determines him to deprive himself of one less desirable.

It is not the lover who gives to his mistress the features by which he is enchanted; he is not then the master to love or not to love the object of his tenderness; he is not the master of the imagination or the temperament which dominates him; from which it follows, evidently, that man is not the master of the wishes and desires which rise in his soul, independently of him. But man, say you, can resist his desires; then he is free. Man resists his desires when the motives which turn him from an object are stronger than those which draw him toward it; but then, his resistance is necessary. A man who fears dishonor and punishment more than he loves money, resists necessarily the desire to take possession of another’s money. Are we not free when we deliberate?–but has one the power to know or not to know, to be uncertain or to be assured? Deliberation is the necessary effect of the uncertainty in which we find ourselves with reference to the results of our actions. As soon as we believe ourselves certain of these results, we necessarily decide; and then we act necessarily according as we shall have judged right or wrong. Our judgments, true or false, are not free; they are necessarily determined by ideas which we have received, or which our mind has formed. Man is not free in his choice; he is evidently compelled to choose what he judges the most useful or the most agreeable for himself. When he suspends his choice, he is not more free; he is forced to suspend it till he knows or believes he knows the qualities of the objects presented to him, or until he has weighed the consequence of his actions. Man, you will say, decides every moment on actions which he knows will endanger him; man kills himself sometimes, then he is free. I deny it! Has man the ability to reason correctly or incorrectly? Do not his reason and his wisdom depend either upon opinions that he has formed, or upon his mental constitution? As neither the one nor the other depends upon his will, they can not in any wise prove his liberty.

If I make the wager to do or not to do a thing, am I not free? Does it not depend upon me to do or not to do it? No; I will answer you, the desire to win the wager will necessarily determine you to do or not to do the thing in question. “But if I consent to lose the wager?” Then the desire to prove to me that you are free will have become to you a stronger motive than the desire to win the wager; and this motive will necessarily have determined you to do or not to do what was understood between us. But you will say, “I feel myself free.” It is an illusion which may be compared to that of the fly in the fable, which, lighting on the shaft of a heavy wagon, applauded itself as driver of the vehicle which carried it. Man who believes himself free, is a fly who believes himself the master-motor in the machine of the universe, while he himself, without his own volition, is carried on by it. The feeling which makes us believe that we are free to do or not to do a thing, is but a pure illusion. When we come to the veritable principle of our actions, we will find that they are nothing but the necessary results of our wills and of our desires, which are never within our power. You believe yourselves free because you do as you choose; but are you really free to will or not to will, to desire or not to desire? Your wills and your desires, are they not necessarily excited by objects or by qualities which do not depend upon you at all?

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

55 thoughts on “Free will is an idle fancy

  1. john zande says:

    You spoke about it weeks ago, but wouldn’t suicide be counted as the only true expression of free will? Perhaps not if you consider the conditions that have led up to that decision. Then again, we do have the case of Mr. Eastman (founded of Kodak) who was wealthy, successful, happy and simply decided he’d done enough.

    I just googled his suicide: his suicide note read: “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?” So, by this we might infer he was a religious man and believed an afterlife waited for him… in which case it really wasn’t free will, either.

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    • makagutu says:

      Even in suicide there is no free will. There are events that drive the individual to that point and he can’t act otherwise. It may appear like he is making a choice but he really isn’t free at all, there are pressures that lead him to whatever decision he will act on and this makes the free will idea an illusion

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      • john zande says:

        Yeah, i realised that as i was writing that reply. I need to think more on this, but it draws into question even larger subjects like what “happiness” is. Interesting…. wasn’t expecting to be thinking about this today! Thanks, Noel! I can always count on you to surprise and excite the mind ๐Ÿ™‚

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        • makagutu says:

          It is the one reason I find philosophy very interesting, you keep asking questions about so many things hitherto taken for granted.
          Am glad I make your visits worthwhile as you make my visits to your very wonderful site ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • holly says:

        but even under pressure…we have choices. even then…?

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        • makagutu says:

          What choice? To act differently that we’d act?

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          • holly says:

            okay, you gave me a list of posts on free will. I had a choice to follow up on them, or not. I was interested…but I delayed because I knew that it would get me all sticky. ๐Ÿ˜€
            are you saying this was not a choice? by you sending me the links i would be compelled to follow them? if this is the case…can we not then predict every action for every human being? (consider what they are made of, where they come from, their make up etc?)
            Do we always do as we are so compelled…or do we sometimes surprise ourselves and others?

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            • makagutu says:

              We can’t predict how they will act because we can’t know their nature in a definitive way. You acted as you would given the circumstances. You’d act in the same way in future if the circumstances are similar.

              We don’t surprise ourselves, others yes.

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    • emmylgant says:

      I disagree John. No religious person –at least in christendom– would commit suicide and believe that heaven awaited. Suicide is basically a demonstration of a lack of faith ( god will provide the strength to overcome whatever) and that, lack of faith or sinning against the holy spirit, is an unforgivable sin. ergo no heaven. Mr . Eastman didn’t want to suffer the inevitable outrages of old age, is what I am thinking.

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      • john zande says:

        That’s certainly what i first thought when i heard of his death.

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      • holly says:

        Interestingly enough emmy, there are some who believe suicide is not an unforgivable sin. Some preach that even that is forgivable through the blood of Jesus..http://carm.org/questions/other-questions/if-christian-commits-suicide-he-still-forgiven

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        • makagutu says:

          That article is hilarious. If the dude is so convinced that suicide is forgivable in the long run, why bother with repenting daily anyway or just wait for the end and do one long letter!
          The christian having believed that a god exist, that this god had a son with a virgin and this son died for them, anything is believable to such a person!

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          • holly says:

            Indeed…(rather glad I didn’t read that one when I was younger going through severe teenage hormonal pain and agony.. :D) I was convinced that suicide would land me in hell…(or at least had enough question about it that it kept me from anything rash)
            But it is interesting the lengths one will go to justify faith/belief/ and ….comfort to one who has lost someone..
            That one goes along with the question of …if a baby goes to heaven when they die…then wouldn’t greater love be to kill the babies before they are old enough to choose evil? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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            • makagutu says:

              Oh yes, now that is the million dollar question but the retort would be dying and being killed are different, even if the end is the same besides they will argue the child may just do great things, you can’t win with believers!

              On other matters, I think we could just argue, it is best then not to be born so you don’t have to die and commit sin, you just transit from nothingness of not being born to eternal bliss without going through the tribulations of earth ๐Ÿ˜€

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              • holly says:

                yes exactly. That was the “stopper” for me with the whole God and the existence of evil argument. Up until then, I had been content with the free will answer. But…if babies and the developmentally delayed wind up in heaven, (and you will go far to find a believer who disagrees with that concept) then why is free will necessary? why can’t all just go straight to heaven? why is life and death and all that comes inbetween here on this temporary home….necessary? AND…how in the world can that justify the evil?

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    • holly says:

      Ah John, (sorry i am jumping into this party late) I just googled more on Mr Eastman , he was indeed wealthy , successful, and a great philanthropist, however… “In the last few years of his life Eastman suffered with chronic pain and reduced functionality due to a spine illness. ” He was faced with chronic pain. I do believe it was his choice to end the pain, but it certainly puts a damper on the way we use the word choice. Undue pressure? and yet even still …some choose to go on with the pain…so it was still…a choice.?
      I suppose this is what bothers me with “free will” and the discussion. We do have choices, and the ability to make them…doesn’t that imply some amount of free will? Granted, we do not choose to be born…
      but every day we choose to live…we choose whether to get out of bed, be useful…or not…be active, or not…be with others…or be alone…etc..? (perhaps the free will thingy just goes over my head?)

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      • makagutu says:

        Tell me my dear, how often do you chose to live? Would you have acted differently in the morning? You act according to your nature, some are predisposed to laziness and will wake up to do nothing, some to industry and so on, each person acting according to her nature.

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        • holly says:

          see now i want to cuss….cause this thought pisses me off…(and i like..never cuss… :D) I do act differently sometimes…And people who are predisposed to laziness find ways to overcome it. Those things are ingeniously beautiful and inspire others to do the same. We can be more than our predispositions…can we not? ::i want to whack something with a stick@!::(not you of course dear :D) but but but ๐Ÿ˜€ this topic gets me so…stirred up inside…

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          • makagutu says:

            Just whack something dear! It may make you feel good you know ๐Ÿ™‚
            We can’t act different than our nature. I can’t tell the circumstances to which you will be exposed, but if we know how you acted in one such situation, you are likely to act in the same way in future if circumstances remain the same.

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            • holly says:

              Well, I didn’t whack anything…I suppose that is my nature.. lol.
              But isn’t that the human part of us? reasoning? We can try different reactions and see what happens? and that increases our choices?

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      • john zande says:

        Don’t worry, it goes a little over my head, too ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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  2. Tabitha Cunningham says:

    This kind of blew my mind. A whole other level of uncertainty that I didn’t consider. And I thought Free Will was so uncomplicated, that I decided things. Perhaps I got that idea from Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus:
    “If God exists, all depends on him and we can do nothing against his will. If he does not exist, everything depends on us. For Kirilov, as for Nietzsche, to kill God is to become god oneself; it is to realize on this earth the eternal life of which the Gospel speaks.”

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    • makagutu says:

      The phrase you quote from the Myth of Sisyphus, I think Camus is talking about what duties we have to each other. If god exists, then all depends on him and we can do nothing but if god is dead, then we can help our neighbor. That is how \i understood Camus when I read that book.
      And blowing your mind is what I set out to do.

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  3. David Yerle says:

    I wrote a similar post not long ago, thought the arguments I used to argue the same were quite different. A reader pointed me to Gale Strawson’s basic argument, which I think is a pretty devastating critique of the whole free will idea. Check it out.

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  4. racheljaber says:

    Seems like am starting to do philosophy. Every time I read your work, it leaves me questioning a lot of things i took forgranted prior to the read…so philosophy 101 it is??

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  5. We do have free will and choose or not choose as we wish and will. Because we base this on all previous experience it can seem that we had no choice, but we did. Guilt is the understanding that we could have and should have chosen differently and an admission that we could have. Choosing to do what makes us feel guilt is in fact free will. If all previous events lead to our choices such that we do not have free will, there would be no guilt. It is to choose against all the knowledge that we have, to deny the previous experiences and knowledge. Guilt is universal so is not a simple anomaly. It is the effect, or one of them, of free will.

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    • makagutu says:

      guilt as I said in my previous post is a Christian religious idea, a life denying position that the elite, priests and charlatans, appealed to make men responsible for becoming!
      We act not as we wish but as we will.

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      • Guilt, if it is to be defined as a religious idea, would definitely not be Christian .. it would be Jewish Ba dump pa !! I’m here all week.

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        • makagutu says:

          Sorry, I meant to say a religious idea and not a Christian idea, I said it was a religious idea and especially so for the three monotheistic religions adopted from Judaism [which is also a Christian idea].
          I will look at the move from shame culture of classical Greek to the guilt culture that pervades the West and by extension most of the globe.

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      • By the by, guilt is not a religious thing. Most decidedly not. One can feel guilt and never know what religion is. It is used by religion, but is not of religious origin…

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        • emmylgant says:

          Good point… hmmm.

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        • makagutu says:

          I disagree, but as I have promised I will present a case in the near future to support my thesis that guilt is a religious idea, that in the Greek classical state it was a shame- honor society. There was a movement from this position to the guilt society we have today in most of the modern world.

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          • holly says:

            what of regret? seeing where certain choices have led us, wondering where others would have…realizing we missed an opportunity…? this is not religion based…but reasoning?

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            • makagutu says:

              You regret not because you could have acted differently but because you think you chose a wrong action.

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              • holly says:

                yes, but….(sorry..i am a butter… :D)
                we can weigh out the consequences of our actions, and according to our own desires and goals rationally come to the conclusion that certain actions will result in certain consequences. And we can certainly regret that we acted in haste….(or took that extra drink and lost the ability to think rationally etc etc )

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                • makagutu says:

                  Hahaha, unfortunately I don’t think that is the case.

                  If that were the case we would have closed penitentiaries world over if people weighed the consequences of their actions.

                  Even in situations when one maybe aware of the consequences, you will act in a certain way free will or no free will!

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                  • holly says:

                    โ€œYou say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.โ€
                    โ€• Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

                    because it is fun being a butter…
                    and I just googled a bunch of quotes on free will to keep stirring the pot…
                    and because I can choose to do so…
                    mwah ha ha ha ha ha ha

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                    • makagutu says:

                      Hahaha!

                      Now I have to think of a logical answer to an illogical claim!
                      That is a false association, claiming that lifting his hand[effect] is evidence of free will[cause].

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                    • holly says:

                      so his nature made him lift his hand at that precise moment to illogically claim something? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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                    • makagutu says:

                      That is not my contention. All am saying in this particular case, he associated an effect with a cause that could be false especially with the results of neuroscience on that matter that the decision to lift a hand or press a button is made way in advance before we are even aware of it.

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  6. […] we don’t have free will. I have written quite a number of posts that can be found here, here, here, here and here that try to espouse my thinking on the idea or opinions by other philosophers of old […]

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