On choice, free will and other matters


Friends, I haven’t written in a while, life came between me and the blog though I read most of your blogs. My good friend Violet[for those who don’t already follow her blog, you may want to pay her visit] wrote a blog, justification for harmful behaviour in which apart from espousing on two possible belief systems that would influence a person’s behaviour, she proposes a third way, let’s call it Violet’s way and allow me to copy a part of it here

All your behaviour and your actions are as a direct result of your brain interacting with your environment. You can usefully influence the choices that other people make by interacting positively with them and spreading any information you have that can make life a more pleasant experience, both for yourself and others

which I disagreed with to the extent that we hardly are able to chose our genes, training or environment and these three things determine how a person will behave or react in a particular situation. Whereas we are in agreement that the idea that man is born deprived is an absurd and outrageous idea, I think all of us have the potential to act in ways that would be considered bad or good by others and either we lack opportunity or our training is such that we will not go against societal norms.

This post, however, ain’t about my friend’s post but about a post that deals with a related matter albeit from a different angle. The post, terror of choice and free will, explores the same question of free choice [eventually leading to an action]. The author tells us about a job offer [s]he was recently offered and finds themselves quite unable to make a choice between

accepting a lower-paying job with the hope of someday moving out of customer service into something I actually care about, or staying at a job that pays decently, but doesn’t offer the opportunity to progress.

She tells us

I’m not usually on the fence about things. I’m fairly decisive and I stick by my decisions

but now finds herself in a situation where the decision is hard to make. I will make a few concessions before I proceed, that is, she can act in either two ways, either take the new job or retain the old one. That said, what will determine which choice she takes is motive. I think the reason she finds the decision hard to make here is because the motives almost cancel out. Most times, we are able to easily act in one way or other given two competing situations because the motivation for one outweighs the other significantly.

I however disagree with her, when she writes

We have the unique ability to reason and come to decisions independent of immediate environmental stimuli

which I don’t think is true. This would be similar to saying that our actions are free of causes. The case is, that sometimes or rather many times, we can not tell the chain of causes that led to a specific act or that there are complex factors that culminate in a particular action whereas we would deduce from the movement of plant leaves that there wind blowing them. In the case of the plant, it is easy to identify the cause and its effect whereas this becomes quite complex when dealing with the human person. It is, I think, wrong to conclude that since we can’t map the chain of causes, then our actions are free.

She tells us

animals do not really have the ability to make decisions as they’re motivated by base desires: the need for food, comfort and reproduction. Although humans are motivated by the same, our needs are far more complex.

which I don’t think is entirely correct. The motivation is the same for both us and other animals, and that is the will to live. Most people especially in the lower stratum of society are motivated by the desires she calls base and it is only once these are met that one can then have time to philosophize. I could say, that, a greater part of our research efforts is geared towards self preservation, the same desire that makes the antelope in the great savanna to run once a leopard is sighted. However, there are those things we do just for its sake for example art.

The one thing I liked about her post is that at the end she writes

[..]jobs is that if I choose the wrong option, I’ll be stuck in a crappy job that won’t afford me the money to buy the things that I want, like a car or a new laptop.

and this my friends is the key to the problem. It is here that motive lies and once it becomes clear, how she will act will be cast on stone so to speak and unless that motive changes, we will tell how she would be likely to act given a similar scenario.

I submit in conclusion that our actions are not free of causes. They are depended on the environment, training and temperament that each person is born with. The one thing difficulty we have in telling why a person A acts different from person B in similar scenarios is our inability to know the motive behind each act of will and the preceding chain of causes. Were this known to us, we would with precision map how each person would act in a given scenario and I bet our predictions would be correct to a very high percentage.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter, especially, if our actions are free of causes and whether we are free to make choices or if it is an illusion.

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About makagutu

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

25 thoughts on “On choice, free will and other matters

  1. john zande says:

    I’ll await Violets response, but before that propose that we perhaps have one moment of free will, and one only. Somewhere approaching the 36th month after birth the brain stops its process of frantic aborisation. Billions of connections have been made and the network stabilises enabling memories to be stored safely. That is the beginning of the age of self: the age of memory. Somewhere approaching that time i think we must have a moment of choice, perhaps something as simple as crying because we’re hungry. Maybe we’re not that hungry, just a little peckish and otherwise bored and looking for some attention. An option is presented: cry or not to cry. Perhaps this is a bad example, but maybe (if your calculations are correct) everything after this moment is the progeny of this one freely decided upon action. Food for thought?

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    • makagutu says:

      Interesting question John. My experience of three year olds is they would ask for food. It is only earlier when they still can’t talk that they communicate through crying. They cry when they are hungry, sleepy, sick, or maybe just needing attention and all these are causes. In fact, it is with children that you easily can relate the cause to the effect quite accurately. And as I have said, the most powerful motive will determine the action.
      I await Violet’s response too.

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  2. Mordanicus says:

    It’s good to hear from you again! But the quality of your post, makes certainly the long intermezzo worthwhile.

    Our brain is indeed subject to external causes, which are outside our control. Even if we can influence cause A, we do that because of some prior cause B. Some philosophers have argued that quantum mechanics might provide for a free will, but they are making a simple mistake. According to their hypothesis, the brain is besides the known senses and genetic factors, also subject to quantum effects. Their idea is that because quantum mechanics is probabilistic rather than deterministic (which is taken into question by some physicists), our actions are not deterministic, hence can have a free will.

    The flaw in this kind of reasoning is simple: it confuse the debate between determinism and indeterminism, with the debate about free will. The quantum hypothesis of free will, only add another type of cause to our will, albeit probabilistic ones, which are also outside our control. Therefore the QHFW only “proves” that our will is probabilistic, in the sense that we cannot predict the quantum effects beforehand. But after a quantum effect has triggered the brain, it will follow its wiring.

    BTW. My post about cannibalism got this weekend a lot of attraction, and quite a lot of people have bothered to post a comment. Some are good, other are hilarious.

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    • makagutu says:

      Hope you have been well too my friend and thanks for your kind words. I have read the comments on your post, and it appears the majority quite do not have a problem with it.

      I agree with you that even positing quantum hypothesis doesn’t make matters any better since the cause is still out of our control.

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      • Mordanicus says:

        The only sense in which such will can be called free, is that quantum mechanic effects aren’t bound by deterministic laws. Though some philosophers might argue that quantum indeterminacy is not the cause of free will, but is just the expression of free will.

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  3. violetwisp says:

    I think on reading this I agree with almost everything you say. The point where we part company is on the issue of choice. You seem to be mistaking ‘choice’ for ‘actions that would make no sense’, and ‘free will’ to be ‘making stupid choices that don’t relate to our understanding of life’. Perhaps there is a dualism creeping into your philosophy – separating ‘us’ from the our bodies, like we are a soul trying to control a pre-programmed computer. We’re not. We are a complete being, and of course we make our choices based on our limitations and understanding of the world. The fact that they could be completely determinable under impossible conditions doesn’t mean we’re not making choices.

    There’s a second point I could ramble on about for ages about the fact that we can definitely influence other people – by being part of their experience (or environmental input). Because humans can have a tendency to be fatalistic about life, emphasising your perceived lack of choice has the potential to be a harmful environmental factor in terms of negatively influencing actions – the typical teenage “it doesn’t matter what I do, it’s all meaningless!” Encouraging people to carefully investigate and consider the options open to them, and to take full responsibility for all their actions, obviously is much more effective for encouraging positive behaviour.

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    • makagutu says:

      Well my friend, no, I am not a dualist in any sense of the word. I made a concession in the post and I have done so elsewhere that at any given moment we can act in two ways, that said, however, once we act, we would not have acted other than we did and here is where there is contention. I think it appears only that we are making a choice but in actual sense we are not, we are just following the greater motive.

      And I agree with your second point to a degree. We both have said environment has an influence on how we act but disagree with your point that telling people they lack a choice has the potential of being harmful is the same argument that has been put forward by Dennett and I don’t think this is really the case. Good training once one has been born will go along way in encouraging positive behaviour, telling them to be responsible for their actions on the other hand I don’t think is helpful.

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      • violetwisp says:

        “we would not have acted other than we did” – but why does that mean we’re not making choices? Would you see a choice as acting against our better judgement?

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        • makagutu says:

          My thesis is that the choices are not free

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          • violetwisp says:

            I really don’t understand. If I have a choice before me – to go left or go right, and I would always go left in the same circumstances, it is still a choice I’m making based on my understanding of the situation. And it is free because no-one other than me is making that choice.

            Can you give me an example in which you would consider a choice to be free? What could alter to make this possible in your view? Even if we knew everything and had infinite powers, we would still only make choices based on our processing of the circumstances around us. This philosophising around a concept of ‘free choice’ only reared its ugly head because it’s impossible to reconcile an omniscient creator deity with choice. I can’t see how it’s relevant to those who don’t believe in gods.

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          • makagutu says:

            I see where we seem to not understand each other. When I say free am not talking of a person being coerced but rather that there are antecedent causes that determine how you will act. It is these causes that determine whether you go left or right and unless there is a new input, you will act as you always have. I don’t know whether that makes some sense.

            I have no example where I think a choice could be free and I have said as much. The concept of responsibility, I think is a religious idea to justify punishment. Without such a belief, me and you are in agreement that our choices are determined by our environment, training and temperament. I don’t see where me and you disagree.

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          • violetwisp says:

            I think we disagree in the implications of it all. I think teaching people responsibility has a role making them more thoughtful about their actions – it’s a valid environmental factor.

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          • makagutu says:

            We are in agreement that training is important and plays an important factor. Teaching people responsibility may or may not change much when it comes to acting depending on the motive

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  4. This comment is not specific to free will; instead, it is directed towards the indecisive, such as the woman you referenced…

    It is a quote from Spinoza, and I apologize for its length and for the topic detour. Anytime I come upon indecisive behavior, I recall this quote.

    “After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness. I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure, for the sake of something uncertain. I could see benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former, I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail.”

    Now, your conclusion is certainly well-founded. However, if we could know with any degree of certainty as to whether we have free will, you and I would not be having this discussion. Personally, I have seen quite a lot of evidence that could induce one to believe that socioeconomic and environmental conditions play more of a role than personal decision, with respect to an individual’s character in general. Then again, I have seen individuals from unforgiving backgrounds CHOOSE to rise above behavioral patterns that they were accustomed to. I think the argument can be made either way, but I tend to lean towards the equally well-founded inference that certain conditions do not NECESSARILY restrict the individual from CHOOSING who they become. This would extend to trivial decisions too.

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    • makagutu says:

      You, my friend, need not apologise for the length of your response. And I like the Spinoza quote.

      I also agree with your comment generally except the second conclusion. I have said there are quite a number of factors that influence how a person acts. I have said training and environment which, I guess, you agree with. There is a third factor which all of us are born with and it is temperament. It is this third factor that would lead a person who was born in a shitty environment to rise above that environment. There really is no choosing, that is my submission.

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      • I see, but what evidence are you using to support such a submission? To be candid, I think I agree with your inference, but I’m hoping you might expand on the premise.

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        • makagutu says:

          Plainly speaking, the question of choice or will is important when we are considering actions, or put differently, effects or manifestations of the will. Whereas I think our will is uncaused, its manifestations are caused. That there are preceding causes that lead to a particular effect. The only complexity here, in regard to the manifestations of the will is because we are most times unable to map the cause[s] and two the effect may not be equal to the cause.

          My second supporting evidence is that as far as I can tell, we observe in nature effects dependent on antecedent causes[ I know correlation doesn’t mean causation] for example when we see swayed to one direction and there is a ghastly wind blowing in the direction the blinds are bent towards, we can link the two. It has been said though that in the world of quantum fluctuations, this isn’t the case, that there are effects without causes am not sure our lives are quantum events but if we are, I would certainly need to spend a little time to try and understand quantum physics.

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          • Yes, but your analogy is trying to coerce a connection between sentient beings and inanimate objects. The tree, having been caused to lean in a particular direction because of the wind, has no choice but to do so. A sentient being, conversely, could lean into the wind if he so chose. Cause and Effect throughout nature exhibit such restrictions, but sentient beings do not.

            I think I agree that “manifestations” of our will, if I understand your use correctly, reduce the individual to a finite number of choices, and therefore the Will, although uncaused, is influenced. I fail to see how this can be interpreted, however, as not having Free Will. I’m not trying to be argumentative, I’m just not convinced, so forgive me. I cannot, for example, think of an instance where two or more choices were not available. In such light, our actions are not entirely determined, and therefore Free Will, to some degree, exists.

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          • makagutu says:

            No need to apologise for being argumentative. Your intention is noble.

            My simplest question to you is why are sentient beings exempt from cause and effect if they are also part of nature?

            I am not saying only one choice is available, no, I have said one can act in two ways, but how a person acts is entirely determined. As a way of moving forward, could you please give me two examples where you think an action is free.

            While at it, there are links here, here and here that you could look at and if you still have time, I suggest you read Mark Twain’s What is man.

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