on freewill: additional thoughts

“Every instinct that is found in any man is in all men. The strength of the emotion may not be so overpowering, the barriers against possession not so insurmountable, the urge to accomplish the desire less keen. With some, inhibitions and urges may be neutralized by other tendencies. But with every being the primal emotions are there. All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”
― Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life

I hope it will be a while before I write on this topic again.

We have been having a discussion with Marvin on his blog post titled two undeniable truths and since the post is short, I will copy it here for ease of reference.

He wrote

A) Assuming perfect determinism (and I always do) then it is a fact that every decision we make is inevitable.

B) Every choice we make is either freely made by us alone for our own reasons (free will) or it is a choice we are forced to make by someone else (unfree will). Both A and B are undeniably true. And both are always true at the same time in every decision we make.

A is straightforward. However, I would like to add for clarity that the freewill vs determinism debate is really about actions.

B is where Marvin gets so mixed up in a web he seems unable to untangle himself from. A while ago, I did say the freewill vs determinism debate continues to take place because of how freely we use words. Two, because words have different meanings. When writing on the above, I use the word choice specifically to mean awareness of alternatives. Any other meaning, other than this, in this discussion only works to confuse the debate. For example, I have a choice of coffee or tea in the morning. This awareness tells you nothing about what I will actually do. That settled, Marvin’s insistence that our actions are determined and we have freewill is so confused, I can’t begin to express how contradictory this sounds.

A and B cannot both be true.

Marvin’s problem is to insist that since the motives that determine our action are ours, we have freewill. Problem with this is we don’t will what our motive will be.

In the comments, Marvin gave this example, and I will quote it at length,

Billy wants to go out but doesn’t want to wear his jacket. His mother says, “It’s too cold outside, either you wear the jacket or you stay indoors.” So he wears the jacket, but does so against his will. The reason for wearing the jacket is his mother’s reason. It is external to Billy.

When Bill is older, and no longer required to follow his mother’s advice, he is autonomous. He can choose for himself, of his own free will, whether to wear the jacket or not, and live with the consequences of his choice. Having experienced the consequences of not wearing a jacket on a bitterly cold day, Bill decides to wear the jacket. But this time it is for his own reasons. It is internal rather than external.

It is a decision Bill makes on his own, for reasons that are his own. And that is what the English speaking, human species of biological organisms on this planet have decided to name “free will”. Bill’s decision fixes his “will” at that moment. And the fact that it was by his own reasons, and not by reasons imposed upon him against his will by his mother, that we say his will is “free”.

And I pointed out to Marvin, that Billy isn’t acting his will by wearing the sweater. If the motive of going out is great, Billy will bear the inconvenience of wearing a sweater. Wearing the sweater is a manifestation of the will. The mother’s condition is a cause. And as I have said countless times, all our actions have antecedent causes. In the case of Billy, we can easily show the cause of his wearing a sweater. It is not always easy to map out the causes to our actions as we did in this case.

So when Marvin goes ahead and writes

Exactly. Meanings are derived from real world phenomena. The real world phenomena that are called “free will” are those where a person decides for himself or herself what they will do.

I am certain we are not talking about the same thing. What he describes in this statement are unknown in the real world. There are causes to every action. Unless he can name one where this isn’t the case, I am open to persuasion.

I will close this already very long post with the words of Henri d’Holdbach

Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant. He is born without his own consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. He is good or bad, happy or miserable, wise or foolish, reasonable or irrational, without his will being for any thing in these various states.”

About makagutu

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

69 thoughts on “on freewill: additional thoughts

  1. john zande says:

    I admire your patience in swimming through this subject.


  2. A Guy Without Boxers says:

    I second what John Zande wrote above. This topic does flow and ebb and in some cases, diverges into two distinct messages that have multiple meanings to multiple people. A decision may be caused but does that make the decision one of free will?

    I’d better stop here as I may have been too long in the sun today. Amazing post, my Nairobi brother. Much love and many naked hugs! 🙂


  3. Every decision we make for ourselves is both deterministically inevitable and also made of our own free will.

    Free will does not logically imply freedom from causation. There is nothing in the universe that exists outside of causation. Therefore the concept of free will must be consistent with determinism (reliable cause and effect).

    The phenomenon we call free will is a mental operation we undertake when we have a decision to make:

    (1) It begins with a point of uncertainty, where we can honestly say, “I could choose A or I could choose B. But I’ll have to think it over first.”

    (2) It is followed by a consideration of the available options and an evaluation of the possible outcomes of choosing A versus choosing B.

    (3) At the end, based upon our evaluation, we choose the option we think is best.

    Our choice is our “will” at that moment. And if we were “free” to make that choice for ourselves, and were not coerced to choose something against our will, then it is called “free will”.

    There is no freedom from causation in this operation. Our choice is determined causally by our own reasons and feelings, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic disposition and our own acquired experiences.

    Our choice is in fact deterministically inevitable.

    Our choice is also in fact authentically our own, one that we freely made according to our own reasons and all of the other things that make us uniquely us.

    Any version of determinism that fails to acknowledge our role in causation is false, because determinism is only true when it includes ALL causes.

    Any version of free will that fails to acknowledge deterministic inevitability is also false. Free will requires a deterministic universe. Without it, the will has no way to implement its intent, and the will becomes irrelevant and meaningless.


    • makagutu says:

      Marvin I honestly don’t know what you are talking about.
      It appears to me, like in this statement

      Every decision we make for ourselves is both deterministically inevitable and also made of our own free will.

      that you have redefined words to mean what you want them to mean.


      • That’s a fair comment. Pragmatism takes an approach to philosophy that is designed to eliminate meaningless and interminable debate by focussing on what words mean in the real world. William James calls it the “cash-value” of a word and he encourages us to ask the question “What actual differences does it make?”

        Toward that end I am describing free will as we observe it in action in the real world and dumping any abstract notions (where all the silliness comes from).

        People experience the phenomenon of free will as the mental process of making their own decisions for themselves.

        And that is where my definition stops.

        I make no further claims as to any other liberties that supposed “libertarian” free willers make. Therefore I need not defend my definition from that set of silliness.

        The mental process is basically a physical event occurring in the physical brain. Since the brain is a physical object in the real world and it’s processes are neurological realities, I can assert with some confidence that the mental process is not an “illusion”, but is actually happening in the real world.

        The results of that mental process are decisions to do this or to do that (to get a cup of coffee or to get a cup of tea). And acting upon that decision changes what happens next in the real world.

        The choice is not uncaused. But since it is caused by us, and by the specific mental process that occurred within us, acting for ourselves, it can also be said to be “of our own free will”. Because it is that process of choosing that everyone, regardless of any other silly notions they may have, can call “free will in operation”.

        You may argue with the concept of free will in abstract terms and use logic to suggest it is merely an illusion. The libertarian may argue with the concept of determinism in abstract terms and say silly things about free will (and I was just in such a discussion, its really weird to have to defend determinism to them and free will to you, but that’s compatibilism’s challenge).

        My position is that the operation is both (a) a real deterministic event and that it is also (b) really determined by the mental process that occurs within the biological organism and serves that organism’s own intent. Both facts are true.


        • makagutu says:

          Thanks for your thoughtful response. I still disagree.
          In the real world which you are referring to, people when they talk of freewill aren’t just talking about thoughts, they refer to being free if causation. To then claim to refer to real world phenomena but reject the libertarian’s understanding of freewill is to be in a world of your own making.

          One couldn’t have thought of taking coffee unless they are aware that these alternatives are available. The thought/ awareness of coffee is given you by the environment you are in.


          • From my perspective, the libertarian’s world that is free from causation is a world of his own making. And your world, that excludes the phenomenon of mentally choosing to go to the store to get some more coffee seems also to deny reality.

            I’m trying to stay rooted in the only world that exists, a world where nothing is free from or outside of causation, and where free will means nothing more than the deterministic process occurring within one biological organism that results in his going to the store to buy more coffee, without being coerced by his wife to drink green tea against his will.

            This determinism and this free will appear to be both meaningful and at the same time consistent with reality.


            • makagutu says:

              You seem clearly to have chosen to misrepresent what I am saying. You’d lie in bed the whole of your life if there was no motive strong enough to get you out of bed. You don’t decide what to will. Going to the store being a phenomena of the will, has a motive.

              In this discussion, you are in a world that exists only in Marvin’s head and nowhere else.


              • If I’m not mistaken, the motive is a reason that you have for choosing to go to the store. In this case the motive is your need to replenish your supply of coffee. You might have chosen to postpone the trip until tomorrow. You might have chosen to drink the damn green tea instead to please your wife.

                You considered your options and deliberately chose to go to the store today.

                Are we talking about a reasonable scenario that we both understand to be possible in the real world?

                Or would you describe this scenario differently?

                For example would you claim that you cannot “choose” to go to the store, but rather circumstances compelled you to go against your will?


                • makagutu says:

                  Marvin, you have continued to word your responses to suit your very wrong interpretation. Your going to the store is caused. I don’t know where you have room for freewill in this. Whatever it is you think you are talking about is not real world phenomenon


                  • Makagutu: “Your going to the store is caused. I don’t know where you have room for freewill in this.”

                    Our choices are caused. My free will acknowledges determinism, and even deterministic inevitability. My will is only free from external coercion. This is the only thing that a free will needs to be free of to be called free.

                    This may be a small freedom from your perspective. But it is sufficient to be communicate something meaningful.

                    A definition of free will that means “freedom from causation” is irrational, and we both agree that no such free will can possibly exist.

                    Therefore the “real” and “true” meaning of free will is nothing more complicated than a person choosing for themselves as opposed to be forced to choose or act against their will.

                    There is no conflict between determinism and this simple, ordinary version of free will.

                    Furthermore, this simple, ordinary version of free will is sufficient to sustain the concept of moral responsibility.

                    If you wish to argue against this simple, ordinary free will, you will end up preaching fatalism, a theory that everything that happens is beyond our control. Is that what you are really about?


  4. P.S. The quote from Henri d’Holdbach at the bottom of your post is an excellent example of fatalism. It is destructive of both morale and moral responsibility. It is not determinism, but rather a corruption of determinism.


    • makagutu says:

      How does it lead to fatalism? I don’t find it destructive to morale. To moral responsibility it is as it should. With such knowledge, we know that we can by changing or improving the environment in which people live, they can be conditioned to be better citizens


      • Not according to d’Holdbach. He says, you are “…good or bad, happy or miserable, wise or foolish, reasonable or irrational, without his will being for any thing in these various states.”

        To me that says you have no will to make any social changes that would make anything better, because you basically lack the will to do anything at all, other than “go with the flow”. And that’s apathy.


        • makagutu says:

          I think your reading of that is wrong. A coward maybe trained to act brave, but left to their own devices, they will still be cowards. If this, to you, is fatalism, so be it.


          • I went back and re-read the quote just to be sure. He seems to me to be saying unequivocally that a man’s fate is never in his own hands and that the will itself is of no consequence. That is pure fatalism.

            Perhaps he is deliberately exaggerating for the poetic effect. But he is not shy about indulging a fatalistic viewpoint.

            Makagutu: “A coward maybe trained to act brave, but left to their own devices, they will still be cowards.”

            Maybe, maybe not. One way to change one’s attitude is to adopt the behavior that counters it. By acting bravely he becomes brave. Facing one’s own fears is an act of bravery. Choosing to face one’s own fears is within one’s powers.

            I already mentioned that I quit smoking. I had to decide daily and repeatedly to respond to the urge and the habit differently.

            If you read d’Holdbach’s quote above, there is no relevant “I” to make that choice, and no “will” to compose a plan to behave differently.


  5. Love the last quote, Noel. Very clearly determinism in a pure uncorrupted form. I also like this quote from you; “And as I have said countless times, all our actions have antecedent causes.” Couldn’t agree more. While we have choices in certain things in life, our choice of choices are not and were never ours to choose. I wonder too, for those who think there is some freedom in our “will”, at what age does this will become free? One month? A year? 5 years? When and how does a will become free of the external, and internal influences that formed it? Does a zygote choose which side of the womb to attach itself too? Is its will free to move to another spot at some point? Does a zygote have a will? If not, when does it get one and which part of it develops free of causation? BTW, I purchased 2 used wills today and a thrift store for 5.99. I’ll send you one via pigeon express so you can use it. Let me know how you like it. Thanks, and may Allah help you become the best dancer you can be. $Amen$


    • Inspired,

      Every living organism comes with a “biological will” that animates it to satisfy its survival needs in its environment. A tree sends roots into the ground for water and nutrients. An amoeba extends a pseudo-pod.to find food.

      Advanced species come with a full sensory array tapping into internal cues and the external environment. Those with sufficient neurological development to support memory, imagination, planning, and choosing may be said to have a conscious will. The conscious will would emerge as the fetus develops sufficient neurological maturity to experience itself in its environment.


      • Even without nurturing? All by itself? At what point is the will free? What specific year? Or month? Naw. Nonsense. I’ve got a sale going on used wills right now. 2 bucks each, or 3 for 5.


        • Without nurturing, without education, and without religious instruction.

          The conscious mind sits between the biological will and the environment. It negotiates how and when needs will be met. It summons other functional areas of the brain to a specific purpose, recalling stuff related to that purpose from memory, invoking imagination to create options for achieving that purpose, submitting plans for implementing options, and choosing when, and where, and how to accomplish the goal.

          I presume conscious will exists in all species with sufficient supporting neurology. Consider the squirrel frustrating all of your attempts to secure your bird feeder.


        • makagutu says:

          Proceeds from the sale will go towards establishing the Freewill Institute for the Lazy Bones


      • makagutu says:

        Marvin, even this is still confused. You seem here to be talking about the Will or thing-in-itself per Schopenhauer and Kant respectively. In Schopenhauer’s case, everything has a will. This will is irrational and without intellect. Intellect only comes later to aid the will. It is secondary to the will.
        Besides, the brain being the knowing subject and the object of knowledge is the seat of consciousness.
        And this will, in the words of Nietzsche, is the will to life. You don’t tell your heart to pump blood, there is no decision you make on breathing. They are involuntary.


        • The biological will is unconscious. The conscious will marshals the neurological resources of memory, imagination, planning and choosing to create and employ the best means of reliably meeting our individual survival needs and the survival of our species.


          • makagutu says:

            Are you saying we have two wills, one biological one conscious? Which of them is the free one?


            • The freedom of the biological will rests in the competence of the conscious will to imagine and choose effective means to satisfy its biological needs from the environment. Only the intelligent will is free to plan and choose. It’s like the biological will is the Id and the intelligent will is the Ego and SuperEgo (Freudian terms, if you’re familiar with them).


              • makagutu says:

                The intellect only aids the will. It is subordinate to it. That is why intelligence is so rare. The will does not need it


                • Sure. That makes sense. The will then would be the organizing function that marshals the intellect (memory, logic, and calculation), the muscles, the verbal functional areas, etc. such that the being acts as one whole person. It’s sort of like the conscious awareness which is often highly focused and misses a lot of what goes on around it (Brain Games TV show has a program on how magicians manage your attention such that they can do things visible to others that you cannot see).


    • makagutu says:

      John used to say we had freewill for a very short time as babies then it leaves, I think he has altered that position.
      I think we need to expand our wills shop. I am sure we will have many buyers


  6. That isn’t even doublespeak anymore. That’s more like quadruple-speak.


  7. I’ve tried to summarize how this works in this post on my blog:
    Determinism – Free Will = Fatalism

    (A) Determinism is nothing more and nothing less than the belief in the reliability of cause and effect.

    (B) Deterministic inevitability is the logical implication of a perfect reliability between cause and effect. Each event is brought about by specific relevant and direct causes. Each of these causes is also an effect, having its own set of relevant and direct causes. And the same applies to each of these causes, and on, and on. This is sometimes called a “causal chain” but it is more like a “causal tree”.

    (C) The result is that all events unfold in a single and inevitable way.

    (D) The relevant issue to humanity is what deterministic inevitability means to us. The correct answer is: not much at all.

    (E) Knowing the specific causes of specific effects has proved extremely useful in allowing us better control of our physical environment. We use physics, chemistry, medicine, and other sciences to good advantage. But the single fact of universal inevitability offers no useful implications.

    (F) The idea of inevitability is scary at first, because the word “inevitable” usually implies “beyond our control”. But if determinism is to be true, then it must acknowledge ALL of the causes and causal agents that actually bring about what becomes inevitable.

    (G) There is a mental process by which we make deliberate decisions. At the beginning of this process we are uncertain what to choose and we can honestly say, “I may choose A or I may choose B. I just don’t know yet which it will be.” Next we consider our options. Our evaluation may involve our reasons and feelings, our beliefs and values, our genetic disposition and our acquired experience, and perhaps other things as well. Finally, we make our choice.

    (H) Our choice is our will at that moment. And if we were free to make that choice for ourselves, based upon our own reasons, our own feelings, and those other things which make us uniquely us, then we say it is a choice of our own free will. But if someone coerces us to choose something against our will, then our will is not free. This is how free will actually operates in the real world. (The “operational” definition.)

    (I) Every decision that we make of our own free will is also inevitable. If we are very certain that we made the right decision, then we can usually review our thinking and give the reasons why this choice was inevitable and the other options were never really viable. If we still have doubts at the end then the inevitability will not be so clear.

    (J) We are the final responsible cause of our deliberate actions. The “us” that made the decision was compelled by no other causes than those which we have already made a part of us. Our reasons, be they good or bad, were authentically our own reasons.

    (K) Our experience in our social environment also shapes who we become and influences our choices. While we are the final responsible cause of our actions, we are not the only relevant cause of our behavior. When attempting to correct the causes of crime (or the causes of an airplane or automobile crash) we want to correct all of the relevant causes to insure the best results and lowest probability of future harm.

    (L) Inevitability does not actually control anything. It is not a cause in itself, but rather an observation of how causes interact to reliably to bring about a specific outcome. If you’re thrown into a swimming pool (and life is often like that) you cannot sit back and wait to see what will inevitably happen. If you do you’ll drown.

    (M) The false belief that inevitability is in control of our destiny is called “fatalism”. It preaches that we have no control, that all of our choices are already made for us, and that our will is only a rider on the bus being driven by inevitability. Fatalism encourages apathy, destroys morale, discourages autonomy, and undermines moral responsibility. Fatalism is morally corrupting.

    (N) Many people out there, claiming to be determinists, are actually talking fatalism.

    (O) Any version of determinism that denies us as causal agents, acting and choosing for ourselves (of our own free will), becomes fatalism when pushed.

    (P) Determinism – Free Will = Fatalism.


  8. And this sums up the mental error resulting in the philosophical paradox :
    The free will “versus” determinism paradox, like all paradoxes, is based upon a subtle fraud. You are led to believe that inevitability always means “beyond our control”. But the truth is that what becomes inevitable “within our sphere of influence” is actually in our own hands. We get to choose what happens next. Inevitability is basically just sitting back taking notes and waiting to see what we will cause to happen.

    Universal, deterministic inevitability is a spectacularly useless fact. Causation is always “present” in every state and event. It is like a constant that is always there on both sides of every equation and thus makes itself irrelevant.

    Free will necessarily presumes a deterministic universe. Reliable cause and effect are required if the will is to implement its intent. Without it, the will becomes irrelevant and meaningless.

    And, except in this very silly debate, we never expect freedom to imply freedom from causation. When we set a bird free from its cage, do we say it is not really free because it is not free from causation? No. What would happen when the bird flaps her wings if her wings no longer caused her to lift in the air?

    There are three things which it is irrational to expect free will to be free of. The first is causation, which we’ve discussed. The second is oneself, which is irrational because whose will would it be if not our own? The third is the limitations of the real world that we have not yet overcome (we do fly now, by airplane).


  9. […] Regular readers have met Marvin. In his new post, freewill in a deterministic universe, he repeats the same claims he made in this post. […]


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