Free will: do we have it?


In his blog post, free will and the perfect pool table, my friend Steve concludes we do. I don’t think he has demonstrated that we actually do we have freewill. I also contend he has failed to give a coherent definition of what he means when he says we have free will.

He writes

But now let us add the real-world pool table items back in. If we were to just add the pockets back, some of the balls would leave the table by falling into the pockets and the balls that remained would have to have paths that repeated themselves and which didn’t involve colliding into a pocket. If the felt is added back, so is friction and the balls in motion will then stop at some point due to that friction. Also, the not perfectly elastic bumpers will absorb some of the energy of the balls colliding with them. We end up with an imperfect, non-deterministic game, one in which the result of any balls being set in motion becomes quite uncertain. The only thing we can say for certain is the balls will come to a stop after each “play.” The motions are somewhat but not perfectly predictable, which allows for the skills of elite pool players.

Every time the cue ball is struck (the cue ball being made slightly larger than the other balls so it strikes them ever so slightly above the equator, minimizing the chances of a ball being hit slightly below the equator which can result in the struck ball flying off of the table (now you know)), the table ends up in a new state, that is the positions of the balls involved in collisions is almost guaranteed to be different as well as somewhat unpredictable.

and I find this is analogous to human life. The individual is any one of the balls. The friction on the billiard table are the different are the social constraints, the mental environment we live in and the push from the cue stick the different motives pushing us in different directions. If, for instance, the player was a professional and we observed how their play, we would tell almost accurately where the ball would go every time it was hit. So it is with humans; if we could carefully map every situation, we would, with accuracy, tell what the person would do. The outcome, given the same conditions would be the same.

I disagree when he writes

[..]So, decisions have to be made. Should I try to sink this ball or that ball? If I sink that ball, will the cue ball be in a position to sink another ball (or the next numbered ball in the sequence) and, if it won’t be properly positioned, can I make it properly positioned by some skill of my possession.

the decision of which ball to sink is not arbitrary. For a person who hasn’t played pool, I would be trying to sink any ball. For a professional player, with years of experience, this will not be the case. This is the effect of training. The play is not arbitrary.

While it is true that

 two different pool players will sometimes play a particular situation differently.

it is not true this is because of freewill. The differences in their play is as a result of differences in training, experience and abilities. And it is the same with other human affairs. Given the same scenario, different people will act differently because of differences in training, genetic make up and the motives.

And as reader Shinashiz said, this

And occasionally state that “they don’t know why they chose the route they did” or they felt more confident “in the moment” in that path, or…. And sometimes they get frozen in a state of indecision, that is they have two paths forward that they cannot distinguish between and they get “stuck” not being able to decide

doesn’t support freewill. To be undecided is to say, in a deterministic universe, that motives are matched up. That acting on any will almost bring a similar result. The moment one motive outweighs the other, in this case, the chances of a score increases for one against the other, the player will proceed and play. This cannot be, in my view, be called freewill, especially since we can see the immediate effect of the environment at play.

I agree with Steve when he writes

I think much of the debate about the existence of free will is based upon a faulty definition.

and I would have expected him to give us a proper definition. I do think that if a definition was coherent, much of this debate would have ended. My definition of freewill is quite simple and you are free to disagree with it.

Freewill means our actions are uncaused. 

Steve then says

The reason free will is important is that if we do not have the ability to make our own choices, that our response to situations was either hardwired into our brains or programming in by social conditioning, then we are not responsible for our actions, our engineers and programmers are. How could we punish criminals or send sinners to Hell without them having the ability to do other than what the situation triggers? How indeed?

While I don’t want to dismiss this very important challenge, I first would want to say, a human being is not responsible for their make, nor their thoughts. All these come to them from outside. Outside here could be a book, a tree, another person but never their own. And much as it is hard to accept, we are products of social conditioning, biological makeup[ temperament] and training. And our actions are driven by different motives that we are not the originators.

That we should be punished for our actions, is in my view, a religious idea and the main reason the churches, especially those that preach hell exist. They wouldn’t justify their hell if they accepted the fact of determinism. And we should change our motives for punishment. As a determinist, I believe, training is a better way to modify behaviour. Jails have failed to achieve this. We should bring down those walls. We should improve human societies. An unequal society breeds discontent.

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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

38 thoughts on “Free will: do we have it?

  1. Your definition of freewill is the same as mine. Show me actions, thoughts, decisions, beliefs, mannerisms, that are not caused by any previous conditioning, biological and/or environmental, and perhaps we can have a discussion. I’ve yet to see such an argument other than a religious one which claims we have invisible souls that control us and can disconnect from us at death. I’ve seen nothing to convince me this is even remotely true. Discussions on freewill are as predictable to me as the sunrise. I’ve heard nothing original on this matter in decades. Now, I’m off to the will store to buy a few 50 cent wills. I do wish some of them were free, but I’ve yet to find one.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Swarn Gill says:

    Excellent critique here mak. I too am in agreement with your conclusion. I personally think that the notion of free will is actually one of the more dangerous ones in existence because it seems to be at the root of so many harmful ideas while mischaracterizing human behavior rather badly. If the idea of free will were to vanish I honestly believe we would find ourselves in a much more compassionate world. Belief is part of our evolution and even has some advantages. Free will is completely our invention and so ingrained is this idea into us that even many secular people I know would have a hard time accepting that we don’t have free will. While I know numerous physicists, biologists, geologists who are theist (perhaps only lightly so) but there is one type of scientist that I have never met who was a theist and that’s a neuroscientist. Well I know that’s just anecdotal, but those who truly study the brain, have a hard time holding on to this idea of free will which is central to many religious beliefs.

    I found the argument “We end up with an imperfect, non-deterministic game, one in which the result of any balls being set in motion becomes quite uncertain.” to be rather weak and a little reminiscent of the intelligent design argument which is to say well this seems far too complex to be explained by science, therefore God must be the answer. There is no part of pool that isn’t completely explainable by physics, the fact that we would have a hard time predicting where all the balls will go and what paths they will take, doesn’t in any way make it non-deterministic, it just means it’s difficult to do.

    The argument is deductive over inductive as well because the person making the argument accepts the existence of hell and reasons for sending someone there as fact thus has to see free will as truth as well or else their foundational beliefs fall apart. Because as you correctly point out, punishing people in hell if there isn’t free will wouldn’t make sense.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Swarn Gill says:

        Great article…thanks John!

        Like

      • Swarn Gill says:

        I do find the results surprising by the way. For me, knowing that I don’t have free will and that I am the result of a deterministic system doesn’t reduce my happiness, or feel like it makes me blameless. My values and morals even if given to me through the influences in my life, simply mean that I can also have compassion for those who didn’t have those influences, or who had an unlucky genetic makeup. But more importantly just because things are deterministic, like the pool example, the variables are too numerous for me to even solve myself, or anybody else. Life remains a mystery, I don’t know what I’m going to do next and more importantly I don’t know what other balls are going to collide with me and change me through that interaction. I don’t know what societal changes, what traumatic events, what moments of pure joy will come my way, all of which can impact who I am. I suspect that I am not alone in this attitude either, so I don’t know, I question those studies to a certain degree. I guess it is in my nature to be skeptical as well. lol

        Liked by 1 person

        • john zande says:

          the variables are too numerous for me to even solve myself, or anybody else. Life remains a mystery, I don’t know what I’m going to do next and more importantly I don’t know what other balls are going to collide with me and change me through that interaction.

          That’s interesting, and true. For good or bad, it also seems to lend credence to the idea that we are avatars inside a simulation. What this however actually means, I really have no idea.

          Liked by 1 person

        • makagutu says:

          And you see, all these variables come from the outside. Sources of joy or pain all come from outside.
          Life, as you rightly say, is a mystery. If you are a pessimist, life is to be endured, an optimist, life is to be enjoyed, a realist, shit happens

          Liked by 1 person

          • Canine Migration says:

            What if the variables are not outside acting inward but rather reaction or reciprocity to inward activity?

            Like

          • makagutu says:

            The feeling only is internal. But it is acted upon from the outside

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          • Canine Migration says:

            Which is saying that everything we do is completely controlled right? That’s the argument posed? That no free will means zero autonomy, zero agency?

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          • makagutu says:

            Not controlled. Have causes.

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          • makagutu says:

            Brilliant piece. Thanks John

            Liked by 1 person

          • “Brilliant piece.” That’s what she said.

            Like

          • Canine Migration says:

            If so, there can be no internal feeling? The internal feeling is an external implant, if you will?

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          • makagutu says:

            I said feelings are internal. Things that act on it are external.
            I will supply an example: you see a sick guy on the street and you are moved to pity. The feeling of pity is internal, the stimulant is external.

            Like

          • Canine Migration says:

            Right. So ? is, if one is anti-free will, one believes the feelings are real or unreal? If theyre real, I say that contradicts their argument, if unreal and controlled by a god, then they’re all batshit

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          • makagutu says:

            Feelings are real and we have no control over them.

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          • We actually do.

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          • makagutu says:

            Give me an example

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          • You can change how you feel about things many ways depending on what makes you feel. Learn more, eat better, change jobs, exercise, move…or you can just choose not to care at all. By the same tiken,a lack of self care can increase feelings or induce feelings based on delysion: love, hate, religious fervor.

            My point is that if we have no control over feelings, then free will is not real. I don’t believe that is true. I think we very much have free will. I.do not think.it is controlled by a god, I do not believe it has to be a slave to feelings, which we do have built in, but are not ultimately powerless against.

            So those who say we do not have free will, I disagree with on fact and principle; but also because their argument is ineffective since their argument is supposedly controlled by some being they can’t prove.

            If you do believe in it, then you have to accept full control. Saying you act on a feeling you can’t control means your will is not indeed free.

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          • makagutu says:

            I said in the beginning how feel is determined by external stimuli. When you see a picture of a suffering person, you don’t deliberate whether you will feel pity or envious. It comes automatically depending on your personality. There are those who almost have lost all sense of feeling.

            I have not spoken of gods. I have no belief in them.

            I will say again feelings are caused by external stimuli or sometimes in the imagination. And we can’t control them.

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          • With on 1st part, part with you on the 2nd part 🙂

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    • makagutu says:

      There is nothing to add here.
      You express my sentiments very well and with more clarity

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Having been a minister of religion for quite a while before I woke up, I became the object of peer doubt and ridicule, for refusing to subscribe to a dogmatic acceptance of free will, something in such a sharp contrast with any logical thought, that it should hurt even a slab of concrete. But to my utter dismay, the same logic revealed that if “faith” comes anywhere close to the equation, the results shall clone the intruding thought. Since each and every individual lives as inescapable part of a molecularly communicating network of seen and unseen, nevertheless existant forms of energy, every act becomes therefore the intricately complex movement of one common “mass” of energy. We have each and every one the free will, autonomy and independence of a red blood cell, carrying back and forth the indispensable chemistry which sustains one body. When we will understand this, we will have understood life. The problem starts when one cell starts emphasising its uniqueness in an exclusive manner above others, growing alone…
    It’s called cancer.

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  4. shelldigger says:

    Yeah, this guy has a piss poor argument. You did a good job of pointing out his error.

    Nowadays I am more and more inclined to agree with free will being illusory, my conversion is progressing.

    Pardon me while I go flip the light switch on and off for a while. Perhaps there I will find that last little bit to push me over the edge entirely… It is the little things that still bug me. 🙂 I can see most scenarios having cause, but whimsy is still trying to hang on for dear life.

    Like

  5. Canine Migration says:

    Maybe a stupid question, but if we can question free will, doesn’t that affirm it?

    Like

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