On free will

by Voltaire.

Before you say not again, Voltaire argues that all our actions are caused. And when there are two competing activities, the dominant idea will take precedence. He writes

The will, therefore, is not a faculty that one can call free. A free will is an expression absolutely void of sense, and what the scholastics have called will of indifference, that is to say willing without cause, is a chimera unworthy of being combated.

Free will by Voltaire

He concludes by saying we can only do what we will, but we can not will what we will do.

Schopenhauer in his essay on Freewill wrote

A free will would therefore be one that was not determined by grounds; and since everything determining something else must be a ground ± a real ground, i.e., a cause, in the case of real things ± a free will would be one that was determined by nothing at all. The particular manifestations of such a will (acts of will) would therefore proceed absolutely and quite originally from itself,without being brought about necessarily by antecedent conditions, and thus without being determined by anything according to a rule. In the case of such a concept clear thinking is at an end because the principle of sufficient reason in all its meanings is the essential form of our whole faculty of cognition, yet here it is supposed to be given up. However, we are not left without even a terminus technicus for this concept; it is liberum arbitrium indifferentiae. Moreover, this is the only clearly determined, firm, and settled concept of that which is called freedom of the will. Therefore one cannot depart from it without falling into vague and hazy explanations behind which lurks a hesitant insufficiency, as when one speaks of grounds that do not necessarily bring about their consequents. Every consequence of a ground is necessary, and every necessity is a consequence of a ground. From the assumption of such aliberum arbitrium indifferentiae, the immediate consequence that characterizes this concept itself and is therefore to be stated as its mark is that for a human individual endowed with it, under given external circumstances that are determined quite individually and thoroughly,two diametrically opposed actions are equally possible.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will

May you will what you will in this coming year!

If you have time, I suggest this post. The history of the free will problem

About makagutu

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

56 thoughts on “On free will

  1. ladysighs says:

    NO KIDDING! When I saw the topic Free Will, I said to myself ….. can’t we just move on from this. lol
    Your first sentence confirmed my sentiment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. john zande says:

    BBC had a BRILLIANT doco on today about free will. Summed it up beautifully. Of course, I go to try and find it and found this, which is by the same reporter, has the same people in it, but it’s NOT the doco that they showed today. I’m guessing this is the first.



  3. Before making statements of any kind one might ask are they based on ones own authenticity or are they just statement to provoke a discussion? If the former applies then it all depends with which school of philosophy one prefers to be associated with! I am always peeved about statements and quotations that are removed from the personal philosophical view.
    The existentialist for example is quite clear that we are dammed to unending freedom by the fact of being indeterminate beings, existing in a perpetual temporal flight away from the past towards the future. Existentialists are of the convictions that human consciousness is essentially temporal, that implies that human consciousness is necessarily free. Simply put, only in the mind absolute freedom of will can be had!


    • makagutu says:

      Following Kant, the will can be said to be the thing in itself and in that sense it is absolutely free. But when we come to the world of experience/ phenomena, we must be guided by the principle of sufficient reason.
      And on to your first point, I think, as others have argued, that to ask ourselves questions and answer them, we clarify our ideas.


  4. If I may correct Schopenhauer and my friend Voltaire, the “free” in “free will” does not refer to some kind of “free floating will”. That’s a bit silly. What it refers to is our ability to freely choose for ourselves what we will do. Free will is literally a freely chosen “I will”.

    We see this in our everyday language: “What WILL I have for lunch today?”, “WILL I have the Chef Salad?”, or “WILL I have the Quarter-Pounder with Cheese?” “I’ve had salads all week, so, I WILL have the cheeseburger today”.

    Having set our intent (will) upon the cheeseburger, that intent then motivates and directs our subsequent actions. We drive to McDonalds and place our order for the cheeseburger. Before handing us our lunch, the McDonald’s guy asks us for the money (holding us responsible for our deliberate act), then we take our lunch and eat it, fulfilling our freely chosen “I WILL have the cheeseburger”.

    This notion of a freely chosen “WILL” is used when assessing moral and legal responsibility. It’s opposite is when our will is not freely chosen by us, but instead imposed upon us by someone or something else. For example, a mugger points a gun at you and demands you hand over your wallet. He forces you to submit your will to his, which is why this is not a freely chosen “I will”, but rather one forced upon you against your will by someone else.

    And that is all that is meant by “free will”. The question of whether you have it or not depends upon whether it is you or someone or something else that is controlling what you choose to do.

    Most people understand and correctly apply this notion. But philosophy has imposed a paradoxical definition in its place which continues to puzzle philosophers to this day. Fortunately, regular people, that is those who have not been infected with the paradox, understand and correctly apply this practical definition.


    • makagutu says:

      Marvin, I don’t think I understand you at all. You have not made the discussion easier. You talk of a chosen will. Are there alternatives will to choose from or is willing the choosing act? It seems to me fair to say that the issue for you is a definitional one and as such we are on different positions. I would like to know what you think is the common/ regular people understanding of freewill.


      • Free will is when we choose for ourselves what we will do, while free of coercion and other forms of undue influence, such as a significant mental illness, or hypnosis, or manipulation, etc.
        That is the definition used when assessing a person’s moral or legal responsibility for their actions. And that is the commonly understood and correctly applied meaning of the term outside of philosophy.
        You’ll find this confirmed by several research studies including:
        1. http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf
        2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027714001462
        3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13164-009-0010-7
        The philosophical definition, on the other hand, is a choice that is “free of causal necessity”. But causal necessity is nothing but good ol’ reliable cause and effect, something that everyone already takes for granted. But the hard determinist “weaponizes” cause and effect, turning it into something that robs us of all control and all freedom. Its a bit of superstitious nonsense that cannot reasonably be the definition of anything.
        What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. It is basically what we would have done anyway. So, it is neither a meaningful nor a relevant constraint, it is not something that we can, or need to be free of.
        The philosophical definition is a strawman. But it is used to undermine the operational definition of ordinary free will. And in doing so it undermines our sense of responsibility for our own choices and actions. The net effects of this campaign against reason has also been studied, as described in this paper:http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf
        So, that’s the problem as I see it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • makagutu says:

          I can begin to see a problem here. When you are talking about coercion or undue influence, you seem to me stuck at physical freedom which is not the subject of this discussion. The question is whether our actions are uncaused, to put it simply. To will and to act can be treated as synonyms. It is only through action than we can know someone. And you seem to argue that it is only human actions that are free from causes.
          I also don’t see how you arrive at this

          But the hard determinist “weaponizes” cause and effect, turning it into something that robs us of all control and all freedom. Its a bit of superstitious nonsense that cannot reasonably be the definition of anything.

          We are the willing subjects, that is not in doubt. It is not some abstract being willing for us. The question simply is whether the phenomena of the willing being is free of causes and it ain’t.


          • I believe the issue in the determinism “versus” free will debate is about where the control is located. The hard determinist argues that the control of our choices/actions is located in the past and in the laws of nature. But the control is actually located in us in the present. What we in the present choose to do causally determines what we will do (our future). And doing what we will do causally determines what we just did (our past).

            There are no uncaused events. The issue is what is the most meaningful and relevant cause of an event. Every event has an infinite history of prior causes, going back to, well, the Big Bang is the conventional stopping point.

            But did the Big Bang decide what I would have for breakfast this morning? No. That would be superstitious nonsense. The Big Bang had no interest in my breakfast. Nor did it have the equipment, an intelligent brain, to “decide” anything. The equipment to decide what I would have for breakfast did not arrive in the universe until I did.

            We assign responsibility to the most meaningful and relevant causes of an event. To be meaningful, a cause must efficiently explain why something happened. To be relevant, a cause must be something that we could actually do something about. The Big Bang is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause of anything that any human ever does.

            The same can be said of Causation and Determinism. Causation never causes anything. Determinism never determines anything. These concepts are “descriptive”, not “causative”. They are concepts used to describe and explain the behavior of the actual objects and forces that constitute the physical universe. The laws of nature are also descriptive. They are not entities that go about causing things to happen. They simply describe the consistent patterns of behavior that science has observed in natural objects.

            This distinction is key, because we happen to be among those actual objects that exist in empirical reality and which go about in the world causing things to happen. The laws of nature are about us, and trees, and atoms, and planets and stars, and all the other “things” that actually exist and actually cause events to occur.

            Because we have brains, we exercise some control over what we cause to happen. Planets and stars don’t have brains. Neither do atoms and neurons. My computer has millions of transistors, but the behavior of the computer cannot be determined by examining the transistors. It can only be determined by examining the programs and observing the running processes.


            • makagutu says:

              You write

              The hard determinist argues that the control of our choices/actions is located in the past and in the laws of nature. But the control is actually located in us in the present.

              Isn’t the present determined by causes in the past? Motives, desires and all. The present is such a fleeting moment to be almost meaningless.
              On this point

              We assign responsibility to the most meaningful and relevant causes of an event. To be meaningful, a cause must efficiently explain why something happened. To be relevant, a cause must be something that we could actually do something about. The Big Bang is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause of anything that any human ever does.

              we are agreed and there is nowhere I have, in my writings on freewill, argued that the big bang is a meaningful explanation on whether i will have a banana or an orange.

              It can only be determined by examining the programs and observing the running processes.

              this is interesting.we tell so and so is a coward not because of one cowardly act but because of several cowardly acts.


              • The past does not exist in empirical reality. It only exists as a historical record or memory of the prior present. The future does not exist in empirical reality. It only exists in our imagination, in our predictions and in our planning. Only the present exists in empirical reality.

                All of our control exists in the present us. It is only by those past presents that have become integral to who and what we are here and now that the past can be said to have any influence at all.

                The past cannot skip over us in the here and now and bring about events without our knowledge and consent. The only past that has any influence is that which has become us.

                Thus, control, to the extent that we have any at all, is always located in us and in the here and now.

                The social sciences, like psychology and sociology, observe the behavior of intelligent species, and derive their “natural laws” from the consistent patterns of behavior that this class of objects displays.


                • makagutu says:

                  How long is the present? A microsecond? A second? An hour? All our actions are in the past. The future is yet to be realised. The past is all that is definite and it is what forms the basis of analysis.
                  We are the willing organism. I guess, we could be what Kant called the thing in itself. But as far as phenomena is concerned, they obey the law of cause and effect.


                  • Nan says:

                    All we have is NOW. Our actions are in the past and the future has not arrived. We learn from the past and can use this knowledge in an attempt to alter our future, but essentially, we have no control over even the next second.


                  • An unintelligent living organism, one that operates purely on instinct without thought, would be a willing organism. But intelligent species get to choose what they will do next. The choosing process comes up when there are two or more competing wills. The choosing selects and sets the specific will.


                    • makagutu says:

                      You are being unintelligible and falling into the category of people who think human actions are different from other species in kind and not in degree. What makes you think a dog doesn’t have to act on competing opportunities/choices?


                    • Dogs are an intelligent species. They dream, which means they have an imagination. And they make choices. They don’t have a language, at least not one that we understand, but they can respond to our language when trained to recognize and act on commands.


                    • makagutu says:

                      Where do you draw the line? The moth, mosquito or centipede?


                    • The distinction is between instinct and reason. Instinctive behavior is willful in that it is directed to a goal related to surviving, thriving, and reproducing. Try to catch a fly and it instinctively flies off. If it had to consciously decide to fly away, we’d catch it every time. Reasoning is slower than instinct. Reasoning requires a brain that can model reality and allows us to imagine many different ways to satisfy our biological needs and to choose among different desires, such as whether to get a job after graduating high school or whether to go to college.

                      Acquiring habits and skills requires conscious attention at the outset, but later require minimal attention. A toddler attends to where he puts his feet at first, but later runs around the house without thinking about it. Then we given him a pair of roller skates, and it starts over again. Then a bicycle. Then a car.

                      I don’t know enough about moths, mosquitoes, or centipedes to know whether they have any reasoning capabilities or whether it is all instinct.

                      My thermostat behaves instinctively. But I can behave reasonably.


                    • makagutu says:

                      I did not know thermostat have instincts.
                      You have not demonstrated that a dog has freewill. Nor shown that our action are only different in degree.


                    • Then we disagree. Nice talking with you again.


                    • makagutu says:

                      Nice seeing you again. Don’t disappear for too long, Marvin


        • makagutu says:

          I should add that I could entirely be wrong in assuming that the natural laws such as cause and effect also apply to human persons that while we don’t determine our birth, sex, or genes, we are born with a facility that is exempt from natural laws.


          • I presume perfectly reliable causation, but at least three distinct classes of causal mechanisms: physical, biological, and rational.

            Inanimate objects behave “passively” in response to physical forces. A bowling ball placed on a slope will always roll downhill, completely governed by the law of gravity.

            Living organisms behave “purposefully”, in that they are biologically driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. A squirrel placed on that same slope may go up, down, or any other direction where he expects to find his next acorn. He is not “governed” by gravity, but by his biological drives. This is where “purpose” emerges in the physical universe.

            Intelligent species can behave “deliberately”, by imagining alternate ways of satisfying their biological drives, evaluating which option is best, and choosing what it will do. This is where “free will” emerges in the physical universe.

            Thus, the universe can remain deterministic by assuming each of these causal mechanisms is reliable in its own domain and by asserting that every event is the reliable result of some combination of physical, biological, and/or rational causal mechanisms.


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