On free will

I think this quote below best illustrates how the freewill proponents see it. It is from one of the essays by Voltaire.

He writes 

I neither will to make my nest nor the contrary; it is a matter of complete indifference to me; but I am going to will to make my nest solely for the sake of willing, and without being determined to do it in any way, merely to prove that I am free.

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.

do we have freewill?

All men speak in bitter disapproval of the Devil, but they do it reverently, not flippantly; but Father Adolf’s way was very different; he called him by every name he could lay his tongue to, and it made everyone shudder that heard him; and often he would even speak of him scornfully and scoffingly; then the people crossed themselves and went quickly out of his presence, fearing that something fearful might happen.”
― Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger

That heading has nothing to do with this post. I like Mark Twain and I am currently reading the Mysterious Stranger.

Doug Smith wants to convince us the bible is a better source of information on neurology and psychology than what we have.

He claims Sam Harris has committed a fallacy of begging the question when he(Sam H) says

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.

Whereas it is true it is not possible to go back in time or be someone else, it is possible to see how a person has acted in every similar situation. An example will suffice. One of the politicians in this country has in every political situation been an opportunist. For this he has been branded YES/NO or watermelon. And I am sure an example can be found in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Smith tells us

The key experience we have is that we can decide what to do with our thoughts.[emphasis his]

But I disagree. I have thoughts like to dispatch the entire legislature. I can’t do it. I don’t have the means. I could be caught and jailed. All these are causes. They determine what I do or I don’t. To make the claim that the decision not to act is arbitrary is, in my view, either ignorance of what freewill is or a lack of engagement with the problem.

Smith then decides to create a distinction, that, I think, only makes sense to him and his followers. He writes

I think this distinction between our thoughts and our “self,” our choosing, deciding, intentional, willful self, is the key difference.

Maybe someone knows what difference he is referring to. I don’t know it. Between my thinking about vanilla ice cream and buying it, there is no gap. There are times I think I can do with ice cream but I don’t buy simply because I am not anywhere near an ice cream vendor.

I think, and I am not stretching it, that Doug has no idea what freewill is. He writes

However, none of these constraints invalidate the truth that most healthy people have the ability to evaluate options and make decisions using what we call free will.

I think it would be best for him to define what he means by freewill.

The determinist’s argument simply is that our actions have causes. I can actually go further that our thoughts are caused. They don’t originate with us. They are imposed on us by our surrounding, experiences, education and so on.

No one denies the argument, which most have claimed is the strongest challenge to determinism, that we experience the world as if we are free agents[emphasis mine]. We also experience the world around us as if it is flat. We feel as if the sun rotates around the earth. As Nannus would say, these are as if constructions. Just as we had to drop the illusion that we were a special creation, we shall have to do the same with the illusion of freewill.

Tolstoy says it best when he writes

It was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.

This argument

This leads me to why I believe that determinism is self-refuting, or collapses in on itself. If we really have no free will, then we couldn’t actually prove it, because our very reasoning processes depend on our ability to freely choose between options.

by Smith is faulty. In fact, it can be seen, by observation that our thoughts have causes. That my using the staircase instead of jumping from fifth floor, which is a choice, has a cause.

Smith writes

When we evaluate whether something is true, we should go through a process of logical reasoning. In that process, we seek to understand competing options, evaluate each option in the most reasonable way we know, and based on our evaluation, we make a decision about what we believe is the best option. This process itself requires free will: the ability to consider options and make a choice based on whatever criteria we believe is best.


This question is not made 5 when one says they have freewill. Freewill or lack of it is not necessary in evaluating whether a feather falls faster than a stone, in a vacuum. In fact, no amount of freewill will change the value of E=MC².

Smith then attacks evolution, in a roundabout way. He writes

However, if I don’t actually have free will, my ability to make a free choice in response to this question is an illusion. I think it’s even worse for determinists who follow a materialist evolutionary line of thought. If the way our minds work is just a byproduct of natural selection acting on random mutations, then the goal for which our minds were made was simply to survive and reproduce, not to be reasonable, rational, or logical.

And how is being rational not a survival trait? Those who barbaric end up dying before they can reproduce either in fights or jailed. They have no opportunity to pass on their genes. The believer arguing against evolution in this way, I believe, is ignorant about natural selection. And what is a materialist evolutionary line of thought anyway? Is there an immaterialist evolutionary line of thought or materialist non-evolutionary line of thought?

I agree our experience of freewill is real. The question has never been of experience. The question is whether our conclusion is correct and I think it is not. Our experience is based on an illusion.

I admit readily that the question of whether we have free will has very important implications for ethics, morality, and even theological systems. I don’t stop here though. I go ahead and suggest that given a determinist universe, we must change how we treat offenders.

I don’t think Smith made a case for freewill, neither did he respond to Sam Harris or even Daniel Kahneman. In fact, I think his treatment of the two is best represented  by this quote of B. Russell

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”


On freewill

It was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognise a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognise a dependence of which we are not conscious.

War and peace

By Count Leo Tolstoy

I will start by a confession. Many times when I write a review of an old book, that I guess many of you must have read, the question that comes to mind is you must be asking where I was when you read them. I wish I knew but I am reading them now and as my very important audience, I have to share with you the joy I draw from such books.

With that behind us, for those interested in what Kutuzov did or did not do, what happened to Helene the socialite the family affairs of Prince Bezukhov or Princess Mary and what led to the ruin of the Rostovs’, you can read the whole novel.

But those lazy ones, who are interested more in the questions of history or human nature, the epilogue will do. In the epilogue he asks what is power, what causes the movement of nations,  such as what led to the movement from the west to the east that ended with the taking of Moscow and the countermovement from East to west that ended in Paris?

The other important question, at least in my view, that he dispenses with is that of freewill. And I do not, for the life of me, know why it isn’t part of the literature in the freewill debate. His explanations are clear and almost irrefutable if not irrefutable.

At the end of the book, I begin to see why Fyodor Dostoevsky, would call him, Tolstoy, one of the greatest writers living. His was a brilliant mind. He combined story telling with psychology in a way that can only be compared to Dostoevsky’s works.

It’s a long read for the fainthearted but it is worth all the time you would take to finish ploughing through it.