On free will

First a thought experiment

Buridan’s Ass

an ass

A donkey who is much happier than the one in our experiment. (Wikimedia Commons)

Variations on this experiment date back to antiquity, this formulation was named after the philosopher Jean Buridan, whose views on determinism it ridicules.

Imagine a donkey placed precisely between two identical bales of hay. The donkey has no free will, and always acts in the most rational manner. However, as both bales are equidistant from the donkey and offer the same nourishment, neither choice is better than the other.

Question: How can it choose? Does it choose at all, or does it stand still until it starves?

If choices are made based on which action is the more rational one or on other environmental factors, the ass will starve to death trying to decide on which to eat- as both options are equally rational and indistinguishable from one another. If the ass does make a choice, then the facts of the matter couldn’t be all that determined the outcome, so some element of random chance or free will may have been involved.

It poses a problem for deterministic theories as it does seem absurd to suppose that the ass would stand still forever. Determinists remain split on the problem that the ass poses. Spinoza famously dismissed it while others accept that the donkey would starve to death. Others argue that there is always some element of a choice that differentiates it from another one.

and a guardian article


What Does It Mean to Have Free Will?

Freedom is a mystery ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Is the title of a post by Joseph Laporte.

Since the post by Joseph is quite long, I will only attempt to respond to the first section. the second section where he tries to reconcile Scotus and Aquinas, I will leave to theologians, but I encourage you to read it if you have time. But before I do that, I would want to define freedom of will as other philosophers have done.

While not defining freewill, Sam Harris in his book, Freewill, writes

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

and for the moment we will leave it at that.

In a prize winning essay on Freewill, Schopenhauer defines freedom as

simply the absence of everything that impedes or obstructs

He goes further to note there are three distinct notions of freedom, viz;

  1. physical freedom- which is the absence of material obstacles of any kind. In this physical meaning, animals or humans are free when no physical, material obstacle impedes their actions
  2. intellectual freedom
  3. moral freedom- is simply whether we act out of necessity

Schopenhauer in his exposition on freedom, argues further that

a free will would be one that was determined by nothing at all.

Leaving Schopenhauer momentarily, I turn to Chapman Cohen, who says of the freewill believer, that they hold

intentional action is the unconditioned expression of absolutely free beings, and is what it is because of the selective action of an undetermined will.

You will allow two more instances to refer to Schopenhauer and D’Holdbach before we look at the post by Joseph. D’Holdbach writes

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.”

while Schopenhauer in almost the same line of thinking, writes

[A]s little as a ball on a billiard table can move before receiving an impact, so little can a man get up from his chair before being drawn or driven by a motive. But then his getting up is as necessary and inevitable as the rolling of a ball after the impact. And to expect that anyone will do something to which absolutely no interest impels them is the same as to expect that a piece of wood shall move toward me without being pulled by a string.

I have gone to great length in defining what other philosophers who have written about freewill have written to help give the issue some clarity. We can now look at the work by Joseph.

He, while referring to tradition by St. Augustine, says to act freely is to act without constraints. He says, per Augustine,

the mark of freedom is to be able to bring about an effect as an “uncaused cause.”

The question we must ask at this point is whether such is possible? Do you know of a scenario in your life or of your neighbour’s life when an act of will was without cause? That there was no desire, no motive? You acted without cause or does ignorance of proximate cause translate to no cause?

The same originalist position, Joseph tells us, is shared by Dons Scotus, who argued

we are “total cause” of what we freely will.

To this statement of Dons Scotus, I, following Schopenhauer must ask, can we will what we will?

The other school of thought is represented by Thomas Aquinas who Joseph tells us argued that you choose to act but god causes you to make that choice. The school that has developed for an interpretation of this line of thought has become known us

“freedom-for-excellence” — freedom understood as acting virtuously for true human happiness.

I find it quite illogical, as Joseph writes about Aquinas, that

 God causes me to choose whatever I choose to do, but I still do what I do freely.

In which universe would one call this freedom? Introducing god to the equation does not make it any easier. How does one know their choice is the action of a god? To be truly free, as the volitionist would have us believe, we would have to be the causa sui of our actions.

How does acting virtuously for true human happiness amount to having free will as Joseph would want us believe when he writes

Here behavioral scientists could appeal to freedom-for-excellence as an example of one genuine kind of freedom that seems compatible with my being caused to act as I do

Keep in mind freedom for excellence is where god does the choosing and you do the acting. In this causal chain, whatever the outcome, one must be a contortionist to see this as a case of freedom.

I am not sure, when Joseph writes that

Freedom-for-excellence is a genuine kind of freedom; it is a kind of freedom worth having

if he is still talking about freewill or, he, like compatibilists Marvin and Dennett, is arguing for a freedom worth having. Freedom worth having brings us no closer to an understanding of freewill. It tells us nothing of what freewill is.

I don’t see how Joseph, can still maintain he is talking about freewill when he believes

 [P]inckaers says we act freely when we act virtuously to achieve excellence, even though we are forced to conform to moral laws. These laws enhance freedom, rather than spoiling it, because by conforming our behavior to them we are able to achieve excellence, in the same way that by conforming our behavior to grammar rules we are able to achieve linguistic excellence.

For, by accepting the effect of laws on our actions or as would say, manifestations of the will, he is moving over to the determinists’ position. In this case, therefore, there is a contradiction in his position that he should address. If we are, as he argued earlier, originalists, then the action of laws are irrelevant. On the other hand, if there are laws or even a god influence in our actions, the argument for uncaused cause is no longer be sustainable.

It is quite evident in Joseph’s and the church fathers’ insistence on freewill comes from this theological problem, that

 if God is the cause of my actions, and if I choose to do evil, then it appears that God is the cause of my evil actions. How, then, could anyone be allowed to suffer punishment, much less eternal punishment? We’re just victims of circumstances and events outside our control.

As I said at the beginning, I see no need in trying to respond to his attempts at reconciling Dons Scotus and Aquinas for both positions do little to advance the cause of free will. I contend further that Joseph has not only failed to tell us what freewill is, but has also failed to demonstrate that it is possible. He has instead tried to reconcile the theological problem stated above which it is my contention he cannot get away from without altering the meaning of words, that is, talking gibberish.

If you have read this post up to this point, know you could not have acted otherwise than you did.

Difficult questions for atheists 

Over at Nate’s, there is discussion going on regarding questions UncleE thinks are problematic to an atheistic worldview.

First, I have been reliably informed by my friends atheism has no content other than a lack of belief in deities, whatever these are. This is to say, you should give a reason for any position you take. Being an atheist cannot be one of them.

With that introduction, the question posed by UncleE, can be dismissed as not being problematic to atheism. 

I will indulge UncleE though. His question

Do we have free will? If so, how? If not how can any choice be based on evidence rather than brain processes?

First, I will mention what Bob said the other day. We cannot have absolutist answers on questions that are not amenable to proof one way or another. I am a freewill skeptic and will remain so till I am convinced otherwise. 

I think the question is a false dilemma. Isn’t evaluation of reasonableness a brain process? And how are we to tell that a thing is not a brain process? 

This question is not a problem for atheism. To the best of my knowledge, Marvin is an atheist and a compatibilist same as Dennett. 

I am hoping UncleE will ask better questions in future. 

on free will

Mary whose blog does not have a comments section tells us

Yes, God is loving and omnipotent, but it doesn’t mean that He will wipe out evil. God wants us to make a free decision of will. Man is the crowning glory of God’s creations. Man is the only creation given a free will. All other creations, living and non-living, are here to serve. They provide man with a means to live so that man can focus on the real purpose of his earthly life, that is, to return to God of his own volition. Just as the Tree of Knowledge existed to test the will of Adam and Eve, evil exists to test the will of their descendants.

I don’t know about you, but where I come from where people are both not all loving and omnipotent, they do their best to reduce suffering. Try imagine going for an operation with anesthesia!

Mark Brady is the True Christian™ kind of fellow. He knows you are going to hell if you don’t have Jesus H in your life and it is for eternity plus 1!

And finally, Shepherds [sheep comes to mind] Chapel tell us god allows people to hurt each other because, you guessed right, freewill.


Evil and omnipotence