bitbutter www

I think that most people who use the term free will have interentionist/libertarian free will in mind, so my answer will talk about this idea and ignore other versions such as the one offered by compatibilists.

Some people imagine that there’s a thing that takes part in human decision making called free will. They say that while our actions are certainly influenced by our past experience, and by desires which we haven’t chosen, free will ultimately decides what to do with these inputs—it decides whether or not to follow the path pointed to by our experience and desires or to veto that course of action and settle on another.

If this is really the case, on what basis does this free will choose whether or not to 'take control’? And when it does take control, how does it decide what to do?

It certainly can’t be reaching its decisions according to our desires or past experience, because these factors are already represented by the 'non-free’ part of our will. Free will, to earn its keep, must be operating differently. So what’s left as a basis for the decisions of free will? Maybe free will acts at random, but surely if that’s the case then it doesn’t seem to deserve to be called free at all.

I’ve yet to see an advocate of free will offer a sound answer to this question of how free will makes its decisions. If free will operates deterministically, its not free. If free will operates indeterministically its not free. And no mixture of determinism and indeterminism seems able to provide this kind of freedom either.

Until someone can explain what free will is without wiping out its fragile 'freedom’, it seems fair to say that free will is an incoherent concept.

Posted: September 16th 2008

See all questions answered by bitbutter


Free will is a concept that does nothing for me so I don’t bother with it (very much like I don’t bother with god belief).

What I do focus on instead is awareness. The commitment/motivation/determination to do something is an aspect of daily life that can be fraught with difficulty. Often we are stymied by our reluctance to follow through on our own motivations. Developments in cognitive psychology point in the direction that the problem is not that we aren’t motivated enough, but that our awareness of our motivation ebbs through time. Interestingly, one of the techniques to ensure awareness is talking to oneself (which is what prayer essentially is).

Some think this ebbing of awareness is related to the evolutionary event where our ancestors discovered the meat source of protein with its nutritive boost which allowed said ancestors to have more free time on their hands before the next kill. Cats, both big and small, evolved to sleep a great deal during the day to cope with this spare time while humans did not. In effect, we tend to nod on our feet, awareness wise, that is, we slack off from the intense state of being on the hunt.

I regard these findings and solutions to be much more worthy of my time than mucking around with what I regard as artificial concepts like free will.

Posted: August 11th 2008

See all questions answered by logicel

SmartLX www

In the absence of the supernatural, our will may very well not be “free”. So what?

A simple materialistic view is that every decision we make is the direct result of electrical activity in the brain resulting from the current state of the brain, the body and the world around it. The brain does not defy physics. Given the exact same circumstances an infinite number of times, one always makes the same decision. (This is difficult to test; give an ordinary person the same choice twice and for the second time he/she will remember the first, changing the circumstances.) This is determinism.

Inject the idea of quantum indeterminacy and the above may not be true. If a decision rests on a knife edge, the slightest difference in the position of an atom could hypothetically make it go the other way. This phenomenon is apparently random, however, and one cannot exert any control over it. It’s no kind of will at all.

Free will is effectively the idea that one can go against both of these systems and drive one’s own life in spite of the universe. Given that this would defy physics, it doesn’t seem plausible without invoking the supernatural.

So what does this mean? We all have will, of course. We can do the things we want, and choose not to do them if there’s a good reason. Importantly, we can take responsibility for our choices.

But can we choose what it is we want? We can indulge or deny our desires, but can we change them? I submit that we do what we do because of what we want. If we don’t do something we want, it’s because we want something else more. (This need not be selfish; we could want others to be happy.) What we want is determined by who we are, where we’ve come from and what’s going on around us. It’s cause and effect.

Here’s the big thing: it doesn’t matter. What difference does it make to our lives that there’s only one possible choice we can make if we don’t know what that choice is? We can only guess the future, so we do not have the authority to decide our destiny, let alone surrender to it. We just have to keep living and make it happen, whatever it is.

Posted: August 10th 2008

See all questions answered by SmartLX

brian thomson www

Well, what is “free will” anyway? How you feel about might depend on how you define it, and different people have different views on it. Does being an atheist mean that I am supposed to have a particular view on it? The following is from my viewpoint alone, and I would not try to speak for other people, atheist or not:

“Free will” was originally defined by the authors of some (not all) religions, and more recent examination of the concept has been in reaction to such definitions. From an atheistic viewpoint, is the concept actually required? In the Judeo-Christian worldview, “free will” has a specific meaning: an ability, granted to people by the god, that explains why some people are not believers, or do things that are not consistent with the god’s teachings. A “get-out clause”, in other words.

This is in spite of the god’s claims to be omnipresent and omnipotent, and the requirement that believers be mindless and submissive. You can see how we atheists might not accept such a definition. There has been much philosophical examination of the subject over the last few centuries, since the Enlightenment, by atheists and non-atheists alike. It’s far too much to re-hash here. Wikipedia might be a good place to start, though further reading would be required if you really want to get on top of the subject.

My personal view is that what we call “free will” is the outcome of our extremely complex thought processes, and that our decisions are connected to everything else we think and feel. In other words, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a “free will” that exists in isolation from the rest of our thought processes. We might think that our desires (“what we want”) are overriding more mundane concerns, but our desires are also the result of a thought process. I might decide to resist external influences and “think for myself”, but that decision, too, was influenced by other factors, and does not “stand alone”. So, I’m more concerned with behaving ethically – a subject covered extensively in other questions – than in exerting my “free will”, such as it is. I’m not hung up on the idea.

Still, I don’t think you will find a consensus that all atheists subscribe to – which happens quite a lot, since atheism is simply non-belief in gods, not a complete worldview that covers everything. Being an atheist doesn’t imply that one is a philosopher concerned with these ideas, any more than it implies that one is a cosmologist, an anthropologist, or an evolutionary biologist.

Posted: August 9th 2008

See all questions answered by brian thomson


Is your atheism a problem in your religious family or school?
Talk about it at the atheist nexus forum