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Does Free Will Exist?

February 19, 2013

The debate over whether free will exists has been going on for centuries and I have to admit I’m really not sure why.  I would suggest that perhaps part of the problem lies in the propensity of some to switch their definition of free will in mid discussion.  The concept of volition, which I define as the ability to make a choice when presented with two or more alternatives, often seems to be confused with the metaphysical question of whether an individual can truly make choices for which he can be held accountable in the afterlife.  The discussion may begin with one definition, switch to the other, and then switch back again, all depending on the agenda of the particular person involved.  In the following few paragraphs I will attempt to address the question of whether free will exists.

There is no doubt that the illusion of free will exists, particularly if one chooses to use volition as a synonym.  In other words, when offered a choice between an apple and a pear there is no doubt that the individual being referenced is capable of choosing one fruit over the other.  The fundamental question is whether in making that choice the individual is doing so of his own free will.   My answer is no.

When one considers the fact that free will can only exist in a vacuum, which negates the necessity and efficacy of making a choice in the first place, one realizes that actual free will does not exist.  The reason is because free will can only exist when the being in question has created itself.  If one has not created himself and his environment then free will, in the larger sense, is simply impossible.  We are all a product of nature and nurture, without even throwing in the possibility of a God.  If we are a product of something else, even if one wishes to include the possibility of God, than we are not a product of ourselves.  If we are not a product of ourselves than we cannot have determined the basis on which we make our choices, rather the basis on which we make those choices is a creation of whoever created us.  This is true whether that “creator” be nature/nurture or nature/nurture/God.  I really don’t see any other way of looking at it.  To return to my example of choosing between an apple and a pear, the apparent free choice is not really the individual’s to make, but is based on factors outside that individual’s control.

There are those who simply ignore this logic due to what they see as the negative consequences of accepting that free will does not exist.  I reject that position, among others, for several reasons.  In the first place, I can’t change the truth based on whether or not I wish it to be true.  In the second place, I don’t agree with the view that by accepting the fact that there is no such thing as free will that one must therefore conclude that the individual cannot be held responsible for his actions.   It is on the latter assertion that I wish to focus the rest of the article.

If we accept that we are a product of nature and nurture (genetics and environment), than it is on those two factors which we must focus our attention when considering how to reward “good” behavior and punish “bad” behavior.  In other words, once one understands that free will does not exist, it becomes more, not less, important to hold individuals responsible for their actions.  This is a view diametrically opposed to the one which suggests that, in the absence of free will, the individual concerned should not be held responsible for his actions.   I would suggest that this contrary view fails to take into account the importance of the influence of the environment in the decision making process.  This understanding that the environment, including how one’s behavior is either rewarded or punished, has a major effect on one’s actions is nothing new.  It is the notion that it has no effect which seems to have surfaced rather recently.

If we look at the nature (genetic) side of the equation, the same types of conclusions as I discussed above become similarly unavoidable.  The problem is that science has caught up with philosophy, and thus we not only have the understanding, but the means, to put theory into practice.  In so doing, science has once again forced us to determine not whether we can do something, but whether we should.  It thus becomes a moral question, much more than a scientific one.  Certainly there is no denying that valid concerns do exist as to the degree one should put this knowledge into practice.

In writing this article I have attempted to address the topic, and assorted related questions, in as concise and coherent a fashion as I possibly could.  My desire to limit the length of the article means that I have necessarily relied on the intelligence, as well as the critical thinking skills, of my target audience.  There are certainly additional related questions which could have been included and remain available for future articles and discussions.    In an effort to condense things even further I provide a short outline of the important points below:

There is no such thing, in the larger sense, as free will.

Free will is not the same thing as volition.

The illusion of free will is often accepted as evidence of free will.

Free will cannot exist because one does not create himself and thus one is a product of factors beyond his control.

Lack of free will does not suggest one should not be held accountable for one’s actions.

All societies have intuitively accepted, and acted upon, the premises which I have outlined in the article.

There is a danger, as with any tool, that these premises can be used for evil as well as good.

Thank you for your interest.

(This article was previously posted to another column April 2012)



From → Moral Reasoning

  1. I agree with your analysis and would like to add something else. When we put someone in jail, it is irrelevant whether this person is “responsible” or “to blame” for his or her actions. We put them in jail because they are a danger to society (because of the possibility of repeating those actions) and as a deterrent for other people who may be tempted to perform those actions. Therefore, the issue of responsibility regarding free will (if they have no free will, how can we punish them?) is based on a defective understanding of the societal contract.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree with your point, but it doesn’t quite cover every eventuality. In other words, let’s assume what you say is right about jail, it doesn’t cover less serious breaches of cultural memes or decorum. In those cases, behavior is modified without the individual being physically isolated from everyone else, but through a serious of rewards and punishments, the behavioral modification theory for which BF Skinner is widely known. What I don’t believe he appreciated was the role that genetics play, but that’s a whole different subject for another day.

      Thanks again

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