free will or not

September 13th, 2010

One of the classic topics for debate among us humans is the dilemma of free will. In a way I'm surprised that it comes up as much as it does, because I don't really think it's that interesting a question. In the sense that I don't see how we're making any progress on it.

It's as if everyone is convinced that we have free will, and yet... there is absolutely no empirical basis to think so. Never has anyone had the chance to go back in time and make a different decision. So why do we seem to think it must be so?

Here's the thing. It's my impression that much of the debate on free will is shaped by an unwillingness to really accept the premise of the question and take it to its logical conclusion.

All too often I've heard people argue things like "well if there is no free will, then people cannot be held responsible for their actions, so we should let everyone get away with it". What do you mean "let"? Here's the problem: our form of expression is basically based on the premise of free will. So to even discuss it without commiting a fallacy one has to be careful.

The whole "ethical problem" of determinism seems to me nothing more than a false dilemma. If the actor has no free will to commit a crime or not, then why are we debating the problem of "deciding" how to respond if we have no freedom of choice? If the actor has no choice, then neither do we, there is nothing to decide, there is no problem to solve. Whatever happens is purely a matter of inevitability, however much it may seem otherwise. If the crime commited was deterministic, then our post-fact discussion is deterministic and whatever action we will take is also deterministic. The only way there is a dilemma is if the other guy's actions were determined and yours somehow aren't. But that's not how the question is defined.

The free will topic also enters the religious domain often, and there too people make the same mistake. As in, if god is all powerful and all knowing, then he knows your future, thus your future is decided, thus "why are you praying to him hoping he will change his mind?" Wrong. If the future is decided then he has *already decided* that you will pray to him and that you will thank him etc, so your apparent gratitude to him is nothing else than him having decided to "program you" (if you will) to thank him.

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3 Responses to "free will or not"

  1. tante says:

    The ethical dilemma is that in our culture punishment is legitimized because it's the means to improve a person: The person did wrong and made a mistake so we punish (which is violence and against many definitions of human rights and dignity) a person to induce a change in future behavior. That falls away if the person did not chose so: You cannot blame somebody for something that he/she had no choice in.

    So we end up not being able to either punish unwanted behavior or we have to drop human rights (both sides of the equation are probably not a good idea).

    "Free will" is a belief. You cannot prove or disprove it, we just chose to believe it because many of our social norms and rules are based on the idea that a human choses between different options ("good"/"evil", "right"/"wrong").

  2. numerodix says:

    But you're arguing a strange type of determinism, don't you think? Okay, the person had no say in the matter. His actions were predetermined. But ours are not. So we are going to decide whether we have an impact on his future or not. Except.. either everything is determined or it's not. So the discussion is inconsequential. Ie. we are predestined to have this discussion about his punishment and whatever comes out of it is also determined.

  3. tante says:

    Well. Whether our discussion about punishment is predetermined or not, it _is_ happening. And the arguments for and against punishing don't change either way.