Two Free Will refutations

There are many different ways that people define “free will”. This confusion over words is partly why the debate even continues. What I want to do is first give a small definition and refutation for those who are in a hurry.

Quick Refutation

The average person who has never read any philosophy about free will believes that free will is nothing more than the ability to “make choices”. By such a definition, you could try to argue that free will exists. This is not what the debate has been about. It has all been about the word “free” in “free will”. If people said they do things of their own will, then it makes sense, if they said that they do things of their free will, then they have not yet questioned what their will is “free” from.

Are your choices free from anything outside of your control? Some examples might be your preferences, emotions, beliefs, religion, personality, education, species, gender, or sexual orientation? If your answer is no, then you are starting to understand the problem.

Give an example of a choice that you consider “freely” willed. Does that choice have a cause? If it has a cause, that cause also has a cause which has a cause. The causes go back to before you existed. If you say that it has no cause, then you are also not the first cause. If you claim that you are the first cause of all your own choices, you believe you are a god and that your own existence did not have a cause.

Since you did not “choose” who your parents were or when they had sex, you can’t take credit for your existence, nationality, color, gender, or species. Understanding this will eliminate the “I am better than you!” attitude that many of us have sadly picked up from others around us.

Detailed Refutation

free will: “The power of making free choices unconstrained by external agencies” – Wordweb

free will: “freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention” – Merriam Webster

If someone can make a choice that is free or unconstrained of external agencies, including prior causes or divine intervention, then free will would be possible. Here are a few reasons why this is impossible.

First, since we cannot choose our genetics or where we are born and what parents we get, it is silly to say that we are free of the influence of these things. Our gender, along with all other attributes that describe our bodies will obviously have some effect on how we are viewed by other humans and what jobs we can work.

Second, all the things that we are taught by our parents, or teachers in school or the religion we grew up in will in some way effect our beliefs about things. Whether we like it or not, these things are chosen for us and we have no choice and no voice other than allowed by those who teach us and reward or punish us.

Third, pleasure and pain that come from things we do or that are done to us by something else are out of our control. I did not choose which foods taste good or bad to me. The pain that comes from hunger or being cut or burned are out of my control and I will avoid these things if I have the physical power.

These influences on our thinking that motivate our actions cannot be denied or ignored forever. If you agree or disagree with my refutation of free will and send me an email or comment on something, then you demonstrate that my act of writing this has caused some type of emotion in you. I hope it is a good one, but your response is out of my control and yours as well.

You may wonder what caused me to write this refutation. There are many causes of it. First, I cannot get any response out of most Christians other than “free will” whenever the problem of evil comes up. Second, the concept is easy enough for me to understand and explain. Third, the free will belief causes us to blame others for things that they had no choice but to do.

But I would say that most of all, the subject of human will and all the relevance it has in the debate about abortion is what made me feel I had no choice. I wanted to tear down this false belief. As it turns out, that is the entire point. When we make a choice, we always choose the option that we want if we are able. Since we don’t choose our own desires, we can never have a free will. It is not the “will” that is in question but rather the “free” part of “free will” that makes it impossible.

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8 Comments

  1. > Are your choices free from anything outside of your control? Some examples might be your preferences, emotions, beliefs, religion, personality, education, species, gender, or sexual orientation? If your answer is no, then you are starting to understand the problem.

    Choices are by definition free of outside control otherwise they are not choices. They can be influenced by outside factors but influence is not the same as control. Preferences are expressions of free will. To ‘prefer’ A over B is by definition an act of free will. It is the same as saying to choose A over B. Emotions affect us but do not control us in a free will universe. Beliefs can also be chosen. We can choose to believe X and choose to not believe Y. The same is true of religion. Personality is a measure of someone’s behaviour over time (are they kind or are they funny etc) and has no bearing on the subject of free will. Education affects the choices we make, but not our capacity to make choices. Species and gender are beyond our control. Sexual orientation is largely beyond our control, although sexual behaviour is not (one can be more attracted to men but choose to have sexual relationships with women).

    > Give an example of a choice that you consider “freely” willed. Does that choice have a cause?

    All choices must be free willed by definition, just as all social interactions must involve at least two people. If a choice was caused (causally determined) then it was not a choice it was a causal reaction. Chemicals reacting in a test tube might produce hydrogen gas. If this was caused then it is wrong to say the chemicals ‘chose’ to produce hydrogen gas. The gas was produced by a causal reaction, nit an act of free will. The same is true of human behaviour. If our actions and thoughts are the results of causal reactions then there is no room for choice. In a deterministic universe there can be no choices, so determinists must never use words like ‘choice’ or ‘prefer’ or ‘debate’ when describing themselves and the universe around them. To do so is as absurd as a chemist claiming the chemicals in his test tube are ‘choosing’ to react…… or that they ‘prefer’ to make hydrogen gas instead of some other gas…. or that they are ‘debating’ the issue of how best to react.

    A determinist cannot say ‘choices’ do not involve free will. A determinist must simply say choices do not exist.

    > First, since we cannot choose our genetics or where we are born and what parents we get, it is silly to say that we are free of the influence of these things.

    Being influenced does not automatically refute free will. One can choose to stop at a bar to have a drink because you are thirsty….. or one can choose to keep walking along the road despite your thirst. In both cases your thirst influences your choice.

    > The good taste of watermelon I feel was not something I chose. I will inevitably eat watermelon when I have the chance.

    Well, no you won’t. You may prefer to let someone else eat the watermelon even if you like the look of it. Most people enjoy sex but they do not inevitably have sex with everybody they fancy. Most people enjoy stand up comedy but they do not inevitably go out to watch stand up comedy every night. They choose not to.

    > The pain that comes from hunger or being cut or burned are out of my control and I will inevitably avoid these things if I have the physical power.

    Or you may choose not to. A lot of people choose to climb mountains or run marathons despite the knowledge that they will inevitably feel pain or hunger or exhaustion.

    > If you agree or disagree with my refutation of free will and send me an email or comment something, then you demonstrate that my act of writing this has caused some type of emotion in you.

    That does not refute free will. Free will does not mean we are immune from feeling emotions based on the world around us.

    > I hope it is a good one, but your response is out of my control and yours as well.

    A response implies choice. We can choose how we respond, or whether we respond at all. If there is no choice then we might call it a reaction rather than a choice (although in everyday language the words are often interchangeable).

    Declaring free will is an illusion is itself a declaration of free will. Suppose your computer (which we agree lacks free will) claimed to have free will. This claim is an assertion of free will. The computer is claiming to be capable of acting outside of its programming (outside of strict causality). Most people would not take the computer’s claim seriously and would assume the computer was just doing what it was programmed to do… in this case display the sentence “I have free will”.

    Now suppose the computer claimed “I do not have free will and everything I do is determined by my software, hardware and my programming (and any external inputs)”. This claim is ALSO a claim of free will, even though it appears to be claiming the opposite. Either the computer is merely programmed to display those words, in which case no actual claim is being made….. or the computer is really making that claim despite it’s own programming etc – in which case it is expressing free will in order to make this claim.

    In a deterministic universe people are just as much slaves to their software, hardware and programming and any other external inputs as computers are. So when a human claims to have no free will they are acting the same as a computer making that same claim. They are asserting their ability to act with free will.

    A true determinist (much like a computer) cannot ever use the words like ‘choice’, ‘prefer’, ‘debate’ etc…. and they can never make any claims of objective truth. The moment they do they are asserting the ability to act with free will.

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    1. “A determinist cannot say ‘choices’ do not involve free will. A determinist must simply say choices do not exist.”

      Yes, the truth is that a determinist understands that choices don’t actually exist.

      When I talk about choices in my writing, it is to help introduce the concept to people who truly do believe they have choices.

      I like your comment because you actually read my post and responded. Some people just write some like like “God gave us free will you stupid atheist!”

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      1. > Yes, the truth is that a determinist understands that choices don’t actually exist.

        Right, but there are two problems with this.

        The first is that determinists never give up using words like ‘choice’, ‘prefer’ ‘debate’ etc in their daily lives. They carry on as if they (and everybody else) have choices (free will) even though they claim non of us do. A determinist should give up saying things like “I chose to go to Spain on holiday this year” because that statement is a declaration of free will. It’s like an atheist declaring there is no God while continuing to go to church and pray to God and always talking about how God watches over us all. If I claim humans have no legs I have to at least give up walking! 😉

        The second problem is that determinists claim determinism to be Objectively True (ie a FACT). If ou ask a determinist if free will exists they will say “No”. This means they have asserted a preference for A (determinism) over B (free will). This is itself an act of free will…. which is to say, they are asserting the ability to choose A over B. If their claim is NOT the result of free will and no choice is involved then it is NOT a claim of objective truth, it is merely the result of a causal process.

        To illustrate this point, imagine two signposts at the bottom of a mountain. One says “determinism” and one says “free will”. Now imagine a rock tumbling down the hill. Let’s assume the rock’s path is determined by strict causality and it strikes one of the signs when it gets to the bottom. If it hits the signpost which says ‘determinism’ this is not the same as the rock asserting determinism to be objectively true (even if the rock was conscious). A determinist who claims the universe is deterministic is really no different to the rock hitting the sign “determinism”. Both are governed by strict causality (according to determinism theory). So if the rock or the determinist human claim “determinism” is an assertion of Objective Truth and that they have chosen “determinism” (TRUE) over “free will” (FALSE) they have asserted free will. They have basically said “I have stepped outside the realm of strict causality to make sure I choose”determinism” over “free will”. They are saying “Regardless of the laws of causality I have made sure to strike the signpost which says “determinism” and avoid the signposts which says “free will””.

        So if determinists truly believe choices do not exists they can never ‘choose’ or ‘prefer’ determinism over free will when it comes to debating which is objectively true. In a deterministic universe there can be no preferred states, no objective truth, no debating because there is no choice.

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      2. Actually, the way I see it is that preferences are the reason choices don’t exist. Since we are inclined to do that which brings us the most positive feelings or happiness, that is what keeps us bound in our ways unless another cause outside of ourselves pushes us in a different direction. The same can be said of that rock.

        And if there is anything that can be thought of as objective truth, it would have to be the law of cause and effect.

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    2. “Being influenced does not automatically refute free will. One can choose to stop at a bar to have a drink because you are thirsty….. or one can choose to keep walking along the road despite your thirst. In both cases your thirst influences your choice”

      The action would be entirely determined by how strong the thirst was and if you had the money to buy a drink.

      The only way to choose against an influence would be another influence which cancels out the first influence. In either case, a choice is not actually being made because we are not in control of it.

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      1. > The action would be entirely determined by how strong the thirst was and if you had the money to buy a drink.

        Well, not if the person chose to go against those factors. A person could choose to die of thirst rather than drink a glass of water just to prove determinism to be false.

        > The only way to choose against an influence would be another influence which cancels out the first influence. In either case, a choice is not actually being made because we are not in control of it.

        If a choice is not being made then you cannot say a choice was made. You cannot define ‘choice’ in terms of ‘no choice’. You can say choice does not exist, but you cannot claim choices are not choices.

        Like I said, determinists must reject the concept of ‘choice’ and stop using the word ‘choice’ in everyday interactions. You can’t just carry on choosing things and then claiming your choices are causally determined.

        You can claim elephants do not exist, or that elephants are an illusion, but you cannot claim the word ‘elephant’ mean a ‘non-elephant’. That’s intellectually dishonest because it is subverting language to win an argument.

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      2. It is all in the definition of what someone means by the word “choice”. If they believe that they were free to do other than what they actually did in a past situation, then they believe it was actually a choice. However, some people admit that they could not have done otherwise but still refer to it as their choice out of habit and because they don’t fully understand what they are saying.

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      3. > It is all in the definition of what someone means by the word “choice”.

        Right. The dictionary defines ‘choice’ as: an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities…and …a range of possibilities from which one or more may be selected …

        In a deterministic universe there is only ever one possibility at any given moment (the sum of all causal factors up to that moment), therefore there is never any choice.

        This is why determinists MUST give up the concept of having choice, or making choices, or having preferences or preferring things, or any other activity which involves these things such as ‘debating’ or ‘making claims of objective truth’.

        Declaring humans have no free will is no less profound a claim as declaring humans have no legs. Both claims have life changing implications. If I claimed humans have no legs but I carried on walking about claiming my legs were “just an illusion” what would you think of me and my claim? 😉

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