Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 16

Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 16

This is the sixteenth of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.

I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.

http://causalconsciousness.com/Episode%20Transcripts/16.%20%20Overcoming%20Free%20Will%20as%20an%20Evolutonary%20Leap%20in%20Human%20Consciousness.htm

Episode 16. Overcoming the Illusion of Free Will as an Evolutionary Leap in Human Consciousness

Let’s talk about overcoming the illusion of free will as an evolutionary leap in human consciousness. When we say that we have a free will, we’re saying that our decisions are completely up to us. Nothing that we’ve learned in the past, and nothing in our genes can influence our decisions. One way to understand why free will is an illusion comes from science. In biology and psychology, for example, there was once a debate on whether human behavior was caused by nature or nurture – whether our genes compel our behavior, or whether our upbringing and our environment the kinds of experiences we’ve had in the past determine what we do..

Ultimately we came to understand that every decision we make, and everything we do, is caused by both nature and nurture. The key thing here, however, is that the debate, quite rightly never allowed, or entertained, the possibility of a free will. Free will plays no part in that equation. If nature and nurture combine to cause our every decision, they represent a complete description of our behavior. There is no room for a third cause, logically or otherwise.

We humans have been around for a few million years. We’ve gone through a lot of evolution during that time. We’ve gotten taller, we walk more upright, we’re more intelligent, our brains are bigger, we’ve lost a lot of hair, etc. As our human physiology has evolved, so has our mind. Our mind has especially evolved during this last century.

Over the last couple of millennia, for example, we had wildly erroneous notions about women. The notion that women are incompetent and unintelligent as compared with men still survives to some extent even today. In Judaism there was once a law forbidding the teaching of the Torah to women because male Jewish leaders were afraid these women would corrupt the teachings. Our minds have evolved in terms of how we see each other and ourselves. As part of this evolution, we’re gaining a better understanding of who we are within this universe.

Hundreds of years ago, we thought that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and the center of the universe. We now know that we’re living on a tiny planet within one of billions of galaxies in this immense reality. We cannot even logically or scientifically discern whether our reality is infinite and eternal, or not. We’ve come to understand our place better in this universe, and we’ve learned to better get along with each other. We’ve learned to form societies. We can generally walk around without carrying weapons. We trust each other. We have a civilization.

However, our world definitely has problems, and a lot of them stem from the way we see each other and ourselves — from how we perceive our human will. This notion that we have a free will – that our decisions are completely up to us – is the premise for our legal system of holding people accountable. It labels criminals as bad, and therefore deserving of punishment. Free will also forms the premise and foundation of our socio-economic system of rewards and punishments. If someone does something that is really good, we say to ourselves that they did it of their own free will, and deserve a greater reward than someone who did not, or could not, do such a good.

The notion and illusion of free will also affects our relationship with the people closest to us, and our relationship with ourselves. We were made imperfect in many ways. This free will illusion aside, we have faults, and flaws. We get things wrong. We’re far from perfect. If we did have a free will, who among us wouldn’t choose to be completely good all of the time? But, we don’t have a free will, and because of that we do things against each other – things that we unfortunately can’t but do.

The irony here is that until now, the universe has had us ascribe accountability to each other and ourselves. That kind of attribution often leads to conflict, aggression, and hostility. It leads to vengeance and revenge. It leads to indictments. I’m taping this episode a couple of days after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. Some people celebrated in the streets, partly because of their prediction that the world would become safer, but also partly from a free will-based vengeful attitude.

Our desire for retribution is pervasive. To the extent we believe we have a free will, we will treat others and ourselves differently than we would under a causal, or unconscious will perspective. The idea of forgiveness is common to all major religions. We understand that everyone is imperfect, so we forgive. Forgiving derives from the recognition that the person could not have done any better – that the person is human, and flawed. Forgiveness is done from virtue. You are a good person if you forgive, but you don’t necessarily have to do so. When you understand that free will is an illusion, there is nothing to forgive because there is no reason for indictment to begin with.

The notion of free will is the foundation of our civilization, and of our personal lives. What would our world be like if we were to overcome this illusion? Under the free will illusion, we do something good and “hey, we’re great! We’re better than other people!” We become arrogant. We compare ourselves with others. We think we’re special. That self-attribution separates others from us, and separates us from others. Such comparison creates a barrier between people.

When we do something wrong, we blame ourselves. We often conclude that because we did something bad, we deserve to suffer. We deserve to be punished. Very often, we’ll punish ourselves through feeling the self-inflicted pain of guilt. I’m not asserting that we should overcome our conscience, because certainly our understanding of right and wrong is good and necessary. But the idea that because we did something wrong, we deserve punishment is our current understanding, and as we transcend this illusion of free will, we can expect to become much kinder to ourselves. As we overcome the illusion of free will, we will also be more humble. We won’t see ourselves as better than others. We might have a better skill, or might be able to do something better, but it’s not up to us anyway. It’s completely fated. It’s just how God, or the universe, is using us.

Let’s also go through envy. When we see other people do something really well, we might envy them. We might say to ourselves “wow, these people are so much better than we are.” This conclusion is derived from the illusion of free will. We say that because they freely choose to do whatever they did; they deserve the credit, and are better because of it. The problem with that attitude is that it often demeans and devalues us. As we transcend the illusion of free will, we restore egalitarianism, and true equality, to all of us. Some of us may be luckier in certain ways than others of us, but such luck is in no way attributable to their having a free will.

In relating to our family and friends, often conflicts happen because we ascribe free will to others. If someone does something we consider inconsiderate, we blame him or her. If someone is doing something disturbing, we’ll sometimes say to ourselves “this person is evil, or bad.” When we take that attitude, naturally, they get defensive, and the situation is ripe for conflict. That’s the problem with ascribing free will to others.

When we recognize that we don’t have a free will, and that free will is an illusion, when someone does things that are wrong, or inconsiderate, we may have reason to become upset that the universe has caused that to happen, but we won’t necessarily be upset at the person. We’ll recognize that the person had no choice but to be the way they were, and do what they did. That’s how fate made them act.

To the extent that we hold that perspective, we maintain better relationships with each other. I think you now understand why the illusion of free will is harmful, and how overcoming it can be very helpful to our lives. Let’s now explore what overcoming the illusion of free will means to our world, and why I describe this as an evolutionary leap.

We have the basic, fundamental fact about human will completely wrong. We’re ascribing authorship to ourselves when we’re really just the actors. To the extent that we get the nature of our human will right, our whole psychology will change. Our whole consciousness will change. It feels surreal to realize that this life is really a movie, and that everything that is happening is happening because it is compelled to happen. We’re just going along for the ride. We’re experiencing life rather than freely making the decisions that make it happen.

Consider our global criminal justice system. There are many, many people in jails and prisons all over the world, and the sad truth is that they are as innocent as the most innocent of us. They were completely compelled to do what they did. They had absolutely no free choice in the matter. Naturally, we will need to maintain law and order in the world. We can’t have us simply do whatever we want to do, but to the extent that we transcend the illusion of free will, we will be seeing others and ourselves, and others will see themselves and us, in a completely different way.

When a police officer, or a judge, or we, as society, look at someone who has done something wrong, we’re not going to say, “that person’s evil, and deserves to be punished and suffer.” We’re going to instead say, “It’s very unfortunate that the person was fated to do something wrong,” and we may have to take certain measures, like separating that person from society. But when we’re relating to that person, we’re not going to be condemning them, and they will understand that whatever they did was not their fault. Remember that much of the pain that arises from the illusion of free will comes from self-blame. Our criminal justice system would be dramatically changed for the better, and we would be creating a much more compassionate world by overcoming the illusion of free will. Religion will also change profoundly.

Again, the concept of free will was coined by Saint Augustine sometime around 580 A.D. He wrote a book back then called De Libero Arbitrio, which is Latin for “on free will.” He was grappling with the notion of evil. Since according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is supposed to be omni-benevolent, or all good, he was considering the question “How can there be evil in the world?” His answer was that if it’s not God’s fault, it has to be our fault.

The foundation for most religions, and especially the condemning of people to hell or the rewarding of people with heaven, depends on the notion of free will. That’s something that will have to change. No longer can religion rightly call a person evil. We might refer to an act as evil, but the person will always be recognized and understood as innocent.

Once that happens, it’s no longer justifiable to have the belief that some of us go to heaven, while others of us go to hell. That paradigm no longer makes sense. God willing, we’ll adapt the belief that we all go to heaven. In truth, we don’t know what, if anything, happens after we die, and the belief that we all go to heaven seems the kindest, and most optimistic, belief available to us.

Our educational system will also change because, at present, we don’t teach our kids to be as happy and as good as possible. With the notion of free will comes the correlate that it doesn’t really matter what we teach kids about goodness and happiness. Those of us who buy into the myth of free will conclude that when kids grow older, they can completely ignore our teaching through their free will. To the extent that we understand that our human will is causal, and unconscious, and that free will is an illusion, we’ll understand how important it is to spend the proper resources to educate our kids in the best way. What we communicate to them is what they will express as adults.

The evidence demonstrating that we don’t have a free will is accumulating in the sciences, like neuroscience and psychology. In philosophy the logical arguments against free will – causality and the unconscious — have been understood since the time of the Greeks. Overcoming the illusion of free will will likely come in stages. A milestone happened in April, 2011 when the weekly science magazine New Scientist published a cover story on the nature of human will titled “Free Will; The illusion we can’t live without.”

One reason this is a milestone is that in the past magazines almost never covered free will, and never before through a cover story. The piece understands and asserts the fact that free will is an illusion. What will likely happen is that more of those kinds of articles will be published, initially in science magazines like Scientific American and Psychology Today. We’ll then begin to think about the matter a lot more. We’ll begin to understand how it relates to our personal lives. As we come to understand that free will is an illusion, this new and revolutionary truth will find its way into the more popular magazine, into our legal system, and into our educational system.

In our educational system today, we teach our kids that human behavior is the complete result of nature and nurture, but we don’t ever go beyond that. We don’t say that because of that, we don’t have a free will. But, as we begin to understand our causal, unconscious human will, this new understanding will become the standard teaching. It will be the way our kids, and the rest of us, are taught.

What will be the outcome? On a personal level, when two people are having some kind of disagreement, it’s not going to take the form of competition. They are not going to be in conflict – one against the other. They will both be on the same side, trying to figure out why fate is pitting them against each other – why fate is having one aggress against the other. As all of this takes place, there will be a profound and substantial change in our human consciousness.

I start each show with a quote from philosopher John Searle, who says that for free will to be understood as an illusion would be “a bigger revolution in our thinking than Einstein, or Copernicus, or Newton, or Galileo, or Darwin. It would alter our whole conception of our relation with the universe.” It will, in fact, be the most significant world change ever.

The purpose of life isn’t to understand that we don’t have a free will. But understanding this has its utility in helping us create a happier world. Ultimately as we become more aware of our lack of free will, and start structuring our societies and world based on that understanding, we’ll recognize that happiness is the main goal of our life. That may be a second kind of evolutionary shift in our consciousness and our world.

The world’s overcoming the illusion of free will may happen in ten years or less. Progress is happening relatively fast on this. The challenges we face, like climate change, demand such massive cooperation between us as individuals, and as countries, that if we are to meet them successfully, we have no realistic choice but to shift our understanding of our human will from the myth of a free will to the reality of a causal will.

Links:

Every episode of George’s show is also available on youtube at:
https://www.youtube.com/user/Georgeo57/videos

Additionally, I have a playlist specifically of the shows George and I both take part in.

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20 Comments

  1. Ortega: “When we say that we have a free will, we’re saying that our decisions are completely up to us. Nothing that we’ve learned in the past, and nothing in our genes can influence our decisions.”

    Nothing could be more ridiculous! And that is why NO ONE in their right mind actually SAYS such a silly thing. Except maybe George Ortega.

    What we refer to as “free will” is us, which always comes with all our personal baggage. This includes our genetic predispositions, our past experiences, our values and beliefs, how we are thinking and feeling at the moment, etc. That is US. And when we make a choice, any or all of what makes us US may come into play. And our choice becomes our WILL at that very moment.

    If we are free to choose for ourselves, that is, not forced to accept someone else’s choice, then our will is free and not coerced. That is FREE WILL. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    Ortega: “Ultimately we came to understand that every decision we make, and everything we do, is caused by both nature and nurture. The key thing here, however, is that the debate, quite rightly never allowed, or entertained, the possibility of a free will. Free will plays no part in that equation.”

    Wrong! We ARE natural, biological organisms interacting over time with our natural environment. Our biological WILL to survive and our deliberative, conscious WILL that chooses the method of survival are expressions of US as persons.

    We are not separate from Nature, being controlled by it. We ARE a living, willful piece of Nature, dealing with the rest of it. And this piece that is us has both a biological will and a conscious will. And the conscious will can imagine alternative futures, assess their relative values, and consciously CHOOSE which option to try.

    The choice becomes our conscious WILL at that moment. And if left free of someone else’s coercion to do otherwise, our acting upon our WILL will DETERMINE what future becomes INEVITABLE.

    Ortega: “This notion that we have a free will – that our decisions are completely up to us – is the premise for our legal system of holding people accountable. It labels criminals as bad, and therefore deserving of punishment.”

    Wrong! The point of justice is to prevent unnecessary harm to people and their rights. The point of a just penalty is to (a) repair the harm if feasible, (b) correct the offender’s future behavior if possible so he can return to society, and (c) protect the rest of us from repeated bad acts by securing the offender in prison until his behavior is corrected (or, if incorrigible, for the rest of his life).

    Here’s the important thing: The notion of free will is ESSENTIAL to the CORRECTION of the offender. If he has no free will, then he will always behave the same way when presented with a similar situation. But if he as free will, then the penalty or other corrective action, will cause him to think twice next time, and deliberately choose to act differently.

    Ortega: “Our desire for retribution is pervasive.”

    Then I suggest you read a book about Justice, George. Or even better, talk it over with a Methodist, a Unitarian, or a Humanist. Retribution is not justice. Justice is repair, correction, and protection. Any penalty that goes beyond what is reasonably necessary to accomplish those three is unjustifiable.

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    1. “Here’s the important thing: The notion of free will is ESSENTIAL to the CORRECTION of the offender. If he has no free will, then he will always behave the same way when presented with a similar situation. But if he as free will, then the penalty or other corrective action, will cause him to think twice next time, and deliberately choose to act differently. ”

      You’ve got it backwards. Things can cause him to change his ways because his will is not free of the fear of punishment or perhaps a change in his worldview or morality. If he had a free will, then it would be impossible for outside forces to change us anyway and all debates would be useless as well.

      However, I do agree with you about justice though. That is what people like George and I want. We don’t want punishment that become torture. We want to prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place but when that fails, they still must be stopped from hurting people.

      Also, I agree that we are not something separate from nature. I just go a step further and admit that nothing I am doing is a free choice. It is not free from threats of others, of my greatest fears, the things that coerce me so that I must do certain things that I don’t even want to do but have the obligation to do. The important thing is that I can take no credit or blame for it either.

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      1. CK: “You’ve got it backwards. Things can cause him to change his ways because his will is not free of the fear of punishment or perhaps a change in his worldview or morality. If he had a free will, then it would be impossible for outside forces to change us anyway and all debates would be useless as well.”

        Since we all seem to agree that a will free of cause and effect is impossible, why would you and Ortega continue to insist that “free will” must means freedom from causality? NOTHING is outside of causality. Therefore your definition cannot be real. And if it is not real, then it is a “straw man”.

        “Free will” does have a meaning which is both real and consistent with causality. It refers to your freedom to act upon your own will without coercion by someone else. If someone makes you do something “against your will” then you have not done that thing “of your own free will”. That meaning is real and consistent with causality.

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      2. There are people who believe in a will that is free from causality. Because people for centuries have had this false belief, there is motive to explain that everything has a cause. Many people still believe in acausal events.

        The problem is that people are accused of a strawman fallacy even when the definition they are giving is one that is actually believed by many.

        Seriously, even if most people were soft determinists such as you, the world would still be better than one where many are convinced that they are the first cause of their choices.

        This is important on so many levels and especially in the case of debates of moral issues.

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      3. I agree that a lot of people are confused on many topics of morality, ethics, and justice. But I believe it is off-target to attack the concept of free will.

        When I took Richard Carrier’s on-line course in Free Will, one of the resources was Dr. Eddy Nahmias’s article on “willusionism” at

        http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf

        Nahmias cites several studies showing that people who are exposed to statements that science has proven free will is only an illusion are likely to “cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively”. To explain this effect, he suggests that they come to view themselves as having less control of their lives. They feel that “their efforts to deliberate about what would be best to do were inconsequential and that their efforts to do what they think best were insignificant”.

        Those are not very good moral effects.

        The problem is that when you attack “free will” you are attacking all definitions of free will — including the free will that is used in everyday secular speech and in secular law.

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      4. “The problem is that when you attack “free will” you are attacking all definitions of free will — including the free will that is used in everyday secular speech and in secular law.”

        The reverse is also true. When someone promotes a certain idea of free will, god, sexuality, or something else that is believed or experienced by a lot of people, they end up promoting all definitions of those terms. This can be equally dangerous.

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  2. Ortega: “There are many, many people in jails and prisons all over the world, and the sad truth is that they are as innocent as the most innocent of us. They were completely compelled to do what they did. They had absolutely no free choice in the matter.”

    The problem I see with Ortega’s message is that it totally undermines responsibility. The guy who decided it was okay to drink and then drive home from the party and kills a pedestrian is certainly at least ONE of the responsible causes of the pedestrian’s death. To claim he is innocent, as George clearly and explicitly does, leaves us with no alternative but to treat him exactly as we do all other innocent people, which means we have no justification for preventing him from driving drunk again.

    Ortega: “and we may have to take certain measures, like separating that person from society.”

    On what rational basis do we restrict the freedom of an “innocent man”?

    Ortega: (Speaking of Augustine) “He was grappling with the notion of evil. Since according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is supposed to be omni-benevolent, or all good, he was considering the question “How can there be evil in the world?” His answer was that if it’s not God’s fault, it has to be our fault.”

    And that is also the atheist position, is it not? If there is no God, then all evil acts originate with us.

    Some definitions might be helpful here: “Morality” intends the best good and least unnecessary harm for everyone. A behavior is considered “good” if it achieves or at least promotes that intent. A behavior is “bad” if it causes unnecessary harm to someone else while benefitting the actor. A behavior is considered “evil” if it deliberately seeks to cause unnecessary harm to someone else without any personal benefit other than taking joy in someone else’s suffering. And, yes, we are all capable of both good and evil. (I would not classify natural disasters as “evil”, but simply bad stuff happening).

    Ortega: “The foundation for most religions, and especially the condemning of people to hell or the rewarding of people with heaven, depends on the notion of free will.”

    Augustine’s problem was how to protect God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, from being held the “responsible cause” of every specific bad act of the humans he created. But that’s Augustine’s problem, not ours.

    The concepts of Heaven and Hell are simplifications of a more complex moral truth. As the proportion of people with moral intent increases in society, life gets better for everyone. That is, it becomes more like Heaven. And as the proportion of people with bad or evil intent increases, crime and chaos increase, bringing about conditions similar to Hell.

    The Humanist and Atheist challenge is to somehow convey the truth in a way that makes morality meaningful and enduring as well as the churches convey the simpler fantasy.

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    1. “The concepts of Heaven and Hell are simplifications of a more complex moral truth. As the proportion of people with moral intent increases in society, life gets better for everyone. That is, it becomes more like Heaven. And as the proportion of people with bad or evil intent increases, crime and chaos increase, bringing about conditions similar to Hell. ”

      At least you are not taking them as literal places as the religious often do. My thoughts are very much on this life.

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    2. “The problem I see with Ortega’s message is that it totally undermines responsibility. The guy who decided it was okay to drink and then drive home from the party and kills a pedestrian is certainly at least ONE of the responsible causes of the pedestrian’s death. To claim he is innocent, as George clearly and explicitly does, leaves us with no alternative but to treat him exactly as we do all other innocent people, which means we have no justification for preventing him from driving drunk again. ”

      We have motive for preventing anyone from driving drunk. The justification is to prevent harm. I think there should be a ban on alcohol.

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      1. And Prohibition was the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was repealed by the 21st Amendment (Wikipedia) a few years later. And that would also be an example of the actual innocent (responsible drinkers) being punished along with the actual guilty (drunk drivers). But Ortega makes no such distinction when he claims everyone is always innocent.

        It is certainly right to seek actual justice (rational actions designed to protect people and their rights) rather than retribution (revenge). It is certainly right to correct the underlying social conditions that breed criminal behavior and gang cultures. But it is also certainly right to hold individuals responsible who made the final decision that make the crime inevitable by their wrongful actions, and to subject them to correction as well.

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      2. “And that would also be an example of the actual innocent (responsible drinkers) being punished along with the actual guilty (drunk drivers). But Ortega makes no such distinction when he claims everyone is always innocent. ”

        How can anyone make the distinction between different kinds of drinkers and say which ones are responsible? Were you drunk when you wrote that?

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  3. Telling people that they have no free will is scientifically and morally wrong.

    A. It is scientifically wrong because we know that our mental experiences are rooted in a physical brain. These mental experiences include thinking through problems and making conscious decisions. And our actions upon these decisions are the responsible causes of what comes next. We are as real as anything else in the real world. And what we choose to do matters.

    B. It is morally wrong because it convinces some people that they have no choices and no responsibility. It gives them the delusion that they are merely effects, with no willpower of their own to change themselves or change their choices. And that is a morally corrupting message.

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      1. They are not lumps of clay being molded by external circumstances. They are natural biological organism taking issue with their physical circumstances. Sometimes they change their own behavior to adapt. Sometimes they change their physical circumstances to adapt the external circumstances to their needs. They are willfully capable of doing either and of mentally choosing between several options. These are objective facts of nature that we all have observed and that no scientist can deny without losing his claim to objectivity.

        The free will “versus” determinism paradox is a philosophical puzzle based upon a mental error. It is not science.

        We cannot discount human imagination, creative problem solving, or free will. It is unscientific and it is immoral.

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      2. If we had a free will, we would be able to avoid adapting and evolving. We change because we are basically lumps of clay that are molded by our circumstances. We have a will and consciousness which are the attributes of living things but I still don’t know why you call this a “free” will. We are not free from the external forces that act on us nor are they free from us. It goes both ways and all is relevant.

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      3. Nothing is free from causality. Therefore it is irrational and meaningless to define “free will” as implying freedom from causality.

        And it is self-deception to refuse to see the very simple and meaningful use of the term “free will”, that is, when we are allowed to make our own choices, rather than being compelled to accept someone else’s choice for us. That is the meaning employed in everyday use. And that is the meaning you threaten when you claim “free will does not exist” or “free will is only an illusion”.

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      4. At least you understand that nothing is free from causality. Maybe you use free will to mean a certain thing every day but that does not mean that everyone else does now or did in the past two thousand years.

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      5. In unit 3 of Richard Carrier’s on-line course on Free Will, Carrier presents a couple of Supreme Court cases where free will is explicitly mentioned and presumed to play a role in establishing the defendant’s intent and prospects for rehabilitation.

        One of them quoted from this case:
        https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/342/246/case.html
        where the decision said,

        “It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil.”

        Note that there is no mention of “God” or “soul” or any other supernatural element. This is a matter of SECULAR legal judgment.

        The case is also interesting in that it traces a history of the movement from punishment to rehabilitation as well as the role of intent in larceny but less so in regulations.

        Hope that helps.

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