183. Free Will: Why Randomness Won’t Help

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  1. Okay, I’m going to skip the video and comment on randomness myself and you can check whether your answer coincides with mine.

    First, though, I want to make it clear that free will is us making choices on our own, without being coerced by someone else to do something against our will. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is a mental process located within a biological organism within a physical and deterministic universe. It is, in fact, present in any animal with sufficient neurological evolution to imagine more than one option, imagine the outcome of choosing one over another, and to act upon the choice that seems to produce the best result. It is totally consistent with a deterministic view.

    Okay, having got that off my chest, here are a few words about randomness.

    A deterministic view assumes that every event is ultimately determined by specific causes. There are no uncaused events. Things don’t ‘just happen’. We may not always know the causes, but a determinist holds the belief that we might find the causes by study, research, experimentation, etc. And even when it is impossible in practice to know the cause, we believe (that’s what the -ism means) that at least in theory the cause does exist and might be knowable someday.

    So, when it comes to things like the odd statements made by quantum mechanics, we hold that even those events have causes.

    Randomness implies an interaction of causes and events in complex ways such that predicting the outcome becomes difficult.
    Instead we may use probability calculations to make an educated guess as to how many times a flipped coin will come up heads. But again, determinism holds that the phenomenon we call randomness also could, at least in theory, be tracked down to the miniscule variations in the thumb flipping the coin, the air, etc. In theory, if we had sufficient control over the force applied, we could guarantee it would come up ‘heads’ every time.

    When we say the outcome of a cause is random, we only mean that it is difficult to predict, but that over time the variations in the force applied result in a somewhat even distribution across all the possibilities.

    Within the mental process of choosing, the causes are often our reasons and our feelings. These are not usually subject to miniscule electronic effects, but are rather conglomerates at a higher level, such as our memories of past experiences, our beliefs and values, etc.

    In any case, the mental process is happening in us. And all the causes in play, all the reasons, all the feelings, etc. are a part of us. And, apart from us, the reasons and causes are impotent to change anything. It is only by our choosing and acting upon that choice that what happens next becomes inevitable.

    We are the final responsible cause of what we choose to do.

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    1. I agree completely about the randomness. Things don’t happen without causes. This is exactly my view and I know that when people talk about randomness, some of them are meaning that something is unpredictable based on a lack of knowledge.

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    2. “First, though, I want to make it clear that free will is us making choices on our own, without being coerced by someone else to do something against our will. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is a mental process located within a biological organism within a physical and deterministic universe. It is, in fact, present in any animal with sufficient neurological evolution to imagine more than one option, imagine the outcome of choosing one over another, and to act upon the choice that seems to produce the best result. It is totally consistent with a deterministic view.”

      I think I understand what you mean by this. Because there is no physical person outside of me moving my fingers on this keyboard, this is done of my will. However I do not call it a free will. Remember, these definitions are what I use:

      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

      Because you are an external agency who commented on my post, and because you are the prior cause of me writing this reply, I say with complete truth that ANYTHING that I say would not have happened had you not commented. Furthermore, my intellectual and emotional responses do happen within my brain but that in no way suggests that my reply will be the choice that produces the best possible result. That being said, I hope that my reply effectively communicates what I am thinking.

      However, the key phrase in what you said is “act upon the choice that seems to produce the best result”. The difficult with this is: Where do I get my ideas of what is the “best” result. This comes from my current knowledge, preferences, and the way I was raised.

      So in short, I do not choose my responses simply because I did not choose to exist nor to be the person I am today. I like who I am but I take no credit for it. Because I am thinking about all the prior causes that our out of my control that led to me thinking and feeling what I do, I say that I am not “making choices on my own”.

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      1. CK: “The difficult with this is: Where do I get my ideas of what is the “best” result. This comes from my current knowledge, preferences, and the way I was raised.”

        And what do we call that? I call it “Chandler Klebs”. What could you possibly be other than your current state, with all your memories, beliefs, values, feelings of which your conscious mind is currently aware and is speaking from?

        In the real world, you are an example of a person. They interact with the environment (me, for example) in ways they find useful or meaningful.

        And when a person (this package of experience, desires, etc) considers whether to have vanilla or chocolate ice cream, he or she assesses their reasons and their feelings and their expectations about one choice or the other to determine their own will at this moment. At the end of consideration they tell themselves, “Oh, I think I’ll have chocolate this time”.

        This is called making a decision of one’s own free will. Why the “free”? Because your mom just came in and said, “It’s too close to dinner! Here, have a carrot instead.” And you’re no longer free to do what you will, but end up eating the carrot “against your will”.

        This is the normal, reasonable, day-to-day meaning of “free will”. There is no “escape from causality”. There is no “indeterminism”. There is no “quantum uncertainty” or “randomness” to contend with.

        So why do “libertarian free-willers” think it is “uncaused” or “not inevitable”? Because the idea of inevitability is only useful to someone standing outside the decider. For the decider himself or herself, the fact of inevitability is totally useless. He or she cannot know for sure what their “inevitable” will is until they go through the mental process that begins with uncertainty and ends with a choice.

        The other problem is fatalism. Fatalism is the sense that events are beyond your control, that you shouldn’t even try to make things better, because you have no influence or power of your own. If you read Dr. Nahmias’s article you’ll see that studies have shown that hearing statements like “science has proved that free will is just an illusion” actually makes people less good.

        And that is not a good thing to choose to cause.

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      2. “I call it “Chandler Klebs”. What could you possibly be other than your current state, with all your memories, beliefs, values, feelings of which your conscious mind is currently aware and is speaking from?”

        You describe me quite accurately. That is basically how I think of people. The sum of all those things.

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      3. “The other problem is fatalism. Fatalism is the sense that events are beyond your control, that you shouldn’t even try to make things better, because you have no influence or power of your own.”

        I agree that fatalism is a problem. It happens when people misunderstand determinism. The way I look at it, if I actually had a free will, I could choose to simply not care about making the world a better place. My conscience forces me to do a lot of things that I would rather not do. Part of this is because I know that what I do DOES make a difference and sometimes I wish it didn’t because I hate the idea of causing harm to people.

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      4. “Why the “free”? Because your mom just came in and said, “It’s too close to dinner! Here, have a carrot instead.” And you’re no longer free to do what you will, but end up eating the carrot “against your will”.
        This is the normal, reasonable, day-to-day meaning of “free will”. There is no “escape from causality”. There is no “indeterminism”. There is no “quantum uncertainty” or “randomness” to contend with. ”

        Your example hits a little closer to reality than I would like since I live with my mom and therefore have never truly experienced that type of free will. However, that is a pretty worthless type of free will because it can only exist when there are no other animals making us do what we do.

        Even so, there are countless other things outside of our control that don’t include other lifeforms. The weather is a classic example of this.

        Even so, can you prove that your definition is the “normal” one?

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  2. Here are several dictionary definitions. Note that simple free will is the first (most common or preferred) definition.

    Mirriam-Webster on-line: free will
    : the ability to choose how to act
    : the ability to make choices that are not controlled by fate or God
    1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
    2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

    Short Oxford English Dictionary: free will
    1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
    2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

    Wiktionary: free will
    1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
    1. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

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  3. The point of the definitions is that when speak the words “free will is just an illusion” people are going to presume definition 1, and that will raise their sense of fatalism according to the studies that Dr. Nahmias discussed, resulting in worse behavior.

    Nahmias suggested that scientists (and others like you and George) should be specific that you are talking about “libertarian free will” as defined in Philosophy, rather than ordinary free will as everyone normally understands it.

    As for me, I disagree with Nahmias. I think ordinary free will is the ONLY free will that actually exists, and therefore you and the scientists should cease making the FALSE statement that free will is incompatible with determinism — not because it is confusing, but because it is a LIE.

    The whole free will “versus” determinism paradox is based upon a mental error. It imagines that cause and effect is some external force that controls us. We ARE cause and effect. WE refers to the physical, deterministic, biological organism. Free will refers to the physical, deterministic, biological organism in the PROCESS of thinking, choosing, and acting upon its own choice.

    But that’s a bit lengthy. So we just say ‘we’, or ‘you’, or ‘I’, or ‘he’, or ‘she’. And we only get into the detailed definition when someone asks a philosophical question like, ‘what is a person?’

    Any of this making sense yet? If you’re catching on, then please explain it to George.

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    1. I admit there is a difference between libertarian and compatibilist definitions of free will. What the difference is I am not completely clear on.

      To me it sounds a lot like Christians, Jews, and Muslims all talking about “God” while not really explaining the differences between them.

      Perhaps when I understand it better I may be able to clarify what abilities of choice we have or don’t have so far though I find no difference between being coerced by another human and being coerced by our own biology and psychology which we had no choice in making. This is why I think you are plain wrong in claiming even the type of free will you promote. Nonetheless your comments have given me a lot to think about.

      Perhaps you will contact George yourself and see if he would respond to you any differently than I do.

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      1. When I visited George’s website, I did not see any place for comments. I presume he does not wish to be in a position to have to defend his statements. It’s very nice of you to do that for him.

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      2. I tried it out but stopped when it required me to watch an advertisement by Honda and agree to some contract with Proboards. Also, the 2 sentence rule is not a sincere offer of discussion.

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  4. To be “coerced” by your own biology and psychology and history and beliefs, etc. is to be “coerced” by your “self”.

    And if the only source of coercion is you, then you are not really coerced at all.

    Light bulb over the head yet?

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    1. P.S. The issue has nothing to do with God, unless, of course you believe in God, then pretty much everything would have something to do with God.

      But, the paradox still traps the mind whether God exists or not. You and I, for example, have been discussing the issue without reference to supernatural beliefs. And the problem of responsibility is central to the general issue of morality, ethics, and justice. These secular issues continue to exist even if God doesn’t.

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      1. My point is that our differences of definitions about free will are not at all the same just as a Christian and a Muslim are NOT talking about the same thing when they talk about their gods.

        Another comparison is different definitions of marriage. Gay marriage is not the same as heterosexual marriage. People often argue over which definitions are the correct one.

        Another debate is whether there IS such a thing as a true definition of any words.

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      1. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Once it is you, then it is properly called “you”. And the statement “I can’t control myself” appears to be false, because you are clearly controlling your postings here.

        Here’s the point. The question is whether the word “myself” or the word “I” refers to anything meaningful or not. You can easily make them appear meaningless by saying that they don’t really exist, because all causes are external to you. But then, what exactly are they “external” to?

        If you wish to claim you are nothing but a “big ball of causes” operating on their own without your participation then the rest of us are still going to call that ball “you”. And the rest of us are still going to blame “you” and hold “you” responsible for behavior that injures any one of “us”.

        The practical day to day matters of justice and corrective penalty must still apply no matter how much you wish to hide behind “determinism made me do it” excuses.

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      2. “If you wish to claim you are nothing but a “big ball of causes” operating on their own without your participation then the rest of us are still going to call that ball “you”. And the rest of us are still going to blame “you” and hold “you” responsible for behavior that injures any one of “us”.
        The practical day to day matters of justice and corrective penalty must still apply no matter how much you wish to hide behind “determinism made me do it” excuses.”

        I understand that in everyday practical matters it may not change much, but knowing that I am a big ball of causes makes a big difference to whatever consciousness I am. I don’t feel the pain I used to.

        And if my behavior was harmful then I would want to be removed from society so I couldn’t hurt anyone.

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      3. The point is that Mr. Ortega’s message suggests we’d be better off if we did away with blame altogether, or just blamed God or blamed Nature for everything that goes wrong. And he is very wrong about that. Blame has a function to play in making the world a better place.

        On the other hand, it is also very important that ALL of the causes of bad events get addressed. Take the drunk driver for example. It used to be very commonplace for people to drive after having a few drinks and different states had different age limits for drinking. The mother of a 13 year old who was killed started Mothers Against Drunk Driving bringing public attention to the problem. They lobbied to increase the age for drinking and to make penalties more severe for habitual offenders and establish checkpoints where people were required to use a breathalyzer to check whether they were driving after drinking.

        One of the causes of the incidence of drunk driving was society’s tolerance. They lobbied to correct this.

        But holding individual drivers responsible and increasing individual penalties was part of changing society’s norms.

        Those tolerance norms (like the norms about smoking we talked of earlier) were one of the causes why people did not think twice about driving drunk, but now they do think twice.

        Again, these causes rely upon the idea that people DO think. And therefore their decisions can be influenced both individually through the threat of stiff penalties and socially by holding them personally responsible for the damage they do.

        So, we get to blame both the driver and the society. And we can take corrective action to alter both causes.

        That’s just how things work.

        Mr. Ortega’s idea that if we get rid of free will then we can get rid of blame and then everyone will be happy sounds to me like a bullshit approach to morality. After all, everyone was happy before, except for the few mothers whose children were killed by drunk drivers. It was only after they got organized, and started making everyone unhappy by placing the proper blame where it belonged that things got better, and fewer people were driving drunk and fewer kids were killed.

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      4. No. We’re talking of the same thing. The problems with blame are not with blame itself, but with the misuse of blame. For example: (a) an innocent person may be blamed by mistake, (b) someone else coerced the person and therefore the person doing the coercion should be blamed, (c) the correct person is blamed but the punishment is retributive rather than corrective, etc.

        The misuse of blame, like the misuse of anything else, would be what should be blamed for bad blame, rather than blame itself.

        But perhaps you do have some other definition of blame? If so, please explain.

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      5. When I think of blame, it implies that the person could have actually done otherwise than what they did in that exact situation. I don’t actually believe they had any more choice than a tornado. I still fear them and would want them in jail to prevent them from killing and raping someone. Perhaps there is even an argument to be made for the death penalty, but I don’t view the person as “deserving” anything good or bad. I see them as innocent and hope their behavior can be corrected.

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      6. CK: “When I think of blame, it implies that the person could have actually done otherwise than what they did in that exact situation.”

        Why? Do you have a time machine so that they could go back and do something different?

        The point of blame to change the future. The past is unreachable, and is only useful to inform us about what the person may do in the future if we fail to take corrective action now.

        CK: “… but I don’t view the person as “deserving” anything good or bad.”

        What they deserve is a penalty that does no more than (a) repair the damage they have done (if feasible), (b) correct their future behavior (if reasonably possible), and (c) until corrected, protects the rest of us from their future repeated crimes. Any penalty that goes beyond this cannot be justified.

        But if we’ve got the wrong guy, if instead this person is innocent of the crime, then he deserves to be free of any penalty or corrective action.

        CK: “I see them as innocent and hope their behavior can be corrected.”

        If they are innocent, then you have no excuse for taking any action.

        How many moral concepts, like justice, like blame and responsibility, like innocence, etc. do you expect to destroy in this quest to escape the inevitability of free will?

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      7. “What they deserve is a penalty that does no more than (a) repair the damage they have done (if feasible), (b) correct their future behavior (if reasonably possible), and (c) until corrected, protects the rest of us from their future repeated crimes. Any penalty that goes beyond this cannot be justified. ”

        At least you don’t believe in retributive punishment. That is the important thing so I won’t make a big deal out of your different usage of words.

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