Free Will

03 March 2011

There's a long history of philosophers worrying about whether we’re really free.  One of the first worries was whether we can be free, given God’s alleged omniscience, which seems to mean He knows what we are going to do before we do it.

 Take yourself back to the time when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, for disobeying him and eating from the apple tree.  Suppose you travel back in time, and offer your services to Adam and Eve as a defense attorney.  What would you say?

 I think I'd say this: "Look God, you created everything, including Adam and Eve, the apple tree, and the serpent.  You decided what the world was going to be like--- every detail.  You are all-powerful and all-knowing.  So you knew what the serpent would say to Eve, and what Eve would say to Adam.  And you knew how Adam would react.  So how can you blame Adam, when you created him just the way he was --- a spineless wuss who would do what his wife told him.  If you didn’t want him to eat the apple, you should have created him differently; you should have created someone who would have said, 'Sorry Eve, I cannot disobey God, and you musn’t either'.”

Now what if God replied: "But Adam was free.  He could have eaten the apple, or he could have refrained from eating the apple.  It was up to him.  It was his choice.  He made the wrong choice, so I’m mad at him, and intend to punish him, and all his descendants, including you."

 I’d bolster my courage and say, ``Look God, that makes no sense.  Adam may have thought to himself: I can eat the apple, or I can not eat the apple.  But that thought was an illusion.  No finite mortal can do something that God already knows he won’t do.  You created Adam with the sense of freedom, but not the reality of freedom.  So it is grossly unfair to punish him."

 This response gets at the answers to the core questions, What does `freedom’ mean? And Why is freedom important?    What we seem to mean by freedom is the power to choose between two actions.  We not only have the thought ``I can do A, and I also can refrain from doing A”, but the thought is true.  And this is important, because unless one can really choose, one doesn’t deserve to be punished.  So there's the first challenge to free will: If God really knows ahead of time what we're going to do, we really can’t do otherwise.  So if no one is really to blame for what they do, then no one should be punished for what they do.

 There's a second serious challenge to free will – where the problem isn’t that God knows everything, but that everything is caused, including our own thoughts and decisions.  In other words, can we really be free if our decisions are caused by our brain states, which themselves have prior causes, and so forth and so on, so that our decisions are really caused by events in the remote past, and what we decide now was really settled long before we were born. 

This is what people mean by ``determinism”.  Everything we do is determined by the laws of nature, and past events.  Suppose you get a ticket today for speeding.  Given the state of the world in say, 19oo, long before Ken or I or our listeners were born, and the laws of nature, it follows that you was going to break the speed limit today.  You can’t do anything about what the world was like in 1900.  And I can’t violate the laws of nature.  So how can you really do anything except that is determined by those facts?  It seemed that youI could slow down, but really, you  couldn’t.

 Still, if you'd been stopped by a police officer, and explained all of this to her to avoid getting a ticket,  what do you think he would have said?

 Perhaps  if she had philosophical training, she might have said, ``That may be, but it is equally determined that I should give you a ticket”.  Or maybe she would have said: ``that doesn’t matter, because quantum physics tells us that determinism isn’t true after all.”

To this you might respond: ``Look, quantum physics might show there's a little leeway in the way the universe unfolds, but it hardly shows that my speeding wasn’t the inevitable consequence of the state my brain was in, which was the inevitable result of my experiences throughout life and the nature I was born with.   So don’t give me a ticket.  Please."

So freedom seems to pose a challenge for two quite different philosophical world-views.  Theists have to worry about whether free-will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge.  While people who go for determinism - naturalists, who believe humans and all that we do are subject to the laws of nature - also have to worry about it.

For today’s program, we had a brilliant young philosopher, Manuel Vargas from the University of San Francisco, to help us think it through.

Comments (17)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 3, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

What if the beginning and the end are determined b

What if the beginning and the end are determined but the all else is up for grabs?

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 3, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The Christian Bible clearly states that God is omn

The Christian Bible clearly states that God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Given this, how can there be any freedom in the sense of choice OR action? God knew the choice of every person, animal and being before they existed. How can freedom and Christianity co-exist? In order to discuss the problem, theists use circular logic and omit the clear fact that God already knows the number of people He will cast into Hell, the were destined to be condemned long before they even existed.
Total rubbish...

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 3, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Waythinker.

Waythinker.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 3, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I am thinking that a discussion of free will is fa

I am thinking that a discussion of free will is fairly engaged within the context of philosophy. Where we hit the wall is when God and religion are introduced into the equation. Theosophers and Philosophers are akin to oil and water-they do not mix well.
Religions are notable for their establishment of laws and commandments-tools for the regulation and control of the faithful. They resemble physics and attendant sciences in this regard, although sometimes the latter disciplines have the temerity to question their own tenets, theories and postulations. Generally, religions do not question their own tenets/laws, because, to do so would question God. And that would not do because it would open doors to dissention and ultimately, disbelief.
Philosophy has the admirable (to me) tendency to question everything. It is a construct of human consciousness, imperfect yet inquisitive. Amenable to change, it even has the confidence to question itself. So, we have two diametric disciplines which share a strange ironic duality: religion is philosophical in some respects but philosophy is rarely religious---unless we consider certain weird cults which have arisen in the last twenty-five to thirty years.
Free Will? Sure. For those who are not afraid to think.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 4, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Light Beyond our man made faiths of Gods and mo

Light
Beyond our man made faiths of Gods and more gods, beyond our theories of quantum mechanical science and science, beyond our self made natural laws as are all laws, or beyond our own limitations and restrictions confining and defining our motions and effects is the absolute freedom of truth. The truth that is immeasurably faster and equally more brilliant than the light of our own selves.
It is the light of the Universe!
=
"Come to the edge he said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge he said.
They came.
He pushed them,
And they flew..."
Guillaume Appolinaire

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 4, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Signing off. Thanks for your indulgence. I guess I

Signing off. Thanks for your indulgence. I guess I'm in a different universe. Advice: grow a thicker skin if YOUR intelligence has been challenged beyond your tolerance. Whoopee (FKA, Karen) had it right.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Perhaps equal to the question of whether or not hu

Perhaps equal to the question of whether or not humans (and/or certain other organisms?) exercise free will, or as I prefer, 'conscious volitional physical causation' (!), is the question of why there has never been a universally agreed general proof for or against a proposed metaphysical ability to 'affect' a physical event. With or without quantum conditions, can or cannot the valididy of Laplace's conjecture ever be demonstrated?
The legendary Bob or Alice can 'internally decide' to strike a nail with a hammer depending on whether or not a proof of a certain theorem in mathematics they are working on turns out correct. Whether or not the theorem is indeed correct, this entire chain of events seems somehow inherently independent of physical causation.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

There are other scenarios that would allow for fre

There are other scenarios that would allow for free will. We take a walk through a wood and know the destination but the route may be varied. In the same way we move through life and certain points on the way may be determined but we can very the way we arrive at those points. The new film The Adjustment Bureau, deals with the problem and has a bunch of "angels" following us and readjusting us for decisions made that do not fit their road map. This is an interesting way of thinking about it. We are allowed to veer off course but are nudged back on when necessary. In the film an intense love affair is allowed to persist even though it is not part of the plan - and then the plan is redesigned. Interesting metaphors and indicative of the fact that there are as many ways of accommodating free will as our imagination will allow.

MIke's picture

MIke

Saturday, March 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

How do we choose? Are we 'free' if we are ignorant

How do we choose? Are we 'free' if we are ignorant to choose or are we 'free' when we are aware that we have a choose? Does Free Will violate Determination, ie: I have two or more options to choose, each with equal desire but with different reasons? Do I speed to get to a destination on time, or do I not speed and follow societal law? Are these two equal desires? I suppose it subjective, depending upon the person, of which has higher value... but as an illustration about Free Will and Determination; how do we decide when the options have equal value, but different reasons? Is the process really either "A or not A"? Or is there something indeterminate during the process?
If God knows what is going to happen when we make a decision, does that change 'our' decision? ie: does knowing if a toddler touches a hot stove is going to hurt, change what the toddler is going to do? I think not. God is supposedly omniscience so He knew what was going to happen when the serpent tempted Eve with "knowledge like God". What was the end result? Adam and Eve suffered for that. Was that punishment? Or was it the result?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The truth of freedom is in the woods and the proof

The truth of freedom is in the woods and the proof of everything is in us all.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

There are two states involved, although some might

There are two states involved, although some might say that I am splitting hairs or scrunching semantics. Free will is an innate human function, which most of us exercise daily. FreeDOM OF will is what we try to exercise, until someone says: you can't do that. Choice is our optionizing factor, because we know what we can do with impunity and what we will be 'called on the carpet' for doing. We learn these things as children and still try to get away with as much as possible. When we are older? Same story. (See: Arthur S. and Fred N. for further information.)

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 7, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Laws? How many laws have we written that restri

Laws?
How many laws have we written that restrict our freedom; can they even be counted? Do the justices know how many; do they even know what all the laws mean? Doesn't just mean equality; and equality freedom? Are laws just or unjust? Why do we freely elect law makers to write more laws; don?t we have enough? Do we need to be governed or ruled; shouldn't we be voting for freedom? Have we been taught to fear our own free will; without laws there would be chaos; is that true? Do you need laws to live by? Who wrote the first law; and what was it? Who took away our freedom, our free will? Who will write the last law and give our freedom back? And?is there such a thing as natural law Professor Newton; or did the apple really or truly fall freely from the tree? Is the answer quantum mechanical, is it God's rules? Is God a ruler; is God free? Isn?t the universe just; isn't it equally free? I think it is; but why aren?t we?
=
MJA

Curt's picture

Curt

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Has anyone explored the ideas of Richard Taylor on

Has anyone explored the ideas of Richard Taylor on fatalism? I think he has a pretty strong argument for determinism without the intrusion of religion or the idea of a God.

Curt's picture

Curt

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

To continue...Taylor -- who held positions teach p

To continue...Taylor -- who held positions teach philosophy at Brown and Columbia and who died in 2003 -- says that the future determines present actions. If any necessary pre conditon for an act (such as playing the piano) does not exist (such as a piano being present) the act of playing the piano will not occur regardless of whether an individual has the potential or ability to play the piano.
Potential does not count with Taylor. Only necessary antecedent conditions. A piano must be present before the play can choose to play.
I just finished reading the late author David Foster Wallace's honors dissertation at Amherst College entitled: "Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on free Will," in which Wallace tries to (unsuccessfully in my opinion) debunk Taylor's system. The amount of rediculous gymnastics Wallace goes through to refute Taylor's simple arguments is testimony to the difficulty of the non-fatalist's task.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Richard Taylor. The future determines present acti

Richard Taylor. The future determines present actions. A piano must be present before the player can choose to play. I do not know about Mr. Taylor, but must agree with the scenario about piano and piano player. That assertion makes perfectly good sense in a four dimensional universe, and follows ordinary logic.
I'm not sure about one which embodies as many as eleven dimensions, but it does not bother me that such a universe might exist, somewhen. Multi-dimensional universes were addressed by Robert A. Heinlein in The Number of the Beast and no one has proven him wrong yet. I used to like science fiction---read a lot of it. But it did not help me understand philosophy or the everyday world. Not much, anyway.
As to the future determining the present in some way, I see a dilemma. If it (the future) hasn't happened yet, how did it AFFECT what happened just now? Or just then? And then,then and then? The future KNOWS what happened in this present---and that one, and that one, and so on. But knowledge,a posteriori, is not equivalent to causation, a priori. Not now---not then, and not then, either.
If Taylor had some mathematical formula or equation for his position, I'd like to show it to my friend Heisenberg, who recently retired from public opinionation and discourse. Physics is his bag, not mine.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 11, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The essance of freedom is truth. Be true, =

The essance of freedom is truth.
Be true,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Lent a hand to the pedestrian crossing the bridge

Lent a hand to the pedestrian crossing the bridge of emotion, from decry to forgiveness, I saw myself blanketed by the inability to cross myself. As I followed the path, crossing through the lines that have been so carefully and accurately separated as to allow for each step to perfectly intersect between; like a new fire man climbing his ladder, I found myself stuck on the first rung. The fear of heights, which can be a cause for ones hesitance to proceed on their paths, is not an appropriate analogy for the situation I found myself in. It wasn?t the fear that was humbling my mind from embarking on the necessary quest that I myself have paved for others in similar situations. Instead it is something that my mind has concocted from its cynic ability to think, and question, rather then believe in the world?s opinions and objective stances.
As we often hear when we try to lend our expertise to our friends or compadres, ?advice? is a lot easier to give then to receive. In a pendulum it is inevitable that the force that pushes itself upon the set of dangling magnets, will in return be pushed by them aswell. The formula for this might be accurate in scientific terms, but in the scope of psychology and sociology, that pendulum is often clipped before even reaching the first magnet. Whether that makes the whole better off or not, is something we as individuals can subjectively decide after the fact. I believe its always better clipped, therefore never leaving one with the desire or need to reciprocate.
One can see and address their issues with pendulum analogies, if they so choose, using logical stances to solve illogical equations can often lead to a debate of who or what is more qualified and why. Ignoring the loopholes of these circumstances, and setting upon a line that isn?t faded by interpretation, but rather cemented with logical proof, and reason, the only illusion it can present is that of being an absolute truth. Assuming that we are on the same wavelength then it?s as close to that illusion as we can get.
If only these formulas existed for the quests that we have to deal with everyday. Why not create the formulas? Is it so serial to perceive that the ability for the human to be able to live a formulistic lifestyle, one in which the major decisions and problems that exist, do not need to be handled with unsure methods, but rather by the mathematical fortitude that has been paved by those who we claim/honor as our experts. Is this the opposite of the ability to have that thing that we so value and cherish? You know the thing that my country has founded itself on. They call it freedom. I call it death.

 
 
 

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