William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Stream: Pretend to Believe In Free Will Or Else You Will Make Bad Choices

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Today’s post is at The Stream: Pretend to Believe In Free Will Or Else You Will Make Bad Choices.

I want to be nice about this, but believing that we do not have free will is dumb. If you’re stung by this opinion, and do believe we lack free will, then remember: I had no choice but to call your belief idiotic.

Attacks on the notion of free will (free will itself is immune to assault) are increasingly common. The latest foray is found in The Atlantic, by philosopher Stephen Cave in “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will: But we’re better off believing in it anyway.

Some twenty five centuries ago, Zeno of Elea gave the world some clever paradoxes, one of which is this. If you start at point B and want to get to A, you must first go half way between the two. Once at the mid point, you still have to go half way again from the mid point to A. And once at your new midpoint, you again have half way to go. And so on ad infinitum. Because no matter where you are, you still have half the distance between where you are and your destination, thus your travel is endless…

Well, Elea was a different place than the modern West. Nowadays theories have precedence over reality.

Cave says the “sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.” He thanks Charles Darwin for sparking this boldness. He also says, falsely, that there is “agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons [in our brains] determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”…

But where Zeno retained his love of reality, and recognized movement happens, Cave surrenders himself to his theory body and soul…

Give in to base instincts? As in freely choosing to act in certain ways?…

But isn’t blame an act of free choice? Yes, sir, it is. If there is no free will, the rioting rabble that pillages a town can’t be blamed, nor can the judge who hangs the riot’s instigator. They are all slaves to their neurons.

It is bizarre and logically contradictory for Cave, Smilansky, or anybody to argue, as they do, for our leaders to freely choose this or that policy in “an attempt to retain the best parts of the free-will belief system while ditching the worst.” Theory trumps reality again.

Listen, dear reader. You do not have to know how a thing works to know that it works. That some philosophers cannot unravel Cave’s argument, just as ancient philosophers couldn’t solve Zeno’s riddle…

Go there to read the rest. There is no free will, so you cannot make a choice and you must do as I say.

34 Comments

  1. Great piece. I am so tired of these silly arguments dressed up as lofty thought. The comments over there are hilarious!

  2. I’m choosing not to comment. Oops, sorry. Couldn’t help myself…

  3. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 31, 2016 at 9:34 am

    human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.

    He’s behind the curve. The metaphor is now computers and software, not clockwork.

    https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer

  4. Gary: We understand. Those synapses are just so insistent!

    It’s handy to know I can blame my lousy spelling, inattention to what I type, etc on my lack of free will. It’s liberating! 🙂

  5. “And once at your new midpoint, you again have half way to go. And so on ad infinitum. Because no matter where you are, you still have half the distance between where you are and your destination, thus your travel is endless.”
    Zeno didn’t realize that some infinite series converge to a finite value.

  6. Even is some infinite series did not converge to a finite value, Zeno’s paradox is in practice irrelevent. If you are 1/10000000000000 of the distance from your end point and you go halfway there, it’s pretty much impossible to tell the difference between that point and the actual endpoint or your previous stopping point. If I am a billionth of an inch from my targeted stopping point, who is going to know? It’s an interesting math idea, but I can’t see how it really matters in the macro world.

  7. There is what works and what doesn’t
    There is how something that works works.
    There is how something that doesn’t work is said to work.

    “We don’t know why or how it work but it does.”
    Was never acceptable to me. Until they threw out things which did work because they didn’t know how. It didn’t matter and by then I was no longer curious.

    “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”

    Zeno already states that you will never arrive. That is loaded into the false challenge by virtue that any distance potentially cover will be cut in half.
    The club is “only half way.”
    It’s not a puzzle at all any more than any thought of infinity. It can be said to exist but not imagined or realised.

  8. Correction:
    The clue is in “only half way.”
    It’s not a puzzle at all any more than any thought of infinity. It can be said to exist but not imagined or realised.

  9. I try never to be anywhere that isn’t half as far as where I’m going.

  10. Matt has introduced a subtlety into his latest discussion of free will: it may indeed be true that our best current theory may not adequately account for free will, but that does not prove/mean that free will, which we all obviously act like we have, does not exist. That is, it’s also always possible, alternatively, to say that free will exists, and our present theory sucks.

    I think this is a definite advance and clarification in Matt’s discussion of this subject, and suspect that it will prove very fruitful. I also think this advance will help him clarify the various possible distinctions between “free will”, and “choosing”, and “moral responsibility”, and “social accountability.”

    However, my own view about free will is very different from that presented here, or that is commonly presented. I think we’ve been barking up the wrong tree all these years. We’ve been looking for free will in all the wrong places, and thus all of our accounts of ‘free will’ go wrong at the very first step.

    And further, I state and predict unequivocally that all of our efforts to find the ground for ‘free will’ in the places we’ve typically looked not only have failed, but will always fail. And my own view is that my prediction has held up nicely so far. The ‘free will’ of the philosophers and scientists, even after all these years, still doesn’t look that certain, or that clear.

    The defining case is Jesus’s own free will. In brief, I don’t think that Jesus participated in our Fallen human free will. I think that we participate in His unFallen, and uncreated, free will. His humanity is complete, as Adam’s no longer was after the Fall.

    Thus, in order to locate the ground of our ability to freely choose God, or to freely depart from His presence, we need to look at the Second Adam, the crucified and risen Lord, not at us. Thus, the ground of our ‘free will’ is the same ground that Adam and Eve once had, and freely rejected: the grace of Christ, the second Adam, “through Whom all things were made.”

    Of course, this does mean that, if the true ground of “free will” — voluntary, coherent, intelligible personal responsibility — is a Person, and will never, and cannot, be found in a concept, a scheme, a formalism, or some characteristic that we can possess without the grace of Christ, then the grace of Christ is absolutely decisive for human life: the entire meaning of our life is grounded solely in His Cross and Resurrection and Sacraments.

    Not just our faith, but our entire human life is “in vain,” it cannot have meaning and freedom, apart from His Sacrifice. And not as a pious sentiment, that we might say but not really take seriously, but literally.

    Ridiculous that “Who do you say that I am?” is the key question of human life? That’s still my story, and I’m sticking to it.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 31, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    The mathematical convergence of a model does not compel the physical world to go a long with the gag. Zeno was trying to account for physical motion, not for a mathematical approximation of it. Following his teacher, Parmenides, he also included the paradox of what we call the “block universe,” but it’s interesting how many will accept the latter and reject the former. The ancient answer to Parmenides and Zeno was Aristotle’s notion of potency-and-act; but many folks nowadays reject this, too. It was an answer to a question they have forgotten was ever asked.

  12. I’m still waiting for JMJ’s comment…

  13. Free Will is the foundation of Moral Authoritarianism. A wrong notion supporting a bad idea.

    JMJ

  14. L Ron Hubbard alias John B()

    May 31, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks for that non-sequitor, JMJ

    You absolutely had no free will in responding thus
    (especially after I prophesied it)

    I was going to ask if Zeno of Elea is
    related to Joseph Smith’s Zenos
    or L Ron Hubbard’s Xenu/Xemu

  15. L Ron Hubbard alias John B()

    May 31, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    JMJ:

    Is Moral Authoritarianism related to antidisestablishmentarianism in some way?

  16. No, it is the overt imposition of morality in law.

    JMJ

  17. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 31, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    I’m still waiting for JMJ’s comment…

    wenn man vom Teufel spricht, kommt er bereits.

    Free Will is the foundation of Moral Authoritarianism.

    Actually, it would seem the last bastion against moral authoritarianism, since what is moral would become necessary and no one would have any choice.

    Of course, to some folks, moral “authoritarianism” means only “there is an objective morality.” The idea of being subject to such laws is as oppressive as being subject to laws of gravity; yet no one complains about physical authoritarianism.

  18. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 31, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    No, it is the overt imposition of morality in law.

    Such as saying it is wrong to oppress widows and orphans or to defraud a workman of his wages.

  19. I think what is motivating the “there is no-free will” crowd is the need to explain away in convenient terms the less successful lives of others. If I have no free will, then neither do the lowly among us. It is a way to assuage guilt and relieve responsibility for having to think about those with fewer means, let alone having to care for them.

  20. YOS and Anon are attempting ridiculous switches here. It’s a shame you guys fail to see the impropriety of it.

    In YOS’s case, he parses morality into all spheres of ethics, or as if I was arguing that morality has no place in law whatsoever. While Anon suggests I must have some ulterior motive for making my argument.

    For starters, Free Will as understood by the very religious is silliness, so I will not attempt to address that here. But the common understanding of Free Will is that somehow we are all capable of behaving in a certain way, thinking in a certain way, if only we so chose. And that’s stupid silliness too. Like your ridiculously silly understanding of “equality,” come to think of it. Just more flawed rationalizations.

    JMJ

  21. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 31, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    the common understanding of Free Will is that somehow we are all capable of behaving in a certain way, thinking in a certain way, if only we so chose.

    That is silly. Fortunately, it is not the ‘religious’ understanding.

    Free Will as understood by the very religious is silliness, so I will not attempt to address that here.

    It would be hard for you to do so without first understanding what it means; especially since the Latin term actually translates more precisely as ‘free judgement.’

    Ponder the expression “free fall.”

  22. JMJ: All law imposes overt morality. Only anarchy skips over the moral part.
    You cannot argue for some morality over other or you are not being consistent. What you really are saying is to outlaw religion because you don’t like it. Be honest.

    Your comment on free will may actually explain why you keep posting such odd and indefensible things—though it also resembles “the Devil made me do it”, so I can’t really tell.

    What you are arguing is people are helpless little twits that must be lorded over by liberals in order to live. You see people as helpless, sad creatures with no ability to survive on their own. I still find that reprehensible and mean.

    This seems to run counter to evolution, where the adequately fit survive and others do not. Without religion, evolution is generally the theory used to explain human beings. Why are you messing with evolution by trying to have the unfit survive?

    Anon: I think you’re probably right—no free will absolves personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is often unpopular.

  23. YOS, your sophistry knows no end. You are not free to end it. You are compelled to it. If you were asked to stop, you would raise the physical impossibility of actually stopping. If you tried to stop, you would ponder such.

    Free Will is the simple, simpletons answer to the question, “Why did someone do something.” But it in no way actually answers the question. It is for dumb, knee-jerky people who think from the gut. It’s stupid.

    JMJ

  24. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 31, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    Free Will is the simple, simpletons answer to the question, “Why did someone do something.” But it in no way actually answers the question. It is for dumb, knee-jerky people who think from the gut. It’s stupid.

    I’m sorry to learn that you have no freedom in your will and that you do things only because you are compelled to by external forces. But that does not mean it is unexperienced by others.

    The answer to the question “why did someone do something” is as multiple as there are people who do things and things to be done. Volition is always for a reason and seeks the Good, insofar as we know the Good.

    But briefly: the Will is the intellective appetite and functions in a manner similar to the sensitive appetites. Just as a sensitive appetite is a hunger for (or revulsion to) something perceived, the will is a hunger or revulsion for something conceived.

    Now it is impossible to desire something that is not known to the Intellect.

    Hence, if something is not known perfectly, the Will is not determined to one means or another of achieving it. For example, I may find World Peace to be attractive. But because I know World Peace only imperfectly and do not know everything it entails or what is needed to achieve it, my Will is not determined to any particular means of achieving it. There is “play” or “degrees of freedom” in the Will.

    The Will is free insofar as the Intellect is imperfect.

  25. “overt imposition of morality in law”

    JMJ, Are you a Benthamite, which gives law the moral purpose to provide the greatest ‘happiness’ to the greatest number (yet claims that law has no moral purpose)? Even Rosseau and Kant, incorrect about so many things, got law generally right – every legal system in history is the enforced imposition of morality. When the law goes wrong (and it often does), it does so when it is at odds with morality (aka “natural law”).

  26. YOS, you are not free to will what you will. You will it first, then you decide what to do about it. How you make that decision, then, is by a system born of many, many inputs and processes, most of which, at the time of such a decision, are not the least on your conscious mind. The freedom you are experiencing is actualization (or fantasy) of your will. There is a spiritual liberation in feeling or thinking whatever comes to mind, but what comes to your mind? You don’t have any control over that. The will wills what it will.

    JMJ

  27. Poor ole Tom (Aquinas) had great trouble with this one too. He got it right when he was discussing the notion of sin and guilt but he got hopelessly tangled when he tried to reconcile free will and the Augustinian version of predestination.

    Presently we have a conflict between “theological determinism” (as in “predestination”) that has morphed into “materialistic determinism” (as in matter inexorably producing everything for no cause or purpose) and a Creation with a Cause and Purpose that allows wilful creatures discretion or “will”.

    Even a cursory appreciation of how things work will reveal that any rational creature has ONLY the option of accepting or rejecting some good that is offered to them. The always and everywhere irk of the diabolically insane is that reality is not produced by their wants or fancies… a serious impediment to “free will”… if you can’t “will” anything then will is not “free”.

    The fact is that a wild Man in the jungle cannot conform Reality to his convenience or fancy; although all Voodoo and Magic attempts to do so. (Contemporary “science” attempts to do the same although they employ different incantations, High Priests and sacrosanct preliminaries or prerequisites) To fancifully invent some “political correctness” is not to create some new “good”.

    Ultimately, though, none of us has any option but to accept or reject anything unless it is presented to us. To wilfully reject some good is a sin. To never have had the opportunity to know and desire some good cannot be a sin (a perverse rejection of goodness).

    Free Will certainly and obviously exists… Materialism cannot explain it in “empirical” terms so the obvious is termed an “illusion”. You can’t have an illusion without a mind to be confused. Our poor friend here is a mind that rejects anything but confusion.

  28. I don’t know why I bother checking replies here. There are always a few thoughtful comments but mostly they consist of either non-sequitors or moonbattery. And sometimes both at the same time. It is exhausting to read. I suppose it gives some people pleasure to produce such tortuous thought. But, sheesh. There’s a reason people don’t care about philosophy anymore, and that’s the reason.

  29. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 1, 2016 at 8:16 am

    reconcile free will and the Augustinian version of predestination.

    That someone omnicient knows how I will incline my will does not mean that I have not inclined my will. My wife usually can predict what I will choose for lunch at the diner, but that does not mean I have not chosen it. A free choice is not a surprising choice, not a random choice, not an unmotivated choice, not an irrational choice. It is simply not determined to one thing versus another. Most of the pseudo experiments concocted to validate the experimenter’s preconceived notion of ‘free will’ not only do not ‘test’ free will, but assume it.

    Presented with the options:
    A, B, C, D
    and told to choose one,
    the assumption of choice is implicit in the instructions. Not in the word ‘choose,’ which would beg the question, but in the word ‘one.’ To which of the four letters does the pronoun apply.

    It doesn’t matter that half of people will choose C.

  30. I was going to choose C, but felt a bit contrary and selected A. D would have been more unusual, but I wanted to be first in line today. So many choices….so many motivations….

  31. JMJ, you know you don’t win an argument by calling someone dumb. Your comment was content free because it made no sense.
    I think you are lead to speak about law and morality because of how the argument is couched by the theist side. That is naughty on their part.

    1. You undermine the very rationality that you use to make your argument.

    2. You refer to a spiritual liberation but you do not believe in spirit therefore you cannot use a thing which doesn’t exist to explain another thing which you say doesn’t exist. That is nonsense.

    3. Free will is not always good. This is what many of the comments above imply. The point is that it is free, good or bad.

    4. Without free will there is no true life and we are all robotic/mechanisms in an unguided chaotic system.

    5. Given tha t God knows beforehand as is not relevant to the outcome of the will. If we were to be governed by God’s knowledge of what we are going to do then again we wold be back to no free will.
    Free will is essential in the universe where good and evil DO exist Suffering and pain, natural disaster, manmade evil, there can be no choice for good if all is good and we are back to the automatic lifeless universe.

  32. YOS:

    Just wanted to thank you for that free will/free judgment context

  33. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 1, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    you are not free to will what you will. You will it first, then you decide what to do about it.

    Ah, the Triumph of the Will. That didn’t work out so well back in the 40s.

  34. YOS,
    “reconcile free will and the Augustinian version of predestination.

    That someone omnicient knows how I will incline my will does not mean that I have not inclined my will. ”

    Yes. But in the ‘Gus/Tom version of predestination is the subtlety; You can’t want or choose some good without God wills you to do so. See? A bit of a tangle.

    Anyway, Tom does not enjoy the gift of infallibility and I’m sure he’d be well pleased to have his Scholastic Method used to show up the glitches in his arguments. Another glitched argument of his that I have become aware of is his definition/discussion of usury. He seems to come to grief trying to reconcile common belief or practice with good thinking.

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