A Failed Argument Against Free Will: Predicting Actions

It is always hilarious when people rail against free will, who are especially flummoxed that Common Man believes in free will, and say “If only people realized their choices weren’t free, they would make better choices.”

The fallacy is usually buried in a long string of propositions, the length of which causes one to forget where one began, which is the premise “actions aren’t free.” Yet if that’s true, then nothing matters, and no choices can ever be made, right or wrong. Indeed, there is no right or wrong: there is nothing. Even your desire that this should not be so is nothing.

Yet these fans of science still believe that better choices would be made if folks knew they couldn’t make choices, and that all was absent of free will.

This silly argument is not limited to our progressive pals. It’s seen on the right (the Wrong Right), too. Z-man, God bless him, is a frequent proponent. He says “The concept of free will has been essential to Western thought since the Greeks and it is an essential element of Christianity.” True enough, but, Zed, it is essential everywhere if it is true. Which it is.

Not so, he claims. Free will is a “myth” (he uses the word as a synonym for false, as unfortunately many do) because the choices people make are “so easily predicted by behavioral genetics.” As evidence for this, he points us to somebody called Jayman (this makes me B-man, I suppose). “No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why” insists J. He opens with this bit of hilarity:

Slate recently featured an article written by Roy F. Baumeister, Do You Really Have Free Will? In it, he claims that human do indeed have free will, something that regular readers will know that I have emphatically argued against.

Why, dude. If people don’t have free will, then there is no reason to argue, emphatically or like a lady, that they don’t. People can’t make better choices if they can’t make choices.

Anyway, Jayman quotes statistics showing “all human behavioral traits are heritable”. By heritable, he does not mean necessarily passed on, but merely sometimes in certain measure passed on, where most measurements of behaviors are all forced quantifications of the unquantifiable. Jayman appears to take weak correlation as complete causation.

It is true and was always obvious until yesterday different races have different distributions of proclivities and behavior, and that some of these differences are biological, i.e. innate. Thus that race of folks who have different spleens (“the Bajau takes free diving to the extreme, staying underwater for as long as 13 minutes at depths of around 200 feet”) will react differently on average than, say, Arabs to being tossed into the drink. But this does not eliminate free will. The words used when finding oneself dunked are still freely chosen from a conditional subset of words. So free will is conditional, but so what? Most things are conditional, including cause, probability, and the rightness or wrongness of many acts. That right and wrong are sometimes conditional does not mean there is no right and wrong. There is an infinite gap between conditional and determined.

Now most of our bodily activities are given over to automation, including those activities, like walking, where robust and active free will was initially necessary to learn the activities. Where next do you place your foot? At first we think hard about it, but eventually not at all. Eventually there is no free will in each step. But you may, at any moment, decide to take a skip instead of a step. The potential for free will is always there.

If you decided to model, using the latest deep-learning neural net massively parallel AI, to predict with near certainty that, on a walk, after I take a step with my left foot I then will take a step with my right, and vice versa, you have not proved the absence of free will. Nor would you have disproved free will if you hooked an fMRI to me while walking and asked “When did you choose to use your right foot?”

The fMRI would (more or less) show that part of the talking automation taking place in the brain, where to choice might seem to come after the “decision”. But this is because this is not a real instance of free will. You have to expend real mental effort to overcome the automation. You’re not really making a choice of step, even though the experimenter put the act in those terms. You might even try and stutter steps, which is a free act of will, but then you have given over to the automation the orders “Stutter steps”, and again you’re not quite exactly making precise choices of each stuttered step. But you did use free will to start the process. The fMRI would not capture any of this.

Same kind of thing happens when you learn a video game. At first you carefully and freely plan which button to press, but after a while automation takes over. A good thing, too, for it frees the mind to think of other things. Like strategy.

This puts into proper context articles like “Decoding the contents and strength of imagery before volitional engagement” by Roger Koenig-Robert and Joel Pearson in Nature: Scientific Reports. They hooked a small group of folks to a video game asking them, in a horribly convoluted process (see Fig. 1), to press a button indicating a choice of what kind of interleaved stripes would appear on a screen. The people practiced, like in a video game, until they got good at it.

A model based on fMRI images was able to predict “choices” made at that game to a good but imperfect degree. The fMRI did not measure, and couldn’t, the process whereby the participants told the automation to do its thing. Free will was not disproven.

You may predict with even greater certainty what your wife will say when you forget to do the task assigned to you for the umpteenth time. But this does not mean your wife does not have free will. No, in order to prove the lack of free will, you need to demonstrate without error the causes of every action. And that will never be possible.

36 Thoughts

  1. Our willpower isn’t all that it can be. We are all subject to human weakness. Paul describes it in Romans 7:14 thru 8:2. We do the things that we don’t want to do; and we don’t do the things that we should.

  2. 1. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
    2. Intellectuals are people whose minds are so open that their brains fell out.
    3. The devil’s greatest trick is making people think he (and by extension, God) doesn’t exist. His second greatest trick is making people think they themselves don’t exist.

  3. In Henry Ford’s autobiography he claims that in 1909 he told his management team, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” In other words: no choice.**

    If all you can choose is the option you perceive as best at the time of choosing then there isn’t much of a selection. IOW: no choice. So what is Free Will?

    The words used when finding oneself dunked are still freely chosen from a conditional subset of words.

    Assumes free will allows freedom in word choice. So, how do you know the words are freely chosen? How do you know they weren’t merely seen as the best option at the time?

    If people don’t have free will, then there is no reason to argue, emphatically or like a lady, that they don’t. People can’t make better choices if they can’t make choices.

    The purpose of argument is to change perception. This may lead to changing what is seen as the best option.

    Eventually there is no free will in each step. But you may, at any moment, decide to take a skip instead of a step. The potential for free will is always there.

    So your argument for Free Will is that it is possible?

    ** actually the Model T initially came in four colors — none of them black — but that’s really beside the point.

  4. The video game is a good example, but the one I go to the most is typing. In order to type over about 20 to 30 wpm, you cannot consciously read what you are typing. It has to just “pass through” from your eyes to your fingers. It took me decades to learn to do this. I can now type from written copy and talk to someone at the same time. On the other hand, I watch most every word I type in a comment section because I make up what is being typed as I go. One can switch back and forth between “autonomatic” and “controlled” actions.

    “If only people realized their choices weren’t free, they would make better choices.” LOL Does he have an “L” tatooed on his forehead?

    “You may predict with even greater certainty what your wife will say when you forget to do the task assigned to you for the umpteenth time.” Then your wife decides to mix it up and just ignore what you didn’t do and say nothing. Because she has free will or not? 🙂

    The “do we have free will” question is like the majority of philosophy—mental gymnastics with no value to real life whatsoever. It’s just thought running wild and pretending to be doing something. (Which is why I had a perfect grade point in philosophy—I can BS with the best of them and make it sound good!!! Yes, my professor knew this. He got over it.)

  5. “If people don’t have free will, then there is no reason to argue, emphatically or like a lady, that they don’t. People can’t make better choices if they can’t make choices.”

    Something’s wrong in that couple of lines.
    Two robots set against each other can have a really nasty row.

    It’s been stated many times before, by the thought policeman, that making choice per se isn’t what is being disputed.
    A dog can choose one toy or another. One bone or another.
    A man choses which nail to hit with his hammer. Top tip. Don’t look at the hammer. Look at the nail, only. Otherwise the air turns blue.

  6. It’s a bit like Golf. Don’t take your eye off the ball even if you can’t see the ball.

    (Don’t argue physio facts with the golf teacher either.
    I had to give up as it became too embarrassing when he asked me to do one thing and I kept doing another.
    Singing teacher? Much more patient.
    It’s all an exercise in self control.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDkV_41qEVM

  7. So, how do you know the words are freely chosen?

    Because no one has produced the cause which determines whether you say !@#$%^ or Holy Moly! or “My turn next!”

    If all you can choose is the option you perceive as best at the time of choosing then there isn’t much of a selection. IOW: no choice. So what is Free Will?

    Because it is free will, not free choice. [In fact, the term used in antiquity was liberum arbitrium, free judgement.] The final cause of a rock in free fall is eminently predictable. That does not mean it is not in free fall. Neither does the fact that the final caise of the will is the Good negate the freedom from determination of the will. Which choice is the best one at this time? IF you do not know completely, your will is not determined completely. You get your first part from Aquinas [cf. “On Evil”] but you don’t reason through.

    The purpose of argument is to change perception. This may lead to changing what is seen as the best option.

    You are beginning to understand. The Enlightenment concept of free will may be incoherent; but that does not mean the medieval concept it. The will is not ‘free’ insofar as it must seek the Good, but what we do or don’t know may obscure what that Good is. That is the liberum arbitrium.

  8. I clicked on the Z-man link. He did not write what you claimed he wrote. That sinks your credibility to zero. That linked post is actually quite interesting and more nuanced than your crude effort to rail against a straw man. The “jman” person is quite interesting.

    You should probably swim back to the shallow depths.

  9. If you choose a red car you could always Paint It Black.

    In fact. It’s the T you’re supposed to watch, not the ball. Where the ball is, then was.

    Knowing how to manipulate normal movement patterns can result in a better golf swing. Well, that’s the problem, the swing is not natural or ergonomic. If it matters that much you will practice and become perfect. The best swing is only as good as the best professional swing. He just does it more of the time. Colin Montgomery said it. Same for singing: the idea is to train enough so that ups and downs of concentration, mood, nerves, health, have less effect. When she lost her father, my instructor informed, she lost her top notes for months.

    Whatever is claimed otherwise, it is not all under our control. Nor did God make things that way. Seedy claims otherwise are just that.
    It’s all about what you ‘want’.
    It’s about love. Whether that is money or any other kind of thing.

    Like singing technique, you’re supposed to learn it all and then forget it, not ponder on it. I see this same message in the NT.

  10. D: So, how do you know the words are freely chosen?
    Y: Because no one has produced the cause which determines whether you say !@#$%^ or Holy Moly! or “My turn next!”

    ??? So not knowing the cause makes it a free choice? As in: I don’t know why XXX occurred today so it must have done so by fee choice? Huh?

    D:So what is Free Will?
    Y: Because it is free will, not free choice.

    But of course! Explains everything.

    the term used in antiquity was liberum arbitrium

    Here I thought it was vay’ latlh. Saying it in another language always makes it clearer, doesn’t it?

    The final cause of a rock in free fall is eminently predictable. That does not mean it is not in free fall.

    It’s in free fall because no one pays for it. Stick to the subject.

    Which choice is the best one at this time? IF you do not know completely, your will is not determined completely.

    Completely determined by whom? Your perception is the sum of what you know which is completely determined at the time of choosing. The option you think is the best is the best. There is no objective standard.

    Besides, didn’t you just say it’s not about choice?
    Quit talking in circles.

  11. @DAV

    If your theory is that people have no Free Will, but are automatons, you must provide a reasonable automation mechanism. Which is a list of causes and effects. If you do not know the cause, then you have no theory.

  12. Given that people sometimes act against their better judgement, that they sometimes need to make a choice between equally good options, and that they sometimes have to choose which criteria to use in evaluating their options, there seems to be little to recommend the idea that “all you can choose is the option you perceive as best at the time of choosing.”

  13. Sander van der Wal,

    The cause is the determination of ‘best option’. The effect is the selected option.
    Since Free Will hasn’t been defined as far as I can tell, please explain how its absence creates an automaton.

    Tim Simmons,
    Given that people sometimes act against their better judgement

    Do they really? Why would any sane person select the second, third or worse option? Or is this ‘better judgement ‘ mere hindsight?

    sometimes have to choose which criteria to use in evaluating their options
    So to choose among X,Y and Z you have to choose how to choose? Infinite recursion. How do you stop? The perception of ‘best’ involves no choice — it’s a belief. Just like the belief that roses smell better than excrement. You can’t choose your beliefs. They just are. You can’t just say “today I’m going to believe X instead of Not X”. Try as you might, unless you have obtained new information (perhaps even generated by yourself), you will still believe X.

  14. Got the sentence backwards. Should have read:
    You can’t just say “today I’m going to believe Not X instead of X”.

  15. ??? So not knowing the cause makes it a free choice?

    In the absence of a demonstrated cause. freedon from constraint is the least hypothesis. Those who contend the will is not free have some obligation to show us the chains.

    Y: Because it is free will, not free choice.
    But of course! Explains everything.

    Only if you’re paying attention. “Will” is an appetite. not a “choice.”

    the term used in antiquity was liberum arbitrium
    Saying it in another language always makes it clearer, doesn’t it?

    Well, Backpfeifengesicht is much clearer in German than in the equivalient English locution. Not all languages express the same concepts with the same clarity. Differences between Greek, Latin, and Syriac caused a great deal of confusion in the early Church. It matters how the old scholastics defined the term because they are the ones who started the debate. How the scientists of the Enlightenment screwed it up is part of the confusion.

    It’s in free fall because no one pays for it. Stick to the subject.

    The use of ‘free’ in ‘free fall’ is the same as its use in ‘free will.’ It means nothing impedes the falling body/will in achieving its good: lowest gravitational potential and the Good, resp.

    IF you do not know completely, your will is not determined completely.

    Your perception is the sum of what you know which is completely determined at the time of choosing. The option you think is the best is the best. There is no objective standard.

    It’s not all perception. Conception is also involved. The intellect is determined to the True in the same way that the will has the Good as its final cause. [Nice to see your acknowledgement of final causes, byw.] But not everything you know is true. Similarly, not everything you want is good. You continue to repeat Aquinas, but drawing the wrong conclusion.

  16. Nigel (is it really?) Bent,

    “Part of what drives the persistence of bad ideas is they seem to address a need among modern people to believe in free will.” “The obvious answer is it supports his main point, but another aspect of it is that old need to believe in free will.”
    https://thezman.com/wordpress/?p=15725

    “As is true in many aspects of this age, science in starting to question that old notion of free will. Genetics is revealing that our genetic code controls more than just our physical appearance. Our cognitive abilities are also controlled by our genes. Just as we cannot choose to be taller or be of another race, we cannot choose to be smarter or more patient or more prudent. It’s not just the larger aspects of pour personality that are fixed by our genetics code. Everything about us is written in our DNA.”
    https://thezman.com/wordpress/?p=16433

    “Again, the universal belief in free will and the blank slate is the bedrock of the modern West.”
    https://thezman.com/wordpress/?p=10871

    “While no one is prepared to say free will is a lie, at least not publicly, no serious person accepts that we are infinitely malleable. The argument that you can change your personality is as nutty as saying you can make yourself taller or younger. This reality used to be a building block of Western thought, but was “discredited” by the blank slate theorists, but it is now being reestablished by genetics.” “Free will, if it is false, is useful for managing human societies.” (A comment from him below.)
    https://thezman.com/wordpress/?p=11936

    Et cetera.

  17. Only if you’re paying attention. “Will” is an appetite. not a “choice.” … The use of ‘free’ in ‘free fall’ is the same as its use in ‘free will.’ It means nothing impedes the falling body/will in achieving its good: lowest gravitational potential and the Good, resp.

    So you finally got around to defining “free will”, I think. If “will” equals “want” then I agree. Being hungry (wanting food) or tired (wanting sleep) may influence your evaluation of choices. Don’t understand why it makes a difference or would be required, though. It’s not like you have any control over what you want — you just want it. I suppose you could wish you were hungry though I can’t think of any reason why you would.

    It’s not all perception. Conception is also involved. …
    Word games. Choice arises from how you see things; not why.

  18. @ Ye Olde Statistician,

    “Those who contend the will is not free have some obligation to show us the chains.”

    Not really, because completely unchained will isn’t will. Free will would be neither chained nor unchained, which is why it would contradict the law of excluded middle.

  19. DAV,

    The fact that people sometimes act against their better judgement has been known to philosophers since Aristotle; it is called akrasia.

    Your response to the problem about which criteria are best does not appear to be satisfactory. Saying that the perception of best involves no choice presupposes that there always is such a thing as perceiving what is best. But in a case where it is not clear what it even means to be best, there can be no such perception.

  20. “A failed argument against free will”
    “A failed argument against free want”
    “A failed argument against free judgement” . Which is it?
    If all the fuss is about judgement which could also be considered a conclusion, or conviction, then a mindless thing could do that if it were programmed to do so.

    The argument is really about the self, hiding behind a distraction.

    If there’s no free will it is because it is a phoney term.

    People believe they are free agents.
    Agents that know right from wrong according to tules set down by laws, whoever’s laws.

    If they break a law, robbery, for example, everybody knows they chose to do so. Everybody knows they either thought they would get away with it or did not care about consequence for a separate set of reasons. The choice is made, the punnishment is separate.
    How is that not free?

    Shifty business. Being in control of your voluntary movement starts with being able to think, calculate, conclude, move. Knowing you are doing so is subjective but not necessarily false.

  21. I am convinced that many scientists just have no idea what philosophical arguments are about. You are always seeing suggestions that, for example, the fact that because they have identified a chemical that has a certain mental effect, that the mind is therefore a physical thing. This is nonsense. People have known for thousands of years that attitudes, feelings, pleasures, and pains can be caused by various drugs. Do you think Aristotle didn’t know that wine can affect someone’s attitude? The mind/brain debate developed in a world where people were fully aware that the mind is effected by physical influences, so the idea that the discovery of another physical influence should settle the question is so absurd, it makes you wonder whether the person suggesting such a thing has any idea what the debate is even about.

    I got the same impression reading Z-man’s thoughts on free will. The entire debate evolved in an environment where everyone was well aware of genetic dispositions. In fact, genetic dispositions were taken more seriously in the past than they are today. How would a bit more detailed knowledge about genetic dispositions possibly have any bearing at all on this issue? I have to conclude that Z-man just does not grasp the nature of the debate.

  22. Tim Simmons,
    The fact that people sometimes act against their better judgement has been known to philosophers since Aristotle; it is called akrasia.

    Akrasia can be summed-up as “weak willed”. Those ancients were so smart! They could do things we can’t! They even knew what others were thinking! Sorry but it’s more likely they were saying “not a choice *I* would have made!” Today we call that virtue signaling. An opinion; not fact.

    Joy,
    good point!

  23. I remember JayMan, how’s he doing raising new baby, or probably not a baby anymore by now… Free Will is overestimated from one’s own perspective sure, but choosing the right friends makes a huge difference.

  24. Here’s a thought experiment for you: let us say that every occurrence in this universe is predetermined (so: no free will). I’m not going to talk about quantum mechanics; let’s just assume, as Briggs does, that everything random is only random because of our ignorance of (be)causes. tum dum tss. Thus, at least in principle, the motion of any system is knowable a priori, given its current state. Now suppose that you sit in front of a table having an apple and an orange on top of it. The omniscient scientist/oracle does his thing and tells you: ok, you are going to pick the apple. Now, you KNOW that you can sabotage this farce by picking the orange or just saying “screw you”. Thus, there is free will. QED. (What we have actually shown is that, if there is predeterminacy, then it is not knowable)

  25. DAV,

    I suppose that’s a possible way to resolve the problem with akrasia, but I must have missed the part where you offered independent reasons for thinking so and where you disputed Paul’s first person account in the letter to the Romans (7:14 – 8:2).

  26. Tim Simmons,

    What you seem to have missed is that the assessment of best optiom is entirely subjective. Short of mind reading it’s impossible to know what the chooser was thinking. Even asking may not yield an accurate answer. So, unless you think Aristotle, et al. were accomplished mind readers, they couldn’t know if the choice was suboptimal to the chooser.

  27. Hmm. There’s a lot to question there, but it seems like you’ve shot yourself in the epistemological foot. If there is no knowing what an agent is thinking short of reading his mind, then you have no basis for claiming that we always choose what we think best. Perhaps that’s how rational decisions work, but how can you say we make rational decisions if you can’t compare the decisions we make to the states of mind in which we make them?

  28. then you have no basis for claiming that we always choose what we think best.

    1) Only an insane person would take what they think is the less than optimum option. It’s unlikely even the insane would, as well. They are insane because their evaluations are so skewed.
    2) All argument for “making the right choice” centers on the value of the consequences of the choice: “It’s good for you because ….”, “It’s bad for you because..”, “Think of the children!”, “You’ll end up in Hell”, “It may be a lot of fun but …”, etc.
    3) Punishment and reward is merely physical argument.
    4) need I go on?

  29. Dav, If all counter-examples to you claim “we always choose to do what we think best” be waved away a priori, then all you are doing is proposing that “what we choose to do” is logically identical to “what we think best”, in which case, your statement is a mere tautology: “we always choose to do what we choose to do”.

  30. David Gudeman,

    LOL! I usually say: “we always choose to do what we think is the best [b]option[/b]”

  31. LOL! I usually say: “we always choose to do what we think is the best ]option

    Got burn’t by another forum’s typesetting conventions.
    Is this better?

  32. “No, in order to prove the lack of free will, you need to demonstrate without error the causes of every action. And that will never be possible.”

    This sounds like the opposite of your argument against things being “caused by randomness”. Lack of ability to explain or understand the cause doesn’t negate the existence of cause.

    Let me reverse the above claim: “to prove the presence of free will, you need to demonstrate without error that some component of a given action is necessarily unpredictable or uncaused”.

    You may argue that a completely “caused” choice is not a choice at all, but that’s actually the critical point to be examined, and a more profitable discussion than trying to argue that causeless choices exist.

  33. It is finished. It was ‘free judgement’ all along.
    Telling people what they already know and don’t disagree about.
    The search is o for the place where the person resides. Or what consciousness is. Really, where the heart is. The same thing as the notion of ordering or orienting to goodness.
    Pretending that not knowing the outcome of a decision means you are free is plain silly. As if you’re in a casino so it’s okay to gamble, or some other weirdness.

    You either believe you are free agent within material constraints or within the wider context of metaphysical realm.
    Whatever is ture. Everybody’s the same.

  34. Fr. Barnabas Powell had a good sermon about free will. He cuts out most of the theological rationalist stuff and gets down to the basic point:

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/faithencouraged/2019/03/learning-to-choose-2/

    “But the main purpose here is to, once again, give Humanity the invitation to mature by exercising their spiritual “muscles,” their weakened wills, to choose rightly; to choose obedience over expediency or immediate gratification. This remedy to our weaknesses, our untamed passions, is meant for our salvation and maturity.”

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