A Final Note On The Existence of Free Will


Over the past few weeks, I’ve read quite a bit about free will in the hope of expanding on the position I elucidated in a previous post. What I’ve discovered along the way is a stronger commitment to compatibilism.

In the first place, compatibilism is the view of a large majority of philosophers (60% compatibilism; 19% libertarianism; 11% no free will.)[224]  Furthermore among evolutionary biologists, 80% said that they believe in free will while only 14 percent chose no free will, and 7 percent did not answer the question.[225] (Obviously this depends on the definition free will offered in the previous post.)

Now these stats don’t necessitate my position but I’m always interested in the views of other philosophers and scientists. But in the end, I reiterate that freedom—like consciousness and meaning—is an emergent property of the evolutionary process. I know this gives no specifics about how our complex brains make decisions but the ability to deliberate and choose (accepting all the determining casual factors—upbringing, education, neurophysiology, etc.) is a property or ability that slowly emerges in complex brains. And yes I do need to further explain emergence here.

But I reject the claim that we are as determined as ants or bumble bees. And, as I said before, free will exists to various degrees in individuals.

Finally, let me say that I’m embarrassed that after reading so much in the last few weeks I can’t say more. But the literature on the issue is so voluminous that it would take the rest of my life to adequately digest it. Not wanting to do this I have taken a provisional position which is open to further revisal. For the moment though I’m committed to some form of compatibilism. I’m particularly drawn to the compatibilism of Daniel Dennett in his book Freedom Evolves.

Here are a few of the sources that I’ve been reading over the last few weeks:

Free Will by Sam Harris (a defense of hard determinism.)

Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will by Robert Sapolsky (a defense of hard determinism.)

Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett (defends compatibility with an evolutionary twist.)

Does Quantum Mechanics Rule Out Free Will?” by John Horgan (a critique of superdeterminism.)

From Chaos To Free Will” by George Ellis (a physicist on why so many other physicists on wrong about free will.)

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will” by John Martin Fischer (a scathing review of Sapolsky’s book.)

Some Thoughts on Sam Harris’ Final Thoughts on Free Will” by Ed Gibney (an astute criticism of Harris’ book.)

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9 thoughts on “A Final Note On The Existence of Free Will

  1. A final remark from a pragmatic hillbilly:
    I am not knowledgeable of terms used and positions taken on the free will question. Am not sure either if free will is a concern of sentient lifeforms only. It does not feel like a *hard problem* to me. I wrote elsewhere about pets encountered while I was quite young, asking how conscious those creatures may have been, in lieu of the old behaviorist position conditioning. An ordinary domestic duck recognized a large orange school bus that brought my brother and I home in the afternoon. A pet groundhog (woodchuck) had a sweet tooth for pumpkin pie…something he would not have gotten in a wild habitat. And, he remembered that treat, when he escaped captivity. So, “free will” is whatever it may be. The duck and groundhog knew nothing about determinism.

  2. Thanks for including one of my free will essays in this list! That’s quite a good group of writers to be included among. I will also say that I understand your brevity and reticence to dive in more. My work on consciousness and free will (the two topics are inextricably intertwined) took everything I had to complete and I only had the time to do it because Covid lockdowns made so much of other life impossible. I’m very glad I went through the long exercise though and I will get back to that project soon to try and get some of it published in peer-reviewed journals. Until then, I’m happy to hear you land on compatibilism, Dennet’s free will worth wanting, and an evolutionary emergence of that free will (perhaps more easily described as an increase in degrees of freedom). Thanks again!

  3. I have a rather concise perspective on the subject-for what it’s worth. I offer only two simple elements in making my determination:

    1. My biology has afforded me ample opportunity to respond to stimuli.

    2. I have never-not one single time-ever actively and consciously selected a thought that has entered my head.

    Beyond that, my ideas are riddled with bias, anecdotal accounts, and speculation. But as with most, I anxiously pretend as though I am not powerless and have “some” agency. But any attempt to put “free will” into action instantly walks me into a paradox so for me compatibilism is no solution. So for now, I fall into the 11% who deny its existence. Still, this is based on a weak-footed assumption. I assume there is an “I“ that exists.

  4. We can will what we will. But can we will what we willed to will? And if we did, can we will what we willed to willed to will? And so on, ad infinitum. So, where does it starts?

    This is one of the problems that Schopenhauer posed in regard to ‘free will’.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Freedom_of_the_Will

    I was thinking today how easy is to imagine that I’d open my window and land myself on a distant star, impervious to instantaneous disintegration by cosmic forces, etc.

    Or that 10 years ago I could have made a different choice than a bad one I made.

    And yet, all the choices we make are bound by hard reality. Except for ‘trivial freedom’. When it comes to the things that carry real weight, we are indeed like mere ants.

    My view is that ‘free will’ is simply the power of imagination. I imagine I could have done B instead of A, but only in retrospect.

    What silly tricks I play to myself. Of course, my understanding and knowledge in this subject is (very) little. I try to learn what I can. Thank you.

  5. Behind a choice, or even an action, there’s always a reason, or a cause. Otherwise it must be a random occurrence.

    Neither case seem to be at all a product of free will. Free will would have to be completely unhindered , in order to be free. If it’s hindered by anything, it can’t be free.

    This is my (very small) understanding of the subject so far.

  6. ”….As I said before, physical freedom refers only to material hindrances, with the absence of which it coincides. In many cases, however, one observes, that, unrestrained by material hindrances, a person is kept from acting as would certainly have been consistent with his will by mere motives, such as threats, promises, perils, and the like. One must ask, then, whether such a person had still been free?”.

    Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics) (p. 37). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition. ‘

    Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics) (p. 37). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

  7. Even assuming we had free will, AS asked: is the will itself free?

    Some years ago I could have chosen to visit Ukraine , but now I have a stronger motive to not go, so I won’t go. On a subjective level, I seem to have ‘free will’, but is it really free?

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