Free Will … Or Not

There’s been a bit of discussion on a couple of blogs related to “free will” and I thought I would add mine to the pile.

What is “free will”? Psychology Today describes it thus:

Free will is the idea that humans have the ability to make their own choices and determine their own fates.

It follows up with this question:

Is a person’s will free, or are people’s lives in fact shaped by powers outside of their control?

Personally, I lean towards the second part of the above question –that we are influenced by things outside of our control– and I explain why below. I’ve shared my perspective on a couple of blogs and the responses have been … well, interesting.

Here are my thoughts …

All we have is NOW. The past is gone; the future has not yet arrived. We cannot change what has already happened any more than we can control what will come. We can learn from the past and use this knowledge in an attempt to modify our future, but essentially, we have no control over even the next second. It is only in our minds that either has substance. 

Thus, in essence, we are simply pawns of time. While we may have the ability to make choices as mentioned in the referenced statement in Psychology Today, we actually have no control over how things will turn out since there are multiple factors that come into play.

Example: You agree to join friends at the local pub on Friday night (sans a pandemic), but between then and “now,” you suffer a serious injury and you’re unable to keep the appointment. You made a choice … but because you have no power over what the future holds, you were unable to follow through.

Believers like to say that “free will” means that God gives humans the opportunity to make choices that affect their destiny. In this sense, free will is merely a decision; that is, the act of making up your mind whether to take Door #1 or Door #2. In the end, however, there are no guarantees the decision you make will come to pass.

How do you feel about free will? Do you agree with me that our choices in life are actually determined by the limitations of time? Or do you feel it’s as the Britannica describes it — the power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints?

Or do you go along with the idea that God is somehow involved in your decisions/choices?

(NOTE: There are philosophical discussions related to free will and determinism, but this is not what I have in mind for this post so please try to avoid addressing this theory.)

I look forward to your thoughts on this problematic topic.

44 thoughts on “Free Will … Or Not

  1. Well, the primary main character in one of my Works-In-Progress novels is thinking hard and long (and emotionally) about these things. I hadn’t planned for it at all, but I was developing her character and circumstances, I found her somewhat obsessed with these and/or related questions. So, we’ll see how that works out!

    I’d say, human choice is complicated. What makes something a free choice? Am I free if my feelings and thoughts are such there is one choice in a given circumstance that I might ever make, or could ever even contemplate making? These questions of semantics can make saying what one means so that others can understand one difficult. But dealing with all that would take a blog post of my own, if not a book, so I will try to be concise (at the cost of clarity).

    Some “choices” (though we may not recognize them at the time) do affect our destiny, even to the possibility of effecting it. However, in many areas we are more or less affected by our environments (including the past – and maybe the future?). At the core level of the Will, I don’t think anyone or anything “forces” a human being to behave one way or the other, but on more superficial levels (though they may have lasting impact for specific individuals or even the whole world), I’m not sure. This would take a long time to flesh all – also, there’s a lot I don’t have opinions on. As far as I can tell, it could be one way, could be another.

    I do believe the universe, our lives, and our destinies are affected by God or the Divine Will, but not in any sense that implies that we are forced or coerced into one choice, path, or destiny, or another.

    If I succeeded, that made some sense, though it is definitely not as clear as I would like, given more space (as well as time, attention, and effort – or, to be honest, a novel; I not only share my thoughts, I think them and discover them and refine them through the process of writing stories).

    Oh, by the way, I really liked what you said about Time! We only live and choose in that time which is Now to us, and we control not even the next second, just as you said!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Raina. You’re not one of my “regulars” so I truly appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. And of course, I LOVE that you identified with my “time” remarks. 🙂

      As for “free will” –it’s definitely a difficult topic to address in a blog comment but it does provide an avenue to share and compare our ideas and thoughts with others.

      I hope you’ll drop by again … and often.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Question for you, Jim: Can our brain structure and neurons control our thoughts about otherwordly happenings or possibilities? I ask because they are matter, so they can not know about non-matter. (Speaking of which, why does matter have two t’s, while material only has one t? Is material not made of matter?)

      .

      Liked by 1 person

      • The root of the word has a storied history. Does it matter; ultimately mater is to measure the mother, ie, does it measure up to anything?
        And I would disagree. Mind cannot seek mind, nor can matter discover the roots of matter. They require a background, or an opposite to realize awareness of the other. It’s one process.

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        • My mind is aware it is a mind. More than an ego, less than a spirit. The background is in knowing what tasks each fulfills in the awareness of life. Ego is the bus driver, mind is the translator, and spirit is the connector to Other. We can live without ego, we can survive without mind, but we are nothing without spirit.
          And yes, Other is what makes awareness of self even possible. It is the driving point in life discovering it has awareness, on whatever level of life one might wish to discuss, for there are many levels of life.
          Neurons and matter exist on this level alone, so they cannot know other levels. The storied history you talk about is the history of this level alone.And it is that history that traps us upon and within this level. To be open to other levels, to accept there are other levels, takes mind. And everything bows down to spirit, not in obeisance, but in respect of its abilities.
          This probably sounds like gobbledygook doublespeak, which is what it is if your mind is closed, not meaning you or anyone personally, but just the general, all-encompassing you.
          On the other hand, I just may be insane…

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            • True enough, my friend, and there are many other ways to achieve being out of [our minds], but never forget, being out of our minds does not necessitate that we be insane. In fact, I think it makes us unsane! (See my definition in the Urban Dictionary.)

              Liked by 1 person

  2. The debate seems timeless. I am reminded of the late writer Isaac Bashevis Singer whose observation seems to me a good summary of the unresolvable argument.

    “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”

    Liked by 7 people

  3. So much to say, so little time to say it. But a couple of matters first: In your response to the Psychology Today quotes, you changed the word “powers” to “”things” outside of your control. Reading with intention, you completely changed the intent of the quotation. The word “powers” can mean anything from a supreme being to a boss or local authority, but it would seem to mean at the very least someone who controls you, or what happens to you. The word “things” suggests no control, but only happenstance–not even what most people call coincidence. The car running a red light as you proceed seemingly safely through an intersectiondoes affect your life, but the there was no attempt at control, no illusion of intentional power. Wrong place, wrong time–the true definition of an accident (unless the driver going through the red light was paid to harm you; what would be the chance of that?).
    Your discussion of time, and the Now, are what I mean why I talk about chaos. There is no element of free will involved. And though you may make a decision, then be unable to follow through on that decision for circumstances beyond your control, that provides no intention of your own or anyone else’s intention or will either. Most people call that chance. I call it chaos, because no matter how much anyone tries to control their own lives, or the lives of others, shit happens.
    I do not remember what book it was in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but Douglas Adams has a fleet of aliens come to conquer earth, but we only find out at the most chaotic moment that the fleet is almost microscopic in size as a neighbourhood dog swallows the fleet in one gulp, thinking they are a swarm of insects flying by. Who could have seen that coming? (Though, if Adams had really thought about it, the fleet would probably not have been destroyed by the dogs digestive system–if it had survived a trip through outer space, it would have survived the trip through the dogs bowels, and out its ass. Then it would have proceeded with its conquest of earth, and no one on earth would have known they had been conquered. But in that same instant the Vogons destroyed the earth in building the superflyway through our star system. The Vogons, meanwhile, had no idea it was our solar system, as they did not know our star is sometimes called Sol.) That was a beautiful description of chaos, at least to my way of thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But I have not yet discussed free will pro or con. I love the Isaac Singer quote above, for it is more than just humorous. But even that I disagree with. Aside from birth and death, there are no musts or shoulds in this world–to get here we must be born, and we must die, barring anyone inventing an infinity pill. We choose, more or less, our time of birth, but not with intention. When we choose to come, we force mom’s legs apart, and out we pop (ignoring, for this discussion, caesarian sections or violent removals from the womb)! We can also choose our time and even method of death, but most of us wait for it to happen on its own. Again, no free will involved in most instances.
      But between birth and death, oooooh, the possibilities are endless. But you ask, Nan, do I (we readers) believe in free will or not? Being a true atheist, the cosmos being devoid of any controlling agent, I believe in free will. I can do anything I damn well please, but if so, I also have to be willing to accept such consequences as might be set upon me by the society I live in. Thus, if I wanted to shoot someone on Fifth Ave, no one could stop me. After the fact there might be those who would choose to punish me, if I did in publicly without trying to hide my actions, but chances are I would get away with it. Notwithstanding I would probably get away with it, I would not do that because that would be irresponsible to life, and life is where I draw my responsibility from. My will is only as free as I will it to be!
      If you know me, and I believe you know me fairly well, Nan, you might think I only believe in free will here on earth, while on another level of the cosmos, I have experienced another being who seems to know more about me than even I do. He/she/it gave me a choice to continue my life on earth, or move forward to the next life. Further, it said that if I returned to that level before my [earthly] death, I would not be allowed to return to this body, rawgod, ever again. But, having defined the limits, I was still allowed to make my choice, which is obvious to everyone.
      I do not know, should I choose to return to that level, if the limits told to me will be enforced. Most likely I will not choose to try. But the only way to discover the truth of the being‘s words would be to test them, and someday I just might be curious enough to try. No matter what, the choices are mine. I know I have free will.
      Thank you, again, for the opportunity to speak my life.
      (Just by the way, Nan, if you sent the PKD email, I have not yet seen it. A few days ago we experienced a cellular blackout in our area, and since then I have only received emails written after the blackout ended. I would not have expected that to happen, seeing as my actual email is on the gmail ISP, but I am not a geek, so I do not know if I lost any emails or not, but there are no time stamps for the period in question.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • OT –I did reply to your email. I will resend.

        On topic –you wrote: I can do anything I damn well please, but if so, I also have to be willing to accept such consequences as might be set upon me by the society I live in. Yes, you can make the choice, e.g., you have the free will, to do anything you “damn well please,” but TIME is the determinant as to whether you actually carry out the action. This is the point I’m making in my post.

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        • Not to fight, Nan, but I don’t see time as a determinant. More people carry out more of their choices than they do not. Time only affects some of them. And that includes having the time to change their choices, and their minds.

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  4. Nan. There is no bottom to this can of worms! Philosophers and theists, men and women of high intellect have wrestled, still wrestle, with this question.

    I suppose we are dealing with a sound mind, acceptable morals, and no influence from unknown spiritual entities.

    Alexei Navalny, of his own free will, chose to return to Russia knowing what would be the most likely result. There was a very remote chance that he would not be arrested. Regardless of the outcome, he exercised his free will. Of course, he was arrested.

    I think that when a person chooses to join a religion, they surrender their free will. But didn’t they make that choice by their free will? America does not yet have a state religion, but in nations that do, that argument wouldn’t be true.

    “A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives— of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation, is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.”
    Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Kindle Locations 11287-11289).

    Hopefully. we use our life experiences to determine our decision making. Because we make those considerations does not mean the decision is not made freely. We have to separate the outcome from the choice. Those things that may occur outside our control are future to the decisions we make. Who knows where lightning will strike next? But we would not go out in a thunderstorm with our tinfoil hats on, would we?

    Liked by 1 person

    • …when a person chooses to join a religion…
      I will begin by asking, how many people get to choose to join a religion? Relatively few. Even in the free-thinking West, most of us are still brought up already in a religion. Your parents, or other authorities in your life, have you believing in religion,
      , any religion, before you are old enough to know you are in it. You are brainwashed from Day 1 of your life, if not before. Some people might go so far as to say we are programmed to believe in religion.
      It is mainly only when we start to see the contradictions in whatever religion we have been brought up in that we start to question that religion. And how many religions or religious people are you aware of that congratulate you for discovering there are contradictions in religion? Very very few. Rather they bombard you with guilt and shame, telling you that you will lose your place in paradise if you continue to question your beliefs. I have said this elsewhere, but I will say it here again, no being, I don’t care who or what they are, is born with the awareness of religious belief inside them. It is mainly achieved by brainwashing.
      However, if you are allowed to begin life without religion, you will encounter it somewhere along the line. And it will most likely look very attractive to you if no one has taught you to think critically. Look at all the MAGAts in the States, none of them know how to think critically, not even as adults. They have been brainwashed to believe others in order to know what they think. In essence, they have no free will because they were never taught they could think freely. They do what they are told by the strongest authorities surrounding them in their early upbringings. This is why Trump won the 2016 election in America, and why he came so close to winning the 2020 election. But that is for another place and time.
      If a person does get to choose to join a religion, it is either because they got to know the fellowship of being in a religion, just they didn’t like the religion they were in so they seek to replace it with another. Or, and this is the saddest part of all, they lack the inner strength to live free of the fellowship of others. Everyone tells us we need the companionship of others, but who will those others be? Since most if the people in this world are religious, they are the ones you encounter most often. And you become a product of those surroundings. You crave the fellowship of others because you were brainwashed to believe that, even if nothing else.
      Most beings on our planet have a sort of free will, but mostly they run on instinct. Charles Darwin talks about the separation of man from animals, as you mentioned. But even that belief must be questioned. To greater or lesser extent we are separated only because we need to feel superior, but are we? I’ll let you answer that.
      Think about your own life, how much do you rely on your instinct, also known as your gut feelings. The potential for free will is there, but not everyone achieves it in any particular lifetime. But over a series of lifetimes (I believe in reincarnation) we overcome our instincts, and start to develop our capability to think, to determine. And over many lifetimes, we realize that we have free will to do most anything we can think of. Yay, us!
      If there were no truly free will, we would be mired in religion, or whatever we were brainwashed to believe as children. And that would make for a boring life!

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  5. I sort of lean in your direction Nan. First of all, I do not believe in a g*d being involved in my decisions or in anything else.

    I think I have free will and can make choices in life but only as circumstance allows. So, sitting here now I can choose to meet my friends on Friday night but between now and then it’s circumstances that decide whether I’ll make it or whether I’ll break my leg before then. Circumstance has a sense of humour.
    Huge Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think this is what you see is what you get all served up by our powerful uncontrollable brains. The idea of free will is not really just your conscious mind deciding anything but the massive subconscious mind that always influences everything you think, say, do and see without consciously being aware of the subconscious or unconscious mind as it is sometimes known and its unbelievable power on your whole being that includes all cognitive and physical aspects of the human.

    The free will we think we have is not in our control, take Trump supporters or Hitlers supporters, fanatical or even general believers in any of the gods for example. The neuroscientists can see where the brain changes but cannot say why intelligent people make such weird, unusual and obviously many stupid decisions or become indoctrinated because they cannot pull data from the subconscious mind of a human and the gene pool does not answer all their questions.

    The subconscious does I believe record what ever experience you have regardless of how minor or insignificant it is and with or without emotional responses. A passing comment from someone you may never remember or have cared about, a face you may have seen but cannot recall, the feelings you had about a decision faded a long time ago and a movie that made you think about something 50 years ago, all this and many millions of normal minor events that had no effect on you at the time will surface in decision making. Some like a face or name may be recalled by your consciousness, but most will not, however it will still drive the decisions you make. Of course, luck, randomness and the law of averages then come into play as to the success of your decisions.

    We already establish psychologically why some people commit crimes, it is the same brain process using millions of bits of data that makes someone decide to boil their eggs rather than fry them. My opinions only,

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve yet to find a will for less than a buck fifty no matter where I’ve looked. Hell, I’m not even sure if I found one for free I’d trust it to work properly. I’d ask myself, “Oh, this guy’s got a free will! Ha! I bet the damn thing’s fulla glitches and will stop working properly after a day or two. Naw. I’ll stick with the 5 dollar wills. I know those work right at least half the time.”

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Until we master a subject or facts there can be no free will, just desires to fill and attachments to follow.. Just take a look at most peoples diet. They think they have free will to eat anything without consequence but a man who has mastered the effects of food knows better.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Our will is free and not free. We are free to make choices within the context we are in. But, there are sensory perceptions that are below conscious recognition. These can be used to manipulate people (it is called subliminal advertising in that trade). We can also extend our senses to become aware of such stimuli and discount them. (One example is to not go grocery shopping when hungry as subliminal odors will result in some “off list” purchases. There are memes regarding this phenomenon.) But do realize that the stimulus itself is not all powerful. Just because the movie screen flashes “Drink Coke” too quickly to be recognized, it may not have much power unless you are thirsty. If you are and decide a soda is for you, it may affect which soda you select, but if you can’t abide sodas it is not going to overwhelm your distaste.

    So, as usual, nature is more complicated than we think. We are not deterministic robots, nor are we free to choose things without any unseen manipulation. But even if signals are sent to try to influence you, who is making the decision that is being made? It clearly is you. The only consideration is what goes into the making of that decision. (That there is will is not being debated, it is whether that will is free or not and the answer is “yes.”)

    Now, many people think that decision making is a conscious activity. I suggest that it is mostly not. Think of people who “research” new cars because they are in the market for one. Do they make a list of decision criteria ahead of time? Do they make a list of tradeoff values (if it doesn’t have key-less ignition, is that a deal breaker or would you trade that for something else?). Do they set up a decision making system that allows all of the various aspects of the decision to play out? The short answer is “no.” They read a few things, then they go for test drives, then they buy a car they can afford that kinda-sorta appeals to them. All of the data weighing is done subconsciously and the decision maker is clueless as to why they actually bought that car (although they will invent a long list of reasons to make it sound as if they are a careful decision maker).

    Discussions of free will are almost always limited to conscious decision making, which is incomplete as many, many decisions are made subconsciously. And we do not know enough about subconscious thinking to be able to have an informed conversation about subconscious free will just yet. So, free will discussions are premature, in my mind, for that reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re correct … Discussions of free will are almost always limited to conscious decision making — but IMO, it goes much deeper than that.

      We can make the decision –and we can progress towards that decision– but we have no control over whether our decision will ever come to pass because in actuality, we are at the mercy of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Of course we have free will. Almost everybody knows that.

    But what does “free will” actually mean? Nobody knows that. The answers people give are all over the map.

    If you want to see people talking past one another, start a discussion of free will. It’s guaranteed to work.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I’m thinking of a line from a song by the band Dead Can Dance; ‘Freedom exists within unconditioned minds’.
    Privilege and opportunity are also important considerations, because they can severely limited the choices available to an individual.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Nan, I like to keep it simple. Aristotle said it many years ago – we are creatures of habit. Many things we do are just habits and we know not why we do them, maybe a forebear did it that way, who knows.

    In merger situations as a consultant, I have seen the two sides defend a practice tooth and nail, but neither side of the merger knew why they did it that way. It was just our way. That holds true with people’s personal lives as well.

    Let me end with the philosophy of Neal Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the rock band “Rush” who had a great song called “Free Will.” The best line of the song follows:

    “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    So, by doing those habitual things, you have made a choice not to decide.
    Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes! Habit…following the pathways of our habits!.

      Read an interesting disagreement with a common belief these days, that addicts are “ill”. The psychologist in question rejected that idea. He described addiction as habit…and that is NOT downplaying the power of our addictions at all. Habits are powerful. Habits rewire brains.

      That is certainly something I can agree with. (Sugar is not illegal of course…and it is even subsidized!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • There is very good book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles DuHigg who supports your point. He notes that we must find the trigger to a bad habit recognizing it as such. Then we can try to create a new better habit. He noted how an addict working at Starbucks changed his life. He was taught better habits in dealing with frustrations at work, poor customer behavior, failures, etc. It spilled over into his personal life.

        Keith

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  13. Steven Pinker has written more about this.

    While I do not think it either is or is not, I lean toward the idea that there is no such thing as absolute free will. As far as some god being so thoughtful as to not make me do things his or her way. Nice. But BS!

    I have the freedom to finish this post and grab a beer from the fridge. I think I could also choose to trash this and go for a bike ride. But can I chose to ride naked (it is cold out)? If I am willing to deal with the consequences of my behavior, maybe I can.

    I did decide not to fly to D.C. on January 6th and I did not will myself to attack the US Capitol Building and build a gallows to hang members of congress (unless I get to pick them [joking, sort of]).

    I did not wake up one day and decide to be bald. I did not decide to be 69 inches tall, but I do exercise and eat a semi-healthy diet. Anyway….

    The biggest HELL YES! I have for you is the “right here, right now” concept. If I have a favorite mantra, that’s it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Id like to think that my mind is not just flipping coins and I’m along for the ride. But I can’t prove it aint so!

    My decision between fudge tracks and butter pecan often ends in both! I’m not sure what that means, but I like it!

    Liked by 1 person

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