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Free will?

Do you believe humans have free will?

I've had quite a few discussions on free will with both theists and atheists. Most theists obviously believe we have free will, and I see a lot of atheists don't think we have free will. Their argument is based on determinism, where anything that happens is the only thing that could have happened. So the choices we make are the only choices we could have made and we only have the illusion of free will. When we make a choice, it was the only path our brain could take in terms of the neurons that are active.. and even if we are faced with numerous choices, we only appear to be the one making the final choice, but in reality, the final choice we simply the most active neural track.

I don't believe that, well most of that. I say that we have a biological free will. A function that evolved out of necessity. A common deterministic thought experiment is Buridan's ass. It states that if a hungry donkey were placed between 2 piles of hay that are exactly the same and have the exact same amount of influence, then the donkey will starve to death as it is unable to choose. My argument is that a neural function evolved out of necessity to avoid that from happening. It would have evolved early in life, when life was simple and barely had 3 or 4 different functions. At some point, there would be neurons telling it to do something that contradicts other neurons saying something else, both with equal influence.. and that would be detrimental to its survival. With all the things neurons can do, I don't think it's farfetched to think that at some point, a function evolved that allows a choice to be made no matter how influential the neurons are. A brain that evolved that function would be better suited for survival that one that didn't.

That isn't to say our choices aren't influenced and for the most part, life typically follows the neural path of least resistance.. but at any moment, we are free to follow any of the choices laid before us.

I also think there is a big push back from atheists with free will because religion absorbed the concept. They're automatically against the concept because religion claims free will was given to us from the supernatural. I feel that just because a religion absorbs a concept and tries to claim it as its own, doesn't mean we should let them.

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FatherOfNyx 7 July 14

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To quote Napolean Dynamite "I'll do whatever I feel like I wanna do, gosh!"


For the next 30 seconds try not to have free will, if you can’t do it it must be because you have free will.


We have free will but it is not absolute, consider addiction as an example.

one chooses the path they follow, whatever it may be.


That donkey will not starve until both piles are depleted and the donkey has no remaining food source. Buridan needed more exposure to animal life.

Or starve and dehydrate, depending on speaker.


I think this debate topic tends to conflate freedom of choice with free will.

Free will is a theoretical philosophical construct.

On the other hand, we all have limited freedom of choice within a menu of feasible / possible choices with consequences that are acceptable to us. We make such choices all the time. But that is not free will. Free will would be the ability to make ANY random decision without limitations or concern for consequences. It would require omnipotence -- the ability to be completely non-dependent and unaccountable.

As to whether choice or volition is real or imagined ... it's a combination of the two. I usually have a real choice in how I respond to certain stimuli, e.g., to be callous or compassionate, kind or an asshat ... to act or not act at all, etc. On the other hand, because of my past experiences, my personality and other proclivities, my intellectual and emotional range, my level of education on the topic at hand, my perceptual limitations, etc., I'm far more constrained that I'd like to think that I am. It requires real effort and a willingness to get out of my comfort zone to expand my repertoire of behaviors and responses, to overcome the inertia of habit.

I've never heard anyone link omnipotence and free will before.

@FatherOfNyx Yes, this appears to be an argument that only God has free will, and the rest of us have only...will.

@Heraclitus It's an argument that there can be no truly free will unless it is free of all consequences. Since I'm an atheist, that is an argument that there is no one with free will.

Perhaps you have a definition for free will that allows one to somehow have it despite being in any way constrained? I'd happily entertain it.

The trick is that if you define free will as requiring omnipotence, then by definition no one can have free will except a theoretical god, and some would argue that even God is not free from all consequences depending upon the theoretical god you choose to believe in. But for an atheist, you have simply defined free will out of existence. This is not an argument. There is nothing to argue about since free will, by definition does not exist.

But, if you are interested, some Compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one's determined motives without hindrance from other individuals. This is still a restricted form of free will, yet still allows for some degree of freedom.

Frankly, I have never liked the very term "free will" because if you have to be totally free from any influence, including that of your environment, then it would follow that there is no free will. I think philosophers have been tripping over themselves for millinnia because of the very ambiguous and ill-defined nature of this term.

@Heraclitus Agreed. That's why I focus on freedom of choice, which everyone has some degree of. True, sometimes, all known options suck, and you can flip a coin because you can't see a clear way forward that's better than another. But we clearly make choices all day, every day. I just chose to reply to you; I could just as well chosen not to. That's not unfettered free will, but it's enough to make me feel like there's a point to my existence, which is all that actually matters.


If you consider that humans do not have a form of instincts then biological free will is obvious. Humans have evolved past a point of automatic decision making. We are affected by mores and tradition, but can move against those as well. I think many people take the easiest route which is to follow the crowd, but the choice is there.
I find the idea of free will in religion interesting because religion tries to subdue this within the human race. If you move outside the mores of society you are punished, therefore instituting control.
I think humans have evolved intelligence that allows free will, but traditions and mores such as religion help to keep it in check.


Free Will. Just pay shipping.


On my youth I punched once a dude that told me I had no Free Will. I simply said... "You Made Me Do It, You Are Right, Thank You for the lesson brother, if you want to take it any further I am Free and Willing ". I never liked the guy anyways.


That Buridan's donkey thing is about as stupid as it gets, example-wise.........hunger is one of the prime motivators in any species!

It's a weak argument, but a determinist will swear on everything they hold dear that the donkey will starve to death.

@FatherOfNyx but these people feed themselves unassisted? Doubt it!

@AnneWimsey Well they would argue that when presented with more than one choice, one will always be more influential than the rest.

@FatherOfNyx yes, true, but primal needs such as hunger will wipe those veneers away in a second! Hunger or spider stew!?


I gave up at the donkey.... It may starve to death after randomly eating one stack of hay and then the other if it happens to be the only food available to that poor fellow condemned to starve in this argument anyway. Also, according to what I read far within the super long posting, somehow my illusion of free will had me writing this response "excatly" as it is, typos and all.......


A long winded argument that ends with nothing.

I have rarely seen such pontificating. We make choices. Hence, freewill. It's really pretty simple.


I don't think it's just about neural pathways, but the fact that our biochemistry plus events in our life that condition us to care more about some things than others, shaping our desires, priorities, and values, are outside of our control. We are not the authors of our desires, and anything we do to make a change to our habits is because we see some value in doing so, which is again outside of our control. In that way, we feel the tussle of making a decision but are really along for the ride based on those predetermined factors that nudge our preferences and values and so forth. But there are different degrees of freedom so, while libertarian free will doesn't make sense, there is a measure of freedom in being able to act in accordance with our desires. This is the sort of freedom a prisoner doesn't have, nor does someone with a gun to their head have such freedom. Even social pressure, to a lesser extent, impinges freedom. This plays into compatibilism, though I generally reject it as a linguistic trick to square the circle of free will.


The world is way to complex to try and simplify it to something this simple. It's easy to look back on past decisions and think that they must have been the only options. No, you went through a multitude of options before you finalized your decision, but the choice was yours to make and no one else's. Sure there may have been outside influence, but the choice was ultimately yours to make. We ha è free will because there isn't an outside source making the decisions for us.


The poll questions are incomplete. I don't believe I have free will. I don't believe my actions are predetermined.

My actions are a result of cause and effect. These may be indeterminate so not predetermined.

Plus the structure of the questions asking people on an agnostic website do they "know"? Give me a break.


Long solution for free will but worth watching. . .


As a believer in the Selfish Gene Theory put forth by Richard Dawkins in his book of the same name, IMO, it explains the way things are and how they/we got here with the most plausible theory, to date. In short, the genes are in control and make us do whatever it takes to get the gene replicated into the next generation. If this is/were true, it could be argued that we don't have free will, since the gene is controlling our decisions. I am comfortable with calling this biological control. I could be presented with two types of food and think I am making a choice when I could be choosing the food that most supports my march toward healthy mating and leaving a child as the gene would desire. Is this true? Probably never know, but IMO, a brilliant biological theory that works for me. As an aside, the famous 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer developed the theory of Will that is eerily similar to the gene theory in how things work from a philosophical standpoint.

I dunno, if I believed in the selfish gene, suicide (among a whole array of other things) would never happen. The fact that someone can kill themselves before they pass on their genes tells me that that isn't exactly the case.

I too am a fan of the selfish gene theory, but I was always of the impression that Hawkins was proposing gene-centered propensities at a species level, not a philosophical hard determinism at an individual level.


Ever hear the story about Tony Soprano and the Harvard professor? The Harvard professor was expressing his lifelong belief in Determinism and the absence of free will. After listening to the Harvard professor pontificate about the absence of free will for some time, Tony got up and starting slapping the professor hard across the face repeatedly shouting, "I can't help doing this because I have no free will."
Within less than 30 seconds the Harvard professor changed his lifelong belief.

Now, personally, I believe in Soft Determinism because our will is so restricted and so much of our consciousness, about 95%, is unconscious. The vast majority of our actions are just reactions to factors in our environment. You can lie down on a sofa, deciding in advance that you will not get up off the sofa, and chances are that in less than 30 min you will get up in spite of yourself without consciously deciding to do so. However, if I am wrong and there is really is Hard Determinism, then it really doesn't matter what I believe, or you believe, or anybody believes because none of us has any choice in what we believe. So, why even ask a question about free will? But then again, the answer is obvious. In that case, the only reason anyone asks whether or not free will exists is that they have no choice in the matter.

Yeah, I guess my view has always been a soft determinism view. The majority of all your actions are you running on autopilot, with the ability to change course whenever. Once you make a course correction, you're back on autopilot.

Per my previous post I can't help but notice tony soprano is not a real person and I am a real person. You are using "props" that somebody else created for entertainment purpose. Do you really, really have any opinion of your own to offer here?

@GipsyOfNewSpain Yes, read my previous post in which I stated that I was a Soft Determinist. That is my opinion.

@Heraclitus Soft Determist is like Lame Actionist in another state.... oh... always the problem with labels. But cool if you have to be labeled pick yours.

@GipsyOfNewSpain Have no idea what you mean by that. But, do you really, really have any opinion of your own to offer here?

What is?
Could you be more specific as to what your are referring to as "dogshit"?

@GipsyOfNewSpain So, do you really, really have any opinion of your own to offer here? Or do you just sign on to offer vague and vulgar insults to the opinions of members of this website?


I voted "yes we have" which seems to be a clear front runner at the moment. But I can't figure out how it works. 😟

Coffeo Level 7 July 16, 2018

I believe there are degrees of consciousness. Humans have the highest degree of all animals but animals have it too. Dogs and cats seem to have more than pigs and cows. Most reptiles seem to even less. Humans seem to have about 20% control of their rational thought. Our brains make mistakes, like turning left when it knew to turn right at the intersection. Our brains are way ahead of most everything we do according to Sam Harris.
This is a very interesting discussion for me, thanks from me to the originator.

Grecio Level 7 July 15, 2018

Better yet if every decision we make creates a parallel universe for each option; then we don't have free will in our decisions. We make every possible choice.

JimG Level 8 July 15, 2018

I don't get polled by strangers.


This is one area where I've countered theists' arguments that I'm just believing what I wish was true, just like they do. I would like for there be free will, but I have admit that the evidence weighs strongly against it.

A good example was an experiment done a few years back. Test subjects were placed in a room with a large clock with only one hand, which moved very quickly, covering the face of the clock once per second. The subjects were instructed press a button at any time of their choosing and report the time when they decided to do so. The objective was to measure their reaction time between when they decided to press the button and when they actually pressed the button.

The results were very consistent. It took about -300 milliseconds for them to press the button once they decided to do so. Yes, negative 300 milliseconds. Every test subject acted first, then spent 300 ms rationalizing their action, essentially lying to themselves that they had consciously decided to act.

Humans are apparently best at lying to ourselves, which goes a long way to explaining religion.

How did they determine when the decision was made? How did they time it in reverse? Has anyone replicated this experiment under perfectly contol?

There is nothing in your story which carries any weight of credibility.

@JimG, it sounds like you just want there to be free will. Here's a video that explains it with scientific references:

@ldheinz I don't have any stake in it. I don't base my opinions on what I'd like to believe, and your willingness to jump to unsupported conclusions doesn't bode well for your assertion.

I cannot comment on the video right now because I'm at work. However I'd like to point out that my comments were directed only at the experiment. I can't accept the results as being any semblance of valid scientific research based on the information given.

@JimG, I do support massively extensive evidence. Watch the video.

I've seen the video three times now and done some research on Libet. I haven't found any information on the experiments the discussed on the video, although he did do some interesting research in consciousness.

Assuming the video is accurate in its description of Libet's experiment. I think the presenter in the video is over reaching in his conclusions. As he presents his position, he fails to rule out any other possible explanations.

An aside, the gentleman in the video arrogantly implies that he has a better understanding of consciousness than the real scientists or that they are all biased. That's preposterous. I will concede that his inflated ego doesn't mean his wrong, I would consider the possibility that actual researchers and scientists haven't espoused his conclusions for a valid reason. Maybe they're overly conservative, and that would be warranted, but someone, somewhere would be following up on these results.

Again though, I want to reiterate that the guy in the video presents his conclusion
as compelling, although there are other explanations that he doesn't rule out. He may be correct, but he's a long way from proving it.

For what it's worth, he misrepresents quantum physics. Stating that the quantum universe appears to be random is a far cry from declaring that it IS random.

I don't believe you are wrong about free will, but I don't see any compelling evidence in this video that conclusively refutes it.

@JimG I agree with your point about randomness in science. It is widely misunderstood. It is not meant to declare an absolute randomness, but a perceived randomness because no established pattern has been found. Individual mutations, for example, are spoken of as occurring randomly, yet at the macro level they occur at a relatively predictable rate. That which can be predicted at with relative accuracy cannot be totally random.

I have often spoken of these experiments myself to others who often refused to believe me. No doubt many of our subconsious reactions are later rationalized consciously, if for no other reason than out of cognitive dissonance. Yet, I think we should not jump to hard and fast philosophical conclusions that even the scientists themselves who performed the experiments did not make. Then again, maybe I am just telling you this because subconsciously I have already decided to tell you this and my conscious mind has no choice but to do so, as it is the slave of my subconscious. Then again, maybe that last sentence was just a conscious rationalization to avoid my taking any responsibility for anything I say or write.


A long winded argument that ends with nothing.


This is where critical thinking comes in. It is important to continue to question our long held beliefs and as you say it isn't easy to detour from those deeply etched neural pathways. Take racism as an example. There are evolutionary reasons for racism. Back in the day we had to make snap decisions whether someone was friend (from our clan) or a possible threat (not of our clan), or we could be dead. We made that judgement based on what we saw. We still sum up people in under 5 seconds. This is innate. Add to that environmental influence of racist parents and we have established racist views without ever needing to think about it. BUT unless we are morons, we can challenge that thinking, 'is there any valid basis for my racist thought?' NO? Then I adopt new non-racist values.

Being religious is actually closing your mind to critical thinking. You are taught to question nothing, just accept because 'the bible tells me so'. Not much synaptic transmission happening here; might as well be a jellyfish. We do have free will but it's up to us whether we will exercise it.


You can build a computerized robot that might appear to have free will, but we know it doesn’t. Its actions are determined by built in programming. Its decisions are not decisions at all. Without conscious awareness there is only rote, mechanical response. The response might be a very sophisticated one, such as a dazzling chess move. The response might depend on a random number generator. But the response in the end does not depend on the will of the robot. Robots have no will.

In like manner, I don’t see how our bodies could have either consciousness or free will. Our bodies are nothing but robots, temporary and expendable. I lean toward the idea that our higher and more real self in which we all share, is what is conscious, and has will.

Are you saying that there is something "more" to our physical bodies? Like a soul? Or are you saying there is a difference between our mind and brain? I've never believed our minds are anything more than brain activity and the concept of a metaphysical mind is too much like the concept of the soul for me.

There is nothing about behaviors of software systems that have to be rote and repeatable. There is fuzzy logic, Boolean networks, and now, causal calculus ... lots of ways to make a software system that learns, even, increasingly, infers -- and, I'm convinced, there's no reason in principle, can't make moral decisions. The old trope of the "mechanical man" is pretty dated. General-purpose "hard" AI may, depending on the details, be 5 or 50 or 100 years away, but it's within reach.

As per my comments above concerning freedom of choice vs free will, robots will have constraints just like humans ... so they will have limited freedom of choice just like humans, but not some theoretical free will, just like humans.

@FatherOfNyx Well, I don’t like the soul word. Who or what is it having the soul? The question in my mind is who or what the heck are we anyway? It is very hard for me to see how the kind of conscious awareness that we enjoy could arise from a mass of neurons. No one so far has explained how such a thing could happen, no matter how many neurons are firing. Of course there is bodily sentience that disappears when we die. You can make a robot with that kind of sentience, but the robot will not have self-awareness. I’m talking about something else.

It seems to me that when we die our mind dies also, along with memories. Our selfhood as separate individual selves was just an illusion anyway. It really never existed.

What I lean toward thinking is that conscious awareness is primary and exists in its own right. This higher consciousness resides in the part of reality that we can not understand with our mater/space/time model. From that true perspective there are no individuals—there’s not me and you—it’s all universal consciousness.

The river of organisms is there for a purpose, but individual bodies are of little concern. At the higher level of reality the concept of time has no meaning. The question of immortality makes no sense.

I freely admit that this is metaphysics—I offer no proof. However, the ideas have been around for millennia. They are in Hindu scriptures for example, and see Donald Hoffman’s “Conscious Realism”.

@mordant What you are saying about the complexity of software systems sounds correct from my limited perspective, however, I find it impossible to believe that computers will actually have conscious awareness of themselves. I’ve been hearing that conscious computers are just around the corner for most of my life, and so far it hasn’t happened, so I’ll just store that information in a remote place in memory and await further evidence.

Of course that’s not what you said. You said that both computers and humans can make choices but neither has that “some theoretical” free will, in the metaphysical sense. If you are talking about human bodies and minds, then we are in agreement.

Where we differ is that I don’t think deep conscious awareness arises from the firing of neurons in our brains. I think consciousness is primary in reality, and I think that our true collective self is that consciousness.

I have personal evidence that conscious awareness does exist. It is something that I am experiencing at this moment. If I identify myself with that awareness, what I learn is that the body can be controlled—controlled indirectly. The body can be nudged in a desired direction, and if there is no overbearing reason not to, the body will follow the instructions of higher awareness.

That’s my impression anyway.

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