Why I suspect it's unlikely we have free will, but the religious would not call me an atheist

The other debate I started looks doomed without making a few things clear.

I find it very unlikely that we have free will. Just like you, I feel as though I have it. But there are excellent reasons to think otherwise, and those reasons would have the religious calling me atheist. They come down to the following:

  1. The brain shows every sign so far of according to physical law
  2. Physical law, as we understand it, is either determinism or entirely random. There is nothing to allow a “will”
  3. Neuroscientists can do all sorts of interesting things purely manipulating the brain and their repetoire continually increases. They can make you desire things. They can make you move your limbs. They can make you say things. They can make you feel in love. ETC.
  4. But more cruelly, various brain diseases and injuries can wipe out abilities. Aphasia. Alzeimher’s Disease. CJD. So on and so on.

Free will seems to over-ride none of that. The evidence is very weak.

Or put another way, I’m reminded of Laplace before Napoleon, demonstrating the movement of the planets.

I have no need for that hypothethis, sir.

There is no physical problem that we need free will to explain. Per occam’s razor, we can discard it.
And most importantly, I’m sure this is where the religious now decide they will count me amongst them. Because I now seem to show the common sense insight that they have, that they can’t understand atheists or materialists don’t get. We’re alive, and goddammit we FEEL ALIVE. Sentio ergo sum!

I don’t believe the above argument to apply to consciousness, or at least what I am calling consciousness, a separate thing from a state of consciousness. It may be 99.9% in the brain. It may even be an illusion. But it’s an illusion to something and I’m witnessing it, and there is nothing in any physical theory that at all explains it. And I can’t possibly prove that I’m feeling this sensation incidentally, to anyone but me, but if you yourself feel it you know what I mean. And so I don’t consider my **experience **entirely materialistic, even if the **world **is. In fact I reject it as vanishingly unlikely.

However, I’m not so sure that all atheists would agree that I am religious, and I haven’t the first idea whether I am a materialist or not. The above to me seems compatible with atheism. But that is perhaps for another thread.

No, we don’t.

No, we haven’t.

I should probably point out that a significant portion of Christian thought focuses rather speciically on the point that we don’t, in fact, nearly as alive as we ought.

In any case, it’s rather all too easy to describe you. You’re simply a very sentimental atheist. A mechanistic atheist all the same. I should probably say that a good sentimentalist is not a bad man. But a mechanist says rather loudly that he isn’t a man. To solemnly declare that you believe in mechanistic atheism, and then declare how sentimental you are, is rather dim glass.

There is an interesting middle-ground: pseudo-randomness. This is a “deterministic” process that is so damn complex, God himself couldn’t tell the difference.

Think of an AI program, written in a deterministic programming language, but which uses inputs such as the time & date, the current weather, whatever is on TV right now, etc. as bases for decision-making. Since those events are also deterministic…but so close to random as to make no difference, the whole thing just starts to pile up into functional non-determinism.

Maybe if you’d started typing your post 20 seconds later, it would have turned out significantly different. The illusion of free will is supported, because we watch billions of other people acting as if they have it.

Well, yeah, but so what? Free will certainly has its limits. That’s why they put candy near the checkout stations at supermarkets. That’s why political advertising sways elections. That free will is flawed, no one will deny. But that doesn’t quite serve to show that it doesn’t exist at all.

It certainly feels like I have volition. I make choices every day. I think about things, and make decisions. Sometimes, I wrestle with them. I have to fight temptation. Dieting, in particular, is hard, but so are some very deep moral problems. (A loved one commits a crime: do I turn them in?)

If there were no evolutionary purpose to decision-making, we’d all be hardwired like insects. The fact that we waste (?) vast energetic resources on our massive brains must indicate that those brains are doing something useful.

None of what you’ve said requires religion. At most, it could invite a kind of value-neutral deism. As an in-between stage, it could allow for some kind of spiritualism or animism: some non-material, non-physical decision-making faculty, like the soul. But, to throw Laplace back atcha…so far, I’ve never needed that hypothesis.

(And Occam, too… The idea of the soul raises so many other questions, most especially, why can’t we actually see the doggone thing. The soul is the “invisible pink unicorn” of the matter. Once they get through defining it to be non-material, invisible, intangible, indestructible, eternal, etc. it starts sounding mighty like “nonsense.”)

Anyway… FUN opening salvo! I hope my responses aren’t too awfully trite!

Free will requires nothing more than the ability to process one or more alternatives.

The notion that there is no free will because immutable physical law underlies the processing mechanism is silly.

If you arbitrarily define “free will” to require absolute information about every possible alternative and every possible consequence, then by definition there’s no free will. But at that point it’s simply a question of language and not philosophy. The difference between a computer and me making a judgment call is simply a question of how competently the machine is programmed to process alternatives.

I think this is the ultimate problem with debates about free will.

The limitations to our freedom of thought are limited to the mechanical nature of our minds. Our minds are material, and they are a part of the material universe. They are subject to time and space, just like everything else. The speed of light is c, and nothing can go faster. Just because we can think of the concept of 1.01c, doesn’t mean that’s physically possible. Driving 0.9c and turning on your headlights doesn’t break the universe. Likewise, just because we can think of a concept of a will unfettered by the determinism of the material universe, such a thing is completely illogical. The concept of the will implies the material aspect of it - the will haver, the method of operation for the will, what have you. A will without limits is a will without material makeup, is a will that cannot logically exist in this universe. So what’s the point? We’re as free as free can physically be in this ordered universe. Saying we’re not really free is like saying the speed limit of the universe isn’t c, to me.

Atheism and materialism are not the same thing, and do not entail one another. I dare say most atheists are, in fact, materialists, but most of them also believe that consciousness is real (even if they are a bit vague as to how it should be explained). Anyway, you do not have to be a materialist at all to be an atheist. To take an extreme example, one could perfectly consistently believe in full fledged Cartesian immaterial souls without acknowledging that there is any sort of god ruling over them. Likewise, there have been strict materialists, such as Spinoza, who have considered themselves to be religious.

Also, there are many - perhaps the majority amongst those who have thought at all deeply about the matter - who hold that there is no incompatibility between strict determinism and the existence of free will. It is also very possible to be a strict determinist and a theist. Indeed, some theologians have argued that, quite apart from any scientific arguments for it, the existence of an omniscient God entails determinism. (God knows what is going to happen, so it is going to happen!)

Your OP is based on false premises. You are assuming that certain doctrines that are commonly associated (or even just outright confused with one another), actually entail one another. They do not.

Wait, why phrase it that way in the first place? Do you think all the religious believe in free will? Haven’t you ever heard of Calvinism?

That was meant to characterise most religious people as having the belief that atheists are pure materialists. It was not itself a comment on free will.

I’ll bring reincarnation into this topic. Suppose, just suppose, that we plan out our lives in advance each time we return “home”. If death can be thought of as a return to our normal existence and life can be thought of as our going to school then why would it be difficult to make the argument that we plan each existence in advance. In that case maybe life is predetermined, but by each of us. Anyone who goes to school plans the school year and knows what they want, and expect, to happen. Maybe the lessons we’re learning with each incarnation is preplanned and we just think we have no say so in what’s going on. The nuances of each life may seem to be something that just “happens” but the overall objective is already set up.

How would we act differently if we had “real” free will than “artificial” free will? I think in the same way we can’t differentiate how we would behave as spiritual beings verses purely chemical ones, the label becomes meaningless.

The problem with these sorts of discussions is that there is no good definition of free will that we all agree on. And even if we do set up a definition for it, it seems to be meaningless. Assume that “free will” means the ability to choose freely among many options, without regards to determinism or non-determinism.

Now, imagine ten identical universes in which you are standing before your freezer, deciding between strawberry or chocolate ice cream. Consider the following possibilities.

  1. In all ten universes you choose chocolate. Does this prove or disprove free will? Two possibilities: Either you happened to freely choose chocolate in all 10 universes and COULD have chosen otherwise but decided not to (they were all identical so why wouldn’t you choose chocolate 10 times?), or you really had no choice in the matter at all and that’s why chocolate was chosen 10 times.

  2. In some you choose strawberry and in others you choose chocolate. Does this prove or disprove free will? Two possibilities: Either you happened to freely choose in each universe (overcoming determinism and/or non-determinism), resulting in separate choices, or you really had no choice at all and the apparent choice was just random non-deterministic action.

If someone can posit a hypothetical situation where one outcome is clearly the result of “free will” and the other outcome is clearly the result of “no free will”, then the term will have meaning. So far, I haven’t come across anything like that.

That being said, I like to define free will as the ability to do what you want to do. If you are in prison, your free will is limited. If you are in a coma, you have no free will. But that is not what most people are referring to when speaking of “free will.”

Judging by the reasons you listed for not believing in free will, I think your confusion lies with your underestimating the biological influence on behavior. We are biological creatures, no way around it. The same neurological/behavior experiments you refer to will also work on rodents and chimps - as we would expect with our common lineage. Do we argue free will with them?

My cosmological belief system includes a multiverse theory. How am I to reconcile our multiverse with the question of free will? I think that every elementary particle is at every place at every time, because there exists an infinite amount of universes to hold those states. In my system, things like conscious decisions by humans is a macro event. On that large scale, you will make every possible decision available to you, if we consider every possible permeation of universes.

We can ask the question of free will if you would still like to consider the existence of one universe at a time, but that’s the thing. To examine the state of your single universe in order to measure all the conditions leading up to your possible free will decision we would have to stop time, and with time stopped no decisions are made, no particles are in motion.

People have partial free will. Actions in the present are predetermined by the person’s past. But their thoughts about their actions are - not free completely, but there are usually many paths those thoughts could take, and which path is chosen affects what the person’s future actions will be.

“Most” religious people don’t have a clue what materialism is, let alone think that it’s part of an atheistic philosophy. Most American religious people think that atheists are either crippling ignorant of the “truth”, or some kind of agents of Satan (though perhaps unconsciously so).

People have free wish. Most don’t have the means to turn their wish into will into reality.

My problem with the idea that we merely believe we are conscious is that belief itself requires consciousness.

And I do indeed use my belief in at least my own consciousness for why I am a religious person. I’m not sure I agree that most people don’t–just because they may not know that is what they are doing doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it. At least, for me, it wasn’t something I thought about and concluded, but something I believed and then discovered I believed.

And I intrigued by the idea you could believe like this and not see yourself as religious. Sure, an atheist in the strictest sense–where you can still believe in the supernatural but just not a god-figure–but not areligious. I can’t come up with a consistent areligious philosophy that is not materialist.

we have the right to choose the options they put forward. the fact is that we never really do get a chance to have a free mind or conscience. we owe this to a cunning revenge ploy done by one of the forefathers of behaviorism. when he got kicked out of the psychology field because basically, after darwin said we are made of monkeys and Freud said we think like monkeys, when he said we act like monkeys the bigwigs pretty much had their fill of humility. they couldn’t take it anymore, so they constructed a scandal to get the guy kicked out of the psychology field, based on a totally irrelevant altercation involving his wife. as a result, this man, took his theories of the science of behaviorism and applied to advertisement. from that day on, we humans in this society and the others that use strong media, have had no choice. we have been preyed on by our very native instinctual urges, things like hunger , mating and socializing all of which are instinctual and uncontrollable.
these have been exploited excessively to the point that pretty much no one in modern day is not unaffected. it is impossible to avoid the continuous onslaught of the science of behaviorism and its abuse on the unsuspecting public.
some of you may wonder how this can be so drastically bad of a thing, because you believe you have freedom of choice and that you can choose what you think or not.
let me ask you a question. if you can accept that when you are in a coma you can pick up subconsciously words that are being said and even understand them or less dramatic be in a room of crowded people and somehow amongst all that noise still follow a conversation that you are not part of sub consciously, then this should come as no surprise. in fact it should be quite obvious. anything we hear or pick up unconsciously . is stored in our minds and recycled as a form of symbolic representation of that particular stimulus. so what happens with enough of this programming in our sub conscious selves, we start to use media representation to represent various instinctual urges. it cant be helped because we are subjected to it, and it is a real science, meaning it cant be stopped. it comes from when we were nomadic and able to read the landscape unconsciously to understand what or where things of interest or necessity may be.
so given the ideas that i put forward, to classify someone as a atheist or anything is really just a label. i would think that until this is sorted out and the true person ala Descartes (ergato sum) is present, any declaration of one’s belief is subject to opinion and ultimately of questionable base.

Whew! Somewhere in the midst of that word-salad, I think there was a point.

Our free will is diminished by our culture and society. We have been socialized with various beliefs, often with the strength of taboo, and we have internalized these beliefs, to the degree that we don’t even want to violate them. The nudity taboo, for instance, is so profound that many people, running out of a burning house, grab clothing first, and personal valuable items second.

And, yes, the media has trained us to think in certain ways. Stereotypes are reinforced, and moral values are transmitted, and even the questions we ask are all prompted, in large part, by our media. But since this has been true since the days of telling stories of the spirits while sitting around the campfire, I think it is part of humanity.

We aren’t fully free. So what? It might be interesting to see a human society that was, in fact, fully free. But I suspect we wouldn’t be able to communicate meaningfully with them.