Month: December 2016

Notes on Free Will


  • People who argue against free will sometimes try to portray free will as a concept that’s self-contradictory by its own definition, in other words as a concept that’s self-contradictory for reasons that are necessarily so, independent of any kind of discovery. This effectively paints free will as being self-contradictory by definition. The concept of free will itself is simple in essence, so if it were inherently self-contradictory then the contradiction would be obvious, and all but the insane would realize that before ever believing in free will, much like with the idea of a square circle. People who say or imply that free will is self-contradictory by definition are speciously over-analyzing it and are probably using  straw-man definitions of free will. 
  • Some people say that free will is not possible because the only alternative to an action being caused, or determined, is for it to be (absolutely?) random, and that meaningless randomness isn’t any more conducive to free will than being totally determined. Yet by posing those as the only two logical possibilities and then alleging that, in each one, free will is logically ruled out, one is effectively ruling out free will by definition, which I debunked in the first bullet point. Also, if free will were rulable out by definition, then it wouldn’t be necessary to even mention the two alternative possibilities of randomness and determinacy to prove its self-contradiction because they’re not parts of the definition, so the proponent of this view has to be thinking about the problem incorrectly. (This incorrect thinking probably involves a straw-man definition of free will.)

    One way of looking at this problem with such arguments is that the opposite of “random” is not necessarily “caused” or “determined,” so there’s a false dichotomy there. The idea of causation has more constraints on it than that it simply not be random. Causality implies linearity in time, a particular direction of primacy in time, constraints of proximity in space or time, measurability, exclusively mathematical/mechanistic relationships, consistency on some level, functional separability between causing parts and affected parts, etc. How could we possibly know that something is “random” if “random” is the lack of some or all the above features? Yet things are assumed to be “random,” and “random” is assumed to be “meaningless” in some important sense. But really, pretty much the only way to make “random” meaningless is be to define it as such, which would of course be begging the question.

    Put “meaningful”—or “the quality of having some kind of “rhyme and reason”—and “random”—as in “not deterministic or mechanistically predictable”—together, and there you have the magic of free will. If reality did not wholly meet all of the above requirements for causality, then you would think that science would come up upon effects that don’t seem mechanistically causal and hence wouldn’t know what to do with them. It has, and those effects are called quantum randomness. (We do not know that quantum-random events are “absolutely” and meaninglessly random; that is mere assumption. All we know about them is that (a) we can’t predict them, and (b) they’re not accountable for by local hidden variables.)

    The “meaninglessly random” vs. “meaninglessly determined” dichotomy, in which both options apparently defy the notion of free will, is a false one, and it only arises under the assumption of a wholly mechanistic universe. (Yes, even our conception of absolute randomness, especially as as being meaningless, is framed by our unconsciously mechanistic worldview.) We do not actually know that the universe is wholly mechanistic. Free will could be based in a nonmechanistic/amechanical aspect of the universe, in which case free will is not meaninglessly random, though it is unpredictable and not deterministic. In other words, it is only under a totally mechanistic worldview that the only alternative to empty determinism is empty randomness.

    Basically, it’s because of unconsciously (or consciously) taking the whole world to be
    wholly mechanical, due to our scientistic’ physicalist zeitgeist, that we think an effect must either be (a) mechanically determined by a cause, (b) meaninglessly random, or (c) some combination of the two. The truth is that the “randomness” (the non-mechanically-caused and unpredictable by physical theory) in life is neither deterministic nor meaningless.

  • Free will actually pertains to mind—the inner reality/experience. This arena is not particularly known to necessarily adhere to a causal, mechanistic paradigm like the external world more or less does. We don’t have any experience of a deterministic overarching ruleset in our minds/inner lives, and nor do we have any particular reason to believe any of it is just random, or at least meaninglessly or absolutely random. And by its nature, the inner/mental world lends itself much more to a paradigm of “rhyme and reason” being behind things without an underlying mechanistic or deterministic basis than external reality does.

    (Yes, scientists largely believe that mind is produced somehow solely by the physical brain and its processes, but that is only theoretical, while I am talking about the natures of “mind” and “external/physical reality” as concepts. I wrote more about this here.)

    It’s hard to describe why the inner/mental world lends itself more to the a neither-determined-nor-random, nonmechanistic paradigm than the physical/external world does, but here are some aspects: its whimsical and transient nature; the level of pure freedom involved in its constructions; the perhaps mystical (or, at least, mysterious) nature of its constructions; the fact that concepts and emotions can bleed into each other, transcending any boundaries the mind uses to analyze and modularize things; and the non-reducibility of its contents (e.g. thoughts and imagined forms can’t be internally dissected and found to be composed of thought-atoms or anything; even if some thoughts can be argued to be made of component thoughts, those component thoughts are still monadic).

  • Some people think that we have no free will because our actions are determined by our wants/desires, and we presumably can’t choose our wants or desires. In other words, since we can’t will to will something, we don’t have free will. Yet in my experience we do have some control over what we want. But it doesn’t really matter, because where does one draw the line? That is, does one demand that we be able to want to want what we want? Or to want to want to want what we want, etc.? By that logic, where would it stop? Taking this demand to its logical extreme leads to an infinite regress, where you must will your will to will your will to will to will… ad infinitum. This of course doesn’t prove that free will doesn’t exist, but rather the opposite: since demanding infinite regression would be a logical absurdity, it shows that the fundamental idea of requiring that we choose what we want is going about it the problem in the wrong way.

    Furthermore, not everything we choose to do comes out of wants/desires in a static sense. Some actions come from a place of pure, flowing creativity, and that’s where free will shines the most.

  • Free is defined as having a lack of restraint. The laws of physics, contrary to popular thinking, cannot be restraints per se, so the laws of physics don’t contradict free will, and wouldn’t even if they were deterministic. So-called physical “laws” are an aspect of the very nature physical existence and its constituents; a thing or its actions cannot be restrained by its own nature and what makes its existence possible, anymore than a square can be restrained by the fact of its having four corners.

    A physical impossibility may be ultimately a logical impossibility, which would be the very reason such a thing doesn’t occur. A thing is not restrained from doing something that is a logical impossibility; the idea of doing (or being) something that is a logical impossibility is an absurd and flawed hypothetical to begin with.

    If physical laws were restraining, constraining, or otherwise enactors of some sort, then you’d need further/more-meta laws to enforce or constrain those laws, because why would they continue to consistently do what they do otherwise? (Or if they would just naturally continue to constrain or enforce, then it’s equally plausible that the physical “laws” are just things naturally doing what they do, rather than doing those things because they’re constrained or enforced by laws.) And we’d need further laws to enforce those laws, etc., to infinite regression. And not to mention that it would probably require infinite energy for this infinite tower of laws to rule. So determinism, therefore, doesn’t counter free will—at least not by that definition.

    So in one sense, determinism is compatible with free will (this particular bullet point is a compatibilistic argument for free will), thus defeating the argument against free will even on deterministic grounds.

    Incidentally, I think that what we experience and know of as “free will” is not possible in a deterministic world, as its nature is wholly spiritual, magical, ineffable and nonmechanistic.

    Even if free will weren’t compatible with determinism, I don’t even believe a deterministic world is possible, because (a) the entire timeline would be boil down to a continuous logical/mathematical transformation of state, so there’d be no room for an ever slowly progressing “now” because logic itself is instantaneous, and (b) that would make all the information of the world compressible into nothing but an initial state plus a set of laws that acts on it until the end of time, and any frame of reference that doesn’t see the universe in its most compressible state is arbitrarily seeing duplicity of information where none necessarily exists. I wrote more about this (a long time ago) here.

  • If you are disappointed by your conclusion that you don’t have free will, then that is proof that you’re not thinking rationally. To borrow an analogy I saw someone once make, it’s like the fish that is saddened because he suddenly learns that the water he’s been swimming in all his life is actually urine. (Obviously that fact can’t make his quality of life any better or worse than it already was, and he already knew exactly how good or bad his life was.)
  • It makes no sense to say that free will is an illusion. An illusion is the appearance of something that’s not really there. If free will is an illusion by nature, there is nothing else that it can appear to be. If there were something we could think is free will—and therefore something to say that the alleged free will is an illusion of—then that has to be what free will is, because free will can only be experienced, and we can’t be wrong about what we experience…what we think a given experience is/what we call, it is what it is. For example, if you’re feeling sad, how can sadness be an illusion?

    (And for those who think that free will is an illusion just because they think consciousness must be an illusion—if there are any such people—I have a refutation of that idea here.)

  • You can argue about free will and try to find logical flaws in it, but that requires arguing based on definitions, and any definition is only approximate (except for those of words created solely to stand in for a particular definition, such as in mathematical jargon, for example). Defining a word is an art, not an exact science, so, to some degree, the meaning of free will (or of almost anything) is not subject to rigid analysis. The real meaning and magic of free will is not necessarily encapsulated in its definition, and logical analyses of free will rely heavily on definitions. I wrote more about meanings versus definitions here.
  • The bulk of the sentiment that free will doesn’t exist seems basically to rest on the scientistic notion that mind reduces to physical stuff, particularly the brain or neurochemical processes (and that physical stuff appears to be wholly mechanical). But I’ve shown why this is impossible here. I also talk about the subject here.
  • G.K. Chesterton said, “If there were no god, there would be no atheists.” Similarly, if free will were not a part of our nature, or a part of the cosmos (it is, and can only be, both), we would not yearn for it and we would not argue over it. It’s not “wishful thinking”. Wishful thinking requires a reason you know of what you’re wishing for, and not to mention a reason to wish for it.  If not for free will, we probably would never even think of the idea, and if we did we wouldn’t care.

I think we have free will in the deepest sense one could possibly hope for. Our mechanistic and rationalistic thinking on the matter doesn’t stand up to the magic and open-endedness of the universe.

Burying Descartes’ Proof of God (and Other Observations)

I don’t have the patience to read through Descartes’ original writings just to disentangle the sophistry, but I’ll respond to his argument as I’ve seen it briefly formulated in two separate instances.

I will be using the terms “in the imagination” and “as a conception” or “in the understanding” interchangeably. Don’t be confused, I could have just as easily substituted “in the imagination” for the terms used in the argument’s formulations.

Instance 1.


Consider this argument: One can conceive of a maximally perfect being. If one can conceive of such a being, then such a being does not merely exist as a conception. This is true because if it existed only as a conception (if it only existed in one’s mind) then one could think of an even greater being that had all the attributes of the first but also existed in real life (since it is clearly greater to exist in real life than to exist merely as a conception). But in thinking of this second being we come to a contradiction since there can’t be a being greater than the greatest possible being. Therefore, the maximally perfect being that exists in real life is the being we were originally thinking of. Therefore, a maximally perfect being exists.

My argument:

When you think of the first supposedly perfect being, it is already in question whether that being exists or not, as it is not included in its specification that it does not exist. So thinking of the being and then having it also exist doesn’t make it any more perfect, unless perfection is not only in the idea of something but also in its state of existence outside of the idea, in which case, whether we really are thinking of a more perfect being is predicated on his external existence, which we don’t necessarily know given the premise, which is a only conception.

Descartes wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to include that God exists as a part of its conception (we are asked to imagine that he “also exists in real life”) while using the idea that this existence is something greater than, or outside of, the mere conception of him. The existence of something isn’t something you can just conjure up in your imagination, it’s something you discover. Yes, you can imagine that something exists or doesn’t exist, and even knowing that something is extant is ideational, but he’s trying to use multiple levels of the same concept to conflate existence of something in the sense in which it’s unknown until discovery with existence of something in the sense in which we can imagine or ‘internally postulate’ it for the sake of his argument.

Consider that “adding levels” like this can go on forever: we could imagine the perfect God, and then imagine all that plus the fact that He exists, and then imagine all that plus the fact that He exists plus the fact that this God we imagine as existing actually does exist, etc. In fact, imagining the third level there is actually implicitly asked of us in the argument: we’re asked to hypothesize that the God we’re conceiving actually exists, in order to conclude based on his reasoning that we’re right. This “being right” about the God we already imagined as existing composes the third level. It also illuminates the fact that our imagining he’s everything we define him as, only He also actually exists, is not really doing that (i.e. it’s not really imagining he’s everything we define him as only He actually exists), the whole thing still being a hypothesis at that point for the sake of argument to be proven later and therefore being a ledger-demain on Descartes’ part. It also illuminates the fact that the difference between the second God imagined and the first God imagined is not what it seems: when we imagine the first God, as I’ve said we’re not particularly imagining that He doesn’t exist; that fact is considered to be in question, and that’s also true for the second God imagined, as I’ve just revealed.

In short, either you’re thinking of a perfect being, or you’re not. If maximally perfect means existing, as defined in the argument, then we cannot conceive of a maximally perfect being unless he exists, and since we don’t know whether he exists without discovering it, we don’t know whether it’s possible to conceive of the maximally perfect being as he describes in his argument; we don’t know whether we’ve actually done so.

As an aside: Kant argued against the ontological proof of God with the simple retort that “existence is not a predicate.” I think this is over-simplified. Existence is a predicate. Existence refers to a concept, or we could not speak of it (by the use of a word “existence”). This concept we either attach to another concept (a concept of an object, such as a chair, or unicorns) or not. E.g. you have the idea of a chair, and you either attach the predicate “existence” to it (i.e., you say either “it exists” or “it doesn’t exist”), or in other words you “earmark” it as being extant or not, based on what you reason and perceive about it. You may have never even seen the chair, and you might say that it exists based upon something you’ve read. You could even have been misled by what you’ve read, yet you still say it exists. And you can’t even claim that something exists or not independently of whether you believe it exists, because you will always necessarily claim that it exists if you believe it exists and that it doesn’t if you believe that it doesn’t, so there is no room in your episteme/ideology to claim an existence-status that could vary from your belief about it, when you believe with 100% certainty.

So existence is clearly a concept. Specifically, it is a statement qualifying what we would expect to perceive or not perceive under various hypothetical conditions, conditions imaginable within the model of reality we hold. For example, “that chair exists” means that if I, hypothetically, will myself to do what I believe is activating my motor neurons in order to do what I believe is “walking over to where the chair,” or if I otherwise find myself in that “location” (“location” also being an idea pertaining to world-model that’s ultimately based upon sense impressions), then I should visually perceive “that chair,” meaning I should perceive some image/visual qualia that I abstractly determine meet whatever criteria are attached to the meaning of “a chair,” as well as other criteria attached to the specific chair in question. For the purposes of Descartes’ argument, though, whether existence is or is not a predicate is only relevant for one reason: Descartes wants to have his cake and eat it too by implying existence to be a predicate and to not be a predicate at the same time. That’s what Kant vaguely, if keenly, picked up on.

In the above argument I don’t necessarily mean to imply that there is no reality outside of our conception of it. What I meant to do is show that, in some sense, “existence” is in fact a predicate—if only in the sense that everything we know about and can speak of regarding reality is necessarily ideational.

But, to veer off into a different, but important, subject: if I wanted to make an argument that “the chair” doesn’t actually “exist” in any sense beyond our knowledge of it, I would say that material reality is a specific pattern of molecules that we arbitrarily segregate into conceptually discrete forms. For example, consider the group of molecules comprising “floor and chair.” At some fuzzy place in that set of molecules, where ‘floor’ molecules and the “chair” molecules intermingle, we say “the floor” ends and “the chair” begins. In reality it’s all just a large group of molecules, and it simply suits our purposes to consider it as two separate, discrete objects, and there isn’t even an absolutely exact boundary at which “the floor” ends and “the chair” begins. Is a splinter on the chair part of the chair? Is the paint on it part of the chair? What about the flake of paint that’s about to fall off? What about the flake that just did fall off? Is the rust on it part of it? The dirt left from sitting on it? Etc. It’s all arbitrary.

Now, instead of considering only the particles/energy-patterns composing ‘the chair’ and ‘the floor’, extend that concept to the universe a whole. Now all objects are merely concepts afforded by arbitrary delineations, except for two things: The universe, and individual molecules. And even molecules are, of course, made of even smaller particles (atoms), which are in turn made of even further smaller particles (subatomic particles), some of which are made of a) smaller particles (such as quarks), and b) nobody even knows. Even subatomic particles are not solids with clearly defined borders, as any physicist will tell you; it all boils down to fields. The presence of an electron, for example, actually tapers off gradually with distance. And particles are thought to be local excitations in fields that extend everywhere in space. Quantum entanglement even puts into question the actual separateness of things that are differentiated from each other by their locations. When you get down to string theory would, it almost seems as though the universe is supposed to be made out of pure math. So even imagining that the universe composes a set of objectively-discrete entities called ‘atoms’ (or whatever scale of entities you want to use as a base) doesn’t really work.

Then there is the second part to the argument that ‘the chair’ doesn’t exist beyond our knowledge of it: anything we can know of, insofar as we can know of it and therefore can speak of it, can only be ideational/mental, as knowledge is ideational. (We can also say ‘mental’, ‘conceptual’, ‘cognitive’ or whatever other word that does not seem too limiting.) Our entire understanding and definition of “the chair,” including all its attributes, is ideational. Whereas ‘external reality’ cannot be not ideational–or at least it’s presumed not to be, unless you subscribe to a theory that the entire universe is mental in nature. We’ll assume it isn’t for the sake of the argument, because that’s what most people believe. Since any two things we can compare must be ideas (inasmuch as we can even compare them), the difference between the ideational and the non-ideational (that is, “external reality”) is necessarily of a higher order than any difference we can comprehend. Given that fact, to presume that such ‘reality’ has anything like what we think of as ‘a chair’ in it seems to be a shot in the dark, at best.

I actually believe consciousness is primary and that matter is in some way a derivation of consciousness, I just wanted to take the common conception to its logical conclusion. However, it’s possible that whatever super-mind(s) or super-consciousness(es) the universe belongs to doesn’t particularly think in terms of chairs and floors..

Existence may be a predicate, but it’s one of the links between experience and conception. By trying to prove God exists based on pure logic, you’re taking experience out of the loop. Also, the idea of what constitutes “an even greater being” is way too vague or subjective to apply to pure logic.

I argued that existence is a predicate or property here too: Much of the argument is similar, but I also make a few important points in that argument that I don’t make here.

Instance 2.


“God, by definition, is that than which none is greater. God exists in the understanding. If God exists in the understanding, we could imagine Him to be greater by existing in reality. Therefore, God must exist.”

My argument:

To imagine or understand God is not a priori to imagine that He exists in understanding, so imagining that He exists in reality, rather than just in understanding, is not opposed to His existing only in understanding, it is opposed to imagining that He only exists in the understanding, which is something different and a “straw man.”

If you imagine He exists in reality because He is greater that way, you still don’t know if your imagination that He exists in reality matches the reality outside of your imagination, which means that you don’t know if God is greater than existing in the imagination, hence you don’t know if God exists if God is defined as existing outside of the imagination (saying that the definition of God implies He is greater than existing only in understanding therefore implies that he exists outside of imagination by definition), and if God isn’t defined as existing outside of the imagination, then there’s no reason to be compelled to imagine that He exists just by virtue of imagining Him.

I did contradict myself when I implied that God can even exist in the imagination, but so did the “proof” when it stated that God exists in the imagination, and then implied that God is defined as not existing in the imagination because otherwise he wouldn’t meet the criteria of being greater. Again it’s equivocation on the concept of “exists.” If “God exists” in the understanding, then “God exists” by definition, which is trivial but makes the rest of the argument superfluous. What he coyly didn’t say is that “the understanding of God exists in the understanding” and “if the understanding of God exists in the understanding..”, which would have made his argument sound a lot weaker (i.e. as weak as it really is).

Imagining He exists doesn’t make Him exist, and the reason we imagine it doesn’t matter. If we imagine it because we want a greater God, we either don’t necessarily know that the greater God exists, or we can’t imagine God in the first place unless He does exist.

One way of looking at the trick of this “proof” is that it says that God is that which there is none greater than, and then it posits a God that is less than that as real in order to logically redefine it as the God that is greater than it. This is self-contradictory because if it’s posited as something lesser then it’s not a real God by the author’s own admission. In other words, if God is restricted to being an extant God then He is not the God you at first imagined. Yes, the author presents “existing also” as being an expansion of some sort, but analytically it can be seen as a restriction also—existence-status unspecified versus a requirement that He exists, which is analogous to a color unspecified versus the specification that it is red..

To further untangle the epistemic confusion in the ontological argument.. as far as we’re able to compare greatness, we’re still imagining, and as far as we’re still imagining, we still can’t tell if what we’re imagining exists. So just by adding another, recursive layer in the hypothesis we don’t escape the tentativeness of the existence-status of imaginal beings.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God; I do.. It’s just that I’m really, really annoyed by sophistry. To be fair to Descartes, though, I once read that he basically had to make an argument for God’s existence to appease the church. As sophistry goes, I guess it was good enough to fool them.