The Many Faces of the Free Will Problem

Table of Contents

Definition of the Will
(1) Are we being Impeded?
(2) Do our wants cause things to happen?
(3)Are we determined by physical causes?  Can we do things beyond physical laws?
(4)  Predictability and Quantum Effects on the brain?
(5)  Can we choose what we value?
(6)  Could we have done otherwise?
(7)  Do we determine ourselves?
(8) If we do not control our unconscious, do we control anything? 
What is the proper question, what is the proper answer?

The most definite thing I can say about the free will question is that it quite ambiguous.  The question “do we have free will?” is murky, unclear, and open to multiple interpretations.  Worse, it seems that when one debates this with others, what form of the question of free will is being debated is so unclear that one person could be talking about one interpretation and the other might be talking about another interpretation.  Hence they will be talking past each other.

Here is a list of the possible interpretations to the free will question that I have seen:

(1) Are we being impeded?

(2) Do our wants and needs cause our actions?

(3) Are we determined by physical causes. Can we do things beyond the laws of physics?

(4) Are we predictable?

(5) Can we choose what we value?

(6) Could we have done otherwise?

(7) Do we determine ourselves, or does something else do it?

(8) Are all our thoughts and actions unconscious?

The questions are not all the same.  They are asking different things.  Many of them seem related, but all are not necessarily the same thing.

For instance, the answer to (2) (Do our wants and needs cause actions?) seems to be obviously yes.  If I happen to want to throw my coffee cup out the window, it will happen, unless I am stopped by something.  If this is all the question of free will means (and it might be all it means) then obviously we do have free will.  However, the answer to question (5) (Can we value what we don’t want?) is also obvious, but the answer is no, we can’t value what we don’t want.  If this is all the question of free will means, the answer is no, we don’t have free will.

So what is the proper question? Is there a proper question?  Is there a proper answer?

Definition of the Will

In order to get a handle on this question, it might be helpful to know what the word “will” means.

As humans, we want things, and the will seems to be the thing that translates this into action.  I want a pizza means: I will to have a pizza.  My will would be the thing that makes me go to the telephone to order a pizza.

A person that does something that is hard is said to have willpower.  A person determined to succeed at a career works very hard, very late, studies very hard, does things that are difficult, like foregoing pleasure and time off in order to succeed.  Likewise, a person with a broken leg manages to crawl out of a forest to civilization, where someone else without the same “willpower”, the same will to survive, would have perished.

So the will must be described as the faculty that translates what we want into action.  A person with strong “willpower” will overcome their base desires and do things to get what they want, despite the fact that their body, their emotions, their wants to do easier things, their fears, are fighting against what they want.  They do it anyways.  So when we rally against our fears, we are using our will.  This seems like the most important use the of the word “will” in everyday life.

Hence the will must be that which translates what we perceive we want into action.  I say “perceive” because we may be mistaken about what we really want sometimes.  It’s a faculty that we have to put thoughts into action.  I want something, it is attempted, and the will is that which causes the actions in the attempt. Whatever this thing is, (and we have no idea what it is) it must exist, given that we have thoughts, and these thoughts almost certainly lead to action.

It’s fairly confusing to consider the question of what it is that translates thoughts into action.  We have no idea what thoughts are, and we only have this idea that thoughts are translated into action, but we have no idea how this really works.  Without knowing what thoughts are, how they relate to bodily actions like moving and speaking is a total mystery.  Perhaps modeling the will as something that grabs a thought in the ethereal realm, and transports it into the physical world, is a terrible way to envisage the will and thoughts, leading us to all sorts of errors. However, I think this is what we envisage. However, maybe it is legitimate, who knows?  It seems quite possible that the free will question cannot be resolved until we understand the mind and its place in nature.

One thing that should be clear is that conscious acts appear to have two parts.  We sense things, we act.  The “acting” part comes from the will, whatever the will is. Another way to put this is that consciousness has two components, (1) A sensing/experiential part, and (2) A causal/acting part.  We experience a sensation of something, this appears to allow it to be compared to what we perceive we value, then a decision is made as we sense what we value, often translating into a bodily action.  The decision may not necessarily lead to a bodily action, it could simply lead to a change in mind, however it still leads to a change.

So what we do is experience a sensation, do an action.   Experience a sensation, do an action.  Experience a sensation, do an action.  Over and over again.  It is an interesting question as to what part of this process we can claim ownership of?  Surely we can claim ownership of our experiences, as they are our experiences, not some else’s.  I experience redness, that’s my experience of red, I “own” it if I own anything.  Of course, I do not create the fact that experiences happen to me, nor do I create what role experiences play in nature.  So the sense that these experiences are “mine” is only in the sense that they happen to me, whatever “I” am.  As to what “we” are, that seems a total mystery.

Do I own my will?  Is it “my” process? This question, it seems to me, can lie at the heart of many people’s disputes over free will.  If our will is “ours” and part of us, then it seems we have free will (since we are the causal thing, the determining thing), if it is not ours, then there is no chance we have free will.  Of course, as with experiences, we do not create the fact that our will translates thoughts into actions, whatever our will is, neither do we create the fact that we have a will.  So in what sense do we “own” our will?  Well, it is our will, not someone else’s. It’s our choosing faculty, not someone else’s. Also, in some sense, we “are” our will.  We are the part of us that pursues what we perceive we value, just as we “are” our experiences.

Whatever “I” am, whatever, “we” are, our identity must be “in” our experiences and our will somehow.  It must be in our consciousness, and our consciousness has two parts, so we must own them both, in some sense.  We view ourselves as a force of nature somehow, something that is capable of causing things.  Our will is capable of causing things, so we are our will, in some sense.  However, in what exact sense we own our will still seems unclear.

So then, if the will is that which causes us to pursue what we perceive we value, is it “free”?  What can this mean?


(1) Are we impeded?

The most obvious meaning of this question is whether or not we are being impeded in what we are trying to do.  I may choose to throw my cereal bowl out the window, but what if someone stops me?  What if I can’t get to the window because of some heavy boxes?

However, this seems like a trivial problem, sometimes we are impeded, sometimes we are not impeded.  Sometimes we are free to do as we wish, sometimes we have a gun to our head, and have no choice (unless we want to die).

This seems to be the legal interpretation of free will. A  person with a gun to their head does not give money to a robber “of their own free will”.  There is a sort of impediment on their actions.  Giving your life savings to a robber was not how you freely planned to start your day, it wasn’t your choice to get a gun pointed at your head, given your inclinations. Most people value their lives a lot, so giving away money to a stranger is not something they would normally choose to do, but they do it because they don’t want to die.

So, do we have free will in the sense of being not impeded?  It depends on the situation, but, often we do have free will in this sense. If this is all the question of free will means, then, yes, we can often have free will.

However, from what I can gather, the philosophical question of free will goes beyond the question of impediment.

(2) Do our wants cause things to happen?

It seems fairly obvious that our wants cause things to happen.  If I happen to want to throw my cereal bowl in the trash, it will happen, unless there is someone or something in front of the trash.  At the very least, there is a massive correlation between what we want and what we attempt to do.  We don’t always get to do what we want, but if we want it, we attempt it.

Correlation is not causation, so even though there is a massive correlation, our wants might not be the cause of our actions, even though they seem to be.  For instance, for the last hundred years, the human population of Earth has been steadily increasing. At the same time, the distance between our Galaxy and the distant Sombrero Galaxy has been increasing. There is a correlation between these two things. However, there is no causation between human population and distance to the Sombrero galaxy. If, tomorrow, there is a large nuclear weapon exchange, the population of the Earth will decrease, but the distance from the Sombrero Galaxy will still increase.

Is it possible that the correlation between our wants and our trying to do things is all coincidence, as with the Sombrero Galaxy and human population? It seem highly unlikely. For some reason we do not know, consciousness exists in nature.  We experience things, want for things, and we don’t know how this phenomenon relates to the rest of nature.  As far as we can tell, consciousness exists to figure out what to do next for us.  We use it to process information, and the processing of this information leads to actions.

So why would nature make all this happen just to fool us?  Nature doesn’t appear to need consciousness, from what we understand of nature through science, yet there it is, we use it to process information.  If it is truly useless and doesn’t do anything, just seems to correlate to what we do, but has absolutely no causative role, then why would it exist?  Why would nature do that?

This doesn’t seem right, nature wouldn’t do that.  Hence we must conclude that our wants do help cause, in some way, what we do.

Therefore, whatever our wants are, whatever consciousness is, it must play some role in the actions we take, otherwise nature is really, really weird.  Hence, if the free will question is asking if our wants determine what we do, the answer seems to be a pretty clear yes.  If only we knew what consciousness was in the first place.

It should be noted that many find the idea that consciousness is “causally inert” an attractive one. They say, yes consciousness exists, but it is a useless by product that does nothing. They appear to say this because this seems to be the picture science gives of consciousness. The things we identify with science, like forces, mass, charge, and physical laws, are in charge of reality (this is a pro science stance) and so consciousness (which is none of these things like forces or physical laws) must be a useless by product. While I think science gives a wonderful explanation of reality, I must note that consciousness is a complete unknown. We have no idea what it is and how it fits in with the rest of reality. Hence we have absolutely no reason (even in the face of the wonderful success of science) to relegate consciousness to a causally inert role. You cannot conclude things like this about something that is basically a complete unknown.

(3)  Are we determined by physical causes?  Can we do things beyond physical laws?

It seems undeniable that we are determined by physical laws.  Our brain is a physical system and there is nothing weird going on in there. As long as there are not unpredictable quantum systems determining what the brain will do, then the idea that the brain operates in a potentially predictable, deterministic manner seems beyond a doubt.

The idea that we could do things beyond physical laws doesn’t seem very likely.  Granted we don’t know what consciousness is, but consciousness must be a part of nature, and whatever it does, how could it do things beyond physical laws, when the brain is clearly a physical system?  The blood that goes into the brain comes out, conservation of energy applies to the brain.  Whenever these and other things are measured, no exceptions to physical laws are found.

So if the free will question is asking if we can do things beyond physics, the answer seems a very clear no.

However, this brings up the question that, if what we do is determined by physical causes, how can it be that our wants determine what we do?  Our wants and physical causes are not the same thing at all, it seems, so how can our wants really do anything?

This seems a conundrum.  However, as noted above, we really don’t know what consciousness is, so we don’t know what role it plays in nature, and its role of processing information, however this is achieved, should be a part of the physical causes of the brain somehow.  We have just ruled out the idea that our consciousness can do anything beyond what physical laws do, so whatever consciousness is doing, what it does must be consistent with physical laws.

So when we look at the brain we see a physical, causal chain of events, and we do not see the workings of consciousness.  Despite this, somehow, within this chain of physical events, consciousness must also be at work in a manner consistent with physical laws.

I personally think the only way around this conundrum is to say that physical laws and our will are, in some weird sense, the same thing. Whatever is operating behind the scenes to make physical laws (like the conservation of momentum) do what they do, this thing takes on a the causal role of a determining thing. The thing(s) behind physical laws determine what happens next. Consciousness, in the form of our will, also determines what happens next. Hence maybe they are the same thing in some sense. This idea leads to a picture of nature where, whenever a particle is about to change state, a calculation of sorts must be made, and this “calculation” involves qualia, or a moment of consciousness. More on this theory can be found in my essay.

The alternative to this view is that consciousness must be a superfluous, useless, byproduct to the chain of physical causes.  However, since we have no idea what consciousness is, this idea is not warranted.  When you have no idea what something is, to assume it plays no part in something you don’t understand does not seem rational.  Rather, we simply don’t know.  It is possible that consciousness is superfluous, it is possible that it is not.

(4) Predictability and Quantum Effects on the brain?

Is what we do predictable?  Given that the brain is a physical system composed of cells called neurons, it seems most likely that it is predictable.

Of course, one might question this by asking if quantum effects influence neurons, and thus influence brain states.  Quantum events do not have predictable outcomes.  If quantum effects happen in the brain, then what the brain will do will be unpredictable, and so shall our behavior.

Quantum events, of course, happen in the brain, just as they happen in a piece of steel, or a computer, or any collection of atoms.  However, when there are collections of many atoms bound to each other, as in a piece of driftwood, the object does not behave as a quantum object, whose future states can only be given probabilities, it behaves as an object whose future states can be predicted by classical physics.  There are many quantum phenomena that make semiconductors behave in the way they do, yet what a semiconductor will make a computer do is predictable.  There is a sort of “averaging out” to quantum events in big objects, making them subject to predictable, classical laws.  There is a limit to how much precision we can predict the future states of large objects.

However, since neurons are relatively large collections of atoms, with large molecules that interact, and use signals sent by ion diffusion, what a neuron will do in a given instance is probably predictable.  We should be able to predict what it will do without having to worry about quantum uncertainty.  The brain is too “wet and warm” to support phenomena like entanglement.  Though there are many quantum phenomena in a neuron, the behavior of a neuron ought to be predictable, just like a semiconductor is predictable.

However, there is recent evidence that quantum phenomena is exploited in animals.  The sense of smell of humans, photosynthesis in plants, the way birds detect magnetic fields, all use quantum phenomena to work.  Therefore, though it is unlikely, perhaps the behavior of neurons could be influenced by random quantum events, making them unpredictable.

Therefore, we can conclude that, since our behavior is determined by the actions of neurons, who are in principle predictable (probably), our behavior is also predictable (probably).  Therefore, what we will for is predictable (probably).  One would need a very powerful computer plus some very powerful measuring devices to do this, but it is probably possible in principle.   If the free will question means “Are we predictable?” then is the answer is: we do not have free will, since we are predictable.

However, it seems dubious that predictability has much, if anything, to do with “free will”.  Whatever “free will” is supposed to mean.  Predictability is coherent with the idea that we determine ourselves.  If we determine what we do, not something else, what does it matter if an outside observer can predict what we can do?

As an example, imagine a car salesman who is really good at his job.  He’s seen so many people and sold so many cars that he can predict, with good accuracy, what car a person will buy and how much they will buy it for from the way the person is dressed, the way they talk, and so on.  Suppose he sees a woman come into the car dealership and does not interact with her at all, one of his colleagues handles the sale.  But from what he overhears, and how she looks, he successfully predicts what car she will settle on, and the final negotiated price.

Does this mean she has no free will?  He did not interfere with her in any way, and she chose the car she wanted unencumbered.  So she had free will in the sense that she was unencumbered. She also has free will in the sense that if we are determining things, she was also a determining thing, even if what she did was predictable.

Therefore, it seems that perhaps predictability does not have much to do with “free will”.   To investigate a little further, though someone else might know what we are about to do, we ourselves do not.  Suppose there was a machine that could sense my brain states and use a powerful computer to successfully predict what I was going to do minutes before I do it.  Well, even though it knows what I am going to do, I don’t, and I still have to do it.  Therefore, predictability does not affect causation.

It is analogous to knowing what will happen in a collision of two objects on an air track in a high school physics lab.  Through the law of conservation of momentum, one can predict what speed the objects will have after the collision.  Yet what caused the velocities to come out the way they do?  In some way, the thing behind the law of nature we call conservation of momentum is responsible (the law of conservation of momentum is a description of reality, so there must be something in reality behind it making to do what it does, and this “thing” can be assigned a causal role).  It causes things to happen as they do, the fact that the results of the law are predictable does not take away from it causing events to unfold in the way they do.

So predictability does not mean we do not cause things to happen.  If the free will question is about causation, whether or not we cause things to happen, our predictability has nothing to do with it.  We can cause things to happen and still be predictable.

If we are unpredictable, does this matter for free will?  It doesn’t seem to matter either.  If what we do is not predictable to something else, does that mean we are not causing what we do?  It does not follow.

What is clear from quantum mechanics is that quantum events are not predictable.  What is not clear is if this implies that events are not caused by prior events.  If it truly means that events are “uncaused”, then this would mean we have no free will, since we behave deliberately, not randomly.

Therefore, if our decisions are up to random quantum mechanical events, and these events are uncaused, then we have no free will.  Our view of ourselves as acting deliberately would be false, somehow.  If the question of free will means “Do we make deliberate decisions?” and if it is true that quantum events rule the brain and are also uncaused, then we have no free will.  However, this is not known at this time.

(5)  Can we choose what we value?

It seems a truism that we do what we value.  If we do something we apparently don’t value, then obviously we must have actually valued it.   Hence we actually did something we valued, even though we were unaware of it.

This seems inescapable.  If we try to do something we don’t value, like sticking a knife in our arm, we would do it to prove that we are capable of doing something we don’t value.  However, all that would mean is that we valued being right about this issue over pain and injury.  Hence the knife sticking would be done because it is what we value the most.

Hence, though we can do what we want, we cannot choose what we want.  Our desires seem built into us.  However, we can choose between desires, like when an alcoholic decides to put down the bottle and leave the bar.  In such an instance, one is doing what they perceive they value the most.

Thus, if the free will question means “can we choose what we value?”  The answer is no, we do not have free will, at least in the sense of choosing our base desires.

This seems clear, but is muddied by the fact that our choices over time probably influence our mind, and hence influence what we value. An alcoholic perceives he has troubles, and keeps trying to quit, but is unsuccessful for a long time. He quits, but then starts drinking again after awhile. He does this over an over again. Eventually, he gives up the bottle for good. He now completely values being sober over being drunk.

Did the former alcoholic choose what he valued? It certainly seems one can make a case for it. His conscious choices eventually influenced his behavior. He eventually beat it into his head, so that the rest of his being accepted this idea. It seems that, in saying that we do not choose what we value, we may have been too simplistic. We cannot do things we don’t value, true (if the alcoholic hadn’t valued the life one can lead without alcohol, he never would have stopped), but what we actually choose out of competing desires seems up to us, even if it is very difficult. As long as we can perceive an option, we can attempt that option. We cannot choose our base desires (such as enjoying being drunk or enjoying a sober life, these are base desires) but we can choose between them.

Once a person performs that option, we can say (in retrospect) that that person valued that option the most. Thus if we only knew what they valued the most beforehand, then we would know what someone will do. However, an observer of someone cannot know what the agent values the most in many circumstances, further, the agent performing the action doesn’t know what hey value beforehand either.

However, is that what the free will question means (i.e. can we choose what we value)?  Even accepting that we cannot choose what we value is no denial that we are a causative agent – that we are a determining thing.  Our wants still cause things to happen, at least that’s how it seems, but we cannot decide what our basic wants are, only choose between them.  Is this a big deal to our notion of free will?  We still deliberate over choices, mull over decisions.  We do this unimpeded.  We ourselves might not know what we value the most, we still have to mull over decisions and figure out what to do.  This process does not go away because we cannot predetermine what we value (in a basic sense).

Though it is undeniably true that we cannot will for what we don’t want, it’s not clear what this is saying about our will and its freedom.  It could be that all it is saying is that we are predictable based on what we value.  If that’s all, that does not seem to imply that we have no free will, as above.

It could also be saying that “freedom” should mean we should be able to choose what we want, rather than choose what we will do based on what we already value.  However, why is this what “freedom” means?  I mull things over, I consider options, nobody is doing this for me.  I am not impeded, this mulling is a cause of what I will do. Just because we can’t choose every last thing that occurs regarding ourselves does not mean there is no “freedom”.

This fact that we cannot choose what we value can lead to the following line of thinking.  Since we always do what we value most, we can look upon ourselves as following an “automatic” process.  If we are following an automatic process, then it would seem that we are determined by something that is not us, something that is otherworldly and has nothing to do with us.

It is like there is an invisible Demon making us to what we value most automatically. The Demon is what does everything, since it makes sure that we do what we value most.  However, instead of a Demon, it is more like the laws of nature that determine that we will automatically do what we value the most.  If there really is something else, not “us”, doing things, then it would seem very definite that we have no free will.

However, just because this can be looked upon as an automatic process does not mean that this is the correct way to look at this process.  Yes, we will always do what we value most, but we don’t know what we will value most until we actively figure it out.  We have to mull it over.  The process is not “automatic” in the sense that it doesn’t involve any conscious experience that is actively doing things.  It does involve conscious experience that actively does things.  We don’t know the outcome beforehand.  Someone else might, but we don’t.  It’s like saying that whatever is behind the conservation of momentum does nothing because we know what it will do.

This issue of whether or not we are an “automatic” process seems to me to be the crux of the issue of freedom of the will. More will be said on it in a bit.

(6) Are we determined by ourselves or by something else?

If the possibility of quantum mechanical phenomena determining what we will do in an “uncaused” manner is ignored, then we are determined by past physical events that occur according to the laws of physics.  This is probably a good assumption, since there are good arguments from special relativity that make the case that everything that happens is predetermined, even if it is not predictable. Penrose’s Andromeda argument involving special relativity and an alien attacking force from another galaxy seems particularly strong.

Determinism is a bit of an ambiguous word, and care must be taken when using it.  While it is probably true that everything is predetermined, that does not mean that everything is “determinable”.  That is we cannot expect to be able to determine what will happen in quantum events, even if the quantum events are determined.  They are not determinable, they cannot be predicted.

Saying quantum events are determined, but not determinable, means that the prior events led inevitably to the event one is considering, but we don’t and cannot know what that event will be beforehand, we can just give a probability of what it will be. Research into Quantum mechanics has made it very clear that there is no way to predict what will happen with knowledge of these prior events, it is simply impossible. However, whether this implies that the event is still determined by prior events, or is actually uncaused, is less clear. As above, with Penrose’s argument, there seem to be good reasons for thinking the event is still determined by prior events, but is not determinable from prior events.

Saying the event is determined by prior events does not and should not give complete causal power to the prior events. We can certainly say that the prior events helped cause the event, but there are other things we can assign causal powers to as well. For instance, when two object collide, we can determine what will happen using conservation of momentum and energy beforehand. There is something in nature that causes momentum to be conserved. Whatever it is, it seems correct to give this “something” causal powers. We can also attribute cause to the prior events, and at the same time attribute cause to the “something”. So there are a few things to attribute cause to, not just prior events.

For arguments about free will, it seem that a common fallacy is committed when one claims that “everything is determined” (probably true) to “everything is determined by something else other than ourselves”.  There is no justification for this move, other than to claim that physical causes and mental causes have no relation to each other.  However, this is not justified, because, as mentioned previously, we have no idea what consciousness is and how it relates to the rest of nature.  It seems very possible that mental causes and physical causes work together to make things happen according to the laws of physics.  How else could they coexist?  We know the laws of physics work in the brain.

This line of thinking is very similar to saying that everything we do is an automatic process, as discussed above.

In other words, if we are determined by something else, what is it?  What is it that is determining us?  It is not enough to say “we are determined” one must say what it is that is determining us.  Physical laws? Prior physical causes?  Those are legitimate answers, but what reason do you have for saying that consciousness (which we know very little about) is not working hand in hand somehow with prior physical events and physical laws?

A common thing to say about the free will issue is that everything that we ever do, everything we will ever do, was determined the moment the big bang happened.  This is probably true, but it has no bearing on the issue of what it is that determines us.  Everything was determined in the Big Bang, so what?  The issue is whether or not we help determine things or not as events unfold after the Big Bang. Are we like the “something” behind the conservation of momentum, or not?

Therefore, if everything is determined, this does not imply that something else is determining us.  Of course, if something else is determining us, then we have no free will, but what reason do we have to believe this?

(7) Could we have done otherwise?

A common question in free will debates is whether or not we could have done otherwise. Given some circumstances, a person makes a decision. Could that person have chosen differently?

This question itself is ambiguous. Does it mean (A) was it inevitable that the choice the person made would happen the way it did? Or is it (B) asking what phenomenon is in charge? (meaning that if that phenomenon of consciousness decided something different, then something different would have happened.)

For question A, the answer, assuming a deterministic universe (supported by special relativity and probably consistent with Quantum mechanics, as above) the answer is obvious. The choice was inevitable, and it could not have come out differently. If this is what the free will question means, then we have no free will.

However, as always, is this actually what the question means? For we can say, yes, it was inevitable, but what determined it? If our consciousness is part of the process that determines what actions we perform, then, even if it is predictable by some means beyond us, we still have to do it (and as always, we ourselves will not know what will occur before it occurs).

Thus we could have done otherwise if we had happened to decide otherwise. Note that our decision was still inevitable, given the particular circumstance involved in the decision, but still, as long as part of the determination process involves “us”, involves our consciousness, then it is a determining thing, it is “in charge”.

(8) If we do not control our unconscious, do we control anything?

When I decide to water my garden tomorrow, instead of today, the question of whether to water the garden occurs when I look at the garden. I don’t appear to summon the question. Likewise the thought that it would save water and the garden will be fine for another day also appear to come unbidden into my mind.

What I do appear to do is to weigh these options (“look” at them, even though I can’t actually see them) and settle on the option that seems best.

In any event, there seems to be alot of things happening in my “unconscious” to summon up thoughts like questions on whether to water the garden, and also summon information pertaining to what I am thinking about, like plant survival, and I don’t appear to be in control of this. To be clear, it seems that in some sense these “unconscious” processes are a part of me, but they are not part of my self awareness, and we often identify “I” (ourselves) with our self aware processes. It would seem that our self awareness is the thing that decides when to water the garden, based on the information sent to it.

However, one can continue along this line and even question whether or not the decision to water the garden was really arrived at by our “self aware” process, since we are only aware of what we decide, perhaps this decision process is automatic, and we only experience what we decide, and something else makes the decision. If this is true, then we have no free will.

However, as always, is this what the question really means? As it is claiming that something else, not us, is determining what we do, it’s probably quite close to what the question is asking, however, that claim is probably not correct, there are a few things to say about it.

First there is the question of what our “unconscious” is. There seems to be good reason to think that “unconscious” processes are in fact conscious ones with qualia and are evaluations of some sort, but are not part of our self awareness, and are not remembered by our self awareness. For instance, there are things that make people angry. For whatever reason, we perceive some sort of unfairness, and we get angry as a result. Our self awareness does not seem privy to the evaluation that anger is now a good idea, the feeling sort of comes into our self awareness, indeed, when we are angry, we might not be aware if we are angry at all.

So it seems that this feeling of anger comes from outside of “us”. However, it seems likely that the decision to trigger anger is a similar process to me deciding to water my garden tomorrow, in that it was an evaluation, and probably involved a quale. It was not part of our self awareness, and the decision was not recorded by our self awareness, nevertheless, it was probably a “conscious” decision in that involved qualia and was an evaluation.

If this is true, then the thoughts that come unbidden into our minds, like the question of when to water my garden, also come from evaluations with qualia when stimulus triggers these evaluation. For instance, when I look at my garden, an evaluation process with a qualia is triggered, and the thought “should I water it today?” comes into my head.

Therefore, if I can claim that my decision to water my garden is an act of free will, as I can choose among options and sense which one appears a better option, then these “unconscious” evaluations that probably also have qualia are acts of “free will” in a sense as well, as they are evaluations with qualia that happen “outside” of my self awareness.

Can I claim that my decision to water my garden is an act of free will? Everything hinges on that. Well, as above, it seems reasonable that this decision is a determining thing, it causes action. It does not seem right to deny this, so then a free will denier is then reduced to saying that I do not “own” the decision, I am just experiencing the decision, the causal process that leads from my experience to the decision to hold off on my watering is not a part of me.

The reason that it is not a part of me could be claimed to be because it is a physical process, and not a mental one, but we have gone through this above already, and it is simply not clear what the difference between mental processes and physical processes is, so we have no reason at this point to accept that physical processes and mental ones are utterly independent and unrelated to each other.

though I am not sure that I understand the “unconscious” argument above, I think the argument is an attempt at denial of our ownership of the causal process that leads from experience to evaluation, since we can’t see it for unconscious processes. However, it seems we can “see it” for conscious processes. As above, our conscious decisions are active, not passive acts. We do not just experience the results of our decisions, we also strive to look at options and “see” the right one to do.

Thus we have no reason to accept that we cannot claim ownership of the process that leads from experience to decision. Further, what does “ownership” mean in this context? I have no idea…

What is the proper question, what is the proper answer?

Throughout analyzing all these questions, the one idea that appears to perhaps survive, no matter how one manages to doubt that we have free will, is that we appear to be a determining thing.

The crux of the issue of free will appears to be whether or not “we” are determining things, or something else is.  Are we a determining thing, or not?  The issue does not seem to be about obstruction of what we want to do, which is how the term is most commonly used.  It should not about whether or not we can make choices outside the laws of physics, because we can’t. As best as I can tell, it seems to be about who or what is in control?

It seems that the main reason to doubt that we have free will is whether or not our choices are actually making things happen.  Though it seems obvious that our wants cause us to do things, this is called into question by some observations:

(1) We don’t choose what we value (in a basic sense).

(2) Everything we do can be chalked up to physical causes.

(3) We can’t claim ownership of certain mental properties.

Reason (2) does not seem to be legitimate, as has been said repeatedly, since we simply don’t know what consciousness is, so we have no reason to believe that it does not work hand in hand with physical causes.

Reason (1) has already been discussed, and does not contradict the idea that our wants cause things to happen.

Reason (3) was just discussed.

All in all, there does not seem to be a knock down, compelling reason to deny our free will, but there are things that we need to understand better.

From all of this, it seems to me the main thing to do is figure out what consciousness is, how it relates to the rest of nature, what it does in nature. This is an interesting question. Regardless of whether or not we can truly be said to have free will, and in what sense we can say this, and what the question means, even if we don’t have free will, we still need to understand consciousness and its role in nature. Surely this will settle the issue.




One thought on “The Many Faces of the Free Will Problem

  1. Hi, most of the problem is that people ask the wrong question – do we have free will? These things are variables not binaries. People should ask how to increase free will, how to increase consciousness.

    If you are into physics people say the underlying equations are all deterministic so thats the end of it however the brain is a quantum computer and is capable of thoughts related to reverse causality. Surely people that understand the deterministic equations can understand reverse causality?

    Anyway here is an ebook about consciousness and free will (page 28)


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