The Practical Meaning of Free Will

Definitions make all the difference.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

Philosophers and scientists have debated the issue of free will for centuries. In general, the consensus seems to be that there is no such thing. The problem is the premise of the debate. Those who have already decided against free will frame the issue so that no other conclusion can be drawn. Proper definition of terms is crucial to stay out of rhetorical weeds and traps.

For example, people will say that every action or event has a cause. Therefore, the event was determined and did not occur “freely.” To occur freely, an action or event would have to occur randomly. I have had professional statisticians tell me that in the real world almost nothing is truly random. Too many things are inter-dependent—that is, what happens to one thing creates a bias of action on something else.

Another argument is that every action or event has a certain probability of occurrence, ranging from zero to 100% chance that it will occur. Thus, the argument is that anything that can occur will occur, eventually. It if has a low probability, happening may just take a long time. It does not require being willed into existence.

Before we can go much further, we have to understand the word will. This word implies an intent from an active, living agent that chooses to do a certain thing or avoid doing it. I suppose you could say that an ant has a will to go search for food, for example. But no one would suggest that an ant can freely do that. It is compelled by a biological need for food and sensory detection of odor cues that propel the ant to move in the direction of the food. This technicality aside, common use of the word “will” is that this is a goal or intent that higher animals have, and they may be constrained from complete freedom. In fact, a key part of the common definitions of will is that it requires consciousness. But free will opponents promote their foreordained conclusion that people can’t have free will by claiming that consciousness itself has no agency. It is just an observer. Space prevents me for challenging this specious argument here, but I have defended conscious agency in other publications.

The most obvious constraint is lack of freedom of action. I cannot will to fly by flapping my arms, because that is not within my biological repertoire. I am not free to crack a safe, because I do not know how. So let us not confuse freedom of action with free will. Free will can only exercised if there is freedom of action for what one wills.

As for “free” will, or “free” won’t, the premise is that one has two or more available choices and that nothing compels selection of one over the other. You may well have different probabilities for a given choice, each biased by certain contingencies associated with each choice. For example, the probability that I will have breakfast tomorrow morning is highly likely, assuming I have the freedom of action by still being alive and that there are things in my kitchen to eat.  But, the probability is not 100%. I may get nauseous and not want to eat. I may have to fast because I am getting a medical blood test. But I can over-rule the forbidding factors. I can choose to eat, knowing that it may cause me to vomit (but maybe it won’t and in fact might settle my stomach if I pick something really digestible). I can choose to risk creating bad test numbers or skip the blood test to do it on another day that seems more convenient.

Here is how a free-will argument might proceed:

Determinist: “Whatever choice is made, it will be influenced by some factor that your reasoning develops. You used reasoning to change the probabilities and thus biased your choice. You simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to have it.”

Free-will Believer: “Well, you defined free will in a way that does not allow us to have it. It is specious logic to define things out of existence. The problem is that you have tried to foreordain your conclusion by saying that reason is not an acceptable basis for freely making a choice. This is a rhetorical trick. I am free to think this out, whatever way my knowledge and thinking skills allow. Remember, the reasoning only affects the probabilities. Reason does not compel a given choice. It merely alters the probabilities. People do make illogical or dumb choices from time to time.”

Determinist: “But you are constrained by the limits of your knowledge and brain. People make dumb choices when they are being dumb.”

Free-will Believer: “Yes, but within those limits, I have free choice. I may even make a choice that my reasoning concludes to be a bad choice, just for the hell of it—or just to counter your argument.”

Determinist: “Do you not see that just for the hell of it is an emotion that has biased your decision. Thus it is not free?”

Free-will Believer: “Note that I said may, not I will. I still reserve the possibility to choose. Do you not seen we have fallen into an infinite regress trap? Your line of argument cannot be pursued to a definitive conclusion.”

Thus, it seems to me that philosophical logic is not useful for this kind of debate. Here is a case where common sense makes more sense. In any choice that is not forced, we are free to change the probabilities or to confound them—for whatever reason or emotion.

References

Klemm, W. R. 2016. Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New    York: Elsevier.

Klemm, W. R. (2018). Reason and Creativity May Require Free Will, Chapter 2, In  . Hauppauge, New York: Nova.

Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiology Perspectives on Agency: 10 Axioms and 10 Proposition, Chapter 4. Constraints of Agency. Explorations of Theory in Everyday Life. edited  by Graig W. Gruber et al. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, Vol. 12, p.51-88.

Klemm, W. R. 2010. Free will debates: simple experiments are not so simple. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 6: (6) 47-65.