Determinism vs Free Will

The denial of the existence of a free will attacks the fundamental concept of human moral responsibility.  If actions are not freely chosen, there can be no judgments of praise, guilt, or sin.  If all decisions of the mind are predetermined, advice, persuasion, deliberation and prohibition are meaningless.  Much of scientific research does reveal the existence of deterministic controls over the choices of the mind. Consider the evidence. 

When you begin to talk, your nervous system has already assigned control of your speech to a feeling.   It has articulated an idea around the emotion, chosen apt words, arranged them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusted the pitch of your voice.   You have no conscious inkling of what words you will use.   If you do not even know what words you are going to use the next moment, you are evidently not in control.  That can be interpreted as the lack of a free will.  But, imagine that, while nature has set safety limits on your behavior, it empowers you with vast wisdom to discover new and creative solutions to the problems you face.  That is true freedom.

  • A denial of a free will attacks the fundamental concept of moral responsibility.
  • Causal, logical and theological determinists deny the existence of a free will.
  • Christianity, Islam, Hunduism and Buddhism hold varying views on determinism.
  • Sam Harris suggests that because human decisions are unconscious, there is no free will.
  • Life broke the cause and effect chain by introducing purpose through a hierarchy of decision making systems.
  • The claustrum contains the conscious intelligence.
  • Benjamin Libet's experiments suggest that consciousness does not make decisions.
  • Nature granted you a powerful intelligence with many components. You become truly free, when you empower the most powerful one among them.

Determinism VS Free Will -  Causal, Logical And Theological
Determinists hold that everything, including our choices, are the necessary results of a sequence of causes. Chrysippus said “Everything that happens is followed by something else which depends on it by causal necessity. Likewise, everything that happens is preceded by something with which it is causally connected. For nothing exists or has come into being in the cosmos without a cause. The universe will be disrupted and disintegrate into pieces and cease to be a unity functioning as a single system, if any uncaused movement is introduced into it.”

Causal determinists propose the Laplace's demon thought experiment. Imagine an entity, which knows all the laws of nature and all past and present facts. Such an entity will theoretically predict exactly how you will act. Logical determinists suggest that since a future event is either true, or false, your action tomorrow can only be the action, which is one of two possible true predictions today. For theological determinists, an omnipotent entity has decided and knows your action tomorrow. In all three cases, a free will is impossible. But, there are compatibilists, who believe that a free will can coexist with determinism.

Determinism vs Free Will -  Religious Views
Religions generally support the concept of a free will, while believing in an omnipotent creator. The primary approach of Christian belief makes free choice logically impossible. But, the philosopher Kierkegaard suggested that divine omnipotence cannot be separated from divine goodness. A good God could create beings with true freedom over God, because "the greatest good ... which can be done for a being, greater than anything else that one can do for it, is to be truly free."

According to Islamic doctrine free will is the main factor for man's accountability. All actions taken by man's free will are said to be counted on the Day of Judgment, because they are his own and not God's. The concept of karma in Hinduism is generally linked to the determination of a person's destiny in future lives.

For Buddhism, the idea that a person has complete freedom of choice is foolish, because it denies the reality of one's physical needs and circumstances. Equally incorrect is the idea that we have no choice in life or that our lives are predetermined. To deny freedom would be to undermine the efforts of Buddhists to make moral progress, freely choosing compassionate action.

According to Sam Harris, the thoughts and intentions of people emerge from causes of which they are unaware. They exert no conscious control over them. Every choice they make is made as a result of preceding causes and is therefore not really a choice at all. Essentially biochemical puppets, humans lack a free will. Effects have followed causes from the beginning of time. Science suggests that a ten billion degree sea of particles existed just one second after the big bang. The patterns of their interactions were precisely ordered and stable across billions of years. When life did not exist, there was just a relentless chain of mindless causes and effects. Such determinism pointed finally to eternal darkness.

Determinism vs Free Will -Life Injects Purpose
Determinism means causal determinism. But, imagine the possibility of choice determinism, which has been valid since the beginning of life.  In a living environment, purposive choices move relentlessly towards intended goals.  This axiom also has been validated by the abundance of life. Consider the flagellum, present in virtually all living cells. It is driven by proton motive force, with a rotor, which rotates at up to 1,00,000 rpm. With a clutch and a brake, it can reverse directions in a 1/4 turn. This microscopic water cooled engine powers the purposeful movement of living cells.  An astonishing collection of such molecules proved that choice determinism could achieve an incredible variety of goals. 

Determinism vs Free Will -  A Decision Making Hierarchy
Choice determinism was the driving force of life.  Instead of a cause-effect  response, a living thing had many available options for responses.  With purposeful choice, an event that follows one choice out of many moves towards the intended outcome. Nature made that choice using knowledge. Nature created intelligent systems, which store memories of trillions of causes and effects. Each of those intelligent entities selects the most appropriate of all its possible choices to meet its goal. You are such a choice deterministic system, with a complex array of supporting intelligences. They include the raw drives of a reptilian brain, the social restrictions of a mammalian brain, the rational common sense of the prefrontal regions (PFR) and consciousness, a conscious intelligence.

Determinism vs Free Will -  Emotional Compulsions
Determinism is not the problem if, sometimes, you are limited to one choice among many. 2 + 2 = 4. If you face a deadly predator, run away. Even a consequentialist approach to criminal justice suggests that, at the deepest levels, consequences can control your decisions. The wisdom of your mind tries to limit you to those logical choices. A slew of such options switch in to assist you without your request.

Emotions are an example. Paul Eckman said "We become aware a quarter, or half second after the emotion begins. I do not choose to have an emotion, to become afraid, or to become angry. I am suddenly angry. I can usually figure out later what someone did that caused the emotion." Knee jerk responses are not appropriate expressions of free will. But, those emotional supporting systems are not compelling you to decide. Nature has given you the power to control emotions. If you take the time and effort, you can shut down the knee-jerk mechanisms and have a truly free will.

Determinism vs Free Will -  The Claustrum
People tend to confuse nature's suggestions with compulsions. Science has managed to capture the mechanisms at the critical point where nerve impulses enter conscious awareness. Objects or events in the real world have many attributes, including color, shape, distance, velocity, smell, sound and feel. A PET study by Hadjikhani revealed the involvement of the claustrum in cross-model matching, in tasks that require the simultaneous evaluation of information from more than one sensory domain.

Without this structure, the subject may still be able to respond to simple, isolated or to highly familiar stimuli, but not to complex or unfamiliar ones. The claustrum perceives objects and events in an integrated manner and not as isolated attributes. This region, your conscious intelligence, routinely lets a bewildering array of fears and resentments to enter your consciousness. The claustrum may compel you to choose, if you are gullible.

Determinism vs Free Will -  Consciousness Does Not Decide
Benjamin Libet discoverd that consciousness is just a belated observer of the activities of your mind. He studied subjects who voluntarily pressed a button, while noting the position of a dot on a computer screen, which shifted its position every 43 milliseconds. The noted moment of depressing the button was the moment of conscious awareness; the exact instant the subject thought the button was pressed. Each time, Libet had also timed the beginning of motor neuron activity in the brains of his subjects. He discovered that awareness occurred 350 milliseconds AFTER the beginning of motor activity. When you strike out in anger, the system has already taken charge. You are not consciously making your decisions.

Try this thought experiment. Can your will raise your hand? Yes, when you are sitting quietly in your room. But, suppose you are in an elevator with other passengers. Then, it is improper for you to raise your arms. If you consciously will this action in that situation, it will not happen. The wise system has over ruled your conscious will, because the action is not appropriate. The exercise of your will is subject to clear restrictions. Your conscious will can initiate an action only if it is worthwhile, appropriate, safe and practical. In an airliner, you will not be permitted to take unsafe actions that will crash the machine, when its autopilot is on.  When you raised your hand in your room, your will controlled the system.  Subject to fail safe systems, you are the pilot, the entity in charge of your nervous system.

Determinism vs Free Will -  Who Is the Real "I"?
Manufacturing lines apply automated decision making. A machine identifies a component, picks it up from a conveyor and drops it into an appropriate bin. The machine is designed to make choices and act, when switched on. Imagine that free will is also an automatic mechanism which triggers the next highest priority activity of the system, while the system is awake. The brain is designed to recognize situations, identify strategies, and act decisively. Decision making is at the core of the system. Human consciousness has a delayed view of the cause and the effect. Libet's experiments showed that the conscious view occurred a few hundred milliseconds after the the actual event. 

While just an observer, consciousness has a three dimensional view of the world, appears to make decisions and experiences life. The brain recognizes that observer as "I." It positions the observer at the focal point of vision - behind our eyes, just below the top of our heads. Proprioceptors confirm the location of "I" with a "feel" for the position of our arms and legs. To the brain, "I" is a physical presence, with an uncanny perception of the world. A ghost in the machine. But, an independent "I" in the brain is as real as an "I" in a thermostat. "I" is a confused mental construct. The brain is the real "I."

Determinism vs Free Will -  True Free Will
The philosopher Rudolf Steiner suggested that true freedom of action existed only “when conscious awareness was integrated with moral imagination in making decisions.”  The goal of the moral person is to choose a course of action without external coercion in accordance with his ideals or moral outlook. Life introduced the phenomenon of purposeful choice into the cause and effect chain.  The choice determinism of life achieves goals. The goal of the moral person is to decide independently to act with a moral conscience. Moral choices are the right choices. Such choices are impossible if your action is impractical, irrational, or ruled by negative emotions. The choice determinism of moral purpose is that its actions move relentlessly towards moral results. PFR decisions are free, practical and unemotional. Such free will is deterministic.  Free will is true freedom. 

Nature has endowed you with the most powerful intelligence in the known universe. It has many components. Several of them will prevent you from acting suicidally. One (your consciousness) makes you aware of your current state of mind. Many others (your emotional drives) use the experience of millions of years to recommend that you fight, or flee. Still another, (your PFR) takes the experiences of millions of years and those of a lifetime to offer you the best possible options.  When your PFR makes decisions, your will is free and you will be judged guilty or be praised for your actions. You are open to advice, persuasion, deliberation and prohibition by society. When your PFR is in control, you are not a puppet driven by the system. You have the power to enable the component you will use.

Centuries ago, the Buddhists had discovered that emotions could be stilled.  Self awareness was the key to quieting emotions and empowering the PFR.  While the beneficial results of self awareness are soothing, the changes in your viewpoints happen slowly. You have to keep exploring the strange thought patterns, which float up into your consciousness. As you scrutinize them, your system grasps its own irrationalities and begins to rewrite miles of code. The process sets you free. You occupy a simple observation mode, which effortlessly stills the attacks of fear, resentment or anger. Then, your consciousness will confirm to you that you are truly free.

This page was last updated on 20-Sep-2019.



JUST THINK...   What happens when you begin to talk? Your nervous system has picked an emotion. It has articulated an idea around it, chosen apt words from a vocabulary of thousands of words, arranged them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusted the pitch of your voice. Before you speak you've no consciousness of the words you will use. Who's actually in charge?  This question leads to the question "What is consciousness itself?" Is consciousness a spirit living in a human body?  Is it a mystical life form that emerges from the nervous system?  This is the hard problem of consciousness. 


SCROLL DOWN
FOR MORE....