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Matthieu Miossec

Doctoral Student - Genetic Medecine (Congenital Heart Disease),


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There is no such thing as free will.

Some questions that might be relevant to the debate on the existence or otherwise of free will:

What do we mean exactly when we talk about free will and how do we make sense of it in the light of our current scientific knowledge?

Can we really claim to have indeterministic brains in an essentially deterministic world?

Is it fair to separate our thought processes from the rest of our body?

Is free will the illusion of complexity in the brain as chance is the illusion of complexity in the world?


Closing Statement from Matthieu Miossec

Both sides of the debate have been strongly defended in this debate. When re-reading this debate, one should try and understand in what sense one means 'free-will' as many have meant very different things by 'free-will'. I will let my fellow TEDsters decide what the conclusion of this debate is rather than imposing my own view.

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    Apr 6 2011: Fun conversation, Matthieu. Thanks for instigating.

    I spent 4 weeks of my philosophy course at Oxford lying on my back on the floor of my room trying to answer this question.

    I was unsuccessful.

    I think we won't be able to answer it satisfactorily until we know why the physical world generates consciousness. Consciousness does not appear a necessary ingredient in most scientific explanations. Is it therefore a non-consequential thing? Hard to accept that... But that is why we don't know whether we have free will. The riddle is not so much the 'free will'. It is the 'we'. We truly don't know who we are.

    (P.S. My brain made me write this.)
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        Apr 6 2011: Without free will, every criminal has a defense. Without free will, many people lose a sense of 'empowerment'. Easy for fatalism to take over.

        Is the future a line that's already been drawn (that we can't yet see), or a line that hasn't been drawn yet (and we wield the pen)? Those two views of the world are profoundly different.
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          Apr 6 2011: Thanks for sharing your opinion with us Chris, it's an honor!

          I have to say whatever certainties I had about free will, I'm certainly reconsidering now in light of all the opinions that are gathered here.

          An interesting question to ask to someone who might be somewhat depressed by the prospect of not having free will is whether they would really make different choices if they had this free will.

          Also as to whether criminals have a defense in their lack of free will, I've tried to argue in the past that this suggests that each person is a passive observer of his own actions which I don't think is the case, even without free will. I think we're still responsible for our actions, our actions defining in a sense who we are. But these are just ideas of mine.

          Consciousness is a tricky part of ourselves to understand. I was tempted until recently to just pass it off as an emergent property of brain complexity, but reading "The Emperor's New Mind" by Proff. Roger Penrose (in which he argues strong AI isn't possible because of the nature of consciousness) makes me suspect there's so much more to consciousness and that my ideas on it were a little defeatist.

          @Richard: to be perfectly honest, I just find it an interesting topic and that's all that motivates me (of my free will or otherwise) to think about it.
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          Apr 7 2011: Isn't punishment for crime an argument AGAINST free will? Society is attempting to impose outside influences in order to guide behavior. Since the will is not free it is assumed it can be thus influenced.
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          Apr 8 2011: Even if we could prove that there was no free will (in particle terms a.k.a. small world) I don't think criminals (in middle world terms) will have a defense for themselves.

          Something being predictable doesn't make it known or predetermined (i.e. we could alter it, even if the action of altering is itself predictable). Anyone claiming to know his fate or that of anyone or anything is simply (predictably) being a slave of his own perception about it, which has in turn caused his "free will" into the direction of committing said crime.

          OK, that last part may have sounded a little confusing... too much of our terminology is rooted into the perception of mind and body being different things existing in parallel universes. I'm having a hard time linking my "free will in small world - no; free will in middle world - yes" thesis because of this (IMHO) flawed terminology.
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          Apr 8 2011: Vasil, I have found to experience the same problem as you. Language as it stands isn't really geared up to identify an individual's mind and body as a unit when talking about conscious actions and their consequences.
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          Apr 9 2011: Chris I believe that your are speaking about choice. When someone is faced with a set or circumstances and analyzes them then selects a course of action (premeditated or impulsively) they have made a choice. But how much of their decision is Free Will and how much is their predisposition to a specific course of action is the question. I suppose when one does something instinctively, without thinking (a purely random act) just simple action without any basis of thought, that may be the only time Free Will is exercised. I suppose that random acts are an exercise in Free Will.
        • Nir Tuv

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          Apr 10 2011: Very Interesting discussion and very good points.
          I have read somewhere in my philosophy studies (I believe it was Jewish philosophy) a different perspective to the question of free will that touches on Brian's comment above:
          According to that perspective, Free Will is exercised whenever someone does what they want as opposed to doing what they feel like doing.
          For example, when you ask your child to clean her room, or finish her homework and she replies "I don't feel like it", she is giving up her right to exercise free will. Alternatively, when you decided last night to get up at 6am, but then when the alarm goes off you 'snooze' till you eventually get up at 8am, you have also surrendered to your physical body and failed to exercise your free will. So, whenever you wish to have a certain result and despite an enormous amount of effort and despite seeing many others fail where you hope to succeed, you push forward, by choosing to persist you are exercising your free will (and those who give up before they gave it their best, gave up on themselves).
          This concept may not provide an answer to the scientific question of free will. But I find it very useful for life.
        • Apr 10 2011: A fascinating idea, that someday our language will be able to very simple describe consciousness and free will. I hope the solution will be obvious to my grandchildren -if determinism allows me to have them :)

          Remeber, that the existence of the "Élan vital" or the vital substance behind life was a topic of intense philosophical debate at one time- is now irrelevant due to our understanding of biology. I think its safe to apply this concept to neuro-biology and consciousness/free will.
      • Apr 6 2011: Talking about free will, when we make big decisions is illusion, it's a cocktail of too many ingredients to be conscious of. Human free will reveals itself in every minute of our life, watch yourself even if there is nobody to judge you. Eventually it'll help you to be what you choose to be.
      • Apr 7 2011: Your very existence is the consequence of human acts during those circumstances leading up to and culminating in your inception (all of your ancestry) and beyond.

        Defining our level of control in a given matter is paramount In order to properly own our responsibility to create such incredible changes in our universe.
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          Apr 8 2011: I think you hit it Wayne. We "define" ourselves as "free".
      • Apr 8 2011: I've wondered about this myself, and I recently found an interesting piece in the New York Times discussing just that. It seems experimental philosophers have proven there is a societal benefit to believing in free will, as to not believe it aleviates guilt in some situations. It also has an interesting comment on what happens to moral responsibility if we decide against having free will. The articles was called "Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice" by John Tierny.
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          Apr 8 2011: I think we should never let what's in the best interest of everyone to believe to get in the way of arriving to the actual truth whatever the consequences may be.
    • Apr 8 2011: I agree with you Chris: it's not so much the "free will," but the "we" that is to be questioned. In "On the Prejudices of Philosophers," Nietzsche questions this relentlessly. He asks, how Descartes we say, "I think, therefore I am," so freely, when even this statement takes so much for granted? For example, any attempt to describe the process of cognition in consciousness will show that we don't actually will thoughts into being, but rather thoughts "come" to us. For me to will a thought into being would require an absolute reference point, for otherwise I would need a thought to create this will, and a thought for that thought, ad infinitum. With every thought I'd be pulling myself "out of the swamp" into existence by my own hair.

      Thus, a more appropriate model is one where we consider consciousness to be a system where every thought is causally linked to either a previous thought (i.e. physically electricity in the brain), an electrical impulse from a sensory organ, or a previous memory (i.e. physiological structure of the brain). In this way, our "consciousness" is essentially us watching a movie screen of all of our thoughts, experiences, etc., and self-identifying with the screen as its causal predecessor.

      This doesn't mean that the justice system is inadequate. If somebody commits a crime, they have been "wired" wrong, and thus are just as likely to commit the crime in the future given the right circumstances. So you put them into prison or punish them to prevent this from happening. When you punish them, you add a memory of punishment associated with crime to be associated with this chain of thought in the future, thus deterring the crime. If a robot malfunctioned (which we know for a fact are determined), we'd either put it away or rewire it.

      This model does, however, lead away from any humanism. Free will is a valuable heuristic, and, as such, we will all continue to encounter our world with its guidance. (See next box)
    • Apr 8 2011: Just because the future is determined doesn't mean it can't be damned fun!

      Always remember, "we're here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different." -Vonnegut
  • Apr 11 2011: I may not be able to answer all your questions. Let me attempt some.
    1. No you cannot separate thought processes from the rest of the body.
    2.Yes; Free will is illusion of complexity. If there are no absolute and everything is relative;where is the question of free will?
  • Apr 10 2011: One of my favorite ponderings! I'm not even going to try to answer it but would love to share a bit of my perspective.

    First, the burden of proof always lies on the claimant and hence free will is something that remains to be proved. So by default we should be refusing to believe it exists from a scientific perspective, which asks us to be skeptical about things before we accept it. But that is hardly the case and it seems we have a STRONG innate inclination to believe that we are acting on a free will. This innate inclination might be a necessary evolutionary adaptation, which our dear Robert Wright calls one of the many self-deceptive traits of our psychology. There is every reason to challenge the idea of free will.

    Another related but sort of irrelevant fact: it has been established in scientific experiments that people who are happy and confident have a very strong 'feeling' of free will and this 'feeling' reduces proportionately as you move down on that scale with depressives feeling like they have very little control and free will in their lives. Little risky to re-phrase abstracts of experiments, but it is on those lines. Great, great debate. I personally believe it is a self-deceptive evolutionary adaptation.
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      Apr 10 2011: Funny you should mention Robert Wright as his name came up in earlier conversation. I mentionned to Christopher Cop a conversation he and Daniel Dennet had about free will. The link to the conversation is still there if you want to check it out.
    • Apr 11 2011: I agree, it all depends on how much self deception one needs to deal with reality
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    Apr 7 2011: Very interesting discussion. I've read through most of the comments and find them interesting, but very "up in the air", lacking solid logic and foundation. If anyone would care for a down to earth, logical argument, please chime in.

    My reasoning goes as follows. Firstly, let's go from the bottom to the top. Let us agree, that what you are and how you behave originates from your physical body, mainly from your brain (lets just call it brain for simplicity). We know that any physical system is deterministic (or maybe at times random, but that wont make a difference in the argument) . From these two assumptions we can conclude that every future state of the brain is "in principle" determined by the physical laws, its current state and the state of the world around it.

    If we agree on this, we can rephrase that as follows: brain's future "timeline" is one and it does not branch. I.e. there cannot be two or more alternative states.

    Now since we come to some understanding of what's going on, we have to define exactly what we really mean by "free will". And i don't really want to go too deep into this, but precise definition is a must. Otherwise the whole discussion will be handing in the air, as it is now.

    At the first glance it seems that all definitions will require the existence of alternative brain states. But i'm sure that on careful analysis you will discover that this isn't true. For example, many definitions will include something like "based on surrounding conditions, choose a course of action deemed most suitable for yourself". This does not require presence of different states, because "surrounding conditions" are determined and "best interest" is also determined from previous state. This is a very crude example, but hopefully you see what i'm getting at.

    So let's work out a definition first. And that is a hard thing to do. Depending on it we may come up with very different answers.
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        Apr 7 2011: Nicholas, I did read your comments below.

        I do not understand how your reply relates to what i have said in my comment, which was that i think a much more rigorous and basic discussion will give a better progress in this question. "You need to have free thought in order to have free will" is of course true in a sense, but does not help answer the question - does it actually exist in the first place. And then saying " free thought = true free will" needs at least a good definition and an explanation.
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          Apr 7 2011: I guess if I had to break down my analysis further I would say emotions determine our free will. How well our emotions respond to the cognitive environment is the result of how well we respond to back to it.

          I am thinking in terms of human nature I guess, I never thought to look at the question as an absolute.

          Does what exactly exist in the first place? free will or absolute free will? I guess for absolute free will you would have to know everything! Would be awesome.
  • Apr 11 2011: Hi Matthieu. We are all deterministic to some extent-- it is what makes us unique. The fact that we have unique personality traits automatically restricts us to a certain degree of predictability.
  • Apr 11 2011: Maybe free will does not exist, but we'd better live as if it does. :)
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    Apr 10 2011: If free will means to summons a thought or commence an action that has no precursor..then clearly that is not possible in this universe. Not only because the universe is somewhat deterministic, but also because; to have no "reason" to do something is just another phrase meaning randomness
  • Apr 10 2011: A man can do as he will, but not will as he will. - Schopenhauer
  • Apr 9 2011: I'm prolly wrong cause I don't study much of anything and this is all just my thoughts but i'll throw in anyway lol. I don't think free will exists cause I don't think anything has any inherent existence independent of everything else. IMO each thing is just an intermingling of all the influences of everything else coming together at that point in time and space. The word thing might be bad though cause that implies something that has a solid existence free of any influences. Nothing exists except by virtue of everything else I spose is what I'm trying to say.

    I think part of the sense of having free will might just be from how communicating things to others requires you divide up the universe into many separate parts instead of just one flowing system if that makes any sense. Words like me/I/you and such. I think some degree of consistency (may be a bad word for it) also might be a part of the sense of free will or self directed action or whatever you wanna call it.

    Like how the factors that you identify with your idea of 'you', like your likes and dislikes and views on things and even the matter that makes you up changes over time. So many factors that only a small fraction of them are changing at any point in time. Over time all of them will have changed to where you're pretty much a completely different person than you were 10 or however many years ago, but they happened so gradually and without shaking up the large majority of the factors in too short a time. You have time to integrate the changes into your concept of your self bit by bit. You'll be in every way a different person. Just the changes will have been so minor and unnoticeable at any point in time to where you'll have the feeling of a consistent solid self going through life at all times since you focus on all the factors together at once as you and they don't all change at the same rate or time or whatnot. Gives the feeling of a solid consistent you at the reigns going through life
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      Mar 11 2011: I would agree that the big bang did not result from anyone, but a massive explosion is a result of multiple things taking place at once so it is not nothingness.
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          Mar 11 2011: I'm saying that the big bang did not result from nothingness.
          Yes I think that as long as there is motion there will always be something that precedes something and I think the big bang was an act of free will.
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          Mar 11 2011: there can never be nothingness if there is motion. If motion stopped then I think there could be nothingness
        • Apr 5 2011: Nothing is something.

          The paradox is that if you don't believe in something then anything you say means nothing.

          Once again it is our understanding that is relative.
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          Mar 12 2011: put it this way, this conversation is irrelevant if we are talking about nothing.
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          Mar 12 2011: Birdia, Black holes don't contain nothing, but quiet the opposite. The gobble up everything they can get a hold of.
          But nothingness does exist. You just can't make something out of nothingness. Energy (and matter is energy too) can only be transformed, but you can't make it out of nothing.
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          Mar 15 2011: I think nothingness would refer to the absence of energy. The concept of free will only exists with nothingness, but as soon as energy comes into the picture which is largely dependent on reactions, free will no longer can exist.
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          Mar 12 2011: Sartre does an extrodinary job of defining concsiousness and also how nothingness is vital to the being of all things in Being and Nothingness(by the way an excrutiating book to read if you are not a philosophy scholar), but I must also be critical of him. He doesn't touch on the subject of how this nothingness which is consciousness can influence our physical bodies.
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          Mar 12 2011: Haven't yet read Sartre, although I'm currently reading Heidegger's "Being and Time" from which he extrapolated his title. From what I do know about Sartre, he was reacting to the horror of World War II and attempting to get people to take accountability for their actions (perhaps foremost Heidegger). I can see the pragmatic utility of a belief in free will, but does that prove it's existence?
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          Mar 12 2011: Yeah the gaze of the other is a very important idea to existentialism and it is a major process of how we construct our identity. But our identities are not essential to our being. In fact our identity is like a mirror image of the self which the true self can never be united with. There is always this lack of being. Because when we posit our identity to ourselves we posit it as the Other. So our identity can't determine us because it is never truly us, it is a safeguard or a defense mechanism to ensure that we don't deal with the anxiety of responsibility.

          I am interested in Taoism, are you a Taoist? Is it true that it very closely resembles anarchism and there is also a lot of feminist philosophy in it?
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          Mar 12 2011: Cool. Yeah I am thinking about finding a good book on it.,

          Yeah Being and Nothingness is a difficult book, and it's long. His short stories are alot better though, they describe his philosophy very well and with none of the metaphyscal jargon.
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      Mar 12 2011: Free will requires something/somebody being able of willing. And willing requires consciousness. Who/what would that be in the case of the big bang ?
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        • Apr 6 2011: Hi! Birdia, thank you for Tao and 'chi', I'll try to study this. And about "nothing", it is another word for "everything" "Nothing" is full, what is empty is also fertile" "Nothing containes the power to create everything" What I've read about "nothingness" can be condensed into this: the amount of possitive energy locked up in the total mass of the universe's devided matter is exactly the same as the amount of negative energy coded into the distances between the matter that is devided. So the net energy in the universe is 'O' To make the universe , one did not have to have something for nothing. Yet nothing is everything. To make it work " free will" is enough.
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          Apr 6 2011: What you wrote is just awesome, I totally agree with you, Birdia! Thanks for sharing this, I wasn't thinking about how Hawking's theory is so related to free will. TED is very, very powerful, isn't it?
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        • Apr 7 2011: Hi! Birdia!The source is my notebook, real notebook with pencil and pen in it.It's quite messy, quates, thoughts, my thoughts on theories and etc.. The theory, you are interested in , is somewhere in Paul Davies books, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman once suggested that every cubic centimeter of vacuum contains enough energy to boil all the oceans on earth. So smth.must be there. Sorry for this loose link, when I figure out where this idea came from /it is not mine, for sure/ I'llTell you :)
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      Mar 12 2011: There is a point in the Universe's history, in the very first moments of the Big Bang, called the Planck Epoch where all four fundamental forces are joined together acting as one. The lack of unification between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics means that you cannot predict anything about the state of the Universe beyond that epoch and so to say that the Universe came out of nothing or the Universe came out of something is to advance a view, which in both cases, is speculative.

      I was expecting debate specifically on human free-will (or at least the free-will of the living), but this thread nonetheless has some interesting ideas.
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          Mar 12 2011: I think here what Jean-Paul Sartre is arguing is that we can go against the societal norm but whether that is free will or not is where we'd disagree. Obviously, our brain being complex machines, we can question the legitimaty of many things and come to conclusions that go against the norm. But free will, as it is understood by many people seems to include the idea that somehow our mind is free from the constraints of nature and that our choices truly comes ex-nihilo, almost from some different realm than the material world. This kind of definition of free will I could not agree with.
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          Mar 12 2011: As Matt pointed out correctly, beyond a certain point in the history of the universe everything becomes speculation.
          So, coming back to the original issue of free will:
          It's a question I pondered already many time and never came up with a satisfying answer.
          Obviously, my ego tells me that I have free will. The problem is, I can't be sure about that. I might believe that whatever I'm doing is done because of my free will, but can I be really sure that there isn't any unknown ¨force" behind that pulls the strings ?
          Looking at it with the eye of science I ask, how can we objectively measure the existence of free will ?
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          Mar 13 2011: He made a decision, this decision was the culmination of the formation of a complex brain filled with knowledge and past experiences and innate knowledge aquired through evolution. This brain responded to inward and outward stimuli triggering a response typical of that particular human being.
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          Mar 12 2011: Hi Birdia, at a first glance one would assume he acted out of free will, but did he ?
          Did you watch the Matrix ? People living in the Matrix were sure that this was reality and they did believe in their free will.
          I think, unless we get the chance to look at the system from the outside (which we obviously cannot do) we never will know whether or not we actually have free will. We also will have difficulties of getting an objective view of reality. I think these 2 issues are linked.
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          Mar 12 2011: Well, I don't think one has to resort to religion and superstition to tackle the question.
          It's just too easy to get religion into the game as an explanation, because nobody can contradict it without getting into endless faith based discussions.
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        Mar 12 2011: Suppose there is no free will. But we believe we have free will. What's the difference?
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          Mar 12 2011: I agree with Tim. From a practical point of view, having or just believing in free will doesn't make much of a difference. Again, remember the Matrix. People "living" in the Matrix lived a perfectly normal life from their subjective point of view. They never knew that they were actually farmed in vats for the purpose of energy supply. They still were able to enjoy a steak in all its nuances ;-)
          So, pondering the question of free will might be of interest from a philosophical point of view , but with little relevance to our life.
          Another question is, if we were to discover one day that we actually have no free will, what would that mean to society ?
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          Mar 13 2011: It's probably getting confusing because we just don't have any means to prove or disprove free will ;-)
          Anyway, I'm gone for today. See you guys on Monday.
          Have a great weekend
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          Mar 14 2011: Birdia, not sure what warranted this rather.....hmmm....not so polite comment.
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          Mar 14 2011: sorry, I have no idea what you are talking about. What are you referring to ?
          I'm not aware that I was impolite at some point. If so, let me know where. There must be a misunderstanding of some sort.
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          Mar 14 2011: Ok, so yes we apparently had some misunderstanding here.
          1) My point that we probably can neither prove nor disprove free will, doesn't mean that I'm not willing to engage in conversations. As a matter of fact I did engage. It's like with religion. There are countless discussions going on about the existence of God. Again, we can't prove (disprove) either view. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean we should stop discussing.
          2) Yes, without seeing a face, it's sometimes difficult to interpret a comment properly. That's where I think, smileys can be helpful in showing the mood to a certain degree.
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          Mar 14 2011: no problem ;-) (here comes the smiley again !)
          Can you give me the link again please. I can't find where you posted that.
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          Mar 15 2011: Hi Birdia, I watched the video, and it's indeed amazing. However, I don't think that when it comes to animals we can actually talk about free will. Although I'm not an animal behaviorist, I think what we see there is more based on instinct than on any act of will.
          I own a dog, and I know, sometimes it really seems that he has his own will, but at the end it comes down to instincts and conditioning.
          Somebody asked the very valid question about defining free will. What is free will ? Is it to decide to drink a glass of beer instead a glass of wine ? If so, then yes, we very well might have free will. When I think about free will, I think about the larger picture and then I have to recognize that our free will is quiet limited, mostly by genetics and environment.
          This covers the first half of your post. I'll read your conversation with Tim and get back on that in a separate post
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          Mar 15 2011: Ok, now I read your thread with Tim.
          Overall I would agree with Tim's view. However, you are right when you say that arguing against free will would remove all responsibilities from us. If there is no free will, a killer, very well could argue that killing somebody wasn't his fault.
          So, I think everything hangs on the definition of free will. As I said above, there might be instances where we definitely apply free will. but there are also situations where we don't have free will.
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          Mar 15 2011: I think it's not only about the term. If we get to the bottom line the question is whether we control 100 % of life (which should be the case if we have free will) or don't we.
          I'm not sure that anybody could claim to control all aspects of his/her life.
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          Mar 15 2011: Hmmm, I think we already have a programmed appreciation for music. Composing a piece of music follows certain rules. Even in Free Jazz, although it seems spontaneous, it still follows rules. It's not simply a wild mix of tones. The player knows (even it's probably subconscious) exactly what tone sequences work and which don't. That's why even Free Jazz still feels like music to us and not just a series of tones.
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          Mar 15 2011: There was an interesting study done by Benjamin Libet, that concluded that actions are already underway, shortly BEFORE we formulate the will.
          What can we make of that ?
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      Mar 14 2011: Can you understand and explain to me, define, nothingness ? God is nothing. God is not a being...God is the ground of being. God is existence.
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        Mar 15 2011: Helen, your statement assumes the existence of God, an assumption many would not share.
        So, it might be a bit difficult to relate a definition of "nothingness" to God.
        Nothingness is simply total void or nonexistence. So, if you say that God is nothing, then it actually makes the existence of God impossible too.
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          Apr 2 2011: Hi Harald.......Maybe the term "no thing" would be better used in refering to "God" Godf is such a loaded word and has as many definitions as there are people. I cannot understand the essence of an uncaused existence but yes I assume there is an existence that did not cause itself. Would you agree that love exists ? Many years ago I asked myself .......why does love exist.............and many years later I found an answer that seemed reasonable to me.......Love is its own excuse for being. (:>)
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        Mar 15 2011: In the interest of debate Helen, I would suggest that nothing be taken for granted and everything argued thouroughly. Thanks.
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    Mar 11 2011: I think the question is "free from what?".

    One mind not being directly controllable by other mind(s) should essentially mean that there is "free will" as in "free from another will".

    On the other hand, scientific knowledge currently shows most particles as having a predictable behaviour. Seeing that we're made of particles, this should mean our behaviour is also predictable, just not as clearly due to the complexity of the particles involved. Therefore, there's not really such a thing as "free will" as in "free from the movement of the particles you're comprised of".

    There's a difference between something that we can't currently predict (and can therefore consider it "free" or "unpredictable") and something that's truly unpredictable. History shows it's only a matter of time before the latter turns into the former. That nothing is truly unpredictable.

    I find people often introduce destiny (as in "lack of free will"; bond by something supernatural) when they're faced with mentally dealing with a sad death. When I hear news of someone being ran over by a truck as he was crossing the street, I think "What an idiot this truck driver is! And where was the pedestrian looking anyway?". People believing in destiny think "It was meant to be. Destiny had it for him (the pedestrian)", and they move on. Same with lucky turnarounds... if it's not destiny, it's a god... same deal.
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      Mar 12 2011: I agree with a lot of what is said here, I think there's a tendency for people to make clear-cut distinctions between mind and body which ultimetaly are misleading. The idea of 'free-will' as many conceive it sounds a lot like the metaphysical idea of a soul which influences the physical material reality without itself being bound by the laws of nature. You draw the same parallel as I do between the complexity of the brain and the complexity of life, to which we attribute labels such as 'free-will' and 'chance'.
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        Mar 12 2011: Matthieu: I like that line:

        "the metaphysical idea of a soul which influences the physical material reality without itself being bound by the laws of nature."

        Will have to remember that one.
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      Mar 25 2011: Are particles the only makeup of humans and even if they are what about inspiration, intuition. Are attitudes determined by particles . Please shed some light on this ?
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        Mar 26 2011: Particles and the interactions between them which manifest themselves as forces.
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          Mar 27 2011: Hi Matt...I am not being churlish, but where is the verb in your statement ?
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        Mar 27 2011: Manifest is a verb.

        I'll rephrase to make it easier for you to understand:
        Humans are essentially made up of particles and the interactions between those particles which manifest themselves as forces (gravity, electomagnetism, weak and strong nuclear force).
  • Apr 11 2011: It is very difficult to know. This is my take on it. Although we often think we make choices out of free will, it might often be the case that the choice is a product of circumstance and history. An analogy would be insect traps and baits. Food and attractive lights are used to attract insects and trap them. The insect may "think" (if it has any thought process) that it is going to forage for food or see the attractive light for whatever reason. May be it perceives that other insects are disappearing. But due to lack of cognitive function and possibly lack of sensory information many insects do not correlate death with that source of food / light. Although as humans, we do not control the exact path of the insect (at least not yet), we manipulate the world around them and use their overpowering instincts to make them do certain tasks.

    On a related note, looking back at history, what was a task for an intelligent person many many years ago is now a task that is performed by computers. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms of recent years are beginning to mimic the decision making process of humans. In that sense, once we understand the rationale, motivations and the chain of reasoning behind making a decision, it may be possible with varying degrees of accuracy to setup the environment where a particular choice is favored.

    As human beings, we are driven by stimuli from various sources. If a hypothetical being with better senses, cognition and IQ is able to track our learning, understand the way we respond to various stimuli, that being may be able to guide our path and the choices we make by manipulating the environment around us in various ways. However, like the insect from the example above, with the instrumentation and senses we currently have, we may never know if the choices we make, the serendipity and coincidences we experience are a product of the chaos of the universe or the result of choices that we make without understanding why.
  • Apr 11 2011: Regarding the questions raised about how lack of free will would impact criminal trials, etc, why not look to what we do with objects that are dangerous (guns, drugs, etc)? Typically, we regulate distribution of them or destroy them... Does the current prison system do anything different than this? Whether the "choice" to commit the crime was truly theirs does not change that they were the person who physically manifested the crime
  • Apr 11 2011: free will...
    This implies an autonomous subject to act. There is a subject/object relationship in this. If you remove the subject from context of home, friends and family, work, it gets very challenging to identify a discrete 'self' to be having any volition. The consideration of whether something which doesn't exist can have a volition lands us in the realm of theologians and mystics.
    In that in any given event, the event will be unique and there will be one and only one choice which we actualize, there is no repeatability of the 'experiment' possible in this. Thus it is not possible to determine verifiable quantitative components of any 'free will' or lack there of. We're left with speculation.
    But in a cultural context, things are what we say they are and free will has meaning, whether it has a measurable existence or not.
    Of course, you're free to believe differently.
    matt k.
  • Apr 11 2011: I would agree, and personally don't understand why people would even think there is. Ever ask someone what they want for dinner? You'd think that'd be an easy question...
    • Apr 11 2011: because someone is indecisive it means they dont have free will? how? isnt it possible we do have free will but are just bad at it?
      • Apr 11 2011: Well that comment was meant to be a joke, not a logical proof of any sort.

        My position would be that it's on others to give evidence for the existence of free will, and to continue to be skeptical of it until then.

        In my own personal life experience, I tend to see the way I'm controlled and defined much more clearly than I do any sense of independence. More and more I've also seen the way I control and define my environment right back as well.

        I think people need to focus less on free will, and more on how things flow. It's wonderful watching how all the pieces fit.
      • Apr 11 2011: Besides, wouldn't it be more logical that the reason we are bad at exercising it is because we don't possess it, and what we are bad at really is pretending otherwise?
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    Apr 10 2011: Free will is relative to the time and space you inhabit. As a construct, I don't think it could exist in the capacity we are discussing here until our needs for survival were first met on a consistent basis. The will to survive cannot be equated with free will. Freedom for some also meant enslavement for others, historically speaking. Even in the most democratic cultures on earth today, a negotiation of freedom is made between citizen and state so that pure freedom is never possible. I cannot be stateless; I must surrender certain liberties to attain security and to assure that my base needs are met before I can 'be free' in the context of my country.
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      Apr 10 2011: Sorry, but I checked out this man you're talking about. Sounds like a charlatan. He proclaims himself a pioneer in the field of consciousness research yet has no wikipidia page or papers published in any academic journal I can find. Please avoid posting new age mysticism.
      • Apr 11 2011: Matthieu, I wish I could give your comment five thumbs up. Ed Schulte, please take your mysticism to another site, preferably one that doesn't involve science.
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    Apr 10 2011: Reality is immutable, but your perception changes everything.
  • Apr 9 2011: Also one more thing is that if we live in a universe based on cause and effect (I think we do) then free will is an impossibility. Everything as far as I know in its current state is dependent on everything that's happened in the past, I've never heard of anything being able to supersede cause and effect and if nothing can then free will can't exist. I think it can seem otherwise though just cause of how many factors go into making up conscious experience.

    It's not easy to keep track of everything seperated as much and notice that it's just a very complex and large amount of factors changing in response to causes and in turn becoming causes for future effects with no times where any part of you can rise above cause and effect and in turn that makes free will impossible. If you can't rise above cause and effect then you can't have free will because the state you're in at any moment is fully dependent on all the causes in the past, which are dependent on the same and so on forever into the past (or atleast to the point of the big bang, I'm not sure if cause and effect ruled before that)
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    Apr 9 2011: As I read the sentence that began this discussion "There is no such thing as free will" my brain immediately began to process the letters and words in terms that it has been trained or conditioned to first recognize and secondly to decipher. Had this sentence been written in any other language other than english I would not be able to process it and consequently not been able to respond to it in any meaningful way. Sure I may be able to determine the language through deductive reasoning and familiarity with some words, but I would not be able to respond in a way expected of the writer of the sentence or the participants here on Ted. So from the time I have read the sentence and everything that you've read so far have been all that I am conditioned to do in responding to the eight simple words. I am not even sure that these are my words or simple an output from my brain in the best way it knows how, based on all that was inputted (taught) to it up until now. My life experiences, my education and my influences are more to do with my response than any cognitive or independent (of my total self) thought process. Any other response would not be me simple because I can only source what my brain has available or stored and output a fixed response. Even if I went on and on in response to the topic of free will at some point I will begin to repeat myself as the total sum of my knowledge and experience (being) with the topic is satiated as will you all. And so what I've said up until now is a packaged response based on my knowledge, experiences and influences, but what of my decision to respond at all to the words "There is no such thing as free will"? Was that Free Will? Was that the part of me that is independent of the sensory and reasoning electrics of my brain? Did I have a choice in responding as I have? Perhaps, but then again there were probably other internal prodding that had less to do with Free Will and more to do with other human needs like ego and fame. (P1)
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  • Apr 5 2011: In my opinion...chaos can only exist if every moments circumstance is not the consequence of some in/action in the moment before. Chaos is order with options.

    Luck or chance is a human concept used to explain a situation or outcome determined by and dependent on events beyond the limits of our physiology to perceive and therefore predict or order...

    So as far as free will is concerned, we are dealt our cards (ordered options) and depending on our 'luck' use our willfulness to create or define the consequence our place in the game permits.

    The scope of what we can choose and therefore accomplish is defined by those ordered options (which include among other things conditioned environmental response and current paradigm...) we are open (or able) to perceive.

    We have a part to play in a defined game and our role although limited is still ours in part to define.

    It is our understanding that is relative.
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      Apr 5 2011: another very interesting perspective :-)
      • Apr 5 2011: Do not curse the darkness, light a match.

        Do what you can with what you have where ever you are...

        All things considered we may in fact all be equal, just not at the same time.

        "It is in our very nature to manipulate that which we would understand, therefore it is our collective responsibility to collaborate towards creating a culture and legacy which supports our ability to do so."
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    Apr 1 2011: Nick.......I AM NOT A MONKEY. Please do not compare me with monkey minds.

    Vasil...I have no idea what "middle world" is and I do know what Hobbits are.

    Matt...I opt out of the discussion because I am too ignorant of what it is you are proposing. I would not dare to use my archaic ideas to debate with you. It's been fun ? Your atoms apparently are pre programed and therefore there no purpose in debating.
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      Apr 1 2011: Helen, you are evolved from monkeys, besides that and it was only a general example used to explain free will.

      If you looked at my other examples I talked about extremist also, are you not an extremist either?

      What would you like me to clarify about free will?
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      Apr 3 2011: you're not a monkey, but you're an ape. At no point does my opinion nullify the importance of debate. Try and make an effort to understand it before you denigrate it please.
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        Apr 4 2011: MM.............I am an evolved ape and so I have more mental capacity than an ape. As do all human beings.
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        Apr 4 2011: Didn't say your opinion did, i said your emotions did. Your emotions also created your opinions no matter how bullet proof the opinion is.
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          Apr 5 2011: The emotion I would call affection and love is much more than an emotion. It is a verb. To love means means to care and respecr whatever it is that you love.
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        Apr 6 2011: That's limiting love Helen

        Edited: In regards to this statement "To love means means to care and respect whatever it is that you love."
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          Apr 6 2011: Hi.....Please explain how caring and respect limit love. I am interested.
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        Apr 6 2011: (Read edited commented above)

        What is love?

        Asked so often. A question that if asked at the correct time will be like saying I love you. Love is an emotion; I know it is just that simply. However emotions are no simple subject. Emotions are responsible for everything we do as human beings; they effect every decision, every idea, every word, every movement, every thought, etc. So, emotions are necessary as a part of your life, your emotions create who, what, where, when and why you are you. You can learn to manipulate them, understand them, and even control them. Except one. - Beatnick

        Love...true love, genuine love, unconditional love does require respect and caring but in a universal manner. Everyone deserves love because everyone wants love, only those who prove to want otherwise deserve such.

        (The golden rule = love)
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          Apr 6 2011: N.I agree that love is an emotion. I don't think I said otherwise. I agree with you that it is an emotion but let me give an example of what I mean. I have a cat, whom I call Butchie. Now Butchie is the apple of my eye......I love him. I am very happy when I interact with him. We play a lot. But would you say that I love him if I would not give him food, water and affection ? Caring and respect without affection is sterile and repugnant. I experience that myself quite often. I think that the definition of love is not complete without a physical show. Peace
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      Apr 4 2011: Oh, sorry... I forgot the term "middle world" is only familiar to people who've had a glimpse of Richard Dawkins work. Basically, "middle world" is the world we live in. The world you can see and feel, even if you were in outer space. "Small world" in contrast is all we can't observe with our bare eyes, but can observe in other fashions, which includes everything in chemistry and quantum physics. There's also "Big world" which is everything cosmology and astronomy is about - everything that we can only talk about on a galactic and solar system scale and can't really feel happening while being in the middle of it.

      So, what I meant was that socially speaking, there is free will, and inherently, there is responsibility. But below that, in "small world", for the most part, things on that level are predictable (well, separately... collectively, they're too complex for one to predict your whole life), and considering that once upon a time, nothing on that level was predictable, there is the possibility that the currently unpredictable stuff is also going to become predictable. Of course, even then, we won't be able to easily predict someone's fate due to the complexity of reactions involved, so the concept of free will we have will remain in "middle world".

      Besides, there's this movie "Next" in which Nicolas Cage's character said something very profound:
      "Here is the thing about the future. Every time you look at, it changes, because you looked at it, and that changes everything else."
      So yeah, even if we know we had no free will, we'll act as if we do.

      You're still not getting the ape thing... you're a descendant of early apes, and modern monkeys are also descendants from those early apes. But since that common ancestor, we've evolved differently, and yes, you evolved to be smarter than today's monkeys, as do all of today's humans. It's like if you have a brother which turned out to be a scumbag while you turned out to be a millionaire, only on a larger scale.
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        Apr 5 2011: Thank you for explaining "middle world" I had never heard that expression. And yes I am familiar with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I am wondering if it might be that we do not know enough to evaluate that. I do get it about apes. It seems that somebody thinks that I cannot surpass the learning technique that stops monkeys at that point. If that is true then maybe I would never get over hard times or solve hard problems.
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        Apr 6 2011: Vasil You are quoting....and I am wondering if the idea in the quote is correct ? Does the future change becase we observe it or can there be another reason maybe?
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          Apr 6 2011: In terms of "small world", yes. The future does change if we observe it.

          Us observing something is still some particles (light, sound, etc.) arriving into our brain, and our brain in turn having a chemical reaction based on the input, in turn affecting everything else. The future wouldn't be an exception. Heck, knowing anything... knowing the PAST will affect how you think and in turn, your future.

          You've probably heard the saying "Those who don't know history and bound to repeat it". That's a subset of this very thought, and so is the quote.

          It's the only conclusion that I for one can come to when replacing "supernatural" with "unknown, but natural".
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        Apr 6 2011: Vasil...........Probably it is too complex to explain how us observing can change anything physical. "in quantum mechanics there is such a phenomen as a particle not being there until we look at it". But for the life of me I just cannot comprehend what my action would have to do with the particle's situ at a particular time. I am not a scientist I just read a lot. What say you ?
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          Apr 7 2011: The paradigm shift required for you to see my point would be to realize we are physical.

          What you could call "soul" or "mind" has a physical presence. Your brain isn't a driver for your body that obeys your soul/mind (the actions of which may or may not be predetermined). Your brain is not a physical manifestation of your soul/mind. Your brain IS your soul/mind.

          It is from there you could go on to see that since your soul/mind is physical, it obeys physical laws, therefore, it is as predictable as anything physical.

          Yet, everything physical is constantly interacting with every other physical thing around it. Your belief or lack thereof in something (including free will), your knowledge of lack thereof in general, your emotions or lack thereof.... everything about you is physical, therefore it is all predictable, but at the same time, your perception about it, also being physical, also affects what you'll do.

          You thinking you have free will is one predictable physical thing that affects further actions (yours and those around you) in a predictable way. You thinking you don't have free will is another predictable physical thing that affects further actions in another different, but still predictable way.

          Note also the difference between "predictable" and "known". Your actions being predictable in full detail doesn't mean anyone (including you) would ever know them in full detail.

          Personally, I believe my decisions were my decisions - they are my free will by the social definition - but they happened in a predictable way that no one (not even me) knows.
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    Mar 31 2011: There is, but not free consequences. "Will" is relative. "The ability to make choices that are not externally determined". However, who makes the selections to choose from? The limiting of said selections is where free will is eroded.
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      Mar 31 2011: Yess!! William, thank you for putting that into words here.
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    Mar 31 2011: Dang, I wish I saw this debate earlier...

    Where to start, oh my. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZeiSKnhOBc

    Well first, you need to have free thought in order to have free will. Now with free thought you able to critically think about anything with no restrictions of preordained guide lines of reasoning. Examples of preordained guide lines of reasoning: Believing in a religious based god, growing up with racist parents, having automatic wealth, and/or being educated in America (oh yeah, I went there).

    Anyways if your free thought is corrupted by bad beliefs, bad basic knowledge, and/or just a limited foundation of knowledge; your free will is directly affected.. So, when you (as a child) watch the people around you drink a soft drink and see it on T.V, when you go to get a drink most likely that you are going for the soft drink. This is your free will. You CHOOSE the drink, but in life your free thought was tainted by the evidence that the soft drink is the better choice. Now this is only an example but I tried to keep it general. If you were taught from somewhere soft drinks rot your teeth, or their are healthy delicious choices that are not commercialized you now gains a better free thought basis and can continue to increase your free will.

    So ultimately free thought = true free will. Otherwise your free will is subject to being controlled by the environment in which you are born, brought up, happy in, and live in, because this is where your thoughts are created. Indeed emotions do play a major role in free thought.

    And I really really want responses to this, because this is a great topic.
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      Mar 31 2011: So if I understand you right, for you free will is the increase of knowledge around a given situation. That's another interesting perspective. I think I need to update my definition of free will to take in all these new ideas I've gathered on this page.
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        Mar 31 2011: I would say the collective interpretation of situations. Consider the extremist of a religion/philosophy/ideology or any sort, they have gone through life building on the idea that their ideology is the ultimate answer and everything else will be looked at from this perspective. This person's free will when confronted by someone telling them they are a fool for their beliefs, the choices of how to handle this confrontation are limited, because their ideology is the foundation of their life. They will now fight you, argue you with you until you walk away or they do, and/or kill you.

        The freedom to debate with you sensibly is impossible because you have insulted not just their faith and ideas but their life. An extremist free will is limited to what their ideology tells them, which I would like to think isn't true free will at all.
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    Mar 29 2011: I believe we have free will to a certain extent which is governed by the modes of nature, which has it's own free will, which in turn screws with our free will lol.
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    Mar 13 2011: Yes and no.

    I don´t know. But I am sure that most of us very often act in a certain way, not because our free will directed the action, but because all the circumstances created a greater force that made us act that way.
    And I think that if we admit that, we might stop judging ourself and others, saying this person is good and this one evil.
    For some reason we humans have created moral, religion and law. But maybe we did not do that either out of free will...
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    Mar 13 2011: Pleas read Danniel Dennet's "freedom evolves"

    If you still have the same question or debate: try to go from there.

    In the meanwhile my claim is:
    "Free will is a concept we understand and use for juridical reasons"

    No need to think about it in terms of determinism or indeterminism.
    & whether it exists or not depends greatly on the definition you have of "free will"

    I don't know about your last question. I think it sounds good, but is nonsensical.
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      Mar 13 2011: Thanks for the suggestion, I very much like Daniel Dennet so I might just do that. I do seem to remember the notion of free will being a point of disagreement between Daniel Dennet and Robert Wright during a particular interview. Here it is in fact: http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=dennett&topic=complete

      I think that from what I've read on this debate so far there's been two main but radically different definitions of free will. That I focused on one in particular and assumed this was the one most people meant when they spoke of free will is a mistake on my part.
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        Mar 14 2011: Thanks for the link!

        I gather he will touch some of the points he made in freedom evolves.

        As with most concepts: one can have an opinion of what something is, or one can use a (working) definition. The latter reduces freedom of interpretation and allows for less vague debates
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    Mar 13 2011: Free will can be a concept that we derived because it is useful. Also we do not have full free will, you can do exactly one of your wills at any time.