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Arkady Grudzinsky


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Is "free will" an illusion?

Can someone explain to me how to understand "free will" from a purely materialistic point of view?

Let's assume that my mind is a product of my physical brain. This means that everything that's going on in my mind is a product of neural activity. Say, I'm looking at a can of vanilla and a can of strawberry ice cream and try to make my choice. WHO makes the choice?

Again, if my mind is nothing more than neural activity, then, perhaps, visual stimulus activates some associations and connections from my past experiences, and I pick vanilla, because it is associated with some childhood memory. This means that our response to every situation is predetermined by the neural connections that make my memories. Right?

Doesn't this mean that "free will" is an illusion? Can we really make decisions or do decisions "just happen"? If not, then WHO makes the decisions?


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  • Oct 21 2012: "Free will" is a nonsense term. The perception of choice is a product of our ability to check our experiences (stored as learning and memory) against the situation as we perceive it at the moment and infer possible futures from it. You can only infer outcomes inasmuch as you understand the nature of the elements involved in the system. In this way what you "will" is bound by the antecedent conditions imposed by your physiology and your environment. "Free will" inappropriately suggests that the small part of our brain which generates self reference (the thing that calls itself I) is somehow causally independent from the rest of the brain, the body, and the outside world. "Free will" is important in religions and governance because it allows punishment to be justified, this may be partly why the debate rages on.

    Believing that having free will matters ratchets up the emotions associated with our choices. It enhances the pleasure of success, the righteous anger at someone who chooses in a way differently from how we would , and the guilt of doing X,Y, or Z. Emotions are not reliable indicators of anything except internal states, they do not reflect the world around us. The weather does not change when we are sad, but the weather can lead us to feel sad. The notion of free will is just another example of man misunderstanding his place in the physical universe.
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      Oct 22 2012: Thanks. I think, this is a fairly accurate account. Free will seems to be a feeling which results from applying our memories of past experiences to make choices in current situation.

      It seems to be similar to a multiple choice test. If we studied for the test, the choice is determined by our knowledge. If not, it's random. "Free" seems to be a misnomer. "Freedom", in general, is an elusive concept.

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