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Does free will exist or is reality dictated by determinism

Do we have the free will to control our lives and our actions or are all things a product of causality?

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    Jan 14 2012: Why is this an 'either or' question?

    Free will and causality are not mutually exclusive.
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    Jan 22 2012: "Does free will exist or is reality dictated by determinism? Do we have the free will to control our lives and our actions or are all things a product of causality?"

    I believe that free will, determinism and causality are are part of the human experience.

    Determinism: "a doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are determined by antecedent causes".
    1) We are born into certain families, cultures, societies with certain philosophical beliefs. It appears that we may not have "free will" regarding this part of our existance, so that appears to be "determined" by something or someone other than ourselves.
    2) We are born onto this earth, which is a natural occurrence with antecedent causes.

    Causality " the relation between a cause and its effect or between regularly correlated events or phenomena"
    Because we are born into certain circumstances, there is cause and effect.

    As thinking, feeling, intelligent human beings, we can learn about the cause and effect of our actions/reactions and make choices which will enhance our life experience...or not. That is free will in my perception:>)
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    Jan 19 2012: Just about everyone would agree that over ~13.6 billion years, everything is deterministic. All of a sudden, humans appear, and somehow an exception has to be made. Why is it shocking that our minds follow the laws of physics as did the first stars and planets?
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      Jan 19 2012: Totally disagree. First, because I think that in any objective view, this is an earth centered philosophy... Which is racist... pro, the race of humanity. 12.6 billion years ago, someone easily could have disproved determinism, anywhere but earth, and your assumption, is, that is impossible.

      You're a racist... for the human race... and, I'm a part of this race... So, I can't hate you entirely... but, it still doesn't make sense, in an objective sense...

      We are thinking beings. "Nothing is good nor evil, but thinking makes it so", my poor shortening of the shakespeare quote in Hamlet. So, you assume, than no one but humans, are thinking.... In any society where thought exists, who would choose to believe in determinism?

      If thought exists, isn't it determined that it should exist? I don't see these things as paradoxical, I say that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to believe in determinism, if you believe you yourself have free thought... If you believe that you don't have free thought... Then what is the point of thought itself?

      If you believe that free thought itself, is a negative... Well, then, why are "you" here? Why is there a ghost in the shell, why do human beings have to experience time, if not to learn? What would be the point of human thought if life is pre determined?
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        Jan 19 2012: I think the word you're looking for is 'anthropocentric'. Tone down the whole 'hate' (wow) and 'racism' thing. The assumption that, given identical initial conditions a cause will lead to the same effect is absolutely essential to the scientific method. I'm treating this question as a scientific one, maybe here lies my mistake. Just as scientists don't spend all their time covering every bit of space determining if the law of gravity applies everywhere, I don't find it useful to entertain a hypothetical discovery of lack of determinism by some beings born a few billions years before us (presumably, they could have not lived in the first billion years when primordial stars were the only bodies around).

        "In any society where thought exists, who would choose to believe in determinism?" People who didn't have a choice. Jokes aside, let's not confuse desirability with reality. There is no reason why you'd be able to reverse engineer your mind through thought and thus be endowed with the power of determining if you had free will. If you didn't benefit from the knowledge we have today could you reverse engineer your mind to determine where your brain was located or what neurons looked like, could you feel the electrical impulses? Ancient Egyptians didn't think much of the brain, they thought it was mostly made out of water and thus they pulled it out of their mummified dead as it would have no purpose, they thought, when the bodies were reclaimed.

        Your penultimate paragraph is a feeble wordplay. 'Thought' magically becomes 'free thought' from one sentence to the next. I don't believe I have free thought/free will. What's the logical connection between thought and free thought? By making the distinction, you yourself admit to the possibility that thought is not necessarily free. The need for 'a point' is once more a desirability vs. reality thing. Most things don't have a point.

        There is no 'Ghost in the Shell', we think like all animals, except more complex thoughts.
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        Jan 19 2012: It's interesting you should sign your last paragraph with the expression 'Ghost in the Shell'. The book I am currently reading, Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, dedicates its first 100 or so pages deconstructing the myths that are the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Shell.

        You use too many 'why' question when approaching free will. You accuse me of making one gross assumption, but you yourself suffer from the assumption that things must have a point or purpose. It need not be so. Maybe someone proved that on another planet.
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          Jan 20 2012: Sorry Matt, I was trying to be a bit of a goof and have some fun with you. I didn't mean to offend, I mean "human racist", come on : p

          I still disagree though for reasons I mentioned in another post... There is no utilitarian, pragmatic, practical, or predictive value to proving that free will does not exist. There are cognitive benefits to believing it does exist... and part of your brain is a logical system... You get to decided if free will is stored in your brain as a 1, something that exists, or as a 0, something that does not exist.

          Given that you have the choice whether or not to believe in free will, and there are cognitive benefits to believing it, and no pragmatic testable drawbacks to not believing it, as someone who studied psychology, I can't help but believe, that belief in free will, is a good thing, and is only logical to believe in.

          Also, I would simply like to suggest that human beings do have a ghost in the shell, proven, by their stupidity. Human beings are the only animal on the planet, that can recieve the same negative stimulus over and over again, without altering their behavior. We're the only ones who can choose to do things that make absolutely no chemical or logical sense... I think that's quite an overwhelming evidence that someone is there thinking.
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        Jan 20 2012: Why do you persist with this idea that, because its useful to belive its true therefore it is true? It's a logical fallacy. As I've said in my previous post, you can't reverse-engineer your mind. You can't understand how it works by experiencing it. Could you understand how an image of your surroundings form by forming said image in your mind? Of course not, a long history of failed ideas testify to it. Statements like "There is no utilitarian, pragmatic, practical, or predictive value to proving that free will does not exist." describes the use of believing in free will or otherwise, but says nothing about free will's existence itself.

        "You get to decided if free will is stored in your brain as a 1, something that exists, or as a 0, something that does not exist." Pretty sure that's how computers store information, not brains. The common analogy between computers and minds is not to be taken literally.

        "I think that's quite overwhelming evidence that someone is there thinking" I don't deny that at all. Pretending that by rejecting the concept of free will I am also throwing away the whole concept of thinking is a blatant strawman fallacy. Human stupidity (have you spent enough time with other animals to say only humans are stupid or are you being 'racist for the human race'. Not every animal is a lab rat in a single stimulus Skinner box) proves only the complexity of our mind which doesn't reveal all its cards.
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          Jan 20 2012: SCIENCE!!! : p

          A hypothesis, needs to have a predictive quality in order to be proven true. Why do you seem so certain that free will doesn't exist, despite the fact that there is no predictive quality to that hypothesis, and it is in no way testable? Also, you can't prove a negative, only a positive... You can't prove that free will doesn't exist, so why persist in that logic? I'm not pretending I've proven it does exist, I'm just saying why persist in a belief in something that is both untestable, and unpleasant.

          I'm saying people have a choice to make, in the way they choose to percieve free will, and since there can be no benefit to be gained from choosing not to believe in free will... But, it is verifiable, that believing in free will is certainly pleasant, why not believe in it? What do you have to lose?

          People make choices... Those choices are 1's and 0's... in the sense that they are data bits, that influence future choices. You do something or your don't, how the brain stores that data is not really of concern to me, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if in the future scientists can actually read those bits, and find out they are in fact very similar to the 1's and 0's used by computers. It doesn't have to be literal though.
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        Jan 20 2012: Make no mistake, the hypothesis here is the existence of free will, not its non-existence, so the onus lies on the one who is making such claim to show it has predictive qualities. The idea of free will is not one that arose with the application of the scientific method. Just like other ideas it is there because of popular conception and because philosophers might have knocked around the idea in previous centuries.If we are going to treat this question as a scientific one (indeed we should because we can) we should start from the beggining and not assume the position of free will is temporarily validated just as with a crime we would assume innocence until proven guilty and not the opposite.

        "Also, you can't prove a negative" prove that negative.

        If an idea is incompatible with certain established facts, it can be discarded. For example, because Creationism makes specific claims about the world, it can be proven to be false. Free will makes claims that are refutable and therefore can stand to be refuted whether they are refuted or not. In fact, that is what constitutes a scientific hypothesis, it must make refutable claims. So you can prove a hypothesis is wrong, given the right framework.

        Maybe I'm missing out on something big and I'll have to read up on Arthur Fine's argument as Krisztián suggested, but you yourself haven't provided anything that reasonably questions the issue of determinism which the brain is inevitably subjected to. You may find the idea unpleasant and therefore don't wish to give it the proper analysis, but that is not the subject of this TEDconversation. Many ideas you think about because they're there, not because you actively pursued them. Which deeply religious person become atheist will say "I actively pursued the train of thought that lead me to losing my religion". Given our current state of knowledge, we always re-evaluate our ideas and drop or keep them accordingly. I don't attach any emotional value to the question.
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          Jan 22 2012: "Free will makes claims that are refutable and therefore can stand to be refuted whether they are refuted or not. In fact, that is what constitutes a scientific hypothesis, it must make refutable claims. So you can prove a hypothesis is wrong, given the right framework."

          No... It doesn't. Try to refute anything about free will. It's a human construct, that describes the theory that thoughts create chemicals, rather than chemicals creating thoughts... If the narrative of thought, in your mind, is what produces your chemical production, then you have free will. If chemicals create the "consistent illusion" that you make choices, then you don't... but this is an impossible argument to win, until we actually understand how the brain works in entirety.

          There is overwhelming evidence in psychology on both sides, suggesting a bit of a yin and yang between free will and determinism.
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          Jan 22 2012: Free will could easily have evolved in a world determined by physical laws.
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        Jan 22 2012: "No... It doesn't. Try to refute anything about free will. It's a human construct, that describes the theory that thoughts create chemicals, rather than chemicals creating thoughts..."

        So you're saying it's not scientific at all? Well that just settles it for me then. Unless of course you're wrong.

        "There is overwhelming evidence in psychology on both sides, suggesting a bit of a yin and yang between free will and determinism." Let's see some of the yang then (by the way, if it makes no refutable claims, how can there be evidence for it? Makes no sense)
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      Jan 19 2012: so you say, it sounds plausible, therefore it is true?
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        Jan 19 2012: I have other arguments as you know, I'm just pointing out something that I find worth thinking about.
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      Jan 20 2012: Hi Matthieu:

      You said you treat the question as a scientific one ; and of course it is ovious the determinism plays a huge role within science ; but out of the actual science realm does free will exist ?
      The most common answer at this question is : we don't know, how could we ? but how to know basically means science ,the answer transformes in we don't have the science about free will .
      Shortly said : the science is limited and this question I think goes beyond the scientific limits , is it logical to draw conclusions about free will from what the science is about now ?
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        Jan 20 2012: If free will is outside of the scientific realm, we can still apply Occam's razor to it if it does not add anything to our mind which admittedly is not certain, but highly likely. Again, as with the soul, we're describing something that was thought up by the brain of humans and not ever observed. When in the history of Man has an idea without any evidential precedent has come to be true? I could easily argue there's an invisible pistol held at our heads which is triggered the moment we die. The only difference with regards to my idea and other ideas that are outside the realm of science is that my idea doesn't have the popular backing that makes the other ideas so convincing at face value. It might also have no appeal , which, in the land of the unproven certainties seems to be king (you hardly ever here people defend the existence of inevitably nasty stuff they've thought up in the way people defend brainchilds that are wonderfully comforting. Again the soul is the best example)

        Now I am only relegating free will to this category if it MUST find an explanation outside of science. I'll concede that free will framed in science remains a possibility which I cannot apply Occam's razor to, but which I can confront to our current scientific understanding.

        All in all I see it like this, we ought to show that free will is a requirement for the brain to function before we conjecture it, naturally the history of ideas has decided it would be otherwise. If the brain can be shown beyond reasonable doubt to function as it does without free will, Occam's razor can even be applied to all kinds of free will tenants. Of course we're not there yet, but some objections to a materialistic free will are already present.
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          Jan 21 2012: I didn't say we have free will , all I said is that : I/we don't know scientifically if we have it .
          I don't have the intention to have a polemic with you about if we have it or not or about where do we got this idea or if we have evidence for it . I'm just doubting your determinism .

          When I said free will is outside of the scientific realm I meant to say (as I specified practically) that we don't have determined scientifically if we have it or not (in this way being outside the scientific realm) therefore why to think we are determined only because the scientific method works in most of it's part in this way ?
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        Jan 21 2012: Not most of its parts, all of its parts. the brain is a construct within the laws of physics. Why wouldn't it be deterministic? Do you go about proving bit by bit that every process is deterministic in the universe or do you infer from the laws of physics it abides to that its logically deterministic?
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          Jan 24 2012: I think we talk about different things , I'm not interested how the brain is constructed , because even if it is deterministic from this perspective of construction it doesn't mean it works in this way I guess. But I don't know too much about this field ; I just don't agree with your argument .
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    Jan 19 2012: Everything you do, you do it because you are you. You don't have free will, but you are in control because you can't start to even be without the deterministic features that are your personality, your state of mind, your will, at face value is actually a horrifying prospect as it would should surely lead to an inconsistency between who you are and your actions. Here's a question that illustrates the whole nonsensical aspect of free will: 'if you had free will, would you really make different choices?' If you can't answer that, it's probably because free will really doesn't make much sense.
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      Jan 20 2012: Just two seconds Matthieu ...... it leads to inconsistency only if we are fully determined people or fully free ones , but what about a combination ? It's obvious none of the idea of free will adepts think we are fully free to act (in that case the existence of free will would be obvious for everyone) .
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    Jan 17 2012: This all questions about free will/causality is a kind of extremism ; I don't know if we have free will or not and I don't care too much if we have it , the life is anyway too complex .
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    Jan 17 2012: Believing that you have free will, makes you a happier person, which becomes a cause, which impacts your life. There are certainly no tangible benefits to believing that you do not have free will. Thus, from a practical point of view, believing in determinism makes absolutely no sense, in my humble opinion. Why believe you have no control?
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      Jan 17 2012: Yes , it's a paradox : the idea of free will it's a cause and in this way it is part of what is called determinism.
  • Jan 16 2012: Zacharia, I wonder how you feel about thinking and feeling that you have no power to affect the consequences of your choices of words and acts.
  • Jan 14 2012: Free will exists. What about when your subconscious pushes you that what you are thinking is determinism? Sometimes we are unaware of what's going on inside of us.
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      Jan 14 2012: No. Determinism is the idea that we are all meant to do the things we do, be that by some higher power's dictation or destiny. It's not even that we can't control our actions, rather it is just that the way the world works pushes us down a single path we were meant to travel.
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    Jan 14 2012: design an experiment for me that would prove or disprove determinism. can you do that? dwell on it a little to gain understanding.
  • Jan 14 2012: I think that if the universe is governed by laws that cannot be violated and that if we could track every bit of mass and energy back to a beginning, then we could use those laws to determine where all that mass and energy is now and where it will be in time. This mass and energy includes all people. So I do not think free will exists.
    • Jan 14 2012: What of bells theorem?

      It suggests that determinism is not absolute or complete.

      I admit that isn't necessarily evidence specifically of free will but I don't think you can say that the physical reality we've observed is completely counter-indicative of free will.
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    Jan 14 2012: Allow me to save you all a bunch of trouble; neither wins, it comes down to belief, not fact, since there is no possible way that we can prove either side correct. At best all we can hope to do is provide a better argument for why you're side is less wrong than the other.
    • Jan 14 2012: If we cannot prove nor disprove free will, what implication does that have on our life?

      The justice system unavoidably deals with an assumption of free will since moral guilt is contingent on it.

      A hypocrisy that I find quite interesting is the insanity plea itself; the argument that you were so out of touch with reality that you were not "in control" of your actions. If we cannot know if free will exists then we certainly cannot sit back and decide who is and who is not "in control" of their actions and to do so is nothing more than an expression of personal prejudice.
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        Jan 14 2012: Again, I won't argue for either side over the other, but in the end, whether it is your intention or not, you still committed the action, thus you must bear the responsibility. This is due to the unfortunate fact that we live in societies where blame is necessary (though something I disagree with as a global standard) as a key part of our justice systems. Whether or not those systems are correct, though connected, is another matter entirely.
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    Jan 13 2012: We do control everything around us ...
    if you don't like your job who should find you a better one?
    if the dishes are dirty in the sink who should wash up?
    if the project at work is waiting to be finished who'd do that?
    Examples can be numerous ... the point is that our life is all in our hands and minds. :) Sometimes time will get in the way but then we find time to deal with whatever we have to.
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      Jan 14 2012: but what if you're meant to do those things? what if I'm meant to ask this question?
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        Jan 14 2012: The only thing I believe we have been meant to do is to live ... just to LIVE every single minute of every single day, possibly as humans, may be sometimes not so much.
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          Jan 14 2012: That's the crutch of the matter; you believe that. We can never prove it beyond all doubt, though.
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        Jan 15 2012: Hi Zacharia,
        I hope you don't mind me calling you by the first name! But regarding your last comment:
        1. I don't like the 'c' word so I have another suggestion which follows.
        2. That's all I have to say on the subject:
    • Jan 14 2012: "If you don't like your job, should you find a better one?"

      This is a good example of a decision which can easily be explained by causality.

      Perhaps unpleasant things are happening at your work which hurt you. Perhaps having your specific job gives you pride because it's somehow prestigious. Perhaps there are a few other competing factors involved which need to be considered.

      Those are variables which need to be assigned a value. Once they have been assigned a value, making the decision is just a mathematical equation, a cost benefit analysis.

      We don't consciously add numbers together and that would be because there is a division of labour in your brain but either way there is a very logical process involved.

      If causality is absolute then for a given situation with a given person in a given state of mind, there can be only one outcome.

      The person will perceive different possible outcomes and believe that there is a choice but that choice would be an illusion.
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        Jan 14 2012: Who makes those imaginary choices for you then, Luke? Who creates the outcomes?

        I was awaiting an answer from Luke, since I got none so far I'd reply to Zacharia's comment:
        I don't fancy the idea that someone else controlling my life ... I rather prefer to try at all costs to manage it myself, however humanly possible. :) I wish to pose no counterpoints but just to express my own thoughts on the proposed question. I may agree that all is not up to us but I still want to believe that life is mostly what I make of it.
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          Jan 14 2012: God, the universe, destiny. There are a plethora of choices. But then of course you'll just counter this by pointing out that there isn't any proof for any of them, and then I would counter that with one of the myriad counters people have come up for that. For example the intelligent design theory which essentially, and this is summarized, that the world is this complex construction, and when we come across complex constructions in the world around us, say a house, we don't tend to believe that the house just popped out from the ground on it's own, or even that it evolved that way. So why do we assume that this universe, the sum of this incredibly complex and interactive world we live in, rose up on it's own, or evolved on it's own. Of course you could just say that science leads us to believe, etc etc, which brings me back to my original point; no one wins in these debates. There's always a point and counter point and this have been shown by thousands of the smartest philosophers in history bantering back and forth for thousands of years.
  • Jan 13 2012: 'Furthermore the act of choosing a cup "at random" is likely to just be an expression of your favourite cup or spot or something else that you may not even be consciously aware of.'

    Well by this position you've created a model where the argument is unfalsifiable and therefore redundant.
    Afterall, no matter how free your decision is, there *could* always be some additional unanticipated force determining it, couldn't it?
    The debate has no achievable value.
    • Jan 14 2012: My arguement isn't bulletproof.

      It rellies on the assumption that all matter always behaves in a predictable way but on the quantum level, we have events which don't behave in perfectly consistent ways. That itself isn't direct evidence of free will but it does allow for the possibility that it could exist.

      I think one of the most important concepts to consider is probably bells theorem which suggests that either "reality" or "locality" is violated by observered quantum events.

      The word reality in the context above means that particles have definite properties and that if you could measure them you could know precicsly where the particle is and how it is behaving.

      The word locality means that the particle is only effected by other particles and events which are close to it. Depending on the interpretation of Bells Theorem, a violation of locality can mean that every particle instantaniously communicates it's information with every other particle.

      The interesting thing with Bell's theorem is that it is testable and while tests have not yet conclusively shown how reality or locallity is violated, it has been shown and widely accpeted that one or both is violated.
  • Jan 13 2012: I have 4 cups infront of me, they are all similar in their shape, style and function.
    I don't need any of them, but I choose the third one and place it on my table.
    I dont see causality in this scenario.
    • Jan 13 2012: A computer can give you a pseudo random number by measuring environmental noise but that doesn't mean the computer has free will.

      If you flip a coin to pick which cup, the side on which the coin lands will be dictated by the momentum, air flow, its weigh distribution etc... It is extremely complex but it is still deterministic since if you could know all of these factors, you could know where the coin will land.

      Similarly, your brain is a complex chemical computer. If you knew the exact molecular configuration of your brain and you had a perfect understanding of the physics which drives your brain then you could predict with absolute certainty which cup you will choose.

      If it can be predicted then there was never any doubt about which cup you would choose and the choice would be an illusion.

      Furthermore the act of choosing a cup "at random" is likely to just be an expression of your favourite cup or spot or something else that you may not even be consciously aware of.

      My question to you is, how can your choice not be the result of physics or determinism?