Free Will

This episode originally aired on June 24, 2020.

Episode 31 Free Will

Introduction

Eve takes a bite of the apple and hands it to Adam. He hesitates, but he sees the smile on Eve’s face, and sets aside his misgivings. He takes a bite, his teeth sink into the crisp flesh, and in a moment, he awakens. A little while later, God strolls through the garden looking for Adam and Eve, but they are nowhere to be seen. He calls to them, and Adam leans out from behind the brush.

“Why are you hiding Adam?” asks God.

And Adam replies, “I am afraid, and naked.”

Immediately God knows that Adam and Eve have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life and the veil of ignorance has been lifted from their minds.

This is the story of the origins of good and evil, shortly after creation in the book of Genesis. The point being made is that Adam and Eve chose to disregard god’s instruction and thus committed the first sin. But there is a more significant point underlying the origin sin, which is the subject of this episode.

In that moment, when faced with a choice, Eve chose to eat the apple, as did Adam, and in so doing they exercised their freedom of will. Unlike the wild animals on the land, the birds in the sky, the creatures of the sea and the creeping things, man had been given the gift of free will.

Or so the story goes. Perhaps your nodding your head thinking, yep, that sounds about right, or perhaps you’re a little more sceptical, well we’ll go down both paths in this episode as we try to unpack one of the oldest questions of philosophy, one that we might all have pondered at one time or another, and one that even now, we really have no definitive answer for.

“Oh no, not another one of these unanswerable philosophical questions” you might be thinking, “what purpose can these possibly serve but to waste time and energy which could be better put to achieving something more tangible and constructive.”

Yes, you’re right, perhaps it is better not to even bother asking hard questions like this, but the question of free will has a lot in it that we take for granted, and the implications of not giving it a decent think are more than you might at first realise. So, let’s take a closer look at free will.

As you listen to this now, you made a choice. You chose to click a link, or press play, or both, and now you’re listening to my voice. You “chose” to do this, you exercised your free will. How do we know this to be true? Well that’s easy, you could have chosen not to press play, and you could also choose to turn me off right now. If you’re still here, you’re obviously waiting for the punch line, surely, I’m not about to say you had no choice but to press play right now? Surely, there can be no doubt that you had the freedom to make that choice. I mean, you felt like listening the podcast, you’ve listened to a few episodes before and enjoyed them, it’s always interesting to hear how I approach a topic you think you know a bit about, hell, you’re about to go for a run and you need something to distract you and this podcast is great for that.

So, if any of those things are true, or any of the other reasons which led to you making the decision to push play a few minutes ago, were you really exercising your free will? It sounds almost like those conditions had led up to you making a choice that was somehow predetermined, like you couldn’t really have chosen otherwise. Sure, you didn’t have to press play, no one held a gun to your head, you always had a choice, but you didn’t choose not to press play, you did press it, so here we are.

There is a serious risk of getting wrapped around the axle, or getting bogged down in the weeds in this episode, so that is my challenge, to try and keep this as light and interesting as I can while still addressing the main points. At the end, I don’t expect you to change your entire world view, but if I’ve done my job, you will be at least scratching your head wondering if perhaps things are not quite as they seem, for they most certainly are not.

There are two main arguments when thinking about free will. We either have it, like Adam and Eve and you when you pressed play, we call this libertarianism. Or we don’t, like you when you pressed play because everything led up to that moment, we call this determinism. But there is also a third option, you have a little bit of it because it “feels” like you do and this is called compatibilism as both notions of free will and determinism can be reconciled, they are compatible with each other.

Not surprisingly, there are strong proponents of each of these three world views and the arguments or each have strengths and weaknesses. I could go into a lot of detail and make this several episodes, but I’d rather hit the highlights and let you do your own further reading which you can do with a few of the links in the show notes.

Determinism

So, we’ll first take a closer look at determinism. I remember as a young man discussing this topic with my father, he commented “if I found out that all of life was determined, I’d just kill myself as there would be no point.” “But if you did then you would be doing exactly what you were supposed to do” I replied. That was the end of the conversation. No one likes a smart arse.

In a deterministic world, everything has already been decided. It might feel wrong when thinking about the choices we make, but it becomes less so when thinking about the universe as a whole. We have a pretty high level of confidence that the universe began with a bang, a bloody big bang. An extremely dense point exploded into being and has been expanding ever since. Every star, planet, comet and asteroid, and the path to every particle they are composed of was forged in that moment. Physicists have figured out the fundamental principles that govern matter, electricity and light with such detail and precision, that they are able to turn the clock back, and rewind the universe all of the way to that moment when it all began.

We know so much about the physical properties of the universe that we take much of it for granted. “Yes, but they are just theories” you say, “we can never be sure” and certainly, big questions have hard answers, but we’ve got a high level of confidence in many of the details. We know our cell phone will give us access to the internet, and that the lights will turn on when we flip the switch, and that water will come out of the tap when we turn it, most of the time anyway, and we know this with virtual certainty because scientists and engineers have figured out the laws of nature and then exploited them to make these tools of convenience possible, and much more besides.

We rely on the deterministic laws of the universe for everything we see and interact with around is to work as it does. If the universe was more about chance than law, then anything could happen, but it doesn’t the universe is highly specific and constrained. And if only we can keep unlocking its secrets then sooner or later, we will have an explanation for everything, even for life, consciousness and us.

This is the ultimate in deterministic viewpoints, and to be honest it is a good one. This type of thinking is called reductionist, if we just have enough information, everything can be reduced to laws of nature, mathematics, equations and a everything has a logical explanation.

The implication of this line of thought is that we are also governed by these same laws, even if we don’t understand all of them yet. The particles that make up you and I, the invisible world of neutrons, protons and electrons are buzzing around in an iteration that is you. And if you in the most fundamental sense is just a product of nature, just like the mountains are the way they are because of millions of years of natural processes, then surely you are too. And on and on it goes. Your brain is also composed of the same matter, and it has bits that do this and parts that do that, and somewhere along the line, you emerge.

So, if everything that went into making you, you is determined at the natural level, then it follows that you must be too. Every thought, emotion, choice and action you make is the inevitable consequence of everything that came before, from what you last ate, to when you were born, to when man evolved, to when the earth cooled, to when the universe exploded from a dense point of matter. That’s a long journey to get to this point, but it was all decided in that moment, and so will every other moment that comes next. And it follows that if we only had enough information, all the information we could ever want, the answer to every question of why things behave they do, then I could easily extrapolate from now on into eternity. I could accurately predict what will happen to the sun, the stars and the moon, which scientists do, and what will happen to you and me and even what you will say next, and what I will say next as well, which is this.

There is a wrinkle. Probably many. The wrinkle of chance. Around the 1920’s physicists started to think that perhaps there was more going on in the atom than just an electron orbiting a proton like a mini solar system. It was Erwin Schrödinger, the guy with the alive or dead cat, who actually proposed the idea the electron might be more of a wave than a particle. This new field of quantum mechanics had some very strange properties which were a major departure from classical Newtonian thinking about matter and the laws of nature, the most significant of which was chance. It seemed that suddenly the deterministic viewpoint was not quite so deterministic after all. For if we look at the behavior of the very tiny, there is always an element of chance, we can never know precisely where an electron is, or whether it is a particle or a wave, the answer is always, it depends, and one of the things it depends on is random chance. We can only calculate a probability, a level of confidence that things will either be this way or that way. Now it is still something of a leap to go from a deterministic world view, to saying that because quantum mechanics involves probability that we cannot predict what will happen next, we still have our cell phones and electricity and taps after all. So, we could safely say that yes, we don’t know everything, perfectly, but we don’t have too. Randomness and chance at the level of the very small has very little impact at a larger scale. I don’t look at my arm and wonder if it will become a leg randomly, regardless of what the electrons inside are doing, my arm will always be my arm, hopefully.

But there is still enough doubt about everything that happens in the universe that I can’t be 100% certain about what will happen in the future.

But what does it matter whether I can predict the future? The course the universe tracks will happen regardless of whether I know about it or not, except in some anthropocentric, human centred reality, my knowledge of the inner workings of the universe has absolutely no bearing upon it, unless I build things or break things of course, but the scope of my power is limited. In any case, when I am gone, things will carry on exactly as they must given the path that everything is following.

And we can see this by looking inward at ourselves. Why did you press play? Did you know you were going to press play? What am I going to say next? Where do the words arise from? To say we have free will, is to say that we have command over everything that we do. But so much of what is happening inside us right now is beyond our conscious awareness, and certainly beyond our conscious ability to control. I can’t instruct my liver to work a bit harder as I’m planning on having a few beers later. And even the things I am consciously in control of, say my physical actions and what I say, must be determined by deep parts of my brain I can’t consciously access. For instance, if my bladder is getting full, it lets my brain know, and my brain sends me a signal of the sensation that I need to go to the restroom. I am not aware of any of this until my brain, and indirectly my bladder, lets me know. I didn’t choose to know what the state of my bladder is, but I can choose whether to go to the rest room or not. But if I don’t, I know I will experience very unpleasant sensations and will eventually pee myself, so I decide to go to the rest room, sure I had a choice to not go, but did I really? Anyway, be right back.

A famous proponent of determinism is neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. Many tomes on the topic are inaccessible, but Sam does a great job of breaking it down into digestible chunks. Here is a quote from his book simply titled, Free Will.

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

Eloquently put. This extends on from the laws of physics that have governed the structure of the universe both now and in the future, to the laws of nature and biology, that our genetic material determines in large part who we are when we are born and who we will become. But Harris goes one step further, by suggesting that we don’t even have conscious awareness and indeed control over what we think. And he is right. I have no idea what thought will pop into my head next, it just appears from nowhere, and that thought is influenced and determined by every moment of my life up to this point, it is not random, although it may feel like it. And this brings us to an important point, we certainly feel like we have free will, so even if there is logic to the deterministic argument, it never quite sits right in our mind, I can choose what to do next, if I have a thought that I want to grab a slice of cheese or an apple I can choose the apple because its healthier. Just because I like cheese and would rather eat it, doesn’t mean I’ll give in to my desire, I have the ability to reason and argue with myself and so my choices are my own. I am not acting on instinct alone, therein lies my freedom. However, why do I choose the apple instead? Because I know it is healthier, and I don’t feel good when I see myself in the mirror, and I saw a show on TV about the health benefits of apples or the calories in cheese or many other factors which influenced my decision but set me on the path to choosing the apple. In this case, free will is actually an illusion because to suggest I did have it, would say that I could have made another choice, but I didn’t, I chose the apple. It may sound like a logical fallacy to use the fact I made a choice to say that I had no other choice, I certainly could have chosen the cheese instead. But what I am saying is that I was always going to choose the apple at that moment in time, for reason I can neither control or explain, because that choice was the result of a long string of causal events. This position is know as causal determinism.

But fear not, because if this reasoning is true, it doesn’t diminish the illusion of free will in the slightest. I feel no less a free agent if my decisions are causally determined or not, for all intents and purposes, determinism is indistinguishable from free will, and that is surely how the world, indeed the universe actually is. Right?

But we must have evolved this sense of free will for a reason. When we observe the animal kingdom, we see animals acting as free agents, eating, collecting things, building homes, often highly complex and intricate behaviours that we could hardly replicate ourselves. Yet, how much free agency do we assign to these creatures? We assume they act according to programming, instinct, they don’t question their actions, they just do. They don’t choose not to go out and hunt today because they don’t feel like it, they are either hungry and have young to feed so they are compelled to hunt to survive, or they die. There is no middle ground where they can choose an alternative path that is contrary to the instinct for survival and the means through which this can occur.

Philosopher Thomas Pink gives us an example using sharks in his 2004 book, Free Will a very short introduction. He says:

Sharks seem to perform actions – actions that are at least very analogous to ours. The pursuit of an end or goal. The shark doubles back in order to get a fast-moving little fish which it has just spotted. Guided by its beliefs about where the fish is, the shark’s desire for food causes it to turn this way and that; and this effect of the desire on the shark’s motion is what makes it true that the shark is acting purposively, that the shark’s doubling back is directed at the goal of catching the fish.

A shark may hold beliefs and desires, and it may perform goal- directed actions as we do. Yet is a shark in control of its actions as we are? Is a shark really free to act otherwise than it actually does?

It is very natural for us to suppose not. But why? If we do naturally incline to deny that sharks are free agents, this cannot simply be because we believe that the shark’s actions are causally predetermined. For we cannot be sure that the shark’s built-in desires and instincts do determine its actions in advance.

Even if we did learn that the shark’s movements were sometimes undetermined, we would not conclude that therefore they must be free. We would simply conclude, in this case, that it was sometimes just a matter of chance, or quite random, what movements the shark would make.

So we seem to have no problem thinking that our lesser evolved brethren do not exhibit free will, not like we do anyway, and any appearance of it is merely random behaviour. This viewpoint is known as naturalism. But if you do have a problem with this, well then where are the limits? When does free will stop? If the shark does have it, then does the worm, or the amoeba, or bacteria? Is there a spectrum of free will just like there is a spectrum of consciousness, can something have a little bit of agency or a lot? This is getting preposterous. So if we take the view that we do have free will, then we must have evolved this way, it didn’t happen by chance. So why are we different? What utility does the illusion of free will serve?

Biologist Anthony Cashmore thinks we are asking the wrong question. The illusion of free will did not evolve in and of itself, it is a product of consciousness. Consciousness is another heavy topic we’ll broach in the future, but if we take a little detour and follow along with Cashmore, he tells us that consciousness evolved to give us a sense of responsibility which is an important feature that allowed us to protect each other, form clans, tribes and communities and generally work together to stop from being eaten. The point is, we have the sense of free will in our consciousness, but what we are conscious of is put there by what happens much deeper in our brains, and what was put there was determined by that long list of reasons I’ve mentioned already, things like genetics, environment and chance.

Amazingly, scientists have actually seen something like this in the laboratory. Take for instance the experiments of Benjamin Libet, a physiologist who carried out a study in the early 80’s where he demonstrated that there is neural activity in the brain moments before action is carried out and conscious awareness of that action has been acknowledged by the subject. The implication of the study was that actions are not willed, but we feel a sense of will long after the decision to act was already taken, or perhaps determined. More recent studies have discounted Libet’s work, but there are others that seem to back it up. One thing is for sure, more research needs to be carried out to understand this more definitively and hopefully this comes with time, technology and a lot more science.

There is a disturbing implication of this deterministic viewpoint and the illusory nature of free will, it is just the thing Cashmore thinks we evolved consciousness for – responsibility. Much of the social world and the constructs within it depend on the notion of free agency to make sense. The most glaring example of this is the legal system. We have developed a system to monitor and punish those who break the rules. Many of these we take to be moral truths that transcend freedom, they are simple statements of fact, just as God did with Adam and Eve, there is black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, and we have the freedom to choose which path to take. The legal system is an instrument to ensuring compliance and punishing misdeeds. Its fundamental assumption is that we have the freedom to choose otherwise. So if free will is really an illusion, and we have no innate control over our choices and actions, then is it moral to punish those who make choices which go against these laws? We’re jutting up against our intuitions again, of course it is, we might not have conscious awareness of the reasons behind our choices, but we make them nonetheless, and we do know the consequences of actions so therefore we need to be warned off making poor choices, choices which hurt others. The libertarians, who believe in free will, also believe in the notion of self-determinism. We each have total authority over our choices, and we should be held to account for them. If you are in this camp you are in good company. Aristotle himself describes us as having control over our actions, using the latin term eph hemin which means literally, “up to us.”

But there always exceptions, sometimes a defendant will be found not guilty for reason of insanity. A court determines, based on the expert opinion of others, that the defendant was not acting rationally and incapable of understanding his decisions and their consequences. This sounds an awful lot like a lack of free will doesn’t it?

In this instance, we are collectively agreeing that the reality constructed by the insane individual is not an accurate enough representation of objective reality that they cannot be held accountable for their actions. This seems like the humane thing to do. But it is simply marking out a point on a spectrum of what is reasonable and what is not. And it can be transient. The defendant was insane then, but they are better now, but they are judged on their reality when they committed the act, not on some future mental state. The distinction becomes arbitrary at some point when we think of reality as a social construct that we each determine subjectively, moment to moment.

Perhaps one of the most telling examples of how we construct our own reality in every moment comes from split-brain experiments. These experiments have been something of a boon for neuroscientific and psychological research. The story begins with tragedy as for each of the handful of split brain people alive today, they all suffered frequent and debilitating epileptic seizures which crippled their ability to live a normal life. As epileptic grand mal seizures can involve a disturbance of electrical activity across the left and right hemispheres of the brain, a novel therapy was proposed, to cut the brain in half. Well most of it anyway.

The mass of tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres is known as the corpus collosum. It facilitates the transfer of information between the hemispheres of the brain. While many aspects of neurofunctioning are bilateral, many are not. The right hemisphere for instance is known to be responsible for recognition of objects and maintaining a sense of time as well as being a hub for emotions, it is thought of as the intuitive side of the brain and is also responsible for interpreting sensory inputs from the left side of the body. In contrast, the left hemisphere is more logical and analytical and more scientific and mathematic, and processes sensory inputs form the right side of the body. By severing or partially severing the corpus collosum across the neocortex, the hemispheres of the brain are unable to share and synthesise information, interrupting the misfiring and short circuiting of electrical activity across the brain. In the 1960’s neurosurgeons proposed this as a therapy for chronic sufferers of epilepsy.

The first patient to undergo the procedure was a World War Two veteran paratrooper who had been hit in the head by the rifle held by a German soldier. He began to have seizures soon after and would go on to experience regular seizures for many years, some of which would go on for days leaving him without feeling on his left side. The procedure, known as a corpus callosotomy, took place in 1962 and it was a great success virtually eliminating his seizures. In the following years 9 more patients would undergo the same procedure, and in all cases, they were more or less cured. They retained their cognitive functions however some interesting things took place, some of which were not noticeable, others more so.

To better understand the implications of the procedure we need to explore what each hemisphere of the brain does in a little more detail. The right hemisphere for instance is where we recognise faces and objects and recall these for use in daily life. However, the left hemisphere is responsible for reasoning, and language and speech generation. Speech is controlled by a section in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere known as Broca’s area. When the brain has been split, these two areas are unable to communicate so when the left side of the brain recognises a familiar face, the right side is unable to verbalise and communicate it. Further to this, memory suffers in general in split-brain patients which suggests memories are formed, or at least the mechanism by which they are form, stored and retrieved, occurs in both hemispheres.

Well, we need to look at some famous experiments conducted with split-brain patients conducted by neuroscientist Michael Gazzinga. The experiments were relatively simple. The split-brain patient would be briefly shown a series of images but they would be exposed only to either the left or right eye. The patient was to press a button whenever an image appeared and then asked to say out loud the image or the word they had seen. When the image was projected to the right eye, the button was pressed, it was interpreted by the left side of the brain, where Broca’s area resides, and they would have no trouble saying what it was. So say a picture of an apple was projected into the visual field of the right eye, the patient would have no trouble saying “apple.” However, if the image was projected to the left eye, the patient was at a loss for words, they said they saw nothing yet they would push the button. But the peculiar thing was, if given a pen and paper in the left hand, the patient could draw a picture of an apple. So the patient would say they saw nothing, yet they would draw what they saw. In another version the patient was given a bag of objects and then show images of the objects. Again, if the object was projected to the right eye, the patient could verbalise it, but if projected to the left, they could not yet they would pick the object out of the bag.

It is this research has led to our modern understanding of the creative right brain and the logical, analytical left brain.

This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with free will? Well, it becomes more a question of consciousness. If these experiments have shown us anything, it is that experienced, subjective reality is the assemblage of a vast array of sensory inputs processed in just the right way in the brain. Things are not always as they appear though, and when our brain is unable to communicate internally, its version of reality is quite different to objective reality, at least in these circumstances. If libertarianism were correct, then how can it explain the altered consciousness of the split-brain patient? If free will is an immutable law of nature that has been gifted to humans and humans alone, then why is the split-brain patient, or indeed anyone with cognitive impairment less able to assert their will?

To have the freedom to make decisions and take actions requires conscious awareness of the world, yet as we can see, the split-brain patient is not able to construct an accurate picture of reality or express themselves adequately through conventional means. It would appear then, that the resulting decisions they make are determined, and thus constrained, by the neurocognitive faculties of the mind. They still have the freedom to make choice, you might argue, but if those choices are constrained, then they do not truly have freedom, the choices they do have the capacity to make are determined by their brain, and so it is for all of us.

So what does this mean for our understanding of the morality of the legal system? If we agree that libertarian free will is not how the world really is, and that our actions are informed by factors beyond on our control then how are we to manage those who do carry out deeds we would consider illegal? Just denying that free will exists does not really change anything, however we choose to frame or describe these things, they will still happen, some people will still make choices which affect others in horrific and traumatic ways.

A useful and perhaps cotemporaneous analogy that can applied in this context comes from Philosopher Frederick Schoeman and his 1979 paper on preventative detention. Here he compares the dangerous criminal to a person carrying an infectious disease. If it is known that a person is carrying a disease which may infect many others and cause untold suffering and death, then we would have no moral qualms about isolating this person until they are free of the disease. Here he suggests there is no blame to be placed upon the carrier of the disease, they did not choose to contract it, nor would they want others to be similarly afflicted, but yet we must prevent its spread. So we place them in quarantine not as punishment, but because they are dangerous, it is not a judgement on their character, their choices or their right to freedom, it is a decision made on behalf of the greater good of society.

Philosopher Derk Pereboom applies this reasoning to the criminal justice system. If we accept that free will is an illusion then the consequences of crime should not be met with punishment, but as a means of protecting society from the potential for harm. Because the criminal had no more ability to determine their choices than I do to not carry out the same acts. It was a question of luck that I should not have been set up through the same contributing influences throughout the course of my life.

And more important than even this, is the social and moral obligation of society to work toward the rehabilitation of the criminal so that they may be positioned to re-join society just as the patient infected with an infectious disease should be permitted to return home when the infection has passed.

This is a challenging moral position, but it is an important issue at the heart of the free will debate, if we are to take a position, one way or the other, we must consider its consequences in full. Often it is easier not to challenge our assumptions as we prefer not to lift up the rock or kick the hornets nest.

Compatibilism

So what about a compromise? Most of you will agree that the universe is governed by certain laws, some of which we can explain, many we can’t yet, and that if we had enough information we could make increasingly accurate predictions about the world. This would get us closer and closer to seeing that free will is not a gift given us by god, but just another law of nature. We are no different to the other animals except for a high evolved consciousness which has in turn evolved an illusory sense of agency which helps us to be responsible for our actions so that we may live together in something like harmony and being together helps to ensure our survival.

Free will, therefore, is not full libertarian freedom, but our choices are not entirely deterministic either, we still have the sense of freedom of action, which is close enough to free will for our monkey brains. This position is known as compatibilism, and it is the prevailing view of many philosophers and others today. But it is not a new idea.

Philosophers David Hume and Thomas Hobbes, who I could have mentioned a lot more in this episode, supported the notion that free will is really just the ability to make choices without being constrained. This view is known as traditional or classical compatibilism. Hobbes famously said that man was a free as an unimpeded river. That is to say, that the water is free to flow anywhere within the river, but within the river it must flow.

So sure, most things that have led us to this point have been outside of our control, but we are not being physically restrained or compelled to make a choice or carry out an action, so we have the freedom of the moment we are in. We could also think of addiction and mental illness in these terms of restraining our freedom and thus we have a reduced level of moral responsibility.

Those that argue against this cake and eat it too notion of compatibilism pejoratively label it soft determinism, it’s like determinism but with choice. Immanuel Kant who we introduced in the pillars of philosophy episode provides an interesting and useful criticism of compatibilism which I find to be quite a good justification for it. Kant was very much interested in the idea of subjective reality, that what we experience and perceive is our individual version of reality, it is not empirical. Just as the split-brain person perceives a world quite differently from the healthy brained person. This distinction can be made with the terms is and ought, introduced by Hume, which in this context means, the world is a certain way, but we see it how we think it ought to be and our choices and actions exist within this ought world. Kant said, “freedom is still something of which we can have no direct experience, and no experience-based knowledge or understanding.”

True freedom is inaccessible to us but we construct a version of reality, and in that reality we have free will, or at least a version of it we might call voluntariness over the choices we make.

So, in some not very satisfying sense we can find reconciliation between a deterministic universe and the subjective mind which constructs a version of reality based on everything that has come before it and is predictive of the future. Our will is not constrained by force, but it is constrained by our own constructed reality which is deterministic.

We are the water destined to flow between the banks of the river.  

So, the answer to the question of whether we have free will according to the compatibilist, and there are many other views and arguments we are not going to explore now, is: sort of.

So that was the short version of free will. We might have it, we probably don’t but it doesn’t seem to matter because we must be responsible our actions either way. To live life in any other way is too give up on our optimism and the hope that we are capable of truly amazing things if only we put our mind too it.

Whether our future is preordained or not is irrelevant, because we will never know. As far as we are concerned, we live with the freedom to make choices about what happens next. Many things we have no control over, some things we do. The most important of those choices begin inside our own mind as we decide how to respond to the world as it unfolds before us.

We talked about Adam and Eve in the beginning, excuse the pun, and I won’t go much further with the theologian arguments for free will, but I do want to close out the podcast by talking briefly about karma. Karma is a spiritual principle found in Buddhism and Hinduism which means action, namely cause and effect. Good deeds beget good karma, bad deeds beget bad karma. Hindu’s believe we live many, many lives, and the deeds we do will affect the lives we are born into in the future, our lives will therefore be deterministic.

This is something of a paradox, for on the one hand we must have free will in order to choose between good and bad deeds, but the karma that results is determined by those choices. There is a cause and effect relationship between free will and the determinate outcomes. It seems as if karma condemns one to suffer the interminable punishment of misdeeds or a future of good.

But no one ever said religion needs to make sense. For Buddhists, through meditation comes the awareness of just how pitiful we all are and through this realisation comes the transcendence above suffering which can free one from the cycle of karma.

But until then, it’s probably a good idea to be nice to each other.

If god wills it.

Show notes

Determinism
The Standard Argument Against Free Will – The Information Philosopher
Free Will – Sam Harris
The Split Brain: A tail of Two Halves – David Wolman
Free Will is an Illusion (On Cashmore) – Lisa Zyga
Compatibilism
Compatibilism – Craig Ross, Philosophy Now
Compatibilism – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
Free Will in Theology
Karma

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