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You Do Not Choose What You Choose


BrotherJosh
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Thoughts? I am not saying I agree or disagree, yet. I believe he raises some good points.

 

Many readers continue to find my position on free will bewildering. Most of the criticism I've received consists of some combination of the following claims:

 

  • Your account assumes that mental events are, at bottom, physical events. But if the mind is distinct from the brain (to any degree), this would allow for freedom of will.
  • You admit that mental events -- like choices, efforts, intentions, reasoning, etc -- cause certain of our actions. But such mental states presuppose free will for their very existence. Your position is self-contradictory: Either we are free to think and behave as we will, or there is no such thing as choice, effort, intention, reasoning, etc.
  • Even if my thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious causes, they are still mythoughts and actions. Anything that my brain does or chooses, whether consciously or not, is something that I have done or chosen. The fact that I cannot always be subjectively aware of the causes of my actions does not negate free will.

All of these objections express confusion about my basic premise. The first is simply false -- my argument against free will does not require philosophical materialism. There is no question that (most) mental events are the product of physical events -- but even if the human mind were part soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.

 

If you don't know what your soul is going to do next, or why it behaved as it did a moment ago, you are not in control of your soul. This is obviously true in all cases where a person wishes he could feel or behave differently than he does: Think of the millions of good Christians whose souls happen to be gay, prone to obesity, and bored by prayer. The truth, however, is that free will is no more evident when a person does exactly what, in retrospect, he wishes he had done. The soul force that allows you to stay on your diet is just as mysterious as the one that obliges you to eat cherry pie for breakfast.

 

The second concern also misses the point: Yes, choices, efforts, intentions, reasoning, and other mental processes influence our behavior -- but they are themselves part of a stream of causes which precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter, but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do -- for instance, when going back and forth between two options -- I do not choose to choose what I choose. There's a regress here that always ends in darkness. Subjectively, I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are inscrutable to me.

 

Einstein (following Schopenhauer) once made the same point:

 

Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of
willing
to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said:
Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will
(Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills). (Planck, M.
Where is Science Going?
, p. 201)

But many people believe that this problem of regress is a false one. For them, freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that, with respect to any specific thought or action, one could have thought or acted differently. But to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought, "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I, in fact, did. Rather than indicate my freedom, this thought is just an epitaph erected to moments past. What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, inscrutable to me. To declare my "freedom" is tantamount to saying, "I don't know why I did it, but it's the sort of thing I tend to do, and I don't mind doing it."

 

And this is why the last objection is just another way of not facing up to the problem. To say that "my brain" has decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and my freedom consists in this, is to ignore the very reason why people believe in free will in the first place: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.

 

Each of us has many organs in addition to a brain that make unconscious "decisions" -- but these are not events for which anyone feels responsible. Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment? Your body is, of course, but if it "decided" to do otherwise, you would be the victim of these changes, rather than their autonomous cause. To say that I am "responsible" for everything that goes on inside my skin because it's all "me," is to make a claim that bears no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that make the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.

 

As I have argued, however, the problem is not merely that free will makes no sense objectively (i.e. when our thoughts and actions are viewed from a third-person point of view); it makes no sense subjectively either. And it is quite possible to notice this, through introspection.

 

In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this blog post. Whatever I write is, of course, something I have chosen to write. No one has compelled to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical, if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do it.

 

But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this "rabbit" come from? Why didn't I put an "elephant" in that sentence? I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? This is a strange, and strangely vacuous, question. How can I say that I was free to do other than what I did, when the causes of what I did are invisible to me? Yes, even now I am free to change "rabbit" to "elephant," but if I were to do this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. Either is compatible with my being compelled by the iron law of determinism, or buffeted by the winds of chance; but neither looks, or feels, like freedom. Rabbit or elephant? Or why not write something else entirely?

 

And what brings my deliberations on this matter to a close? This blog post must end sometime -- and now I find that I want to get lunch. Am I free to resist this feeling? Well, yes, in the sense that no one is going to compel me at gunpoint to eat lunch this minute -- but I'm hungry, and I want to eat it. Can I resist this feeling for a moment longer? Yes, of course -- and for an indeterminate number of moments thereafter. But I am in no position to know why I make the effort in this instance but not in others. And why do my efforts cease precisely when they do? Now I feel that it is time for me to leave in any case. I'm hungry, yes, but it also seems like I've made my point. In fact, I can't think of anything else to say on the subject. And where is the freedom in that?

 

 

 

-Sam Harris

 

 

 

 

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Long time posters to this forum will understand my position as a determinist. I cannot make any sense of the idea of "free will". Forget any complicated scenarios - How is freedom in any meaningful sense possible when it is known that the nervous system is late?

 

Before you think "I am going to raise my arm" it is already done. What happens is that the reasoning comes in later to explain and justify the action.

 

Yes, the brilliant Schopenauer knew "free will" was bunk a lot time ago, even without modern brain studies.

 

Even so, that does not mean I am a materialist. I don't think science has a good explanation of consciousness yet.

 

So, I say there is the illusion of "free will" but in reality there is nothing of the kind.

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Guest Babylonian Dream

The issue of Free Will is like the issue of God, the Soul, and other concepts that arose from human senses saying something was that really wasn't. Through systems in the brain that served a very good function, that aren't always useful, and sometimes even get in the way.

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Spinoza, Hume and Schopenhauer all have interesting takes in regard to Will. It seems to me there is less of a debate over freewill vs. determinism and more of a debate over what Will is, that thing in and of itself. Do you think aversion to determinism is people reacting because it reduces their competence?

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Long time posters to this forum will understand my position as a determinist. I cannot make any sense of the idea of "free will". Forget any complicated scenarios - How is freedom in any meaningful sense possible when it is known that the nervous system is late?

 

Before you think "I am going to raise my arm" it is already done. What happens is that the reasoning comes in later to explain and justify the action.

I had a very interesting experience this very morning.

 

I woke up around 6 am, which is normal for me. But I was kind of sleepy today, so I went back to sleep, or more like a dreaming slumber.

 

In my dream, at one point, just before I woke up again, I dreamed a sentence something like the following, "Can you please talk to D?" (D representing the name of my daughter.) But at that instant, I woke up and hear my wife in hallway calling "D can you take care of you laundry?" And the name (D) was said by my wife at the exact same time as my dream ended with the same name. If I didn't know better, my dream was "predicting" that my wife would call my daughters name. But I do know better.

 

The experience was very strong and clear. And the only explanation I have (which makes sense) is that the subconscious heard the name called, made up to story and sent it to my wakening conscious, and at the same time my ears registered and sent the information about what my wife called out. And my conscious constructed this out-of-sync event.

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Personally I think it depends how many layers you are prepared to peel off the onion. All my life I have watched people do things they think they choose after being so influenced by culture and media they cannot even see that the range of choices are influenced mainly by external sources.

 

Being weird I love peeling back the layers to find the bare bones of the matter. These are my choices, but why are they limited to this particular range of choices? What am I trying to project to others by this limited range of choices? What parts of my own insecurity are in play by choosing only this range and no other? What are my real agendas in the first place etc etc.

 

Yes, I know I think too much, but it helps me to stay real :P

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What makes this particularly difficult for me is that it is entirely a matter of the self. It seems I have the ability to think, reason, and choose, but since I cannot get outside of my own skull, I cannot be truly certain whether others actually have these same abilities or merely seem to. There is no outside experiment I can observe and say, "there it is, that thing before me is free will, and it is determining the actions of the subject. If we surgically remove it, the subject clearly no longer has free will." Instead I must observe my own ability to think and make decisions subjectively and internally, at which point I have to question what my thought/consciousness even is in the first place and whether such a thing could ever be trustworthy <feedback loop, head explodes>

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What makes this particularly difficult for me is that it is entirely a matter of the self. It seems I have the ability to think, reason, and choose, but since I cannot get outside of my own skull, I cannot be truly certain whether others actually have these same abilities or merely seem to. There is no outside experiment I can observe and say, "there it is, that thing before me is free will, and it is determining the actions of the subject. If we surgically remove it, the subject clearly no longer has free will." Instead I must observe my own ability to think and make decisions subjectively and internally, at which point I have to question what my thought/consciousness even is in the first place and whether such a thing could ever be trustworthy <feedback loop, head explodes>

 

Hmmm, more alcohol required it would seem.

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  • 2 weeks later...

True free will would have to be completely arbitrary.

 

I say this because in order for a true "choice" to be made that "choice" cannot have any outside influence whatsoever. This, to me, is why free will makes absolutely no sense.

 

All of our choices are influenced by an plethora of factors and all it really is is cause and effect. If you put Hitler in the same exact situation as he was born into, with nothing changed down to such obscure details as what pairs of shoes he owned, you would still have a holocaust and a second World War.

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Whatever the result, if there is free will or determinism; you can bet on there being complications and exceptions. For the record, I think as long as you don't think about it all too deeply, both can seem the same thing - whether it is more biased to the other and vice versa, one cannot be certain.

 

Even if it turns out that we did not choose all along, there will be still confusion. Hell, the whole topic makes my brain explode. Why? If I did not choose what I type here, then what is choosing for me to not choose with the illusion of choice? Then you have to think about the agency behind the chooser of my non-choice. The regression does not apply either to determinism. I don't think it's an easy philosophical topic. There are no easy answer in this that makes sense.

 

It does surprise me that we can even talk about determinism and free will though. I think it's amazing that we can talk about our manner of agency of our actions because it's one of the most complicated topics out there. Perhaps up there with the seven unsolved millennium math problems in terms of difficulty. :)

 

For the time being, I'll just take a completely neutral opinion on this topic.

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What stood out in the article to me was this

 

Each of us has many organs in addition to a brain that make unconscious "decisions" -- but these are not events for which anyone feels responsible.

 

I've never thought of that or ever read it anywhere. Your bodies organs function regardless of any free will.

 

Since I am a former Calvinist I have thought and studied about free will for many years now. I know calvinsim is very different than the what Harris means when he says free will.

 

Anyway, I tend to agree with the statement Harris made "we cannot choose what we choose to choose".

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In my dream, at one point, just before I woke up again, I dreamed a sentence something like the following, "Can you please talk to D?" (D representing the name of my daughter.) But at that instant, I woke up and hear my wife in hallway calling "D can you take care of you laundry?" And the name (D) was said by my wife at the exact same time as my dream ended with the same name. If I didn't know better, my dream was "predicting" that my wife would call my daughters name. But I do know better.

Your experience is very interesting to me because I had this same type of experience twice:

 

The first time I was asleep on the couch and I was having a dream, a very vivid dream in which a man was approaching my home and about to ring the doorbell. At the exact moment he pressed the doorbell, my actual doorbell rang, which caused me to wake up. When I answered the door it wasn't the man in my dreams, but I guess it didn't matter. The strange part was that my dream sequence led up to my doorbell ringing, at the same exact moment it happened in physical reality.

 

The second time was very similar except it was the phone ringing. Again, I dreamed some sequence that led up to someone calling me, and the exact second the phone range in my dream, it rang in physical reality. As with before, the eery thing was that there was a logical sequence of events in my dream that led up to the phone ringing, at the same time as in reality. Almost seemed like a weird prediction of sorts....

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In my dream, at one point, just before I woke up again, I dreamed a sentence something like the following, "Can you please talk to D?" (D representing the name of my daughter.) But at that instant, I woke up and hear my wife in hallway calling "D can you take care of you laundry?" And the name (D) was said by my wife at the exact same time as my dream ended with the same name. If I didn't know better, my dream was "predicting" that my wife would call my daughters name. But I do know better.

Your experience is very interesting to me because I had this same type of experience twice:

 

The first time I was asleep on the couch and I was having a dream, a very vivid dream in which a man was approaching my home and about to ring the doorbell. At the exact moment he pressed the doorbell, my actual doorbell rang, which caused me to wake up. When I answered the door it wasn't the man in my dreams, but I guess it didn't matter. The strange part was that my dream sequence led up to my doorbell ringing, at the same exact moment it happened in physical reality.

 

The second time was very similar except it was the phone ringing. Again, I dreamed some sequence that led up to someone calling me, and the exact second the phone range in my dream, it rang in physical reality. As with before, the eery thing was that there was a logical sequence of events in my dream that led up to the phone ringing, at the same time as in reality. Almost seemed like a weird prediction of sorts....

 

I think we notice more than we perceive meaning much we don't know is noticed and tapping into that can be precognitive...

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  • 2 weeks later...

ultimatly free will is imposible in that evrything you do and every experience you have is a product of the past factors of the universe and how it influences my existance. you reading this and me writing this was ultimatly decided before it was done to begin with. but if you want to get real crazy it is posible that evrything in the universe is defined by a free will that we posses in some greater manner witch we can not comprehend.

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Determinism fails at the atomic level due to quantum randomness.

Since that is the core of our being we too cannot be deterministic.

 

Much like we can use dithering to increase the resolution or accuracy of a system, the introduction of randomness at the atomic level means we become more than the sum of our parts.

Well, that's my view anyway.

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I've noticed that when I wake up in the morning, I think 'I must get out of bed soon' and don't get up. Some time later I just get out of bed without consciously willing myself to do so. Free will is a tricky one. Randomness or quantum indeterminacy doesn't help.

 

If there is such a thing as free will does this mean that there are acausal interactions at play? Some kind of short term past/future interaction? I doubt it. More likely the brain operates in a manner analoguous to electronic devices such as Infinite Impulse Response Filters or Decision Feedback Equalizers.

 

Current inputs to your brain are integrated with past decisions & memories and also with what your brain estimates the future to be, and makes decisions on that basis. When your (unconscious) brain predictions don't match reality, your conscious mind takes over to help sort out the problem

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The fact that we are creatures of habit really defeats the free will argument.

 

I just had a long debate I bowed out of with a theist and this free will argument is always used as part of their circular argument arsenal.

 

This is loosely associated (how I do not know) that one has to understand the buybull with spiritual eyes and when you ask them to explain they cannot and if you ask them how they learned it, ditto.

 

The OP pretty much sums up all the objections to free will.

 

I suppose this is why the woo woos think "gay" is a choice, unbelief is a choice :shrug:

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ultimatly free will is imposible in that evrything you do and every experience you have is a product of the past factors of the universe and how it influences my existance. you reading this and me writing this was ultimatly decided before it was done to begin with. but if you want to get real crazy it is posible that evrything in the universe is defined by a free will that we posses in some greater manner witch we can not comprehend.

 

Perhaps this should be called the Back to the Future Paradigm. :P

 

Not sure I buy into it. Each step of the way offers potentially billions or even trillions of possibilities and while past factors can pose influence, they don't limit future choices to the degree you suggest. At least not as far as I can tell.

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You can't choose what to believe. You believe what makes sense to you. If I said I would give you 10 million dollars to believe that all bananas are purple, could you do it?

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True free will would have to be completely arbitrary.

 

I say this because in order for a true "choice" to be made that "choice" cannot have any outside influence whatsoever. This, to me, is why free will makes absolutely no sense.

 

All of our choices are influenced by an plethora of factors and all it really is is cause and effect. If you put Hitler in the same exact situation as he was born into, with nothing changed down to such obscure details as what pairs of shoes he owned, you would still have a holocaust and a second World War.

In addition, none of our choices are made in a vacuum; there are always constraints imposed by environment and physics and our personal limitations (strength, health, wakefulness, knowledge, experience, intelligence, etc.). Few would claim that we have free will in the sense that at any moment, our choices are infinite. The palette of choices available to me in this instant do not include flying through the air by flapping my arms, physically transporting myself to Mars, writing out a blueprint of a working faster-than-light propulsion system, or looking back through a time portal to peruse the day of my nativity. In practice, at any given moment, there are actually a very limited number of choices at our disposal. In this sense, free will is somewhat irrelevant. At any given moment, we can only choose what we are aware of and know how to act upon, which, in truth, isn't all that much. Plus, our minds are limited in multi-tasking such that by giving any attention to one of our options we tend to quickly lose sight of our others anyway.

 

--Bob

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All of our choices are influenced by an plethora of factors and all it really is is cause and effect. If you put Hitler in the same exact situation as he was born into' date=' with nothing changed down to such obscure details as what pairs of shoes he owned, you would still have a holocaust and a second World War[/b'].

 

 

 

First off, that is an assumption not a fact. Its also a hotly contested one as well.

Most people actually disagree with that premise because it means that every mind is born identical to the next and its only environmental factors that influence it.

Clearly that is not the case.

 

 

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All of our choices are influenced by an plethora of factors and all it really is is cause and effect. If you put Hitler in the same exact situation as he was born into' date=' with nothing changed down to such obscure details as what pairs of shoes he owned, you would still have a holocaust and a second World War[/b'].

 

 

 

First off, that is an assumption not a fact. Its also a hotly contested one as well.

Most people actually disagree with that premise because it means that every mind is born identical to the next and its only environmental factors that influence it.

Clearly that is not the case.

 

 

 

 

Yes, I would like the point out the scientific fields of Chaos Theory and Nonlinear Dynamics. From Chaos Theory we have observed in many instances of situations having the exact same input and getting different output. The same goes for nonlinear dynamics but for mathematics. Which means, if the universe is actually based on mathematics, as it appears to be, we need to cast aside the cause-effect relationship that things seem to even out to.

 

A good analogy to another field of study would be economics. Where the laws of supply and demand are based on the idea that everyone will act rationally to price changes, etc. However, as we all know, human beings do not act rationally, we may buy a car because we like the color, or boycott a certain store because we don't agree with their views. But on the whole all of humanity together pieces together to form a "rational" market. The universe seems to be this way too.

 

 

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Commenting on the Hitler bit, if he had never been born, the advent of WWII would still have happened, antisemitism was rife in Europe at the time and Germany was of course in a state of hurt pride following their surrender in WW1.

 

Apart from the holocaust, I have a soft spot for the Germans. They were the technological leaders of the day and if you look just how much effort it took to put them in their place again, how many countries were involved, it was more than a home town advantage.

 

What we also saw was determination of survival in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable odds was the will of the Brits.

 

It took the yanks bombing them by day and the Brits by night and tossing the "gentlemanry" aspect of war to finally give it to them.

 

Today we see a Germany that built itself up again and is still a technological leader. The same can be said of Japan.

 

Folk were pretty much fucked up then playing to the whims of politicians and anyone that would lead them to dominance and victory.

 

The genocide of the Jews was IMO a lesser objective of Hitler, there are many documented stories of German folk that opposed Hitler when he went insane, they inferred he had syphilis and there are enough gruesome stories of the folk that actually carried out the killings.

 

Hitler gets the blame as he was the go to guy and played on the anti Jew sentiment prevalent at the time to get into power.

 

Had Germany won the war, popular sentiment and opposition would have unseated them by now. It is the way of the human spirit, folk can only take so much shit and then say enough is enough.

 

It gets tiring to see so much reference to Hitler wrt to some axis of evil when the reality is there were many more evil bastards in the past but back then there was no movietone newsreels so folk were not aware.

 

If Hitler had merely interned the Jews w/o killing them, he would still have a bad rep. Folk forget the intern camps of the Japanese in the US and even here the concentration camps of the Brits during the Boer war in SA.

 

Making Hitler the benchmark of evil is misplaced, the church has a far worse record and in fact were very anti everything that stood in their way of dominance.

 

Fortunately, civilization has moved on and a war like that will likely never happen again.

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