Is there such a thing as true free will?
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Before we get to far in this I would like to make it clear that we are talking about human free will, since it is impossible for animals, or anything besides humans for that matter, to have free will.
Also before we begin I would like to talk about definitions.Before I list my definition of what free will is, let me construct a description of what we actually know about the concept that we call freewill - lest we smuggle in some unjustified or unnecessary aspects: A meaningful theory of freewill must account for our undeniable experience of freedom of choice. However, it does not necessarily need to conclude that our choices are free from antecedent factors - empirical evidence and reason must resolve that issue. Secondly, it must account for the flexible, conscious control that we experience in everyday life - the fact that we deliberately select goals, values, and optional plans of action. For this reason I will use a short, simple definition: FREE WILL- the ability to make conscious choices; choices made with awareness and understanding of their possible and probable consequences, and of the fact that we (our minds) are doing the choosing. Of course no definition is perfect and I am sure this one has its flaws also.
1. UNDERSTANDING AND ABSTRACT THINKING IS THE REASON FOR FREE WILL.
How does freewill differ from "normal" choice, the kind that machines and animals make? The advance of human choice over that of (current) machines and animals lies in our ability to think abstractly, and in our awareness of ourselves and our own thinking. This creates the control - and freedom of choice - that freewill represents. We understand. Machines and animals have knowledge, but they have little or no understanding. The difference between knowledge and understanding is crucial. I use the term "knowledge" here in a very broad sense: facts of reality - truths - that may be available to a robot or animal; such as an assembly robot's knowledge of where to place the finished product, or an animal's knowledge of where to find food. While we easily accept that animals know things (even ants know how to find their way home), knowledge in machines still seems somewhat foreign to us. I think that there is little difference in consciousness between simple animals and the more complex robots of today. However, neither have conceptual self-awareness - neither can understand. We, too, sometimes have knowledge without understanding. For example someone may know the formula E=mc2 while understanding only that it has something to do with Einstein, or they may know a foreign phrase and even have a feel for when its use is appropriate, without actually knowing its meaning. Understanding, in contrast, implies the integration of knowledge with other existing knowledge and its relationship to ourselves and to our primary means of knowledge, our senses. Until we explicitly relate knowledge to our own existence and our perceptual knowledge of reality, it is not understood. All knowledge, including abstract concepts, has to be integrated with and related to fundamental experience. A thermostat has knowledge of a temperature change, but not understanding. A flower has knowledge of the rising sun, but no understanding. An animal has the knowledge to feed itself, but fails to grasp the meaning. It is only a human's understanding of food's significance that allows us to farm, and to select a particular diet. For us to have control over our choices, and to be responsible for them, we must be able to make them with awareness and understanding.
2. YOU WILL ALWAYS MAKE THE SAME CHOICE IN THE SAME CIRCUMSTANCE.
A question that is often, but mistakenly, posed as a test for freedom of will is, "Could I have chosen otherwise?" However reasonable this question may seem, I contend that is quite meaningless and invalid within the usual context. Let's try to make its premises and context explicit: Could have chosen otherwise - if what? If everything was the same? Naturally, if everything was the same, including our will, then we would have chosen in the same way. If on the other hand we assume that our will was different, then what would that tell us about freewill? Not much, because we would be talking about a person with a different will or context. To illustrate this point, what is the sense of saying for example "I could have chosen to lie to you", unless we define the circumstances under which this statement can be judged as true or false? I could have lied to you - if I was less honest? If I wanted to avoid hurting you? If I had thought more about it? If I had reason to? If I held a different morality? If I was I different person? Or, whatever. Each of those scenarios introduce new variables, new motivations, new information. It is hardly controversial to say that humans can make different choices when faced with different situations, beliefs, or motives. Yet we have no reason to believe that in identical circumstances we would choose differently. This line of thinking does not help to illuminate freewill.
3. THE FUTURE DOESN'T EXIST YET.
Also there is the fatalistic belief that in a deterministic universe the future somehow already exists, it just has to "unfold". Consequently, in this view, choices that are the product of mechanistic processes don't "really" affect the future. But - the future does not yet exist. There is no roll of film that contains the script of the future, just waiting to be projected, viewed, experienced. We do not live in time - time is a measure of change. The past and future exist only in our memories and imagination. It is only the present that exists - parameters and choices of the present create the future. The future is not written, it unfolds and develops according to both blind and aware choices.
4. WE HAVE FREE WILL BECAUSE OF OUR UNIQUE ABILITY TO DEAL WITH ABSTRACT CONCEPTS.
What kind of freedom do our minds have? Our choices cannot and obviously should not be totally free from (or fail to take into account) our knowledge, values, and perceptions of our environment and ourselves. Our choices are not free from past thoughts and decisions, nor from external influences. Our choices can also not transcend the laws of nature, ie. do the impossible. Once we relate our mind's abilities to that of non-volitional entities, we find that the freedom in freewill is not the elimination of influencing factors as such, but the expansion of our choices by our unique ability to deal with abstract concepts; by our self-awareness, our imagination, our ability to seek out knowledge and project the future; and, most importantly, by our awareness and monitoring of our own thinking. This is the source of our freedom; this is what makes us self-determined. This is the crux of the true understanding of freewill: Not free from influences, but free to make intelligent choices.
To summarize, freewill is not choice free from the "wiring" of our brains, our genes, or chemical factors. It does not mean that we are free from environmental influences, our life's experiences, or prior thoughts and decisions. Freewill is the extra freedom - the extra ability that we have - to create and evaluate options by projecting and understanding their implications. We all have this ability, and we all choose to utilize it to a greater or lesser degree. The effects of nature, nurture, random events, and past decisions are not eliminated, but can be modified by our ability to project consequences and by our power to influence choices - by our awareness of freewill itself. All of this abstract thinking, projecting and deciding is the product of mechanistic causation, determined but not determinable.
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