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We do or don't have free will, depending on how you look at it...sort of.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 2/20/2009 Category: Religion
Updated: 8 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 2,543 times Debate No: 6950
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (12)
Votes (3)




Free will is rather frustrating to debate, no matter what stance you take. The reason is that the key words involved are so difficult to precisely define. Just what the heck is a "choice", and what does it mean for a choice to be "free"? Ask a hundred people and you'll get a hundred answers. Don't bother breaking out the dictionary either, because these are concepts that are very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to truly capture with words.

I propose a series of criteria for identifying whether an observer can call the action of an agent a "free choice". These criteria are compatible with a fully deterministic universe, and with the existence or lack of a soul. Please do not bring up the distinction between whether or not an observer can call an action "free" and whether the action really is "free", because this is a whole other subject involving what knowledge and properties really are, and this topic is confusing enough already.

My opponent will argue that the following criteria do not reflect what "free will" actually is, perhaps by giving an example of an agent that we would not consider to be capable of making a free choice but which nonetheless fits the criteria. My opponent may also argue that there is no universal definition of free will, or that it is a concept that is inherently impossible to define. What my opponent will NOT do is try to argue whether or not we truly have free will.

I will respond to criticism mildly, as I'd actually like to refine this theory and it will take more than one perspective to do so.

Here goes:

1. It must be conceivable that the agent could have acted another way.
Here I must make an important distinction between "conceivable" and physically possible. Our knowledge of the brain is limited: perhaps there is only one way the electric and chemical signals could have gone without violating the laws of physics. Quantum events may play a role, but we don't know exactly what. However, this is all for naught because we're incapable of reasoning in terms of electrons and chemical interactions when we're discussing issues at this level. For a choice to be possible, it must simply be consistent with our worldview that the agent could have acted another way. This step is heavily determined by the observer, as two people can disagree on whether a choice was free if they disagree on what actions the agent could have possibly taken.

2. It must be conceivable that the agent has the ability to rate each action according to some criteria.
A person may take the easiest course of action, or the most pleasurable, or the most exciting, or the most safe, the most cheap, the most rewarding, and so forth. More likely they rate actions by many criteria.

3. The agent must have the ability to act on one of many possible criteria, where the rating given to the action is proportional to the probability that the action will be chosen.
If Suzy likes bacon better than ham, she will probably order bacon when given the choice between the two. However, this doesn't mean she ALWAYS will.

4. The agent must be able to choose the criteria by which to rate each action, except in certain cases.
Yes, I'm defining choice in terms of choice (yay recursion!). Whether the otherwise infinite regress stops is when we reach something like a biological urge which doesn't really boil down to anything more. I believe this is the hardest part of the theory to define and probably the weakest, so if you're going to attack it I'd suggest starting here.

5. The more layers of indirection in step #4 before we reach a bottom level, the more "free" the choice was.
Like all living things, most of us strive to continue our existence, and the existence of our species, except for the small subset of emo kids who know the proper way to hold a razor. However, we consider ourselves to have freedom of choice because there are so many layers between the choices we make on a day to day basis, and pure survival. In fact, there are so many layers that sometimes things can get topsy turvy and wind up having no relation to biological survival whatsoever. Of course that's another subject altogether.


I will start my arguments with a definition of free which I think is most applicable, from Merriam Webster.

Free- not obstructed, restricted, or impeded

I will now give an example of a situation meeting the criteria but where the decision maker does not have the opportunity to make a true "free choice".

A young man in a country called Choiceland is conscripted into service at the age of 18. When he is informed he must serve his country he is told that he can choose between the Army, Navy, or Air Force and is given information about each branch. He is then told that he must serve. Being the naive teenager he is the young man fails to notice that he has another option, which is to dodge the draft. Since he is unaware of this fourth option the child is forced to choose from one of the three known options.

Now we look to the criteria given by Nail_Bat and compare.

Criteria one is met because the young man had not only the option to choose between Army, Navy, and Air Force but also had the unknown option to dodge the draft.

Criteria two is met because it is physically possible for the young man to rate each option by whatever criteria he chooses.

Criteria three is met because the young man can decide based on his rating which he wants to do.

Criteria four is met because no one else is choosing the criteria for him, and the decision is left to him.

Criteria five is not applicable because the choice is not free so the extent of the freedom is nonexistent.

So what can we gather from this? A sixth requirement:

6. The decision maker must be aware of all his or her options and have true information about the options.

In the example the young man's choice was obscured by the untrue statement that he must serve. The case may be that he must serve by law, but that does not mean that he must serve. The law is, as we all know, breakable and it is possible to get away with breaking the law. The young man has information which he can use to see which options meet his criteria, however the information is false information.

Because of all of this the young man does not actually have free choice. His choice is obstructed and impeded by lack of knowledge.

To clarify and sum up my arguments I am more or less saying that free choice is not purely based on the ability to choose but also the ability to know what you are choosing.
Debate Round No. 1


I thank my opponent for agreeing to debate. I know this is a rather different issue than much of what seems to be on this site. I'm not here to win but just to get some ideas to bounce off my theory, so I have no bloody idea how you people are going to vote...

He brings up a valid point, that choice depends on the knowledge of the situation and the awareness of alternatives. I have to differ with him slightly though, because it is nearly impossible to know all of the possible actions one could take in a situation. Many actions need to be taken before there is enough time to carefully weigh the alternatives. For a choice to be made, their simply needs to be a minimum of two actions, although the more possibilities, the more "free" you might say the choice was.

That said I am going to expand the definition of point #1 according to my opponent's observations:

1. It must be conceivable that the agent could have acted in multiple ways, and we must assume that agent has knowledge of at least some of these possibilities.

We can't get into the mind of the agent, so we can't say with certainty whether the agent is aware of a certain course of action. We can infer based on what we know about the agent, though. Since its logical to assume a person could at least conceive of disobeying his country, an outsider might believe that our hero made a choice to join one of the three branches of the military as opposed to dodging the draft. However, whether the kid is aware of two, four, or twenty options, there is still room for him to select one according to criteria of his choosing (not going to jail is a pretty good one).


For starters I would like to point out to the judges, and to you, Nail_Bat, that you cannot change your 1st argument after it is posted. Once you have made your resolution it is final, so my first argument still stands, but to counter your argument I offer the following point:

The key to freedom is not so much considering every possibility as not being hindered in your ability to consider a possibility by something other than nature. Obviously it's inevitable that time will continue and you can't stop time just to make a decision, however if something else is stopping you from knowing of an option it is taking away your freedom of choice. If you are only limited by your imagination and nature you still have the opportunity to consider every option, assuming you have enough time. However if someone stops you from knowing a certain option no matter how long you think you still may not know of that option, thus, you do not truly have free choice.

*sorry my arguments are at the last minute and short, I got scheduled to work more than I expected.
Debate Round No. 2


--you cannot change your 1st argument after it is posted. Once you have made your resolution it is final--

Well I'm just a rebel like that. But to reiterate, my intention is only to get ideas to bounce off the theory, which my opponent has done well so far, so I'd say all y'all should vote for him.

The point deserves more discussion: how "free" is an action when the choices have been artificially restricted? If an oppressive government gives its citizens the choice between following them and getting killed, can we really say that the citizens all decided to follow the regime?

Of course, short of being subject to mind control, there is always a choice. In the cases we're talking about, however, that choice is between doing something you'd rather not do, or getting assassinated, incarcerated, excommunicated, or any other lovely thing that ends in ated.

In the case of a forced choice, going by my model the agent is using "self preservation" as the criteria for choosing actions. This is not so much of a free choice, but a biological one. Since there is such a short link between the action and a biological desire, we would say these decisions are very lacking in freedom. This fits in with my model, as it provides a way of rating the freedom of a choice. Obviously this means there will be choices which are not quite so free at all.


I suppose I should've used a better analogy. I'll try again:

Lets say you're playing a guessing game, and to win you have to guess 31, but you are told to pick a number between 1 and 30. You aren't going to ever pick 31 because you don't even know it's an option. Whether or not you would've picked it if you knew it was an option, we cant be sure of, but we can be sure that you were mislead about what your options really were. This could have lead you to making a choice you didn't want to, thus a lack of freedom of choice.

The moral of the story is that you must know all your options, or at least have the ability to figure out your options without being restricted by a force outside yourself and nature.

Also I'd like to thank Nail_Bat for accepting that it's not always about winning. In the words of someone whose name eludes me: the point of argument is to find the truth not to create it.
Debate Round No. 3
12 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by wjmelements 8 years ago
What a resolution.
Posted by Metz 8 years ago
Sceptic.... That reminds of a little scientific proposal of determinism that I was talkign about with a friend told me.... something along the lines of "life is the interaction of predetermined choice mixed together to create random events." That is the theory was that scientifically brain function dictated our choice at certain points. How we reached those certain points was determined by the interaction of all of these prior determined choices.

its an interesting theory although I find some of it too far fetched...(that and I am not a determinist)
Posted by Nail_Bat 8 years ago
@skeptic: That's more randomness than choice. Plus, I'm not sure if even quantum mechanics allows for enough variation to actually change a person's decision if we were to somehow run the clocks back. Plus, if path X lead to a Nickelback concert, you can be darned sure that I'd pick path Y every single time.
Posted by rougeagent21 8 years ago
Posted by TheSkeptic 8 years ago
Well I thought about how to define free will, and I THINK a good way to think of free will (or the lack thereof) is to think the following scenario:

Suppose Person A comes across a divergence in the dirt road. He can either walk on Path X or Path Y. Obviously, this shows two options. So let's suppose in this instance Mr. A chose to walk on Path X.

*Now go back in time 10 seconds to the moments before he came across the divergence*

Does Person A take Path X or Path Y? Who knows, he might choose the same path (leaning towards determinism) or perhaps Path Y (free will, since under the same environmental conditions, genes, etc., he chose something else). Now one cay say that even though he went on Path X, it doesn't necessarily mean he will always do so.

I realize that, but the point is to help one imagine it better. If someone, or something, kept rewinding time by 10 seconds, and thus coming back to the moments before he approached the road, then we can get a good sense of this "free will". If Person A always chooses Path X, then there is no free will.

Of course, this isn't an argument at all. Hopefully only a helpful to visualize it.
Posted by Nail_Bat 8 years ago
There you go, you should have plenty more time now.
Posted by repete21 8 years ago
whooops!! Thought I had 3 days, sorry about that. I'll pick it up on round 2.
Posted by rougeagent21 8 years ago
good luck with that! lol
Posted by Nail_Bat 8 years ago
Yeah, rouge, I feel you. That's pretty much exactly why most debates involving free will never actually go anywhere. Sadly, "defining" words won't help to clarify anything. That may be the topic of my next debate actually....

I never mentioned morals, but free will "according to who"? According to the person who wishes to argue that my criteria completely miss the mark and don't capture the concept of free will at all.
Posted by rougeagent21 8 years ago
thats bs, thats the whole debate right there
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