Yes, Free Will Exists

Yes, Free Will Exists

Here is an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate of whether free will exists or not from Scientific American.  The article notes that debate began in earnest during the Enlightenment, but was seemingly settled by 20th century neuroscience headlined by the famous Libet Experiment:

Libet found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick their wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that they had decided to move.  Libet’s findings suggest that decisions made by a subject are first being made on a subconscious level and only afterward being translated into a “conscious decision”, and that the subject’s belief that it occurred at the behest of their will was only due to their retrospective perspective on the event.

As the Wikipedia article goes on to list; criticisms of Libet’s experiment showed it wasn’t as cut and dried as some (but not Libet himself) tried to make it.

So the SA article draws the contrast between choices that are either determined or not; stating pre-determined is, in fact, tautologous.  Then they say that the only undetermined choice is one that must be random:

In this context, a free-willed choice would be an undetermined one. But what is an undetermined choice? It can only be a random one, for anything that isn’t fundamentally random reflects some underlying disposition or necessity that determines it. There is no semantic space between determinism and randomness that could accommodate choices that are neither. This is a simple but important point, for we often think—incoherently—of free-willed choices as neither determined nor random.

But of course, most people’s idea of randomness is ambiguous at best.  Most would say something is random if no pattern can be discerned. But as the article says:

However, a truly random process can, in principle, produce any pattern by mere chance. The probability of this happening may be small, but it isn’t zero. So, when we say that a process is random, we are merely acknowledging our ignorance of its potential underlying causal basis. As such, an appeal to randomness doesn’t suffice to define free will.

Then they make the observation that our free choices aren’t erratic, but are the determined choices of our preferences. “A free choice is one determined by my preferences, likes, dislikes, character, etc., as opposed to someone else’s or other external forces.”  This becomes their working definition.  And here is the money quote:

But if our choices are always determined anyway, what does it mean to talk of free will in the first place? If you think about it carefully, the answer is self-evident: we have free will if our choices are determined by that which we experientially identify with. I identify with my tastes and preferences—as consciously felt by me—in the sense that I regard them as expressions of myself. My choices are thus free insofar as they are determined by these felt tastes and preferences.

They then make the point that I have often tried to make in these discussions: the inadequacy of materialism to account for our consciousness.  Materialism must be reductive, and therefore reduces our consciousness to mere neurological activity; the firing of neuron networks in our brain.  But the neurological activity, although necessary (if your brain ain’t working you’re dead), is not the be-all and end-all alleged by materialism because an emergent property, something greater than the sum of the parts, has manifested – our consciousness. The article states the key issue:

The key issue here is one that permeates the entire metaphysics of materialism: all we ever truly have are the contents of consciousness, which philosophers call “phenomenality.”’ Our entire life is a stream of felt and perceived phenomenality. That this phenomenality somehow arises from something material, outside consciousness—such as networks of firing neurons—is a theoretical inference, not a lived reality; it’s a narrative we create and buy into on the basis of conceptual reasoning, not something felt. That’s why, for the life of us, we can’t truly identify with it.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Feb 22, 1788 – Sep 21, 1860

The author of the SA article then discusses the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, and his own recent book, “Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics” He sums up Schopenhauer’s argument as:

Kant considered the world-in-itself unknowable. Schopenhauer, however, argued that we can learn something about it not only through the sense organs, but also through introspection. His argument goes as follows: even in the absence of all self-perception mediated by the sense organs, we would still experience our own endogenous, felt volition…

In Schopenhauer’s illuminating view of reality, the will is indeed free because it is all there ultimately is. Yet, its image is nature’s seemingly deterministic laws, which reflect the instinctual inner consistency of the will. Today, over 200 years after he first published his groundbreaking ideas, Schopenhauer’s work can reconcile our innate intuition of free will with modern scientific determinism.

Well, I certainly hope Pastor Dan Jepsen has time to read this post and chime in.  His background in philosophy is far superior to mine.  I really don’t know much about Schopenhauer or his works, and to be honest, am not going to take the time to slog through dense Germanic prose. The author of the SA article, Bernardo Kastrup, has a Ph.D. in philosophy (ontology, philosophy of mind) and another Ph.D. in computer engineering (reconfigurable computing, artificial intelligence). As a scientist, he has worked for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the ‘Casimir Effect’ of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). Supposedly, his work has been leading the modern renaissance of metaphysical idealism, the notion that reality is essentially mental.

The notion that reality is essentially mental appeals to the nascent panentheist in me. I much prefer it to its opponent; that consciousness is a fiction written by our brains.  I still assert the cosmos resembles nothing so much as “Mind” itself.  Now I’m a Christian panentheist, so that Mind is God who is a person most completely represented by Jesus himself.  Jesus, who said of the Pharisees that they “do not will to come unto me, that you may have life” (John 5:40 YLT).  So our wills are a gift to us of God who wishes we come to him but does not coerce it.  The traditional definition of free will.

What think you?  Does Kastrup make a convincing argument?

36 thoughts on “Yes, Free Will Exists

  1. “Schopenhauer, help!” – a youthful F. Nietzsche in a moment of existential angst while cleaning out a military horse stall


  2. Hey, Mike. Per your nascent Panentheism, are you saying the world or the material realm is God’s body? What is the attraction to that?


  3. You’re not alone Dana.
    I have a dear friend who teaches Mathematics at a local university in my locale.
    Her dissertation was on non-Euclidean Geometry.
    When confronted with Schopenhauer’s rabid misogyny as an undergrad, she simply yawned.


  4. I prefer Maximos the Confessor (what I can understand of him) to Schopenhauer (what I can understand of him).



  5. Strongly agreed. As a materialist of sorts, I don’t believe in absolute free will. However, functional free will is a useful concept and I have no bones with it.

    The argument about this is a bit like a “God-of-the-gaps” argument – you keep on pushing back the thing you don’t want to admit, but you can’t get rid of it.


  6. –> “Even today many of our Calvinist friends do not think ‘free will’ is consistent with the will of God.”

    I didn’t know Calvinists had ANY concept of “free will” outside the will of God.

    I like your comment, by the way. My own opinion is that there’s this huge, unknown mixture of free will and “not.”

    Did I decide to scramble my eggs today instead of fry them because of free will, or were some underlying factors at work that made me enter some sort of inner logic tree that caused that outcome?

    Probably ultimately a mixture of both.


  7. I was going to come here and post something against the idea of free-will, then decided against it.


  8. Your comment reminds me a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.” We all make split-second decisions based upon many, many factors, and it’s a recognition of what those factors are AND our ability to change that split-second decision (if deemed a “poor” decision) that are important.


  9. The notion that reality is essentially mental appeals to the nascent panentheist in me. I much prefer it to its opponent; that consciousness is a fiction written by our brains.

    Both invoke The Matrix.


  10. What’s interesting to me about these kinds of arguments is how old they are . They go back to way before science chimed in. From the beginning you have had proponents of both determinism and what we call “free will”. The idea of the “will”, free or not, is itself pre-scientific. Even today many of our Calvinist friends do not think “free will” is consistent with the will of God.

    The popular view of “free will” results in a kind of self-creation and posits events without causes. I think most of us eventually intuit the problems with that. The philosophical admonition to “Know Thyself” acknowledges that “knowing” is at the end of a long string of processes and that there must be a self that exists apart from our knowing it.

    At what point does someone decide to be gay or straight? No, we acknowledge what we already are. When do we decide to be sexually attracted to someone or to fall in love? Much (most?) of what we are inhabits a pre-conscious state. “Free will” is simply an inadequate term for what really goes on.


  11. An excellent comment. I can see it applied to multiple disciplines. My experience is in Table Tennis, and in retrospect I can see the same sort of processes. I will also pass this on to my cycling team as I can see where it could apply there as well.


  12. These days, my feeling on the whole free will debate is that if it doesn’t affect the way we live our lives, it’s not worth expending too much mental energy over. We have to live as if we are morally responsible agents in our lives, and as if the choices we make matter and so do the habits and character we build to empower us to make those choices. And we have to treat the physical world as something that matters and not just as something our brains are constructing.


  13. that we were given ‘choice’ by God says much, but in the play between ‘genetics’, ‘circumstances’, ‘nature’, ‘nurture’, and our own autonomous system of ‘responses’ of the body that are independent of our ‘will’ (breathing is one example, you can only voluntarily hold your breath for a short time, then the medulla oblongata takes over and ‘makes’ you breathe to save your life, same with heart beating . . . it is controlled by the ‘lower’ brain, called sometimes ‘the primitive brain’, and is operates without our conscious direction. . . . .

    but ‘choice’ is a ‘blessing/curse’ and there is some question as to how it can be that we sometimes can ‘choose’ not to follow ‘the right way’ according to ‘law’, perhaps because of a ‘higher’ law: to save someone’s life, we might steal food for them, or lie to the ‘authorities’ for their sake . . . many examples of this in human existence, so many that it make sense that only God can judge the heart of men.

    And then, for SOME Christian people, there is the reckoning of ‘moral conscience’ as the voice of God urging us to do what is right and to avoid evil, but I have learned that not all Christian people recognize the role of ‘moral conscience’ in the life of a Christian OR do they recognize that God gave ‘moral conscience’ to ALL human persons to guide them whereby they are not as ‘lost’ in this world as some call them who cannot know the value of a willing response to trying to obey one’s conscience and how God sees this and what it can mean for the person’s eventual way of the power of the Paschal Mysteries of Our Lord that extend to all humanity.

    In the end, our human dignity is that we are made in the ‘image of God’, and at some level, each of us is offered an opportunity to ‘choose’ which way we will go: towards the ‘light’? or not?


  14. Operationally I’m probably on the same side as this post; principally due to statements like “consciousness is a fiction written by our brains”, sounding [to me] sound like something unimpressive men say to impress young women. How is that instructive or helpful? Isn’t a manifested ‘fiction’ real? But then I’m a pragmatist.

    “””That this phenomenality somehow arises from something material, outside consciousness—such as networks of firing neurons—is a theoretical inference, not a lived reality; it’s a narrative we create and buy into on the basis of conceptual reasoning, not something felt. That’s why, for the life of us, we can’t truly identify with it.””” – Yep. And while we may turn our gaze back upon that neurology the study of itself is rather plainly not why it exists (and it is barely any good at it). In the coldest gaze the neurology creates that narrative because that narrative is extremely beneficial for keeping the neurology fed. I don’t see how one jumps to words like “fiction” without predisposition. The building I constructed is not a Fiction because I constructed it (which I did because it was beneficial to me to do so). That my “me” exists as an symbiotic informational parasite to my host’s neurology – – – this does not make me uncomfortable. Information is not Fiction.

    As for “Free Will”? I don’t know. I am a believer in Free-ish Will. Much like Kant’s bold assertion that we can’t know anything about reality the absolutism of the word “free” poisons much of the “Free Will” debate. Clearly my Freeishness is bounded by being a middle-aged heterosexual white vision-impaired hearing-impaired english-speaking human [and a million other variables I am likely not even aware of]. On the flip side, absent bounds the individual [me] does not exist.


  15. The interesting thing about the Libet Experiment and his conclusions from it is that it would apply as much to scientists conducting experiments as it would to my decision to flick my wrist. It would even apply to Libet’s process in experimenting and coming to his conclusions. How can truth values be determined by, or be defined for, conducting experiments and coming to conclusions that one has no choice but to conduct and conclude, and for which one’s conclusions are predetermined?


  16. I’ve been reading articles online about a recent philosophical revival of panpsychism, and this sounds like part of that. The philosophers who present this view say it explains consciousness while not contradicting philosophical materialism. I tend to think that it does not favor traditional Christian anthropology, in fact disfavors it, since it seems to assert that consciousness is unusual and universal, and human consciousness nothing special. But like God it is one of those things that cannot be scientifically and conclusivelyproven by material evidence, except to those already convinced, or those who want to be convinced.


  17. I used to fence, and how people make decisions at speed is a big part of it. Libet’s experiment seems nothing more than confirming the existence of what fencers call “second intention”.
    “First intention” was a move that you decided to do regardless of circumstances: I.e. you just resolved to execute a particular attack in a particular way and just did it, effectively on autopilot. “Second intention” was where instead you observed or anticipated an opponent was going to do a particular move and decided how you were going to react when they did it in advance: I.e. you thought to yourself “next time he does that, I am going to react by doing X” and so could react quickly in response without further deliberation when it happened. What then happens is that you start to react in the way you have “primed” yourself to do before even being conscious of doing so.
    I have seen criticism of Libet’s conclusions and they seem to centre round what fences call “fourth intention”: if you have decided to react in a particular way (first or second intention) and are reacting automatically as planned, you can perform an “emergency stop” as it were and revise what you are doing if your conscious mind realises it isn’t going to work. The existence of “fourth intention” demonstrates you remain completely in conscious control of your actions even while reacting automatically and unconsciously (and the automatic reactions can themselves be the result of conscious decision, or – in the case of fencing at least – the result of deliberately training yourself to react automaticallyin a particular way to s particular threat).
    NB – In case anyone was wondering, “third intention” is where you are without any preconceived plan and wait until your opponent reacts before deciding what to do. It’s how people tend to operate normally when they don’t have to make split-second decisions all the time. It’s disadvantage in fencing is that it means you act more slowly yourself and take longer to react to your opponent’s moves.


  18. For one brief moment I thought I could add something of value to this topic but alas I now find out Schopenhauer was not in the Peanuts cartoon family, perhaps a minor character like Peppermint Patty. To summarize my position I think poorly there for I am, which is from the Manny Can’t School of Convoluted Thoughts . I thought I had free will until I started eating Cheeto’s.


  19. ‘Story’ is embedded in our human DNA, echoes from Eden, images of another ‘place’, a better place; a feeling of loss and of longing
    human words make small vehicles for the conveyance of such a Story and it is for our poets and our artists to awaken us to the meaning of the primordial images we hold in the genetic memories of our humanity


  20. ” Jesus, who said of the Pharisees that they “do not will to come unto me, that you may have life” (John 5:40 YLT). So our wills are a gift to us of God who wishes we come to him but does not coerce it. The traditional definition of free will.”

    reminds one of the words of St. Francis deSales:

    “” In spite of the all-powerful strength of God’s merciful hand,
    which touches, enfolds and bends the souls with so many inspirations, calls and attractions,
    the human will remains perfectly FREE, unfettered, and exempt from every form of constraint and necessity.”

    “Grace is so gracious, and so graciously does it seize our hearts in order to draw them on, that it in no wise impairs the liberty of our will…
    grace has a holy violence, not to violate our liberty but to make it full of love…it presses us but does not oppress our freedom…”
    (Francis DeSales)


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