Social Question

nikipedia's avatar

Why is free will important to you?

Asked by nikipedia (27454points) November 22nd, 2010

I have pretty much accepted the unpopular idea that free will doesn’t exist. That is, we have a subjective feeling that we’re making our own decisions from moment to moment, but in reality those decisions are produced by physical phenomena that are reacting to stimuli in the outside world.

You might disagree with me. That’s okay. But what I want to ask is not whether free will is a real thing, but why it’s so important to us to believe that it is. Is it because we have this very strong feeling of free will? Or is it because the lack of free will would undermine the justice system somehow? Something else entirely?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

48 Answers

DerangedSpaceMonkey's avatar

Well without it, I couldn’t answer this question. LOL

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It’s not uber-important to me but what is important is that others don’t prohibit others from their free will, perceived, made-up or otherwise.

Blackberry's avatar

I’ve not an expert on the whole freewill circlejerk, but I think it usually has to come to a discussion about consciousness, and that is a mystery itself. So…my answer is: I don’t know. Lol.

marinelife's avatar

The best way to know is to have it taken away.

Summum's avatar

Free will allows me to make choices like @marinelife says have that taken away and put behind bars and I guess you would understand why it might be important.

iamthemob's avatar

I doubt there is a single reason, but those you mentioned in addition to those you didn’t come into play.

Whether or not you believe in it or what exactly you think it is, we have a sense that we have a choice. Take that away, e.g., if it could be demonstrated objectively that we have no free will, then you essentially have a world without morality. It’s the paradox of the religious concept of a “mortal sin” – a sin that is so great that there is no way to be forgiven for it, and you’re damned because of it. Commit such a sin, and what motivation you have not to do whatever pops into your head? None – do whatever you want without concern about its effect on others.

Free will is necessarily entwined with ideas of fault, culpability, accountability – if you have no choice in doing something, then there is no blame or accolades for anything done – even if you wanted not to, you would have anyway. You had to murder someone, you had to raid corporate funds, you had to invent the cure for cancer.

Ironically, an objective assessment that everything is pre-ordained or controlled by something outside you, that the world is objectively ordered, leads to a world that is subjectively chaotic.

crisw's avatar

I agree with you that free will is an illusion. However, I think the illusion is extremely important to us because many people find it crucial to believe that we are created with free will. For some, this is a religious issue. For some, it’s “proof ” of the difference between he corporeal and the spiritual. For some, it’s the “proof” that we aren’t just material entities.

downtide's avatar

Without the notion of free will there would seem no point to doing anything at all, which would seem to create depression and despondency. If we believe in free will then we can believe that we can make our lives (or other people’s lives) better. Without that, where would be the motivation for any kind of action?

josie's avatar

What, other than your will to do so, compelled you the write the question?
If you are not aware of anything else that might have compelled you to do it, and you are aware of your capacity for volition, then what is more likely-that you have free will, or that some mysterious unknown phenomenon has played a metaphysical trick on you?
If you do not have free will, and you reply to these comments, what makes you do it?

anartist's avatar

To the extent that we have it, it is all we have available to pursue our dreams, to the extent that we have those.

squirbel's avatar

Wow, people doubt free will now? What next? Consciousness?

Honestly, I believe in free will. I believe it can be limited or removed by hostile forces [ie prison]... but in everyday life – I know that the reason I get a promotion over the others is because I willed myself to do better than they do. I know that I answered this question of my own free will.

I mean, are you suggesting something prodded me to answer this question, and I listened to what it said? I’m not understanding if that’s not what you’re saying.

tinyfaery's avatar

It really would be nice to give-up the personal responsibility. Then I could blame all the stupid shit I’ve done on someone/something else. But, ultimately, the idea that I have zero control is scarier than the belief that my circumstance is a result of my own actions.

ratboy's avatar

I believe in free will because it was so written in the stars.

crisw's avatar

I think that many people misunderstand what it means to say we do not have free will.

To me, it means that, if we were able to investigate every action, we would find that it has a cause. And, if we knew enough to be able to determine these causes, we would be able to predict every action. Therefore, we certainly feel as though we have free will, and our actions seem to support this. But, if we had enough knowledge, we would be able to predict every action.

nikipedia's avatar

Okay, I guess I can try to explain, but I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind on this one.

When I sat down to write this question, neurons in my brain were firing. Electrons were sliding through ion channels embedded in membranes in the cells that construct the network of my brain. One neuron fired and sent signals to the neurons connected to it which passed the message on to all the neurons in its network and so on…

What caused those neurons to fire action potentials and generate my typing? Is there a “will” neurotransmitter that bound to the “will” receptor on the postsynaptic cell? If so, what caused the release of the “will” neurotransmitter? A signal from another cell? Okay, then what caused that one to fire?

There is no room for “will” in a material, biological system. It is not a tangible property and we cannot observe it anywhere in the brain. It is much more convincing to me that all of my behaviors are the sum of a huge amount of inputs from the physical world, and my behaviors are simply the outputs of those. I believe that when my neurons fire, they fire because of tangible, material phenomena, not because I have some kind of quantum, spiritual, intangible, unobservable decider located somewhere in my body. Or outside it, for that matter.

To clarify, I am using the term “free will” very specifically to refer to whatever is required to initiate behavior that we feel is volitional. I am not talking broadly about “freedom”—I think no one would argue that a person who was imprisoned still has free will in the sense that the prisoner still chooses his/her actions to the extent that they’re available to him (to sit, to stand, to assault the prison guard, to eat pizza instead of brussels sprouts). And I am not talking broadly about “will” as in “the will to live”—even someone who strongly desired death would still be considered to have “free will” in the sense that I mean, as this person would be choosing to jump off a bridge or not, brush his/her teeth or not, and so on.

cazzie's avatar

‘Free will’? There is nothing BUT will. ‘physical phenomena that are reacting to stimuli in the outside world?’ We ARE the outside world. Perhaps you should let yourself out of your self-imposed cage more often.

Our will and actions are our own. You and I and everyone around us are not puppets. If you truly believe that, perhaps you should try imagining walking across the road against the stop lights and see what would happen and ask yourself if you actually have the power to control yourself from doing that or not. THAT is your will.

iamthemob's avatar

Perhaps the answer for me boils down to the fact that it’s pointless to argue whether or not we have free will – I believe that it’s impossible for us to observe enough of the universe to create a system where we can show the outcomes of physical interactions so that the future becomes infallibly predictable. So it doesn’t matter whether we have free will or not, or whether it’s important to believe we do – we feel things in our gut, and make decisions regardless.

What is important is determining what are the multiple physical and social causes that limit our choices in a manner that, when people blame a person for making a certain choice, we can be sure that the choice wasn’t so limited that the person had no practical choice (e.g., are the causes of obesity really about personal choice over anything else…or are the elements of consumer culture, advertising, federal subsidies, global economic influences playing out in such a way that it’s almost certain that we’ll, on average, make the “fat” choice?).

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

“I have pretty much accepted the unpopular idea that free will doesn’t exist”

Who is the “I” that did the accepting? How is acceptance possible without free will?

wundayatta's avatar

@crisw Two words: Schrodingers Cat.

One more word: probability.

You can not know the outcome of most actions. You can only look back and say this caused that.

Free will and determinism as ideas are not important. They do not seem to change how anyone behaves in the world. The idea of free will is only important to people who enjoy a bit of navel gazing everyone once in a while.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Without free will, we are forced to consider the ultimate will of a mindless cosmos. We must also account for how this mindless cosmos was able to somehow form a sentence and speak us into existence with a genetic code.

If that is so, then the universe has spoken. And our words here are simply extensions of that original speak. Yet the the ideas they convey are often in conflict with one another. I would hope a speaking universe was able to work out its inner conflict with 13.7 billion years under its belt. In the spirit of parsimony, I suggest this is not the case.

crisw's avatar


i am partially in agreement with you in that I don’t think the answer to the question actually changes much in the minds of most people.

However, I am always a bit skeptical of using quantum mechanics to attempt to solve what may be a non-quantum problem. It’s actually a problem of perfect knowledge, not whether or not such knowledge currently exists or will exist. I think Nikipedia explained it well in the post after mine.

Our neural processes are ultimately biomechanical and biochemical phenomena.I believe that, in theory, such processes are knowable and predictable.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

“Our neural processes are ultimately biomechanical…”

No doubt. All processes are reducible to mechanistic explanations.

But what about the mind?

wundayatta's avatar

@crisw I do not think we will find out that biomechanical and biochemical phenomena are knowable and predictable. Chaos reigns, and the same chain of events does not always lead to the same result.

crisw's avatar


“But what about the mind?”

I believe that the mind is a process, not an object, and is the result of biological processes.


“Chaos reigns”

If this were true, than wouldn’t free will still be an illusion?

mammal's avatar

i think it is one of those philosophical conundrums that are overly obsessed over, if there are political ramifications, then the debate invariably quickens from time to time, but it soon becomes intellectually exhausting imo. i’d rather move on to more productive areas.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

It’s good to see you don’t equate mind with an object @crisw, such as a brain, or any other physical object. I’m wondering where you see thoughts fitting into this, as related to mind, brain, and biological processes.

The reason this interests me is because we don’t see minds or thoughts spilling onto the floor during brain surgery. It’s difficult to do anything but infer their existence, speaking of course from a purely materialist position. Thus why infer them at all?

@wundayatta If chaos reigns, then it is more than just an end result. It is also the very “chain of events” leading to the end result. But using the word chaos and chain of events in the same sentence seems like a contradiction. It’s like saying “order in chaos”.

@nikipedia “Why is free will important to you?”

Because without it, concepts of “why” and “importance” would be utterly meaningless. So would other concepts in your details description, such as “accept” and “unpopular”, among others like “You might disagree” and “That’s okay” and even ”...what I want to ask…”.

Without free will, there could be no such thing as unpopular, or okay.

nikipedia's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies: I don’t equate experience with free will.

wundayatta's avatar

@crisw Nope. Free will would not be an illusion. You seem to be a true believer.

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Once more, we are talking about a chain of events that can only be seen looking backwards in time. It can not ever be predicted with 100% accuracy. All I need is one event that isn’t predicted out of the infinite number of events in the universe, and determinism falls apart. The odds are so strongly against determinism that it is impossible to see or even imagine a likely chain of events that would lead someone to believe everything is predetermined.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@nikipedia I do not understand how your statement addresses my comments.

@wundayatta I think we have different ways of stating the same side of the discussion.

This is such a convoluted affair that it is difficult to even discuss. It must be carefully dissected for us to even be able to communicate effectively with one another. I blame the butchering of language for this. It’s not your fault, or mine, but I must relate what I’ve found. You don’t have to agree, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from and perhaps see that we are not so far apart on this issue… I think.

First off, I agree with your “looking back in time” consideration. I say it a different way… “It’s ordered because we say it’s ordered”. We observe a phenomenon, and in our descriptions of it, we place order upon the phenomenon. Wrong for us to claim the order was already present from some innate characteristic of the cosmos. It’s just white noise. It is chaos, until an intelligent observer places order upon chaos by describing it. This would seem to defeat causal determinism, at least to my satisfaction.

But that does not mean determinism is non existent. And there is a mechanism that will clearly demonstrate whether it is at play or not. That mechanism is code.

The term determinism has been shanghai’d by cosmologists and philosophers for far too long. It’s very misleading, and hurts science tremendously. Ultimately, it personifies the cosmos, for determinism requires determination, and determination requires a mind. And by all means, what the term really means is pre-determined. That being, was an object planned (or predestined) to exist before it ever existed.?

There is only one way to determine if a thing is predetermined or not. We must find a code. I see a rock, but I have no code to determine if it was predetermined or not. And chaos is a fully capable explanation for its end result. As well, when I see a building, a car, a desk, a watch, or even a leaf or a human being, I have no reason to claim those objects as being predetermined or not unless I can find a code (a set of plans) which clearly demonstrates their conception before they ever became manifest into physicality. Upon finding that code, I must infer that a determined mind has been at play.

I’ve seen no code to the cosmos. I’ve seen no code which clearly spells out that the earth will be number three from the sun and spin at 24,000 mph while hurling around it at 60,000 mph. Thus I have no reason to claim the cosmos is capable of determining, or predetermining anything at all.

Only after the fact is order placed upon chaos by sentient minds. To us, earth is third planet from the sun. But to the alien spacecraft exploring Neptune, Earth is the fifth planet from their craft. The Chinese calendar is different from the Discordian calendar which is different from the Western calendar… but they all describe the exact same phenomenon.

Different observers order their observations in different ways. I suggest that if the universe was deterministic, that it would be much more efficient than that. There would be absolutely no need for variety. The universe doesn’t waste energy like that.

Blondesjon's avatar

Because it really chaps my ass when anyone tells me what to do.

Fuck you God, Society, and Martha Stewart. I do what I want.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I could almost agree with @Blondesjon and @josie , except that there is the small problem of other people’s right to free will. Without social restrictions of some sort, most relationships will deteriorate into a “balance of forces” sort of approach.

nikipedia's avatar

You guys know I’m not talking about freeDOM, right?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Isn’t it a little redundant to use God and Martha in the same sentence @Blondesjon?

crisw's avatar


I know that. But it’s part of the huge confusion that people have on this issue.

crisw's avatar


“Nope. Free will would not be an illusion.”

How so, if it’s governed by chaos?


“It’s good to see you don’t equate mind with an object @crisw, such as a brain, or any other physical object. I’m wondering where you see thoughts fitting into this, as related to mind, brain, and biological processes.”

What I mean by “The mind is a process” is that thoughts are processes. Processes end when what produces them stops. So, when you die, that’s the end of your mind. I feel it has no existence outside of or apart from your biological self.

ETpro's avatar

@nikipedia I am not really concerned about it, but like you, I would really love to know whether we have any such thing, and if so how. It certainly feels like we do, but then it certainly feels like the Earth is flat and the Sun revolves around it once a day.

Response moderated (Spam)
CaptainHarley's avatar

In the final analysis, whether we have free will or a particularly persistent illusion of it matters not one whit, since the effect is the same.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

“What I mean by “The mind is a process” is that thoughts are processes.”

Are you proposing that mind and thought are synonymous?

“So, when you die, that’s the end of your mind.”

How then may we know the mind of Plato?

mattbrowne's avatar

Because waiting for fate to happen can be dangerous. Very often we can do something about the future as shown by the serenity prayer.

mammal's avatar

i have never read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness but existentialism is the torch bearer of freedom and free will, it was the response to the domineering philosophical acceptance of determinism, and predeterminism, that was exerting an overbearingly sclerotic approach to human nature and behaviour.

Fixed attitudes and definitions were contentious, as you can imagine, therefore existentialism sought to liberate us from viewing the world and ourselves as part of a rigid construct, as inherently defined and so forth.

cazzie's avatar

@mattbrowne I KNEW you were going to say that.

Eggie's avatar

Gives me a chance to express my ideas and teach others truthfully. It also allows people to know exactly who I am.

SavoirFaire's avatar

As has already been said, the absence of free will would have important philosophical implications for morality. Several historically important accounts of morality could not be accurate if we did not have what might be called “metaphysical free will,” and many think that no account of morality could be relevant if we did not have that sort of free will.

But I don’t think that is the only consideration that causes people to worry about the issue. If we are not the ultimate source of our actions, then it might be thought that we are mere automata. That is, it might be feared that determinism is a threat to our very selves.

When determining whether or not we have free will, however, we need to keep in mind that we are dealing with a vague term. In philosophical discussions of this topic, there is a distinction made between compatibilism and incompatibilism. The former says that the role of our mental states in the causal chain is sufficient for free will even if our mental states are themselves determined, whereas the latter says that only the metaphysical ability to originate a series of events is sufficient. This leads to a further distinction. If you hold both compatibilism and determinism to be true, you are a soft determinist. If you hold both incompatibilism and determinism to be true, you are a hard determinist. Similar distinctions could be made on the side of people who believe in free will, but we’ll leave that aside since you are a determinist.

Now, if you believe that our mental states (that is, our conscious experience) are entirely epiphenomenal, then I suppose it makes sense for you to be a hard determinist since you wouldn’t think our mental states are actually part of the causal chain. But if not, then it all comes down to whether or not you think compatibilism captures a legitimate sense of the term “free will.” I think it does, but plenty of people think of free will in terms of “metaphysical freedom or bust!”

WasCy's avatar

I think it’s important because without “will” or whatever it is that actually makes us “alive” and “human” we’d be Frankenstein monsters or zombies. And enough of us already are.

I agree with you that there does not seem to be a way to even define (much less quantify) what “will” is – or life itself, for that matter. And I agree that we can be pushed, forced, coerced and otherwise goaded into actions or reactions based on external causes, but there’s a quality of art (in a broad sense) to what we do that isn’t purely due to reaction to external forces. To say, for example, that the Mona Lisa was painted ‘just so’ (or that I wrote these paragraphs in exactly this way, and not some other way) because of purely mechanistic reactions to external stimuli is as absurd as to claim that no one and no thing ever made me react in a way that I didn’t consciously determine.

I think too much reductionism in either direction is foolish.

Answer this question




to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther