Does Free Will Exist? (Sam Harris Book Review)


I’m not responsible for penning these words. This isn’t to say that somebody else is typing, or that I am being dictated to; no, these are words of my own, in an order I myself have composed, written with my sole intent. Nevertheless, I am not responsible for penning these words.

In formulating this sentence, I am fulfilling a desire I have in me: to write. I have freely chosen to act upon this desire, and could have decided not to had my desires been different. This is indisputable. But can it truly be said that we are free to act upon our desires if we have no control over the desires themselves?


These are some of the questions raised and concepts discussed in Sam Harris’ audacious 2012 book, Free Will. Within its pages, which number only ninety-six, Harris makes the bold assertion that free will, as we know it, is entirely illusory. That our every action is determined not by our own selves, but by factors that are necessarily beyond our control. Here’s a brief outline:

Consider a familiar example: eating. Why do we eat? The simple answer is to negate hunger. When our bodies require a replenishment of energy, we unsolicitedly develop a desire, that is, to eat. Now, we (or at least the lucky among us) are able to fulfil this desire whenever we choose. We can simply make a sandwich, or order a takeaway. But the fundamental basis of our desire to eat, hunger, comes about through no choice of our own. We must eat to satisfy our hunger. Therefore, the decision to eat is really not a decision we make at all, if we define a decision as an action taken or thought reached which could have not been taken or reached.

Now the quick-witted among you may point out that we could, if we so choose, refuse to eat. Harris notes in the closing pages of the book that he was hungry at the time of composing them, and yet was resisting his desire to eat in order to finish his writing. Surely, some will say, this must be an example of free will, exercised in direct contradiction with a held desire.

Not so, says Harris. To resist a desire requires a reason for doing so. In such a circumstance, there are two possibilities:

  1. Somebody/something is forcing you to resist a desire, such as poverty restricting a person’s ability to eat.
  2. You are consciously neglecting a desire, such as forcing yourself to stay awake when you are tired.

In either situation, you still are not acting freely. Sorry.

The first situation requires no explanation; of course a starving Ethiopian does not choose to not eat. But even in the second instance, where it seems a desire is being resisted, it is rather being simply replaced by another.

Sam_Harris_01In Harris’ case, his desire to finish his book is the reason he did not eat, even though he was hungry. Once again, he had no control over this. As he mentions, he cannot say why his desire to write was stronger than his desire to eat at that time, it simply was. He also cannot say what caused the desire to eat to finally overcome the desire to write, it simply did. This is to say we are slaves to our desires, even when it seems we are intentionally disregarding them. Since we have no control over these desires, this is to say further that we are not autonomous. Ergo, “free will” is an illusion.

Even if you tried to be clever and denied yourself the fulfilment of a desire purely to spite this concept and attempt to regain your freedom, you would change nothing, for the desire to do even this is a desire over which you have no control. You may dispute this, pleading that you only acted in this way after reading this article, which you could have chosen not to read. But this is also not the case. Why are you reading these words? Let’s say somebody shared a link to this page on Twitter, and it appeared in your feed. Did you have any control over this? Again, you may say, you could have chosen not to open Twitter in the first place, but the desire to do so came about through a series of involuntary neurological events which occurred without your consent.

And so here you are, reading these words, through no real choice of your own. Every reason for which you are here—an interest in the subject matter; knowledge of who I am; coming across a link to this post, et cetera—had absolutely no decisional input from yourself. In cases where decisions seem to have been made, such as “choosing” to follow the person who shared the link on Twitter, the decision to act in one way rather than another can also definitively only have been the result of uncontrollable, involuntary processes.

You may be seduced into attempting to trace a decision you think you made for yourself back to its original, hopefully conscious, roots, but you’d be wasting your time. Every try will simply lead you into a very uncomfortable regress of causation, eventually ending at some past event such as your upbringing, your genes or your initial environment, none of which, of course, you could have changed.

It is your brain that makes decisions for you. Everything you feel and do is a result of measurable neurological activity. If we could know the precise conditions of a person’s brain to a sufficient degree of detail, we could, in principle, accurately predict exactly how that person will act in the future with 100% accuracy. Of course, technological limitations make such a quixotic experiment currently impossible, but that does not make it principally impossible. There have, in fact, been similar studies, where scientists have shown that our brains make decisions before we are made aware of them. We then are fooled into thinking we are making a decision which has in fact already been made. (Such studies are detailed in the book.) So, imagine we did have the technology to predict a person’s every action before he decides to take it. (I remind you once again that this is an entirely possible future situation.) In such a situation. Is this person truly “free” to act as he chooses, even if he thinks he is?

Female brainTo say you could have acted differently in a given situation had the conditions of your brain been different is to say nothing more than exactly that. Could the conditions of your brain have been any different? No, they were as they were, and you had no power to change them. And so, if we are defining “free will” as the ability to choose what to think and how to act, saying that our actions are determined ultimately by neurology, and admitting that we have no control over such neurology, we can conclude that free will does not exist.

Now, this is all very interesting, but what can we make of the uncomfortable practical implications of such a realisation? If, when Salman Abedi blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert, killing children, he did so through no real choice of his own, acting only in accordance with neurological activity that was beyond his control, how can we hold him morally accountable for his actions? What right do you have to be angry at the man who brutally murders your family if he could not have acted differently? Are outrageous criminals simply nothing more than victims of their circumstances? When we disregard the concept of free will, the answers seem, rather distressingly but inescapably, “we can’t”, “none”, and “yes”.

I do not have to tell you that this starkly contradicts our natural moral inclinations, and arguably requires a complete rethink of the Criminal Justice System, along with the manners in which we view and treat criminals. But whilst it’s worth acknowledging that we are undoubtedly treading on ethically complicated turf, the truth of these conclusions are in no way affected by our inability to morally comprehend them.

Harris has his own opinions on such matters, which I shall leave you to explore by reading the excellent Free Will for yourself (available here), or by watching his many lectures on the topic. As for myself, my friend and colleague Stephen Woodford (of the YouTube channel Rationality Rules) and I sat down for an extended conversation about our visions for understanding ethics and moral accountability in light of the problems raised above:

The bottom line is this: even if the realisation of some truth required us to change our ways of life, even in their most fundamental beliefs and practices, the truth would stubbornly remain. Despite our instinctual protestations, we have to eventually accept the prospect of our having been fundamentally mistaken, recognise our illusions, and change ourselves accordingly.


  1. Very fascinating and erudite analysis, Alex. I have many comments and points I would love to share on this manner, as I am fascinated by the free will and determinism debate in philosophy. You would be hard-pressed to find any verifiable justification for the existence of libertarian free will, both philosophically, or logically, and empirically, or scientifically, other than mere intuition, which, unsurprisingly, was the sole justification for geocentrism. But I would like to tour yet another, more philosophical argument against libertarian free will.

    It is continuously touted that libertarian free will (the view that a person is fully able to perform some other action in place of the one that is actually done, and this is not predetermined by any prior circumstances, our desires or even our affections) exists and evidences God. One thing I would like to make clear is that mere theism does not give us a reason to expect humans to have libertarian free will, nor does it even give us a reason to expect humans to be made of matter which worsens the possibility of libertarian free will (LFW) existing. Even when you look at Christian theism, you don’t necessarily need to adhere to LFW, as you can be a Calvinist. But for those Christians that do, namely Monists and Armenians, their theological position doesn’t seem to even make it off the ground. We don’t even need materialism to be true in order for LFW to be false. (We don’t even need physical reality to exist for it to be false!) I will show this with an argument some call the free will trilemma, the argument is as follows:

    1. Either we are uncaused, self-caused, or caused by previous occurrences.
    2. We are not uncaused or self-caused.
    3. Therefore, we are caused by previous occurrences.

    The justifications for premise 2 are as follows:

    Being uncaused would go against everything we have ever observed, even if we assume solipsism. The lines of thoughts that a solipsist has are an example of a causal chain. Take, for example, if the solipsist started thinking about how to justify belief in the external world. As a direct result of pondering this, he then realizes that you cannot prove the perceived external world to be real without assuming your senses are not deceiving you. As a direct result of this thought the solipsist starts thinking about whether he is a brain in a vat, or living in some type of matrix.

    All these thoughts leading to other thoughts, which lead to more thoughts are a good example of causality even without the assumption of physical reality existing. And if we do decide to include the evidence from physical reality the case against un-causation is extremely solidified as this is something we observe everywhere. If our thoughts were uncaused, they would be wholly random, and we would not be able to function properly. This also cannot be denied by a certain Christian Molinist and all his adherents — William Lane Craig — especially if they want to continue to use his favorite argument for God, the Kalam Cosmological argument (KCA). The first premise of that argument goes something like, “whatever begins to exist has a cause”, and it just so happens that human thoughts and actions begin to exist, which means they have a cause.

    As for self-causation (which is effectively synonymous with LFW, because LFW would require us to cause ourselves to act or think something), you cannot accept self-causation without resulting in an infinite regress. To do anything you would have to cause yourself to do something. But before that you would have to cause yourself to cause yourself to do something. But before that you would have to cause yourself to cause yourself to cause yourself to do something. Self-causation would go on for infinity, and thus it runs into a massive problem: the amount of time it would take you to do something when you have to cause yourself infinitely to do something. It would take you an infinite amount of time to do something, yet nonetheless you are doing things within a finite amount of time. And again William Lane Craig pops back into this conversation, as the second part of the KCA is where he weighs the plausibility of the universe being uncaused, self-caused, or caused by a transcendent cause. He uses much of the same arguments to dismiss self-causation, so any Christian who wants to hold to this option must also abandon KCA. For these reasons, this option is not probable for theists or people in general.

    Self-causation is incoherent in yet another way. Let’s think about the universe itself. The universe cannot cause itself to exist because it would have to exist before it exists to cause it to exist. That sentence actually does make sense. The universe began, but in order for it to cause itself to begin, it had to exist before it actually began, which is impossible. Substitute universe with human thoughts and actions, and voila. Our thoughts would have to exist prior to causing our thoughts to exist. Our consciousness would have to act in order to cause our consciousness to act in the first place. Self-causation implies that your consciousness had to exist prior to your consciousness to cause yourself to think. Necessarily, you’d have to be an eternal being for an infinite regress of causation to even be an option for you. But humans are finite beings. This is why, even from a conceptual basis, self-causation does not even get off the ground.

    So we are left with the last option: we are caused by prior occurrences (causes). These causes can either be physical/material (e.g., a physical process like neurophysiological processes, chemical reactions, neuro-firings, entropy, etc.) or mental/immaterial (e.g., a disembodied mind like ghosts, spirits, demons, gods, souls, etc.). Therefore, Libertarian free will does not exist. Even if you were to assert that our free will resides in our souls, the soul is still faced with the three prong trilemna, so the argument still applies. It only pushes the problem back one step further. In addition to that, there is empirical evidence that flies in the face of the notion of a “soul”.

    I’m glad I could offer some insights regarding libertarian free will, and I hope you got the chance to read and deliberate over this. PS: Alex, you should check your Gmail, my website and I have some pretty valuable things we wold love to discuss with you! Thanks!


    1. If I may, due to the infinite regression you describe, it would be unreasonable to require any prior cause to cause itself before it could be said to cause anything else. If we were to make such a requirement, then all of causation would unravel. So, we don’t.

      Thus a person can be said to be “a prior cause” of an event without requiring her to have first caused herself.

      And, if she chooses to cause an event, for her own purposes and her own reasons, then we say she has chosen to cause the event of her own “free will”.

      We need to keep in mind that there are three levels of causation: physical (passive), biological (purposeful), and rational (deliberate).

      I know that physicists like to tell themselves that “everything is physics”, but it’s not. As soon as the first biological organism appeared, purposeful behavior emerged as a new property. The purpose is simple: to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce. We cannot predict the behavior of living organisms using only physics. Living organisms defy gravity when they walk uphill to get to MacDonald’s.

      And as soon as the first intelligent species evolved, the new properties of imagination, evaluation, and choosing emerged. Now we could imagine different ways to survive, mentally play out scenarios to estimate the benefits of choosing one option over another, and deliberately choose what we would do next.

      No laws of physics are ever broken. However, the laws of physics simply do not cover everything required to predict the behavior of an intelligent living organism. For this we need additional sciences, the life sciences (biology, genetics, etc.) and the social sciences (psychology, sociology, etc.).

      Physics can still explain why the apple fell on Newton’s head. But it cannot explain why that apple appeared in Johnny’s lunchbox, 200 miles from the tree.

      Each science deduces its natural laws from the class of objects that it observes. Physics observes inanimate objects. The life sciences observe living organisms. The social sciences observe intelligent species.

      For example, physics cannot explain “why” a car stops at a red light. It can explain “how” it stops, because it knows all about the inertia and the friction.

      But physics knows nothing of the society’s rules for driving. And the rules for driving are the controlling factor that causes cars to stop at a red light.

      So, intelligent species still behave deterministically, but it may involve not just physical causes, but also biological drives, and thoughts and feelings, and the natural laws we create for ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for responding. You claim, “due to the infinite regression you describe, it would be unreasonable to require any prior cause to cause itself before it could be said to cause anything else. If we were to make such a requirement, then all of causation would unravel. So, we don’t.” I think it is non-sequitur to apply what I described outside the domain of agents and their thoughts an actions, and conclude that this somehow invalidates and unravels all of causality. All of causality would not unravel or somehow be invalidated just because this is a requirement for agents. The thing is, self-causality is an incoherent concept. It does not even make it off the ground from a conceptual basis. We know of no means by which someone can causally bring about a certain action that is impervious to prior causality. When we take into account empirical evidence regarding free will and self-causation, the case for determinism becomes even more formidable. We know that decisions are affected by myriad factors beyond our control, such as nature, nurture, genetics, hormonal exposure, culture, society, experiences, family, upbringing, fiends, peers, teachers, books, etc. Studies of twins reared sportily from birth have shown the twin still act remarkably and uncannily similar.

        You then claimed, “And, if she chooses to cause an event, for her own purposes and her own reasons, then we say she has chosen to cause the event of her own “free will”.” But it is simply circular reasoning to use choice in order to prove that free will, or the freedom to choose, exists. You must assume the conclusion is true, i.e. that choice exists, in order to prove that very thing, i.e. that choice exists. One cannot assume the validity of their conclusion in order to prove the conclusion.

        Continuing, you asserted, “We cannot predict the behavior of living organisms using only physics. Living organisms defy gravity when they walk uphill to get to MacDonald’s.”. We need to be careful not to conflate unpredictability with freedom and ability to act otherwise. Causal factors leading to certain actions are almost invariably extremely complex and implicit; yet, they are causal factors nonetheless. I see no reason why a being which is part of causal reality can somehow defy the laws and causal chains that given said reality. Just because biological organisms introduce new qualities into existence, it does not follow that these are impervious to prior causality.

        Again, as Alex explained, we may not currently be able to predict the behavior of living organisms using physics, but this is a premature assumption. Surely if we knew every causal factor present with 100% accuracy, each neuron and neurotransmitter, molecule and atom, then we would be able to tell with certitude what the next action the individual would perform.

        One need not deny the existence of imagination to realize that imagination is not impervious to prior causality. We know quite compellingly from neuroscience that the brain is causally responsible for the mind, in essence, generating it. The argument from the physical dependency of minds solidifies this. Imagination is thus the product of an elaborate biological system. Imagination is also a causal chain in and of itself, so it hardly makes sense to say we are the originators of said imaginative experiences.

        I agree when you claim that “intelligent species still behave deterministically, but it may involve not just physical causes, but also biological drives, and thoughts and feelings”. Physical causes are not the only causes governing the universe, but we know of no effects or causes that are impervious to prior causality. In short, self-causation is necessary if free will is true. Self-causation is incoherent, therefore libertarian free will is false.


      2. 1) Right. I was agreeing with you that nothing ever causes itself. My point was that, since nothing ever causes itself, we never require “causing oneself” as a prerequisite of causing something else. Thus, if I chop down a tree, causing the tree to fall, then I am still responsible for the tree falling, even though I am not responsible for causing myself.

        There is no thing or event that ever can be said to be the prior cause of itself. However, this does not prevent that thing or event from being the prior cause of something else.

        If we have an unfortunate event, like a crime or an automobile crash, we look for all the causes that (a) most directly brought about the event and (b) can be corrected by practical means to prevent future harm. (While it is theoretically possible to trace back the causal chain to any point in the past, the farther back you go the less direct and more incidental each prior cause of a prior cause becomes).

        2) “Choosing” is a deterministic process that occurs within the brain of an intelligent species. We empirically observe choosing every time someone sits down in a restaurant and orders something from the menu. First, someone is presented with several options. Next, the options are evaluated by some criteria. Finally, a single “will” is output. At the beginning of choosing, we are uncertain what we “will” do. At the end of choosing, we have decided what we “will” do.

        By convention, this is a “freely formed will”. By convention, whenever we are coerced, or unduly influenced, to make a choice against our will, our will is said to be subject to something other than our own choosing, and it is not freely formed by us.

        It is this definition of “free will” that supports both moral and legal responsibility. There is no requirement that the choice be uncaused. There is only the requirement that the choice be made by a normal mind, one capable of making a moral choice.

        3) The “philosophical” definition of free will is quite different, and quite useless. The philosopher and theologian are actually arguing over freedom from causal necessity/inevitability. And that debate has no practical consequence. Because what we will inevitably do is what we would have done anyway. What we inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

        4) The organization of matter affects its properties. The freezing point of H2O is much higher than the freezing point of H or O. And the behavior of a living organism is quite different from the independent behavior of the atoms of which it is composed. If we were to try to follow the path of a drop of water in a stream, we could rely upon it to passively conform to the rules of physics.

        But if someone were to dip a canteen into the stream, and take a sip, then we’d find the drop of water doing all kinds of strange things. It would get into a car and go to the grocery store. It would stop at the red lights and go again when the light turned green. There is no way to account for this behavior without introducing new concepts, like the idea of a “person” “choosing” to go to the “store” and obey the “traffic rules”.

        5) We know from neuroscience that the mind is a process running on the hardware of the brain. And we know from biology that this process stops at death, just like a computer stops when you turn off the power. Then the atoms behave passively once more and can be predicted by the laws of physics.

        6) I think we’re in agreement as to the fact of universal causal inevitability. Even when we add biological drives and logical reasoning to the physical causes, and even when we mix them (I rationally choose to physically flip a coin) every event can theoretically be accounted for with reliable cause and effect. So the only remaining question is “What practical difference does the fact of causal inevitability make?” I assert that it makes no practical difference at all. (See 3 above).


  2. I didn’t find Harris’s arguments that convincing. The problem is that he is arguing in favor of a “dualistic” position. And so are you.

    You are telling me that over here on one side of the room is something called “me”. And way over there, on the other side of the room, is my “brain” (conscious and unconscious areas), my “DNA”, my “desire” to do something and my “desire” not to, my “reasons” (thoughts and feelings, beliefs and values, etc.). And all that stuff over there is somehow compelling “me” to act against my own will.

    So, are you telling me that there is some “me” that exists separate from my brain and all the rest? Then what would that be, a “soul”?

    On the other hand, if all that stuff on the other side of the room is actually “me”, then whatever that collection of stuff decides to do, “I” have decided to do. And if all that stuff is in control of what I decide to do, then “I” am in control of what I decide to do.

    The next question is what does the “free” in “free will” mean? There are three “freedoms” which are impossible for anyone to have: freedom from causation, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality.

    “Freedom from causation” is actually an oxymoron (a phrase that contradicts itself). Without reliable cause and effect, I cannot reliably cause any effect. I would have no freedom to actually do anything at all. So, every freedom we have actually requires a universe of reliable causation.

    “Freedom from oneself” is what you and Harris seem to think you can have when you separate “that which is you” from all your parts (your brain, genes, experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc.).

    “Freedom from reality” would mean you were operating in a fantasy. This is only possible when you are imagining or dreaming. And in those states your will is more like a wish.

    So, if we eliminate those irrational freedoms, then what are we talking about when we use the word “free”?

    To be meaningful, the word “free” must always imply some meaningful “constraint”. We can set a bird free (from its cage). We can free a slave (from his owner). The bank can give you a free toaster (free of charge) to induce you to open an account. In America we can enjoy freedom of speech (free from political censorship).

    And a person can decide for themselves what they “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence. By convention, we call this freely formed will “free will”.

    And that’s the definition that everyone understands and correctly applies in nearly all practical situations.

    Free will does NOT mean an “uncaused” choice. After all, if you ask anyone why they chose A rather than B, they will happily tell you the reasons why A was the better choice. Reasons are causes.

    Free will does NOT mean an “unpredictable” choice. Any omniscient being who knows how you think and how you feel about things, whether “God” or your wife, can predict your choice, even before you make it. However, YOU must still make that choice.

    If we presume perfectly reliable cause and effect (and I like to, to avoid “quantum entanglements”), then everything that happens is ALWAYS causally inevitable. But deterministic inevitability is NOT an inevitability that is “beyond our control”. Rather it incorporates our control and our choices in the overall scheme of causation.

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    1. For some reason, it seems as though I am debarred from replying to your previous comment. I thus am forced to reply here. It actually does not seem as though you and I disagree on much. Our disagreement seems to stem from the applicability and practicality of causal inevitability. You assert that it doesn’t matter, arguing “The ‘philosophical’ definition of free will is quite different, and quite useless. The philosopher and theologian are actually arguing over freedom from causal necessity/inevitability. And that debate has no practical consequence. Because what we will inevitably do is what we would have done anyway. What we inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.” I disagree. Causal inevitability is such that conditions of the previous state of the universe determine the next. It is impossible for one not to do any action, as that action is causally inevitable and bound to happen irregardless of personal choice. To be free requires having options open, which means having the ability to act contrary to the way one actually acts. It requires the possibility to have done otherwise in a given scenario, but causal inevitability precludes any possibility to have done otherwise in any meaningful sense. If one is free, then he does not have to do what he actually does, and he is able to do things that he does not actually do. But this is the very thing causal inevitability forbids.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The mistake is here, where you say, “Causal inevitability is such that conditions of the previous state of the universe determine the next. It is impossible for one not to do any action, as that action is causally inevitable and bound to happen irregardless of personal choice.”

        If it was inevitable that I would choose A rather than B, then the inevitable cannot occur until I choose A. It means that my deliberate choosing is the final prior cause of A.

        The key fact here is that determinism doesn’t actually “do” anything. It is simply the belief that the behavior of objects and forces is reliable, such that every event that occurs is the inevitable result of prior causes, and thus theoretically 100% predictable. But determinism itself is not an object or a force. It is simply an assertion as to the reliability of their behavior.

        Only the actual objects and forces can be said to “cause” anything to happen. And we happen to be one of those actual objects. So every event that requires the prior cause of our deliberately choosing to make it happen (for example, buying a new car, or planning a vacation, etc.) cannot happen without us going through that decision-making process.

        So we cannot say “regardless of personal choice” for any inevitable event for which our personal choice is part of the causal chain that brings it about.

        It is a common mental error to cast a concept into an anthropomorphic form, and imagine it is an actor on the stage, causing things to happen. But “determinism” and “causal inevitability” are only concepts we use to summarize what is happening. They are not active participants in what is going on.

        Objects include everything from the smallest quark to the largest galaxy. Most objects are inanimate. They behave passively, interacting according to the laws of physics.

        Living organisms, on the other hand, behave purposefully. From the amoeba to the porpoise, each life form seeks what it needs to survive, thrive, and reproduce. We could call these built-in drives a kind of “biological will”. Most species act upon these drives instinctively. The natural laws that govern living organisms are discovered by the life sciences, including biology, genetics, and physiology.

        Intelligent species like our own can behave deliberately. An evolved neurological system enables imagination, evaluation, and choosing. We can imagine different ways to accomplish our purpose and choose the one that seems best. To understand the behavior of intelligent species requires the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, and ethology.

        “Possibilities” are what we call the options that we believe can be actually implemented if we decide to choose them. “I could have done otherwise” simply asserts that I had multiple options to choose from.

        The “inevitable” is the single thing that we WILL do. We cannot say that “inevitability precludes any possibility to have done otherwise”, because the meaning of “possibility” and “could have” are linked to the process of “choosing”. Choosing logically requires more than one possibility, even if the two choices are simply to do, or not do, something. And choosing is an actual event that is empirically observed to occur within the physical reality of our brains.

        So, choosing, unlike determinism or inevitability, is an actual cause of what happens next.

        We use “could have” to review a prior decision, perhaps a decision that did not work out as well as we expected. This review takes place by imagining we are back at the point of uncertainty, before we made up our minds, in order to play out what may have happened if we had made a different choice. This process is essential if we are to learn from our mistakes.

        The operational meaning of “I could have done otherwise” is simply that there were other possibilities that I might have chosen instead.

        The concept of inevitability has no role in that thought process. If you try to force it into that process you break the process. The process is valuable, so we should not go about throwing the inevitability wrench into the works.


    1. Well, I’m a Humanist, so from my viewpoint man created God. However, it is a useful concept to represent the ideal Good. And the idea of placing this Good above our own interests, and seeking Good for others as we seek it for ourselves, has significant moral value. Kant said that the problem with virtues was that they could be for evil as well as good. One could, for example, courageously rob a bank. Kant said that the only virtue which could not be used for evil was a “good will” (moral intent). So, however you get there from here, it is worth seeking.


  3. My first contribution to your conversations here, Alex. To introduce myself, I am an atheist like many here, or like Aron Ra, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and many more. That makes me persistently, annoyingly and at times unforgivably direct about my conclusions about “God” and the Universe. I have at times said that I am a “Biblical Atheist”, meaning, it’s that particular “God” that people have created, and any descendants of that “God” that I so vehemently protest against. But in truth, no “God”, not even the “Multiverse God” that I have speculated at times about, will ever satisfy the gnawing questions about existence that I and perhaps you have as well.

    To the point: Free Will: “our every action is determined not by our own selves, but by factors that are necessarily beyond our control.” And for that, in fewer words than above, I would suggest we call “free will” or the lack of it “Contingent Will”, meaning that our choices are indeed limited, and that they are limited by time, space and our 4D position in the Universe. Further, and this is dependent on the individual, I could call it “Intelligent, Educated and Contingent Will”, for while we CAN do something (contingent), some things in our makeup suggest to us that we SHOULD NOT do it. And of course for others still, we should call it “Larcenous, Intelligent, Educated and Contingent Will”, for while we CAN do something, and while we have decided we SHOULD NOT do it according to the MORAL aspects using the available high quality table, we may do it anyway, based on the MONETARY GAIN or POWER we can have by doing it.

    As Bugs Bunny has said: “If I do’d it, I’d get a whippin’. [pause] I do’d it!”


  4. “The bottom line is this: even if the realisation of some truth required us to change our ways of life, even in their most fundamental beliefs and practices, the truth would stubbornly remain. Despite our instinctual protestations, we have to eventually accept the prospect of our having been fundamentally mistaken, recognise our illusions, and change ourselves accordingly.”

    But you can’t change yourself.

    This sort of view is not a viable way to look at the world.


  5. Sam Harris has made the same mistake as many philosophers, assuming that the underlying processes are the only real ones. Unwarranted reductionism proves nothing. The level of organization going on which we name “I” is very real. It is made up of a multitude of levels of organization occurring in the brain, all based on neuronal firing. All equally real. And so the existence of free will problem is solved neatly. Pick the right level of organization of the operation of the brain and you will find the self. Pick the patterns that the self engages in when considering, planning, deciding, and acting, and you will find that at this level we act freely. No immaterial soul required.


  6. We change our wants by denying or satisfying them. They change as we do this and according to the degree to which it is done. If we starve ourselves, we hunger more. If we satiate our desire, the desire goes away for a while. If we over-satiate ourselves, the desire goes away for longer. We can do all this consciously or not. The fire may seem inviting but once we’ve felt the flames directly (any number of times) our desire to touch them in that way soon subsides. We can change our wants and do all the time. The desire for fame and/or wealth are other examples, which change based on levels of satiation. Many always want more (e.g. food, fame, wealth, etc) but many realize eventually that the cost might not be worth the benefit (e.g. obesity, loss of privacy, decadence, etc). Some are greedier than others, but only so much can be stuffed into a stomach without causing damage. Similar analogies apply with alcohol/drug addictions. The idea of no free will fails the common sense test, because we know inherently that it just doesn’t ring true. No amount of clever sounding rhetorical and/or logical argument or sophistry can ultimately nullify this. Philosophers are experts at using self-serving definitions and assumptions to promote their arguments and theories. For example, defining God into or out of existence. At the end of the day, they are left with gaps and holes in their points of view. Neither the theists nor the scientists can satisfactorily explain what came before God or the Big Bang. Wouldn’t it be great to hear an academic say just once that they simply don’t know (and probably never will). The arguments go in circles based on semantics, and don’t help humanity one bit. What most of them seem to be interested in is big-noting themselves by saying look at me and how smart I am. They remind me of magicians who use tricks to fool the audience, as though most people must in their eyes be primitive savages. However in most cases all they’re really doing is regurgitating the same old arguments in their own words without advancing knowledge at all with any original thought. If you get some enjoyment from these inane debates then good luck to you. Hopefully it can be done without harming others or impinging on their relative freedoms to choose. I’ll exercise mine to not get too caught up by this meaningless rubbish, and focus on doing something practical to actually improve people’s lives. Feel free to carry on though and disagree at will – this is your right and privilege. Please note: I am a robot and all thoughts expressed above were previously programmed into me by my creator. 🙂


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