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ETpro's avatar

Free will or determinism -- what difference would it make in how you live your life?

Asked by ETpro (34594points) August 8th, 2013
20 responses
“Great Question” (5points)

Experiments are underway to finally settle the question of whether we have free will, or whether our actions and decisions are entirely deterministic. So far, the jury is still out. There have been some interesting results gathered in the Libet Experiments and subsequent work of a similar nature. This work, however, is, as of today’s date, inconclusive.

Whether we finally find that free will exists, or find that all it predestined by initial conditions; my question is, “Does it matter?” It certainly feels like we have free will. If you knew as a matter of science that you did not, would it change how you act, or how you make decisions? How would we treat criminals if we knew they robbed the liquor store because quantum mechanical interactions in the quarks that make up their neurons compelled them to rob it, and they had no choice in the matter?

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gailcalled's avatar

None in terms of my life. How could it? I come to a juncture and have to make a decision. What choice do I have but to make it. Otherwise, I can spend the rest of my life dithering by the side of the road deciding whether to cross or not.

BhacSsylan's avatar

Nothing. If the universe is deterministic (which there is a very, very high likelihood that it is) then I can make no decision but the one I make. What I think about it is meaningless, as that is all it is possible for me to think about it. Therefore, the basis of logic must assume free will in order to be at all meaningful. If there is free will, cool, good to know. If there’s not, we are incapable of doing anything about it, and thus it doesn’t matter.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I will continue to live as if I have free will. It is the basis of my sense of responsibility. The notion that all our behaviour is fully determined and unchangable is a tragic notion.

flutherother's avatar

I think free will and determinism can exist together. Free will is always constrained and determinism is much more complex than simple cause and effect.I don’t think it is one or the other.

Blondesjon's avatar

None whatsoever unless somebody broke in to my home, killed my family, and then got off the hook by using the “quantum physics made me do it” defense.

Ron_C's avatar

I think that we are a mix of both. Some strings of decisions often lead to a result determined by prior decisions. The decisions, however, are made with a free will. Haven’t you ever made an illogical choice just to see what happens? It’s like taking a different path on the way back home. Simply retracing you steps would get you home faster but the different route is more interesting. I used to tell the kid I did it so “they” wouldn’t ambush us.

Saying things like that saves trouble because some of my daughters’ friends avoided asking me for a ride home.

ninjacolin's avatar

My opinion has been quite settled for some years despite my ongoing efforts (along with those of others) to shake it up: Determinism is just the way things work. “Free will” is just a metaphor.

Realizing the cause and effect nature of behavior reduces my inclination to inflict pain and suffering in mindless retaliation against people who err against me. Makes me conscious of the effects rehabilitation have over punishment.

Not only for serious errors and offences, but also for little things. I’ve found being conscious of the cause and effect order is important for getting through the challenges of any goal I might invent for myself.

linguaphile's avatar

Damn. If determinism wins, there goes accountability, self control, hard work, goals, prudence, judgement…. Scary, scary thought.

I don’t think I’d be able to change how I live my life. If it’s free will then I’m already doing that. If it is determinism then isn’t my life already determined to be the way it is?

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

We are probably mostly deterministic with the smallest hint of free stochastic will. It is a random yet deterministic & infinitely complex world after all. The key to having a small hope of free will lies with infinity and random processes. In the end it may all be math though.

ragingloli's avatar

Research has shown that the brain makes decisions up to 7 seconds before you become aware of the decision.
A pretty strong indicator that free will is a myth.

ninjacolin's avatar

I don’t think a lot changes if you do come to realize that the world is determined. It’s more of just a fancy fact.

But it has significant implications in certain areas.. like God and blame. there REALLY isn’t any accountability in a determined universe and all those concepts of an all knowing God who should know that we’re determined but yet still decides that people who don’t decide certain things have to burn in hell… well, that goes out of the window pretty quick.

Human accountability and all that.. not much of that changes.. the moment you realize that certain things magically DO lead to other things.. well, it slaps you in the face a bit.. it means.. you can ONLY drink so much. Necessarily. Otherwise you WILL have a really painful headache the next day without fail.

The consequence of realizing determinism is true is a stronger appreciation for consequences.

Coloma's avatar

Well…if you study Adviata vendanta….kinda throws a wrench in free will. I do, however, still operate as IF I have a choice. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Ego is tricky.

ETpro's avatar

@Ron_C That response takes this thread somewhere I’d hoped it would go. Thanks for that.

When it comes to deciding when to push a button and the button push is just a meaningless action you’ve been asked to do at random intervals, how would we program an android to do that? We’d probably use some form of random number generator and depending on roughly how often we expected to get the button pushed, we’d test the number against some mathematical question such as “Is it a prime number?” or “Is it even?”. The Libet experiment seems to me a case of asking the brain to do something any sensible brain would pass off to a mindless subroutine.

@ninjacolin You have to learn or realize things, then think about them to “be in charge of” cause and effect actions that were determined in the initial conditions of the Big Bang? Can you not see how contradictory that sounds?

I definitely agree with your point on the Abrahamic all-powerful, all-knowing God who ordained everything that ever was, is, and will be judging us for following what He programmed us to do, though.

ninjacolin's avatar

@ETpro, it’s very confusing and difficult for me to be clear about it. I totally get it in my head but I’ve spent years trying to articulate the conundrum in English.

You’re never in control of cause and effect. I’m sorry if I made it seem like that were somehow possible. It isn’t. That’s not what I’m sayig. Determinism is what it is.

What I am saying, however is that causally, attempts at rational-based behavior are improved AFTER an event of realizing the universe is deterministic. (This alleged improvement is itself an effect caused by the event itself)

So.. if you think you’re a rational being now, just wait til it so happens that your brain accepts the notion of determinism as a reality (at least in the way that I do) THEN you’ll really consider yourself a rational being!

that kind of thing.

It’s like playing those futuristic racing games where the track has speed panels that propel your racecar ahead at a dramatic speed. Sometimes, they make a track where hitting such a speed boost is impossible to avoid and you’re hurled forward as a formality, not by skill. Similarly, a lot of moral and technical concepts seem easier to grasp as a function of discovering or realizing the reality of a deterministic universe.

If and when you happen to REALLY get that one thing leads to another.. wow, the world begins to appear (whether you like it or not) quite pliable and interacting with it seems more predictable.. from a planning and gambling with life perspective.

This is my experience, anyway.

To be clear, I’m not saying that I have any more control than in the past. I’m just saying that I feel more inline with my illusion of free will. Magical-seeming concepts like: “You get what you ask for” and “be careful what you wish for” become dependably real in this view. And the event of being able to depend on these concepts also is a cause with an effect at influencing what I will wish for next…

This any better?

ETpro's avatar

@ninjacolin Thanks for being quite clear about how you perceive the world. If I’m ever going to come to believe that, it hasn’t happened yet. If some deterministic epiphany is coming, it better hurry up, because this old man can’t wait forever.

ninjacolin's avatar

Haha, i think you’ll be fine. :)

Paradox25's avatar

I consider myself to be more of a compatibilist. I think that mechanical entities, and some lower sentient life are highly deterministic, but I don’t believe that freewill is an illusion amongst those who’re sentient enough to understand the debate.

Determinists make strong arguments to present their case, and it’s rather complicated. Perhaps my decisions are predetermined by brain mechanics, and I can never be aware of this. I have a problem with that view because we can never have absolute knowledge of anything, including whether or not we have freewill or not. If it comes down to each side making a strong argument, we ultimately have little way of knowing if we do have freewill as well. Being mathematically possible does not make that possibility a fact, and especially when there are other strong mathematical possibilities to consider as potential answers.

I think the best way to determine if we have freewill or not is to use probability, and this can be difficult since we’re dealing with literally gazillion different issues (as in the butterfly effect) in which the slightest change can cause drastic changes to the system. If our actions are predetermined then there ultimately should be a way to decide what our actions should or will be if our genetic blueprint can paint an accurate picture of they’ll be.

I’d say that if our actions are already determined then we should never be able to make a choice against the mathematical odds of our individual deterministic genetic blueprints. To me people making a choice that would be outside of mathematical predictions would blow a major hole in behavior determinism. I do agree that we have likely behavior patterns though, but I feel we can change these, and as a result change future events (within limits of course).

If behavior is deterministic then why are we punishing criminals, or condemning others for their actions? Even if we have to protect ourselves from dangerous people why not treat them like patients then? I know may latter arguments do not address the topic at hand, but the fact is most determinists would laugh at my proposal above. I have to ask them why, and how do they justify their hypocrisy of condemning others whom are nothing more but mere victims of a deterministic universe? You can’t have it both ways here, so you either accept freewill and holding people responsible for their actions, or you treat wrong doers like babies who couldn’t help themselves because of deterministic circumstances. Which one is it? :o)

ninjacolin's avatar

Been on your mind, has it? :) I think you’re right on topic, @Paradox25.

Why punish or condemn others? We do it for the consequences. If you don’t punish or condemn people you tend to get shittier consequences than if you do. Knowing (aka. Believing) that better consequences come about when you do some things instead of other things has a consequence: It forces us to attempt to achieve the best consequence.

Now check it out: If you look at the history of humanity’s attempts to condemn and punish and to achieve greater consequences you’ll eventually realize that we don’t quite punish and condemn in the same ways as we used to. Social science as it has developed over the years has had a consequence of refining society’s decisions when it comes to condemnations and punishment. You might think we lost our backbone because one used to lose an arm if they were caught stealing. Nowadays, you just get put behind bars or possibly have to perform some community service. Why? Because there were undesirable consequences that came from our less civilized ways of responding to crime. As a consequence of those undesirable consequences, we have since been forced to come up with better ideas about what to do about deviants.

I do think you’re on the right track. And I do think your latter option is the future: Rehabilitation rather than retribution. Why? Because it’s predictable that no one would ever choose a wrong path on purpose. Everyone is out for their greatest foreseeable good. If someone makes a wrong turn, it’s only because they thought it would be for the best. That is, they only do wrong because they don’t understand any alternative ideas as being realistic. Literally, they only make mistakes when they fall prey to fallacious conclusions.

Free will tells you otherwise. Free will always suggests that people can somehow “freely” decide whether to do good or bad. Or whether to know better or not. But that plainly isn’t realistic. People can’t choose to know better than they do in a given moment. They can’t choose to be smarter or more compassionate at the drop of a hat. (And this is coming back to the original question of this thread as to what difference determinism makes) In a deterministic society, everyone would know that everyone, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, are victims of circumstance.

When the circumstances are different, the people are different to match.

Paradox25's avatar

@ninjacolin Been on your mind, has it? Yes, yes it has :o) However, I’d be careful when you state that everyone is out for their greatest foreseeable good. I’m not so sure about that, though perhaps many criminals might not think they’re doing anything wrong, but many will acknowledge they’ve done wrong regardless. Some of those criminals who knew they’ve done wrong will repeat those patterns. To me when someone knows and acknowledges they’ve done wrong, they’re expressing free will, not preset behavior patterns.

Maybe the bigger issue here whether one really understands when they do wrong, or perhaps they understand but don’t care. I agree with you that behavior patterns may very well be deterministic, but I still feel that free will can co-exist with determinism here. If ultimately my free will is merely a delusion, than the only possibility would be random fluctuations being mistaken for free will. My latter point should pretty much effectively eliminate the term free will from our vocabulary, since it would have a defective meaning then. The problem though is that we can never be certain whether our thoughts are either predictable, random or the result of free will.

The OP asked if I’d change the way I live my life if I had knowledge of being a deterministic biological machine which just believes it has free will. I’d answer that with a resounding no. This could be a very dangerous slippery slope telling people they’re not responsible for their actions because their behavior patterns and actions are highly deterministic.

ninjacolin's avatar

(this is long because someone’s late to pick me up and I have nothing better to do. Don’t worry no one has to reply to all this)

I’ve been a determinist now for several years, it doesn’t seem to ever get dangerous to tell you the truth. A large part of why that is, I imagine, is because “feeling like you have free will” is what being a determinist feels like.

Determinism is mostly a rational conclusion. If you can imagine, the feeling you have now of free will is a caused effect. As @ETpro suggested above, he can’t help but feel like he has free will. That’s exactly it. You don’t have a choice in these matters.

If someone says: “Everything’s deterministic? So, it’s not my fault if I.. say.. stab you in the shoulder!” and then does it.. well, he’s going to go to jail because that just so happens to be the deterinistic effect that stabbing someone has in our society. I mean, anything you do in this world right now will still bring about the same consequences. Not only the consequences of law but also the consequences of feeling bad (eg. “Shit.. sorry man. Let me get you a band aid”) personal guilt, remorse, sadness, hind sight.. all of these things are highly deterministic consequences as well. Deterministic conviction doesn’t change any of that stuff. It’s all part and parcel.

My biggest concern in the free will debate is that libertarians imagine this straw man determinism where anyone who accepts it becomes a raving-raping-murdering-lunatic. And so they never get to the right conclusion because of an appeal to consequnce fallacy.

Anyway, on the matter of everyone being out for their greatest forseeable good. I stand by that. And I would instead caution you: That attitude that they can somehow just arbitrarily “choose” to not commit crimes is a huge mistake and it’s the reason they aren’t getting the help they need to reform. People are giving them an ultimatum: Either reform or rot in a cell for a couple years. And as we know, this meager threat isn’t sufficient to convert many of them. I feel very comfortable blaming the belief in free will on these kinds of wasteful policies.

Take the example of an inmate who admits that he has bad desires and who would commit those actions again when he gets out. What you would want to consider is what he considers “bad” and “wrong”.. It’s kind of like a doctor who has to amputate a child’s leg to save their life. Cutting off limbs is a bad thing but hey it’s going to resolve a major problem in the doctor’s mind. Similarly, a convict who would offend again may understand that something is against the law, but if they are convinced that it’s the only way to earn a living, protect their family, or preserve their sanity.. they’re going to do it again (Note: with or without the deterministic understanding of the world, they’ll do it again.)

The problem isn’t a philosophical one. It’s a conviction one. If they are convinced that taking a bad action is for the greatest possible good, that’s what they will do.

Free will would have you believe: “What? A doctor amputating a leg is nothing like a child molestor attacking a child!” But determinism (in my view of it, anyway) knows better. It’s exactly the same though the list of beneficiaries is smaller.

[ie. In the doctor’s case, the doctor is himself a beneficiary in that he is doing what resolves in his own brain as being the greatest possible good. It just so happens that the end result benefits the patient as well. A criminal, I would say, is also always doing what will produce the best result that they can imagine.. it’s more that they have a limited imagination for what good can possibly come from a situation. They are short sighted. They only see their needs and they neglect the needs of others and/or the potential for good that could come from doing things another way.]—I’m probably not saying everything that I should.

@Paradox25 said: “To me when someone knows and acknowledges they’ve done wrong, they’re expressing free will, not preset behavior patterns.
Maybe the bigger issue here whether one really understands when they do wrong, or perhaps they understand but don’t care. ”

If they were convinced that it was wrong at the time of the crime they wouldn’t go through with it. Determinism predicts that. And sure enough we’ve all been through circumstances where we’ve turned away from something we didn’t really want to get ourselves into. Only conviction at the right time can cause that.

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