Words, words, and more words! The different ways people think about words and terms often gets in our way. A response someone might have to another who claims there is no free will is “we make choices”, as if such choice making is “free will”.
What must be understood, however, is the distinction between “making choices” and “making a free choice”. And the distinction here is very important. And the word “choice” isn’t the only word that is often conflated. Take a look at this short list for a few examples:
- Choice vs. Free Choice
- Will vs. Free Will
- Agency vs. Free Agency
- Decision vs. Free Decision
There is an extremely important distinction between each of these. Lacking free will does not mean we A) don’t make choices, B) don’t causally will, C) don’t have agency, and D) don’t make decisions.
Some other things not having free will doesn’t mean: E) that we don’t have consciousness, F) that we don’t think, G) that we can’t have knowledge, H) that we don’t assess between options, I) that we don’t interact with others, J) that we don’t learn, K) that we can’t be ethical … this list can go on and on regarding the assumptions people often make regarding hard-determinist and hard-incompatibilist thought.
The fact of the matter is, these assumptions are incorrect.
In fact, we constantly make choices. For example, I make choices between peanut butter and chocolate almond ice cream when ordering a cone. My mind assesses and weighs the two options and I decide on one of them. My “will” is driven to one over the other. I “act in the world” by telling the worker what to scoop on to a cone (I have agency). All of these things happen. But I don’t freely choose the option, I don’t make a free decision, I causally will rather than freely will the decision, and how I “act in the world” is not free. Rather, these are restricted by events that must come about, and those events are restricted by other events…and so on. And such stems to events that are entirely outside of any person-hood. Events to before I was ever even born. Events that eventually forced the specific person who would think about and weigh the options – in the very specific manner that would output the very decision made.
It’s the “free” part of the term “free will” or “free choice” that is the most problematic. It’s the “free” part that has most of the logical problems. And most importantly, it’s the understanding that we don’t have such “freedom” that is tied to a number of very important philosophical topics (and why certain “compatibilist” definitions of free will simply sidestep the issues).
The lack of free will doesn’t turn a human into a rock. Billiards is often used to analogize a deterministic universe, with balls bouncing off of each other. This can be an oversimplification that makes people think some are saying the way we bounce is equivalent to billiard balls. It’s not. The way we are configured at the large scale has entirely different properties than a billiard table and balls. Conscious experience is part of our causal process. Thinking is part of our causal process. Desiring is part of our causal process. And these properties feed back down into how the “balls” roll (and the “balls” feed back into the output of more of these properties). The lack of free will does not imply reductionism, which you can see why here.
It does imply, however, that we simply could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise. It does imply that we don’t have the free will that is defined here. And not having such an ability is of extreme importance for human relations. There is just too much riding on our understanding that such an ability is impossible – to sidestep it with uncommon semantics that disregard the fact that most think they have such (magical) abilities.
In my book, Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind I go into much more detail regarding how we can and do causally think, learn, obtain knowledge, make choices, and so on. Keep in mind that just because we don’t have the freedom to decide otherwise, it simply doesn’t follow (logically) that these other things can’t and don’t arise causally.