Sep 292014
 

Choice vs. Free ChoiceWords, 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.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

  12 Responses to “The Distinction Between X and Free X (choice vs. free choice)”

  1. “It does imply, however, that we simply could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise.”

    This is contradictory when compared to any meaning of the term ‘choice’, which you state earlier is compatible with your acceptance of the lack of existence of free will.

    • The word “choice” doesn’t necessarily imply that the other options were “viable” or “REAL” possibilities (that possibilities actually exist as ontological possibilities). Only that we elect from options that are within our thoughts (or epistemological “possibilities”). It certainly doesn’t imply that we could have done otherwise. I talk about the word “possibility” a little here.

      This sentence is often used: “He had no other choice but to do X”…meaning X was his ONLY choice. But “choice” is still properly used in this sentence.

      The wikipedia article for the word seems appropriate: “Choice involves mentally making a decision: judging the merits of multiple options and selecting one or more of them. One can make a choice between imagined options (“what would I do if …?”) or between real options followed by the corresponding action. For example, a traveller might choose a route for a journey based on the preference of arriving at a given destination as soon as possible. The preferred (and therefore chosen) route can then follow from information such as the length of each of the possible routes, traffic conditions, etc. If the arrival at a choice includes more complex motivators, cognition, instinct and feeling can become more intertwined.”

      • ““He had no other choice but to do X”…meaning X was his ONLY choice. But “choice” is still properly used in this sentence.”

        Yes, that is one example… but the use of the word choice in that example is a negation of the word choice. So choice means one thing, and in your example, you use ‘no other choice’, meaning, there was no choice….

        • “No other choice” doesn’t mean “no choice”. We could even say that “the choice was causally determined to be X” and that is a correct usage of the word “choice”. We can even say, “the choice between X, Y, and Z was causally determined to be X” and that would be correct. We could even say, “the person chose x between x, y, and z, and could never have chosen y or z”…and that would be correct. Like I said, the wikipedia article has such correct when it says “Choice involves mentally making a decision: judging the merits of multiple options and selecting one or more of them”. None of that implies that the person could have judged or decided otherwise, only that part of the process of the decision was thinking about multiple options and electing one of them based on the thinking process.

          Again, when we address possibilities, we are only addressing an epistemological sense of the word (meaning we don’t know the variables involved, etc). Choosing is just the making of a selection. It doesn’t imply that all of the options we choose from are ontological possibilities. I chose to wear clothes today, regardless if I couldn’t have chosen to not wear clothes.

          • You could take it a step further and even compare the thought and choosing to that of a computer program, in a way. For example though, away from that computer tthing, another way to concisely say all of this is that even the way we think (which is a primary motivator of the choices chosen outside of availability) is causally “programmed” into us (from genetics, environment, history and so forth).

            Like, even reducing it. Why choose one? Why does this person choose option X or have a preference for option X? Maybe their brain is wired to put more value on a pragmatic choice and X is more pragmatic of a choice (according tto their wiring) than Y.

  2. “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).”

    I think the highest freedom we can attain is freedom from others telling us what to do. We are still a slave to our own desires, but for most of us, this isn’t a problem. We want freedom from other humans who control what we do with our time, money, or talents. We want freedom from the flies who buzz around us, but we cannot be free from our desire for freedom from things that causes us to feel pain or annoyance.

    • I agree, “freedom” in that sense is quite often important. Ironically, the understanding that we are not free from what causes us to desire and act as we do, gives us more leverage and direction to work within the bounds of causality to understand the structures that lead to the results we “desire”. 😉

      • It is rather ironic. I somehow feel as if losing the guilt and blame that comes from free will belief is giving me more time to think about what actions will bring me and others happiness. It makes me feel in control even though logically I know I am not.

  3. I am still a little bit confused about making a distinction between choice and free choice. It is hard to accept the idea of an unfree choice. However, I understand the idea that a machine can make what we call a choice. For example, it is possible for a program to choose the larger of two files. However, the choice will always be the same given the names of those two files. It is basically the same as saying a ball chooses to move when it is kicked. The words truly are confusing. Will we ever get past this language limitation?

    • The main distinction is the fact that the one option that we (must) decide on is done through a process of mentally weighing options. The wikipedia definition of “choice” seems to make sense:

      “Choice involves mentally making a decision: judging the merits of multiple options and selecting one or more of them”.

      Which doesn’t imply that all of the options are viable (only one need be).

  4. I think this is a good post because it helps clear up a lot of confusion. Would you mind if I read it and talked about it in one of my videos?

    • No I don’t mind, go ahead and read/talk about it. Let me know when your video is up and I’ll take a looksee! :)

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