Free will. What is it – other than an illusion? In other words, what is it an illusion of?
Defining the term free will can be tricky. In the book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind, I spend an entire chapter defining and breaking down the definition of free will that I think not only is the ability the majority of people think they possess, but it’s also the ability of philosophical, ethical, political, economic, social, and personal importance. The definition I give (which is in the first 10% of the book so can be read in the “Look Inside” on Amazon as well as the free sample if you send a sample to your Kindle) is:
“The ability to choose between more than one viable option or action, in which that choice was up to the chooser.”
In other words, people think that they are able to choose from more than one option, but it’s more than that. They think all of the options in which they choose from are viable options. That each of these options have real possibility. Not only that, but they think the choice of the option was “up to them”.
The above is more of a present tense version of probably a more common way of defining free will (in past tense):
“The ability to have, of ones own accord, chosen otherwise than they did.”
It’s that ability to choose “otherwise” (past tense) that implies those other options were “viable” (present tense) options.
The problem seems to stem from not seeing all of the variables that output our decisions and actions. Our minds have a tendency to fill in gaps. At the time when we are weighing more than one option, for example, what to order for dinner at a restaurant, we simply don’t know how all of the weighing will turn out. If we order pizza, we couldn’t have ordered the veggie sandwich, even if we were teetering between those two options. The final output of “I’ll take the pizza” was the only viable output.
But from the perspective of us weighing the options and making a decision, it seems like the veggie sandwich was a viable option. It appears to most that they could have chosen that option, and that if they did, it would have been them that chose such instead of some other factor that they had no control over.
So of course this definition is one that most people feel they have. It certainly makes sense. Just think about a decision you made in your life. Perhaps the decision to read this very page or not. When you opened it in your browser and looked at the title “Free Will”, does it seem to you that you could have stopped there and not read another word. Perhaps close the program, hit back, or type in another url. If you were to go back in time to right when you saw the title, could your decision have been different? Instead of reading up to the point you are at right now, could you have decided “Meh, I’m not in the mood to read this right now”? And if you could have, would it be you that had the control of making that different decision?
Without getting into why (this article is not addressing why we don’t have free will, but rather what free will is), the short answer is no, you could not have chosen otherwise using your own control. But given the fact that you don’t see that, that you don’t see all of the variables that drove you to read this page, of course intuitively you will feel you could have chosen otherwise (and that such choosing would be of your own volition).
We don’t need to define free will differently than the above. In fact, when we do define it differently, such is often used as a way to bypass the point that we don’t have the free will definition of the above. It’s a way to dismiss the ability that most people feel they posses.
But this is wrong-headed. Why is it wrong-headed? Because the ability defined above is the one of importance for the large variety of philosophical, ethical, political, economic, social, and even personal topic. When people think they actually possess the ability above, an extremely large number of topics become built around this seeming ability. Topics that are not benign to life on planet Earth.
Some compatibilist such as Daniel Dennett think that we should be redefining free will into something more compatible with determinism. This is problematic in a number of important ways.
First, it’s not the ability that people have common intuitions about. They actually do think that an “otherwise” is possible in a deterministic universe. See here for a study and more information on this:
- Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)
- Free Will Intuitions: Fred and Barney Case Study – InfoGraphic
Second, some important things are tied to this free will belief that need to be changes and a compatibilist definition is just used to sidestep these important topics. See here for just a few of the benefits of not believing in free will as defined above:
And third, such re-definitions of free will cause much confusion. It’s similar to re-defining the term “big foot” to refer to shrubbery and then telling people you have big foot in your backyard. Such a semantic shift is not only unnecessary, but it causes confuses. Indeed, it re-enforces the beliefs of those who claim big foot exists in the sense of that big furry unknown creature simply by the use of the word. The same holds true for any fairy, leprechaun, or even an ability like mind-reading. I can redefine the term “mind-reading” to mean reading a book that was written from someones thoughts, and tell everyone that people have the ability to mind-read. Sure, that changes the word to something that is actually true, but it’s unhelpful when most people do not hold to such semantic. To read about some of the problems with compatibilist definitions, take a look at Dennett’s here:
or read here:
- Redefining “Free Will” is Like Redefining “Geocentric” – Except Worse
- Free Will Compatibilism vs. Skepticism – SHOWDOWN!
The important thing to remember is that it means a whole lot if we can not choose between more than one option, in which that choice was up to the chooser. Or in past tense, if we could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise.
If you are looking to discover why such free will is logically incoherent, I have that detailed out in full in my book, along with what it means and what it doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will. I also make many free will arguments, infographics, criticisms, and so on in this blog dedicated to the topic of free will: No Free Will Blog , so subscribe today!