Re: Free Will not an illusion..

From: Thomas Buckner (
Date: Sat Dec 24 2005 - 15:00:02 MST

--- fudley <> wrote:

> > The question therefore is: "Is Free Will a
> truly complete illusion?"
> No. The question is, what the hell do you mean
> by this very odd phrase
> “free will”? Over the years philosophers have
> come up with some very
> very very dumb stuff, but none dumber than
> “free will”. They argue back
> and forth about it, they squabble if a
> particular biological organism
> called “Homo Sapiens” his this mysterious
> property or not, and yet never
> once do they explain what the fucking hell the
> words “free will” could
> possibly mean. Idiotic!
> I don’t demand a rigorous definition, that
> would be asking far too much,
> just give me a vague hint of what the words
> “free will” could possibly
> mean, and then I’ll tell you if Homo Sapiens
> has this odd property or
> not.

Most people, in discussing free will, assume it's
boolean: either you have 'it' or you don't. And
most seem to assume free will is something
ineffable and unbounded, when in reality there
are many constraints on our behavior. I don't
think it's useful to think about it that way.

I prefer to think about "degrees of freedom" in a
behavioral sense, by analogy to mechanical
degrees of freedom (you probably know the term,
but here's a good explanation:

"In total, your arm has seven degrees of freedom:
three in the shoulder, one in the elbow, and
three in the arm below the elbow. Three degrees
of freedom are sufficient to bring the end of a
robot arm to any point within its workspace, or
work envelope, in three dimensions."

So think of that as a metaphor for the possible
choices and mental states a given entity can
have. Until somebody shows me different, I assume
a rock or an ice cube or my couch have exactly
zero degrees of freedom. They have no mental
states and only behave according to what physics
and chemistry make them do. There are inanimate
objects which can do pretty complicated things: a
bucket of gasoline can sit quietly, and then burn
down my garage; my computer can do lots of stuff
I don't understand, but since it doesn't quite
have a mind, it's still an inanimate object.

Degrees of freedom begin to crop up when an
assemblage of inanimate matter becomes complex
enough to behave as if it had a self, however
primitive. It's generally agreed that prions are
dead matter, viruses are (barely) alive, and
bacteria are fully alive since they take full
responsibility for their own metabolism. Fully
alive entities may lack consciousness, but they
do have tropisms, toward light or food, for
example. Still, the degrees of freedom we find in
single-celled creatures are so slight as to be
barely worth mention.

Plants and simple animals have more complex
behaviors, and animals with bigger brains have
increasing degrees of freedom. By the time we
work our way up to mammals, we have beings who
actually do have some concept of freedom; they
are capable of caring when they don't have it. I
had a pet rat named Houdini (he was an escape
artist). When kept in a cage he couldn't get out
of, he would lay there with his chin on his paws.
He was truly depressed! Eventually, he ended up
living in the cellar, uncaged. He had the run of
the place, and would kill mice when they tried to
steal his food. He liked it there; I would go
down and call him, and he'd come (he loved steak
tips). The point of this story is that, although
a rat may not have an unlimited behavioral
repertoire, it has enough intelligence and enough
of a self-concept to have preferences. Are we
therefore to say that a rat has zero free will?

Now, a hard-ass determinist can say, "But rats
and humans are ultimately just more complex
molecular machines, and if each mental state is
fully dependent on previous states, and if our
behavioral space is not infinite, then WE DON"T
just Chinese Rooms? Ah, that's the problem with
denying free will entirely; you're telling people
they have no feelings, no inner lives, no choice.
So we are forced to imagine what magical quality
is lacking that a being with free will would
have, when any yak farmer can tell you he's got
free will.

So consider humans: there are no creatures we
know of that have a wider behavioral repertoire
than humans. From helpless, speechless,
half-instinctive babies we have the potential to
become astronauts, concert pianists, BASE
jumpers, sex fiends, embezzlers, computer
programmers, Buddhist monks, war criminals,
comedians, and guys who hug wild grizzly bears
until they get eaten. Humans have a LOT of free
will. Some more than others; does a garment
worker trapped in Saipan with her passport in the
boss's safe have as much free will as the
centimillionaire designer whose name is on the
labels she sews? Obviously not!

There's more than one dimension of free will in
humans, anyway. There's freedom of movement, what
you can afford to buy, who you can sleep with,
whether you can get that sex-change operation,
who will take your calls, who will obey your
orders. In these areas (power, basically), that
rich fashion designer has it all over our poor
seamstress. But perhaps there are things she can
do that he can't, or at least things she could do
if she had time and leisure. Perhaps she is a
lucid dreamer, knows three languages, and so on.
Having potential freedoms means nothing if one
lacks the imagination or intellect to pursue
them. As practically everyone is stupid in some
areas, so everyone is unfree in those areas, even
if they don't know it.

I recall a story about Gurdjieff, the Russian
mage, behaved toward a particular woman who
arrived at the Priory to study there. She, as I
recall, was very intellectual (or wanted to be
seen as such) and rather an impatient type A
person. Gurdjieff was nasty to her, wouldn't give
her the time of day. He hounded her until she
left, and one of his disciples asked him why.
Gurdjieff replied that she was a waste of time,
and she would never change. The disciple met her
ten years later, and found her to be close-minded
and insufferable; her worst qualities had grown,
but otherwise, Gurdjieff had been exactly right.
For some reason, she could not change.

So what sense does it make to say "Do humans have
free will or don't they?" As doctors now know
there are many completely different diseases
under the heading of 'cancer,' and many different
rhinoviruses under the heading of 'common cold,'
so are there many not-quite-the-same freedoms
under the heading of "Free Will."

Tom Buckner

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