The debate of free-will and determinism is a massive topic - it’s often considered to mean different things, and is seldom considered in perhaps the most relevant sense. Is it more relevant to analyze actions from their origin? Of external influence? Of genetics? This post will assert that the free-will/determinism dichotomy is a false dichotomy; and that free-will is possible, but often skewed by factors of external influence.
The Definition of Free-Will
Humans are unique to the animal kingdom in that they have the distinct capacity to imagine something in its most perfect form. We can see a creation, and notice its flaws; we can critique and improve; we can analyze and reconfigure. Humans can apply this ability to everything. It’s most important that we can analyze a decision, its implications, and determine the most preferable, the most perfect; and then that we have the ability to enact the decision.
Now the question of whether the decision ought to be made for the moral-actor himself, or for another remains to be seen, and will be addressed in a future post. For now, it is reasonable that the moral actor will determine the choice of the highest value; value being a subjective consideration, to him in the moment. This choice could be of long-term or short-term interest; of personal or altruistic preference; but whichever has the greater significance or value to the actor himself.
Is Free-Will a Valid Concept?
The easiest way to determine if free-will might be a valid concept, is to apply Occam’s Razor. Based on the definition above, there are two possible points of contention: humans cannot choose, and humans cannot conceptualize ideals.
First Contention: “Humans cannot choose.”
It is undisputable that humans act. But are the actions at the volition of the actor? Or is it a response to equilibria imbalance - such as is the case with other animals. Let’s consider the two possible circumstances:
- Choices are predetermined by nature - a good choice is that which aids in its survival, a bad choice is that which does not.
- Choices are made by the actor - a good choice is determined by the actor (or by ethics), a bad choice is determined by the actor (or by ethics).
It is important to note a few facts and observations. If humans cannot choose, then the quality of their actions are determined strictly by how well it conforms to an evolutionary strategy. In this way, nature determines the species who are successful, and the species who are unsuccessful - both of which pertain to fitness of environment. But in the course of evolution, nature has determined that reason and logic are preferable to mere satiation of equilibria; think of the significant advantage that farming gave early humans (farming being a direct application of the scientific method). And indeed we can confirm that the biggest separation between humans and the animal kingdom is our ability to apply reason and logic to the material world, and then choose. And thus, it follows that choosing is an integral part of humanity, and has driven our success evolutionarily.
Second Contention: “Humans cannot conceptualize ideals.”
Evolutionarily, reason has been selected as a means of superior survival, which is used to accurately describe material realty. We can take inputs, process them, and then manipulate the environment around us to our ends. Thus, when reason is in discord with material reality, it does nothing for our survival, and may perhaps harm it instead. Here, we have the ultimate ideal: truth – and the consequences of untruth. It is clear that our ability to reason provides our ability to conceptualize ideals. And because humans have reason, we must also have the ability to conceptualize ideals; this being evident in our ability to determine truth. Truth will be discussed further in the blog post "Truth and the Methodology of Validation."
Proposition: "Humans can conceptualize ideals."
- Truth is the ultimate conceptualized ideal.
- Reason is the method of determining truth.
- Humans have the ability to reason.
- Humans can conceptualize ideals.
The greater question of free-will and choice is why we choose what we choose.
Reason, Psychology, and Persuasion
A choice may be made or influenced by many factors; but three are most pertinent. A choice may be born of reason if the ideal that is chosen conforms to an end of selfishness, or of an end of altruism. For example, a) “I can choose to shop at grocer a with higher quality food, but with greater expense,” or b) “I can choose to shop at grocer b with lesser quality food, and donate the savings to a charity of my choosing.” You might choose A because you find the lower quality food to contain a greater chance for food poisoning, or perhaps you choose B because the risk justifies the net-utility of the donation.
Of the two remaining factors, there are two that may influence reasonable choice; which aren’t necessarily unreasonable. Of psychology, the influence on decision might be a past traumatic experience, remnants from childhood, or perhaps a corrupt relationship. But regardless of origin, psychology often interferes with reason. A great example is of the choice of partner. It is psychologically significant that choices in partner often reflect parental characteristics. So if someone is attracted to another not out of reason - of admiration of virtue or success - but of feeling or whim, often has significant psychological origin. And surely, a choice made from feeling or whim really isn’t a choice, and isn’t an instance of free-will.
Though the ethics of pursuasion won’t be addressed here, but in a later post, it certainly plays an important role everywhere, and in every relationship. The salesman persuades you to purchase, your parents persuade you that ice cream isn’t nutritious, you even persuade your boss to give you a raise. Persuasion is simply crafting the words of speech in a precise way to change someone’s mind. This is different than manipulation in that manipulation is necessarily misleading - a lie is the manipulation of both the most heinous and the most simplest variety. Persuasion often involves reframing the topic of discussion in a favorable way. If you want to dissuade someone, it’s advantageous to frame the topic negatively, and vice versa. It focuses someone’s thoughts into a way that is conducive to your ends. The interaction doesn’t fundamentally change your physiology, and thus it doesn’t remove your inherent capacity to reason. I must opine that pursuation sometimes distracts from reason; which is arguably bad pursuation, perhaps verging on manipulation; but doesn’t fundamentally alter or destroy your faculties. But, like the above section on psychychology, it is hardly arguable that a decision made of emotion or whim is one of free-will, and indeed this is the case of persuasion as well.
Choices without Reason
As I have described, free-will is the application of reason to choice; or in more eloquent terms, a conceptualized ideal. And conversely, when a choice doesn’t correspond to reason, it cannot be considered a choice of free-will; where both psychology and persuasion impact reason and thus impact free-will. The two examples I’ve mentioned above, feeling and whim, are not inherently reasonable. Feelings are useful and important if one is to more properly understand their psychology - which contributes to a greater control, and a greater free-will. But, decisions made by feelings are often to the detriment of the person enacting them. Mere dopamine response, as is the case in overeating, of drugs, isn’t healthy. Also, think of the long-term implications of doing so; it feels good in the moment, but the sum of all the resulting misery that follows indicates the contrary. And as will be discussed in a future post, chasing dopamine often impacts your most personal relationships - if dompamine is the biological mechanism to encourage success and cooperation, then anything that takes advantage of this mechanism and overshadows it is to the detriment of success and cooperation.
So, we have the ability to choose rationally, what I would argue is free-will, but is hindered by various factors. These factors include aspects of psychology, or aspects of persuasion. Psychology interrupts reason by herding the mind in ways that aren’t conducive to reason, while pursuasion focuses thought in a way that is favorable to the pursuader. Neither fundamentally alters physiology, and neither fundamentally destroys the capacity to reason. But because they both may act to distract from rational choice, they both may act to detract from free-will. Obviously, there is no inherent contradiction here, and thus the two theories of determinism and of free-will are compatible concepts, and as will be shown later, are necessary to describe society.
Check out the links below for the posts I've made in the past: