2013-08-28

A Short Post On Free Will

This debate is always going on in philosophy quarters, but I don't really understand why. From my perspective, the truth is somewhat obvious. But, before I say that, I suppose I ought to describe my perspective and see how obvious it actually is.

What I have noticed about existing "free will debates" is that those who oppose it are talking about a different definition of free will than those who agree with it. Most of the time during these debates people simply talk past each other.

Now, if "free will" means the ability to make choices independent of all outside forces, previous conditions, circumstances, the influence of other people or groups, etc. then of course there is no such thing as this kind of "free will." Every thought we have is a response to a set of circumstances and stimuli. To the extent that all human action is a response to something else when we act, "free will" cannot exist.

But no one that I know of has ever made such a claim.

If, however we accept the following as true, then free will is obvious:
  1. That the future is uncertain;
  2. That for any given set of circumstances and stimuli, we all have choices about the specific action we take; and
  3. That the specific choices we make alter the course of the future in a material way.
Note that this is both a much weaker and a more highly nuanced claim than what opponents of free will argue against. The point is that, despite the fact that we are bound by certain facts of nature (including the way human thought processes work), the future is still subject to more than pure chaos - our choices can have a determining impact on the future conditions that we and others face. We cannot overcome the basic forces of nature, but we can alter the outcome of "forks in the road," subject to certain obvious limitations.

In that sense, free will is a very real and very obvious thing.

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Note: An earlier version of this appears in the Google+ Philosophy community.