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    The Incoherence Of Free Will
    By Massimo Pigliucci | November 22nd 2009 02:17 PM | 47 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary

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    I recently re-read a classic piece by J.L. Mackie (April 1955), entitled “Evil and Omnipotence,” a stupendous philosophical essay about why theologians like Richard Swinburne are forced by their belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevelont and omnipowerful god into incredible and rather painful feats of mental gymnastics. One of Mackie’s minor points in the essay is that the so-called “free will defense” for the existence of evil in the world is problematic because the concept of free will itself is incoherent. Although, sometimes accusations of incoherence are thrown around a bit too easily in philosophy, I think this one has the potential to stick. (Mackie goes on with a devastating critique of the free will defense, a critique that remains effective even if the core concept should in fact prove to be coherent.)

    Philosophically speaking, I still think that the best treatment of free will is the one given by Dan Dennett in his Elbow Room, which is a delightful book to read in its own right. Nonetheless, one may wonder whether the concept that emerges from Dennett’s analysis is in fact what most people would recognize as “free will.”

    Of course, both words making up the term have the potential to be problematic, since it is not necessarily clear what we might mean by “will.” However, for the purposes of this discussion I will simply say that the will — insofar as human beings are concerned — is whatever set of motivations (and underlying neurological mechanisms) are behind the fact that we do certain things rather than others or, indeed, that we do anything at all. (Indeed, patients affected by severe damage to their amygdalas, for instance, seem to loose the will to do anything, likely because they've lost any emotional attachment to themselves and to things in the world: just like David Hume famously predicted, without emotions “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”)

    Moreover, I do not see a problem in, for instance, the Aristotelian concept of “akrasia,” or weakness of the will. Some people find it contradictory, because if I end up doing something out of my own volition — like eating a piece of chocolate cake — I cannot simultaneously claim that I did this “against my will,” because I knew that eating chocolate cake isn’t healthy. However, any human being who has struggled with food, sex, and other desires can make perfect sense of the idea of a weak will that makes you act against your own best interest even when you know perfectly well where such interest lies.

    Anyway, back to the “free” part of free will. The obvious question is: free from what? That’s where coherence quickly becomes a problem. Unless you are a dualist — a thankfully dying breed among philosophers — you can’t possibly mean free from causal interactions with matter/energy, i.e. independent of the laws and materials of the universe. The will, whatever it is and however we like to conceptualize it, is grounded in the biological activity of our neurons. And last time I checked our neurons are made of matter, exchange energy (in the form of electrical currents and chemical reactions), and are subject to the laws of physics. So if that’s what you mean by “free,” it’s a no starter.

    The next popular argument for a truly free will invokes quantum mechanics (the last refuge of those who prefer to keep things as mysterious as possible). Quantum events, it is argued, may have some effects that “bubble up” to the semi-macroscopic level of chemical interactions and electrical pulses in the brain. Since quantum mechanics is the only realm within which it does appear to make sense to talk about truly uncaused events, voilà!, we have (quantistic) free will. But even assuming that quantum events do “bubble up” in that way (it is far from a certain thing), what we gain under that scenario is random will, which seems to be an oxymoron (after all, “willing” something means to wish or direct events in a particular — most certainly not random — way). So that’s out as well.

    It now begins to look like our prospects for a coherent sense of free will are dim indeed. If it ain’t random-quantistic or independent from causal interactions with the rest of the world, in what sense is it “free”? But if the will is not free, are we then not simply lumbering robots at the mercy of a mechanical, uncaring universe? (Or, worse yet, puppets in some god’s hands?) This conclusion strikes most people as intuitively deeply unsatisfactory. Moreover, wouldn’t that mean that human behavior would be predictable, at least in principle, if reductionist/mechanistic science became sufficiently advanced? That also strikes many as clearly off the mark.

    One possible response is that, frankly, if the conclusions of a rational analysis go against your deepest held intuitions, so much the worse for your deepest held intuitions. But of course we also know that there are in fact non-deterministic physical systems (the time of decay of an individual atom, for instance), and we even know of perfectly deterministic systems whose behavior is for all effective purposes impossible to predict (chaotic, i.e. highly non-linear systems whose status at any given point in time is highly sensitive to initial conditions). So having a will that is causally connected to the rest of the physical world does not imply that our behavior is rigid or predictable.

    Still, does that mean that we are in fact lumbering robots, whose illusion of being free is a combination of our ignorance of the causal web within which we are embedded and of our limited ability to compute our own future status? I think the best answer here comes from research in the cognitive sciences, which increasingly points to (at least) two levels of decision making in the brain: on the one hand, we now know that our subconscious makes a lot of decisions before we are consciously aware of them (think of those experiments showing the time-delay in electrical potential between when a muscle is being activated to perform a given action and when the subject becomes aware of having made the decision to perform that action, for instance). On the other hand, consciousness still seems to be a bit more than just a “rationalizing” process, taking on instead the role of high-level filter, or moderator, of unconscious brain processing (e.g., we can still stop an ongoing action if our conscious attention becomes focused on it).

    What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of “free will” that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance. That’s what Dennett called a type of free will that is “worth having,” and I consider it good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being.

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    However, any human being who has struggled with food, sex, and other desires can make perfect sense of the idea of a weak will that makes you act against your own best interest even when you know perfectly well where such interest lies.
    But this isn't a problem of "free will" as much as it is rationalizing an action we want to justify.  Anyone that has struggled to deal with addictions recognizes that the choice to act in a destructive way must be eliminated, so that there is no opportunity to rationalize the act.  Such a decision must be made long before a choice actually presents itself.
    ...on the one hand, we now know that our subconscious makes a lot of decisions before we are consciously aware of them
    Even so, our subconscious can only make decisions based on "choices" we've already made or given ourselves permission to engage in.  We don't engage in an infinite range of choices for every decision, but instead base it on our training, beliefs, etc.  which limits the possible outcomes that will be used.  If a smoker wants to quit smoking, then there must be some process whereby the option of having a cigarette is no longer an choice (internally).  This is one of the reasons why quitting is so difficult, because many smokers only reluctantly admit that they enjoy it, so it is hard to justify making the choice to quit.  In other words, our unconscious brain still considers it an option and thus we experience the temptation. However, if those same individuals might suddenly be diagnosed with a condition because of smoking, the incentive may outweigh any rationalization from previous experiences.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I smell another eugenics-like catastrophy in the wind. My simple prophesy is that the scientific community will use its great wisdom to promote this "no free will" nonsense and its logical social results, only to publicly apologize a few years later.

    Even if it were true that we are merely machines, victims of our circumstances and genes, then we are the victim of a complex array of circumstances, far too complex for any computer to determine what our next action will be. And if so, the "metaphores" of free will and personal responsibility will remain to be useful tools of personal success and social conformity. I see no reason why the scientific community is endevoring to rob us of them.

    An abandonment of the "metaphor" of free will gives us the following:
    - How can we imprison people if they are merely the victims of their circumstances, even if it can be demonstrated that the fear of punnishment causes people to behave better. (I've heard reports that some fellow got a reduced sentance because he has a "violence" gene.)
    - Optionally, we can calculate that a person's genetic and circumstancial makeup makes them a danger to society, so we should imprison them pre-emptively.

    Before preaching this broad of a change in social construct, I beg you to read the history of the eugenics movement, so that you don't cause a repeat of history that must be apologized for.

    Unfortunately, we can't change what is true. We can't uninvent nuclear weapons, but we can make every effort to avoid the potential threat they pose to the planet. The pre-emptive punishment of a would-be criminal would indeed be a grave introduction to our justice system, but can we not view this as a problem worth solving? If we were able to say with 100% certainty that someone was going to commit murder, is it not feasible that this knowledge could be used in a way that prevented the atrocity, whilst at the same time providing the would-be murderer with some form of psychiatric help in order to remove this desire within them (in a peaceful way - not in a clockwork orange style!)? I'm just postulating here, but my point is this: we cannot pick and choose the outcomes of scientific progress, but we can adopt the problems they pose with a sense of optimism and a drive to deliver answers that avoid repeating an ugly chapter of our past.

    Your argument seems to be based upon the fact that people have internal struggles, that people with addictions so often fail to hold to their committments. However, I ask only this. What of those who have been victorious over their cravings, over their unconscious call to distructive behavior. If even one person can overcome their unconscious destructive desires, then your thesis should collapse. I am sure that the milliions who have overcome cigarettes and alcohol would attest to the fact that the will can defeat the cravings. Not bad for something that doesn't exist

    Gerhard Adam
    Actually my only point was that success or failure was going to be based on the choices we make and what we consider permissible.  In other words, if we want to quit smoking, it isn't simply some arbitrary act of "will" but it is a process of excluding smoking from our range of permissible choices.  If we succeed in doing that then we will quit.  If instead, we rationalize (consciously or unconsciously) that we don't really want to quit then we still consider smoking a viable choice and hence the struggle.

    Mundus vult decipi
    sleep run, "remember, the substance/sex/gambling/eating addictions are symptoms of underlying permanent, deteriorating, congenital brain dysfunction."

    So all addicts are victims of their genes? Without medication they are doomed? Obviously, then, all who have quit smoking are just lying, all of the dry alcoholics who regularly attend AA are just lying, and drinking because they are obligated by their genes? If you say so.

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think people are victims of their genes when it comes to addictions unless they've already given themselves "permission" to indulge.  Genes may create a circumstance where there is a greater tendency towards addictive behaviors but they certainly can't compel one to become addicted to anything.  That is still a matter of choice.

    Just like people may have a tendency to accumulate fat, but that doesn't mean that they can't also starve, it's just that if they exceed their caloric requirements they may have a greater tendency to gain weight.  Similarly, if someone exercises they may have a tendency to become good at sports.  No one is born with particular genes and one day they decide to go to the Olympics and expect to win gold medals.  They must still work to exploit their abilities.  None of these are foregone conclusions, they simply reflect a tendency for how our bodies will respond to various circumstances.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam, "if we want to quit smoking". Isn't the fact that we "want" evidence that we have "will"? If the only thing you are suggesting is that our will isn't "totally free", but is hampered by our unconscious desires, then you will find few takers to debate you. Certainly all who have been victorious over their internal drives have added "strategy" to their will. I would dare say that all of us have made personal committments and failed to keep them, showing that our "will" is not an autocratic ruler, that it is to some extent "weak".

    However, there is a clear discussion in the scientific community that we are mere machines, and as such our will, any will, is purely an illusion. I contend that even if it is an illusion, a metaphore, it is a powerful social construct. If the idea of will and its twin brother "personal responsibility" are removed from society it will be radically destructive, even if it can be established that "will" is an illusion (though I serously question that science has established this.)

    Gerhard Adam
    I understand what you're saying but the problem is that there is no "will".  One cannot make choices that don't already exist in your mind.  We can logically imagine all kinds of situations including those that are pure fantasy.  We could even potentially elect to pursue on of those choices despite its virtual guarantee of failure.

    However the one thing we cannot do is to make a choice of which we are not aware.  This may sound obvious, but consider that the point of "free will" is to argue that given a particular set of circumstances an individual "could have" acted differently by exercising an act of "will".

    However if a particular set of circumstances led a person to act in a particular manner then it is illogical to suggest that the same IDENTICAL circumstances could ever lead to a different result.  Part of making the circumstances identical would have to include that individual's mental state.

    Therefore the only way we can make changes is by determining how we could act the next time such circumstances come up.  Therefore the acceptable choice must be made in advance of the action for something to occur. 
    If the idea of will and its twin brother "personal responsibility" are removed from society it will be radically destructive, even if it can be established that "will" is an illusion (though I serously question that science has established this.)
    I understand what you're saying, but this isn't an issue of free will.  It isn't that humans are helpless machines.  Instead we are fundamentally limited by the choices we allow ourselves to make. 

    Consider a case where someone commits a murder out of anger.  It is pointless to argue that such an individual had "free will" because it tells us nothing about how they could've acted differently under the same circumstances.  Instead, I'm arguing that the option to kill was a choice that this individual already made in advance.  Maybe it was done indirectly by choosing to allow their anger to vent uncontrollably.  The point is that throughout this person's existence there have been numerous choices made in advance of events that set the stage for the murder in our example.  It certainly doesn't absolve them of responsibility, instead it places a greater responsibility on them for making proper choices before such unfortunate circumstances can manifest.

    All too often we let people get away with all manner of behaviors because they aren't doing any real harm, instead of recognizing that they are making decisions and choices that may culminate in something far worse down the road.  Then we use the excuse of "free will" to argue that they should've known better.  Once they have given themselves"permission" to behave that way, what act of "will" should suddenly bring them under control?

    Lack of "free will" does not imply helplessness.  It simply places the responsibility for one's actions at a different stage of behavior.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam, "I'm arguing that the option to kill was a choice that this individual already made in advance" If a person made a choice in advance, the person still made the choice. This is, therefore, only a discussion of the nature of the will, not of the existance of it.

    Further, please note that most (all?) who kill out of anger first demonstrate to themselves many times that they have an anger problem. They may not get to the point of acknowledging their problem, they likely didn't get to the point of seriously seeking a strategic way of taming the anger, but murderous rage most usually manifests many times in a person's life prior to the person actually killing someone with it. Therefore, the person could have done something about his/her murderous rage prior to becoming a murderer.

    Gerhard Adam, "Once they have given themselves"permission" to behave that way, what act of "will" should suddenly bring them under control?" Again, this is only a discussion about the nature of "will" not the existance of it.

    Gerhard Adam, "if a particular set of circumstances led a person to act in a particular manner then it is illogical to suggest that the same IDENTICAL circumstances could ever lead to a different result. Part of making the circumstances identical would have to include that individual's mental state."

    Does this not include the time, three years earlier, when a person felt murderous rage, then his friends sat him down and said, Jimmy, you have a problem. Did he have free will during that meeting, able to choose between admitting that he has a problem and strategizing a solution, or was he bound to make the decision he made at that point becaue, " if a particular set of circumstances led a person to act in a particular manner then it is illogical to suggest that the same IDENTICAL circumstances could ever lead to a different result. Part of making the circumstances identical would have to include that individual's mental state."

    If at each step in a person's life, their choices were predetermined by their genes, their history, and their current mental state, then any choice they ever made is an illusion. If all of their choices are an illusion, they were obligated to commit the murder, holding them in any way responsible for the murder is illogical. Either geuine choice exists, or this reductionist reality must exist.

    Gerhard Adam
    Does this not include the time, three years earlier, when a person felt murderous rage, then his friends sat him down and said, Jimmy, you have a problem. Did he have free will during that meeting, able to choose between admitting that he has a problem and strategizing a solution, or was he bound to make the decision he made at that point because, " if a particular set of circumstances led a person to act in a particular manner then it is illogical to suggest that the same IDENTICAL circumstances could ever lead to a different result. Part of making the circumstances identical would have to include that individual's mental state."
    The circumstances weren't fixed at that point in your example.  New information was being introduced into "Jimmy's" head by his friends.  As you know the mental state isn't static and is constantly subject to new information which provides opportunities for new choices.  Sometimes the information is obtained from training, which provides more choices based on our level of knowledge and/or experience.

    In a nutshell, you cannot ignore input into your brain until it's been processed.  You can CHOOSE to ignore information you possess, but you can no more ignore input than you can will yourself to not see or not hear.
    If all of their choices are an illusion, they were obligated to commit the murder, holding them in any way responsible for the murder is illogical.
    The choices aren't an illusion, but the means of constraining them are.  In other words, if "Jimmy" decides that his friends don't know what they're talking about then he may well continue in his normal manner, but he has made the choice to do so.  It isn't that he lacks the information, he just doesn't accept it or feels it is necessary.

    Now, let's say that at some point he nearly kills someone and it scares him.  A possible consequence is that now this new situation will bring to light the information that he's always had and yet this time he may decide to do something about it.  Well what can he do?

    He must change his behavior by removing his anger from his set of "permissible" choices.  He certainly can't just wait for a situation to occur that makes him angry and then think about it.  His reflexive, unconscious reactions will already have him throttling that individual.  In effect, he must set about "re-learning" some of the options he currently holds.


    Mundus vult decipi
    Your current views are clearly not in the extreme "free will is an illusion" camp. Few who hold to a view of free will would see error in your interpretation of free will. Certainly we don't do our best thinking, our best willing, in the heat of the moment. Certainly we are weak-willed creatures who must develop ourselves using a variety of strategies, and supports. However, if we have genuine will, even a limited will, at any point in the process, then we can be held accountable for our actions, for our lack of taking the bull by the horns, and responding to our deficits before crisis arises.

    Gerhard Adam
    In my view the problem is that we know everything in our brains operates on the laws of biology, chemistry, etc.  Therefore, we must consider that everything is fundamentally deterministic or at least explanation (for the quantum level purists).

    Therefore when we consider the decisions or actions an individual makes we presume that there is a cause/effect relationship.  However, if there is a cause/effect relationship, then the argument goes that how can we ever act in any manner that isn't ultimately traceable back to our genes and biochemistry?  More importantly, how can we ever be held morally responsible for the choices we make based on such a chain of events.

    My contention is that knowledge, training, education, etc. (i.e. inputs to the brain) are the variable that creates different possibilities.  For example you cannot decide to become or behave like a "librogenicist" until that idea is introduced into your head.  After that it becomes something that your brain can analyze and you can determine where it fits into your choices.  After that, at some particular moment you may elect to behave in that fashion without having had any need to invoke the idea of "free will" because it was a part of your available choices.  In other words there is a completely causal chain of events, but still moral responsibility for having allowed that choice to be one from which you select.

    Similarly consider the case of the pacifist.  It can hardly be argued that they don't know what violence is, but instead they have simply eliminated it as a choice. 

    In short, the area where we tend to erroneously view "free will" is in the domain of actions and unfortunately when we commit to actions, those choices have already been evaluated and there is little we can do in the moment to change the outcome since we've already determined how we want to act or what's acceptable.

    BTW, I made up the word "librogenecist" to illustrate the point that you can't act in any manner for something that you don't know about, or which turns out doesn't exist.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The problem with these so-called refutations of free will is that they mis-define will. They mis-define it as a forced choice between two or more alternatives. They say, "These are the alternatives and among them you can choose." This is no more than a coerced choice. And so the arguments are pre-proved by definition. But that has little to do with actual will. Will is not a choice between A and B, but a creative decision; a decision that, of itself, creates its own alternatives. A little girl exercises her free will and decides to become a nurse. There is no choice of A or B, but rather the creation of something that wasn't there before. Twenty, thirty, forty years later, when she actually is a nurse, how can you say free will has not been realized? Unless, of course, you just want to reduce it to no more than a complex series of coerced simple choices - no waves, only particles.

    Gerhard Adam
    A little girl exercises her free will and decides to become a nurse. There is no choice of A or B, but rather the creation of something that wasn't there before.
    This is not true.  It is precisely a choice between A or B because she cannot decide to become a nurse until the idea of a nurse is introduced into her brain.  That knowledge must already exist, even if it is only in a rudimentary form. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Dr. Pigliucci, you're a rascal for even bringing this up! ;-) I'm neither a trained philosopher nor theologian, but let me take a stab at a rudimentary definition.

    When I was a freshman some 40 years ago, my Introductory Philosophy Professor put the challenge to us of defining this irksomely-difficult-to-define expression. I've long since forgotten what answer I eventually came up with at the time (which almost certainly means it was perfectly worthless, but never mind). But I became sort of friends with the professor, who was quite young himself and who shared a number of academic friends with me at the university. We debated it until I transferred to another university for my junior and senior years, then I went to work, and lost contact with him.

    A few years later, I decided to go back to my original university to obtain an MA. I started going to a Friday afternoon drinking club (fancifully named "The Shelly Society," as in the poet -- a member of the English faculty had started it). And I was delighted when my philosophy professor turned out to be a "member."

    We took up the debate again over the four years it took me to finish my degree. (I had to work two jobs, so couldn't take on too many academics at a time.) One afternoon he and I went to the bar where everyone met, arriving a couple of hours early, as I had called him and said I wanted to propose a definition. What I came up with the second time around was this: "free" means with no externally imposed constraint or restraint by another person -- but that doesn't mean we're free of the laws of science (for instance). For "will" I said it means a person making a choice between two or more possibilities, adding that deciding not to make any choice is in itself a choice.

    We talked about it a number of times, including with some of his colleagues who weren't normally part of our after-hours social group but whom he dragged along. No one, including me, thought my definitions were elegant -- one prof grouched, "But it doesn't sound academic!" to which I replied, "Come on, Prof; I'm not claiming it's an elegant creation from the lofty towers of academia -- I'm wrestling with a bear, and if I succeeded in getting a bear hold on it, that'll suit me just fine."

    While the endorsement was far from ringing -- more like reluctant and begrudging -- it was pretty well unanimous for working purposes.

    Okay, I'm tied to the post and blindfolded: fire away, Professor!

    Gerhard Adam
    If you don't mind, I'd like to make a few comments.
    "free" means with no externally imposed constraint or restraint by another person
    I'm not sure this helps in any way because there is little argument that one can constrain someone else's mind.  So, by definition, a mind is unconstrained by external factors.
    For "will" I said it means a person making a choice between two or more
    possibilities, adding that deciding not to make any choice is in itself
    a choice.
    Also, I'm not sure this helps, because a choice, in an of itself, is largely irrelevant.  Don't get me wrong, choices are clearly a fundamental part of the problem, but they don't constitute any end result.

    Bear in mind that the "problem" of free will is created by the idea that our brains operate according to specific laws of biology (genetics) and chemistry.  Therefore, neglecting the issue of quantum effects, they behave in a fundamentally deterministic fashion.  So from the lowest level up to the highest, there is a determinism of cause and effect which doesn't allow for any flexibility of interpretation.  In other words, there is nothing in the process that exhibits "freedom" in any sense of the word.

    Similarly when someone commits an act, then it would be highly unusual for someone to claim that they had absolutely no idea where the cause for such an act came from.  In other words, actions are not random events, nor do we generate random outcomes from our brain processes.

    It seems to me that the sticking point is that we're tending to confuse choice with the moment of action.  Once we have chosen a particular course of action, for whatever reason, then we do not have the "free will" to arbitrarily change it.  Now, when I say action, I'm not talking about a plan or a sequence of events for which numerous opportunities to evaluate choices can occur.  But rather when we have committed ourselves to a specific action, then we cannot arbitrarily change it.

    This may seem counter-intuitive because there are so many instances where we do something and change our minds and do something else.  I may reach for a cup of coffee, bring it halfway up to my mouth, and decide to set it back down.  However, while we tend to view this as a specific action, it is actually a whole series of actions, occurring slowly enough so that we can continuously evaluate our choices and make changes.

    Now the problem of free will occurs when we consider my reaching for the cup of coffee and taking a sip.  If afterwards the question is asked, could I have done otherwise under the same circumstances, the answer must be - no.  If the circumstances were the same then there is no reasonable expectation that the cause/effects would be any different resulting in something other than my drinking the coffee.  I certainly made all the choices every step of the way and consequently I'm responsible for having made those choices.

    In addition, the issue of moral responsibility regarding free will suggests that somehow you could've made a different choice under the same circumstances. 

    As such we cannot claim to have free will.  What we do possess is the ability to take in information and establish sets of choices from which we can determine which are acceptable for actions.  It is at this stage that we take moral responsibility.  For example, if I don't constrain my sense of anger and simply allow myself to give it free reign resulting in violent expression, then if some circumstance results in my killing someone, it is a direct result of my having given myself "permission" to have unconstrained anger as being one of my acceptable choices. 

    There is no "free will" that would have allowed circumstances to turn out otherwise, since it would have needed to be contra-causal.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Fred Pauser
    Massimo, you have essentially condensed volumes for a beautifully concise and reasonable breakdown and description of main aspects of the free will debate. As short presentations go, this is superb!



    But toward the end you seem to develop a bias – twice you use the phrase, “lumbering robots.” Lumbering?? And you conclude:



    What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of “free will” that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance. That’s what Dennett called a type of free will that is “worth having,” and I consider it good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being.




    I agree that our conscious awareness of our decision-making is what gives us the sense of having free will.



    HOWEVER, it is important to realize that we could NOT have decided otherwise in any PAST given instance. We can only learn from our mistakes and apply what we learn toward similar situations in the future. But that is not free will. We make our decisions according to our internal need to avoid pain and strive for pleasure or satisfaction. Nature teaches each of us what causes pain and pleasure – we do not make such choices. So the type of free will that you say is “worth having,” is not free.



    So are we robots? We are products of the evolution of a dynamic universe. Although operating according to certain fixed natural laws, there appears to be an open-ended aspect in nature, apparent following the Big Bang by the IRREGULAR dispersal of matter, leading to various sizes and shapes of galaxies, etc. Clearly the evolution of life shows that nature is creative. Nature has creatively invented our brains, by which we are likewise enabled (and caused) to be creative and inventive. If nature can be considered in some sense to be robotic, than to that extent so are we... But what fabulous robots!



    In the final analysis we are not free, except in the relatively trivial and superficial sense that if we do not feel coerced, then we “feel” free to make choices. We, as a species, are apparently compelled to mirror evolution’s direction of development toward increasing capabilities.
    The Count
    O Lawdy Lawdy!  All this talk about free will makes me want a naked girl holding a cake!  Free and willing sounds great!

    Let's cut to the chase folks.  Not only are we dumb brutes driven purely by base natural instincts run amok; but the planetary ecosystem has a major flaw and we're it.   I suppose you could say that we live a sort of self-illusory existance of denial under a form of natural determinism that is completely oblivious to our perceptions.  The sun will burn out one day and it needs no excuses for it's demise.  It takes a more vivid imagination than  mine to see a divine hand in all of this.
    You deny the wetness of water because no water molecule is wet.

    briantaylor
    This is a great discussion that will not end anytime soon, or at least, with any conclusions drawn that we can all agree upon. My friend Gerhard will vouch for my reluctance to enter into any discussion of free will, especially with him, yet, here I  am again with only frosting.

    Massimo, excellent post and kudos to you for never entering into any discussions or debates on your material...

    Gerhard, I think you've gone beyond "considering" determinism and have gone all the way to "conclusion."

    I quit smoking about ten months ago. It was a choice to do so. It was done by simply denying the choice to smoke. I hated it, every second, but I was ultimately more powerful than my addiction and now, I don't even think about it. I simply did not "allow" myself to smoke. As you know, choosing not to do something is a choice as much as choosing not to choose. I understand there is no difference but, at the time, I was very aware I was making a choice. I was suffering for the choice I made. I didn't feel as if I had "no choice but not to smoke." I didn't feel as if I had eliminated the option of smoking, on the contrary, it was very present. So, in the vein of unanswerable questions, I ask, "What determined the success of my choice to stop smoking? My will, or everything that determines my will?" Is there a difference?

    I got my Masters in Librogenecism last month, so I don't know what you're talking about!

    Now you have said, essentially, that we can't know, do, think or decide anything that hasn't already been "put into the computer." What about creation? The fancy of an imaginitve child creating something that doesn't yet exist. Like, for instance, Librogenecism, no no, I'm kidding. How about........ Hmmmmmmmmmm....... Oh! Computer Science, five hundred years ago? (I'm having trouble thinking of something that doesn't yet exist.) In my writing, I talk about the differences between experiential norms and social norms as (in part) the differences of independent and influenced paradigm. (I know this is a contentious idea between us, but let's just run with it, for now. I can no more prove to you that free will exists than you can it doesn't.) Nor do I want to. How is the creation of the "Original Idea" a product of unrelated ideas behind it? Does discovery not exist either, then?

    As a special treat, (I know you're all waiting eagerly for my next paper,) here is a relevant passage, (I wonder who it is I'm referring to here?...)

    Our ideas about everything are determined either by us or for us. This, in and of itself, is quite enough of a pill for some people to swallow. What I would consider a very obvious fact can be nothing short of unbelievable to others. This is the foundation upon which every other conclusion is built. Other philosophers, some friends of mine, would contest this argument and if they were able to either prove or disprove the existence of “free will,” they might think they could crush my argument and win the day. The question of free will asks, “Are we able to exercise control over our decisions or is everything determined?” You do have the ability to direct your choices, both consciously and unconsciously and you have determined traits that must be followed. There is a boundary set here and as such the options within the boundary are finite but those options are numerous, indeed seemingly infinite.   The idea of will is definitely in play, the idea of freedom is not relevant to the discussion. Ultimately, it is because Determinism insists that “events” (and therefore “ideas,”) are caused by the needs of their predecessors that brings “freedom” into the equation. This is a causation that you can follow back as far as you care to. It is another one of those things that a person could devote an entire career exploring, many have. To put it simply, answer: “What situation could possibly arise where you wouldn’t choose what you must?” Free will, in my opinion, is a mere question of responsibility, either you have it and take it, or you don’t, the necessity of it is a matter of opinion. Despite our inability to know if we are the originators of our own thoughts or in control of our own being or destinies we can understand the differences between paradigms built from either experiential or social norms. We can understand that we succumb to our will through our behaviours and that our motivations can be hidden from us. Our reality must be that we can only know what it is possible to while taking comfort in the exponential growth of what being possible encompasses.

    I'll leave it at that for now, I look forward to pulling out what remains of my hair.

    P.s. Sorry that I'm piggy backing my free will arguments with Gerhard onto others' posts. Maybe I'll write my own someday, no... wait, I forgot. I don't actually "know" anything, but then again, does anyone else?
    Gerhard Adam
    Glad to see you get in the water, Brian. :))

    First, regarding creativity, the problem here is in distinguishing whether something is truly original (i.e. something from nothing), or simply a novel way of arranging what is already known.  I would argue that it is the latter.  This doesn't diminish the creative element, but I haven't seen anything yet that would suggest a true "out of thin air" act of creativity.

    I agree with you regarding the matter of making choices, since clearly we have that ability.  However, the problem isn't one of making choices, but rather whether we could make other ones in circumstances that we've already acted in.  As you know, in my own posts I've argued that choices are fundamental in determining which actions we've given ourselves permission to act on.  However, when you commit to a particular action, the question of "free will" requires that we have the ability to act other than we intended. 

    Certainly we can make whatever choices we like whenever we like.  However, what is important is what choices we make at the point of action.  Anything prior to that is simply an abstraction and has no relevance until it falls squarely into the "action" category.

    Therefore when you decided to quit smoking that was certainly a free choice.  But no matter how often you decide such a thing, it isn't until it becomes a true "action" item that your behavior will change.  You may decide to quit smoking, but if you still give yourself permission to cheat, you will invariably fail because "will" isn't enough.  It must literally be expunged as an option since that is the only means by which you can suffer through the withdrawals.

    In the end, the point is that we must abide by a cause/effect relationship of events that govern the behavior of our brains.  Therefore we cannot conclude that there is ever an action without a corresponding cause.  In such a situation, there is no ability to exercise something like "free will" which essentially suggests that we can override our intentions.

    Anyway .... as always, a good discussion.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard:

    You wrote ". . . regarding creativity, the problem here is in distinguishing whether something is truly original (i.e. something from nothing), or simply a novel way of arranging what is already known. I would argue that it is the latter."

    If creativity is indeed "simply a novel way of arranging what is already known," (and there's a very strong argument for that) then it necessarily follows we discover and invent nothing. That is, what we "discover" is there in the first place, and what we "invent" has always been in the realm of the possible -- but we just now got around to doing it.

    Though there is a strong argument for your definition of "creativity," I fall on the other side of the balance. The nature of creativity has long been a favorite reflection of mine, something I never tire of thinking and reading about, discussing, and debating. (Not that an answer is really possible at the end of the day, admitted.)

    Many years ago I ran across a book titled, I think, simply "Creativity." It was a collection of about 35-40 essays written by people we regard as brilliant from right across the disciplines, essays in which each writer struggled to define what his or her creativity was. Though no two gave precisely the same explanation, let alone definition, there was a consensus that actually wedded *both* the possibilities you mention.

    The logic is rather torturous. Yes, we create something out of "nothing" -- but that "nothing" has always been here just waiting for someone to make something of it. Does that make sense? It's certainly counter-intuitive!

    I believe a fundamental difficulty in approaching this, perhaps an insurmountable difficulty for mere mortals, is that we resist the notion that we are creatures incapable of anything other than REacting, never truly acting.

    Another fundamental difficulty for anyone religious in, for instance, the three great Abhrahamic religions is the confounding thought that the God of those religions [supposedly] gave us "free will" yet knows all history already, including our every thought before we even think it. And this spills over into secular philosophy, as this discussion well demonstrates.

    At the end of the day, it well may be that we're merely quarreling about terms, mightn't it?

    Gerhard Adam
    In some respects I'm sure it is about terms.  But it seems that people always want something more than what they have.

    They certainly wouldn't want their "will" to be unpredictable nor their thoughts and decisions, therefore everything is ultimately predictable in the sense that it exists from a range of options.

    Similarly who would deny that wonderful music can be created from 12 notes, or the paintings and even scenery that are limited to the range of visible light that we see.

    People work ceaselessly to try and gain as much control over their environment and the world they live in and yet when presented with the possibility that it is all predictable, then they complain that they lack freedom.

    I think that people just want to feel special and when one suggests that their lives are somehow limited, they want to reject that concept in favor of more possibilities (it's not as if they are practically limited, but it's the thought more than the reality).  I've found similar things when people are confronted with their favorite fantasies, be it Star Trek, or vampires, they always want more.
    Mundus vult decipi
    robotkim
    I find the use of the word "predictable" to be interesting, as it reminds me of Asimov's Foundation series, with the attempt to predict human activity far into the future.  With so many variables, such prediction would be even harder than predicting the weather, I'm sure, but it is an interesting concept to explore, especially as computer modeling advances.

    As for the religious concept of God already knowing every action and thought we take, I don't think that is due to His ability to predict what will happen, but rather His being outside of the timeline, and already knowing everything that has/is/will happen, like an author outside of his book.
    Gerhard Adam
    My use of the word "predictable" was intended to convey the sense of determinism since nothing we can think or do can occur without us already having the idea present in our minds.  As a result, there is no situation where an action occurs and the actor is completely surprised in not having a reason for the action to have occurred.

    If one were to try something like that with Asimov's psychohistory, then there is little doubt that it would be more of a chaotic system especially since initial conditions would be all but impossible to determine accurately.

    Regardless of how or where you're suggesting God exists, the fact remains that knowing the outcome of an event is seeing the future.  Therefore that event cannot deviate from what has been seen.  Like an author, the characters behave according to the way they were created and cannot simply act in a manner outside the author's intentions.
    Mundus vult decipi
    robotkim
    Yes, that makes sense to me - if the outcome is already known, whether in the future or outside of the timeline, or predicted by determinism, then it cannot change from that outcome.  We, as humans, don't always see it that way, believing we have free will, since we cannot see the future or predict the future with any accuracy due to all the variables, unknown initial conditions, etc.  We are stuck in the present, with a limited viewpoint, so in some ways, for us, the lack of free will is a moot point.  We still have to go through the process to make up our own minds whether to do this or that.  I think it makes things more fun that way - just like it's more fun to watch a game before you know the final score.

    Calvinism is a branch of Christian thought which also believes in determinism, but they still believe in God.  I'm not sure if there are branches of Judaism or Islam which have similar deterministic beliefs.
    Gerhard Adam
    Even without free will, there is nothing which says that we can't change (i.e. education, new ideas), nor is there anything that says we can't make different choices.  Our "will" doesn't have to be free in order for these ideas to work, any more than a computer must produce the same results when new information is provided.
    Mundus vult decipi
    robotkim
    The original post began by mentioning that the incoherence of free will was a stumbling point for belief in God. Most of the comments by others don't go into the effect this problem has on theology, but the entire discussion is actually a very common one within theology and doctrinal debates - free will vs predestination. While some religious people insist that we have free will to choose to believe in God or not, others insist that God must have already determined that a particular person will become a believer. God must reveal Himself to a person in order for that person to believe in Him, so hence, the person didn't really have free will in the matter in the first place. The argument usually goes that people have the impression of free will, and still consciously are making a choice, but without God's hand in the matter - revealing Himself - the person would be lost. Thus, our salvation is not due to our own will or strength or ability, but solely due to the grace of God. I mention this just to provide additional thoughts for those who want to delve more into the matter. There is a ton of material about this debate in the theological world (I am mostly referring to Christianity - Calvinism, etc), as it has been going on for centuries. A different approach, and from a different perspective, yes, but the core issue is still very similar.
    Gerhard Adam
    To me the theological argument is largely irrelevant since it begins with a contradiction.  Basically how can God be omniscient and allow for "free will"?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Wes D. Sturdevant
    Just wanted to say real quick on your comment is about pretty accurate in my opinion on religions roll on such things, it doesn't really have anything to do with it just an interesting side thing to discuss.  Also thought i'd mention that george carlin made a comment once I loved in an act that if there is a 'divine plan' why do so many pray? lol  Religion to me just makes no sense which is why I'm trying to write a book on 'rational thinking' and much of it so far has just been showing the irrational side, wait thats the whole side of religion to me as an atheist that believes it's irrational.  If you are religious no offense intended just thought i'd share that quick comment made by "Carlin on Religion" if you liked him and have time to watch it on youtube it's worth a good laugh and some good thoughts behind it actually of why it's bs.  Anyway love your posts on here seem like an intelligent guy from what I've read from you.  Hopefully I posted this where I'm suppose to I'm a newbie to this site as of yesterday.
    robotkim
    Omniscient means "all-knowing," not "all-controlling," so I see no contradiction there with free will.

    The combination of omnipotence, benevolence, and the existence of evil is more difficult to reconcile, and as someone who is not God, I can only guess at an explanation.  However, the best argument I've heard is that the existence of evil is like the existence of cold and the existence of darkness.  Cold is not a physical object itself, but is the absence of heat.  Darkness is the absence of light.  Similarly, evil is the absence of good.  Now, of course, people will say that if God is omniscient, and knew evil would result when He created the world, then the very fact that He created it means that He "created" evil just the same.  But you can always argue semantics.  If God knew a greater ultimate good would result from the world's creation, then He would still create it, despite the potential for evil.  Doesn't seem too hard of mental gymnastics to me.

    But I am guessing.  I do not know the mind of God....
    Gerhard Adam
    Precisely, omiscient means "all knowing".  Therefore he must know all outcomes, which means that he must know all the outcomes of the decisions we make.  Therefore we cannot act with "free will" since that would be tantamount to having the ability to surprise God.
    But you can always argue semantics.  If God knew a greater ultimate good would result from the world's creation, then He would still create it, despite the potential for evil.
    Sorry, but that doesn't follow.  If he created it for an ultimate good despite the potential for evil, then he still recognized that evil was a necessary part of the creation.  There's no semantics here, he either knew or he didn't. 
    I do not know the mind of God....
    You don't need to.  If you looked at an engineer that knew so little of how his work would behave you'd consider him incompetent to be an engineer.  Therefore if God is responsible for the act of creation, then he is responsible for all the ways in which it manifests.
    Mundus vult decipi
    robotkim
    Our acting with free will, from our own perspective, doesn't mean that it surprises God.  He has a different perspective than us.  God is so completely in a different "dimension," so to speak, from us, that His foreknowledge doesn't mean He is controlling our actions in our own dimension.  His knowing what we are about to do is not necessarily the same as controlling what we are about to do.  It could mean that, I agree, but I don't think that has to logically follow, when you consider the difference in perspective between humans and God.  God is outside of time, after all (existing before, and after, the creation of time), which totally disrupts how we think of causality.  Perhaps that is a "mental gymnastic" trick, but if it's true, there's not another way to explain it.

    As for recognizing that evil is a necessary part of the creation, I agree.  I think God did know evil was going to happen.  I just happen to believe that He thought the evil was worth the end result, whatever that may be.  I discipline my children, even though they may consider my actions "evil" at times, and even though I dislike doing it, because I know their future will be better for having had the discipline.  Not that all evil is "discipline," but it's a limited analogy.

    Even though I brought all this up in a scientific forum, in an attempt to discuss the issue logically (actually, just in an attempt to share other sources of material for the issue being discussed), I don't think trying to prove the existence of God and explain His actions with the principles of science is the best approach.  We have incomplete knowledge in both areas, and by definition, the spiritual dimension is different from the physical dimension.  Belief in God is based on faith, after all, not logic.  I just like trying to discuss the matter logically too.  But to make a final statement that I'm sure will generate plenty of negative reaction - there is always the possibility that our "will" is not just physically based, connected to everything in the world around us and before us, but actually has a spiritual dimension which is not determined by neurons, biology and chemistry.

    I know, totally unscientific.  :-)
    Gerhard Adam
    You're right.  Unless it's scientifically based, there's really nothing to discuss since literally anything is possible because it doesn't have to make sense.

    Regardless of however many dimensions you want to mention, the fact is that knowing ahead of time is foresight regardless of how it occurs.  If you know in advance something is going to happen then there can be nothing that is unexpected.  If it cannot be unexpected, then it cannot fit into the scheme of "freedom of will" which suggests being able to act in a manner for which there can be no foresight (except to the individual performing the action).

    God either knows or he doesn't.  If he knows, then regardless of what his existence might be, then it describes a specific cause and effect sequence that cannot be modified and therefore cannot be free.

    Mundus vult decipi
    briantaylor
    The less apt you are to making declarative statements the less likely you are to look foolish in retrospect.
    robotkim
    Yes, this really isn't the place for a full-fledged discussion of God, but thanks for humoring me!  Causality and time are a whole other discussion too.  (Several episodes of Star Trek actually have some intriguing takes on this.)

    Just to answer your questions, Tiffany, I was primarily referring to Christianity, as that is where the doctrinal debates about free will vs. determinism exist which I was referencing as additional, possibly relevant material.  And I would hope that all people should be respected, regardless of their beliefs, and regardless of whether their beliefs contradict our own.

    robotkim
    Hey, Tiffany, I'll reply to you in a separate email so we don't clutter up the discussion here....
    robotkim
    Tiffany - sorry I already emailed a reply using the contact form on this site, but I'll keep it here now instead.  Basically my reply said the same thing as Gerhard, just a bit wordier....
    It seems like the free will argument always devolves into the same old semantic labyrinth...

    It is an illusion; a deeply held, fiercely guarded, intuitive sense that we are supernatural. Just ask old Phineas Gage.

    Wes D. Sturdevant
       
        Wes D. SturdevantEven if we can predict what someone will do lets say I heard an argument for compatibilist sp? side saying something to the effect that even if we can predict what someone is going to do does that mean they didn't choose to do it?  Just a thought that I've been mulling over that I believe that our future is determined but that may not mean at a human level that we don't somehow choose and should be liable for our actions even though the future has already been laid out even if some waves are unpredictable on going through some slits.  I don't think that has much to change the effects of choice on a human level..  I'm not arguing here against determination and that we have free will which may be different than choice in actions?  Reminds me a little bit of the fallacy of composition, maybe the fallacy is already being addressed here though with this paragraph below.  Sorry just thinking through this a bit and do love your paragraph below here.  Which is included in what I had thought of for a blog that's been on my mind a long while.  But you've said it much better in a paragraph than i could explain in a page or two.  Anyway great article.

    P.S. Some great comments by the way and love the religious stuff I wanted to pipe in on some of it but then things would get answered so didn't know what to really comment on but thought I'd try to join in and get to know some people in here anyway and hopefully have more to say in more comments coming.

    "The next popular argument for a truly free will invokes quantum
    mechanics (the last refuge of those who prefer to keep things as
    mysterious as possible). Quantum events, it is argued, may have some
    effects that “bubble up” to the semi-macroscopic level of chemical
    interactions and electrical pulses in the brain. Since quantum
    mechanics is the only realm within which it does appear to make sense
    to talk about truly uncaused events, voilà!, we have (quantistic) free
    will. But even assuming that quantum events do “bubble up” in that way
    (it is far from a certain thing), what we gain under that scenario is
    random will, which seems to be an oxymoron (after all, “willing”
    something means to wish or direct events in a particular — most
    certainly not random — way). So that’s out as well."
    Well, on your view (and apparently Dennett 's view too), you could not have chosen otherwise because your situation and circumstances could not have been otherwise. In other words, you must deem your "undeniable feeling of free will" as being purely illusory. (I believe Dennett is an "eliminative materialist" who denies the reality of subjective experience itself; therefore, I fail to see how he can honestly argue for any version of free will - "compatibilist" or otherwise...especially when the idea of free will presupposes subjective experience).

    Also, indeterminism does not necessarily imply that each and every event is occurring uncaused; it simply implies that some element of randomness is at play. For example, quantum mechanics involves both deterministic and random aspects. And it would seem to me that creative intelligence involves both aspects - namely, thoughts, images, and ideas "spontaneously" rise up in our descision-making and thought-processes. The bottom line is that some element of spontaneity is required for true creativity and novelty. That's the kind of intelligence that I believe is worth having, not the kind that presupposes that we are simply "robots with consciousness."

    Gerhard Adam



    And it would seem to me that creative intelligence involves both aspects - namely, thoughts, images, and ideas "spontaneously" rise up in our descision-making and thought-processes.



    You'd have to be more specific in defining what you mean by "spontaneously".  While creativity may be the result of novel connections, there is no evidence to suggest that there is any such thing as a random creation of a piece of knowledge.

    Therefore everything that is in your brain, which you can use to make decisions or to express creativity must have arrived there through some mechanism.  While the final usage may not have been obvious (i.e. the creativity of novel connections), there is no ability to "know" something from nothing. 

    The "illusion" occurs because we are fundamentally unaware of how much information our brain processes and files away.  Similarly even when we are confronted with a new situation, if we can take the time to deliberate we can "create" a possible solution from our various pieces of "filed away" knowledge.  However, when a quick response is needed and there is no opportunity to deliberate, our brains will tend to revert to the default state of "fight, flight, or freeze".  All of these may buy time for a better decision, but there is always a cause and effect.  There is never a situation where information arrives without any connection to previous experience, exposure, or thought.


    For example, quantum mechanics involves both deterministic and random aspects.
    This particular statement is misleading, because when we talk about something like "free will" we aren't discussing the behavior of specific atoms.  Instead we're talking about aggregate behavior.  So to invoke the randomness of quantum mechanics is incorrect since despite such a phenomenon, we don't expect tables to randomly transform themselves into chairs.  In other words, that randomness doesn't translate into the macro world experience.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam..."You'd have to be more specific in defining what you mean by "spontaneously". "

    I am using the term "spontaneous" as a euphemism for "randomness."

    Gerhard Adam..."While creativity may be the result of novel connections, there is no evidence to suggest that there is any such thing as a random creation of a piece of knowledge."

    Well, I was not arguing for the evidence of "random creation of a piece of knowledge." I was simply making an argument that the concept of spontaneity, creativity, and free will are not incoherent.

    Just curious. Does "quantum decoherence" qualify as the random creation of information?

    Gerhard Adam..."Therefore everything that is in your brain, which you can use to make decisions or to express creativity must have arrived there through some mechanism. While the final usage may not have been obvious (i.e. the creativity of novel connections), there is no ability to "know" something from nothing."

    Why are you assuming that creativity must be a strictly mechanical process?

    Gerhard Adam..." All of these may buy time for a better decision, but there is always a cause and effect. There is never a situation where information arrives without any connection to previous experience, exposure, or thought"

    But the selection process of that information may be indeterminate.

    Gerhard Adam
    I am using the term "spontaneous" as a euphemism for "randomness."
    OK, but it can hardly be argued that the basis for "free will" or creativity is randomness.  After all, the concept of "will" is a directed action.  So there's no much point in discussing the "will" if it's simply a random process.
    Just curious. Does "quantum decoherence" qualify as the random creation of information?
    Perhaps information, but not knowledge.
    Why are you assuming that creativity must be a strictly mechanical process?
    What else would it be?  Information must be stored and it must be retrieved.  As I mentioned, there is certainly some element of "randomness" that may be associated with how these bits of information are "connected", but it is mechanical. 
    I was simply making an argument that the concept of spontaneity, creativity, and free will are not incoherent.
    But none of those points make any sense.  As you mentioned earlier, you were using spontaneity as a euphemism for randomness, but how can any random activity be considered an exercise of something called the "will"?  If anything, it would represent even less "free will" than is generally considered, because the individual has no ability to direct any of it.

    In addition, if we accept the concept of the "will" as being something that can be a directed mental activity, then what does the "free" mean?  Freedom from what?  If the implication is the "freedom" from a mechanistic process, then we're back to randomness which represents less control.
    But the selection process of that information may be indeterminate.
    It will be indeterminate to a degree, but your brain will also filter out the irrelevancies based on what is being thought about.  When this doesn't occur we generally consider it an inability to concentrate, because our thoughts seem to bounce around without any focus.

    So the point that "free will" is an incoherent idea, is based on the notion that without a deterministic process of accumulating information and reliably retrieving it, than the brain is operating with a more random element to it.  At that point, the brain process can't be considered "free" or a direction of "will".
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Free will" vs. "Determinism" is only an issue is you are stuck with ontology. Move to rigorous epistemology and contemplate your own experience in connection to recent data from neurology.

    Given that all that manifests does so due to causes and conditions, human consciousness/awareness provides "working space conditions" in which to evaluate "causal" inputs (including sensory impressions, thoughts, and emotions), such that choice of action can be made in a manner that we call "free will." When we lack consciousness/awareness (however we chose to define this aspect of our being) then we lack working space conditions to evaluate causal inputs such that we merely react unconsciously in a manner that we call "determined." Identical causes lead to different results due to different conditions. (How we act or react to a given situation changes. How two different people act in response to the same input.)

    This perspective leads to an understanding that the consciousness/awareness aspect of our being is experienced as relatively more or less, compared both to other people and to ourselves over time. Neurological tests support the fact that individuals maintain varying degrees of consciousness/awareness, and that there seem to be some limits as to the duration that can be maintained for most people (who otherwise get distracted and sleepy eventually). Clearly there are differences each of us experience throughout the day (from waking, to working, to day-dreaming, to resting, to sleeping), throughout a life (our awareness changing from childhood to adulthood), and from person to person.

    When we are reacting unconsciously, we do not pause to consider possible new responses but merely respond according to pre-programmed patterns (could be genetic or mimetic). When we are acting consciously, we pause to consider possible new responses (certainly influenced by pre-programmed patterns) such that we can act in ways that appear "spontaneous" and "free" in life. Moreover, individual consciousness can be cultivated and increase, and each of us can thus increase our relative ability to happily act with "free will" in life.

    Some relativistics ethics and morality can IMHO be derived from all of this, leading to the understanding that greater good (for both the individual as well as for society, no contradiction) derives from relatively conscious actions of individuals (while greater bad derives from the reactions of unconsious individuals, for example all manifestations of "mob mentality").

    Since we cannot control the outer world and the variety of inputs we will receive in life as causes, we are much happier when we gain the habit of control over the inner world of our conditions. Then we find some stability, confidence, and ability to act reasonably and with compassion, no matter what "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" befall us.

    For the people who are throwing in ideas like 'determinism' that sound like a steam engine or 'spontaneity' that can only be reached by quantumphysical uncertainty, I'll throw in some neurophysiology.
    As you all know, signals in the brain are depolarisations of the neuronal membrane, from -60mV to zero or a little plus. After this spike, the neuron needs some time -and energy- to regenerate the base potential of -60 mV, until the next signal comes through. But it can not hold up this potential for unlimited time. After some time, it has to release the potential, and so gives rise to an unintended, meaningless spike. I don't remember exactly how long this relaxation period is, but it is surprisingly short, and uncertain. The 'spontanious' relaxations might be triggered by physically, not galvanicilly, adjacent neurons or group of neurons, the overall electrical state of the brain (alpha, beta, or delta-patterns in ECG), or internal states like blood sugar, oxygen, temperature. You might even throw some quantum effects in here, I don't mind, or the nearness of a cell phone. So there is a constant noise in the brain of unintended spikes, which might seldomly combine into certain patterns which might resemble certain notions, impressions or ideas. Of course these associating notions have to already exist in the brain.
    At the same time there are meaningful processes going on in the brain, but these are slightly influenced, amplified or damped by the noisy patterns.
    These meaningful patterns should lead, in a sane mind, to clear and concrete perceptions and decisions, supported by already existing ideas, experience, ethics, education, training.
    This leads to my idea of free will and responsability. Given its preconditions, the brain has a choice what notions to pick up, maintain and transmit. If it sticks to the intended line of thought, it works in a determined way. If it lets in some quirky notions, it is acting creatively.
    If the result is a morally or socially unaccepted action, we may conclude that the preconditions of the brain are not right, or the brain is indulging in quirky stimuli too easily. So we put the brain, and the owner, in jail, to recover the problem, we hope.
    If the result is socially or artistically desirable, we cheer and applaud and praise the original idea or the creative art.

    As a sideline, this way of thinking also gives a physical explanation for psychological phenomena associated with dying.
    In a living brain, most neurons are at -60mV. Now look at a dead skull. Undoubtedly, all the potentials have fallen to zero. What happened in between? Apparently, at some moment, each neuron must have depolarised, spiked. This general, more or less random, signalling gives rise to more or less random notions, depending on the pre-existing, and rapidly deteroriating, memory content of the brain. At the same time the internal clock is failing, the notion of time fades away, enter eternity, with all your guilt and pride, forever.

    After these metaphysical musings, a concrete problem I have myself with free will:
    If you look at a photograph of the moon, because of the sharp shadows, it is possible to perceive in two ways:
    The right way, with craters as dishes, with sharp rims and a little nipple in the middle, or
    The wrong way, with craters like fat pancakes surrounded by a deep moat and a little dip in the middle.
    Long time ago i would see these pictures right or wrong, randomly.
    Later, I could force (will) myself to see them in the right way.
    Lately, I always see them the wrong way, and it costs me a lot of energy and headache to get the picture right. Mostly I give up. This is very annoying. Do other people have problems like this?
    If you respond to this, please give your age, gender, if you wear glasses or are an astronomer or astronaut.
    I'm 60 years, male, wear glasses since 10 years, and was staring at computerscreens most of my life.