[ The Absence of Volition ]

The Absence of Volition
Where we try to prove that "free will" is an illusion and discuss the consequences of this realization.

{ Thursday, August 21, 2003 }

The Free Will Fiction | Introduction"It is generally taken for granted that our minds are the sole uncaused cause of our thoughts and decisions, and therefore our actions. According to this view, the only constraints on what we can think about are the limits of our knowledge and imagination, while how we decide to act is constrained only by physical viability. And however we do think, decide and act, we could have done so differently. In other words, we possess free will. Indeed, any suggestion that this is not the case would not be taken seriously at all by most people. We certainly do not sense that anything other than our minds are the ultimate determiner of our thoughts, decisions and actions. Also, when we observe other people, they certainly seem to be thinking, deciding and acting out of their own volition. Yet, despite all of this, the concept of free will is in fact incompatible with our basic understanding of the brain and its relation to the mind."

{ Monday, August 11, 2003 }

Another defintion: "A common definition of free will is the following: A decision is free if an agent could have decided differently. "
The experiments of Libet, et al., and their implications for free will

In a ground-breaking series of experiments first reported in 1973 (see Benjamin Libet, Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action, The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1985, 529-566), Benjamin Libet, et al., showed that the earliest experiential awareness of a sensory stimulus occurs about 500 msec (0.5 sec) after the stimulus itself. This demonstrates that none of our experiences of perception are in real time, but in fact are delayed by about one-half second after the actual events. This delay is the time required for neurological electrical potentials (the readiness potential RP, which was measured by using electrodes surgically implanted in the brain) to rise to the level necessary for experiential awareness. This means that it is impossible to respond volitionally in less than 500 msec to any stimulus since our experience is always delayed by that much. However, Libet showed that meaningful unconscious behavioral responses can occur in as little as 100 msec after a stimulus, showing that meaningful behavior need not be conscious behavior.
In 1983, Libet, et al., reported an even more profound set of experiences in which the subjects, rather than responding to sensory stimuli, were 'volitionally' initiating muscular acts. The experiments showed that the readiness potential RP began 550 to 1050 msec before the muscular response, but the experiential awareness of the willingness to perform the action followed the onset of the RP by about 350 msec. (This awareness could not be signaled by the subject pushing a button because that would require another decision for muscular action. It was measured by having the subject associate his reading of an electronic clock with the onset of his awareness of the decision.) Thus, the decision to perform a muscular act is made prior to the awareness of the decision. In other words, we become aware of a decision only after the decision has already been made. Libet speculates that it may be possible to consciously veto such an unconscious decision if it is done within the last 100 - 200 msec before the action is to occur. If such a veto decision is preceded by a RP, it would be very difficult to measure it in the presence of the original RP, so experimental verification of conscious veto decisions is not presently possible. However, the possibility of volitional veto decisions is negated by the considerations in the following paragraph, and by those in Sections 5.10 and 5.12.

Libet’s experiments point to a general concept which a little thought shows must always be valid. This is that everything that happens must happen before we can become aware of it. There is always a time lag between any neurological or sensory process and our awareness of the thought, feeling, sensation, or action which represents it. In Libet’s experiments, this gap ranged between 350 msec and 500 msec, but the exact value is unimportant. So long as this gap exists, no matter how large or small, whether it is one hour or one microsecond, our experience of the objective present must always come in the objective past (the subjective present) as measured by a clock or other instrument. In other words, the subjective present always lags the objective present.

The consequences of this insight are extraordinary, revolutionary, and far-ranging. It means that any thought, feeling, sensation, or action always occurs objectively before we become aware of it subjectively and hence there is no possibility that we can avoid it. This includes any choices or decisions that are made. We inescapably live in the objective past so that the objective present and future are completely beyond our control."

Chapter 10: "the absence of free will, or volition, has been confirmed scientifically and logically, and can be verified merely by watching the mind, and seeing that all thoughts, without exception, arise completely spontaneously. Thus, the thought that 'I' shall decide one way or another also arises completely spontaneously, and therefore is not an act of free will. The absence of an individual thinker is verified by asking, 'Who is it that is thinking this?' or, 'Who is the 'I' that is thinking this?', then looking for the thinker, which cannot be found. Similarly, the absence of the doer is verified by asking, 'Who is it that is doing this?' or, 'Who is the 'I' that is doing this?', and looking for the doer, which also cannot be found. Now if we ask, 'Who is it that is looking?', the observer cannot be found either."

{ Saturday, August 09, 2003 }

another reason to suspect the concept of "free will" is that I'm not altogether sure who or what it is people think is doing the thinking in the first place. Who is the subject? Who is driving the car? The mind? But the mind is itself comprised of thought. The soul? What is that? Even most people who BELIEVE in the soul (and I am not one) cannot describe it, its more of a concept that anything supported by evidence, so how do you say "I am in control of my thoughts and actions" and then pass that control off to a conceptual "soul" which you cannot even describe or show evidence of?

Turtles standing on turtles, all the way down...

{ Wednesday, August 06, 2003 }

today i had a discussion with someone about free will. she struggled with the concept that a "decision" is also a thought.

"Yes", she would say, "thoughts are spontaneous, but I have all of these thoughts and then I make a decision. That is different. I control that."

"Does that "decision" occur in the mind?" I asked.


"Isn't eveything that occurs within the mind called a thought?"


"Then a decision is a thought. And you admit you cannot explain to me the process by which you create a thought, therefore it is out of your control, therefore you do not have 'free will'."

I'll have to think about that, she said. And besides, I don't think we are talking about the same thing. I am talking about having freedom of choice, and you are talking about free will.

"But free will," I said, "is defined as 'The power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by an agency such as fate or divine will'."

These are different things, she said. And perhaps she is right. Is this a problem of definition?

{ Tuesday, August 05, 2003 }

I've just been reading an article on www.rationality.net called "Free Will vs. Determinism" by Walter E. Requadt. Walter is pro free will.

Walter starts by discussing the principal of cause and effect. He states "If we extend the hypothesis of total causality to its ultimate conclusion, we must concede that the beginning and the end of the universe, as well as absolutely all events in our own lives, became completely predestined once that cause/effect chain was set in motion at the beginning of time and the universe". Good point, I thought.

Walter then states that this position is "untenable" due to the "religious and societal dilemmas caused by the strict denial of human free will". For some reason we have drifted from a scientific discussion to a moral argument.

However, he then jumps back to science: "Although the laws of classical (Newtonian) physics stipulate total causality, we have long been aware of several major factors which negate the insistence on immutable cause/effect relationships."

He then proceeds to explain why, in his opinion, cause and effect is a big mistake and, therefore, free will must exist (makes no sense to me at all).

I'm still looking for someone to explain to me how they create a thought. I'm thinking about posting a reward.


Another perspective.

{ Monday, August 04, 2003 }

Immortality Institute - For Infinite Lifespans

An active discussion group on free will.

The Free Will Fiction | Conclusion: "The fact that we do not possess free will is as undeniable as the fact that Earth goes around Sun. Yet, the vast majority of people today believe that they possess free will, and react to the suggestion that they do not with the same bemusement and disdain as if it had been suggested that it is in fact Sun that goes around Earth. "
Notes (Part 1 of 4) on Free Will and Determinism - Prof. Norman Swartz: "Lecture Notes on Free Will and Determinism"

"The question of free will, moral liberty, or the liberum arbitrium of the Schoolmen, ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical problems of all time."

So opens the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on free will. It contains an enjoyable read on the history of free will in ancient philosophy.

"Democritus also taught that all events occur by necessity, and the Greek atomists generally, like their modern representatives, advocated a mechanical theory of the universe, which excluded all contingency."

Socrates and Plato, also, believed that it was "impossible deliberately to do what one clearly perceives to be wrong" and therefore believed that each action was predicated by the desire for one's own greatest good. Aristotle and the Stoics also seemed to believe in a universe "governed by rigid law" which precludes room for free will.

It seems to be the early Christians who pushed the concept of free will onto humans. "The problem of free will assumed quite a new character with the advent of the Christian religion. The doctrine that God has created man, has commanded him to obey the moral law, and has promised to reward or punish him for observance or violation of this law, made the reality of moral liberty an issue of transcendent importance. Unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions, any more than for the date of his birth or the colour of his eyes."

And here, perhaps, we find the source of our modern day belief in free will. 2000 years of Christian conditioning has lead us to believe that GOD wants us to have moral liberty, in order to threaten us with punishment if we do not obey the laws of God (and, of course, of God's representatives and translators).

One section which confuses me, however, is on St. Augustine. It reads: "Among the early Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine stands pre-eminent in his handling of this subject. He clearly teaches the freedom of the will against the Manichæeans, but insists against the Semipelageians on the necessity of grace, as a foundation of merit. He also emphasizes very strongly the absolute rule of God over men's wills by His omnipotence and omniscience--through the infinite store, as it were, of motives which He has had at His disposal from all eternity, and by the foreknowledge of those to which the will of each human being would freely consent."

So did St. Augustine believe in free will or God's omnipotence?

Apparently the Reformers were determinists:
"...a leading feature in the teaching of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially in the case of Luther and Calvin, was the denial of free will... they drew the conclusion that the human will, instead of being master of its own acts, is rigidly predetermined in all its choices throughout life. As a consequence, man is predestined before his birth to eternal punishment or reward in such fashion that he never can have had any real free-power over his own fate. In his controversy with Erasmus, who defended free will, Luther frankly stated that free will is a fiction, a name which covers no reality, for it is not in man's power to think well or ill, since all events occur by necessity. With Calvin, God's preordination is, if possible, even more fatal to free will. Man can perform no sort of good act unless necessitated to it by God's grace which it is impossible for him to resist. It is absurd to speak of the human will "co-operating" with God's grace, for this would imply that man could resist the grace of God. The will of God is the very necessity of things."

On to modern philosophy:

"In England the mechanical materialism of Hobbes was incompatible with moral liberty, and he accepted with cynical frankness all the logical consequences of his theory. Our actions either follow the first appetite that arises in the mind, or there is a series of alternate appetites and fears, which we call deliberation. The last appetite or fear, that which triumphs, we call will. The only intelligible freedom is the power to do what one desires... Hume reinforced the determinist attack on free will by his suggested psychological analysis of the notion or feeling of "necessity". The controversy, according to him, has been due to misconception of the meaning of words and the error that the alternative to free will is necessity. This necessity, he says, is erroneously ascribed to some kind of internal nexus supposed to bind all causes to their effects, whereas there is really nothing more in causality than constant succession. The imagined necessity is merely a product of custom or association of ideas. Not feeling in our acts of choice this necessity, which we attribute to the causation of material agents, we mistakenly imagine that our volitions have no causes and so are free, whereas they are as strictly determined by the feelings or motives which have gone before, as any material effects are determined by their material antecedents. In all our reasonings respecting other persons, we infer their future conduct from their wonted action under particular motives with the same sort of certainty as in the case of physical causation."

In addition, neither Kant nor Schopenhauer gave any credence to free will.

The whole article is worth reading, especially the arguments for and against and the "proof" provided at the end. The proofs, as they are called, are delivered as two kinds of arguments: the Ethical and the Psychological. The Ethical argument basically states that we need to accept the concept of free will in order to have law and order. As I have attempted to explain in an earlier post, I don't hold this to be true. I don't believe in free will, yet I am willing to take responsibility for my actions. Society has rules - my ability to live by them may not be in my control, but I have no choice but to live according to them anyway. The Psychologial argument basically states that because we feel ourselves to be free, we must be. Of course, I believe this to be a nonsensical argument. We believe ourselves to be free because we have been conditioned that way. As Hume states above, "we mistakenly imagine that our volitions have no causes and so are free, whereas they are as strictly determined by the feelings or motives which have gone before".

I challenge any reader to take my two tests at the beginning of this blog and explain to me the process by which they create a thought.

{ Sunday, August 03, 2003 }

In response to my below post, "anonymous" writes:

"There are significant flaws in logic to the argument.

There are many contradictions to the author's (and here I am assuming anonymous is referring to Winston_H, not myself, although it isn't clear) premise/definition of determinism. In addition, there are many more assumptions given in regards to the concept and meaning and consequences of free will.

It frequently comes across as self-serving, duplicitous justification with little regard to sound reasoning. This is not an attack on determinism or the author, but rather a disappointed observation of how the argument is presented."

While I respect anonymous' position, he/she hasn't bothered to provide any counter argument or suggested ways to improve the logic of the argument (if, in fact, anonymous agrees with determinism).

I am not a professional philosopher and am happy to admit (even celebrate!) my shortcomings in this regard. The posts on this site are not intended to serve as a grounding in philosophy 101, only as representations of personal experiences regarding the absence of the phenomenon known as free will. I am more than happy to take counsel from those wiser than I in how to present arguments for either side of the debate.

Why Determinism is Superior to Free Will

I like this post to humanities.philosophy.objectivism back in march 2002 written by Winston_H (climber06@earthlink.net), where he explains his reasons for preferring determinism over free will:

"With determinism, we are free to feel great almost all of the time. Here's a few reasons why:

1) If we are deterministic, then everyone is doing their absolute best at all times without fail. That means no one should feel blame, shame, guilt or remorse for anything. I'm not saying we don't need prisons or that there should be no consequences for anti-social behavior. I'm saying let yourself feel the inner peace of accepting reality: everyone is doing their absolute best at all times.
2) If we are in fact deterministic, then no one is to blame for anything they do. That doesn't mean they should not be held accountable, but it means that everyone should be accepted in total without shame, blame, or guilt.
3) If we are deterministic, then it is foolish to emotionally resist the reality of what others think, say or do because it is as stupid as resisting the reality that a tree fell over and crushed the dog house.
4) Free will brings the notion that we need to be perfect: that we should have known better, should have done better, that we 'deserve' to feel guilty, that we 'deserve' to feel bad. Its a crock of shit with no basis in science or reality that I can see.
5) Free will tells us that its okay, right, and correct to blame others, to be angry toward others, to retaliate against others, on and on into limitless negativity."

Winston captures here some of the reasons why I believe a deterministic personal philosophy leads to an inner serenity.

by Ted Honderich

"There is a venerable tradition in philosophy named Compatibilism which flows from Hobbes and Hume. It is dedicated to the idea that if determinism is true, each of us may nevertheless be held morally responsible for actions, and be credited with responsibility for actions. Moral responsibility for an action does indeed presuppose that the action was freely chosen, but an action can be freely chosen even if determinism is true -- freedom and determinism are logically compatible.

This is so, we are told, since freedom consists in voluntariness. Many definitions have been given of voluntariness. Their central idea is that a voluntary choice is one that is according to the desires and the nature of the individual, which is to say not forced upon her by something external, notably other persons or a constraining environment. Again, a voluntary choice may be regarded as a matter of embraced desires as distinct from reluctant desires. Indubitably freedom of this kind is consistent with determinism, since it can amount to choices having a certain sort of causation rather than no causation.

There is a another venerable tradition named Incompatibilism. Some of Kant's reflections on freedom are within it. It is dedicated to the idea that if determinism is true, none of us can be held morally responsible for our actions, or be credited with responsibility for them. That is because moral responsibility for an action presupposes that the action was freely chosen, but free not only iin being voluntary. A free choice, we are told, is also one which was originated. The philosophers of this tradition, as I have already remarked, have succeeded in giving only the thinnest account of origination. One clear thing, however, is that it is logically incompatible with determinism. An originated choice is disconnected from antecedents -- or, to be more careful, not connected with them in the way that is true of an effect. "

Tom Wolfe: Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died

This is the 1996 article that was referred to in the Dennett article below.

Wolfe says that, according to Edward O. Wilson, the creator of the new field of sociobiology, every human brain is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as "an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid." You can develop the negative well or you can develop it poorly, but either way you are going to get precious little that is not already imprinted on the film. The print is the individual's genetic history, over thousands of years of evolution, and there is not much anybody can do about it. Furthermore, says Wilson, genetics determine not only things such as temperament, role preferences, emotional responses, and levels of aggression, but also many of our most revered moral choices, which are not choices at all in any free-will sense but tendencies imprinted in the hypothalamus and limbic regions of the brain, a concept expanded upon in 1993 in a much-talked-about book, The Moral Sense , by James Q. Wilson (no kin to Edward O.).

Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system--and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth--what makes you think you have free will?

Wolfe's sums up the current vindication of people of their actions as "Don't blame me! I'm wired wrong!"

He also discusses David Lykken and Auke Tellegen's study at the University of Minnesota of two thousand twins that shows, according to these two evolutionary psychologists, that an individual's happiness is largely genetic. Apparently, some people are hardwired to be happy and some are not.

New Scientist | Human Nature

Free will, but not as we know it
Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is one of the few philosophers you will have heard of. Over the past 20 years he has produced a series of bestselling books, including Consciousness Explained and Darwin 's Dangerous Idea . In his new book, Freedom Evolves, Dennett takes on one of the big questions in philosophy how is free will compatible with a scientific view of the world?

The most interesting part of this article, for me, is what Dennett calls "the spectre of creeping exculpation". This is the challenge many people have when they are faced with evidence (from taking my below tests) that free will is an illusion.

"But that means", they will usually cry, "that we can all do whatever we want and we can't be held responsible because we have no choice, no free will!".

The suggestion is that this will inevitably lead to the end of the universe, as anarchy and chaos will reign supreme.

What they usually fail to appreciate is that they have NEVER had free will... it has always been an illusions... and the world hasn't yet descended into anarchy. Why? Because we our programming doesn't allow us to. We have all been programmed (I'm no neuroscientist, but I guess it's through a combination of our genetics and our conditioning) in a way which keeps society functioning.

As far as I'm concerned, not believing in free will doesn't mean I am suddenly not accountable for my actions. As least legally, if not morally, we should all be held responsible for the outcomes of our actions, even if we are "pre-determined" to carry out those actions. Why? Because that's how a society works.

for about 15 years i have been examining the question of free will. i have been studying my own thoughts and actions carefully, trying to determine some evidence for the existence of free will. i have come up with nothing. a big fat zero. i've questioned others about the subject, and the overwhelming majority of people i meet seem to believe in the existence of free will as if it is a foundational truth that shouldn't even be examined. however when i ask them to explain why they believe they have free will, their answers are typically murky.

i have developed what i call "cameron's patented tests to prove the non-existence of free will". i will share them with you now. these tests usually at least force people to re-think their assumptions, but rarely do they seem to be overly concerned about the outcome of these tests.

first we should clarify our definitions for, as plato said, "the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms."

Free Will, power or ability of the human mind to choose a course of action or make a decision without being subject to restraints imposed by antecedent causes, by necessity, or by divine predetermination. A completely free act is itself a cause and not an effect; it is beyond causal sequence or the law of causality. The question of human beings' ability to determine their actions is important in philosophy, particularly in metaphysics and ethics, and in theology. Generally, the extreme doctrine in which freedom of the will is affirmed is termed libertarianism; its opposite, determinism, is the doctrine that human action is not willed freely, but is rather the result of such influences as passions, desires, physical conditions, and external circumstances beyond the control of the individual.
Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

TEST ONE: explain to me the process by which you create a thought. if you cannot explain how you create a thought, then you cannot claim to be in control of your thoughts. if you are not in control of your thoughts, then you have no free will. "choices" and "decisions" are thoughts.

TEST TWO: stop thinking. if you cannot stop the thought process, then you are not in control of it. thinking is like digestion, it happens automatically, as a result of your (brain) biology.

the point of these tests is to demonstrate that thoughts appear spontaneously in our awareness. these things we call "decisions" are simply thoughts. conscious action (as opposed to unconscious or subconscious actions, which cannot be claimed to be the result of free will) follows thought.


  • 08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003

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