I know this has been discussed before, but I have read Sam Harris' book Free Will and Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and I must say that I agree with both authors. Studies show that our brains make a decision on an unconscious level three tenths of a second and sometimes more before we even consciously know we're going to act. To take a short quote from Shermer's book: "The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act".

Tags: Free, Harris, Michael, Sam, Shermer, Will

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Daniel Dennett takes the compatibilist position. Do you disagree with this point-of-view?

Yes, I disagree with Dennett.

I think Dennett (and other compatibilists) defines "free will" in a way that most people don't "feel" they possess when they hear the words "free will". He basically moves the semantics away from the definition that holds all philosophical import. In other words, people think that they and others could have, of their own accord, done otherwise...and it is this that is tied to so many other important topics (economics, ethics, religion, politics, criminality, social, the way people feel about others, etc.).

I think the compatibilist usage of "free will" is no different than defining "god" as "nature" or "the universe". Sure, anyone can do so...and that particular definition of "god" surely would exist. But it's not helpful, not needed (in fact it takes away from the productivity of the topic), and it's just a way to avoid the more common types that most people believe (and a way of avoiding the issues around such a belief).

It also allows people to hold on to thinking they possess an ability that people like Dennett would, when pressed only, say they wouldn't.

I also think Dennett contrives various points surrounding the free will topic. For example, his usage of the word "evitible" is a play on words (I go over that in my book). 

Let me explain your "free will." Your brain records your experiences and events in your life. Somewhere within your brain are all of these experiences. When you have a choice to make you chose from the most likely of the stored events. This is almost a subconcious effort. It gives the illusion of "free will" and your choice might even be from something similar that worked for you in the past.

Now consider that the above is about one person only. Every other person would have went through this also, but they do not have the same experiences that you had. To do so they would have had to of been you. This opens up a whole set of other experiences giving some people more choices than others.

Not only does this define "free will" in terms we can identify with, but it makes true free will next to impossible!

"This opens up a whole set of other experiences giving some people more choices than others."

I think the important point is that they could only ever, of their own accord, choose one very specific option. None of the other options were ever "possible" options.

If I had the exact same particles as Hitler, in the exact same location and time as Hitler...I'd have the exact same genetic and environment variables, from family to friends to brain states, etc. I'd do nothing different than Hitler.

I wouldn't have a viable choice not to be Hitler. 

These understandings tie into just about everything we think or do. 

Trick, I don't know if you read me correctly or not, but your reply is exactly what I was trying to say. Some people don't get this but I think I do.

Ah...I thought so but wasn't 100% sure. I just wanted to clarify that "more choices" doesn't mean more than one are viable (only one is possible) for others.


Maybe I should have said that others "have different choices" and they do so only because they are not you, and you are not them. As for only one choice being viable, that is always the case.

This explains why the first thing a budding actor is told is, gesture before speech. The next time you watch a movie with a really good actor (say, Meryl Streep), watch how they move their body or make a gesture prior to opening their mouth to deliver the line. So I have to believe in that part about unconscious decision making.

I have not read the Dennett or the Harris books, so I probably shouldn't comment, but I am moved to do so. I have come under the influence of Jacques Monod, the Nobel-winning molecular biologist and friend of Camus. He shared with some other scientists the view that life on our planet arose by freak chemical accident. For Monod, it was extremely unlikely life as we know it was to be duplicated anywhere in the universe. In 1971, Monod wrote: "Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe [Meursault's "vast indifference"], out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose." (My emphasis.) Chance determines everything, from birth to death. Go ahead and will all you want, but life is what happens to us while we are planning our future.

Granting— for the sake of argument only— that free will does not exist and that our every thought and gesture is determined by processes mostly unconscious, are we able to act on that belief?

You might argue that we do indeed act on it in training children and in exercising self-discipline in life, but you might also argue that we do not when we hold people morally responsible for their actions.

Or we could argue that morality is emotive, not transcendental or metaphysical.

As indeed it is. Witness the Christian who goes to church every Sunday hearing "turn the other cheek," then going to court to give an impact statement on the rape of his sister, having told the prosecutor he'll settle for nothing less than life in prison.


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