Uncommon Sense

March 29, 2020

A Few Additional Thoughts on the Free Will Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 8:53 am

The free will question is a question about whether our universe is dominated by cause and effect, such that decisions we make are determined by physical causes and not some mystical internal will that allows us to ignore those. Many religions claim that free will is a gift from their god. Of course, many of the religions claim that everything is a gift from their god, but even so.

Many religions almost require free will because without it their punishments cannot be based upon choices that we make because we do not make them, the universe makes those choices by providing the causes of them. So the free will question is not a simple one because some of the debate participants have not-very-well-hidden agendas.

As things about our nature become known, the question pops up again and again. For example, when subliminal stimuli became known, these brought about another round in this debate. For example, say you are in an ice cream shop and two cups of ice cream are placed before you: one vanilla flavored, the other chocolate. You have no particular preference, so can you choose one or the other freely? But, unbeknownst to you, an agent of an evil government has been releasing chocolate scents into the ventilation system at a subliminal level so that you do not notice the odors, but your body still detects them, and you choose . . . the chocolate ice cream! The determinists say, “See, you do not have free will!” Your choice was determined by physical stimuli not in your control. Okay, rewind the story, and again, you are faced with the two cups of ice cream. The same dastardly agent is at work behind the scene creating a subliminal odor favoring the choice of chocolate. But this time, you have a cold and cannot smell that chocolate and you choose . . . vanilla. So, was your choice free or determined?

Who the Hell knows? What we do know is that we are not free from manipulation. Psychologists have discovered we all can be primed to make certain decision or take certain actions by all manner of things, so it is not just subliminal factors that bias our choices. The free will question though, asks if all of our choices made because of just such factors.

I think the question is premature, but I am leaning to the opinion that we do have free will  to some extent. This is based partly upon the fact that the physical basis of reality is probabilistic, not deterministic, so rigid determinism is not physically possible. We also have wiggle room in the definitions and you can see people taking advantage of this like cockroaches scurrying for cover when the lights are turned on in a flop house. My favorite is that we insist that free will be conscious free will when we are large beings operating sub- or un-consciously.

I think I have used this example before but I once saw (on TV) one of the world’s best poker players throw away a winning hand for no good reason. Later, he was interviewed about that hand to elucidate his thinking and he replied simply, I didn’t see that I had a flush; I missed it . . . with a sheepish grin on his face. As was once famously said, mistakes were made. Not only that but random variations show up in all kinds of things. For example, identical twins form because a fertilized egg fissions into two fertilized ova, each necessarily having the exact same genetic profile, the same environment, same mother, same father, same, same, same. And yet, soon after birth the mother has no difficulty telling them apart; in other words they are not quite identical. The manifesting of the babies from their identical genetic information involves some random variations. Identical twins enjoy dressing alike and taking each others places, but people who know both well usually can tell them apart.

These random events are woven into the universe. Many people are aware, for example, that atom bombs were first made from uranium-235 and that it is a minority isotope that had to be separated from the vastly more common uranium-238 isotope. What a lot of people do not know is that U-238 is also radioactive. It is speculated that when the Earth formed, the numbers of the two isotopes were about equal. In all of this time, however half of the U-238 has decomposed whereas almost all of the U-235 has decomposed, leaving the amount of U-235 at less than 1% of uranium atoms and U-238 being over 99% of all uranium atoms.

Now, think of the U-238. Imagine a speck of this substance at about the time the earth formed. Two atoms of U-238, side by side, one of which popped off right at the beginning of that period and the other waited 4.5 billion years before it popped off. The two atoms were identical. There is no difference between atoms of isotopes of any of the elements that we can detect. There are also very, very few external conditions that have any effect whatsoever upon the rate at which atoms decay radioactively. A third atom of U-238, right next to the first two, might decay tomorrow or might not for 10 billion years. There is no way to tell. The kinetic theory of gases is another example and, of course, the weirdnesses of quantum mechanics.

The fundamental behaviors at the root of physical reality all seem to be probabilistic and this doesn’t somehow combine to form a deterministic universe. So, if there is no free will, what the heck is there behind any choices we have to make?


  1. I’ve always argued that you can’t have an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent creator deity and still have free will. The two concepts are completely antithetical. At least not as christians currently define a supreme being. The current christian concept of the deity is a being which knows everything that is, was, and will be. If this deity already knows that I will perform a specific action at specific time in the future, I have no free will. My actions are predetermined or this being could not know what they will be. So if the current christian concept of ‘god’ is accurate, there can be no free will because god already knows what we’re going to do at every point in the future.

    I think we do have free will, to a certain extent, that is. It’s a very convoluted and difficult to interpret idea, really. We are influenced by so many factors that it becomes difficult. Someone who knows me very well could almost certainly make an accurate guess as to which of two choices I would make under certain circumstances. But I would still be free to make either choice. Maybe. Sort of?


    Comment by grouchyfarmer — March 29, 2020 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

    • I am with you sort kinda. We are free to make many decisions which can be manipulated. We are free to avoid the manipulation. Even so, most decisions we make are subconscious and until we know more about these processes we cannot know anything for sure. A pure deterministic universe, does not however seem to be in the cards. So, we are left with a question of “how free are we?” kind of like the nature or nurture question. It didn’t turn out to be an either-or question either.

      On Sun, Mar 29, 2020 at 10:35 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — March 31, 2020 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

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