We Have Limited Free Will

We have limited free will. Within certain limitations, we can make choices and act upon those choices. Our choices are partially controlled and determined by outside forces and by the laws of physics. But we have agency to act within certain bounds of natural laws that exist. We can exercise that agency, make choices and act upon those choices. Logic dictates there is no purpose or meaning to life if we do not have some free will. We instinctively know we have power to act in some things without constraint of necessity or fate. We are bound or limited by physics but we are independent agents within our sphere of influence. We intuitively think or feel we are free. We therefore act at our own discretion. We are capable of responding to random chance with purposeful choices. Thus we can be held morally responsible and accountable for our choices and actions in both the deterministic world of physics and the indeterminate world of observable quantum mechanics that we are still discovering.

Absolute free will is logically incompatible with determinism because we do not control the universe. However, as individuals, we are able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario. There are obvious choices in life we can choose to follow. We can conceive and believe things. This proves some free will even though there are limitations on the choices available to us. For example, because I am not a fish, I do not have the choice of living underwater without some sort of breathing apparatus. It is determined beforehand that human life is incompatible with living unaided under water. I am therefore limited to certain pre-determined boundaries if I want to sustain life. In like manner, in some situations I have a limited number of choices I can make because of the randomness of life. I hope I never have to decide what to do if I am in a plane that is about to crash. I would have no control of the physics causing the plane to crash, but I still have some obvious choices I can make and act upon, like remain calm or panic.

As an argument against any kind of free will, consider the views of hard determinism. Determinists believe that our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors are all predetermined from the moment that time began at the big bang. A determinist advocates that we do not have any control over the state of the universe or the laws that govern the universe. Free will is an illusion, they say. You may think that your choices and actions have an effect on the universe but you are really no more than an observer. For a determinist, free will is a nothing more than a necessary delusion that allows us to build a society where praise and punishment actually mean something. Compatibilists hold individuals morally responsible for their actions as if they had free will. Although it doesn’t really exist, they say, we can act as if it does, thus providing a necessary condition for moral responsibility – accountability.

Following this logic, the universe is deterministic and bound by the laws of physics. Our bodies are bound by those same laws. If you are a materialist, you believe that all behavior is caused by chemical brain states outside of our control. In order for free will to exist, there must be a supernatural agent that is not bound by those laws to inject an input from outside the system; in other words, a God. I wish I could develop this further, but for now I will propose that there are only two arguments against free will. First, if determinism is the true state of things, then the will is not free because all events are caused and our actions are predetermined. Therefore, there is no moral responsibility or free will. The second argument against free will is indeterminism of random events or chance. If all our actions are caused by chance then we have no control, and therefore, again, no free will or moral responsibility. True free will requires we have control of outcomes. However, we do not control the universe or the laws of physics. If you think about it, we control nothing of this world or the universe. To prove free will, we must prove that we can control at least some things, thus becoming independent agents with power to act.

I don’t disagree with all the views of materialists or determinists. In fact, I readily concur with determinists that the laws of the universe are outside our control. I also concur that a large part of our body processes are apparently outside the control of at least our conscious mind and will. I can’t control the motion of the planets, the effects of nature, or prevent myself from dying someday. These things are determined. My bounds are set in these matters and many others. I also concur with indeterminism as it relates to many of the choices with which I am presented in this life. So many things are just random and purely by chance. I come across an object on the freeway that gives me a flat tire. It was pure chance that I happened to come upon that object and embed it in my tire first because I just happened to be there at that place and at that time. Random chance is just part of this life. So many things – most things – are out of my control.

So what do I control? There are many things over which I have control and thus free will. I control my responses to the choices I am presented in life. I can control my thoughts. I can control the things I put into my body. I control the things I say and the things I do. Nobody forces me to act a certain way or respond in a specific manner. I control my attitudes and my beliefs. I decide what I will do with my time, who I will go visit, what work I will do, what I choose to study. I may not choose many of the things that happen to me in this life but I can and do choose how I respond to those situations. I determine the character I build by using my free will adequately. My free will is limited to those things over which I have some control and have choices. I do not have free will when it comes to the laws of physics and nature. They are out of my control. In the things over which I do have control such as thoughts, beliefs and opinions I choose what I want to think about or believe. My thoughts are not caused and are not random. They are purposeful and demonstrate free will, especially when I act upon them. Therefore, my conclusion is that we have limited or adequate determinism and limited but genuine free will.

5 comments for “We Have Limited Free Will

  1. October 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I wrote this as a position paper for a philosophy class Carol and I are taking in the evenings at the local community college. I am definitely not a hard determinist but can understand why some people would take that position. I also think I am not a libertarian because I do believe that real, genuine free will is possible where a libertarian’s position is that we will just act as if we have free will to make our society work. Ultimately, we have adequate and sufficient free will to fulfill our purpose in life which is to learn and grow.

  2. kramer
    October 16, 2011 at 5:02 am

    Wow! You’ve stumbled onto what every 6 year old knows.

  3. October 16, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Thanks Kramer. I agree. It seems so obvious. That’s why I couldn’t figure out why so many philosophers (apparently about 90 percent) hold that position that we don’t have free will. They argue we can only act as if it exists (compatibilism) in order to make society work. Yet it seems so basic to the rest of us. Why do they have such a hard time with this concept from William James? One of the few who gets it today is Bob Doyle at The Infomation Philosopher:

    http://www.informationphilosopher.com/

  4. Nadine Hays
    October 17, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Here’s an expansion of your thoughts, Tim.

    I personally have been trying to figure out what is going on in our world…why are we in the position that we are?

    I have come to the conclusion that our country, as prophesied in 2 Nephi 1, indeed was a “chosen nation”. 2 Nephi reads: ” 5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have
    obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.”

    Our country was established on some incredible principles, as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. When you discuss agency, we must remember how privileged we have been to be able to exert our agency in matters that in other countries would have resulted in our being imprisoned or even sentenced to death.

    Some of these privileges are gradually going away due to the direction our political leaders are taking us. Our political leaders are doing this because “the poeple” are allowing them to do so. A large percentage of our population are either indignant or ignorant regarding this, which is why this is happening.

    People need to start speaking up if they want to have the gift of agency preserved. Some people say that the suppression that is going on has been prophesied and we can’t do anything to change it. Well, in 2 Nehpi 1:23 it says “Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.”

    We cannot shake off the chains if we are not informed. It is indeed my prayer that more people will start to wonder as I have. I have a testimony that as we search for the truth, it will be made known to us. We all must remember that it is indeed our agency that will decide whether we choose to do this or not. All that I can say to my fellow brothers and sisters in the world is: “CTR” (Choose The Right).

    One of my favorite books is entitled The Five Thousand Year Leap. It was written by Cleon Skousen. This man has an incredible way of showing us how God’s way and man’s way should run together in harmony, and not antagonistically, as it is doing today. If one is short on money, I have posted this book on my blog SearchPonderAndPrayToday.blogspot.com. All I can say is try it, you’ll like it.

    Thank you, Tim, for doing this post about agency on your blog.

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