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A Tiny First Step into Free Will and Decisions

Cremisi's picture

   The issue of free will is something I often struggle with. Partly because I do not feel as though I have enough background knowledge and understanding of concepts directly applicable to it, and partly because, as philosophers and scientists have been arguing about it for nearly two millennia, it is simply an unsolvable problem. This essay is a small venture to help further my own understanding about free will. I will begin by attempting to trace my current understandings of free will, the issues and problems that I have with it, and the general questions that I still posses about it. Then, I will present a comprehensive definition of free will, and provide a mini lesson given by Robert Kane which helps define the nitty-gritty of what free will could mean. Then, I will briefly discuss which theory is most appealing to me and see if my own understandings on the concepts have evolved and why, and how it could possibly be related to our class discussions and the theory of evolution and the evolution of stories. 

“Do we have free will?” surely seems like a simple enough question. “Of course we do” would seem like the obvious answer. In a elementary way, free will, to me, means the ability to be able to choose what to do and how to do something in hopes of reaching a specific outcome. This very morning, I decided to get out of bed early this morning because I wanted to get more work done in the day. My will was to get up promptly at seven with the intent to start homework earlier. In the process of getting out of bed, I got up very slowly in attempts to avoid hurting my sore back. I decided to walk to the gym with the intention of working out with the hopeful desire that eventually, I will become stronger and more fit. I decided to eat at a specific time, and I decided which food I would eat. I decided to eat whole grain cereal because it is more healthy, and I decided to balance it out with fruit. Looking at it all from this point of view, free will does not even seem like something we could argue over. We consciously choose from a massive amount of options each day, and each individual has a very distinct course that writes the history of his or her day. I could have stayed in bed rather than get out of it; I could have sprung up from the bed sheets to employ the “band-aid” strategy of dealing with pain rather than a slow ease into it; I could have went to the gym, turned around, and decided to do something else entirely; and I could have decided to have something fried and dripping with grease for breakfast. When I think of free will in this light, it is so simple to puff out my chest and knowingly assert, “of course there is such thing as free will--look at all the options that I chose from today.” However, of course, that is but a mere crumb into the entire issue of free will--it is much deeper than simply choosing to do something or not. The issue of free will appears to rest outside of the self, or the mind--I cannot begin addressing it until I take a step back to see the way I react to stimuli and look at the options available to me. 

So again, I ask myself: “do we have free will?” this time, I plan to tread a bit more carefully. “Well, how is free will even defined?” rings my response in my head. In Robert Kane’s 1996 book, The Significance of Free Will , he accepts Bramhall’s thesis as his own in that, “[Free will is] freedom of the agent is from the freedom of the will.” To me, that means that someone is able to make novel ideas and is a free-reasoning person if they have the means to have a will or desire of their own. For clarity’s sake, i’m first going to address small aspects of free will--as there are, no doubt, many types of free will in different contexts. 

If free will can be defined as creating the freedom of the agent, it begs the question, what defines the agent? A will, or decisions one makes on how to act, or how they behave, often sets us apart from one another. I think it would then be easiest to start with the biological and physiological aspect of free will in decision-making and response of behaviors. 

When a person does something, we could say that that person is acting upon it because he or she has chosen to do so. he or she chose that specific course of action to get something that he or she wanted. However, biologically speaking, what is really controlling these actions? If I try to type out words on my keyboard, I feel as though I am in control over myself--I am “telling” my fingers to move to specific places directly so that the conglomeration of those letters can form a word that makes sense to me. This would seem to imply however that my fingers are a separate entity than myself and I am communicating with them. However, I am me in my body--am my body, rather. In addition, there are certain instances where individuals, perhaps afflicted with some ailment can easily tell their fingers or body parts to move, but they simply cannot move it. This individual, assuming that he or she is still cognitively sound and is able to function in society with a clear, coherent mind, demonstrates that simply by us wanting, or telling ourselves to do something does not necessarily make the action happen. So again, I tell my fingers to write. However, it is my brain sending the signals to my fingers to press specific keys on the keyboard down to form a word. The part of my brain that is in control of moving my fingers right now, is telling my fingers to be moving. However, as I mentioned earlier, individuals do not always have complete control over his or her brain’s ability to impart instructions to different parts of the body. Perhaps this would indicate that we are not necessarily in control of our minds (though we think we have control) but that we are merely conscious of the fact that they exist and make us function. Or to go further, that our minds exists separately from our brains and our minds make us conscious of the world and our selves, but the brain is in control of our mind. 

Back to the keyboard predicament, how am I pressing the keys? I am not swallowing my verbal words back into my throat to be delivered up to my brain so that they may be transcribed into electrical currents to the fascia in my fingers.  It has long been a well-supported theory in science that matter responds in predictable ways to stimuli. What stimuli is driving the pressure on my brain to make me press the specific keys that I am pressing now? Because, as I mentioned earlier, our minds don’t always have control over our brains, there must be something else stimulating the section of the brain to make me perform in a specific way. 

I know I haven’t made the decision, and I know that something must be influencing my brain to make the decision to make my hands gracefully glide across the keyboard. What influenced my brain? What influenced the stimuli that influenced the influence? And so on and so forth. this issue could be discussed ad naseum, looping back around like the ouroboros. For now, I will leave the question of how the physiology of the brain transformed into action to venture into another idea: if we are, for the most part, matter responding to stimuli, how do we account for differences in personality and people? If we are all genetically nearly identical, what accounts for the vast difference we see between all different sorts of people? Personality is due, in part, to genetics, (though, through numerous twin studies scientists have found that there still are differences in personality in both situations where genetically identical twins have been separated, and when genetically identical twins have been reared in concert) and partly to environment. 

However, perhaps the differences we see are more representative of different options chosen by individuals. There could be a large pool of all the available situations and instances in life, and simply due to dumb luck (let’s say that certain matter has four millions predictable ways in which it could react.) it chooses one of the possible situations in that massive pool. This is very similar to the idea of the Library of Babel that Daniel Dennet described in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. All the stories, or options in the way we could react or be, already exist in a theoretical library. After the situation has been randomly chosen, then maybe it could employ one of its four million ways in which it could react to that situation. The large pool of possibilities, and the four million ways in which to react to them would appear to give us a lot of wiggle room--it would seem, due simply to the incomprehensible size of the amount of pairings that could exist, that each individual is responding and reacting differently to a situation. However, it may very well just be an instance where his or her matter (brain, experiences, self, mind) has randomly selected one of the millions of choices of situations, then has been paired with one of the millions of ways to respond to it. Maybe it is not so much about the endless choice that we have, (which makes us believe that we have a large control over our will and agency)  but  maybe it’s more about the fact that due to the sheer magnitude of predictable possibilities that we could potentially experience, we are blinded and numbed by the expansiveness of it which results in us thinking that we were the original creators and doers of every option we had made in our lives. 

I often experience this phenomenon, especially when I’m at a Mexican restaurant. Mexican restaurants, unlike other restaurants, seem to have an exceptionally high number of food items on their menu. So many, in fact, that it is a bit overwhelming. When I look for something to eat, the massiveness of the menu makes me quite miserable, and instead, right away, I choose a meal that I know that I would be happy with and that I usually want and get. When I get my meal that I wanted, I eat the meal, and, as long as no one has anything else that seems more appealing, I am generally satisfied with the meal that I had ordered. There was so much selection and possibility, that they morph together in my mind and I remember nothing else about the menu. In fact, I couldn’t imagine myself choosing anything else besides that which I see my neighbors eating. Perhaps, in this way, free will, agency and decisions are similar to my experiences: there are so many options that our minds are boggled to think that there could possibly be a relation between anyone of them to each other. Rather than look at every single option of life on the menu, people settle on their carne asada burrito, and compare it to the enchilada that their neighbor is eating. When I got up early this morning, I only thought of the most common options that I  would do in the morning: get up or not get up. Though, without a doubt, there are many different options I could have chosen from, I was blinded to them, and only saw my burrito versus my neighbor’s quesadilla. I ignored the rest of the menu.  Because I didn't choose the quesadilla--because I decided to get up rather than not get up, I felt like I made a brand new decision and that I was not necessarily responding to stimuli, but rather an active agent with the ability to choose something brand new  and different than another individual. 

In addition to the biological aspect of particles and their response to each other, much of the debate over free will rests in the actual definition of free will, the decisions that we are able to make due to (or a lack of) it, and the semantics of what intent or choice actually means.

Robert Kane states that only a person, or “self” can have free will. In order to have free will, that being must have some sort of capacity for reasoning. Kane then breaks reasoning into two types:


1.) Theoretical reasoning-this type of reasoning is perceiving the issue at hand.

2.) Practical reasoning- this is how the self responds to the situation understood in the theoretical reasoning, or, as he puts it, “what is to be done”


In terms of practical reasoning, we make a series of choices and decisions on how to act. When we make these decisions however, it does not follow a simple Choice-->action pattern. In between the two is the intent of the individual. He gave an example where when one chooses to depart on the evening train, the choice brings about one’s intention to do so and it doesn't necessarily mean that you are suddenly leaving on the evening train. Then, when we make a decision that leads to intent, the intention almost always includes a purpose or a goal, which then guides the action. When I decide to go to the gym, my intent is to get up and go there, with the purpose of perhaps getting in a good amount of exercise. Kane then mentions that the less snap and rash your decisions are, the more you deliberate between possibilities of what you can do. When the time comes to actually performing, we pick one of the actions we deliberated on. If the outcome is less than what we would have hoped, we feel like we actually have more control over our lives because in our heads, we had many options laid out for ourselves. lets say, I think for a long time about what i’m going to eat for breakfast. I think, “should I get the toast, or the bagel, or the eggs and the bacon?” and I think about this for a long time. When the time comes to me eating what I had chosen, I reflect back on the many options that I had, and I have a sense of control--that I could have chosen any other alternative and I would be sitting there eating something entirely different. According to Kane, when we make a choice, it instantly terminates the process of deliberation. The moment that I decided to get the bagel, I am no longer thinking about if I should get the eggs and bacon. Once I made that decision, it immediately gave rise to the action of me selecting that meal. However, actions don’t always need to be the product of choice--many actions are habitual--and actions don’t necessarily need to be preceded by decisions. 

According to Kane, choices and decisions are acts of the mind while intentions are states of the mind. Choice and decisions happen at a certain time, whereas intentions can continue on and persist throughout time. He outlines multiple uses of intentions:

1.they often guide and monitor behavior

2.coordinates behavior over time

3.motivates and sustains actions

4.appropriately terminates practical reasoning

The use of intentions may be many, and he goes further as to break the type of intentions into two groups. 

1.present-directed intentions, which is the intentions the self makes of what to do beginning right now at this exact moment


2.future-directed intentions, which obviously deals with what the self plans to do in the future. Intentions thus are often essential parts of a much larger plan. As an example in the book, “John plans to study late into the evening in order to pass college to become a lawyer”, the intent to stay up late into the evening is a part of the “larger” plan that John is looking forward to. In his desire to become a lawyer, it prompts him to think about how to remedy certain situations that would hinder his journey to law school. 

It appears that there are many different parts within reasoning and ways to come to a decision that eventually becomes an action. The intent comes after a decision is made, but intent seems nearly as important as the decision itself when it comes to executing an action. However, this doesn’t entirely address the problem that I presented earlier of “what controls the mind”. 

Something i’m not going to delve deep into but I definitely think is of note in the discussion of free will is the religious aspect behind it all. As I mentioned earlier, the issue of “what controls my brain to give me the signal” could possibly be explained by some outside, or supernatural influence that breaks the general rule of action-reaction science. That perhaps free will exists because, by some outside force, we were given the ability to make our own choices, free from the constraints of the library of babel, and actually come up with new feelings and ideas. I can see where free will can easily be paired with religion--if god gave humans free will, then he/she is giving humans the chance to choose between right and wrong--between him/herself and satan. Free will prescribes that individuals are responsible for their actions--that though the world makes perfect sense scientifically, the one loophole is free will--where humans are not all just responding to stimuli. 

On the counter side of free will is determinism, something i’ve alluded to frequently by saying that individuals may just be “responding to stimuli.” The crutch of determinism is that all actions are the result of previous actions. In other words, A-->B-->C. A causes B, B causes C. Determinists tend to think of the universe as a straight path, with its destiny already, for the most part, laid out in front of it. It would seem, in this sense, that determinism doesn’t allow for change int the future because the future is entirely dependent on the past. Even if one were to decide to do something spontaneously, the future for this would already exist and have happened. 

In all, I feel as though for me to get any sort of deeper understanding on free will, more research on the subject, not only in a philosophical light but a biological one, is of utmost importance. At this point in my understanding, an idea that is the most appealing to me is a sort of deterministic-Library of Babel mixture--that though everything is already planned out and will happen just as it is supposed to happen, there are endless possibilities and pairings that potentially could happen. Thus, there must be numerous possibilities of what will happen exactly at all points in time representing all the different options that were given to the individual in the Library of Babel to explore. We have free will, but we can only choose from a limited box of supplies. 


Works Cited 

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.