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In debates or discussion regarding the question of whether or not human beings (or any other being) has the ability to decide for themselves what to do, the term invariably used is free will. However, while free choice may seem intuitively to exist, because it does appear to the human mind (at least to this one) that it can (at times) choose one particular course of action over several possibilities, that does not seem to be the case at all regarding will. I have never had the feeling that I can control my will, and my perceived freedom of choice is (or at least feels like) a choice of acting on one will over another, not of choosing what to will. In fact, such a thing seems preposterous: what would influence me to choose to will, if not another will? (Or perhaps a meta-will, if you will.)

  1. Why therefore is the discussion always framed as a question of 'free will', when the content of these debates is so often about free choice of action?
  2. Are there discussion of free will, in the literal sense? Does anyone believe in free will?
  • Its a historical relic of Christianity - where the human subject is endowed with the freedom of will to choose between good & evil; the same goes for Islam and I expect Judaism. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 6 '14 at 17:38
  • @MoziburUllah that's what I've assumed, hence the history tag. Still, it would be nice to have a well-sourced summary or whatnot here as an answer – This lad Jul 6 '14 at 18:05
  • What do you mean by free choice and where is this freedom coming from, if not a will to choose, because now you've created a meta-will to choose your choices of various wills, it seems? – NationWidePants May 6 '16 at 16:55
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In your question, you state the following:

I have never had the feeling that I can control my will, and my perceived freedom of choice is (or at least feels like) a choice of acting on one will over another, not of choosing what to will.

I'm not sure I grasp how you are using the word "will" in your question formulation, but it sounds at least in part like you've transposed some terms from the classical formulation which has its origin in Augustine (and to a much less developed extent Aristotle).

Aristotle refers to willing and acts of willing but not to a will as a distinct entity in the self versus practical reason (phronesis). One particular weakness of Aristotle's account is a discussion historically called akrasia and more recently called "weakness of the will." The classic problem which occupied Aristotle was that the practical syllogism says that if you know the right thing to do, then you will do it. Thus, right action seems to follow immediately from knowledge. (This is Nicomachean Ethics Book VII for the weakness of the will problem)

Augustine has a much more robust notion that we have a faculty in us that is the ability to choose between options presented to us. This is developed in part with reference to a notion of sin around the idea of concupiscence that prevents the self from acting on the knowledge that would lead to right action. (Augustine treats this in on the freedom of the will which is just an extremely difficult text).

This idea of the will as an entity and desire as something that prevents it went rather unchallenged until Kant. (You can find it in Descartes' account of error in the Meditations for instance). With Kant, you begin to have the idea that the freedom of reason to choose is regardless of the data or somewhat in spite of the data. As I read Kant, the choice is between pure reason and one's desires and passions. For Kant, this is about bringing the maxim of one's will in accordance with universal reason.

Another idea where I cannot give you the exact providence is physical determinism which takes choice to be an illusion. (Note the lack of reference to a notion of will). You can find hints of this as far back as Newton, but it really hits full force more recently.


Now back to your quote, The use of "choice" rather than "will" has been become common, perhaps because it has less baggage, or perhaps because the Kantian picture is amenable to our thinking and works with the idea of choice between maxims more than thinking of the will as some faculty with independent standing (here I'm thinking of Christine Korsgaard's work). it sounds like you use "will" where philosophers historically used "desire", "emotion", or possibly "maxim."

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Many answers rely on the possibility of random forces which free a mind from determinism, but this possibility neglects the fact that randomness is not free choice, it is the absence of choice. Beyond that considerations seem to stop at the point where a mind is required to exercise its desires on several offered possibilities but does not delve a bit deeper into how these desires arise wherein many subconscious factors indicate the creation of desires is not free from deterministic influence.

  • Ummm.. many answers to what? [I'm having trouble grasping the antecedent of you answer -- could just be the heat / humidity where I am today] – virmaior Aug 16 '14 at 9:51
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You say: " I have never had the feeling that I can control my will, and my perceived freedom of choice is (or at least feels like) a choice of acting on one will over another, not of choosing what to will. In fact, such a thing seems preposterous: what would influence me to choose to will, if not another will? (Or perhaps a meta-will, if you will.) "

It seems you have answered your own question within the question!!! But you would not have put it out here unless you wanted what some of us thought of it! So here are my two cents!

Someone in their answer above has mentioned three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. That prompts me to add some of the most ancient religions from East; Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and several offshoots from the combinations of all the three in various forms. All of the above, in some form or the other, come to a conclusion, that "You" as you think of yourself, "do not exist."

The "I" or feeling of "I" is a temporary thing formed by accumulations of ideas mostly implanted by others, and the surroundings. ( so that "I" am different from the "chair" for example. ). So, in brief, when you say, " I have never had the feeling " - I would say, that is because that "I" does not exist in the first place!!!! and that is why you never had the feeling! That also answers the question that if there is no I, then, there is no question of "will"

But we are carried away with such ideas and examples as "where there is will, there is a way." And we can find thousands of examples to prove this to be right. But most often, these stories are right only in the hind sight. There are many more times more stories where the so called Will has not prevailed, but those stories get buried or not published. Mostly because no one wants to go to house tops and shout, "Hay, I failed, and failed miserably!"

In nut shell, it is becoming more and more obvious even from in science, that, there may exist nothing like "I" So what does exit, may be, for lack of words, be called, hmmmm, you can call whatever you like! Most people, when they cannot find the "I" revert to "You!" [ for example they will surrender and say thy will be done ]. But that is perhaps because of our (human) weakness not being able to comprehend something that cannot be defined in some form. So, many times, to use a language, they will say, the will of the Whole. Linguistically, that makes some sense.

There is no I, therefore, there is no will. Many times the word "will" is used in place of desire. Then, it is a different thing. Yes, desire exists! And it is a dream. Dream exists. It is Maya. It is play. (Leela). Those concepts are 'digestible.'!

Just want to make clear that I belong to no particular religion. I have mentioned them only as a historical background.

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to speak my mind!

  • I'm not asking about whether or not there is free will, or if there is indeed an ontological 'self' doing such asking. But please, continue to enhance the philosophy.stackexchange community with your thoughts! :-) – This lad Aug 17 '14 at 22:25
  • As an interpretation of Taoism, it's not entirely clear that the goal there... (i.e. no-self). Moreover, you're missing Confucianism from major eastern thought. – virmaior Aug 18 '14 at 8:09
  • "several off-shoots" should have covered anything I missed. Also to me Confucianism is more 'heady' than Taoism. Lao-tzu's words do not seem to come from 'head' meaning 'thoughts' as compared to Confucius. – slodaya Aug 24 '14 at 17:49
  • Also Virmaior, I do not know much about this site yet. This was my very first answer and not a planned one either. If you have the right to remove even the mention of a book whether mine or any other, then, this site is definitely not supporting open discussion of philosophy. Because during this discussions, there will be always mentions of certain things, and, someone will have to say where they got the idea from. ( namely the name of the book or the author). – slodaya Aug 24 '14 at 17:52

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