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I'm contemplating the idea that regardless of whether or not there is randomness involved in physics, the universe is still pretty much deterministic in the way of our actions being defined by physics. However, those physics really work. This isn't the subject of my question, but rather the train of thought that I was on when I thought of this question:

The whole discussion of determinism is of whether we are truly free. My question, at it's core, is "Does it matter?"

My thought is that perhaps the illusion of freedom is freedom in itself. If I believe I can make choices freely, why should I care whether or not the outcome has already been determined?

It's my thinking that in the very act of living my life, I experience freedom regardless of whether or not the results are predetermined.

My question, specifically, is:

Am I any less free because someone might be able to determine my choices before I make them?

Whether I could not possibly have made different choices or not, doesn't the fact that the choices were defined by the information that makes up my personality make them free choices to me?

  • Regarding your question the answer is YES you are less free. Because that someone can be you... Concept of freedom and universe is much bigger than our contemporary capacity to perception. Professor in Futurama said that free will adds up to 2 sec in life :) You can not have FREE will until you understood what will is. And for that we have whole life, someone even more. Our more urgent problem is not to have a free will, but to have a free/independent perception of life and ideas. Independent from parents, friends, ourselves and mighty internet. – Asphir Dom Dec 8 '14 at 1:25
  • You're a human. You behave as humans do. you cannot escape the 'human condition'. That is, you cannot.decide to be a whale, or a dog, or a tree. Human intelligence is likely the result of evolution, it is the trait 'selected for' in humans. In all these ways there is an element of determinism about everything you do. However, within those contraints, you clearly have agency. Most people excercise that agency in a very predictable manner. They choose to avoid pain, to protect their family etc. But it is possible.to.behave unpredictably. Just don't try and chhose to fly, unaided. – Richard Apr 8 at 10:12
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Hmm . .

If I' understand it correctly, you're saying that if we believe we are free, then we experience freedom, thus effectively we are free

One thing that could undermine this would be if a machine was created which could use the deterministic nature of reality to predict our futures.

(as an aside.. It would also have to predict itself, and know about its affect on you if you were to ask it a question - and know that you were going to ask it. Blimey just realised I might ask a philosophy question about that lol)

But my point is .. if something was able to tell you that in 15 minutes a bird will poo on your car, and lo and behold it became true, or any arbitrary future event (given the world is deterministic) then would you still believe you're free ?

So does our perception of free will rely on there being nothing currently being able to predict it for us ?

If that's the case then feee will is just a current perception of reality, a bit like us thinking the world was flat.

If such a machine were to be bult, our perception may change.

So "Am I any less free because someone might be able to determine my choices before I make them?" : I think you wouldn't BE any more or less free, but you might FEEL less free.

This assumes that reality is 100% deterministic and our soul/conciousness/etc is also included in that.

  • i agree that this would make us feel a lot less free, but maybe "free will" isn't properly a metaphysical substrate of persons but just e.g. the capacity to respond to events with ethical decisions and behaviour. that might just be more or less impossible if we already knew what was going to happen – another_name Apr 6 at 21:25
  • @another_name I imagine that would feel like watching yourself making a decision knowing that it's an inevitable outcome of the circumstances. Some of this 'free will' might be our unwillingness/inability to think too far ahead.. eg if I don't put enough fuel in my car, I'll run out somewhere. If I forget, then what I do about it when I do run out is an unwritten story, because I haven't worked out where I run out of fuel, or what facilities there are in the area- even though it's all quite predictable. – user2808054 Apr 8 at 16:36
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You are not alone here. Great traditions and great minds have accepted the irrelevance of whether our feeling of free will is genuine at some more basic level, and maintained its full importance in spite of this irrelevance.

At one extreme Roman Catholicism has always been quite certain God knows the future in full detail and that he has gone to great lengths to ensure that we are free to choose grace or sin at any moment. The most common way out of this is to just not think about it too hard. Your reality is not divine reality, you need to deal with what is before you.

But many great minds have been compelled to think it through. The "Course in Miracles" arguments about the complete irrelevance of time are just the latest in a long line of attempts to make the conflict between these two strains of dogma comprehensible. But the tension itself is in its own way beautiful. If free will is an illusion, it is a God-given challenge meant to be taken completely seriously. And if determinism is an illusion, it is a God-given source of comfort meant to be taken equally seriously.

At the other extreme, people like Nietzsche (writing before quantum dynamics) found great force in the idea that free will is strictly limited, and that eventually, our entire system must converge on a grand loop, that repeats indefinitely. In such an approach, the natural interpretation of naive Newtonian physics, every decision, after some point, must be made in the way the loop predicts.

But it does not matter whether this is the first iteration of said loop, or one of the repetitions. If a decision is not made well now, then it was never made well, and that is just as tragic whether we are really making it, or being forced to make it, and only imagining we have real freedom. Accepting the lack of freedom can only destroy the first iteration, and cannot improve the others, so it is never helpful.

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Even if tomorrow some scientist will come up with a definitive proof stating that determinism is true and even if that proof will be accepted as true by the scientific comunity and peoples all over the world, you will still watch carefully on both sides before crossing the road. I hope this can answer your question.

  • Maybe he is determined to watch before crossing ? Prudence is absolutely no proof against the absence (or the belief in the absence) of free will. – armand Apr 8 at 10:08
  • You misanderstood. I just wanted to say that it doesnt matter if our free will is just an illusion as long as it feel real to us. – Yamar69 Apr 8 at 17:02
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While everything within our universe is deterministic and thus also our very thoughts and actions, our individual awareness is limited in its capacity to predict the outcome of our behavior. We imagine free will because it's very hard to comprehend our place within the universe if our every action is purely deterministic, even though that appears to be the case.

University of Texas philosophy professor David Sosa tackles the problem of free will in a deterministic universe in this video, pointing out that integrating determinism with free will as philosophical concepts remains a problem to this day.

Dan Dennett points out why our lives shouldn't be impacted by the answer to the question whether or not free will is illusionary.

  • Stack Exchange is not a network for exchanging opinions, but rather factual information. This answer essentially isn't more than stating your opinion. Please improve this question by providing references to philosophers supporting your theory. For more information, see this meta post. – Keelan May 11 '15 at 18:04
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    @Keelan : (1) The notion that the universe is deterministic and therefore free will is an illusion is the generally accepted position among neuroscientists and physicists alike and (2) I ended my answer with a link to a video of an interview with Atheist philosopher Dan Dennett, where he addresses why the illusionary nature of free will in a deterministic universe is irrelevant in the context of morality. What more do you need? – John Slegers May 11 '15 at 18:10
  • It may be "generally accepted" among neuroscientists and physicists, (a) this is a philosophy website, not a neuroscience / physics website, and (b) this post is still merely stating an opinion. You should make it clear that this is but one idea that is out there, instead of proposing it as the answer. – Keelan May 11 '15 at 18:12
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    @Keelan : My answer is actually the only one so far that even provides a source. It seems to me that you're just nitpicking and arguing because you don't agree with the premises rather than because there's anything objectively wrong with my answer. – John Slegers May 11 '15 at 18:24
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    The fact that an answer that addresses the question with logic and provides references attracts criticism while @Yamar69 mere sophism gets upvotes is quite depressing. – armand Apr 8 at 9:56

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