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India's leading daily, The Times of India can easily put other contenders of the same bracket (like the widely-praised The Sun) to shame. Today, scanning the lifestyle section, I came across the following lines in what was more of a self-help piece than a philosophical one.

I quote:

There is a difference between the human and material world. According to the creation plan, the material world has no freedom of choice. The course of the material world is pre-determined while man is free to make his choices.

Now, everyone loves to take something out from whatever this 'creation plan' is. No one is quite certain of what it is and the term has recently been abused a good deal. Since these views run consistent throughout the piece, let us assume that they were held in entirety by the person who wrote the article.

Now, here's my problem with this. I'm sure that a lot of work has been poured in this direction and I'd be more than content with an answer that does nothing but point me to the works of thinkers who've held an opinion on the matter.

In the light of some recent scientific findings, we can refute the fact that 'the material world has no choice'. But we'll ignore it for the moment and also take up a dualistic approach to the matter.

As Physics tells us, everything in the world is causal. Therefore, it wouldn't be wrong to say that we can predict events and their outcomes. This would be taking it a little too far, but let us bring ourselves to agree that "the course of the material world is pre-determined".

But how can it be that we have free will understood to mean "simply being able to make a choice independent of the external world", while the outside world is rigged, of sorts?

Everything we perceive from our senses relates to a corresponding experience. That immediately puts limits to our choices. Also, if everything in the external world is causal, why can't the same be true for our mind? Do thoughts not run in succession? In this case, even if the mind runs parallel to the outside world, aren't its contents ultimately shaped and influenced by the seeming reality around it?

  • Note: This isn't a duplicate of philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2162/…. I differ in opinion from the OP of that question in regard to what free will is. According to him, all choices should be equally approachable to the mind whereas I believe that free will is simply being able to make a choice independent of the external world. – Sampark Sharma Oct 15 '15 at 9:40
  • I think the definition you're using must surely be flawed or at least ambiguous in a deeply negative way. The hinge is in what you may mean but have not said clearly by "dependent." I hope I'm choosing between Rice Krispies and Yoghurt because these present themselves in the external world, i.e. their being possible things for me to choose assuredly depends on the physical world, and thus limits my choices. – virmaior Oct 15 '15 at 14:57
  • @virmaior Right, but it's the external world that presents you with these choices. You can choose between two or more things, but is the scope of your choices limited by this external world? Pretty much! Moreover, if the same rule of causality is applied to the mind, we reach the conclusion that just like the external world, the choices that are presented to us can be determined. So more than anything, it implies an 'illusion of choice'. – Sampark Sharma Oct 16 '15 at 1:17
  • I don't understand what you're italicizing things for in this case. My point is that your definition is poor because all choices related to the world are in some way world dependent. You need a better definition of freedom. – virmaior Oct 16 '15 at 1:35
  • @virmaior Isn't will independent of the available choices? Hunger is a physical process of the body, not of the mind/will. The body imposes desire to eat, but the will can overcome this desire and choose not to eat either - or to pretend that the Yogurt is a chocolate bar. It could decide to eat the table instead (that might not go so well). The will can say it will change the situation so it will never be stuck with Rice Krispies and Yogurt again... Or it can go ahead and choose one of the physically available options. – LightCC Dec 22 '15 at 18:12
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Your question is precisely the one haunting the world since Newton. Its most famous exposition is "Laplace's Demon." Given enough data every atomic motion could be predicted. The compatibilist arguments against this are many and complex, notably Kant, as referenced above, who may be called sort of a compatibilist. The debate is hardly over.

Most scientists don't give it much thought. But in science itself the great move away from atomic determinism came with Boltzmann and his probabilistic explanation of entropy.Though material causation may be captured to "any degree of precision" it is in theory always inductive and probabilistic. This becomes settled in quantum theory, and while many argue that we not make rash analogies with the "macro world," I don't think anything can be said about this one way or another at the moment.

In any case, we appear to be safe for now from Laplace's Demon. If there are fully indeterminate physical states and no isolatable systems, we can assume that clouds of neurons with billions of tiny lightening storms do not operate 1,2,3... like billiard balls. We seem to be able to "pause-reverse" something and suspend what we deem physical effects.

Besides, as Hegel noted, we only define something as a "cause" after we identify the "effect." Cause after effect. Our whole language-bound existence reflects and reverses things. If you just sit "prelinguistically" in your armchair and observe your mental behavior, the whole model of physical sensations, "sense data," and prior "causes" tends to drift apart and return. Our freedom is what might be called a "bounded infinity."

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It is one of the fundamental claims of Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (CPR) that the answer to your question Can Free Will exist in a Causal Material Word? is Yes.

Kant in the third antinomy of pure reason (CPR B472ff) deals with the thesis

Causality according to the laws of nature is not the only causality from which all the appearances of the world can be derived. In order to account for these appearances, it is necessary also to admit another causality, that of freedom.

and its antithesis.

After the exposition of the problem in the form an antinomy Kant starts his reasoning along the lines of his transcendental philosophy to come to the conclusion in B586:

That this antinomy rests on a mere illusion, and that nature does not conflict with the causality of freedom, this was the only thing which we were able to show, and cared to show.

  • It should be noticed that, as for CPR, only the practical freedom of capriciousness (Willkür) (not being necessarily determined by nature, but always having the possibility to be determined by reason), not the freedom of the will itself, is object. That's why the conclusion is that careful. The practical objectivity of a free will (that is, transcendental freedom) is something shown in GMM and CPrR (Critique of Practical Reason). See CPR A803|B831, where he states that it is not clear if the reason itself is not determined by nature so far. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '15 at 16:28
  • To clarify: He states that it cannot be ruled out that reason is not determined by nature while determining the capriciousness. That is why a free will for him later is not the ability (Vermögen) to be determined by reason, but by autonomy, which is the realisation of this ability. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '15 at 16:42
  • Kant's reasoning depends on space and time being forms of perception, and causality applying to appearances only, it does not work under materialistic suggestions of the OP. It does not really work even on Kant's own terms. In later works, second Critique and Groundwork, he spelled out what " not conflict with" amounts to: free will affects causal chains in their entirety, in particular including events before one's birth, acting from outside of space and time. – Conifold Oct 15 '15 at 17:47
  • This theory did not satisfy even Kant himself, and today is broadly considered a failure philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/24872/… It is not hard to see that even minimally plausible temporality of the will assumed by the OP ("shaped and influenced by the seeming reality") already makes free will inconsistent with unbroken causality of appearances. Modern compatibilism opts instead for redefining "free", instead of "undetermined" it is interpreted as "in line with self's character", which itself is causally determined. – Conifold Oct 15 '15 at 17:53
  • @Conifold: Timmermann in "Sittengesetz und Freiheit" (didn't find any translation) presents an alternative reading: The freedom of men lies in the ability to influence the intelligible character. His analogon is a spinner and a cylinder, both of them being moved by "the same" impulse. The cause is the same, the effect is not. And that is due to their intelligible character. So the causal chains do not have to be broken, they are more like "bypassed" considering a change of this character, resulting in different empirical characters. Pretty much fits to the solution of the third antinomy. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '15 at 18:09
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Short Answer: No

Long Answer:

From Wikipedia:

Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action

What is the ability to choose? For instance, traditional views are...

  • When a person kicks a ball, the person chose to kick the ball.
  • When a tree limb falls, the tree didn't choose to drop its limb.

In this case, the difference is in causes. The person is seen as the ultimate cause of kicking the ball, whereas the tree limb falling is seen as a consequence of prior causes (like a gradual weakening of the limb over time).

And there's your problem right there. If we hold to a causal, material view, then this person consists of material, and the brain is just more material. Kicking the ball was not a choice, it was caused by the brain state and the environment. The brain state itself was the cause of prior events, including things which shaped the synaptic weights that ultimately led to behavior and all the things we call "personality". This is a scenario that's every bit as caused as the tree limb, albeit more complex.

There's no room in this view for free will.

This is why a causal material worldview implies no free will. The causal view sees things as caused by other things, and the material doesn't leave room for something extra-material (like the soul) to bypass this causal chain. Nor does emergence help, as there's no mechanism there for bypassing such a fundamental part of macro physics.

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As Physics tells us, everything in the world is causal.

I assume mean here at various ontological regimes of matter; at the macrocosmic - stars and galaxies; and at the microcosmic - atoms and electrons; and in between - rocks and the weather; but importantly it leaves out biosphere - so not quite 'everything'.

Therefore, it wouldn't be wrong to say that we can predict events and their outcomes. This would be taking it a little too far, but let us bring ourselves to agree that "the course of the material world is pre-determined".

Agreed - upto chance, and distegarding the biosphere.

But how can it be that we have free will understood to mean "simply being able to make a choice independent of the external world", while the outside world is rigged, of sorts?

Hegel points out that pure freedom is essentially identical to pure lack of freedom; to have all possible freedoms is, in a sense, to have no choice at all; freedom to mean anything must have shape and form.

Everything we perceive from our senses relates to a corresponding experience.

Yes, and tautologically so

That immediately puts limits to our choices

Not necessarily; it may allow freedom - in the same way that friction might be seen to limit the pure motion of some physical body; but if it were not for it, we could not walk anywhere - we'd stay walking at the same point!

Also, if everything in the external world is causal, why can't the same be true for our mind? Do thoughts not run in succession?

Thoughts run in succession because time runs in succession; it's difficult to see what can be said about holding two thoughts simultaneously - one might say that for this to happen actually, and not just merely as a figure of speech, the two thoughts need to be synthesised into one.

If in the Cartesian theatre of my mind a thought of hunger occurs and then a thought of walking to a cafe occurs, it's not clear to me it useful to think that the first thought is the cause of the other; conventionally one would say, I was hungry and so I decided to go to the cafe at the corner of my street; this has two senses that's missing in the first description - the sense of inner experience, and the sense of decision - or my play of will.

When we describe the world as fundamentally made of atoms, this is right in one sense, and very wrong-headed in another; for it's not enough to discover those parts of our world that are permanent and not subject to generation and corruption - for those are not the only things that are; but also we must discover those things that come to be and pass away.

In this case, even if the mind runs parallel to the outside world, aren't its contents ultimately shaped and influenced by the seeming reality around it?

Well, yes - the world shapes me; if there was no world there would be no me; but I too shape the world - I pick up a book that has fallen off my table...and the world around me is different to what it was a moment before - due to my causal power.

  • What about the biosphere doesn't suggest causality? I'm also not sure how an entity could be said to have causal power. – Sampark Sharma Oct 18 '15 at 6:11
  • Possibly I was unclear in what I'd written: I wasn't intending to suggest that the biosphere lacks causal power. I'm not sure what you mean by an entity - it's not something I mention above. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 18 '15 at 6:35

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