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"Free Will" and "Determinism" are Not Mutually Exclusive

by Ken Manheimer last modified Jul 22, 2023 07:35 AM
Free will and determinism are concepts which cannot be compared because they occupy separate domains of discourse.
Adapting my response in a Facebook thread, "Philosophical debate time Free will, determinism, or fatalism: why or why not?"

Ken Manheimer

Posing free will and determinism as mutually exclusive doesn't make sense to me. They're in distinct domains of discourse. The level at which our behavior and choices are determined is not within our scope of comprehension. If it were we would be able to choose differently, and they would not be "determined".

While we can increasingly glean more about the factors and forces that inform our behavior, that gleaning isn't of what determines us, but rather adds more intricacy to the choices we still have to make. More informed, but never absolutely informed. It's a "meta" thing. If we're conscious of it, it's just another factor, not the whole picture. Very much along the lines of "If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't." (Lyall Watson.)

Now, fatalism is another matter. If you're convinced that everything is going to result in a bad outcome, it's not because you have some insight into (incomprehensible) determinism. It's because bad stuff has happened or is happening to you, enough so that you're convinced that you have no ability to change it. You may be right in some specific way, but not in the global everything-is-useless way that might seem to be so.

It's like the question about whether the earth is going to survive the consequences of our abuse. Of course the earth's going to survive, one way or another. Even if it's in pieces, the personal concern tends to actually be whether we're (as a group) going to survive. That may seem like the same thing, but it isn't. Recognizing the difference means you ask better questions about what's troubling you and what needs to be done to alleviate it. (Personally, I think being close to uncontrived nature is good for me, and probably for us in general, but that's another matter.)

G Arthur Brown What, then, is free will?

Ken Manheimer It's our perception of making choices. It's just as much an illusion, and as real, as any perception we have. Neither absolutely accurate nor completely inaccurate.

People seem to be bothered by the prospect that their choices are influenced by stuff that they can't fully identify. Yet they accept all the time that their choices are not unlimited - we don't have a choice about gravity, breathing, van der waals forces, etc, etc. We do not have either absolute control nor absolute impotence. We're part of the process. I don't know if that's a simple and/or nuanced way to look at it, but it sure makes sense to me.

Personally, I would just call it "will". "Free" is what confuses everyone.

G Arthur Brown And I agree. Call it "will." Free will is something else. Also, as I've said numerous times above, calling free will an illusion is not correct. An illusion implies a perceptual distortion where one thing is mistaken for another. Free will is actually a mistaken belief that's socially reinforced, not an actual illusion.

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