Where's my free will?

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Wed, 2006-12-13 23:10

The first thing you notice through the fog of sleep is a loud, ringing sound. As you rise up through the fog of sleep you recognise it as an alarm of some sort. Your alarm clock. You focus further and realise that it's not going to turn itself off. As you force yourself awake you direct your focus to your limbs, lifting yourself out of bed, and you turn off the clock on your way to the bathroom, making yourself shake the sleep from your mind as you go. It's the start of another day.

As you shower, you set yourself thinking about what you need to do today and, as you do and as you shower, the scales of sleep slip ever further away. You understand you have an important day ahead, and you feel yourself rising up to meet it. In a few short minutes, by your own direction, your mind has changed from an inert unconscious thing, one barely able to grasp what's going on around it, to one that is now focussed upon the events of the day and is starting to make plans to meet them ... and all this even before the first coffee!

Most of us manage this process in a few minutes. Some take hours. Some will choose to stay unfocussed for days. But everyone who has ever experienced this -- which is all of us, at some time -- has experienced what it is to have free will.

Free will at its root is that process of choosing to focus, of deciding first of all to lift our level of awareness from a lower level to a higher one (or to decide not to) , and then directing our focussed attention to something on which we've determined we need to pay attention. A lecture perhaps. A book. A piece of music. A blog post on free will. Someone offering us a beer. At each stage of listening, reading, comprehending, trying to grasp a thought (as Vermeer's Geographer is doing in the picture above) we can choose to maintain attention and focus on what we're trying to take in, to weigh the thoughts and melodies and information that is coming in, or we can choose to float off in a vague fog and let everything just wash over us. The act of choosing to pay attention is a volitionally focussed act by which we first say to ourselves, "I need to focus on this, to understand this," and then acting -- choosing to act -- so as to direct our minds to that on which we ourselves have determined that we need to understand.

As I've described above, the act of focussing is voluntary, and is almost like continually turning on a car. At each stage we can choose to go either to a higher level of awareness, or not; we can choose to focus, or we can choose to drift back off either to sleep, or into a state of unfocussed lethargy. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Equally, you can lead someone else's brain to stimulus, but you can't make it respond. That person must do that work for themselves.

Volition is a powerful factor. Thoughts, values, principles are not something given to us, or imprinted upon us; rather, they are things to identify and think about and grasp for ourselves. Or not. No one can do the thinking for someone else. With sufficient will we can work towards grasping the highest concepts open to us, or we can even sleep through the ringing of our alarm clocks. That choice -- to focus or not; to switch on or not -- is contained entirely within ourselves, and from that choice made by each of us every minute of every day all human thought and all human action is the result. The fact that we are continually making this choice (or choosing not make it) every waking minute of every working day is perhaps why we sometimes fail to see that we're doing it, we've almost automatised our awareness of it, but honest introspection (if we honestly choose to do so) is all it requires to be identified.

This is the nature of the volitional consciousness we each possess, and the fact those who choose to deny free will wish to evade: that this great thinking engine resting on top of our shoulders does not turn itself on automatically. We ourselves own the keys to the engine, and it is in that fundamental choice -- to think, or not to think; to focus, or not to focus; to go to a higher level of awareness, or to drift in and out of awareness -- that the faculty of free will itself resides.

So given that very brief discussion of free will -- to which, if you like, you can add previous similar discussions here, here, here, here and here -- what then do you make of this discussion currently under way at the 'Sir Humphrey's' blog:

Where does this thing called free will come from?


"...if there is no God there’s no free will because we are completely phenomena of matter... we cannot be considered morally responsible beings unless we have free will. We do everything because we are controlled by our genes or our environment."
- comments by David Quinn in The God Delusion: David Quinn & Richard Dawkins debate


Logically, if you are an atheist, you will believe that we are completely influenced by our genetics and environment. That there is no free-will, that moral responsibility has no ability to manifest in any human being. If you don't believe all of that, then you cannot be an atheist and you must have some inkling that God exists.

What do you make of that? "If there's no God then there's no free will"? If you're an atheist, then "logically" -- logically? -- you can't "believe" in free will? As I've suggested above, we don't need to "believe" in free will in the same way a Christian chooses to believe in the existence of a supernatural being; instead, to identify that we do have the faculty of free will, we can simply introspect and identify ourselves engaging in acts of free will. (Indeed, you can do it right now as you weigh in your mind that last thought, and choose whether or not to accept it -- or whether to evade the effort or the knowledge. And recognise, dear reader, that if you choose not to accept it or to evade it, you've still made a choice.)

So much for needing to believe in the supernatural in order to "believe" in free will. How about the claim that we are "completely phenomena of matter" as Mr Quinn suggests? Well, no. We're not. The way our mind is constituted has produced what we know as consciousness. We are not just a bunch of chemicals: we are a particular being with a particular make-up, the manner in which each of our brains are 'wired' has produced consciousness in each of them. As Ayn Rand identified:

That which you call your soul or your spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call your "free will" is your mind's freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

We have consciousness. Consciousness is endowed by its nature with the faculty of free will. What we each choose to do with our own consciousness is up to us -- and it's there that the discussion of morality really begins...

LINKS: Nature v Nurture: Character is all - Not PC
The chemistry of love - Not PC
The fatalism of entropy. The dynamism of spontaneous order - Not PC
More on value judgements in art - Not PC
Excusing the 'bash' - Not PC
Man and free will - Lucyna, Sir Humphrey's

RELATED: Philosophy, Ethics, Religion


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Eyes wide open or half closed, discernemnt or apathy

Sandi's picture

"We" as free individuals are the results of our choices.

If we use "the keys to the engine, and it is in that fundamental choice -- to think, or not to think; to focus, or not to focus; to go to a higher level of awareness, or to drift in and out of awareness -- that the faculty of free will itself resides"

Lindsay commented "on air" yesterday and I forgot the exact words, but I think I have since found the quote,

"No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation"
Douglas Mc Arthur

Perhaps it is the vigilant who are free?

"With sufficient will we can work towards grasping the highest concepts open to us, or we can even sleep through the ringing of our alarm clocks. That choice -- to focus or not; to switch on or not -- is contained entirely within ourselves, and from that choice made by each of us every minute of every day all human thought and all human action is the result"

Perhaps it is not so desirable to sleep during the ringing of an alarm?

I wish more politicians did not rely so heavily on the snooze button.

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