Free Will vs. Determinism

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
-Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Freedom Of The Will (1839)

This is a large subject that has been debated for centuries. I don’t plan to even try and address and/or cover everything that has been said and debated about it here, even superficially. The point of this is merely to present my thoughts on the matter.

I began considering this issue when I was about 13 or 14-years-old because of my fascination with the concept of time. I was probably influenced by some of what I was reading back then (e.g.: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin Abbott, “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, and my research into other religions, especially Hinduism’s concepts about time).

Based on the thoughts that were introduced from these sources and others, I came to the conclusion that time may be like the film of a movie, that all the frames of the movie already exist, but that we can only perceive one at a time. I considered the idea that on another level—or higher dimension than the one we occupied—there was no time passing, and that every moment was eternal. This, of course meant that the past, present, and future exist simultaneously, and, if that were the case, everything had to be determined.

This was many, many years before I became aware that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity implied something called “Eternalism.”

According to Wikipedia…

“Eternalism is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the presentist idea that only the present is real, and the growing block universe theory of time in which past and present are real while the future is not. Eternalism is the view that each spacetime moment exists in and of itself. Modern advocates often take inspiration from the way time is modeled as a dimension in the theory of relativity, giving time a similar ontology to that of space (although the basic idea dates back at least to McTaggart’s B-Theory of time, first published in The Unreality of Time in 1908, only three years after the first paper on relativity). This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are ‘already there’, and that there is no objective flow of time. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘block time’ or ‘block universe’ theory due to its description of space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional ‘block’, as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.”

But for many years before I was aware that my ideas about time had any support from Einstein, I argued over and over again that every moment is eternal, and I was a hard determinist as a result.

In the early 2000s, I began to learn more about quantum mechanics—which has a little different take on things than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Quantum mechanics has to do with how things work on the smallest scales while the Theory of Relativity deals with larger scales. Both seem to work just fine within their respective domains, but they aren’t fully compatible. One of the big efforts of physics is to find a theory that will bring them together into some grand unified theory.

In 2004, I read a book called “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by the cosmological physicist Brian Greene (the narrator in the video above who works in quantum theories). This was one of many books I was reading on the subject at the time. As he says in the video and book, “perhaps the river of time is more like a frozen river.” He has said that “Everything that ever has happened or will happen, it all exists,” and I was surprised to see him use the exact same words as I had been arguing for years that “Every moment is eternal.”

He has also said that “Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

While he admits that the Free Will vs. Determinism debate has not been definitively resolved one way or another by physics, he indicates that quantum mechanics doesn’t rule out determinism (as some would like to argue), and that—depending on future discoveries— quantum mechanics may end up being “every bit as deterministic as classical physics.”

Even more recently, when I was learning more about the neurosciences, I found additional support for my thoughts about the subject. For example, neuroscience has shown that the brain makes decisions before we are aware of them consciously (by about 300 milliseconds). In his book “Free Will,” neuroscientist Sam Harris writes, “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

So, it seems there is some empirical support for determinism from both cosmological physics and neuroscience.

Nevertheless, upon further reflection of this issue, I considered the possibility that the “Free Will vs. Determinism” debate presents a false dichotomy. I think the problem lies in the phase “Free Will.” I think some of the problem can be resolved by using the phrase “personal will” or “your will” instead.

I think that based on your nature and nurture, and the circumstances you happen to be in at the time, whatever choice you make (or action you take) is inevitable. There is no other choice or action you would have made other than the one you did.

However, you are always expressing “your will” to whatever extent possible.

In other words, just because your choice or action could not have been something else, it doesn’t make it any less “your will.”

In fact, I would suggest that if it could have been something else, it wouldn’t be identifiable as your will (and it might as well be someone else’s). The fact that you did act a certain way in a given circumstance is what makes it your action.

This is a “compatibilistic” approach to the question (though, I may not agree with some aspects of others’ views on compatibilism entirely). []

I think that based on who you are at any given time and place (your nature and nurture that proceeded the point of decision or action), and the environment and circumstances you happen to be in at the time, your decision or action is inevitable. In theory, if all these variables could be known, an accurate prediction could be made about what you end up doing. Of course, there are too many variables for anyone to know all of them, so it seems like the same difference as what some people think of when they say they had “free will.” Nevertheless, what people tend to think of when they think they could have done something different is an illusion. This view is fully compatible with determinism.

However, I think you are always fully expressing “your will” to the extent of your ability to do so. Obviously, you can’t will yourself to fly and take off unaided into the sky, and if someone else ties you up and throws you in a closet, your options are more limited, but you are always expressing “your will” to the extent you can, given the circumstances. This is compatible with your ability to express your will in the way it really matters.

I’ve sometimes used the following analogy. It isn’t perfect, but no analogy is….

Imagine a mountain. Imagine the mountain from top to bottom represents time. Where you are located around the mountain represents your environment, or place in the world.

You are born on the mountain at a certain place and time. You are a certain shape based on your nature. As you start rolling down the mountain, you will only roll down one path based on your shape and the terrain that you are passing over. The terrain will reshape you as you go (in a way, this is your nurture). There are others rolling down the mountain around you. They may help reshape you just like the environment you travel over does (just as you might reshape them as well as the terrain). Some people may be more malleable than others to be reshaped based on their initial nature and/or what nurture they experience.

On any given part of the path you travel, you will only roll one way, but that is entirely based on WHO YOU ARE at that moment (i.e.: the shape you happen to be at the time). You are fully expressing yourself by the path you take. It is YOU who is taking that path because that’s who YOU happen to be (that’s the shape you are). Obviously, you won’t necessarily take the same path as you did before if you encounter the same circumstances as previously, because you may not be the same shape as you were the first time.

While some like to throw in quantum mechanics effects, chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, as if this somehow changes things. These would be variables in the environment or in your circumstance to be taken into account just like any other.

Obviously, this doesn’t resolve all the issues and questions, but it does represent my thoughts on the subject at the moment.