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Freewill and natural philosophy

  1. Oct 10, 2006 #1
    Can the concept of freewill ever be compatible with a natural philosophy?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 11, 2006 #2


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    Yes, a natural philosophy in which there are roving first causes is thinkable. Whether our world is like that is in the eye of the beholder.
  4. Oct 11, 2006 #3
    I don't understand. How can these roving first causes be considered "natural" if they do not have a systematic origin or reason for being?
  5. Oct 11, 2006 #4
    One thing that you may or may not have considered yet; if you just think about the way we observe things, interpret them according to our cumulated worldview, and use the interpretations to make "intelligent decision" (and to cumulate the worldview further), the whole concept of fundamental free-will becomes pretty unnecessary, if not even impossible.

    Basically, we cannot make any decision but the one that seems like the most reasonable to take, and we just take into account many many things in our worldview to take that decision. If you act like a jack ass, there's a good reason for you to think that's a good thing to do (to gain attention in social groups, etc.). If you cut out your right arm to prove my assertion about "always making the most reasonable decision" wrong, you have again made this decision because you think it proves me wrong.

    And at the same time it must be recognized that our idea about what free will is, is a semantical concept that exists in that same worldview. That we just have a conscious experience about thinking and making decisions and assuming that there is a "self" and interpreting the world in such way that "self" is making decisions (=naively assuming a metaphysical "self" as the bottom most cause of our behaviour), will cause us to assume there exists free will. And whatever we assume is reality to us. Any perception is, when all is said and done, a case of assuming some "thing" X exists in our perceptive view.

    There are many indications to the above. It does not surprise me one bit that a decision is evident in the physical state of the brain before the person itself has made the decision -> before the decision has advanced far enough for the brain to interpret the situation into the semantical form of "I made a decision", so that we can have a conscious experience of the decision.

    There are also very good survival reasons why this whole semantical interpretation and learning occurs at all and has been found by evolution (it is the only way to solve novel problems in intelligent manner), and it btw is also the same thing as creativity...

    So I would answer to your question that it is very hard to reconcile with free will already after assuming that we learn by what we observe and make decisions by what we know due to that learning.
  6. Oct 12, 2006 #5


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    Who said everything has to have a systematic origin and reason for being? even in Aristotle's or St. Thomas's philosopher, there is ONE first cause; who's to say there aren't many? Aristotle could only think in terms of a linear order, but nowadays we understand about partial orders. Some things are causally related to each other and others are not, but everything traces back to a first cause, just not all the SAME first cause.
  7. Oct 12, 2006 #6

    A well stated argument. I certainly agree with it when assuming a naturalistic framework. However, my inability to reconcile freewill with naturalism caused me to reject naturalism entirely.

    If you look at things from a purely functional perspective, then yes. However, this seems to ignore the experiential perspective.

    I too do not believe it is possible to objectively demonstrate freewill. As you say, cutting out my right arm does not show I have freewill as there is always a motive behind what we do.

    It is apparent that empricial study does not give us any conclusions about whether freewill exists. From a functional perspective, you can argue that it is unnecessary; however, I can perceive that I have freewill, therefore I must consider that it is real.

    For example, if I perceive a green car in front of me, it is my inclination to assume that it is real. If I come to find out there is a holographic projector that is generating the car image in front of me, then I would have reason to believe the car does not exist.

    With freewill I do not know of any holographic projector, therefore I presume that my perceptions are correct and that I have freewill.
  8. Oct 12, 2006 #7
    Philosophically, I agree with you -- it just seems to go against the spirit of naturalism (which I do not believe in). Naturalism generally rejects anything supernatural and it seems like it would be difficult to say that a first cause (one that does not have a causal relationship with prior events) is not supernatural.
  9. Oct 12, 2006 #8


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    Well, what is your definition of supernatural? You seem to be importing concepts from revealed religion and imposing them on things they aren't needed for.
  10. Oct 12, 2006 #9
    This one fits pretty well (dictionary.com):

    1. of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal.

    Your first cause events would fit this category. If they are not determined by prior events, then they would not be explanable by natural law or phenomena.
  11. Oct 15, 2006 #10
    I have free will. i will piss in public, and afterward, i will claim it is fully consistent with the know laws of physics.
  12. Oct 15, 2006 #11
    So long as they do not have a supernatural origin, they are natural.
  13. Oct 15, 2006 #12
    But then they would not be explainable supernaturally either.
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2006
  14. Oct 15, 2006 #13
    I'm not sure what "explainably supernatural" means, but as far as empirical science is concerned, it doesn't matter. If it is not explainable by prior natural events, then it might as well be supernatural.
  15. Oct 17, 2006 #14
    No, if you don't need spook or demons or psychic
    forces to explain it, it isn't supernatural
    in any significant sense. You are trying to promote
    a trivial sense of "supernatural".
  16. Oct 17, 2006 #15
    No, if you don't need spook or demons or psychic
    forces to explain it, it isn't supernatural
    in any significant sense. You are trying to promote
    a trivial sense of "supernatural".
  17. Oct 17, 2006 #16
    Well, yeah, you could say that I abide to functionalism (or materialism or naturalism). Even though I cannot exhaustively prove that free will is not "real", what I think I did show was that naturalism cannot be simply rejected just because it doesn't reconcile with free will. Nothing but metaphysically fundamental free will can reconcile with the idea of "real" free will.

    Your original question was "Can the concept of freewill ever be compatible with a natural philosophy?", and we can say "yes" meaning that free will was always just a concept in our semantical world view, or "no" meaning that the concept is metaphysically non-sensical in materialistic view.

    So, if you ask "why do I perceive free will if it's a semantical illusion", I would say it is not the idea of "free will" that needs to be explained, but rather why is there any conscious experience or conscious ideas at all (and what is the true nature of "self").

    The view I presented does say something pretty striking about the issue. Namely, that we are physically constrained from actually breaching the "mind-body gap". Understanding the world through semantical objects is not something that can be used to understand it exhaustively, while it is the only way a conscious experience can occur (I am talking about a phenomenal self rather than some "object" that is conscious, which seems to be an error of "identity").

    Well, I just recently talked about this at:

    Also you may be interested to read the first pages of Being No One here:

    This view about a phenomenal self of course is not something that can be proven either, but it does remove some of the more odd features of idealism or dualism or panpsychism etc. (If you follow the "Against Realism" thread further you will find my take in more detail about those) leaving only one oddity; the incomprehensibility of how semantical idea about "self" could cause a subjective experience, which is where the "snake cannot bend to express how it in reality expresses itself" comes in.

    If you want to know what I mean with the problem of identity, check out post #64 and the last half of #67 here:
    It sounds like you have spent good time on this issue and I think you can grasp pretty readily what I mean with that and why it is a problem.

    Well this touches the problem of identity a bit, and of course also the interesting way with which we perceive colour consciously. If you perceive a green car in front of you, you probably should assume there really exists such stable pattern in reality which you classify as semantical "green car" (due to various other assumptions that exist in your worldview).

    But the car, nor the colour, are not metaphysically how you comprehend/experience them. Different wavelenghts of light just have different length, but they don't carry metaphysical colour to themselves. It is just motion at different speed. It is arbitrary how it subjectively feels like to see a certain colour when the brain has picked up the pattern of "green" from the sensory data; the only thing that matters is that we perceive differences in colours. The car itself is not a metaphysical entity either, it is just that we classify reality into semantical entities or concepts, and these concepts have any meaning just because they are placed in juxtaposition with other concepts. We generally understand that cars, are not metaphysical entities (well, panpsychists kind of don't get it) but looks like we have troubles understanding it with elementary particles... (It is more tricky to realize this when thinking about how we visually perceive objects around us, but think about how we perceive something like "words" from the motion of air or from the electric patterns rushing into the cortex)

    With free will the case is of course similar, it is a matter of interpreting the world according to your worldview and believing there exists free will (even though more careful definition shows the weaknesses of the concept in any view), which includes the idea that there exists an objective "self" in reality which is exhibiting that free will. This is essentially idealism or dualism and it has its problems elsewhere, albeit they cannot be refuted per se.

    But then, I cannot really refute any idea as any idea there ever existed did exist on the virtue of some other assumptions that could not be refuted either.
  18. Oct 17, 2006 #17
    Freewill is easy to explain, as long as you can explain a particular will to be free!

    Freewill = the necessary product of the will to be free

    A will = a move

    A freewill = a move not prevented by another one

    Freewill = a free move = something that happens at an insignificant cost to the mover
  19. Oct 17, 2006 #18
    Perhaps we are using a different definition of "supernatural". I am using the one that relates to the philosophy of metaphysics, not the one from the X-Files.
  20. Oct 17, 2006 #19

    Good stuff. I agree with most of what you said, except of course, I reach a different conclusion.

    This brings about an interesting question. If a worldview (say materialism vs. idealism) cannot be reached through pure reason, what is it that it is based on?

    As far as the question of consciousness, it seems obvious to me that the quality of consciousness exceeds simple function. I find it very easy to conceive a zombie; that is a person that has the stimulus/response of a person but does not have a consciousness to go along with it.

    Also, consider this scenario. Suppose we have reverse-engineered the brain with a suffient level of detail to predict the decision a person makes given an exact set of inputs. I am given the inputs for a person who is deciding whether to mow the lawn or relax on the couch. I then work through his algorithm on pen and paper (and supposing I had millions of years to complete such a task) until I determine what the decision this person made. The question is, does the conscious experience of the person on the couch get actualized? Is there a "person" in the Universe that thinks he is this person for this several second period of making this decision, and then evaporate into nothingness when my calculation is complete?

    To me, materialism makes a lot of sense until you factor in the self-awareness that we all possess. If all we had was objective data, then it would be hard to reach any other conclusion than materialism. However, it is obvious to me that our being goes much deeper than our mathematic inventions can describe. We can only perceive material objects around us externally (according to our functional senses). However, we can perceive ourselves internally, and this gives us a much deeper view of what exists inside spacetime.

    The fact that quantum waves do not collapse until we are aware of them seems to only reinforce this idea.
  21. Oct 18, 2006 #20
    You could say that it is very much arbitrary how the worldview ends up. There are certain assumptions that you make very early on in your life, based on the information you pick up from your environment, and these assumptions serve as the basis of your further worldview. After all, it is cumulated knowledge, and anything you perceive as something is a matter of interpreting sensory data according to prior data in the worldview.

    Imagine a newly developed brain of an infant. Basically, you have no semantical knowledge at that point. There does not exist a worldview at all. When the raw sensory data comes into the brain, there is no information there to make any sense of it, it is all just completely alien data (once again, easy to imagine with "words", but must be understood similar way for vision and recognizing "objects" in visual perception as well).

    We cannot really say that the worldview has its root on some basic "truths" on which learning is based on (like is the case with most AI attempts), but rather the infant brain must basically make assumptions or hypotheses about the stable patterns that it perceives, it assumes there are some "objects" and places concepts into a structure I call worldview.

    It probably builds a number of radically different worldviews and disgards them as invalid when new data comes in (much like we do scientific hypotheses and theories). At some point it will have built a worldview that is coherent and seems to produce meaningful interpretation from the sensory data. But that worldview is now completely self-supported structure, a circle of beliefs. No concept in it has any metaphysical meaning, they only have meaning when judged against each others. All human ideas are circles of beliefs. This is what semantics is.

    It is obvious at this point, that any assumptions that are made early on in our lives will have a great effect to all the later assumptions and thus the "shape" of the worldview. All in all, the worldview is a product of our experiences. Our actions are defined by the worldview. We are a product of our experiences.

    While I use such language as the "infant" is doing assumptions or "we are" doing this and that and so on, we must remember that it is not like the self of the infant is a metaphysical entity that would have some part in this process of making hypotheses. The brain does this by its structure, and the "infant" cannot stop it from happening or influence it in any other way either. Here is where the identity of self comes in (and why there is infant amnesia).

    The assumption that there exists such thing as "self" is by no means the first assumption that a fresh brain does. Before the idea of "self" can exist, there must exist ideas about "existence" and "reality" and "objects". It takes considerable amount of time for the infant brain to start picking up on the clues, such as realizing there are these "hands" that seem to be controllable. The motion of the hands is a perception that is interpreted by the brain according to worldview, and it is also the cortex in which the interpretation (likely) happens that produces the motor output to the hands; the motor output will abide the decisions made based on the predictions that can be done according to a semantical worldview (this is the survival tactic we call "intelligence")

    Before there exists a concept of "self" in the semantical worldview, what is the form in which memories are stored? Try to imagine how would you remember some past event, if your brain could not interpret it in the form of "I perceived this and that". For an infant, the perception is not the case of "self" perceiving something or doing some decisions. It is just that "something happened", full stop. All the memories we now have are such where there exists "self" as a part of the description of the event, and it is impossible to comprehend any other sort of memory. For this reason, it would be impossible to actually remember what happened to us at birth -> infant amnesia exists because a semantical concept about "self" doesn't.

    (In this view it is also fair to say that infant doesn't even have a subjective experience until it has formed pretty good idea about "self". I think we all have an experience of becoming more and more conscious of our own existence during the first years of our lives)

    Yeah. All functions between semantical objects that we can conceive are still just semantical ideas about reality. We are only aware of semantical objects. This can never explain why there exists a conscious experience about this. (I like to say "conscious experience" instead of "consciousness", because the former implies a process and the latter implies an object that is probably not "real" but just a semantical one)

    I cannot say. If time advances discreetly, can it produce a conscious experience? This is worthwhile to consider also when considering the scientific theories where time is assumed to advance in discreet steps. Also it needs to be considered when we simulate real objects by expressing them with numbers in a computer; the numbers are updated in discreet time-steps.

    The stuff I talked about identity in the other threads touches this subject as well. If you followed that, I'm sure you can see how it readily handles such things as all the thought experiments where all the parts of the brain are replaced with identical parts one by one (and then asking if the person is still the same person), or assuming you perform an adult mitosis, and then asking which one of the copies is "you" etc... If you just assume there exists a process that gives rise to a conscious experience, but not so much to a conscious "person" inside the brain (which would lead to infinite regress anyway)... so you see? It seems only coherent to say that self is a concept in the worldview, and we have a conscious experience of the world being interpreted according to such a worldview, but there is no fundamental self which is doing the intepretation, it is a complex emergent process of nature. That the brain is what causes this process does not mean there is a "self" somewhere inside the brain. Self does not exist in any special location in "space" in any metaphysical sense... And so on.

    btw, I should also mention that the lack of "real" free will doesn't mean we wouldn't be accountable of our actions. Just believing you are accountable will affect your decisions. It can be said, that as far as our subjective reality goes, there exists a free will, just as much as "perception is reality". Outside of our perception the reality is different, as there doesn't exist all the semantical explanations or ways to look at different stable patterns. "Where man is not, nature is barren"

    Yeah well, like I said in the other thread, what most materialists don't understand is that if materialism is true, it will be impossible for us to actually explain the self-awareness. Most of them don't get this because they haven't driven the view into its conclusion. I assume materialism is true, but at the same time I am very conscious of this limitation to our very comprehension method (and for this reason my view's inability to exhaustively explain conscious awareness is not a criteria for me to abandon it)

    At the same time I can make a prediction that no view can exhaustively explain this. Different views can merely posit different metaphysical fundamentals (like metaphysical self), but none can say why those fundamentals would be the real deal. The choice is, to an extent, arbitrary. (I am alarmed when some complex function is posited as fundamental, such as the perception or reasining processes which we find are correlated to observable but very complex activity inside the brain, or metaphysical "intelligent designer" or something. Intelligence, i.e. prediction through semantical reasoning, is very poor method for building massively complex systems anyway)

    Well, it is possible that reality is holistic that way, but it is a bit strange to imagine that world did not exist before semantical reasoning came to exist (or something), being that "semantical reasoning" is also just a semantical concept and as such it is hard to say what was the first instance of it :)

    It is probably far better to look at QM phenomena in that thermodynamically irreversable events are "real", for example. Although then you get to the strangeness of spacetime... :I
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2006
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