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The End of Free Will

What if free will exists but not everyone has it?

First we need to define free will. In the past, I've defined it as the brain's magical ability to make decisions independent of the physical laws of the universe. And since I don't believe in magic, or souls, I conclude that free will doesn't exist, at least by that limited definition. In my view, we're just moist robots bumping around and imagining we have control.

Some of you have argued that free will should be defined as the ability of the brain to process new information and make decisions based on that information. That description of free will is easier to accept, and it's the definition of free will that I'll adopt for this discussion. My hypothesis is that even if some people do have that sort of free will, most people do not - at least not for important questions.

This is where confirmation bias comes in. Ideally, a human with free will could change his or her mind whenever new information warrants it. In practice, humans see new information as supporting whatever dumbass thing they already believe is right. And when we make decisions based on emotion, which is most of the time, we rationalize our actions after the fact. None of that is free will in the sense of evaluating new information and rationally acting upon it.

You can see confirmation bias in a lot of arenas. A third of you will argue that confirmation bias is the Republican platform. Another third of you will point out that Democrats are the real data-ignorers. The remaining third of you will say both groups are nuts. And we're all quite certain that people who have different religious beliefs are suffering confirmation bias. The point is that you can't recognize confirmation bias in yourself. No one can. That's how it works. It's something we only see in others. We imagine ourselves to be exempt.

Recently I had an online conversation with an intelligent human being who claimed I opposed a point of view she holds dear. I pointed to my own public writing on that topic and quoted myself as being in complete agreement with her. At that point, the new information should have ended the conversation, right? Her free will should have processed the new data and declared that she and I were in complete agreement. And then she would have apologized for the misunderstanding on her part.

That didn't happen.

Instead, she dug in and argued that my use of the words "seems right" was my way of saying "is wrong." She wasn't claiming I wrote satire, where meanings are reversed. She argued that the words "seems wrong" literally mean the same as "is right." And she was not embarrassed by that argument. That's confirmation bias in action.

The fascinating thing about confirmation bias is that I have to allow the possibility that I'm the one who was deluded in the very example I just gave. Perhaps I'm blind to the new information she provided. Her claim is that normal people would read the words "seems right" and interpret the meaning as "is wrong." There's no way for me to know which one of us was experiencing confirmation bias in that example. The only thing I can know for sure is that neither of us experienced anything like free will. We both started with our own beliefs and maintained them even as information was exchanged.

This makes me wonder if scientists could test people for their relative degree of free will. How well can we change our views as the information changes? This would be different from standard intelligence testing. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that educated people are the most sure of their opinions and therefore have the most confirmation biases and the least free will. We assume that education makes people more open-minded, but has that ever been tested?

If you were a hermit, and had no exposure to different points of view, would it be easier for you to process new information and form new opinions? What if contention is the thing that hardens viewpoints and makes us immune to new data? If that's the case, we're all screwed, because voters aren't hermits. We're bombarded by opposing viewpoints.

In a world of 24-hour news, non-stop punditry, and the Internet, my hypothesis is that confirmation bias has moved to critical levels. I'm concerned that the free flow of information has effectively eliminated free will in our voters and in our elected officials. George Washington might have had free will. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, not so much. They're locked in.

Do you think contention increases confirmation bias and therefore eliminates free will?
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Jul 27, 2011
Seems like once she attacked you , she didn't feel free to stop with so many people watching and had to keep going no matter how stupid she looked.

And just to air out my brain, society pins us all in and makes us all vaguely uncomfortable for the greater good. We call these rules civilization. They make me obtain food and shelter by legal means as opposed to embezzlement and outright theft from the people in my town. I'd just as soon rob people blind as work because I'm lazy, but I don't because I value my freedom. We call that civilization, a safe place to live.
Jul 26, 2011
This seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison. You don't believe in free will, so you believe that irrational behavior or emotional bias disproves it somehow. That's like saying that I don't believe that water is wet, and to prove it, I advance the statement that ice is cold.

While the two ideas are related, the second in no way proves the first. Being stubborn or morally certain doesn't mean you don't have free will, any more than cold ice means water isn't wet.

People's belief system is built up over many years. If you abandon your belief system based on new information somone gives you, you aren't exhibiting free will; you're exhibiting a profound lack of consistency. If you've felt that water is wet every time you've touched it, then having someone tell you it's really dry should not change your belief system.

I think you're looking in the wrong areas to prove or disprove the concept of free will. I think creativity is strong evidence for free will's existence. To say that we lack free will yet can still create things that never existed before, and conceive of even more wonderous things that we can't yet create, leaves a much bigger question. If we don't have free will, then something has to be directing us in our "meat-robotic" ability to think new thoughts and create new things.

So, since you don't believe in God, and you don't believe in free will, I'm not sure where your beliefs (or lack thereof) is leading you. Even if you considered us to be self-programming computers, the fact that we can choose to change our programming is, in essence, the very definition of free will. If our creator gave us that ability, then it all makes sense. Otherwise, it's no more than intellectual game-playing when we can't even agree on the definition.

Jul 25, 2011
Hey Scott ... you have to read this ... it basically proves your point about free will


Robotically yours...


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Jul 21, 2011
Holding to the first definition of free will put forth in the article as the basis for the argument, I cannot see how you can reach a conclusion to the hypothesis you propose by the example you use. Brain-dead and brain-damaged people may not have that sort of free will but the woman in question did respond to what you were saying and continued the argument against it which means she 'processed new information and made a decision based on that information'and thus displays free will. You then go on to change the definition to 'acting rationally' rather than 'making a decision based on' new information and here the argument changes to one of comparison between rational and emotional reponse. Both 'rational' and 'emotional' reactions stem from the same biological and socially historical sources (unless you believe that humans have souls which receive impulses from somewhere else) and they both have been put to good use in society. To place rational responses above emotional responses may actually be the emotional response of a rationally enhanced/ emotionally deprived person. To examine this comparison, we would need to look at the functionality of the emotionally deprived (autistic?) and the rationally deprived (psychotic?) and by any definition, free will does not seem to be enhanced at either end of the spectrum. After this, your definition of free will again changes by inferring that free will means you cannot maintain the beliefs you started with after new information has been exchanged. If this is so, the decision not to change has been taken away and the first definition of free will doesn't hold.
In answer to your question, I don't think contention solidifies opinions through confirmation bias. Contention signifies two strong opinons and as history shows, if there is enough of it, one opinion eventually infiltrates the other whereas confirmation bias is a 'short' (can actually be quite long at times) term response but doesn't hold in the face of continuing evidence. Lack of contention, which happens when people can't be bothered, solidifies opinions. As Thomas Jefferson said: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance".
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Jul 20, 2011
Scott wrote the following:
Instead, she dug in and argued that my use of the words "seems right" was my way of saying "is wrong." She wasn't claiming I wrote satire, where meanings are reversed. She argued that the words "seems wrong" literally mean the same as "is right."

I think what she is trying to say is that, depending on context, the phrase "seems right" could be interpreted as "while it seems right, that is only an appearance, and not actually correct." I don't know the context, so it's hard to say.

In the opposite version, perhaps "seems wrong" could be interpreted as "while it seems wrong, that is actually only an appearance, and the truth isn't so far off as you would think." Again, it depends heavily on context.

For some reason I see the first as more likely/rational than the second, but I could see someone interpreting those phrases that way if the context justified it.
Jul 19, 2011
In his On the Freedom of the Will, Schopenhauer stated, "You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing."
Jul 19, 2011
What about this view?

Arthur Schopenhauer put the puzzle of free will and moral responsibility in these terms:

Everyone believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life. ... But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity, that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns...
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Jul 19, 2011
Free will, uh! It seems to me like Scott does not believe in free will because he holds the following view (I am not sure if he already knows he does)

Biological determinism is the idea that all behaviors, beliefs, and desires are fixed by our genetic endowment and our biochemical makeup, the latter of which is affected by both genes and environment.

Other forms of determinism include: cultural determinism and psychological determinism. Combinations and syntheses of determinist theses, e.g. bio-environmental determinism, are even more common.

Therefore he did not write this article because he decided to but just because he had to, there was no way he could avoid writing this article, right?
Jul 19, 2011
the only time most people hear the word 'Seems' is when someone is saying something that they dont believe. 'He seemed like a nice guy, but then he ...', 'it seemed like it wasnt going to rain, but then ...'

with a sentence that starts out like 'It seems right to think ....', then most people, most of the time are waiting for the 'but' which turns the initial statement on its head.

the word is also used by politicians and the like as a weasel word - i use it myself at work when it suits. someone emails me a document, i dont read it, they ask if its ok, i say 'it seems fine, but i want to take another look over it' - i.e. i'm saying one thing, but reserving the right to change my mind.

so if you want to state something unequivocally, i'd avoid the word 'seems' if i was you

(btw - feel free to run any future potential controversies by me first if you like - I'm immune to confirmation bias)
Jul 19, 2011
This whole conversation reminds me of Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut...

Jul 19, 2011
Umm, I tried to come up myself with a definition of free will. And couldn't.

I can only define it using a concept from the Set theory. The Set difference.
So, basically : Free will = everything you do or or think when you're not directly constrained.

I added "directly" because there's lots of indirect ways to influence someone, but it gets too difficult and too subjective to discern in these situations.
There's education, there's manipulation, there's information, there's hundreds of factors which represent what we think and do at a particular moment.

Regarding the confirmation bias..., it's hard to correlate it to free will, when you consider my definition.
I totally agree that it has a decisive influence in many aspects, but it doesn't influence you directly.

The main difference between Scott's and my definition is that he added rationality to the Set of actions and thoughts which are governed by free will.
I think that's just to hard to quantify.

Regarding the last question, I think things will stay the same as long as human nature doesn't change. And it hasn't until now.
Jul 19, 2011
Hmm interesting. But as another poster pointed out where do you draw the line. After I first read
the post my confirmation bias said A HA! Its like those stupid pledges candidates sign. Basically its I will hold to this opinion or ideology no matter what facts or information come in. Now I made the value judgement of them being stupid (my exercise of Free Will). On the surface you could say that the politician is exercising his/her free will to sign the pledge and agree to not have Free Will choices (or is still not choosing Free Will as much as choosing to break the pledge), for the return value of getting votes in the election. I'm calling it not Free Will because future actions/decision are bound to the pieces of paper. Also as the one poster said you could say that this decision is the "Free Will" to make dumb ass decisions. But then if you think about it if the goal by signing the pledge was to get the votes of certain voters with certain opinions, its not Free Will beacuse you have no choice but to sign if your goal is to get their votes! So the only way out is some sort of "randomness" on the person making the decision but then your again bound by what is random and is "pure" Free Will really the goal of a sentient being or the more limited definition of enough Free Will to make choices that get to the goals. Which is that definition a choice or not. I think the issue can be interpreted is we live with our choices/views we can't ever totally step outside as a totally unbiased observer of actions of others and thus Free Will is limited to some degree because of this built in bias.
Jul 19, 2011
If I was a hermit living in the woods the only opinion I'd listen to would be Wilson my volleyball.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 19, 2011

The future is uncertain. Babies are born different right out of the womb with a purpose. Confimation bias is a way to make sure differences are developed and refined for thousands of hours - even in the face of prevailing wisdom. It is these developed differences that assure that society survives.

Should the day come when wrong is now right, as a society we will be ready. We will make it past the challenge. Confirmation bias is a necessary time constant amplifier that carries us through an uncertain future.

As for free will: It happens when operating systems break down: 5 years old, puberty, on your own, first work experience. These are the times when people create the backdrops, or context, for future decisions. It is difficult for one small parcel of information to change an entire context.
Jul 18, 2011
Scott (et.al.); you may find this of interest: How To Talk To Complete Idiots: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2009/09/25/notes092509.DTL
Jul 18, 2011
Scott - you should check out "Freedom Evolves" by Daniel Dennett. It is essentially agreeing with you [at least, I think :)].
Jul 18, 2011
I would add that bias and other delusions are a substitute for free will because it let's us ignore reality rather than try to change it. Also much easier. This is an excellent coping mechanism for all of us. It doesn't stop free will, it just serves as an easy alternative.
Jul 18, 2011
Having something is different from using it. Human beings have the capacity to exercise free will, as you define it, but most choose not to, because it is uncomfortable, difficult, and generally leads to bad ends.

I would define will as the desire to alter the universe in some specific way. Whether this desire is a product of our biology, or the emanation of a divine spirit, thats for the philosophers to figure out. Free Will is the power to make those alterations to reality by making specific choices. Obviously free will is constrained by natural laws.

Trying to use free will is hard because we see reality as a zero-sum game. We all share a single reality, so if one person exercises their free will, and someone else doesn't like the change, there is a conflict, and someone ends up not getting their way. They lose their free will. It's much easier to complain about reality than it is to actually try to change it. It's you against the world, the odds are not on your side, so why bother?

I would love to alter reality so that I had a billion dollars, and I could exercise my will to work towards that reality, but I'll probably fail, so why take that hard route? Plus people would fight me, because not everyone can have a billion dollars.

So exercising free will requires afew things: A hope for success, a well defined desire, a good deal of arrogance, and the ability to trick people into thinking they don't have free will.

I'm on to you Scott.
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Jul 18, 2011
You lost that debate Scott, and it will be better if you stop referring to it.
Jul 18, 2011
In your terms Scott very few people have free will but it's out there...

However, it must be earned in the mind through Socratic wisdom & extreme analytical skills. But then again this is just my personal theory which can change with a more logical hypothesis.

Sociopathic ways assist in free will as well, those pesky emotions don't stand a chance.
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