Tag Archives: Philosophy

Free Will and Fatalism

In my last two posts, I have argued that we don’t have the contra-causal free will that most people vaguely think we have. A good friend read the posts and told me, “Beagle, beagle, beagle: your logic is impeccable, but you’re not going to convince anyone. We feel we have free will and we must act as if we have it.”

Before I respond, let me digress to the amazing world of emergent phenomena. Emergence happens when a system composed of relatively simple things gives rise to something more complex and usually unexpected. For example, thought arises out of the interaction of billions of neurons in our brains. Each neuron has only the most rudimentary awareness of its immediate environment, and no idea what we’re thinking about. Yet, coherent thoughts emerge. Who could predict this would happen?

It’s so mysterious that it’s tempting to call thought an illusion, but it’s not. Not quite. (If an illusion has the power to act on itself, can it really be an illusion? Read I Am a Strange Loop for more fun with this.) In fact, unless you are a biologist or chemist, it is more useful to consider people’s thoughts than to focus on their neurons.

So it is with free will. It’s useful to think of compatibilist free will (the sort of free will I argue we do have) as an emergent property very similar to thought, of which it is a close cousin.

It would be a shame to give up on thinking because thoughts are “nothing more than” the firing of neurons. In one sense that is all they are, but in an important sense thoughts are much more than that. They are specific patterns of firing, which can be analyzed and cultivated much more effectively if we forget about the neurons.

Same for compatibilist free will. Even though it is “nothing more than” an emergent property of cause and effect in our brains, it would be a shame to be as utterly fatalistic as that seems to warrant.

The fact that our free will subject to cause and effect is no reason to give up on life. Cause and effect is good. Who wants to be random?

Contra-Causal Free Will

In my last post, Free Will and the Water Park, I argued that we cannot have the sort of free will that people informally think we have. I emphasized the aspects of rationality and conscious intent and I think I caused some confusion. Let me try again from another angle: causality.

Most people feel that if choices A and B are available, and nobody is forcing them to take one or the other, they can use their free will to pick one in a way that is reasoned and yet somehow floats above causality. This is what I called contra-causal free will in one of my comments to the last post, and this is the sort of free will I contend cannot exist:

The power to make a choice that is both reasoned and free from external causes.

In my last post, I talked about rationality, but we don’t even need to go there. Now I’m using the word reasoned, meaning that if you were to ask the person whether he had a reason for his choice, he would say yes. It does not even have to be a good reason. For the purposes of this discussion it could even be a purely emotional reason. (“I hit him because I was so angry that I couldn’t help myself.”)

As for the second part of the definition, free from external causes, I mean that the choice has somehow broken the sequence of cause and effect. Not only is nobody forcing your choice, but nothing is forcing it.

This type of free will, which most people vaguely think they have, is logically impossible because it is self-contradictory. To exactly the extent that I have reasons for my choice, I am following cause-and-effect. Yet, I’m also claiming that my choice is magically free from cause-and-effect. I can’t have it both ways.

How does having a reason tie me to cause-and-effect? A reason is simply a cause that I have chosen to bring to bear on my decision. Why did I choose to do so? Well, I had my reasons. There were reasons for those reasons for my reasons, and so on. At some point, the chain of reasons will go back to where I had no choice — if only because I had not been born yet. So my reasons, which were supposed to be my tickets to freedom, turn out to chain me firmly to non-freedom (in the sense we’re considering).

In the case of the purely emotional choice, the “I” who chose to bring a reason to bear may be my subconscious. When I hit someone because I was so angry that I “could not help myself,” it was not my cerebral cortex that was running the show, but my lizard brain. That primitive, emotional part of me had its reasons, and the rest of the previous paragraph applies.

But let’s suppose that somewhere along that chain I had a reason that was not the result of anything. It had no determining cause at all. If something is uncaused then it is random. (Think about it.) If I make a choice randomly, I suppose I’m free in one sense, but not in the sense that people mean when they say they have free will.

To summarize, a choice cannot both be reasoned and free from cause and effect, for having a reason means there was a cause.

All of the above applies whether we are talking about our conscious selves or our unconscious selves. It does not matter whether we’re talking about quick, instinctual acts or decisions pondered over months. The logic even holds whether we believe our decisions are made by molecules in our brains or by immaterial souls. You can’t have decisions that are both for-cause and free from the chain of cause and effect.

Compatiblists such as Daniel Dennett rescue the idea of free will by redefining it. “Let’s throw away the useless, self-contradictory definitions of free will,” they say, “and define it as the ability to make a choice unhindered by outsiders.”

In that sense, we clearly do have free will, for we do make choices that people don’t force us to make. And to Kiril’s point, yes, our choices do have efficacy.

On the other hand, the chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, had free will in that sense as well. In fact, it wielded it even better than the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov.

So does compatibilist free will count? You are free to decide.

My Philosophy of Life

Tonight I will attend a party where each person will get the mic for 5 minutes to answer the question, What is your philosophy of life? This is my answer; what’s yours?

* * * * *

What can we aim for if not to be as deeply happy as possible?

Of course, finding happiness is not simple. Doing whatever feels good at the moment is probably the surest way to long-term unhappiness. If you always get what you want right away, you’ll learn why no child is as miserable as the spoiled child. I know I’m happiest when I’m striving for something, not when I’ve got it. I suppose that’s why we never give up striving.

Also, most of us can’t be happy if the people we love are not happy too, so that complicates matters further. The more socially conscious of us are also happiest when we know we have done our part to make society better, even if that involves personal sacrifice.

So things are pretty tangled up. When a string is tangled, it can be helpful to see how it got that way. Same for happiness. How did it come to be so complicated?

I would answer that question with two related ideas: evolution and emergence. I’ve found that those twin concepts are at the root of just about everything. Evolution explains how things developed and emergence explains why they mean what they do.


Evolution is itself built on two ideas: descent with modification and survival of the fittest. In other words, things are always changing and whatever variants work best are the ones that create the next generation. We’ve all heard of evolution as it pertains to living things, but when it comes to a philosophy of life I think the evolution of ideas is even more important.

We humans think we’re smart, but consider for how many millenia we were stumbling around in the dark. People were trying out various ideas and, in hindsight, they weren’t doing much better than trying things at random, each idea a modification of the last. The Earth is the center of the cosmos, it’s flat and the Sun is a god. And let’s kill everyone who disagrees. No, wait — the Earth is a sphere and at the center. Hold on — the Sun is the center of it all. And it’s not a god. But let’s still kill people who believe there are other worlds with life on them. Oh — we just realized that the universe has no center. Or maybe it does. And maybe it goes on forever. Or not. And hey! We now think there are a couple billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. So chances are good that life has developed elsewhere after all. And maybe there are 10 dimensions, not 3. Or maybe 11…

One idea descends from the next. We’re always pushing the boundaries in one direction or another.

What makes all this randomness converge on something that can contribute to a meaningful philosophy of life? It’s the second component of evolution: survival of the fittest. The closer an idea matches reality, the more firmly lodged it is. It persists to inform the next generation of thinkers. That’s how we got to the scientific method: not because we were smart enough to know that it’s the best way to sniff out the difference between truth and error, but because we were so clueless that we tried just about everything else first.


After all, we are but recycled dust. Recycled star dust, to be sure, but still dust.

And that leads to the second thing that explains everything: emergence. Emergence is when one phenomenon gives rise to a phenomenon at what is in some sense a “higher” level. In most cases, you could study the lower-level phenomenon at a detailed level for a thousand years and never guess what would arise from it.

Who would guess, by studying brain cells, that they are the woof and warp of the very thought you are applying to them?  Who would guess, by studying color or sound as a phenomenon of physics, that it has anything to do with personal pleasure? Who would guess that an economy whose very cornerstone is personal freedom and no central planning, would end up with more of every imaginable good and service, and better apparent planning, than every centrally planned economy that has ever been tried?

These counter-intuitive results pale in comparison to the greatest emergent phenomenon ever: that unconscious genes would “selfishly” maximize their own chance for replication by chemically motivating their hosts to behaviors that are the exact opposite of selfishness, such as altruism and eusociality. The mechanism is a delicious, hundred-layer cake of one emergence on top of another.

And that’s why happiness is so complicated. It arises counter-intuitively from emergent phenomena that, in turn, are the product of random evolution — both biological and philosophical — that isn’t even done yet. Once we understand that, we can relax and enjoy the wonders that are playing out every day.

For those of us who enjoy philosophy, contemplating such mysteries is a large part of what makes life worth living.