Thank you Ryan for a comprehensive exegesis of the nominal tension between the two propositions. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with philosophy, failure to define terms precisely leads to fuzzy thinking and meaningless conclusions. Decades of studies show conclusively that there is no such thing as strict determinism and equally there is no such thing as strict free will. What we actually have is a lot of hardwired behaviors resulting from millions of years of evolution, coupled with the ability to make very small choices under some circumstances.

By way of a trivial example, let’s imagine a person whose all-time-favorite meal is cheese souffle with truffle sauce. Under normal conditions our experimental person will reliably choose this dish in favor of other dishes and will take a mouthful of souffle prior to consuming any liquid refreshment offered at the same time. Now let’s take this person and deprive them of food and water for three days. Now let’s present them with a souffle baked to perfection, and a glass of dank scum-covered water.

As the human body under such conditions prioritizes hydration over nutrition, because we can survive for weeks without food but only about 3 days without water, our imaginary test subject has no “free will” in the matter: they will eagerly gulp down the water despite it being presented in a condition that would under normal circumstances repel them.

So in one case the person appears to have “free will” and in another they appear not to have anything of the sort.

Furthermore, no human can choose to fly by flapping their arms, nor choose to live deep in the ocean by inhaling seawater. Our nominal choices are in fact tightly constrained by biology and circumstance. So the notion of what “free” means must be carefully defined. As an abstract, it is useless for throwing any light on the matter.

It’s also abundantly clear from many studies that there is no single “actor” inside a human being. Instead we have a variety of potentially competing impulses that we very imperfectly coordinate. Who has not had the experience, for example, of wanting to lose weight and yet being unable to resist the slice of cake waiting in the fridge? Where is the “free will” here? In the failed desire to lose weight or in the desire for the cake?

The fundamental problem with so much philosophy centers on this basic failure to define terms. Instead of wasting years debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, one ought first to be very careful indeed with regards to how one defines “angels” and “pins.” Usually careful definition in and of itself reveals the fundamental errors contained in a great many supposed issues and thus saves us a great deal of wasted time exploring empty propositions.

Written by

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store