Your success isn’t down to free will – luck determines everything
May 17, 2018 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Eventually, working backwards, you will reach some starting point that can’t have been your doing. The troubling conclusion is that the person born in poverty, with no parental support, who scrimps to put himself or herself through college, finally achieving success through ceaseless suffering, owes their triumph no less to luck than, say, Eric Trump does. Or, as Strawson pithily puts it: “Luck swallows everything.”

BBC Radio 4, In Our Time: Free Will
Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza regarded it as a delusion. Albert Einstein wrote: "Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion." But in the Enlightenment, philosophers including David Hume found ways in which free will and determinism could be reconciled. Recent scientific developments mean that this debate remains as lively today as it was in the ancient world.
Free will previously.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (81 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
For a related take, though focusing on the side of luck and unearned advantages rather than free will, I found Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy a really compelling read.
posted by jklaiho at 11:44 PM on May 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


it's not either/or
posted by philip-random at 11:46 PM on May 17, 2018 [10 favorites]


Between "free will is irrelevant to success" and "democracy is not a truth machine" MetaFilter today is just a great example of how philosophers are frequently no fun at parties.
posted by daisystomper at 11:52 PM on May 17, 2018 [41 favorites]


A few years ago I started sitting with an advaita teacher.

One of the pointers he uses is the suggestion to observe your choices.

Where exactly does free will exercise its influence? How does it manifest?

I’ve been observing the choices “I” make and upon investigation, they come down to things I don’t control, like morals, preferences, desires, thoughts, bodily functions, environment, life experience, trauma patterns, blood sugar levels, emotions etc.

Any conscious decision is based on a preference. Investigating the origin of each preference leads me to phenomenae out of my control, like conditioning, instincts, genetics, trauma etc.

I’m still looking for this mythical free will. What I’m finding as I zoom into choices is that what we call free will is an un-investigated bundle of uncontrolled forces.
posted by andreinla at 11:56 PM on May 17, 2018 [53 favorites]


Yes, but you still feel guilty, that's got to be worth something.
posted by Pembquist at 12:13 AM on May 18, 2018 [29 favorites]


The best thing about there being no free will is that you cannot hold me morally responsible for my actions if I had no way to behave otherwise.

The courts have been remarkably unsympathetic to this argument, because they are hypocrites and cretins
posted by Merus at 12:59 AM on May 18, 2018 [16 favorites]


I just appreciated that on this sort of subject, the article was not a wall of text.
posted by polymodus at 2:03 AM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


It's always interesting to be told, in these threads, how easy it is to resolve centuries-old aporias
posted by thelonius at 3:08 AM on May 18, 2018 [24 favorites]


andreinla, that is a fascinating insight.

I have long disliked the concept of free will, chiefly because in my (limited) study of artificial intelligence I came to the conclusion that the central element of human creativity might be true, quantum-level randomness (which is the missing ingredient in AI at the moment, and once it is incorporated, I predict AI will become human-like), but that means there would be no room for "free will" as defined in, for instance, religion.

So to me, "free will" (the popular interpretation) is a mixture of deterministic elements (personal, not necessarily universal), and this quantum-driven, low-level pure randomness.

The best thing about there being no free will is that you cannot hold me morally responsible for my actions if I had no way to behave otherwise.


Since, in the above theory, there is no room for any other "free will", there is no room for a definition of morality which depends on it. Morality would be a social contract and your decision to uphold or violate it would be dictated by a combination of those two elements (determinism, randomness).
posted by Laotic at 3:49 AM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Now, Strawson's argument is probably more subtle than what's presented here, and I just woke up and I'm cranky, but this seems like a blatant pars pro toto fallacy. It's like those terrible arguments that say that since I benefit in some small way from all of my actions, none of my actions are ever altruistic; or saying (and I realize the parallel is not exact, I'm just exaggerating out of irritation) that because there's got to be at least one object in my house that I borrowed or accidentally took from someplace else, I don't really own the possessions in my home. It's like, yeah, my mentor gave me crucial feedback on my dissertation, and he even made some direct edits to the text, but that doesn't mean I didn't write my dissertation. I mean, does anyone claim that we actually have, always, raw free will unconditioned by any circumstances? What am I missing here?
posted by mister-o at 3:49 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


I mean, that's even assuming there's a you to have free will and you're not just a loosely connected series of events happening broadly in the same place and time.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:09 AM on May 18, 2018 [18 favorites]


Lota folks have good luck, I for one have squandered so many fortunate situations, what is actually amazing is just that I'm here alive typing this with two hands visually without a screen reader. Some do seem to grab bit of luck and run with it, but yeah working back what if that volcanic vent in the primordial ocean had been just a bit hotter or cooler that first few cells would never have split up and rejoined and started us all on our great journey to the heat death of the universe.
posted by sammyo at 4:14 AM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


The thing about the free will argument is that even if you determine with relative certainty that we don't have free will, it's still useful to go about your daily, non-philosophical life as though you (and others) do. It's not particularly productive or helpful to assume we're all robots set into motion; any sufficiently complicated determinism is indistinguishable from randomness.

Similarly, this luck argument should be used to inject a bit of humility into our successes, and soften the blow of our failures, but it shouldn't be used to suggest that effort isn't worthwhile. And it definitely shouldn't be used to argue against social programs and safety nets that help dampen the effect of luck.
posted by explosion at 4:20 AM on May 18, 2018 [25 favorites]


I found Peter Watts' book EchoPraxia a useful jumping point for talking about the nature of will.
posted by Fraxas at 4:26 AM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm somewhat surprised free will has survived as a concept as long as it has. It has seemed to me that a few minutes thought is sufficient to demolish it in several different ways, from the bottom up, knowing we're made of atoms (quantum randomness cannot save free will -- that only gets you unpredictability, not free will), from the inside out (examining where our motives come from), even gods cannot save free will. Just attempting to *define* free will destroys it, as it disappears into incoherence.
posted by smcameron at 4:28 AM on May 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


I liked the article, but that was always going to have been the case.
posted by um at 4:34 AM on May 18, 2018 [19 favorites]


Free will is pretty demonstrably an illusion I think, and yet if we all stopped pretending that we have it, the world as we know it would fall apart. (Of course, since there's no such thing as free will we have no true choice in whether ir not to carry on with the charade.) It's an interesting little philosophical paradox, and something I often use in my more depressed moments to motivate myself to carry on anyway.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:34 AM on May 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


And yet as explosion points out, we still go about our business and make choices.

To me, this is the essence of mindfulness practices - how can we be aware of the conditions around us and our habitual responses to those conditions and choose something more beneficial and less harmful.
posted by kokaku at 4:35 AM on May 18, 2018 [8 favorites]


But without free will, how can we enjoy punishing Those People who clearly deserve to be punished?! You can't seriously be suggesting that I put down my whip!
posted by SPrintF at 4:36 AM on May 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


Nobody chooses to accept that choice is an illusion unless it isn't.
posted by pipeski at 4:45 AM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


Isn't there some thing in... some branch of religion (Mormonism, Jehova's witnesses? I really don't remember) that says that there are set elect who get to go to heaven after they die (like 20,000 or something) and that those elect are chosen on the basis of righteous actions, but also everything is predestined.
So, the question goes if the elect are already chosen why should I act righteously, and the answer is that it was predestined if you did or not, so if you don't then you already would have been not chosen, but if you do act righteously you always were going to so you might already be chosen.
Or.. something?
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:59 AM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


sn't there some thing in... some branch of religion (Mormonism, Jehova's witnesses? I really don't remember) that says that there are set elect who get to go to heaven after they die (like 20,000 or something) and that those elect are chosen on the basis of righteous actions, but also everything is predestined.

I think that was Calvinism
posted by thelonius at 5:12 AM on May 18, 2018 [9 favorites]


I mean, that's even assuming there's a you to have free will and you're not just a loosely connected series of events happening broadly in the same place and time.

I've read somewhere that the brain often "decides" to do something after the body has already started doing it.

I recently read Buddha's Brain (which connects neuroscience with ideas from Buddhism, sometimes in a fuzzy way) and the chapter on the self was particularly fascinating. To paraphrase: there's no "self" center of the brain or particular pattern of activity distinct from other "theory of mind" activity.

The self is a simulation of a person, a character in a story that the mind tells to explain its actions. It uses the same process it uses to simulate other people (and animals, and perhaps inanimate objects) to attempt to understand and predict them.
posted by Foosnark at 5:20 AM on May 18, 2018 [13 favorites]


It was Calvinism, but I think the concept does still exist in some modern sects. Darned if I can remember which ones either, though.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:42 AM on May 18, 2018




After years of introspection, the only satisfactory conclusion I’ve come to is that we have far less free will than we generally like to believe. Whether this eventually reduces itself down to pure mechanistic determinism I can’t say. It’s certainly possible, even likely.

Like andreinla pointed out, when you begin to dive down into your perception of self and free will, what you find is a bundle of impulses built on conditioned states. And when you examine the behavior of other people, it’s easy to see how their actions and choices resemble that of an animal with refined and complex preferences and impulses; and in the animal kingdom the complexity of those preferences are a spectrum spanning microscopic creatures all the way up to human beings. There doesn’t appear to be a point on that spectrum where it breaks off into something qualitatively different.

It is difficult to find examples of free will and easy to find actions and thoughts that illegitimately present themselves as free choices. We have all the examples detailed above, plus the (perhaps stupid) example of the illusion of choice in our dreams. Are we choosing to go left or right when dreaming? It certainly feels like it but when you wake up it’s clearly an illusion. But even with dreams there’s examples of lucid dreaming where it appears you suddenly have more freedom than you did the moment before based on your understanding of the circumstances. Of course this might be another delusion, but when you experience the shift into a lucid dream your reactions to the conditioned states is markedly different. Perhaps the refinement of preferences and insight leads to increased freedom and not just increased sense of freedom.

What I’m saying is the search for an all or nothing, syllogistic conclusion is not necessarily the best line of inquiry and why it has never resolved itself. I remember in high school being frustrated in a philosophy class by a blowhard who repeatedly responded to every idea with determinism. I asked my father, a zen priest, what he thought of it and free will in general. Of course he responded like my dad, with an answer that wasn’t particularly sastifying if you are pursuing a purely logical resolution. He said, “Sit a 7 day seshin and you’ll find an example free will.” Of course this experience of free will is not dissimilar to the example of my lucid dream example above. Yes, it could be just another delusion. But hand-waving it away is not fair to the inquiry.
posted by milarepa at 5:49 AM on May 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


It was Calvinism, but I think the concept does still exist in some modern sects. Darned if I can remember which ones either, though.

Calvinism is very much alive and well in a lot of American churches, where a lot of places use the word "reformed" like a badge of courage and try to uphold all of the five points without actually saying any of them out loud.

See: Piper, John; Driscoll, Mark
posted by benluttrull at 5:50 AM on May 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


When we ask whether an act was free, we’re not asking a metaphysical question about whether there was an interruption in the sequence of cause and effect. We’re asking, did the guy have a gun to his head?

Human intentionality, our ability to think about anything, allows our behaviour to be influenced by foreseen or even imaginary events. In some lights this does look like a contradiction of cause and effect - future events causing past ones - though strictly speaking it clearly isn’t.

In short, compatibilism is true. Freedom and determinism just work at different levels of description.

Now let us never speak of this again.
posted by Segundus at 6:07 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


I remember an early science class where the concept of “deceleration” was nixed — there’s acceleration, and it can be a positive or negative value depending.

Observed forward in time, we have free will; backwards, it’s determinism.
posted by Celsius1414 at 6:09 AM on May 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


A few years ago, after a friend died in a terribly random way, my brother and I started talking about luck's role in our lives. It turned out that we had both independently concluded that the crucial luck-driven pivot point in both of our lives (beyond, you know, the sperm-egg intersection) actually happened to our father in high school. As a junior, he won the state's top prize in both science and math. While sitting next to his science project display, a random science guy asked him what he planned to do next. Dad said he hoped to be able to enroll at State U (he would be the first in his family to go to college) and would likely become an accountant since he was good at math and his father had found work as a bookkeeper after losing his small grocery store in the '40s. This guy told him he should aim higher and that he could probably get a scholarship to CalTech or MIT. So Dad applied to State, CalTech and MIT, which gave him the best financial aid package. Everything else flowed from there.

Dad acknowledged the importance of the above encounter in his life (and tracked down the science guy to thank him), but he thought he would have found his way to high end science anyway. Dad was fond was fond of the "maybe so, maybe not, we'll see" parable and often said that chance goes to the prepared, any decision is better than no decision, etc. He rejected Catholicism and raised us as atheists. So, relative to the story above, he would have wanted us to think we had a clean slate upon which to write the story of our lives and the responsibility to exercise free will productively.

As for me, Dad thought the crucial luck pivot point for me was the fact that I emerged unscathed from rogue wave incident; I disagreed and attributed my survival to the fact that I am a strong swimmer and did not panic. He may have been right though and I still have a hard time even thinking about that some 40+ years later.

Bottom line: both of us wanted to attribute to skill what the other saw as luck. So it goes.
posted by carmicha at 6:12 AM on May 18, 2018 [18 favorites]


Between "free will is irrelevant to success" and "democracy is not a truth machine" MetaFilter today is just a great example of how philosophers are frequently no fun at parties.

But can we blame them?
posted by srboisvert at 6:14 AM on May 18, 2018 [11 favorites]


I can only speak from my experience, but I believe I have complete free will, within my circumstances. I can choose where my focus is, and what I can do, given my options, but since I'm not born on 3rd base, I have little opportunity to decide if I want to go to a luxury box at a Mets game.

I think the issue here is defining "success" maybe? I consider myself successful if I can resolve my free will with my 11 year old daughter's free-will, and ensure she gets on the school bus on time.
posted by mikelieman at 6:23 AM on May 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


What’s Expected of Us - a very short [<1 minute read] short story by Ted Chiang that uses a clever conceit to deal with the perception of free will vs the reality (that we don’t have any).

As to the argument in the OP, that all your “achievements” (as opposed to what we normally think of as “luck”) come down to nature or nurture in the end: I came up with this argument when I was an extremely morose 19 year old stoner, and I found it to be an amazingly effective argument for the arbitrariness of the world (which, fair enough) and then I extrapolated this to an argument for not bothering to do anything (in retrospect, a bit tenuous), which resulted in my not doing any revision for exams at the end of high school, which had a pretty major effect on my life.

(It also resulted in the breakdown of one of my first relationships - in a general sense, because my attitude must have been insufferable to be around, and specifically, because the straw that broke the camel’s back for us was me somehow turning a conversation about Buffy the Vampire Slayer into... an argument about how it was just as valid to be attractive and succeed through one’s looks as to be intelligent, kind, driven etc - all of the ways that we consider to be acceptable paths to success.)

I’ve had a lot of very good luck since those rough early years, but reading the post brought back a lot of (not especially pleasant) memories. It was a helpful reminder that it’s best not to think about philosophy too deeply when you’re at that earnest age and don’t have much of a sense of humour about it all.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:30 AM on May 18, 2018 [8 favorites]


As a recovered alcoholic, I know what it's like to be at the mercy of screwed-up brain chemistry. There may be such as thing as free will, but it's very fragile and subject to inner and outer forces over which we have limited to no control.
posted by SPrintF at 6:40 AM on May 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


At first, I thought this was an in-joke/pepsi blue reference to the new deadpool movie..
posted by k5.user at 6:47 AM on May 18, 2018


I've always favored William James's idea that acting as if we had free will is better (for us) than the alternative. Of course, acting as if others have free will when they do not can lead to terrible cruelty.

I had a seminar in grad school on free will that was pretty fun (because John Dupre is awesome), but almost every day I came away with the sense that we just can't possibly know. When we look at the science, when we reason through it, our actions come down to determinism or randomness. And yet... if there is something like a self, something like free will, the way we have learned to think about the world doesn't have a vocabulary or a conceptual space that could capture that moment when something I call "I" makes something I call a "choice". It might be happening, but I'll never know.

The idea of free will has held on so long because we have wanted it to. But surely it would be a kindness to recognize just how little control or responsibility many of us have over our circumstances, and thus over our opportunities.
posted by allthinky at 6:47 AM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Determinism is not a description of the nature of reality such that there is some event which could occur that would invalidate it. (For all you Popperians, determinism is not falsifiable.) Determinism is a deep presumption in the light of which phenomena are understood. (Is this what Kant meant by a categorical imperative?) Determinism is a lens through which reality comes to be understood. Perhaps it is the only lens through which reality can come to be understood because the very act of understanding means to comprehend as a sequence of cause and effect.

If true, that does not mean that the (Buddha?) nature of reality is thereby fully captured by our understanding of it but whatever is not thus captured is outside the bounds of shareable speech.

Wittgenstein is a propos here: "...what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence."
posted by kaymac at 6:56 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


I don't doubt a bit that most of what we are is luck, whether good or bad. Still, within the constrains of luck, we have some wiggle room for choice. I could have gone to grad school instead of getting married. Yet I couldn't have ever made that particular choice if I weren't born into an education-minded family. My kids were shipped around the world to be adopted, that's their luck (good or bad) and my choice. One thing I tried to teach them was that no matter what your station at the time, you have to recognize and jump at an opportunity. They took that to heart and are having adventures I never imagined at their age. Some work out, some don't. But then, I had adventures my parents never imagined. Contrast that to my MIL, who sat back and let life happen to her, and not much ever happened. Did she have better opportunities now and then? Probably, I don't know. She wasn't very smart, and that was an accident of birth and upbringing.

What constantly grinds my gears is judgment upon those who just aren't lucky. Even if we were to someday equalize opportunity to folks who have circumstances stacked against them -poverty, time constraints, family obligations, prejudice, the effects of someone else's bad decisions- we would still be left with people who are genetically below average, maybe not too smart, maybe not too healthy. Those people deserve opportunity, too, the opportunity to make a decent living and have a decent life. The whole notion that modern living is a zero-sum game and a competition to get yours is what's killing us as a society.
posted by Miss Cellania at 7:16 AM on May 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


The idea of free will has held on so long because we have wanted it to.

Say that again, but slowly.
posted by The Gaffer at 7:17 AM on May 18, 2018 [11 favorites]


Can we all firstly agree that people who are underprivileged and in need of support are in that situation because of bad luck rather than due to nature or nurture?

Because that is not the common narrative in the West and is a source for a lot of societal problems. We need a system that accounts for, adjusts and compensates for bad luck more than we need a system that rewards (or fails to acknowledge) good luck.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:22 AM on May 18, 2018 [11 favorites]


I was going to comment, but I deleted it and wrote this instead.
posted by Reverend John at 7:32 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


The best thing about there being no free will is that you cannot hold me morally responsible for my actions if I had no way to behave otherwise.

I think the "cannot" in that sentences conflates "not fair" with "not possible."

Not fair to hold you morally responsible? Maybe.

Not possible to hold you morally responsible? Watch me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:36 AM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


Or to put it another way:

Judge: You are hereby sentenced...
Criminal: Wait, your honor! I have no free will, I could not have done otherwise.
Judge: As I was saying, you are hereby sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Criminal: But how can you...
Judge: I have no free will either.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:41 AM on May 18, 2018 [15 favorites]


Still, within the constrains of luck, we have some wiggle room for choice. I could have gone to grad school instead of getting married.

I think the point is that, either your "choice" was truly random, in which case taking the better path was luck, or that everything in your life preceding the choice contributed in some way, big or small, to your making the particular decision that you did... and since all of those factors were happenstance, that's luck too.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:45 AM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: an un-investigated bundle of uncontrolled forces.
posted by Paladin1138 at 8:00 AM on May 18, 2018 [8 favorites]


I think the point is that, either your "choice" was truly random, in which case taking the better path was luck, or that everything in your life preceding the choice contributed in some way, big or small, to your making the particular decision that you did... and since all of those factors were happenstance, that's luck too.

Except it's impossible to know if it's the better choice without A/B testing. It's a rationalization to say we were 'lucky' (except in situations that could have directly killed us) in any particular instance because we have no idea what other outcomes might have been.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:17 AM on May 18, 2018


Except it's impossible to know if it's the better choice without A/B testing.

True, although not my point. Taking the worse path would also have been luck (in either interpretation), just bad luck instead of good.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:21 AM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


True, although not my point. Taking the worse path would also have been luck (in either interpretation), just bad luck instead of good.

Maybe so but my point is that rationalizing variable 'luck' into 'bad luck' and 'good luck' categories is free will.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:37 AM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


A number of posters above have touched on ideas referred to as compatibilism, various views that hold that free will is compatible with determinism. The linked article is a good summary of that position if you want to see how it's been discussed by philosophers over time.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:40 AM on May 18, 2018


Maybe so but my point is that rationalizing variable 'luck' into 'bad luck' and 'good luck' categories is free will.

I'm curious as to how?

(And if I had phrased my comment as "the outcome depended purely on chance", would that still involve free will?)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:42 AM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


these sort of discussions always bring to mind a rant from decades ago, my psychedelic phase. Something along the lines of, "Nothing scares people more than the possibility that universe is neither completely random, nor completely fixed -- that it actually matters what you do, the decisions you make, the doors you choose to open, or not." And, as any psychedelic vet will tell you, you've gotta face that fear.
posted by philip-random at 8:46 AM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


-- that it actually matters what you do, the decisions you make, the doors you choose to open, or not."

and further to this, an idea I picked up in my brief Self-Help phase. The notion of thinking less in terms of responsibility, and more in terms of accountability. The example being that if you choose to walk out your front door and thirty seconds later you get hit by a bus whose brakes failed at the top of a long hill ... that doesn't mean you're responsible for that monstrous hit of bad luck. But you are accountable. Because, knowing full well that the world was a dangerous place where randomly awful things are happening all the time, you chose to go out the front door anyway, because ... well, reasons. We all have reasons.
posted by philip-random at 8:54 AM on May 18, 2018


Something along the lines of, "Nothing scares people more than the possibility that universe is neither completely random, nor completely fixed -- that it actually matters what you do, the decisions you make, the doors you choose to open, or not." And, as any psychedelic vet will tell you, you've gotta face that fear.

On Progress and Historical Change, Ada Palmer
So when I tell people about this election [Simulated Renaissance Papal Election], and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no. Because the Great Forces always push the same way. The strong factions are strong. Money is power. Blood is thicker than promises. Virtue is manipulable. In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn. But the details are always different. A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall. And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B. And from that functionary flow the consequences.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:57 AM on May 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


From Louis Pasteur, Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés, which translates to "Chance favors the prepared."

It may all be luck and randomness, and we may not have free will, but I think that we should act as if we do have free will, if for no other reason than that we can feel at the end of the day that we have done what we could to make the best of what we were given.
posted by math at 8:58 AM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's always interesting to be told, in these threads, how easy it is to resolve centuries-old aporias

Only what has happened has happened. Nothing that did not happen did happen. The past is immutable and cannot be made to be other than what it was. Not all of the past is knowable. Such elements of our own pasts as we consider to be knowable are called "memories". Stories about the past in general are called "history".

Only what is happening is happening. Nothing that is not happening is happening. The boundary between present and past is fuzzy and subject to interpretation, as is the boundary between present and future. The present is where all change happens. Not all of the present is knowable. Such elements of our own presents as we consider to be knowable are called "experience". Stories about the present in general are called "live music".

Only what will happen will happen. Nothing that will not happen will happen. The future is immutable and cannot be made to be other than what it will be. Not all of the future is knowable. Such elements of our own futures as we consider to be knowable are called "will". Stories about the future in general are called "predictions".

I trust that clears things up.
posted by flabdablet at 9:01 AM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


an un-investigated bundle of uncontrolled forces

a human suit full of bees
posted by poffin boffin at 9:02 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


with colony collapse disorder
posted by flabdablet at 9:06 AM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Very interesting discussion. I'm always fascinated by how quick many of my friends are to dismiss free will as an illusion. When I ask them why, they usually say something along the lines of, "Well, I believe in science." This is a view that I like to call the Clockwork Universe -- the idea that the world is fundamentally predictable, governed by universal natural laws that never change. But I think a critical realization here is that this doesn't come from science -- it's an assumption that makes science work.

Also, every time somebody tells me they don't believe in free will, I have an overwhelming urge to smack them across the face as hard as I can, and then say, "Sorry dude, couldn't help it."
posted by tom_r at 9:07 AM on May 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


It may all be luck and randomness, and we may not have free will, but I think that we should act as if we do have free will, if for no other reason than that we can feel at the end of the day that we have done what we could to make the best of what we were given.

Fair enough on an individual level, although historically (as Sangermaine's link makes clear) the concept of "free will" has been tied into a project to rationalise notions of morality, and perhaps that's not such a great thing. It allows us to think that our success is deserved, and that others' failures are deserved too.

That's going to lead you to some right-wing places, if you use that heuristic to make policy.

On the other hand, if we recognise that some people just have bad luck (to be born into the wrong country, or to the wrong parents, or with the wrong personality for their surroundings, etc etc etc ad infinitum - that people may not have good choices, or may lack the capacity to make good choices, and it's not their fault either way) then it's much harder to get away with discounting the value of those people.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:15 AM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


the idea that the world is fundamentally predictable, governed by universal natural laws that never change. But I think a critical realization here is that this doesn't come from science -- it's an assumption that makes science work.

Science works even if one assumes that the world is not governed in any way.

The only assumptions necessary to make science work are (a) that past experience is, more often than not, a useful guide to the future; if this assumption were not in fact good enough to be going on with, we would probably not have the brains inside which to make it (b) that it is better to concentrate our powers of understanding on that which we can actually test.

In particular, science does not yield "universal natural laws that never change". Laws of nature change frequently; the more we learn about nature, the more we have to change what we can say about it. The fact that some of the things we can say about nature have not changed much in the last fifty years says more about the limited human capacity to evaluate slow change than it does about their "universal" applicability.
posted by flabdablet at 9:22 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn.

but I don't have to be Catholic. I mean, yeah, I get it, history is bigger than any of us and driven by ... well, who knows? But that's my end point anyway. Nobody knows. And anyone who claims to KNOW is either A. deluding themselves or B. trying to deceive me.
posted by philip-random at 9:34 AM on May 18, 2018


Funny, I was just thinking this morning about free will on the drive to work. I think, as others have said, we don't really have what's thought of as free will in the traditional sense in which we are in charge of our actions. That comes down to our experiences and emotions and are relatively determined. The point where I do feel some degree of free will is in how we interpret those experiences and how we reflect on our thoughts. We're going to do what we're going to do and have very little control over it. The choice is in each moment and how we absorb that moment. Through things like mediation we're able to watch those moments dispassionately and rather than feel "this thing is happening" and trying to control what's happening and our reactions to it, we can simply sit back and see what spin our pre-determined thoughts are going to put on it. And in not getting caught up in the story of our lives so much we’re more free to just observe.
posted by downtohisturtles at 11:08 AM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: Science works even if one assumes that the world is not governed in any way.

I disagree. You say that science does not need to assume that the world is governed in any way. But the very next thing you do is to make such an assumption :) Specifically:

(a) that past experience is, more often than not, a useful guide to the future

This may be a disagreement about the precise meaning of "governed". Suffice it to say that, the way I mean to use the word, the idea that the past is a useful predictor of the future is a principle that governs the universe.

There's also a question of semantics about two other things, specifically what the two of us mean when we say 1) "universal laws" or "natural laws" and 2) "science works". You say that "[l]aws of nature change frequently". Based on that, our definitions of "natural law" (or "universal law", which in my conception is the same thing) are different. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but when you say "natural law", it seems to me that you mean human understanding of nature. And yes, this changes all the time. When I say "universal law" I mean how nature works independent of humans understanding or not understanding it, or, really, independent of humans existing at all. For example, if we come to know more about how gravity works, our understanding of gravity has changed, but gravity itself has not changed.

The second semantic question is about what we mean when we say "science works". Once again, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but if I interpret you correctly, when you say "science works" you mean that we can use science to make useful predictions about the future. If that's what you mean, I wholeheartedly agree. But I mean something different. When I say "science works", I mean that if all the laws of nature (using my definition, not yours) were known with perfect accuracy, the future could be predicted with perfect accuracy. I'll grant you that that's not the most obvious definition of the phrase :)

My point is, when one says "science disproves free will" (I'm not implying that you're saying this, but I have friends who do), that means that the future state of the universe must be 100% defined by the current state of the universe. And that's not something science can prove, only something it can assume.
posted by tom_r at 11:38 AM on May 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


Calvin did not believe that you were justified by your good works. Nothing a puny human could do could ever wring a judgment of the slightest merit from the Almighty. The elect engage in good works because of the operation of grace upon them (sanctification); their actions are a reflection of their salvation, not a cause of it.
posted by praemunire at 2:49 PM on May 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


As others have said, I think notions of free will and determinism miss the ridiculously complicated point.
Whatever version of choice we have is only a tiny bit of what creates not only what we do and think, but also what we experience and what happens around us and beyond us. I tried to sum up Buddhism years ago to a friend as the idea that “you are where you put your attention”. I still think there some innate truth there, but even if we can guide the self, what the hell is the self and what are the forces that shaped it, effect it, and are beyond it?
This is the truth of karma (stay with me....) If only it was as simple as “X in, X out”. It’s more like “nudge, nudge, nudge,nudge, nudge.....is that any different ? Maybe a little? Nudge, nudge, nudge....Now?”
I don’t think we’re totally un-piloted, but I also don’t think free will is what most people think it is.
Then, you throw in the illusion of time’s arrow.....
~sigh~
posted by pt68 at 3:10 PM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible.

Yes, many things are caused by agents beyond our reach. However, mathematicians proved that bees can't fly. And Lord Kelvin said that physics was finished. Almost.

However, look closely at a choice, and you see it has two parts: the fork we choose, and the fork we didn't. Unless we are omniscient, in this complicated world, there is no way in which we can ascertain - before we make it - all of the implications of our choice.

So. Free will is not a panacea. 'Opportunity favors the prepared.' I won't get into whether going to college is a wise choice. But certainly - if we later come across someone who can perceive our preparation - it may help us. If we don't, c'est la vie. (sp?)

A phytoplankton in the ocean may swim (do they?) up or down. What follows is not 'fate' but exposure to the conditions in that new location. They can't know; you might call that fate. I call it natural history.

But we are gifted with perception and anticipation skills beyond that of the plankton - if we choose to use them. Else: Darwin.

If we choose to dive into a pool with what appears to be a tootsie roll floating on it, we take a chance. If we turn out to be wrong, that isn't fate.
posted by Twang at 4:17 PM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible.

[...]

mathematicians proved that bees can't fly. And Lord Kelvin said that physics was finished. Almost.


sometimes, I do feel that we have to accept that it's our words and/or models that are flawed as opposed to the reality (whatever it even is) that they're seeking to make sense of. Rather like how MC Escher's impossible renderings can work on a piece of paper, but not out here in the (at least) three dimensional realm.
posted by philip-random at 5:28 PM on May 18, 2018


So basically, what we really need to do is figure out how best to please the Lady Fortuna.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:28 PM on May 18, 2018


Calvin
posted by otherchaz at 8:41 PM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


but I think that we should act as if we do have free will

*sigh* ... I wish I could.
posted by Reverend John at 9:06 PM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


When I say "universal law" I mean how nature works independent of humans understanding or not understanding it, or, really, independent of humans existing at all.

That's a highly idiosyncratic usage of the concept of "law", and it also doesn't support your contention that the world is fundamentally predictable, since it would cover any behaviour displayed by the world no matter how arbitrary or unpredictable that behaviour might be.

My point is, when one says "science disproves free will" (I'm not implying that you're saying this, but I have friends who do), that means that the future state of the universe must be 100% defined by the current state of the universe.

I don't see how your conclusion follows from your premise.

In any case, we don't need the full machinery of science to disprove free will. Some fairly simple reasoning from first principles suffices for that.

All that is required to disprove free will is the trivial observation that only what shall actually happen shall actually happen, and that this is true independent of humans understanding or not understanding it, or, really, independent of humans being part of it at all.

From this it follows that possibilities are statements about the limitations of human predictive power, not about the way the world actually works.

From this it follows that choice is illusory. We can only ever choose whatever we were always going to choose, regardless of how little we might ever have known in advance about how that was going to play out; the idea that we might have chosen something else is merely a reflection of our limited prediction skills.

And since choice is illusory, so is any notion of free will that relies on it being not so.
posted by flabdablet at 9:42 PM on May 18, 2018


It may all be luck and randomness, and we may not have free will, but I think that we should act as if we do have free will

That's the thing that bugs the hell out of me in these threads. We come up with a radically revised view of human nature, and then refuse to follow through with the obvious implications. It's kind of pointless to have this conversation in the first place if the conclusion is "But don't change anything you're doing." Insight without action is little than intellectual masturbation.

And the thing is, this is perfect for our consumerist, post-ethics society. We can use this insight to relax and accept that free will is a myth, that randomness rules all, and just accept whatever is going on. There's no point in condemning Steve Bannon, if he had no free will. Jeff Bezos? Eh, he's just a product of random chance, so why get angry at him?

This is the perfect philosophy for a modern day attitude of avoiding guilt and the accompanying need to avoid responsibility. Rather than pretend we have free will, why not just sit back accept our machine nature, and watch the show?
posted by happyroach at 10:24 PM on May 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


that means that the future state of the universe must be 100% defined by the current state of the universe

My impression is that the current state of physics - or at least popular interpretations thereof - suggests that this isn't true. But you can have a universe that is not deterministic in that sense but still does not allow "free will" as it's usually thought of.
posted by atoxyl at 10:31 PM on May 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


But is Free Willy still real, or was it a fever dream?
posted by mad bomber what bombs at midnight at 5:55 AM on May 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


We have no choice but to have free will.
posted by sfts2 at 7:57 AM on May 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Realized I don't have free will, just trying to figure out what to do now.
posted by officer_fred at 11:46 AM on May 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


I recommend relaxing.
posted by flabdablet at 4:52 PM on May 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


If you are inclined to say that we have no free will -- and especially that free will is incompatible with determinism -- I think it should give you pause that the clear consensus view in philosophy is that free will is compatible with determinism.

Among all target faculty responding to the philpapers survey, 59.1% accept or lean toward compatibilism, with 13.7% accepting or leaning toward libertarianism (the view that we have free will and free will is incompatible with determinism), 12.3% accepting or leaning toward the view that we have no free will, and the rest undecided or taking some alternative view.

Among metaphysicians: 55.6% accept or lean toward compatibilism, with 21.4% accepting or leaning toward libertarianism, 13.3% accepting or leaning toward the view that we have no free will, and the rest undecided or taking an alternative view.

Among philosophers of action: 53.5% accept or lean toward compatibilism, with 18.6% accepting or leaning toward libertarianism, 11.6% accepting or leaning toward the view that we have no free will, and the rest undecided or taking an alternative view.

Now, the philosophers could be wrong, of course. But we typically defer to scientists, lawyers, doctors, and the like when there is a consensus view. So again, if you are not specially trained and think that we have no free will or that free will and determinism are incompatible, the fact that there is a clear consensus among people who are specially trained and who think professionally about free will should give you pause.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:13 PM on May 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


If you are inclined to say that we have no free will

What if you're inclined to say that free will is an inherently incoherent concept, but that doesn't stop us from having it?

All of us make frequent use of all kinds of inherently incoherent concepts every day of our lives. There's no point being able to believe six different impossible things before breakfast unless one actually does so.
posted by flabdablet at 10:03 PM on May 19, 2018


the fact that there is a clear consensus among people who are specially trained and who think professionally about free will should give you pause

Not sure a 60/40 split counts as "a clear consensus". Given the amount of ink spilt by philosophers talking past each other, not even sure a "clear consensus" is ever likely to emerge.
posted by flabdablet at 10:14 PM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


There are definitely some philosophers who think that the idea of free will is inherently incoherent. But they're represented in the survey. That's just a very minority view. There is a separable question (and maybe you meant this) as to whether the "ordinary" or "folk" concept of free will is incoherent. Perhaps the philosophers' concept (if there is a unique such thing) has been suitably cleaned up to be coherent but isn't the ordinary concept.

As to how clear the consensus is, I'm very happy with 60/40, but depending on how we slice it, the consensus is potentially much stronger than that. For example, if we're thinking of it as voting for a single position, then the consensus looks more like 55% versus 20%. That gap is large. Similarly, if we're thinking of the question as "Do we have free will?" then the consensus is probably something like 75% versus 14%. Again, that gap is large. That second question is (I think) going to be pretty close to tracking professional opinion as to whether the concept of free will is coherent, though not perfect.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:39 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


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