Is Free Will an Illusion? Not by These 5 Rules

“Is free will an illusion?” Four of 6 philosophers surveyed by the online Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012 agreed that free will is an illusion. One said no, and one gave an in-between answer.

The majority answer derives from an arbitrary assumption of objectivity. That assumption, even when recognized as arbitrary, remains difficult to discard.

Not only in 2012, but from the earliest time I can remember thinking about GSOT, the question of free will and its arbitrary answer has provoked in me the long search described in these blogs.

In this series on Searching for GSOT, we first rejected the positivist and fundamentalist frames for philosophical thinking and then arrived stepwise at 5 rules that work together to focus the search. Having presented the 5 rules, in the past few months the blogs have turned to analyze more directly the case for free will.

But does it all hang together? Do the 5 rules support free will?

I think so. Let me attempt a brief summary.

Let’s start with the notion that free will is inseparably connected with persons or with groups of people. However, it must not be supposed that free will can be identified in people viewed objectively – that is, from the outside publicly and reproducibly. The impossibility of identifying free will in this way has led to the majority opinion that free will is invalid – an illusion.

We need to recognize that the logic of that kind of thinking is backward. Instead, what’s invalid is to suppose that people – me or you or us – can be viewed objectively to a degree that disqualifies free will. (Links to prior blogs that support key ideas such as the dethroning of objectivity appear at the end of this blog.)

Here are the 5 rules:

  1. Every sentence is first person.
  2. The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.
  3. If it does not make a difference for somebody’s disposition to act, then it does not make a difference.
  4. Break these rules.
  5. Get back to the rules.

1. Every sentence is first person. Rule #1 is simply a fact of our lives and conversation. Every statement, question, hypothesis, exclamation, imperative, or other kind of sentence comes from somebody or from some group of people. If dolphins, apes, or other animals have language, then we might ascribe to them the ability to make sentences, but it is up to them to affirm that ability.

The overlapping and expanding groups – or domes – which we join in the course of life all have their expressions of sentences.

2. The overarching viewpoint is not allowed. Rule #2 puts a limit upon any person or group of people who would have their own first-person singular or plural viewpoint somehow speak for all. Rule #2 is not a fact of our lives, but rather is an imperative that speaks to the value of every human individual and the value of groups that are consciously less than all, even those groups in which I have no role.

Theological overseers, dominant oppressors, and political dictators may claim that they speak from or speak for an overarching viewpoint. They are easy to identify. In a much less obvious way, those who believe the only valid answers to our questions come from science – that is, only from reproducible and publicly observable phenomena – also represent a group who self-ascribe an overarching viewpoint. Hence Rule #2 is against positivism, just as it is against the self-inflating presuppositions of monarchy, oligarchy, elitism, and fundamentalism.

Rule #2 supports free will. It demands freedom for those of us who live as individuals or in groups that are less than all, and it demands of us that we respect the freedom of others.

3. If it does not make a difference for somebody’s disposition to act, then it does not make a difference. Rule #3 expresses pragmatism and also the notion of will. Free will is nothing more or less than the inward disposition to respond in a chosen way to life’s circumstances.

Free will is not discovered or proven pragmatically.  Instead it is embedded in the working model of pragmatism. A habit of response as described by Charles Peirce is a choice a person makes. It is a choice for which a person takes responsibility.

4. Break these rules. Rule #4 bids us to break free from confinement. “Break these rules” also recognizes the anomaly of self-reference, because the context of the first 3 rules is one of self-reference. The anomaly is most acute if Rule #4 comes to refer to itself, as indeed it must.

One of the most important consequences of “Break these rules” is to enlarge the horizon of my life. This may result in meeting you, in accepting influence and interaction from a will other than my own.

5. Get back to the rules. Rule #5 arrives when the tension of “Break these rules,” applied at some point to itself, reaches a tipping point, and we need a return to stability. Yet the rules to which we return may not be the same as the ones we left, for nothing stays the same with passing time.

Freedom confined is not free. But freedom without content and place is likewise not free.

As we “Get back to the rules,” one of the rules to which we return can be recognized eventually as some variant of “Break these rules.” Then the cycle repeats. A pattern of oscillation can emerge, a beat that rises from silence and falls again, a melodic play in time. Inspiration gives way to expiration, fullness to emptiness and back again.

The will likewise has a pulse, a rhythmic restlessness. It begins with exploration and striving. As soon as a goal is reached, the striving calms. Exploration begins to look elsewhere. Something beckons, and the cycle repeats.

Looking back at the rules and their relation to the will, I find it intriguing how different one rule seems from another. One is a fact, the second an imperative, the third a condition for knowledge, the fourth an interruption, the fifth a kind of rest. Surely there are other ways to describe GSOT, but any attempt that marks the human will, your will and mine and ours, must be diverse in application, as the will takes on varied roles and breathes and lives.


Next post:  Free Will: Q & A

Previous post:  Sonya or Leo Tolstoy. Whose Side Are You On?

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Featured image: Ripples and reflections in a woodland stream. Own photo. Rights reserved.

Links to some of the key ideas:

Rejection of positivism, the illusion of objectivity
.   Definition and strategy
  Lack of support for personal pronouns I, me, you, etc.
.   Summary
Rule #1
Rule #2
Rule #3 , see also pragmatism and free will
Rule #4
Rule #5
Intersecting and expanding domes, see Rule #4
Meeting you
Martin Buber
Saying Thou to the universe
Belief in free will is itself an act of will


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