Free(ish) Will

For the last few weeks, I have been attempting to sort out whether or not men have free will. In short, no, we don’t have free will. We are extremely limited in what we are truly free to do, say, think, etc.. At best, we have free-ish-will. This is something akin to Compatibilism: we may not be entirely free, but neither are we merely puppets whose strings are being pulled by biology, environment, or the Universe.

Had I encountered this debacle when I was a diehard member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instead of what I am currently (a Mormon),  I would have told you, “Of course we have free will! The scriptures clearly state that The Father gave man agency – which is, of course, synonymous with free will!”

Thankfully, I am not still in that state of mind.

Agency is not the same as free will. Agency is the ability to act or react; to make a decision. As Wikipedia states, “How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.”

So! Mormon scripture has a decent amount to say about agency and very little about free will. Where free will is mentioned, it seems to imply that men aren’t forced by other individuals, governments, etc., to do something; i.e., give money to the poor of your own free will (not compelled by gunpoint to do so).

In 2 Nephi chapter 2, it reads, “Men are free to choose according to the flesh.” What does that mean? It seems to indicate that there are restrictions. Otherwise, why add the caveat according to the flesh?

As previously mentioned, we are, at best, living in a Compatibilism-type world. At worst – and I don’t see this as a bad thing – we are in a Determinism-type realm.

Everything here has bounds and limits. If I ask you to play a game of Chess, and you know the rules of Chess, you know that the move H1 to H3 cannot be made as your first move. Why? Those are the rules!

“Well, nothing is stopping me from making that move, right? It is possible to make that move (pick up the piece and move it to that position without being forced not to do that), right? Right?!”

Sure. It is possible for you to physically pick up the Rook and move it from H1 to H3 and completely ignore the rules of Chess. However, once you do that, we are no longer playing Chess. You can claim that the rules are arbitrary-social-constructs that don’t really have anything to do with reality, and that doesn’t change the fact that H1 to H3 is an impossible move while playing Chess.

There are constraints to this thing we call life. We are constrained and compelled by forces beyond our conscious observance.

As I am writing, I am enjoying a cup of green tea. Why green tea? It sounded nice. Why did I add honey to it? That also seemed nice. Do I usually add honey to my tea? No. Usually, I like my tea and coffee with no additives; no sugar, no milk, no honey, to cream, nada. So, why add honey tonight? I had the desire to do so, and I did (from whence did the desire come?). I didn’t question it. I grabbed the honey, a knife, and used the knife to put the honey into my tea (I could have grabbed a spoon from the dishwasher, but I grabbed a knife from the drawer; again, why?).

What will the green tea do to me? How will the caffeine from the tea and sugar from the honey affect my sleep tonight? How will that, in turn, affect my ability to get out of bed and get ready in time to beat the early morning traffic? Is tomorrow destined to be as sweet as my tea or doomed to be as sluggish as a post-sugar-rush-crash? I am not sure. How could I be? I am entirely unaware of how large or small an impact this tea is having on me at this moment, let alone the effect 8-hours from now.

That is the point! How is that freedom? How can we be truly free to choose if we don’t even know what is happening here and now?

Do you disagree with me? Are you free to disagree with me? Why do you disagree with me? Is it a feeling? Do you have arguments that unravel what I’ve written? If yes, from whence did those arguments come? Did you think of the arguments? If you believe the answer to the last question is yes, allow me to ask it again: did you think of the arguments? Or, did the arguments come to your mind unbidden and something – real or imagined – observed those arguments (thoughts) in consciousness?

We don’t have free will. Now, the question is whether or not Compatibilism or Determinism is at play.


3 responses to “Free(ish) Will”

  1. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we WILL do, FREE of coercion and undue influence (mental illness, hypnotism, authoritative command, etc.). That’s the definition used for assessing moral and legal responsibility. Everyone generally understands that definition and correctly applies it to most common practical scenarios.

    Thoughts don’t arise out of nowhere. Memories are linked by associations. The idea of putting honey in your tea is one you were already familiar with. It did not pop into your head out of nowhere. You’ve heard of people putting honey in their tea many times before. And, if you were feeling like giving yourself a treat because you were working hard on this post, then the honey association may have been reinforced by that desire. Perhaps your questioning of your prior beliefs also opened you to question why you hadn’t tried honey in your tea before.


    • Who is deciding what we will do and what we won’t do? If you choose to go cut out all added sugars from your diet, and then a week later you decide to eat a cupcake at a company party, did you still have free will? If yes, why the conflict of wills? No one is compelling you to do one or the other, correct? Yet, the decisions are diametrically opposed in the area of free will.

      Memories are linked by associations, yes. That said, not all thoughts are memories. If thoughts don’t arise out of nowhere, from whence do they come?

      I’ll assume that thoughts are all tied to associations, how then am I free to think and choose if every thought is tied to a prior association? (:


      • Good questions.

        1) Every choice is a choice between two “I will’s”. The “free” in free will literally means a freely chosen “I will”. The relevant things that our choosing can be “free from” are coercion and other forms of undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command, etc.).

        But there are some things that it is impossible to be “free from”, such as causation, ourselves, and reality. And since these are impossible freedoms, it would be unreasonable to require any use of the term “free” or “freedom” to imply any one of them.

        2) Thought originated from the organization of sensory input. The brain models reality as various objects and events. It uses this model to imagine possible future outcomes if we choose to do A versus if we choose to do B. Based upon the results of this comparison, we choose one or the other.

        3) One of the things that it is impossible to be “free from” is our selves. We ARE that mental process which attends to different stimuli and decides what to do next. To be free from that would be to cease to exist. So, freedom from oneself is an irrational concept, and cannot be implied by ANY use of the terms “free” or “freedom”. And, that includes free will.


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