May 07

Further Thoughts on Free Will

In Brief— In an effort to expand on the author’s views on the mythology of free will, this piece looks at the issue from a different angle. [Written in February 2017.]


Nature and Nurture Shape Us, But…

Okay! This article is a bit of a pause from the turmoil swirling around us, but it’ll take only a few minutes of your time and give you something to think about before you wade into the mucky waters that threaten to drown us. Thinking is always good.

Nature, or more accurately, our genetic makeup is a significant part of who we are, but our environment, or nurture, becomes dominant the moment we are conceived. Our parents endow us with the genes that shape us, but then the environment becomes the boss. Since it’s impossible to see the future waiting around the corner, I won’t speculate on scientists manipulating those genes and will instead discuss those environmental nudges that make us who we are.

So what does this have to do with free will? Indeed, what is free will?

Free will is basically defined as an individual’s ability to decide for him-or-herself what action s/he will take.

That developing embryo in the womb finds itself subject to assorted environmental influences. What if the pregnant female smokes, drinks alcohol, uses drugs? What if the pregnant female eats only healthful foods and experiences no anxiety-producing situations? What if the pregnant female is beaten or flees falling bombs? What if the pregnant female has lead in her system from a deprived childhood or survives a self-induced abortion? All of these scenarios and countless others affect the unborn child.

The Baby is Born and Grows Up—

Baby Adam or Brittany is raised by loving, informed parents who read to her/him and help the child grow into a healthy independent adult in an orderly, peaceful and democratic society. Alternatively, Adam or Brittany grows up in a dismal, dysfunctional, dog-eat-dog society where s/he eats flaking lead window paint, can be shot at any time and where there are no inducements to learn anything but survival. Yet another alternative is Adam or Brittany flees dying at the hands of the enemy or seeks a life free of grinding poverty, slow starvation and rampant corruption. There are, of course, numerous other options not touched on here.

These few examples illustrate the possibilities a person faces depending on the circumstances of that person’s life. Good fortune or bad can determine how that person reacts to forks in the road that face each of us.

Previously, I have pointed out that free will is a concept that survives mainly in religion and the law. In religion, free will is a cornerstone that allows religionists to believe that their deity gave humans the ability to freely decide whether their actions are right or wrong, good or evil.

The law — which originally grew out of religion — is largely lazy in refusing to recognize that humans are creatures shaped by their environment. The law, though it is beginning to change, too frequently turns a blind eye on scientific research that shows an undeniable link between a person’s environment and his/her actions.

In sum, free will is a myth. These few examples reveal how our genes and our environment influence our decision-making. Depending on the environment that a person is exposed to, whether pre-natal or after birth, a person is inexorably influenced in his/her decision-making. In short, free will is yet another myth that influences our lives. Failing to acknowledge that reality is indicative of an inability to acknowledge reality.

Okay, now you can return to the turmoil that threatens us…but you’ll have something to think about in your spare moments.

The Weekly Sampler—

As a reminder, go to the Archives on the right side of the page and click on the month and year of that week’s featured Sampler. If you wish, go to the January 15 blog for more thorough instructions.

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Don’t miss the Comments and my replies. Even though the Sampler pieces are from the past, feel free to comment…or not.

Go to the Archives on the right side. Click on December 2014



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  1. If I understand your piece, we have no ability to overcome our environment and genetics. We are totally in thrall to those two influences and we might as well let things take their course – we have no choices. And at the same time I know that you have had elements in your background that should have delivered you somewhere other than where you ended. Same with me. I’m not at all like my parents and my environment. I’m not at all like the friends I had in high school. I do have an illness that I was born with, but I have mostly overcome it.

    I know a woman very well who should, now be a prostitute or druggie because many women with her life experiences have ended there. She did not.

    Enlighten me. Did I misunderstand? I think we have a huge element of free will. We can’t overcome everything but we sure can overcome a lot. And many do and many don’t.

      • Don Bay on May 7, 2017 at 18:27

      You and most others make the mistake of assuming you or someone you know is representative of everybody. For example, what about someone mentally deranged or substandard? Does such a person have the ability to discern right from wrong? Such people are sent to prison more often than not.

      What about someone born and raised in a threatening environment? Does such a person even doubt for a moment his/her need to defend her/himself? S/he arms him/herself and shoots or stabs the attacker without weighing whether it’s right or wrong. Environment certainly influenced behavior. Maybe genetics is part of the problem.

      I’ve found that there is an assumption that if the “free will” doctrine is cast aside the guilty perpetrator will be turned loose on society without paying for the crime committed. S/he won’t. What if an innocent person is found guilty (this happens more often in America than we are comfortable admitting) and an examination of the facts reveals innocence? Is it wrong to free the prisoner who was convicted under the old “free will” doctrine? Is this not a greater injustice?

      I can think of no instance when application of the present “free will” doctrine will result in a just sentencing. And it’s the law we are talking about. Introduce the new “free will” considerations — and this is just beginning to happen in a few enlightened jurisdictions in the U.S. — and justice will start sneaking into the law.

      I hope I’ve raised at least a few doubts. Let me know what you think.

    • Dave Myers on May 7, 2017 at 19:04

    If you define free-will as the ability to make a choice free of influence from genetics or environment, than no, there is no more free-will for humans than there is for a weed. A weed springs up from the ground after it’s seed was dispersed in bird droppings or blown to it’s location by the wind. It reaches for the sun, and makes more seeds…’s only reason to live, for the most part. It can’t transplant itself to a more desirable location, or do anything else that is not programmed in it’s DNA.
    Humans do much the same, they make mostly predictable choices based on environment, circumstance, external influences, and genes.
    But I ask you this………..what about people who make a conscious decision to extricate themselves from terrible living conditions, ignorance, and deprivation? To make a choice that would seem to go against most predictions and to do something completely opposed to the behaviors of the people around them in like circumstance… can this choice be defined?…..if not free-will…..?
    This is not an argument against your conclusion that there is no free-will…’s simply a question.

      • Don Bay on May 8, 2017 at 11:40

      My position is simply that based on logic and scientific research free will is a myth. Well-worn and hoary with age, but a myth.

      I suggest that you read the exchange between Jim Newton and me to understand where I’m coming from. I’ve looked at this from all angles, made an effort to put aside my ego-investment in being right, given lots of thought to the proposition and came away with the realization that it was time to put this subject in the trash can. So what! But it’s the right thing to do: to discard old traditions that don’t make sense in today’s world. BTW, thanks for your analysis.

  2. I was reacting to your statement: “In sum, free will is a myth.” I don’t see that anything you have said supports this contention. Yes, we are constrained by genetics and environment. Yes, we have limits. And yes, we can challenge all the constraints and exercise our free will to surmount all or many of the hurdles.

      • Don Bay on May 8, 2017 at 07:16

      Some suggestions are in order for you. Reread my arguments in the piece and in my reply. Familiarize yourself with the M’Naghten Rule and the scientific criticisms. Realize that although your eye problem is probably genetic, you know very little about your genetic inheritance and much less about the woman you describe. Realize that your environmental exposures are many and complex. Same for the woman you describe. We have not even a glimmer of how the environmental factors play out in any individual.

      Until you have given deep and considerable thought to the issue, it is inadvisable to label my position on free will as flawed. Again, I assert that genes and environment determine how all individuals react in a stressful moment.

      It’s common for humans to resist in the face of changed circumstances. We all need to put our egos aside and look at a proposition from an unbiased position of logic and rationality. Not easy and must be constantly practiced. Good starting points are awareness of science and willingness to accept change. The legal concept of free will must not be allowed to cling to mid-19th century restrictions. Here in the 21st century, free will is a dodo…extinct.

  3. Okay, here’s a thought experiment:

    There is no free will so I’m predisposed to believe in free will. I had no choice in that belief.

    You want to convince me that there is no free will.

    If I change my belief to believe there is no free will it proves that there is free will because I have changed my mind

    Sure this is a simple situation, but if I have the power to change my mind it proves free will because having changed my mind I will live differently in the future

    And I’ve read some of the simple lab results that “prove” there is no free will. I say that the lab results can’t begin to deal with the complexity of real life.

      • Don Bay on May 8, 2017 at 11:15

      Again, you are making the mistake of saying that because you have to power to change your mind there must be free will. Your mistake lies in thinking that you are representative of everybody. But that is only part of the problem. You take this position without knowing all there is to know about your genetic inheritance and the environmental influences in your life. You are locking yourself into flawed reasoning with too little information. Until you acknowledge that you aren’t representative of everybody and that you are incapable of saying what your genetic inheritance and environmental influences have been, you will be trapped in your own maze of belief.

      Science proves the mythology of free will, but though I’ve read substantial chunks of the research I’ve deliberately chosen to approach this subject from the p.o.v. of logic and rationality.

      For whatever solace your position offers, you’re not the Lone Ranger on this. Lots of intelligent people still believe in free will. Much of the legal profession clings to this imaginary straw as if their lives depend on it. Fortunately, a few brave lawyers and judges are awakening to reality. I’m not convinced humanity has enough time left, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  4. Needless to say, just because you believe science has “proven” something so it must be true, the mistakes made by science are legion. If we’re talking about climate science I think we can prove something. If we’re talking about behavior I’ve seen too many times how that which was shown as proven turns out not to be proven at all. And even nutrition: eggs are bad for you, uhoh, no they aren’t they are a super food. Many scientists are guilty of proving what they believe, only to learn that they were mistaken.

    And you say that just because I show an example that only applies to me, not everyone, I can’t rely on that.. Presumably you understand that all the positives in the world don’t prove a theorem but only one negative is needed to disprove it. If my example demonstrates free will, then it disproves the theorem that says there is no free will.

    So, I accept the evidence that denies free will, but the jury isn’t in to the point that anyone can say there is no free will. All science can ever say is that based on my experiment such and such a theorem is supported. Proven? No way.

      • Don Bay on May 8, 2017 at 15:59

      Back to this tennis match. You touch on one of the beauties of science: that a result is always open to dispute. I still hold that in a dispute between the conscious mind, the subconscious mind will always win. Simmering that down to basics that means that the conscious mind’s conclusion that there is free will is a delusion.

      Those who want to believe in free will can argue their position regardless of the facts. By contrast, I have disregarded the science and based my position on nature versus nurture. Using logic alone, the only answer is that free will is a myth. It’s a zombie because it keeps being used as if it’s alive when, in fact, it’s dead.

      Our genes are a part of us that are beyond the reach of the brain. The human brain does its dance, but it is determined by our genes. Similarly, our environment (nurture) is the sum of everything that influences us regardless of whether we are aware of that influence. In my blog piece, that environment begins in the womb where the fetus is influenced by what the mother eats, whether she is scared or calm, what sounds she hears, etc., etc. Once the child is born, the influences are many and become part of the growing person. As I have said, it’s beyond dispute that we are the sum total of everything around us. Those influences stop only when we die.

      We are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts. You believe in free will, but that is only your opinion, not a fact.

      My view is based on fact. Logic is my tool. Free will is as extinct as the dodo.

      Your second posting is subsumed in this reply. Thanks for the information. It pushed me to learn still more about the science of free will.

  5. Here are the top two lines from a Scientific American blog:

    What Neuroscience Says about Free Will
    We’re convinced that it exists, but new research suggests it might be nothing more than a trick the brain plays on itself

    Please note the “suggests it might” phrase

    So here’s what I think: You need to believe there is no free will and I need to believe there is. Science has some ideas about it, but we’re both safe holding on to our beliefs.

      • Don Bay on May 8, 2017 at 16:03

      See my reply to your first posting. The science information added to my store of knowledge. Ain’t environment wonderful?

  6. And of course your argument fails from the same logic that you claim. Basically, your position is that my brain is duped into believing in free will. That, simply, my brain can’t deal with the reality.

    Bur your brain is able to use logic to solve the problem. My brain can’t find the correct solution but your brain can.

    Why should I think your brain works better than mine? I, in fact, think mine works better than yours and that you are duped, because of your need to claim there is no free will. You need for free will to go away, so your brain makes that happen.

    I think there is no way out of this for you.

      • Don Bay on May 8, 2017 at 18:44

      The tennis match continues. For the first time since I started this blog, there’s a debate going on. I find this stimulating. But back to the debate.

      I’m not contending that you are being duped or that my brain is better than yours. What I am contending is that you are refusing to accept that you don’t have a full idea what your genetic inheritance is and that you refuse to accept that environmental influences are constant and ongoing until death. The operative concept for both nature and nurture is “influence.” That’s a big difference. If you can admit that you don’t fully know your genetic inheritance or your environmental influences, progress is being made. Are you ready to admit that?

      What we have here is a difference of views and your failure of understanding the points I’m making. What I’m apparently failing to get across is the logic I’m using. What I need to do is figure out a way of being clearer in explaining why I think free will is dead as a doornail.

      What I’ve been talking (writing) about is the use of free will in the law. What I’ve pointed out repeatedly is that some lawyers and judges are realizing that genes and environment are more relevant to reality. The M’Naghten Rule of the mid-19th century shouldn’t govern in the 21st century.

      The doctrine of free will still has advocates today in spite of advances in science, and reality has finally begun to get past harmful tradition. The big issue is whether M’Naghten will finally fade away while humanity still has time. I won’t bet the farm on that.

  7. Let’s go back to first principles. As I understand “there is no free will” I interpret it to mean that never can I say a word, take an action or create a thought independent of my genes and my environment. If I can do even one of the above then “no free will” has been disproved and the debate is over. I believe that is where we will go next, but let’s see.

    No free will seems to say that I never have freedom of choices because I’m bound by those things.

    Now, take an example. I am a man with a brother. We are very close. We lived with our parents into our early 20’s. Our genes are so close that my DNA can be used to identify him. We had the same friends in school. I am a murderer and he is an activist for good things. Now tell me there is no free will. One of us escaped our bounds of genetics and environment. And this is not a ridiculous example, we see examples of it on TV and in the news all the time.

    Continuing the example, now I, the murderer, go to jail for 20 years. When I am released I become involved with my brother’s good work and spend the rest of my life totally different from my murderous past. Again, I have overcome the obstacles to be a different man. So how can this not be the result of free will?

      • Don Bay on May 9, 2017 at 16:29

      Hi, Jim. You still don’t get what this is about. 1) What else is there besides genetic makeup and environment? Is there some other factor? 2) Do you know fully what genes you have? 3) Does your brother have the same exact genes you have even if you are identical twins? 4) Are the environmental factors precisely the same for both you and your brother? 5) Safely assuming you don’t fully know what your genetic inheritance is or your environmental influences have been, will you admit you don’t know? [I don’t know mine, by the way.]

      Please answer the five questions I have just asked. After you have answered the questions above, we can address why you maintain free will exists. Either you will continue to believe that free will exists or you will begin to understand why I say there is no such thing as free will. The debate continues.

    • dave meyers on May 10, 2017 at 05:42


    I will exercise my free-will now, and stop following this.
    Play nice now, boys………………….

      • Don Bay on May 10, 2017 at 06:54

      Thanks for this, Dave. A debate here is always friendly. I realize there are lots of people who disagree with the fact that free will is a zombie that keeps on tottering along not aware of the fact that it is dead.

      It’s going to be interesting to read Jim’s response to the five questions I raised.

  8. I failed to mention that my brother and I are identical twins. That means we have identical DNA, and that means you are left with only environment.

    In a loving home environment one of us became a sinner and one a saint. Then in a horrible prison environment the sinner became a saint.

    By definition there had to be free will here somewhere.

    I think I win, and in any case free will exists and I can’t spend any more time trying to convince you of the truth.

      • Don Bay on May 10, 2017 at 10:53

      The DNA contains the genes, but the genes are not exactly the same even in identical twins. Consequently, you aren’t exactly the same as your identical twin brother. Aside from that fact, let’s assume arguendo that you two are precisely the same, do you then maintain that your environmental influences are exactly the same? Consider this…one of you was born ahead of the other. Then, of course, you need to address whether your parents treated you both in exactly the same way. Did you go to the same school? Did you both have the same friends? And on and on.

      There’s an old saying: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you are making a mistake in believing you have won.

      Believe what you want to believe, but you aren’t grasping what I’ve said in the blog piece or in this exchange. I’ve made a sincere effort to explain the concept, but either you’re pulling my leg or you really don’t understand. If it’s the former, then you need to work on your logic. If the latter, then you really need to think long and hard about what I am saying.

      As I said above, don’t count your chickens…. Put your energy into making the world a better place because that’s what’s really important. Love to Chris, too.

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