Free will

This is the second of six posts in my essay on free will.

What, then, of free will? Free will is a very difficult concept to pin down. Different philosophical camps have different opinions. As a foundation, I will offer my own definition of free will, and then broaden the discussion by assessing how this definition fits into commonly held ideas on the topic.

Definition 2.1 Free Will.

Free will is the ability of a mind to choose between multiple options without being coerced, by other minds, into favoring one option over the others.

Note that this definition does not establish free will as some sort of independent agent. Instead, it defines free will as a type of action that agents (minds) are capable of performing. This action is the process of decision-making in the absence of coercion.

Crucially, determinism is entirely consistent with this definition, even though it is not explicitly mentioned. A mind can choose between multiple options in the absence of coercion even if the process of choosing can (in principle) be predicted by the deterministic laws of nature. Importantly, then, my definition of free will has an important dependence on the  interactions between minds, not just on the functioning of a single mind.

Another important point is that the word “coercion” in my definition is not intended to have the negative connotations it often carries. Instead, I define coercion as follows (see Figure 2):

Definition 2.2 Coercion.

Coercion is an input into the decision-making process designed to promote one of the available options over the others.

For example, if a salesman tries to persuade me to buy his particular brand of ice cream, then this is a coercive input into my decision-making process, even though it is a harmless one we generally expect of salesmen. According to Definition 2.1, then, our ability to choose a brand of ice cream does not constitute free will if we are being coerced by salesmen to pick their particular brands. Instead, we can only choose freely from the available brands by considering their virtues: the taste of their products, their likely effect on our weight, or even the manner in which the product’s company treats its employees. If such considerations are skewed by the intervention of other people’s biased opinions, then we are being coerced.

Importantly, the use of “coercion” in Definition 2.2 specifically applies to other minds. In other words, we cannot coerce ourselves into making a particular decision.

Figure 2. The situation from Figure 1 is repeated here, with the addition of another input to the decision-making process. This is an input from another brain, and is designed to promote one of the available options over the others. In this case, the additional input causes a different decision to be made.

Next part of this essay.

Previous part of this essay.


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