Definition of Free Will

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deepone
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Wed Oct 10, 2012 3:59 pm UTC

The Great Hippo wrote:But this doesn't strike me as very difficult or 'tricky', definitionally. Definitionally, free will/free agency/independent agency is the ability to perform non-determinable actions. Can a rock perform non-determinable actions?

If we rely on non-determinism in the universe to introduce non-determinism in humans, this is certainly true of the rock as well. An interesting perspective here is that of scope. We can predict the "actions" of a rock with great precision, but not exactly. We cannot predict where all the quantum particles (or whatever they should be called) are in the rock. To put the rock on even footing with predicting a human brain, this should be required.
The Great Hippo wrote:If a given human in a given environment with a given set of conditions will always engage in precisely the same actions, human action is determinable; ie, not 'free' or 'independent'. If it is impossible to create a given human in a given environment with a given set of conditions--or if a given human would not engage in precisely the same actions--then human action is non-determinable (from our perspective).

A couple of remarks.
* The environment that would be needed to make a human determinable "from the outside" is the entire developmental history of the human, as well as the genes.
* Many people (in a discussion of free will) prefer definitions of freedom or independence that are not "all or nothing", and that do allow for determinism.

Consider this: Is the action of one neuron in the brain determinable if we know the surrounding physical environment (including chemistry, electrical potentials, etc) and the complete state of all connected neurons? If it is not determinable, then it is (momentarily) disconnected from it's environment and the resulting action is unrelated to the state of your brain (and body), which I would take to be unrelated to your will (and agency) in any scientific account of free will.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby induction » Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:01 pm UTC

Free will is such an excellent topic for philosophers precisely because there is no coherent definition, and thus no end to the argument. I view the idea of free will as an emotional reaction to the possibility that our minds are subject to, and result from, the laws of the universe (physics, chemistry, etc.). It bothers us to believe that our behavior, opinions, etc. are the result of forces outside of our control so we invent this nebulous concept of 'free will' that is nothing more than a denial of those causative forces. Inquiry into the concept of determinism often produces this emotion, but denying determinism doesn't help once one realizes that randomness is not freedom either.

Determinism and randomness are merely gateway concepts: they get us thinking about our wills and the ways in which they are constrained. But it is not necessary to come to a conclusion about whether randomness exists to discuss free will.
Spoiler:
I, too, have a physics degree, and in my experience randomness is part and parcel of QM. Yes, there are other interpretations, but they are mostly philosophical exercises in the same way that free will is. The whole multiverse thing doesn't do anything to remove the randomness that is measured in the laboratory, and is completely unverifiable. Generally speaking, the behavior of physical objects seems not to scale with size. Very small objects like particles behave differently from larger objects like baseballs, and both of these behave differently from extremely massive objects that require relativity to describe. Our intuitions (and therefore philosophies) don't work very well when applied outside the scale of our experiences. Expecting QM to make sense is a losing game.
Chaotic dynamics will get you there just as easily. When there are strong feedbacks and multiple forces, the behavior of a system depends so strongly on initial conditions that simply adding an extra decimal place to an initial value can produce entirely different results. In the physical world, no measurement of a continuous value can ever be exact, which means that very complex systems can never be ever be predicted exactly. The existence (or not) of randomness doesn't change the truth of this statement. If simple lack of predictability is all that's required for free will, you can get there without solving the determinism/randomness debate. Human behavior, individually and collectively, is such a complex system that perfect predictability (ie 100% certainty and accuracy) is impossible not just in practice, but also in principle.

Guenther wants to change the definition of free will to be more or less identical with 'agency' (forgive me if I oversimplified your position). This neatly sidesteps the question of whether free will exists, which ends the argument by simply avoiding the question of what shapes and determines our agency. The heart of the free will debate (in my mind) is not whether we feel free, but whether we have an 'essence' that makes us more than the sum of our genes and environment. I would say no, even if it feels like we do. Yes I can make choices, but are my choices themselves simply the result of mechanics and biology? It seems to me that they are, but ultimately it doesn't matter. Our choices are quite obviously constrained by many things (physics, biology, history, and logic, to name a few), but perhaps there is some vital core of us that simply is what it is. In that case, I didn't choose this essence, and I am not free to choose otherwise.

Free will is a fascinating concept precisely because it breaks down into incoherence upon close inspection. Humans are all strongly interconnected. We have no control over the ideas, choices, and genetics of people who died thousands of years ago, but these exert a strong influence over our lives today. Free will is tied to the intuitive notion that we are all separate, disconnected individuals, and that humans are somehow separate from nature. Both of these seem intuitively true at first, but are quite obviously false.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:09 pm UTC

induction wrote:Free will is tied to the intuitive notion that we are all separate, disconnected individuals, and that humans are somehow separate from nature. Both of these seem intuitively true at first, but are quite obviously false.

QFTW, again! :)

EDIT: I generally I buy/agree strongly with everything you (induction) wrote. I'd like to add this though:

Free will (and related issues of predictability, etc, no matter how theoretical or metaphysical) is important, as a mental concept, to (metaphysical) beliefs. Such beliefs in turn have real (sometimes great) impact on our society and our everyday life.

For example, I would expect this statement (that follows from your reasoning (that I agree with)) to be disturbing (and important, if you accept it) to quite a few people: "Nature decides if you go to hell or heaven".
Last edited by deepone on Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:22 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby jules.LT » Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:14 pm UTC

Might I point to the first pages of this thread?
Most of the questions mentioned lately are asked, debated, and sometimes even answered...
Bertrand Russell wrote:Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.
Richard Feynman & many others wrote:Keep an open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:31 pm UTC

jules.LT wrote:Might I point to the first pages of this thread?
Most of the questions mentioned lately are asked, debated, and sometimes even answered...

Ahh, yes. Like I said when I "brought this thread back", I think one issue that has not been discussed (at length anyway) is "Why should we (not) use the concept of free will"? Certainly, some points that are relevant to this have been brought up here recently, but perhaps not with this focus?

[EDIT: If you were unlucky you saw a rather critical spelling error above when I first posted it [now->not]. I fixed it quickly so you can probably ignore this. :)]

Here's a repeat of my initial "additional question" (I hope the convenience four you all in having this here outweighs the drawback of repetition):
deepone wrote:While I think that the concept of free will is fundamentally problematic my primary objection to using this concept is that I think it encourages misconceptions and prevents us from seeing the truth about how to best deal with human behavior in many situations.

For example, to quote Sam Harris: "And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath." I think that people often do take credit for not being a psychopath, and that this is a really bad thing.

Note that the absence of free will does not in any way remove the fact that some people need to be contained and that actions need to have consequences in order to protect society. But I think that how we view such people is really important, and that dropping the concept of free will would make it easier to see how to best deal with such problems.

I can recommend this post by Sam Harris (the quote above is from this post):
http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/life-without-free-will

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby The Great Hippo » Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:37 pm UTC

induction wrote:Free will is a fascinating concept precisely because it breaks down into incoherence upon close inspection. Humans are all strongly interconnected. We have no control over the ideas, choices, and genetics of people who died thousands of years ago, but these exert a strong influence over our lives today. Free will is tied to the intuitive notion that we are all separate, disconnected individuals, and that humans are somehow separate from nature. Both of these seem intuitively true at first, but are quite obviously false.
deepone wrote:I generally I buy/agree strongly with everything you (induction) wrote.
If that's the case, then I don't think we're disagreeing beyond a quibble over definitions--because I also agree with this.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:49 pm UTC

The Great Hippo wrote:
induction wrote:Free will is a fascinating concept precisely because it breaks down into incoherence upon close inspection. Humans are all strongly interconnected. We have no control over the ideas, choices, and genetics of people who died thousands of years ago, but these exert a strong influence over our lives today. Free will is tied to the intuitive notion that we are all separate, disconnected individuals, and that humans are somehow separate from nature. Both of these seem intuitively true at first, but are quite obviously false.
deepone wrote:I generally I buy/agree strongly with everything you (induction) wrote.
If that's the case, then I don't think we're disagreeing beyond a quibble over definitions--because I also agree with this.
I'm not surprised. :) But quibble over definitions is kinda important, if you want to move on and discuss how whatever you define relates to the rest of the world. And they are important because different definitions are part of how we think, so teasing out what's what is part of trying to understand each other.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby induction » Wed Oct 10, 2012 5:03 pm UTC

Okay, that Phineas Gage link I posted was a spectacularly bad choice, as the article downplays the behavioral effects of his injury. Mea culpa. Instead, I refer generally to the copious literature on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, behavioral effects of traumatic brain injuries, psychopharmacology, anything by Oliver Sacks, etc.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Wed Oct 10, 2012 6:28 pm UTC

Going from "free will" to "free agency" is definitely a step in the right direction, in my view.

Well, I'd like to ask who labeled it as "free will"? Speaking for myself, I've never seen that phrase from the bible, so it's not a theist thing to me. It's just a description of an observation, right? A description of what we call a "freedom to choose". It's an assumption we make when we observe a choice (free) being given to an person (agent). We are just trying our best to describe (or define) observations. So telling us impossible things are impossible neither tells us how to make better observations or how to make better definitions. :P

I agree the term "independent" also seems to fit. This is also much more applicable to each "camp's" argument. As we are working with assumptions, and we are each valid in our own base assumption (deterministic, random or possibility of "free/independent"). For example, if it's "independent will", it could be "free" independently, "random" independently or "determined" independently. It would fit each assumed universe, but also not contradict between the assumptions. Would that be so? I think it works, but I admit I may not have thought it all through.

But if you prefer to pick a nonsensical version of free will, so you can prove it's nonsensical, then well, why should I discuss it further?
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Wed Oct 10, 2012 8:03 pm UTC

Technical Ben wrote:But if you prefer to pick a nonsensical version of free will, so you can prove it's nonsensical, then well, why should I discuss it further?
I get the impression that this is directed at me, but I really think that I have answered this already, at least once. I would be happy if someone else could confirm that they have gotten this from my earlier posts, so I know if my communication works at all.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Wed Oct 10, 2012 8:08 pm UTC

People tried to define how objects fell for thousands of years. They got it wrong. They called it, what? Falling? Turns out it's gravity. Both description still hold water though.

So, free will is better described as independent agency. Both are a description of an observation (a person making a choice). We could worry about the general consensus and if it's self contradictory, we know it to be (by extension the concept of "falling" is self contradictory, it needs the model of gravity to work). Or we could discuss one that we both know is not. Either way, we still have a very interesting observation to discuss. Would you agree? Which way of discussing the observation is more interesting to you? Me, I find the more correct description a better one to concentrate on, over the nonsensical one. This one is open to further observations and self consistent, would you agree? :)
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Wed Oct 10, 2012 8:38 pm UTC

Technical Ben wrote:People tried to define how objects fell for thousands of years. They got it wrong. They called it, what? Falling? Turns out it's gravity. Both description still hold water though.
Definitions are never "wrong". They can be inconsistent in a system together with other definition, but not wrong in themselves. Descriptions that use definitions can be wrong, when they don't match what they describe, but that is a separate issue.

For example, if I define red to be light between wavelengths x0 and x1 then that just is so. A definition is a declared truth. It may be that this is a poor description of reality, but that depends on what additional grounding we have to reality, or on what contexts we want to use this definition in. E.g., we may want to assign a lot of other properties to the concept "red", or "light", or "wavelength", and the definition above may not fit with that. But then we are actually changing the definitions as we try to integrate more properties, potentially leading to an inconsistent system of definitions. If the system breaks down it may just as well be possible to change other definitions to make it consistent again.

I'm not 100% confident about the reasoning/language/formulations above. Maybe someone with more training in formal logic/math have objections. But with my programmer's perspective I think I probably got the basics right. :)

EDIT: To make my programmer's perspective explicit: Saying that a definition is wrong is like saying that a line in a computer program is wrong. Given that the syntax is valid a code line is only wrong in relation to a (much) larger context, e.g., what we want the program to do, but the computer instruction itself is not wrong on its own.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Wed Oct 10, 2012 10:40 pm UTC

I think "divide by zero" as a line is wrong. As syntax only correct when only mentioning individual symbols. The phrase "free will" covers the entire line, we have to consider all aspects, even if the two individual words are "correct syntax". ;)
But if you do type "divide by zero", then you obviously did not intend it to be so, did you? So, when people talk of "free will", it may be, as a definition "wrong", but I don't think they intended to say a contradictory definition. They just meant "a method of freely deciding by ones own self". Even if deciding includes having external input, may be random, may be deterministic. Etc. Although they would rule out deterministic systems (just as we would rule out "divide by zero") as they no longer fit the description "free".

So, would you still say that the only free will your interested in discussing it the one we both agree is nonsense? Or is it more interesting to think of free will simply as a useful assumption? One with the same use as the assumptions of determinism or randomness?
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 11, 2012 12:32 am UTC

curtis95112 wrote:
deepone wrote:My point is that if we drop the nonsensical definitions of free will, which seems to be non-obvious but something that most here agree with, then the definition that we are left with, i.e., a deterministic, scientific, definition of free will, is meaningless in relation to certain specific issues (e.g., what decides if you go to heaven and hell is "just" your genes and your environment, possibly with some randomness thrown in) and not helpful in other, social contexts. It's not meaningless in a general logical meaning. It's just "pointless" in our human context.

This is very close to my position also. All the proposed definitions for free will in this thread are either meaningless or useless. I wouldn't claim that free will doesn't exist but I am skeptical of its value.

To both of you, I guess I don't know what sort of heavy lifting you are expecting out of a notion of free will for you to conclude that it has meaning and value. I personally don't stake much on it having a strong technical meaning. For example, I don't foresee scientific journals treating free will as some objective measurable quality. But on a practical level, people intuitively relate to the notion that we are in charge of our destiny, that we own the choices we make, that what goals we set matter. Those statements being true are what I link to the notion of free will. I think it's needlessly confusing to say "No free will doesn't exist, but yes your choices still matter". It just adds more hassle without any benefit. So the value I see is that it puts these important beliefs (that our choices matter) in a more intuitive framework.

But, if you don't go around claiming that free will doesn't exist, but rather simply prefer different terms for the same phenomena that I'm talking about, then that's fine. I don't have any issues with that. And perhaps I can even see the value if for no other reason than to simply avoid the free will debate. :)

induction wrote:Guenther wants to change the definition of free will to be more or less identical with 'agency' (forgive me if I oversimplified your position). This neatly sidesteps the question of whether free will exists, which ends the argument by simply avoiding the question of what shapes and determines our agency. The heart of the free will debate (in my mind) is not whether we feel free, but whether we have an 'essence' that makes us more than the sum of our genes and environment.

Well, if this essence is defined in some magical way that's not compatible with science, then no one should be surprised when we can find no evidence for it. I think you have captured the thrust of my argument above, and I very much feel the issue is whether we feel free. But I respect that people feel different, and I certainly don't want to be a hindrance to anyone wanting to carry on the debate in terms of the metaphysical existence of metaphysical stuff. :)

And I completely agree with what you said about randomness, determinism, and chaotic dynamics. That's the point I was trying to make earlier, but my pop science background can leave me lacking in terms of my ability to describe things (and sometimes in my understanding as well).
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 1:05 am UTC

Technical Ben wrote:So, would you still say that the only free will your interested in discussing it the one we both agree is nonsense? Or is it more interesting to think of free will simply as a useful assumption? One with the same use as the assumptions of determinism or randomness?

I am interested in discussing all definitions of free will (that someone here considers) in order to understand what we mean when talking about it and then make it possible to move on and discuss related issues. I want to discuss the nonsense definition of free will mostly to be able to lay it to rest securely. I would like us to say "OK, we agree that this is not a useful definition for further discussion her, now let's move on, what other definitions are there and why might we want to (not) use those?" (Not using other definitions would be an argument for not using the concept of free will at all, which is what I really prefer - I'd just like to take it step by step).

I don't think I've seen anyone else acknowledge (in a clear way) that there may be purely societal reasons for not using the concept of free will. No one else on that point? E.g., not thinking that you have free will makes you less likely to feel superior and look down on others, or to "take credit for not being a psychopath", etc.

EDIT: A comment on the fact that people in general "feel like they have free will": I think a strong analogue is that we feel like we are immortal, in many ways. We certainly act like we are immortal in most situations. Accepting that you do not have a free will is in many ways similar to accepting that you will die and cease to exist. And the power with which the idea of free will clings to the human mind is similar to the power with which the idea that we should have an immortal soul clings to us.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby morriswalters » Thu Oct 11, 2012 2:05 am UTC

deepone wrote:I don't think I've seen anyone else acknowledge (in a clear way) that there may be purely societal reasons for not using the concept of free will. No one else on that point? E.g., not thinking that you have free will makes you less likely to feel superior and look down on others, or to "take credit for not being a psychopath", etc.
It also gives you a free ride. There are plenty of reasons to act as if you had free will even if you don't. Imagine a world where the future is assumed to be known, that you will end up where you are destined to end up and that you can't change it. Most people can't take that view. It might be one of the reasons why we make up the idea of God. If the world is that way, they would like it to be for a reason. They see no reason so they supply one. You see it at death when people want to know why this one, this child this spouse. Our minds demand it. The same thing that drives a Scientist to know is the same thing that demands there be a reason for life. We seem to be built to want the why of it. Some can accept at some level that life is essentially meaningless, but I suspect most can't. I suspect without caring enough to follow through with it that the answer lies in programming intelligence to find questions to the answer of survival. It would seem that as a heuristic, it would be useful would to have a powerful drive to answer the question of why. To impose order. And to be biased to believe that inventing a tool is worth the effort.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 7:50 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:
deepone wrote:I don't think I've seen anyone else acknowledge (in a clear way) that there may be purely societal reasons for not using the concept of free will. No one else on that point? E.g., not thinking that you have free will makes you less likely to feel superior and look down on others, or to "take credit for not being a psychopath", etc.
It also gives you a free ride. There are plenty of reasons to act as if you had free will even if you don't. Imagine a world where the future is assumed to be known, that you will end up where you are destined to end up and that you can't change it. Most people can't take that view.

I agree that there are some hard questions (primarily psychologically) that arise when trying to integrate a lack of free will into our lives. But I think that this is largely a matter of what we're used to, and how our culture is structured as a whole. I suggests that, if we agree that there are drawbacks with the concept of free will in society, we should not avoid considering dropping this concept, but rather focus on what, more precisely, happens when we drop it, and how we could deal with that in a better way. I.e., "how to live life without free will" - that's what the post by Sam Harris that I linked to above addressed.
morriswalters wrote:It might be one of the reasons why we make up the idea of God. If the world is that way, they would like it to be for a reason. They see no reason so they supply one. You see it at death when people want to know why this one, this child this spouse. Our minds demand it. The same thing that drives a Scientist to know is the same thing that demands there be a reason for life. We seem to be built to want the why of it. Some can accept at some level that life is essentially meaningless, but I suspect most can't. I suspect without caring enough to follow through with it that the answer lies in programming intelligence to find questions to the answer of survival. It would seem that as a heuristic, it would be useful would to have a powerful drive to answer the question of why. To impose order. And to be biased to believe that inventing a tool is worth the effort.

I largely agree with what you write, but I think this is a separate question. We want there to be a reason [full stop]. That's true whether we believe that we have free will or not. I think that's more an (essentially unavoidable) effect of how intelligence (and, in essence, life) works. Intelligence works by "finding" (making good/workable guesses about) and modelling hierarchies of causes. In such a hierarchy there is a natural "spot" for a highest level cause, and since we tend to put agency in everything because of how we are "calibrated" (and what we already have learned about through interaction with peers) it is very natural to assume a top level causal agency, i.e., God.
But I'm sorry, that's really a digression from the free will issue.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Thu Oct 11, 2012 8:55 am UTC

deepone wrote:
Spoiler:
Technical Ben wrote:So, would you still say that the only free will your interested in discussing it the one we both agree is nonsense? Or is it more interesting to think of free will simply as a useful assumption? One with the same use as the assumptions of determinism or randomness?

I am interested in discussing all definitions of free will (that someone here considers) in order to understand what we mean when talking about it and then make it possible to move on and discuss related issues. I want to discuss the nonsense definition of free will mostly to be able to lay it to rest securely. I would like us to say "OK, we agree that this is not a useful definition for further discussion her, now let's move on, what other definitions are there and why might we want to (not) use those?" (Not using other definitions would be an argument for not using the concept of free will at all, which is what I really prefer - I'd just like to take it step by step).


I don't think I've seen anyone else acknowledge (in a clear way) that there may be purely societal reasons for not using the concept of free will. No one else on that point? E.g., not thinking that you have free will makes you less likely to feel superior and look down on others, or to "take credit for not being a psychopath", etc.

Spoiler:
EDIT: A comment on the fact that people in general "feel like they have free will": I think a strong analogue is that we feel like we are immortal, in many ways. We certainly act like we are immortal in most situations. Accepting that you do not have a free will is in many ways similar to accepting that you will die and cease to exist. And the power with which the idea of free will clings to the human mind is similar to the power with which the idea that we should have an immortal soul clings to us.


I seriously am concerned by such reasoning. It would suggest people "can't get better". If your a psychopath, you had to kill people. Is that a conclusion you would prefer to make over one where we can tell people "you can choose not to murder"? I'd say we don't "take credit", but we do "choose not to act" etc. Free will does not suppose "pride", but "ability to act". That is neutral is it not?

There is no requirement for "freedom" from "free will". Can you show how people benefit from it, it's a supposition you presented, but did not support. I've supported how free will allows us to "choose". Without such a concept we have no agency for our own actions, instead expecting others to choose for us. (For example, those in religion, do they choose what to believe, or just follow what the pope tells them? Likewise, if you remove your concept of free will, can you say religious people should change? How would they!?)

But yes, I'd agree "free will" is somewhat problematic a description. It's not one I use or stick by. It's just a common label everyone knows. An "ability to make a choice, there is freedom to choose by the person choosing" is closer to the description I have. AFAIK nothing in physics would prevent a choice from being "free" (freely operating systems exist or could theoretically exist).

Also, free will neither provides an excuse for action, nor does removing the concept provide a removal of excuses. Both one believing in free will or not can say "I did it because of free will" or "I did it because it's destined". Neither solve the problem of making the excuse. So I think that's a poor argument for this thread.
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 9:39 am UTC

Technical Ben wrote:
deepone wrote:I don't think I've seen anyone else acknowledge (in a clear way) that there may be purely societal reasons for not using the concept of free will. No one else on that point? E.g., not thinking that you have free will makes you less likely to feel superior and look down on others, or to "take credit for not being a psychopath", etc.

I seriously am concerned by such reasoning. It would suggest people "can't get better". If your a psychopath, you had to kill people. Is that a conclusion you would prefer to make over one where we can tell people "you can choose not to murder"? I'd say we don't "take credit", but we do "choose not to act" etc. Free will does not suppose "pride", but "ability to act". That is neutral is it not?

There is no requirement for "freedom" from "free will". Can you show how people benefit from it, it's a supposition you presented, but did not support.

You are right to be concerned, but I do not think that you are right to jump to the conclusion that we need free will, simply because it causes concerns otherwise. I actually think that, contrary to your view, this concern ends up in a strong reason to prefer not relying on free will (!), if you dig a little deeper.

The thing is, if you are left to change your self, all on your own, that's simply impossible. If you would be a closed system, possibly with some random input through "internal" quantum effects or whatever, there is just no way, other than pure luck, that you could avoid doing what's "programmed into you". But (this is a big but) you can avoid doing [whatever] through the influence of and interaction with other people and society! Really, I think it is a very strong argument for not relying on free will that expecting people to just "get a grip" and change themselves on their own simply does not work. If we want a society with less murders, crime, and general destructive behavior it must be done through interaction between human beings, and through interaction with (and development of) culture.

As an example, I think its an extremely bad idea to treat alcoholism by saying "Come on, use your free will and snap out of it!". And I think the same perspective is true of almost everything. You can't really improve at all, as a human being, on your own. (Not in any other way than by luck).

EDIT: So, in my book rejecting the idea of free will is really a way of saying: Take care of each other. :)

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby morriswalters » Thu Oct 11, 2012 10:41 am UTC

Here's a quote from your Sam Harris link. The concluding paragraph.
Understanding the true causes of human behavior does not leave any room for the traditional notion of free will. But this shouldn’t depress us, or tempt us to go off our diets. Diligence and wisdom still yield better results than sloth and stupidity. And, in psychologically healthy adults, understanding the illusoriness of free will should make divisive feelings such as pride and hatred a little less compelling. While it’s conceivable that someone, somewhere, might be made worse off by dispensing with the illusion of free will, I think that on balance, it could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society.
He's talking out of both sides of his mouth. If the future is predetermined than diligence and wisdom are artifacts and not real. You can't have it both ways. The phrase in italics implies choice, if the future is already determined by factors we can't change than there is no choice. That's the implication. The language allows us to talk about these type of things, but it doesn't make them meaningful. And he is talking about the sense in Nueroscience that man is programmed to react in the way he does, versus a deterministic universe where things are destined to be. In the former the programming can be changed.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby zmic » Thu Oct 11, 2012 10:50 am UTC

deepone wrote:As an example, I think its an extremely bad idea to treat alcoholism by saying "Come on, use your free will and snap out of it!". And I think the same perspective is true of almost everything. You can't really improve at all, as a human being, on your own. (Not in any other way than by luck).


But you are doing basically the same by saying "come on, snap out of this idea that you have free will", as if I have free will to snap out of the idea that free will exists.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby zmic » Thu Oct 11, 2012 11:07 am UTC

deepone wrote:As an example, I think its an extremely bad idea to treat alcoholism by saying "Come on, use your free will and snap out of it!". And I think the same perspective is true of almost everything. You can't really improve at all, as a human being, on your own. (Not in any other way than by luck).


also, without free will there is no such thing as "improvement", because improvement implies "things would turn out better than they OTHERWISE would". But without free will, this "otherwise" does not exist at all. There is just this one thing that must happen.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 11:16 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:Here's a quote from your Sam Harris link. The concluding paragraph.
Understanding the true causes of human behavior does not leave any room for the traditional notion of free will. But this shouldn’t depress us, or tempt us to go off our diets. Diligence and wisdom still yield better results than sloth and stupidity. And, in psychologically healthy adults, understanding the illusoriness of free will should make divisive feelings such as pride and hatred a little less compelling. While it’s conceivable that someone, somewhere, might be made worse off by dispensing with the illusion of free will, I think that on balance, it could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society.
He's talking out of both sides of his mouth. If the future is predetermined than diligence and wisdom are artifacts and not real.

Oh, but artifacts are most definitely real! Having diligence and wisdom is similar to having good stamina and a healthy body. And we can help each other get there in a corresponding way to how we can help each other be more physically healthy.
morriswalters wrote:You can't have it both ways. The phrase in italics implies choice, if the future is already determined by factors we can't change than there is no choice.

It implies alternate possibilities, in a wide sense, but not individual choice. There are most definitely differences in wisdom and diligence between people, but the way to promote more of these things is not to hope that people choose to be more diligent and wise, but to work within society and in interaction with other people to promote such phenomena.
morriswalters wrote:That's the implication. The language allows us to talk about these type of things, but it doesn't make them meaningful. And he is talking about the sense in Nueroscience that man is programmed to react in the way he does, versus a deterministic universe where things are destined to be. In the former the programming can be changed.

In my view the critical realization here is, as several others have pointed out above, that humans are not closed systems. I.e., that we are not separate from nature and that continuous interchange with out environment is vital to our existence. In a deterministic universe you will always act according to your programming, but your programming constantly changes because of interaction with your environment and other people. I.e., your programming can most definitely change in a deterministic universe.

EDIT:
zmic wrote:
deepone wrote:As an example, I think its an extremely bad idea to treat alcoholism by saying "Come on, use your free will and snap out of it!". And I think the same perspective is true of almost everything. You can't really improve at all, as a human being, on your own. (Not in any other way than by luck).

also, without free will there is no such thing as "improvement", because improvement implies "things would turn out better than they OTHERWISE would". But without free will, this "otherwise" does not exist at all. There is just this one thing that must happen.

By that reasoning you shouldn't talk about improvement in any deterministic world. Now this "conflict" is separate from a discussion of free will.
I would prefer, however, a perspective when you can talk about improvements compared to either how it was in the past, or how it could have been in some freely imagined scenario. I.e., you can still reason using counterfactuals ("what ifs", kinda) even if they factually can not happen in our specific version of reality. (I actually believe that such "reasoning" is fundamental to how intelligence/thinking works, and that this is how a deterministic version of choice works).
zmic wrote:
deepone wrote:As an example, I think its an extremely bad idea to treat alcoholism by saying "Come on, use your free will and snap out of it!". And I think the same perspective is true of almost everything. You can't really improve at all, as a human being, on your own. (Not in any other way than by luck).

But you are doing basically the same by saying "come on, snap out of this idea that you have free will", as if I have free will to snap out of the idea that free will exists.


EDIT: Oh, sorry, I misread you text! The spoilered text below was an answer to the idea that saying "come on, use your free will and snap out of it!" is one way to affect other people, which was not what you said. :)
Spoiler:
True. I'd say that the concept of "free will" is itself a primarily cultural artifact, that exists precisely because it has certain values and functions, as you suggest. I simply think that we can do (much) better if we replace this cultural strategy (assigning people free will) with other perspectives and strategies. Granted, this is not a simple thing to do, which is why I think it's worth discussing. :)

Here's a real response to what you wrote:
You don't need free will to change when I give you new input. Changing when we interact with other people is what we do. That's how we do change.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby morriswalters » Thu Oct 11, 2012 11:37 am UTC

I'm going to have to think about this. You are asking me to to accept that there is no individual choice but that there can be individual wisdom. I find my self thinking that what you are talking about is the programming we receive as individuals rather than the state of the universe. If the universe is some how a clockwork, ticking predictably forward with every tick in a pattern determined by the nature of the thing, then I finding it hard to believe in choice as a real thing. My response will take some time.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 11:42 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:I'm going to have to think about this. You are asking me to to accept that there is no individual choice but that there can be individual wisdom. I find my self thinking that what you are talking about is the programming we receive as individuals rather than the state of the universe. If the universe is some how a clockwork, ticking predictably forward with every tick in a pattern determined by the nature of the thing, then I finding it hard to believe in choice as a real thing. My response will take some time.

Certainly. Just try to sort out all the different definitions of "choice" that are floating around here before you make a conclusion. Decide which one you are using, and why. (And include this, briefly, in an eventual answer). If you want some clarification on any specific point of my reasoning, please ask.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby jules.LT » Thu Oct 11, 2012 12:18 pm UTC

Simply put, choice is the conscious part of the process by which an individual converts outside information into one action or another. It is inherently part of the individual and can therefore be used to judge him, or at least punish/reward him as necessary for adjusting his behaviour.

Just because a being which is omniscient about the present state of the universe and the rules that govern it (as well as having nigh-infinite computational power) would find the outcome predictable doesn't remove any meaningfulness from that process.
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby leady » Thu Oct 11, 2012 12:41 pm UTC

deepone wrote:Certainly. Just try to sort out all the different definitions of "choice" that are floating around here before you make a conclusion. Decide which one you are using, and why. (And include this, briefly, in an eventual answer). If you want some clarification on any specific point of my reasoning, please ask.


In a classically deterministic universe there is no "choice" that will fit any definition. It superficially looks more complex but ultimately there can be no more choice than a rock falling has a choice.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 12:58 pm UTC

leady wrote:
deepone wrote:Certainly. Just try to sort out all the different definitions of "choice" that are floating around here before you make a conclusion. Decide which one you are using, and why. (And include this, briefly, in an eventual answer). If you want some clarification on any specific point of my reasoning, please ask.

In a classically deterministic universe there is no "choice" that will fit any definition. It superficially looks more complex but ultimately there can be no more choice than a rock falling has a choice.

Have you read the last few pages? Saying that something will not fit any definition is extremely strong. I can't think of anything that cannot fit any definition. :) I doubt it's possible to think of such a thing, actually. The very use of the word ("choice") implies a definition. It may be fuzzy and it may not match what you think that choice should mean, but it's still a definition, and one that many people find sensible, no less.
Last edited by deepone on Thu Oct 11, 2012 2:40 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby leady » Thu Oct 11, 2012 1:25 pm UTC

1. The act of choosing; selection.
2. The power, right, or liberty to choose; option.
3. One that is chosen.
4. A number or variety from which to choose: a wide choice of styles and colors.
5. The best or most preferable part.
6. Care in choosing.
7. An alternative.

I'm sure other sources will have more definitions, but none of those can work as they are self referential or require alternatives. The closest is 5), but even "preferable" requires options.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby jules.LT » Thu Oct 11, 2012 2:16 pm UTC

Once again, you might want to look three posts above yours. You've already been given one possible definition and you posted twice without answering it. The list of bad answers that you posted doesn't make the question unanswerable.
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby induction » Thu Oct 11, 2012 4:00 pm UTC

deepone wrote:I don't think I've seen anyone else acknowledge (in a clear way) that there may be purely societal reasons for not using the concept of free will. No one else on that point? E.g., not thinking that you have free will makes you less likely to feel superior and look down on others, or to "take credit for not being a psychopath", etc.


I find the free will to be a useful topic of discussion for several reasons:

Guenther's version ('agency') has applications to law and mental health. If someones actions are not made freely (that is, if they literally did not feel that they had the ability to choose otherwise), then it is unlikely that the usual modes of behavior modification will work on them. In some cases, this inability might indicate a need for mental health treatment, in other cases it may indicate a condition of physical slavery. Sometime a person might be exonerated of a crime or receive a reduced sentence if the freedom of their choices is found to have been constrained. In cases like these, philosophical discussion of metaphysical free will might be a distraction from the goal of figuring out what to do with/for such a person. Of course, such a philosophical discussion can easily follow when we ask ourselves, 'if he wasn't free to choose, am I?'

Discussion of the metaphysical version of free will is useful for other reasons, precisely because it implies something close to a paradox: We feel like we make free choices, but in a lot of ways that feeling seems to be an illusion. Paradoxes are useful things to explore because they often indicate that something is wrong with our model. Examining the free will 'paradox'1 can lead to profound insights for some and boredom/frustration/headaches for others. I personally learned a great about how I fit into society and reality from this kind of navel-gazing. I think it can also give a person insight into questions of religion2, anthropology, ethics, judgement, politics, etc. Those insights will probably vary a lot from person to person.

Often people approach the topic of free will from a standpoint of trying to 'win' the debate (I admit I do more than a bit of this myself), but I think the apparent paradox might be best solved alone, as I suspect that's where the real mileage comes from. I could be wrong. When seen as a competition, though, many people will react strongly against 'the guenther model (TM)' because it sidesteps the interesting part of the debate (as it's designed to do). There is very little debate over whether we feel like we have free will, the metaphysics stuff comes from the question of whether that feeling is an illusion.

The aspect of the free will debate I find not particularly useful is the predestination bit. As jules.LT says, the existence (or non) of predestination has no practical value because the causal links in our decision chains are too complex to be predictable for anyone but an omniscient observer. (We do a lot of behavior prediction in our daily lives, but it's generally probabilistic and doesn't account for anomalies and 'outside' forces.) I can't think of many situations where 'believing' in predestination would be useful, and I don't recommend it. Speaking of paradoxes, using predestination as an excuse for doing/not doing something seems to be a denial of cause and effect, which is the basis of predestination in the first place.

Just my $.02. I know a lot of this ground has been covered here before.




1. Quotes here because I think in this case it's not so much 'A' and 'not A', but more like 'A' and 'A is really counterintuitive'. Others may disagree.

2. As deepone says 'nature decides if you're going to heaven or hell'.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby leady » Thu Oct 11, 2012 4:16 pm UTC

jules.LT wrote:Once again, you might want to look three posts above yours. You've already been given one possible definition and you posted twice without answering it. The list of bad answers that you posted doesn't make the question unanswerable.


Are we allowed to make up new definitions for words now?

theres already a word for that previous definition and its "inevitability" or "destiny" not "choice"

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Thu Oct 11, 2012 4:39 pm UTC

The thing is, if you are left to change your self, all on your own, that's simply impossible.


I'd not make the claim any choice is done by ones self (with perhaps the exception of a God, if existing). I've no idea to what extent I have free will, or to what extent other peoples will can be influenced on me. I also have empathy though, which I hope is close to accurate enough to prevent me from harming others. So with other external inputs, I can "choose" not to do harm. As an example of where I see the ability (thus the realization we have this, which we call 'free will') to choose is vital.

As others have shown above, free will is a valid assumption. It's an assumption that a self/person can make a choice. So arguing over the method of choice is rather silly when even defining the object making the choice is difficult. It's simpler and easier to assume "self made choice" IE "freely made choice" or "freely acting agent" until we observe "random acting" or "determined action".

The assumption is correct in the context. And, as we can have both/either we have actually defined a new system anyhow. It's a system that can be either determined or random (at the least, I'd add 'or other, freely acting' but it's not required for others to accept that here). As "random" or "determined" does not fit that system as a descriptor, we call it both, well we give it a new name "free will". :P
I think such a system when not applied to persons/people is called "chaotic" or likened to a quantum effect. Can anyone confirm? However, we are not "rocks" so we use different descriptions when applying the actions to ourselves (a rock rolls, we shuffle).

So yes, applying division to mathematics requiring multiplication gives us different, thus wrong, answers. Just as applying randomness to systems requiring determinism gives us wrong answers.
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby deepone » Thu Oct 11, 2012 7:53 pm UTC

Technical Ben Thu Oct 11, 2012 4:39 pm UTC wrote:...

I'm having trouble parsing this. It's unclear to me exactly what definitions you are actually using and what you actually accept/assume. For example: Choice that is not done by one self? That seems like an entirely new definition, in this discussion. Maybe you, or someone else, can clarify/explain further?

EDIT: Oops! Seems I forgot a not above. Fixed.
Last edited by deepone on Thu Oct 11, 2012 10:31 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby jules.LT » Thu Oct 11, 2012 9:58 pm UTC

leady wrote:Are we allowed to make up new definitions for words now?

theres already a word for that previous definition and its "inevitability" or "destiny" not "choice"

Much like scientists "made up" the definition of colours as ranges of wavelength, philosophers give more technical detail in their definitions of everyday words. And non-philosophers are allowed to try it too!

You're rejecting my definition because it is compatible with determinism rather than because of its correspondence to the concept of "choice". That is begging the question.
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Thu Oct 11, 2012 10:40 pm UTC

Um. Well, when you point at someone and say "you choose", we have a nice supposition that you believe a "you", or "person" exists and that they can "choose". Say, if I ask a person "do you like fish or chicken", I have supposed they have an ability to choose free from me. Else I'd not give them that choice, I'd tell them to like chicken or fish. If I believed in determinism I can say "you will choose chicken" or if I believed in randomness I'd say "random actions will choose chicken". So while it's fine to change your supposition, you would have to carry it through to the rest of your expressions and worldview. I'm not sure you'd welcome that, would you?

It might be a limit to our example, it's got limited data. But, as our example is limited, the assumption of free will fits. The person "chose freely to each chicken". We can suppose chemical or historical causes, but they are just suppositions. In absence of specific proofs and data, we are left with the assumption "nether determining or random", but "the system described is the system that chose". Or, "free will", a freely acting system of choice.

If we take your option and "throw free will out the window", neither of those questions get asked, and both people sit there not eating, being unable to "choose". "Free will" is just our way of expressing our belief that the ability to make a choice exists separate (thus free) from another system we are describing. Without it, such statements as "choice" make no sense in context.

If I program a computer with all inputs known, I don't then tell it to "choose to output 1 or 0", because I prepared it to output already. It makes no choice, it follows a determined action. If I ever ask it to "choose", I am supposing the ability to choose is not from me, but from it. It would be "free to choose" in this context from me. AFAIK it would not have "will", so it does not count as a person yet. But I'd not look to decide what will or people are, or if we can make robotic ones. That's not within my grasp of knowledge. Either way, if we programed them previously, asking for a choice is not a sensible thing.

So, we either ask people to choose, and presume free will or stop asking people and presume no ability to choose.

You can remove free will from your worldview, you however do have to remove the concept of choosing in all instances though AFIAK. We can't just gloss over the differences it would imply to the observations we make or we predict. :P
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Vince_Right » Fri Oct 12, 2012 10:29 am UTC

Technical Ben wrote:Um. Well, when you point at someone and say "you choose", we have a nice supposition that you believe a "you", or "person" exists and that they can "choose". Say, if I ask a person "do you like fish or chicken", I have supposed they have an ability to choose free from me. Else I'd not give them that choice, I'd tell them to like chicken or fish. If I believed in determinism I can say "you will choose chicken" or if I believed in randomness I'd say "random actions will choose chicken". So while it's fine to change your supposition, you would have to carry it through to the rest of your expressions and worldview. I'm not sure you'd welcome that, would you?


I still have a lot of history to ready in this thread, but recently came across a Youtube reference with Daniel C. Dennett.
He sees determinism: action and consequence after the big bang, not incompatible with free will.
It comes down to this: something is inevitable (a consequence of a previous action), this can lead to evolutions where inevitably you get a form that can analyse more of the environment and act in the environment, when that form can analyse the consequence of the things going on in the environment, it can adjust it's actions to that, it has a choice. The consequence is that the inevitable become evitable.
Practically: People die. We analyse why they die. Then we create treatments for the causes of death. So where death from some diseases was inevitable at first, we created choice, by understanding the causes and creating alternative paths, by using treatement.

Freedom is a difficult subject though, what determines choice?

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby leady » Fri Oct 12, 2012 11:16 am UTC

jules.LT wrote:
leady wrote:Are we allowed to make up new definitions for words now?

theres already a word for that previous definition and its "inevitability" or "destiny" not "choice"

Much like scientists "made up" the definition of colours as ranges of wavelength, philosophers give more technical detail in their definitions of everyday words. And non-philosophers are allowed to try it too!

You're rejecting my definition because it is compatible with determinism rather than because of its correspondence to the concept of "choice". That is begging the question.


Scientists refine concepts and definitions to highlight and determine truth, they don't take mutually exclusive concepts and change a definition of one to encompass the other.

I'm not rejecting your definition because I have an issue with determinism nor because of its compatibility with determinism, but rather because even putting aside the current common definitions of "choice", yours is essentially:

"the thought process that occurs to decide an action within a deterministic universe"

which is the same as

"the deterministic process by which an outcome occurs"

which is the same as

"rocks fall down"

There is no logical reason to asign a different label to the first to differentiate it from the last they are exactly the same thing. "choice" in this framework is just physics. I understand why people rail against this view because its pretty darn depressing :)

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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby jules.LT » Fri Oct 12, 2012 11:45 am UTC

"the thought process that occurs to decide an action"

But that is what people describe at the macro level as "choice" :P
My extended version is exactly what you asked for: a definition of choice that is compatible with determinism.

Also, it's a specific case of a process happening in a deterministic world, not any process by which any outcome occurs. Your equivalencies are completely false. And choice "isn't" physics, it just obeys the laws of physics like the rest of the things happening in the universe. Which is pretty damn reassuring :D

You said you had a physics degree? You seem to have very little trust in physics...
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Re: Definition of Free Will

Postby Technical Ben » Fri Oct 12, 2012 2:13 pm UTC

But asking for a definition of choice that is compatible with determinism is ok, unless the definition of choice is also free will, not because it's wrong, but because we defined 2 contrary assumptions in our question. We live with contrary assumptions all the time, they are not problems, just shortcuts to answers.

Like, "explain to me how a deterministic universe can be random" is a wrong statement, as is "explain to me how a random universe is deterministic". By definition, assuming one or the other, rules out our second assumption from being possible. But we cannot conclude from this that either is impossible in a physical universe, because both random systems and determined systems are possible in this universe. So, if randomness or determinism also contradicts any other system, this does not rule out the possibility of that system existing or functioning or being described.

Likewise, it's not required that choice is a deterministic process. It's not required that it's random. It's just an assumption that there is a process we call "choice" just as determinism is an assumption there is a process we call "a model always producing the same output". We call randomness "a model producing a probabilistic output".

Perhaps we would then have choice or free will which would be "a model producing it's own output" or "a model producing an undefined output"? Would that work?
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