Does “free will” comprise the things you do that aren’t coerced?

January 4, 2023 • 12:15 pm

One commenter on my last post on free will asserted that free will consists of the set of things you do without being coerced. This is a very common claim, and indeed, it sounds sensible. If someone puts you in jail, you’re not going in “of your own free will.” If someone demands your wallet at the point of a gun, you hand over the dosh because you have no sensible alternative.

This all sounds, good, but I think it’s wrong.

Except in the extreme cases where someone frog-marches you into a cell, you always have a “choice” in the common usage. (That is, there are alternative behaviors possible. I’m still sticking with my conception of free will as “libertarian free will”, and remain unconvinced that we have it.)

But do we have “free will” in the sense mentioned above: are we at least showing compatibilist free will when we do things without coercion?

No, because the idea of “coercion” is nearly always a matter of dispute. Here are two examples; you tell me if the guy is showing free will or not.

Mr. Jones wants to stay home and watch football on Sunday evening, but his wife insists that they go to a party at a friend’s house. It wouldn’t look good, she says, to not show up after they were invited. Mr. Jones decides to go. Is he doing so of his own free will? Or is he being coerced by his wife and their friends’ expectation? After all, he could have refused his wife’s request and stayed home. She might get angry, and their friends disappointed, but he could watch his game. (I’m playing a compatibilist here, not the hard determinist that I am.)

A second example.  Mr. Smith has some savings that he wants to use to buy a spiffy sports car (he’s having a mid-life crisis). But his daughter needs money to go to college. Smith gives up his idea of a fancy car and buys a junker instead so that daughter doesn’t have to work her way through school. Is his decision made “of his own free will”? Or is he coerced by the societal expectation that you make sacrifices for your kids’ education?

Finally, even if a robber has a gun to your head and demands your money, there is an alternative behavior that you can “choose”: resist him and fight. Remember the old Jack Benny joke in which a robber puts a gun to his head and says “Your money or your life!”  Benny hesitates. The robber says, “Well?”  Benny replies, “I’m thinking it over.” (Part of his shtick was being stingy.) See—he did have a choice.

I would claim that in nearly all cases involving “coercion”, the compatibilist would ultimately agree that you do indeed have a choice. It’s just that the alternatives have different consequences that can put you in a bind. In this sense, then, cases of true, uncoerced “free will” are not the norm.

In one sense, though, I would agree with the healine above, for I think that everything is coerced: coerced by your neurons and brain, which are the product of your genes and your environment. They leave you no room to do other than what you did. As Sam Harris said in his book Free Will,

“There isn’t, materially, anything more coercive about giving money at gunpoint than drinking milk when you’re thirsty.”

In that sense, and I agree, everything is coerced, so there are no decisions ever made via compatibilist free will—even if you see the “free” as meaning “free from coercion.” The people who claim that you have free will only when you’re not being coerced are unwittingly correct, for because we’re always coerced, we never have free will.

67 thoughts on “Does “free will” comprise the things you do that aren’t coerced?

        1. To start, convincing evidence that there was an omnipotent God, for that kind of God could affect our actions. I outline evidence that would convince me (provisionally, of course) in Faith Versus Fact.

        2. What sort of evidence would make you change your perspective on free will?

          I’m wondering whether determinism is falsifiable. Is there a way of developing an experiment that could disprove determinism?

  1. It’s all “coerced,” whether by external processes that cause molecules in the brain to do what they do or by internal processes that cause molecules in the brain to do what they do. The source of the factors that cause specific behaviors—including what we call “choices”—is irrelevant. It’s still all atoms and molecules carrying out their motions. There’s no way to shut these off, “decide” independently on an action, and then turn the molecular motions back on again. Yet this is what is required for there to truly be free will.

    1. Your comments make perfect sense from within the materialist/determinist paradigm, but I also think it points out why the materialist/determinist paradigm is just as incoherent as any other theory of consciousness.

      1. Is it actually possible to live consistently within the idea that no one chooses any thought they hold? That would render much of Professor Coyne’s popular life work moot. Why try and convince people of the futility of religious or creationist beliefs of the could not have believed otherwise?

      2. At what level of reduction does reduction no longer become necessary to invoke in fee will? If I choose to have a Pepsi over a Coke did that take place at the molecular, atomic, or sun-atomic level?

      3. How do we explain at all the effect of language understanding on the mind at all in a reductionist model? Why does hearing someone say something in a language I understand have the ability to effect the contracts of my mind, but a language I don’t understand not? The only difference is in the understanding of one as a language which cannot be reduced to the level of atoms and molecules.

      1. 1. I do live that way. Also, even thought what I wrote may have been determined, it can still change people’s minds, because it is an environmental factor that can influence other people. Saying that determinism makes my work is not only incoherent in itself, but, frankly, offensive. I don’t CARE if I was determined to write what I did. I’m happy to know that I’ve changed people’s minds, which I have.
        2. The material theory of consciousness is the only one we have unless you posit spiritual/numinous forces without evidence. Some animals are surely conscious in ways similar to us. There is no feasible alternative except the naturalistic one, and it’s the most probable by far–unless you think that somehow consciousness was given to us by God.
        3. You don’t have to choose a level right now, as we are nowhere near understanding the molecular basis of how people behave, much less choose. It’s like saying that because we don’t understand why people love their children more than other people’s children, the phenomenon is incoherent. You won’t know what level is important until you have a much fuller understanding than we do now.
        4. Your claim that knowing a language can’t be reduced to the level of environmental effects on molecules is just that–a claim, and one that is unsubstantiated.

        Everything you say seems, to me, to boil down to this: we don’t understand everything about how behavior emanates from physical bodies, so materialism (explaining all this from the laws of physics) is wrong and there must be something else going on.

        1. I know you don’t like extended arguments, but if you allow me a quick response I won’t push the issue.

          1. I have often felt a serious blind spot by those who call themselves determinists is their unwillingness to give up popular folk notions of personal responsibility. It is an incompatibility to say that our thoughts and behaviors are determined but people who I disagree with can change their positions. I don’t think appealing to any intermediary step such as environment helps as that step will be just as determined. All ideas have consequences and determinism has them for our everyday notions of law and morality.

          2. No I am not a theist of any kind and there are naturalistic indeterminist philosophies of mind. One of the reasons why philosophy of mind is still such a minefield is that both the libertarian and determinist positions (and thus also compatabilist positions which combine them both) don’t make complete sense. This was my point. We may not have to chose a level right now, but it is also somewhat disingenuous to say we don’t have any evidence right now, but lack of evidence doesn’t effect the correctness of a position because one day there will be evidence.

          1. This is the last bit of the exchange; we’re done.

            1. There is no incompatibility. If you kick a friendly dog because you were determined by the circumstances or your personality to do that, the dog will eventually shy away form you. Determinism plus behavior change. No problem. You appear to be confused. I’ve already discussed what I mean by “personal responsibility”: Person X did thing Y. Person X is therefore responsible for having done Y. You know this so why is this an issue?

            2. Somewhat disingenuous? You haven’t said what non-physical forces could influence will? The history of science has shown that solutions imputed to non-naturalistic phenomena (like God’s will) are never answered with a non-naturalistic answer. Read Sean Caroll on the fact that physics already explains all the phenomena of everyday life and there CANNOT be non-physical forces. I guess you just don’t like the answer “we don’t know everything now, but if history is any guide, the solution will come down to naturalism.

            Were I you, I would stop here, because I don’t like being called “disingenuous”.

        2. From a purely deterministic point of view, a record of historical events was pressed into vinyl during the big bang, and we have been “playing” that record ever since. In other words, everything has already been decided, the path can not be altered, the die is cast.

          A second view comes from the observation that complex natural systems always have a degree of randomness. This randomness can best be modeled via-a-vis quantum computers. If quantum computers work, one of the following conditions must be met. 1. Determinism does not exist, or 2. atoms can communicate faster than light. Either way, the result would be a monumental scientific accomplishment.

      2. Is it actually possible to live consistently within the idea that no one chooses any thought they hold?

        The idea is false though. In the materialist paradigm, I am the collection of braincells in my head – or perhaps an emergent property of the collection of braincells in my head. If some deterministic process in my brain chooses Pepsi over Coke, that’s part of me, so I made the choice.

    1. I think a better translation of “Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will.” would be:

      “A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants”

  2. As you say, to a compatibilist, “free will” is about social coercion. And yes, this is a fuzzy and messy concept, because human social interactions are hugely messy, fuzzy and complicated.

    Thus, a woman is not wearing a hijab “of her own free will” if the morality police will cart her off to jail. And a person is not handing over their wallet “of his own free will” if a mugger is pointing a gun at them. (Though, yes, some brave people might fight in such situations.)

    But yes, we can dial down the coercion. if we’re talking about a husband attending a function because his wife wants him to, then one might only jokingly talk about whether he is doing it “of his own free will”.

    So, yes, the compatibilist concept is indeed fuzzy and messy, but that’s not a defect of the concept, it follows because it is about human social interactions that are fuzzy and messy.

    The libertarian concept of “free will” (that the compatibilist joins you in rejecting) needs to be a clear binary, yes or no. But the compatibilist concept does not. Ditto many other concepts about social interactions such as “morality”, “choice”, “agency”.

    The difference between compatibilism and hard-incompatibilism is indeed mostly semantics — which linguistic concepts we choose to use — with the compatiblist regarding these concepts as usefully describing social interactions.

    1. It’s not “mostly” semantics if Dennett thinks that compatibilism gives us moral responsibility, which he does. Most people think that moral responsibility arises only if we could have chosen differently from what we did.

      1. We do need the concept of morality. That is, we need the concept of things we regard as “wrong” in the sense that we deprecate them and want to punish people for doing them, as a deterrent. (Of course we don’t need any supernatural connotations along with that.)

        We (I think) both agree on punishing some behaviours as a deterrent. We differ only on whether we want to avoid the word “moral” (as being too tainted by supernaturalism) or are happy to use it (ditching any supernatural connotations).

        Indeed, you are happy to retain the concept of “morality” in many contexts, such as here: “The notion that atheism destroys morality has been dismantled several times …”.

        1. Yes, but that’s different from “morally responsible”. “Morality” is a subjective code of conduct for a group. But I wouldn’t use the words “morally responsible” because people think they mean “the person made the wrong choice and could have chosen otherwise”. That’s not my take; that’s what the surveys show. In a deterministic universe, most people don’t think that someone can be morally responsible.

        2. We do need the concept of morality. That is, we need the concept of things we regard as “wrong” in the sense that we deprecate them and want to punish people for doing them, as a deterrent

          This is simply an assertion. I will assert no we don’t. We have a set of laws, statutes etc and we can simply apply the measured consequences if anyone breaks the law.

          1. I have to disagree with this. If the vast majority of people did not adhere to a moral code, we would need huge numbers of police to try to enforce the law. If the people who are charged with enforcing the law did not have their own morals, then they would be so corrupt as to be ineffective.
            High trust societies, which tend to be safe and prosperous, are not places with overwhelming police presence or surveillance.
            In high trust societies, there are sometimes goods left in displays outside shops with coin boxes, so that people can pick what they want, leave payment, and never even interact with the shopkeeper. Sure, some kid is occasionally going to steal an apple. Most people will pay for what they take, because it is the right thing to do. Nobody is watching closely, so fear of being caught is unlikely to be a big motivator.

            I suspect most people who think that morality is unnecessary believe it because they have never experienced a time or place where morality has broken down, due to prevailing culture or extreme stress.

            1. What’s the difference between a moral code and a code that pulls society together in a cohesive way?

              Some actions are moral in the same way some fire trucks are red.

          2. But why do we have laws? Because we want people to act in certain ways and not act in others. You could indeed drop the word “morality”, but you need the concept underlying it: approval or disapproval of behaviours. And how would you ever change or update laws without such a concept?

            1. Then drop the word “moral”. So whatever I approve (or disapprove) of belongs to a moral sphere? Do you ever speed when driving? Is that somehow immoral when you do? Assuming you do.

              1. Yes, speeding is immoral if it puts other humans at risk (which is the reason for speed limits). The “moral sphere” being behaviours that affect other humans positively or negatively. And yes, we could drop the word “moral” but we’d then need a new term to replace it.

    2. Coel, I think your version of compatibilism is incomplete. That said, I wholeheartedly agree that free will, like many other human-scaled descriptors, is fuzzy and messy, and that this isn’t a serious problem. (All everyday macroscopic descriptors admit fuzzy boundary cases.) My favorite example of fuzzy boundaries is that dawn and dusk are hard to classify as night or day, yet the difference between night and day is like the difference between night and day.

      1. Sure, but a professional navigator does not see such fuzzy boundaries in the sunrise and sunset. They would look at it and see night turn to astronomical twilight, to nautical twilight, to civil twilight, to day. At precisely defined intervals.
        I point this out not to be pedantic, but because most of our experiences have been parsed, measured, and carefully defined by specialists.
        Except the topic of this post, which still seems like a philosophical or intellectual exercise to me, hard to measure, put numbers on, and do math with.

        1. You reject “could have done otherwise” statements – or, to go to the root problem, you equate them to “could have done otherwise given the exact same past.” The idea that this is an appropriate restriction depends on intuitive ideas about time and causality, which are incorrect. Imagine a philosopher who said “you couldn’t have done otherwise, because given the exact same future after the act, the act must have occurred.” Obviously the hold-the-future-constant restriction is inappropriate. Much less obviously, but for similar reasons, so is the hold-the-past-constant restriction.

          1. It’s more that I haven’t gone into that topic here. Why do we cogitate on “could have done otherwise” (e.g. resisted a mugger)? Clearly, we’ll never encounter exactly the same circumstances ever again; so what we’re really doing is pondering what we might do in similar circumstances. And the pondering would well affect future behaviour in similar circumstances (which is why we ponder it).

    3. Coel,

      I’d disagree somewhat that free will is strictly about social coercion. I think that’s a factor, but not the bedrock.

      I think Jerry raises some good objections to tethering free will to coerced or not coerced.

      I think coercion is certainly relevant to free will, and “coerced” vs “non-coerced” decisions is a very useful distinction. But I don’t see it as the bedrock of Free Will.
      I think the bedrock is the capability of making choices according to our motivations. Basically the power to deliberately choose one action over another.

      So as long as we are capable of deliberately choosing one act over another, we have freedom of will. If a mob boss says “pay me monthly or I’ll burn your store down” that’s certainly coercion, but I still have the “freedom to do as I will,” in the sense of being capable of choosing either option, and either choice will ultimately be according to my stronger motivation. That’s the “ontological bedrock” IMO.

      I agree with many compatibilists (such as Dennett and others) that freedom comes in ranges, and moral responsibility come in at a higher level of consideration – not just thoughts but “metathoughts.” We are capable of higher order thinking than simply slavishly following impulse or a single motivation. We can have more than one motivation or desire in play, and yet also survey those motivations to accept or reject them, based on a larger coherent narrative – e.g. broader goals, seeing if following that motivation will sit coherently with our other desires, seeing if it fits coherently within a wider context of reasoning about other moral agents – other people. In other words we can have desires and motivations to take an action, but we can step back and ask if we have good reasons to accept or reject those motivations or actions. And this is the level at which we reason morally and take control over our first-order inclinations and motivations. (I may be highly motivated to want my neighbor’s cool sports car, but higher order reasoning about how stealing his car will conflict with my other beliefs about what actions are “right” and “wrong” so I can have some control over those motivations, vetoing some, accenting to others. It doesn’t matter that the reasoning process takes place in a physically determined body – the reasoning is still mine).

      Back to coercion: It’s clearly important to look in to what degree someone’s actions were coerced by pressure from someone else, in terms of how we ascertain their character. And I don’t see any problem with the standard use of “Done Under His/Her Own Free Will” as a short hand for making such distinctions. Yes the issue of coercion is messy as you say, and as Jerry points out. But it doesn’t matter WHAT view of free will you have – libertarian, compatibilist, free will skeptic, “coerced” vs “uncoerced” is still a necessary distinction in evaluating under what conditions someone made a decision, in terms of appraising their character and level of responsibility. It’s both necessary and a bit messy no matter what view of Free Will you hold.

      1. First, please keep your comments shorter than this: it’s over 500 words.

        Second your flat assertion that “So as long as we are capable of deliberately choosing one act over another, we have freedom of will.” My response is, “No you don’t.” You are defining “freedom” in a specific way, and it’s not certainly “freedom to have chosen otherwise.”

        And to this comment, “Basically the power to deliberately choose one action over another.” I’d say, “No you don’t, because you could have chosen only one action.”

      2. Hi Vaal, I agree with some of this, in that human psychology is complex and multi-layered. I’m not sure I agree that moral reasoning is necessarily a higher-level meditation on first-order inclinations. For example, if someone declares incest to be morally wrong, that is more likely an intuitive feeling than a higher-level meditation.

  3. All exactly correct. I think the confusion comes in because, in its legal and popular usage, the word coerce normally means affecting a person’s behavior by use of socially unacceptable or illegal means, especially threats to inflict harm. So, for example, when the law says a person did something of his own free will, it normally means only that there was no illegal or socially inappropriate conduct by another person (or unusual natural force) that played a substantial role in determining the choice.

    1. I still think it is in reference to the verifiable behavior in the questions lawyers go through such as “can you state your name”, or “can you identify the defendant”. The cases are then built on the observed “free will” in those replies.

  4. TL;DR/no joking allowed : agree – all determined.

    At length:

    Oh, that guy gave up free will long ago – at the altar!

    Joking aside, one new thought I had with the gunpoint robbery :

    How does anyone know what will happen?

    If Jack Benny buys time, he is increasing the probability that sone other thing will happen.

    Maybe the robber actually wants Jack to go to his new ice cream store “Only Chocolate or Vanilla And Nothing Else”.

  5. All choices are fully coerced by the derminants. In any choice or any part of a choice once you strip away the determinants there is no ground left upon which to make a choice. The determinants provide ALL basis for decision making. Besides them there is nothing but possibly randomness.

    The reason we feel ourselves to be freely making choices is that most of the logical processing of the determinants happens subconsciously with final determinations being passed seamlessly to the conscious mind. The conscious mind, unaware of all the subconscious processing, feels itself to be freely choosing.

  6. It’s changing the meaning of the word ‘coerced’ to say that all actions are coerced. ‘Coerced’ means being caused to do things you don’t want to. But often we are caused to do things we do want to (indeed our wanting to is part of the cause). Those latter cases are not cases of coercion – unless ‘coercion’ = ’caused’, which is not the usual meaning of the word.

    For the compatibilist, it’s those latter cases we call ‘free’ (not in the libertarian sense) and we think they are importantly different from cases of real coercion (though there are fuzzy areas in between the two, as Jerry notes).

    1. I was going to make a similar comment. I don’t think I have a free choice in anything I do but I am only bothered when I do things which don’t align with my wishes, preferences, desires etc.

  7. Nobody denies that we are responsible for our own actions and always do what we want even when we are coerced. Modern discussions about freewill center around moral responsibility; are we responsible for what we want (our desires and beliefs)?

    If the answer is negative we cannot justify punishment or inhumane treatment of wrongdoers. We only can justify humane quarantine and medical treatment until the wrongdoer is healed.

    For most people this is a bridge too far, the illusion of freewill is just too strong.

    Usual deterrence is used as an argument against humane treatment of inmates; in reality deterrence doesn’t work well for the more serious crimes (Meta Analysis of Crime and Deterrence, Rupp 2008). Humans just ignore facts they don’t like, what isn’t a great sign of freewill. I’m not different.

    1. If the answer is negative we cannot justify punishment or inhumane treatment of wrongdoers.

      We can never justify inhumane treatment, but we can justify punishment since punishment reduces conduct that we want less of. An analogy is the punishment of dogs to discourage behavior even though dogs have no moral responsibility.

      1. The recidivism rate and the horrors of our prison system show that the punishment/revenge paradigm simply doesn’t work. We should abandon personal moral responsibility and think of the long-term benefit of society.

        1. Nobody can doubt that the threat of getting a speeding ticket reduces the amount of speeding that takes place or suggest reasonably that police should stop giving speeding tickets. This doesn’t mean that all criminal penalties are administered optimally.

        2. So in thinking of the long-term benefit of society, Stephen, what should we do with these non-morally-culpable but still dangerous creatures? Agreed, gratuitous infliction of useless punishment on those who harm us doesn’t seem to be very helpful in reducing recidivism or deterring others of their kind, especially for the so-called “moral imbeciles” with sociopathic personality disorders or brain damage from fetal alcohol exposure. Or the ones who seem like nice people when sober but become murderously violent when drunk or high. But short sentences under indulgent circumstances that recognize their specialness don’t seem to help either. Letting them off the hook doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Would that it did!

          I think in most cases we just throw them back into their own communities and hope they confine their predation to their relatives, not ours. But that does seem unfair, too, to the relatives seeking to escape the cycle of violence. And it causes retail deserts.

          If we give up on rehabilitation and 60th (sic) chances, what is there to do but incarcerate for life? Murder, in fact, has a low recidivism rate even without the death penalty. Armed robbery and assault with a weapon not so much.

          I warn you I won’t be satisfied with, “I don’t know. Just something better than we do now.”

        3. The recidivism rate and the horrors of our prison system show that the punishment/revenge paradigm simply doesn’t work.

          Firstly, by “our prison system”, I assume you mean the US prison system. I agree it is not a very good one, but a bad prison system does not refute the point that punishment helps stop people doing bad things.

          Yes, people who go to prison may re-offend after they are released but, by definition, these are people on whom the deterrent didn’t work. The people for whom the deterrent didn’t work aren’t in prison, so your sample is biased.

          I would suggest that many more people would commit crimes if they knew there were no consequences. I’d probably drive everywhere at 100mph if there were no consequences for being caught breaking the speed limit. When we had the riots in London in 2011, they were accompanied by a phenomenal amount of looting. Why? Because people thought (wrongly as it turned out) that they could take stuff without consequences. Many of the looters would never have dreamed of breaking into a shop to steal a TV under normal circumstances.

      2. “reduces conduct that we want less of”

        Quarantine together with psychological and medical treatment does the same and probably better. Still we choose punishment even when it doesn’t work well.

  8. I don’t understand compatibilism. Is it supposed to show that we actually do have a kind of free will? Or is the point to use a convoluted logic so that we can convince others (maybe even ourselves) that there is free will, even though there isn’t and therefore instill a sense of moral responsibility that we believe they or we wouldn’t have otherwise?

    The very idea that we need to believe in free will to act responsibly suggests that there is a preceding impulse to responsibility. I am skeptical that the belief in free will is any more effective a driver of responsibility than the belief in god is. And I believe that both illusions do far more harm than good.

    A lot of people posting here seem to believe in hard determinism. I can’t help but wonder how many are using this as an excuse to act irresponsibly. My guess is approximately none.

    1. Yes, compatibilism (in its best form) is supposed to show that we actually do have a kind of free will. Most importantly, it should start from a demonstration that determinism, and for that matter naturalism, does not block the ability to do otherwise, the way most philosophers since Lucretius have assumed. The intuitive physics that philosophers from Lucretius to Kant (libertarians) to Sam Harris (a free will denier) have relied on in their arguments, is mistaken. Remove the mistakes and the arguments evaporate.

    2. I don’t understand compatibilism. Is it supposed to show that we actually do have a kind of free will?

      Not really, it’s certainly not trying to show that we have something akin to libertarian free will.

      Compatibilism is about understanding social interactions. Why do we have notions of “choice”, “morality”, “agency”, “decision”. “responsibility”, and what do those concepts mean in a world where “choices” and “decisions” are caused by the prior state?

      The hard incompatibilist says that all those things involve supernatural elements, so don’t exist, and asserts that by “choice” we really mean “appearance of choice”, and then leaves open the question of why these are still useful concepts.

      The compatibilist says that, since we use these concepts all the time, and since we do actually need them, let’s interpret them in ways compatible with the fact that all causes are themselves caused by the prior state.

  9. I’m so intrigued by this concept that I regularly, when ordering a meal in a restaurant, put three choices into my head. Friends used to be quite frustrated with me because they’d think I wasn’t ready to order. They’d ask me what I’m having and I say that I’m not sure, so they used to delay the waiter. Now they know. I honestly don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth until I actually give my order. It’s anecdotal but I love doing it as it leads to constant surprise!

    For the record. I’m 100% with Jerry on this. There is no mechanism to explain the ‘free’ in free will.

  10. Re free will, I’m with the host, completely. That said, I think a larger misunderstanding in society (even though unlike free will, it isn’t backed by the “faith community”)…. the misunderstanding is of the larger role of chance/randomness in life and its twin: seeing meaning/purpose (signal, if you will) in what is noise.

    All of the above misunderstandings give people a (fake) sense of control, of story, narrative, and yes free will.
    All are fed by religion and in turn buttress it: sometimes I feel like I’m walking through a mental hospital as an orderly or doctor, the jabbering masses about me hung up on story, narrative, causation … all psychotic hallucinations. (And they’re armed!). 🙂

    That said, internally *I* live life in the calm, untroubled by most moral judgements against others.
    NYC (currently FL)

  11. I wouldn’t think of having a gun to one’s head as coercion. Coercion would be being tossed off of a 10-story building, at which point the difference between the “choice” of the tosser and the tossee would seem to me significant.

    1. Once you’ve been thrown off a ten story building, choosing whether or not to smack the ground is a truly coerced decision. The Law of Gravity will make that determination.

      Whether or not you decide to go into the building may have been your own free will.

  12. I saw an interesting news clip of protesters in China who overturned a police car after they cracked down on New Years Eve revelers who set off fireworks. Given that this type of behavior results in severe repercussions, how do you explain this? The reality is that often, the more coercion and the worse are conditions, the more people have the incentive to exercise their free will. Coercion is a factor WHEN THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE GAINED. So in the example with Mr Smith, he agreed because the relationship with his wife and daughter was MORE IMPORTANT to him than the football game. When the Chinese government created a situation in which important relationships, jobs, and meaningful life experiences were compromised, they NO LONGER HAVE ANYTHING TO GAIN by complying with draconian restrictions. As such they exercised their deepest desires for freedom from oppression.

  13. Here is how I think about this issue: if your behavior is consistent with your desires and goals, then it is voluntary. If it is consistent with another person’s desires, then it’s coerced. But since nobody truly chooses their preferences and desires, there is no free will. A way to illustrate this is with sexual orientation. If a gay man is able to have relations with other men consistently with his preferences, then his behavior is voluntary. If he is coerced by society, then it is not. But since he did not choose to be gay at any point (just like nobody chooses their personality, appearance or preferences), there was no free will at any point, only voluntary and involuntary behavior.
    This allows us to defend liberalism (a system that safeguards voluntary behavior) without falling for the trap of supporting the untenable position of free will.

    1. What you surely mean is that “someone’s behavior is consistent with WHAT OTHER PEOPLE PERCEIVE AS THEIR DESIRES AND GOALS”, right? Because we can never know what goals and desire lurk, unexpressed, in people’s psyche. And that makes the whole concept untenable, I think.

      1. Let me attempt to clarify what I mean. We usually know our own goals and desires quite well. I may eat a chocolate cake because I feel the desire to do so, even if I may know it would not be good for my health.
        If I ate the cake, this would be a voluntary action. If someone prevented me from eating the cake against my will, it would be coercion. But I am not claiming that any of this is “free will”. I am only claiming that behavior comes from desires, goals, and other states that are caused by the nervous system, which responds to the laws of nature. In this way, it is possible to speak of voluntary and involuntary behavior, but not free will in a meaningful sense.

  14. Sam Harris was interviewed on Andrew Huberman’s podcast, published Monday. It’s a 4-hour interview and I can’t recommend it because it is tedious. Well, I only got through half of it but Sam going on about dualism was a bit much. He’s correct, of course, just long winded.

    I liked Sam’s book because it was short. I think freewill (or lack of) is a simple idea that people reject because they don’t like it.

  15. There is a comparison to be made to today’s democracy on the edge of an abyss and the well researched conflict between coercion and free will.
    The documentary “Ordinary Men:The Forgotten Holocaust” by Manfred Oldenburg is a stunning revelation by comparison to the current Republican/MAGA people who are ‘ordinary people.’

Leave a Reply