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What test could we conduct that would ever prove this? There is none. What LaPlace is suggesting is just another way of expressing the assumption that the universe is a closed system. This does not mean that we should doubt this assumption. On the contrary, it is one that has served us very well since the scientific revolution.

But it is an assumption that comes with restrictions, and potentially eliminates a lot of philosophical notions, including the concept of genuine free will. Perhaps the best advice is to accept the assumption, but proceed with caution. The contention is that the predictability of human choices shows that we are determined by rigid natural laws.

Here is an example from David Hume.

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Suppose that you are about to be executed. Your head is on the chopping block, the executioner approaches and raises his ax. What are the odds that, in a last minute exercise of free will, the executioner will change his mind and let you go? No chance at all. Less dramatically, we see this kind of predictability in people at every moment throughout the day. Laborers, store clerks, teachers, accountants, all do what is expected of them in their jobs. Imagine, in fact, what life would be like if human behavior did not fall into predictable patterns.

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Farmers might decide to stop growing food and we would starve. People at the gas company might quit their jobs some winter and we would all freeze. Employers might not pay workers and we would be homeless. In fact all social institutions that rely on cooperative efforts would be at risk. Short of some national crisis, we rarely think seriously about these possibilities since we have grown so accustom to the predictability of human behavior. But when we do reflect on how we are, it makes us look like machines that are constrained by laws of physics, biology and psychology.

The predictability argument for free will, then, is this:. Predictability is an indicator that choices are constrained by rigid natural laws.

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Some farmers in fact decide to stop growing food while others do not. Some workers quit their jobs for no clear reason, while others carry on. Some employers do not pay their workers, while other employers do. In fact, every cooperative institution contains people who make quirky decisions.

Just look at your own lives, the free will advocate asks. Are your actions really that predictable? Even if you typically choose chocolate ice cream, sometimes you choose the vanilla instead. Sometimes you prefer an action movie, other times a romantic comedy. Where is the predictability?

Determinists have two responses. In fact, if I hear that Sarah abruptly quit her job, I will assume that she did it for a reason that makes sense to me, such as conflicts with her boss, increased work load, or bad health. It helps to understand this point if we distinguish between what we might call foresight predictability and hindsight predictability. Foresight predictability is the capacity to forecast a future action based on prior knowledge of the relevant causal factors that preceded it.

This is what you might do when successfully predicting that your girlfriend or boyfriend will break up with you tonight. By contrast, hindsight predictability is the capacity to understand how a particular action inevitably arose from a set of causes that you now know only after the fact.


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I leave my house, drive into an intersection, and out of nowhere another vehicle runs a red light and hits my car. An hour before the accident, it would have been nearly impossible to have predicted that this particular vehicle would hit my car at this particular time.

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There were too many factors to know in advance, such as who all the possible drivers were within a sixty-mile radius, what their travel plans were, and what their mental states were. Foresight predictability has computational limits and probably always will. However, if I instead reconstruct the causes of the accident after the fact, the task is more manageable.

I will know exactly who the other driver is, and can learn about his driving plans and mental state. Even if you occasionally opt for vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate, people tire of eating the same food and naturally go for some variety.

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If I knew what the normal threshold was for tiring of chocolate ice cream, I might be able to accurately predict your purchase of vanilla. This is precisely what Acxiom tries to do with all consumer choices. With enough general information about human motivation and socio-economic influences, they will find the precise consumer niche that you fall into, which will allow them to more accurately predict what you will buy.

Scientists from many disciplines also propose prediction indicators of human behavior.

They tell us that there are genetic causes for sexual orientation, violent behavior, shyness, and even liberal vs. They tell us about social influences that impact our choice of careers, hobbies, food preference and religious affiliation. Even climate and geography have profound influences on our choices. Scientists and organizations like Acxiom are far from the point of predicting every action that you and I will perform on a given day.

So, should we accept the argument for determinism from predictability? Like the earlier argument from materialism, this one also looks compelling, but it is still not conclusive. Yes, there is a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence that human behavior is uniformly predictable, but this evidence is incomplete and will probably always remain incomplete. Even with hindsight predictability, it is challenging enough to accurately forecast the behavior of lower animals which are driven by inflexible instincts. But our human behavior, by contrast, is governed much less by raw instinct and arises from vastly more complex sets of social conditions.

Again, the best advice may be to go ahead and accept that human behavior is fundamentally predictable, but proceed with caution. We turn next to arguments for genuine free will, which, again, is that, for at least some actions, a person has the ability to have done otherwise. Our brain activity is programmed with genetic predispositions, memories from life-experiences, and these all combine to supply us with a wide range of motivations. One motive drives me towards chocolate ice cream, another towards vanilla, and yet another set of health-conscious motives drives me towards the tofu-berry sherbet.

The determinist takes the view that, as my various motives compete with each other, I will be forced to act upon which ever motive is the strongest at that time. If my motive to select chocolate ice cream is more overpowering, that is what I will select. No matter how many times the hands of time are reversed, I will always select chocolate since the desire for chocolate is the strongest motive in my mind each time that moment of action replays. However, the free will advocate sees our final decision-making process differently.

Yes, my various motives mechanically pile up within my mind, and some are stronger than others. But I am able to thoughtfully pick through my competing motives and freely select one over the others, even one of the weaker ones. In essence, I have the ability to break the rigid chain of motives in my mind and act as I choose. Even if my strongest motive at the moment is to select chocolate ice cream, I can resist this and select vanilla if I want.

If time reverses and my motives line up again exactly the same way, this time I can select the healthier tofu-berry, even if I do not particularly like that flavor and it is the very weakest motive at that moment. We will examine five common arguments in support of this view. The first argument for genuine free will is straight forward: at least sometimes when I perform actions, I have a feeling of making a genuinely free choice.

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Throughout the day there are thousands of small decisions I make: what to eat, what to wear, what to read, who to talk to. As I navigate through this ocean of choices, I typically feel very much in control of what I do. When I decide to order chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, it feels like the choice is within my control and I could have done otherwise. Sometimes I even consider very methodically the pros and cons of each option, and select the one that I want.

With ice cream, I might weigh factors such as health, cost, or which item I will enjoy more. Not only do I evaluate these factors, but I feel as though I am in control of how much priority I give to each factor. Sometimes health matters more to me than taste, other times taste more than health. Throughout this process, the very last thing I feel is that I am robotically programmed to select the options that I do. The argument from the feeling of freedom, then, is this:. Sometimes when I perform actions I have a feeling of freedom.

This feeling of freedom is the result of making genuinely free choices. Therefore, sometimes when I perform actions I am making genuinely free choices. But as compelling as this argument seems, it does not settle the issue, and it may well be that our so called "feelings of freedom" have nothing to do with any underlying capacity within the agent to make genuinely free choices.

Imagine that I attended a hypnotism demonstration and am selected as a volunteer subject. But clearly I am not performing a free action: the hypnotist has programmed me to perform that specific task. What is happening, according to the determinist, is that I am conscious of only a small amount of my mental processes, most of which take place at a deeper level than I can consciously experience. It is something like a mug of root beer that bubbles up creating foam on top; the foam is what we are aware of, and the bubbly liquid beneath is what we are not.

The real decision making process takes place below the surface, and what we consciously experience at the higher level is irrelevant. A psychological experiment by Benjamin Libet makes this point. People were connected to electroencephalogram machines and asked to perform specific actions. The people reported a conscious triggering of their actions a quarter second before the actions occurred. However, the machines spotted a unique brain activity a half second before the action. The point is that the conscious feeling occurs after the brain already initiates the action.

The brain first unconsciously sets the course of action, only after that the conscious feeling of choice emerges, and then finally the action itself takes place.