Ingersoll: Free Will

Commenting on the notion of free will, 19th century American thinker Robert G. Ingersoll writes, “People are under the necessity of feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves. To the extent of their actual wants, they are not free. Every limitation is a master. Every finite being is a prisoner, and no man has ever yet looked above or beyond the prison walls.” In this video, we will discuss Ingersoll’s argument that free will does not exist.

Ingersoll likens the will, or the moral compass of an individual, to the compass of a ship. “The compass does not navigate the ship; neither does it determine the direction that is taken. When winds and waves are too powerful, the compass is of no importance. The pilot may read it correctly, and may know the direction the ship ought to take, but the compass is not a force. So men, blown by the tempests of passion, may have the intellectual conviction that they should go another way; but, of what use, of what force, is the conviction?”

People who are addicted to drugs are strong evidence in support of Ingersoll’s conclusion. Some drug addicts know that they will die if they continue to abuse drugs. They wish that they could stop using drugs, but their insatiable desire to get high overrides their will to quit. Although one can argue that drugs inhibit a person’s free will, this is exactly the point that Ingersoll is making. Not just drugs, but any passion or desire whatsoever inhibits a person’s free will. No man is free from passion and desire; and therefore, no man is free.

Still, some might argue that desires are merely limiting factors of the will, and that a strong will can overcome any desire. In response to this criticism, Ingersoll responds that the will itself is not within one’s control. In other words, a man cannot even control his own thoughts. To illuminate this assertion, Ingersoll provides an anecdote about a dream that he once had.

“I had a dream, in which I debated a question with a friend. I thought to myself: “This is a dream, and yet I can not tell what my opponent is going to say. Yet, if it is a dream, I am doing the thinking for both sides, and therefore ought to know in advance what my friend will urge.” But, in a dream, there is some one who seems to talk to us. Our own brain tells us news, and presents an unexpected thought.”

Thus, men are not masters of their minds. They do not control the thoughts that arise and vanish in quick succession throughout the day, just as they do not control the thoughts that arise and vanish in quick succession while dreaming. Men are inactive spectators of the tragedies and the comedies that are performed on the stage of the world.

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30 thoughts on “Ingersoll: Free Will

    • Tough question. I know that my decisions are largely influenced by my genetics and past experiences. I know that my subconscious – something over which I have no control – plays a very important role in my decision making process. I know that studies have demonstrated that people make decisions before they are aware of having made them.

      Despite all this, I cannot shake the visceral feeling of free will. Nor can I answer the hard problem of consciousness – which, if I could, would likely shed light on the problem of free will. As of now, I am truly undecided. I don’t know whether we have free will.

      In regards to practical applications, I disagree with those who believe that free will is necessary to justify punishing a criminal. We do not assume that dogs have free will – in the human sense – and yet we put down dogs that are violent.

      • The question has never been ‘if free will does not exist, should we punish criminals’, but rather ‘if free will does not exist, is the notion of just punishment coherent?’ You can put a dog down who is violent, but would you go around saying that the dog was guilty of violating some higher moral law? In other words, if a person cannot help but do what they do, should they be blamed for it, or does the the ‘guilt’ lose meaning?

      • A “just” penalty seeks to repair the harm to the victim, correct the future behavior of the offender, protect society until the behavior is corrected, and do nothing more than is reasonably required to accomplish those things. In this way justice balances the rights of the victim, society, and the offender.

        Rehabilitation presumes free will. The goal is to release the offender back to society after he demonstrates the ability to choose better (legal) options on his own. This may involve filling gaps in education, skills training, treating drug addiction, counseling, and post-release follow-up programs.

        In the case of the driver who was hijacked and forced to help the Boston Marathon bomber to escape, all that is required is to remove the source of coercion, and the driver will behave legally again of his own free will.

  1. Freewill is an illusion. Everything in the universe is predetermined including how one ought to be born and how one ought to die.

    • Determined by what? Hopefully not mindless, natural causation, for there’s no reason to think such a thing could ‘determine’ true thoughts occurring in our brains – which would, of course, invalidate both our arguments.

      • Quantum physics has taught us that the universe is not all that comfortable with things that can be “determined.” It is at its creative best when probability and and possibility work together. Excellent book on the matter, “The God Problem.” It’s reviewed on my site.

      • Determined by properties inherent in them and in the universe. A “causation” need not have a biologic “mind.” For instance, celestial bodies that hit the earth surface cannot be traced to any mind.

        This reminds me of Descartes’s famous (and ludicrous) statement: “I think therefore I am.” Which implies that the “I” is a subject of the predicate “Think.” So in effect, he is saying his thinking preceded his existence.

  2. All of our desires are us. Both the desire to smoke another cigarette and the desire to quit for good happen in our own selves. Choosing for ourselves what we will do next determines our will at that moment. And, unless we are forced by someone else to choose or to act against our will (unfree will), then we are free to follow our own will (free will).

    Every decision we make of our own free will is also inevitable. After all, at the moment of our choosing, the values we assign to each option, and our reasons and feelings about each option, will determine what we choose to do. And, upon reflection, we may see why this choice was inevitable at that time.

    We are always interested in the specific causes of our choices. The causes give us useful information and that gives us more realistic expectations and greater control of ourselves.

    But the fact of inevitability itself is pretty useless. After all, the fact that everything that happens is inevitable tells us nothing that will help us make a decision, because it applies equally to both choices. If you can tell me in advance which choice is inevitable, then you’d save me having to deliberate and choose. But if you tell me only that, whichever choice I make will turn out to have been inevitable, then you’ve told me squat.

    So, while it is true that both autonomy and inevitability are simultaneously true in every decision we make for ourselves, only the fact of it being authentically our own choice is meaningful and relevant.

    The fact of inevitability is best acknowledged and then ignored. It’s useless.

    Oh, one more thing, we know that deliberately choosing for ourselves is an act of free will, by definition. And we also know that the event deterministically reduces multiple options into a single choice. So we know the event takes place in objective reality. And, thanks to neuroscience, we also know that it happens in the physical reality of the brain. So free will cannot be called an “illusion”.

    • Not all of our desires are us. There are certain desires that are not earthly, like the desire for extreme self sacrifice/selflesslessness, the source is certainly not of this world. Anyone evidently possessing such a desire is seen in different light.

      Then again what we call the “self” is not all us considering the fact that we are always under heavy burden to be internally balanced when making ethical decisions. This system of affairs exists even among hardened criminals. The workaround? They trick their minds with drugs and alcohol before commiting their crimes.

      Lastly, the doctrine of freewill can best be illustrated by the actions of mice in a lab. The mice may make their way a thousand times through the tunnels in a maze and convince themselves that they are following their freewill but the scientist who is observing knows that they are simply running through an endless loop of carefully constructed, in other words, predertermind tunnels. Freewill with limitations mean determinism. Ultimate freewill, in relation to the universe, is therefore an illusion.

      • Often our desires are at odds with each other, like the desire to quit smoking and the desire to light up. When I finally quit smoking it was not a single decision but multiple decisions not to light up in all those circumstances where I habitually did. It took many attempts to break free of the habit.

        And our decisions are not always rational or in our own best self-interest.

        I don’t think of free will as a “doctrine”. To me it is more like a concept of normal daily speech. For example, the words “voluntary” and “autonomy” refer to free will in their dictionary (SOED) definitions. When the Boston Marathon bomber hijacked a car and forced the driver to help him get away, the driver was not acting of his own free will, and thus was not guilty in aiding the escape.

        I agree with you that “ultimate” or “absolute” freedom would be an illusion. No one can be free from causation, or free from being oneself, or free from reality. The illusion of a conflict between determinism and free will is caused by replacing ordinary freedom with one or more of the three imaginary, irrational freedoms.

        For example, when we set a bird free from a cage, do we say the bird is not really free because he is still subject to cause and effect? No. The idea would be irrational, because without reliable cause and effect, what would happen when he flapped his wings? Nothing reliable! (Perhaps he would become a rabbit).

        Our “maze” would be the limits of ourselves and reality. And those two freedoms are also irrational and imaginary. However, we are free to make some changes to ourselves, by learning new things and new skills, by seeking aid through counseling, by exercising and eating better, etc. And we do have considerable freedom to change the real world. We clear fields and plant crops, we form communities, states, and nations, we land a man on the moon, and heck, we even raise the temperature of our planet.

        But all that we do is reasonably limited by the nature of ourselves and the nature of the world in which we find ourselves.

      • I think there is freewill in Jurisprudence and freewill in the general or broad scheme of things. I am speaking of the latter. It is also clear that the driver in the Boston Marathon incident acted under “duress” and that is obviously pardonable in law. Even then he still needs to prove that he acted not out of his freewill.

        Mother Nature or the universe on the other hand does not pardon. The rules are laid out, you either obey or perish. BUT if you could align your will to the universal rules then you will feel no restriction at all. It’s just like hanging on to a train headed for the same destination as you.

        Our thinking is shaped by the environment. Everything we do is therefore a reaction to the external world. Our emotions or desires do not necessarily conflict, instead they run parallel to each other. What appears to be a conflict in desire is actually a gradual “switch from one lane to the other” and so old desires at any point in time, can reappear when conditions are favorable and the individual switches back at a later time.

        Lastly, I believe all the “progress” of our human communities which you described are actually reactions to possibly one universal action or “causation” (to put in your term) which branches into many life forms. And it came about as a result of some basic intelligent design. You will agree that if there is a pattern, then there is design.

        Alas! the oriental poet sung: “Drink wine and look at the moon and think of all the civilizations the moon has seen passing by.”

  3. I have to agree that free will does not appear to be an absolute. There are things over which we have no control. Ask someone who is subject to depression — you cannot “decide” to not be depressed. I think, though, that there is much we do have control over and with each choice we make we collapse the options for further choices. Perhaps the storm will drive the ship of the intended course; however it is also possible that the captain has some choice in course or in timing. This is not an on-off switch – I think it’s more like a dimmer.

  4. I think free will exists and the absolutism of Ingersoll seems to be far too rigid. Free will in the extreme case can exist on one end of the spectrum of an individual of strong constitution and living in a free society with institutions and frameworks that allow individual freedoms and expression and the ability to pursue their own desired path. In the example of the ship compass navigating in an ocean, there are those that are capable of improving their ship so that it can sail faster and so that it can withstand stronger gales out in the open sea. Even in dire circumstances, one can always exhibit some instances of free will. Take a modern day example of an oppressed soul in Syria that makes the personal decision to flee to safer shores and to begin life anew. This seems far from a predetermined course. Or to use the drug example, there are some that decide to eradicate their habits and to choose a better path. I have no doubt that there may be something genetic in these forces, but one can witness children that go through a crucible of terrible childhoods and one sibling comes out of the end of it with tremendous grace, grit, and determination while the other siblings are cratered by the experience. In these situations, it would seem that with remarkably similar genetic code and all sailing their ship in the same ocean that there can be remarkably different outcomes. I can only attribute this to free will. We may all start life in different oceanic environments and we may all begin with vastly different ships, but there exists a wide range of ability in many of these oceans to make free decisions to improve or destroy our own lots.

    • I am struggling to see how your position is different from that of Ingersoll. He wrote he didn’t believe anyone had freewill, you believe we have freewill. How is his position rigid and yours flexible?

      • Quite simply, Ingersoll’s position seems to be on one end of a pole in which man truly has no free will and that all of our actions are seemingly predetermined in some tragicomic scripted play. I do appreciate his ship in an ocean analogy, but I would argue that our free will is such that we can either sit on our ship and do nothing about our situation, or we can busy ourselves with improving our ship and seeking better waters within which to navigate. I am no on the opposite end of Ingersoll in believing that we have perfect free will, clearly being born in Germany and being born in Zimbabwe and being born to wealthy and loving parents contrasted to being born to a poor single mother are examples of how our fates can be somewhat predetermined, but not completely scripted, The persecuted family in Zimbabwe can find means to emigrate and chart a better course. The person born into a low state can persevere, develop grit, find ways to fund their secondary education and thrive (at least in some societies, but not all). The choice to thrive or not thrive is largely within us and highly dependent upon our attitudes and outlooks on life and our grit and gumption. I don’t think these things are entirely predetermined.

      • Again I think you are wrong. Ingersoll doesn’t say the fate is predetermined or scripted. All he says is that it is determined, that is, it has causes. All the examples you give presume that only if a person could have a lot of freewill they would get out of poverty

      • So long as his position leaves room for individual choice and a stochastic process that includes an individual choice (I believe we can in fact, purge our mind of harmful thoughts, of dedicating our lives to improvement and the control of our minds and bodies and our fates) then I don’t necessarily disagree with him. His compass anecdote to me reads as if he is far more deterministic than I believe our lives are, but this is admittedly only within the confines of the original blog post, so I may not appreciate the full measure and nuance of Ingersoll’s beliefs on this subject.

      • But everything has causes. To say something has causes is a tautology. The important thing is what is causes something. All biological organisms, for example, are purposeful causal agents. They have a built-in need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This animates them to find food, water, and other essentials within their environment. This drive comes with the organism itself and exists solely within the organism, and in no other place in the universe.

  5. It seems to me that Ingersoll is a “glass is half-empty” kind of guy, a pessimist. He seems to feel hopelessly imprisoned by our deterministic universe.

    The “glass half-full” guy, on the other hand, would see a deterministic universe as the opportunity to make stuff happen, to be an active cause rather than a passive effect.

    Note that the article is specifically concerned with drug addiction. And that may lead to a sense of pessimism and lack of self-control. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of planning to overcome an addiction. But it is possible.

    On Dr. David Eagleman’s PBS series, “The Brain”, he uses the fMRI to provide cocaine addicts a special kind of bio-feedback. It lets them see both their self-control and their addiction visually. Apparently he’s used this to help many addicts kick a bad habit.

    • Dr. Eagleman is one of my all time heroes. He has conducted a great deal of research on how the brain works and why we do what we do. Including some very solid theories on the causes of schizophrenia. In all cases he studies to see how we can alter aberrant behavior. He would not be deterministic, he works to provide choices.

      • I only heard about him through the recent PBS series “The Brain”.

        I tend to be a “compatibilist”. I believe in reliable cause and effect (determinism). But I also believe that we are causal agents. The choosing that takes place as a mental process in our brains is what ends up determining what happens next. So it is still us in the driver’s seat actually deciding which possibility becomes inevitable reality and which remain only possibilities.

        It may sound strange at first, but every decision that we make of our own free will is also inevitable.

        My impression is that the surveys suggest that most people recognize both determinism and free will.

      • I think that quantum physics has taught us a lot along that line. Each choice reduces the possible choices in any chain of events. That said there is always the one choice that available that breaks the chain and starts a new one. Eagleman has also appeared on a number of “Through the Wormhole” series. The brain and its yet-to-be-known functions is a focus of mine. My husband had a Ph.D. in Philosophy and worked for years in artificial intelligence. We had many,long, long talks. He recently died from vascular dementia so that, again, drove me to study what we know of the brain.

      • My 95 year old mom is living with me now. She gets along fairly well with some assistance, but is also subject to benign hallucinations and wakes up from a nap a little disoriented and sometimes carries the dream with her for awhile. But she can fix her own lunch and take care of most of her personal needs without assistance.

  6. I believe passions, desires, emotions, thoughts can be brought under submission. I’m not saying it’s easy but it requires self-control and training. When that is done free will can truly be experienced. I would suggest reading “Harnessing Your Emotions” by Andrew Wommack.

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