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Can You Choose What You Want?

By Bruce Barbour - September 2023 (Version 1.2)


There is a statement that is often used by supporters of determinism to supposedly show that human life is fully determined. That Statement is:

"A person can choose to do what they want but they cannot choose what they want."

There are various other forms of this using different words but the meaning is more or less the same. An early version was attributed to the pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer.

Here is a link to a Youtube video that propounds the view. The presenter, Alex O'Connor, goes through the argument so watch it if you want the case for the affirmative.

I want to look at the Statement more thoroughly. Most people, including supporters of free will or determinism, will agree with the first part of the Statement. The issue is with the second part of the Statement: - the person "cannot choose what they want." Is this correct or not?

What should be acknowledged - and is routinely not by commentators/philosophers such as shown in the Youtube video - is that there are different types of "wants". The different types of wants are based on:
  • goals; and
  • likes and desires.


The easiest way to explain this is to look at an example.

One example that a lot of people either would have experienced, or are perhaps currently experiencing, would be a goal to travel overseas. It may be in the form: "Next year I want to travel to Europe for a holiday".

My initial analysis is that this want is a choice that the person has made. It seems to me, as a supporter of the free will hypothesis, to be a free will choice, a conscious choice. The person has decided to go overseas next year and will plan and work towards that goal/want in the run up period. If that is so the second part of the Statement would be wrong. However I need to examine it more closely to look at the the background to this goal, this want. I do  agree that the decision usually would not come out of nowhere.

What is this goal based on? What is it's cause? Could it be thought of as being determined?

There could be some sort of learning experience in the past. This could be watching a travel documentary or listening to members of their peer group who may also be planning to go overseas. This could certainly be the seed of the idea. It might be that the person feels peer pressure to go overseas, because all their friends are doing it. However ultimately there is nothing forcing the person to decide they will go overseas. In fact there are factors that may be discouraging the person from going overseas - the cost, the effort to plan and organise the trip, nervousness about the unknown, going by themself, and other factors as well. A conscious choice needs to be made, weighing up all the pros and cons and coming to a conclusion. To go in six months or not. The goal seems to me to be a reasonable example of a free will choice.

Supporters of determinism would undoubtedly disagree with me. Perhaps they would cite some genetically or learnings based need for the person to show their independence, to "spread their wings". Or that the peer group pressure and the travel documentary was sufficient to be the cause of the want.

Planning and setting goals is a big part of life.

Likes and Desires

Again the easiest way to explain this is to look at a simple example.

A person goes into a cafe to buy a coffee. They look at the menu of say ten different coffee choices. They choose a cappuccino. Why did they do this? Is it determined? This "want" comes from the person's personal preferences. Prima facie there is a case that the decision may be determined. there is certainly a reason for the choice but that does not necessarily mean it is hard determined. It could instead be logically determined - decided on the basis of reason. 

I will consider how this "want" developed over the longer term, in fact the whole of life, to tease out whether the choice or want in the present moment can still be considered determined or whether free will played any part?

Let's look at the history of this want. At some stage in the past when the person was (much) younger they have never had a coffee purchased from a cafe. How do they choose? There is no personal preference. If they are with someone might choose to have whatever the other person likes. In this case their decision is determined by their friend's preference. But say they are not with a friend. They just have to decide what to choose from the cafe menu. They want and subsequently choose white coffee no sugar.

The person has no obvious preference. How do they choose? It might be random choice, or they could take the first coffee on the menu, or a number of other ways. Is this a free choice or was it hard determined?

If this initial choice was determined it is difficult to see what was the strong causal factor. Supporters of determinism will still say it was determined. By something. They might then suggest what the determining cause was but it would not be something that was provable. For the supporters of determinism there is always a determining cause even when this cause is not apparent to another impartial observer or to the person that made the choice. This is part of the problem with the determinism hypothesis. It is not falsifiable(1).

A person that supports free will would say the person freely chooses which coffee to order. For the sake of balance I have to say that free will is also not falsifiable(1). However, that said, it must be one or other of these two alternatives, determined or chosen by free will. Which is more likely?

Back to the coffee conundrum. The first time the person chose they chose white no sugar. It was OK but not great. Second time they go in to the cafe they decide to try something else - a macchiato. Their choice is only informed by their less than fantastic experience with white coffee no sugar. They like the macchiato better. This preference may well be because of genetics and learned experience with other tastes. Third time they decide to try something different again because they realise that while macchiato was quite good there might be something better available. So this time they choose cappuccino with two sugars. They really like this, much more than their previous choices. The fourth time even though they liked cappuccino they might keep exploring the menu. And for a couple of subsequent coffee purchases as well.

Eventually, after having exhausted the coffee menu, they decide that they like cappuccino with two sugars the best. Consequently it is most likely from then on that they will choose cappuccino when they go to a cafe, even though they are not bound to make that choice and on occasions will chose something else.

The supporter of determinism when looking at the person's present day choice of the cappuccino will point to this and say, "see, their choice of coffee was determined. They could not but choose cappuccino." They would argue that the final preference for cappuccino was determined by the person's likes and dislikes. These likes and dislikes are not chosen by the person. They are determined by the person's genetics with perhaps some input from the person's upbringing. The person has no control over either of these aspects.

There are two issues with this. The first issue is that it fails to account for the history of this choice. The person many years ago went through a process of learning about which coffee they like. They utilise this learning for the majority of their coffee choices from then on. The method of learning was a series of trial and error that involved choice, and I would say free will choice. The subsequent coffee choices use that learning, in preference to a random pick and getting something that the person knows is not going to be as good as cappuccino. Also imagine a situation where they did not for whatever reason actually try a cappuccino. They would have decided on another favourite coffee type and would choose this most of the time, instead of cappuccino.

The second issue is related to an issue that I brought up in my earlier article on "Determinism and Freewill". The issue involves what I called logical determinism in the article (in conjunction with psychological determinism). In the article I argue that in most circumstances a person with free will would make exactly the same choice as a person whose life is fully determined. This is because the chosen choice, the cup of cappuccino coffee, is in the best interests of the person and is therefore a logical choice to make regardless of agency. If a hypothetical person with free will and a hypothetical person whose life is determined are likely to make the same choice as each other how can it be decided from this situation that the person's life is determined rather than guided by free will agency? It can't be. The type of argument that says "all decisions made on the basis of reason are determined and this consequently proves determinism" is a logical fallacy. It is certainly not a proof.

The Meaning of "Determined"

A further part of the problem with the determinism/free will debate is the inexactitude of the word "determined". The word is used in different contexts that have different meanings, not excessively different but still different. For example (A) Rail lines determine where the train goes and (B) the situation where what to do on a day is determined by the weather.

The rail tracks hard determine where the train goes. The weather determines some of the options that could be done on the day. If it is an overcast or windy day a person might decide not to go on a walk. However it is a softer meaning of the word determined. A person still has a choice. They could still put on a jacket and go for a walk regardless of the inclemency. The train just goes where the rail tracks go. The difference is that in the second option (weather) there is a possibility of choice. In the first option (train on rail tracks) there is no possibility of choice.

Perhaps for the second option it could be said that the weather influenced, rather than determined, what was going to be done on the day. If the weather was really bad, cold, raining and blowing a gale then determined might be the appropriate word. But if is just cold and a little bit windy then the weather is an influencing factor on the choice of whether to go for a walk or not. Some people might still decide to go on the walk and some wouldn't, so the weather is not a determining factor. As per my previous article the weather is a stimuli. And stimuli are not determining. Whether the walk occurs at all is due to a thought process, not the stimuli.

Supporters of determinism don't acknowledge any difference between the different meanings of determined. Consequently they will argue that because the rail tracks determine where the train goes therefore the weather determines what the person does. Same word but a slightly different meaning. In their argument they are both determined with no consideration of the impact of the possibility of choice in the second option.

Total Free Will

Some supporters of determinism debunk what they call "total free will" and then, as a consequence of this, go on and say any type or scope of free will has no substance. That jump cannot be supported. I don't think people have total free will. In the extreme total free will would require the person to have god like powers to be able to bend and cancel the laws of nature. That is impossible. People don't even have total free will associated with their own bodies. They can't will their heart to stop - thank goodness - though some yogis can slow it down. They can't stop shivering when they get very cold or perspiring when they get hot. If a person stops breathing through an effort of will they will go unconscious and then start to breathe again. A lot of the time people would "run on automatic" without having to think much.

Total free will does not exist. What concerns me is any instance of free will. If an instance of free will occurs in any circumstance then free will exists and universal determinism is broken - though partial determinism would continue.

Complex Decision Making

Supporters of determinism have co-opted the act of reasoning as an argument for their cause. Any decision that arises out of an act of reasoning is thought by the supporters of determinism to be determined. They would say "See, you admit there is a reason you did that. It was therefore determined."

Reasoning uses learnings, current and old, to solve problems, come to conclusions and make decisions. If the problem is simple then I can see why it could be argued to be determined. However consider a complex problem. There are a large numbers of learnings and facts to be taken into account. Some of those learnings and facts might contradict. There might be parts of the problem where the facts and learnings are incomplete. If the problem is urgent sometimes a decision still needs to be made as there isn't time to get more complete information. There are choices to be made about what weighting or credence to give to different pieces of information which may contradict and what to do about missing information. Sometimes the decision process could take days or months or longer as various options are thought through. Two people looking at the same set of facts might come up with different decisions. Sometimes decisions are made by a group of people, each working through the issues, researching  and discussing possible solutions and other options with their colleagues.

While I am sure the supporters of determinism would still argue that the decision was determined it is less than clear to me. It is another case of the unfalsifiability of determinism. Supporters just claim its all determined without offering further proof. If they are further pressed they might mention the ubiquity of cause and effect in the Universe at large without entertaining the possibility that extrapolation of cause and effect into the complexity human consciousness and brain is risky without substantial proof.

Supporters of free will would say it is just another example of a human free agent doing what a human does. (And yes - again without further proof.) And supporters of free will will also say that they use reason and it in no way impinges on their free will. In fact reason enhances their free will experience because it allows them to make logical choices rather than random choices. It allows them to control the direction of their life, to decide on goals, instead of just being tossed around in the sea of life.

Minimal Likes, Desires and Goals

A couple of days ago I went out for a walk. It was a lovely day. Temperature of 22 or 23 degrees, blue skies with the a few small white cloud dotted around. There was the faintest of breeze. The walk was through a large parkland area, mainly native Australian bush land. Halfway through the walk I sat on the seat thoughtfully provided by the parks authority. I just sat there for say ten minutes, enjoying the sun and the environment. Then I got up and continued the walk, returning home.

The supporters of determinism would tell me that this is all determined. The initial decision to go on the walk, the decision to sit and then to get up and continue the walk after 10 minutes, not 9 minutes or 11 minutes but 10 minutes. I just can't see it. I had the feeling that I could have sat there for half an hour at least, but didn't. What is the determined causality. I made the decisions regarding the walk. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. I could have watched TV or read a book. On the walk, just before I got up from the seat to continue I would have had the thought that I will get up now. Just having that thought is sufficient for the supporters of determinism to say the action was determined by that thought. But what determined that thought? As a supporter of freewill hypothesis I say that I initiated that thought. There was no prior cause to that. Even though supporters of determinism can not tell me exactly, or even inexactly, what the prior cause of that thought was they will still say there was a cause for the thought, initiated somewhere deep in the brain, uncontrollable by me. That thought mandated my action. The idea that the thought could have been initiated by freewill agency is heretical to them.

A person with free will will utilise reasoning to decide on actions to be taken. A person that is leading a fully determined life will also act in accordance with reason. For a lot of the time how they act would be exactly the same. It is in situations like that outlined in this section where free will, through the process of self direction, may be seen more clearly to operate. There are many of these types of situations in life.

For example a person browsing a book shop without any clear idea of the book they are after, though they may have a genre or subject matter in mind. They pick a book after browsing a few from the hundreds that were of the right genre. That book could change their life - it has happened. The life change could be massive or small. This is self direction. The supporter of determinism's explanation is that the choice and ultimately that the particular life changing book was even in the store and found by the person was all prior determined.

Self direction can arguably also be seen in complex decision making - as discussed in the previous Section.

(1) Unfalsifiable does not mean that because it can't be proven false it is consequently correct. It means it can't be shown to be either false or correct - there is no way of presently knowing with certainty. The philosopher is left with arguments from reason. Some scientists say that a hypothesis that is unfalsifiable is not a valid scientific hypothesis because there is no experiment that can be done to prove or disprove the hypothesis. I do not go that far. To my mind free will and determinism should still be classed as scientific hypothesis. They need to be subject to scientific and other research investigation. While the hypotheses are not falsifiable at present, and this should be acknowledged - which it rarely is - they may be in the future. Researchers have to be looking for proof one way or the other, otherwise the hypotheses will never get past being unfalsifiable.

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