Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | August 1, 2014

On Free Will

A friend shared a great little article this morning — Free Will and Predetermination. It helped me crystallize my objections to a recurring argument against “free will.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

S. Are you so sure, my dear fellow? Let us examine this matter more closely. Sit down a while. You say you think; where does the thought that you have, come from, in the first instance? Where does it arise?

A. From me, of course.

S. From Me. Tell me, who is this Me? Can you find him inside? Now watch closely. Where do thoughts actually come from? Be very honest.

A. Well, surprisingly they seem to arrive from nowhere, out of the blue. From the Gods, perhaps.

S. Now you see that you did not create the initial thought. It arrives from you know not where. Then what happens?

A. It commences the faculty of reasoning.

This is an argument from lack of evidence — an argument from ignorance. It’s also a great example of our tendency to assume that ignorance is indicative — i.e., that it informs us about things — when by definition ignorance is none other than the lack of information that might indicate anything at all. In other words, we get it exactly backwards.

So, this is not just wrong — it’s as wrong as could be.

By definition, any conclusions drawn in ignorance are speculative — i.e., based on presupposition or imagination. As such, there is just as much (or just as little) evidence for an alternate or opposing position: that there are undetected, subconscious factors, inherent parts of “me” that indeed do create the initial thought. This is actually what Libet showed, that “unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts,” which implies that they are my acts, since they are acts of my brain. Therefore, they are acts instigated by me. (See Implications of Libet’s experiments.)

Since we have no evidence in fact for preferring one presupposition over another — precisely because they are presuppositions — preference for either represents bias.

This indicates a likely origin for the ancient notion of “spirits” and other intangible entities that supposedly instigate activity in tangible entities: grasping at straws from a state of ignorance.

The following fallacies are involved in the failed argument that not knowing where thoughts come from means that they originate outside our volition:

  1. Not knowing =/= nothing to be known.

    Not knowing where thoughts come from does not mean that they come from nowhere or nothing, nor does it indicate that they come from elsewhere or others. Instead, it means that we have no basis in fact for making any claim about their origins or who/what created them.

  2. Lack of evidence =/= evidence of lack.
  3. Our state of knowledge (or ignorance) is no indication of the likelihood of a presupposition, let alone its likelihood compared to that of another.
  4. Presenting a presupposition as if it were a conclusion requires logically assuming the conclusion in the premise and cloaking it in sophistry.

I’d love to hear your reactions. Refute this if you can! 🙂


  1. I found “unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts,” which implies that they are my acts…” to be quite interesting. Because I think that when most of us are asked “who are you?” it’s likely that what we identify with most commonly is the conscious-self. So, if “I” believing myself to be that which is conscious, cannot be aware of what is unconscious in “MY” brain which acts, then it appears there are two “Me’s.” The unconscious actor and the conscious interpreter.

    A question that has always interested me in terms of where thoughts come from has also been, how many of our thoughts are in the form of words? Probably most. So, what would the relationship be between where thoughts come from and where the language we think with comes from that we’ve learned?

    • Hey Jack! Nice to meet you! 🙂

      I like your thinking and your questions.

      There are probably more than just two “me’s” — who knows? Especially when it comes to the unconscious, we have little clue what’s in there, let alone how many.

      I like the idea of personas, because it’s fairly neutral and jives with a lot of human experience that we tend not to notice connections between, e.g., childhood role playing, multiple personalities (“disorder” is our default pejorative until we start understanding what they ARE doing instead of criticizing them for not doing what we want,) moods, states of mind, etc. We become different “people” depending on a variety of factors, sometimes even to the point that “it’s just not like him,” or “he’s just not himself”, lol. Personas rationalize and integrate all that in a way that retains our independent agency (rather than making us feel like droids, haha.)

      I think that the proportion between verbal and other-than-verbal thought probably changes depending on how familiar we are with the depths of our own psyches and where we prefer to spend our time. I’m a writer, so I put a lot of heart and soul into words, but what I write about is mostly non-verbal when it occurs to me. I’m pretty visual, but I can’t even say that I think in pictures. It’s more like I think in relationships or connections. I don’t have clear visuals about what is being connected, just that I know what they are and what the connections do. How I know this is a mystery still. The deeper I go, the less verbal things become — a bit analogous to how logic and physics break down in dreams. Much of anyone’s thinking is visual, which antedates linguistic abilities (unless we think that kids don’t think until they learn to talk.) Intuitions, premonitions, chills down our spines, skin crawling, etc., all involve our psyches non-verbally to a point. But if we spend most of our time in verbal activities, it would follow that most of our thinking would be verbal, too, I think.

      Of course, if “thought” means “thinking about” then we’ve defined thought as an abstraction — a mental representation that refers to something else. I think that thought is also an experience in its own right. Just as a brain teaser, what are we doing when we’re trying to “find the words” to say something? What is it that we’re looking for words to express, and what does it consist of? We could say that it’s an idea. OK. Does the idea consist of words, or is it more accurate to say that we express it in words? If it consisted of words, why would we have to grope for words to express it?

      These deeper aspects of our psyches are what “soul” and “spirit” seem to refer to. Paul the apostle even mentioned “speaking spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” as if it were an entirely different and discrete plane of discourse.

      Another outlier is sex. When we make love to our partner, how much of the communication is verbal? I suppose some people talk a lot during sex, but that’s probably rare. Most of the interaction isn’t verbal, even though much of it is conscious. As we sense, respond, and intend/plan/act, are we using words? Do we actually think the words, “Now I should touch there,” or “Maybe I should rub here,” or “That’s enough”? I think most of that thought activity takes place sublingually (and I don’t mean under the tongue, although that can be interesting, too! 😉 ) Or food. When we’re letting some wonderful chocolate melt on our tongue, enjoying the flavor and the consistency, savoring it, aren’t we “thinking?” How many words are involved in that?

      LOL! As with most of this kind of stuff, questions seem to outpace answers by a wide margin…

      So what do you think? Obviously, ya got me going! 🙂

  2. If I’m understanding correctly we are staying that an original thought comes to us freely from within ourself .ie it arises from a “free will”. I believe that is what free will is. It makes sense to me. Might I then suggest that the original free thought or idea then developes, eventually often resulting in action or argument, very much influenced by the knowledge we have gained and the experience/s we have had in our journey of life. Does our God then not try to ensure that the knowledge we acquire and the experience we have are true and good by His personally giving us such knowledge and experience through his teachings as God Become Man ie Jesus Christ? Could that not be why God gave us a free will: that we may CHOOSE to know, understand and live in Him here and now in this life he gave us here now in this world?

    • Ray, nice to hear from you here! 🙂

      Although I’m not a Christian, I do believe much of what you posed in your comment. And then there was Calvin, lol. He made a good case for virtually no “free will” at all. We might disagree with him (I do) but his basic arguments are sound, given his presuppositions.

      As for the free will question itself, I consider it a sterile one, precisely because one’s opinion on the matter arises necessarily from the presuppositions he prefers. For example, those who decry free will make the assumption that “free” entails “consciousness.” No, not necessarily. But once you accept that presupposition, you suddenly find yourself without much ground to stand on to advocate free will, because MOST of our decision processes occur subliminally (the take-away from Libet’s work.) But not being “conscious” does not mean they don’t occur, nor does it mean that we have no “will” involved — just that it isn’t simplistically and directly traceable to the decision/choice given what we know at this point. Another battle of the presuppositions, much like the “mind/body problem” and the completely misguided debate between evolutionists and creationists/ID-ists.

      The free will argument is interesting to me as an example of how much mileage people can get out of so little gas, so to speak. Socially and cognitively fascinating, but philosophically flat.

Please let me know what you think!

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