On definition

How are we to define a word?

Words are like tools, very flexible tools. The definition of a word changes dependent upon the use we put it to.

For example take the term “free-will”.

I have had a few exchanges with a fellow blogger about what free-will is. It’s funny because we both agree that determinism is true, that it is the explanation for choice. That is to say we both believe that choices are pre-determined. But we differ on the issue of free-will. I say we do not have free-will and he says we do have free-will.

The common conception of free-will is opposed to determinism. In fact one of the oldest debates in philosophy is the debate between free-will and determinism. So how can my friend maintain that free-will is true and determinism is true? With a certain amount of dishonesty. Or maybe not… maybe we are playing different games.

The game I am playing is one in which I am attempting to create a represention of the conceptual space. That is to say I am trying to understand, or rather enumerate in language what it is possible to conceive. I’m not so concerned with the truth or not of a proposition/concept whilst playing this game; rather I’m concerned with its intelligibility, with whether or not it does work as a concept.

What do I mean by work here? Well using the word free-will I will show what I mean by work. The work “Free-will” does is to express an area within the conceptual space called choice. The question: Why do we choose what we choose? Has three possible categories of answer. One is determinism: we choose what we choose because we are acting within a framework of causality and what has gone before determines what actions we will take. Another is free-will: our actions are based on our choices which aren’t based on anything – or rather the way they work is incomprehensible because we think only in terms of causality and something that isn’t causal isn’t capable of being represented with causal terms. The third way is chaos: our choices are undetermined and random. So here the work free-will does is to provide a space for a 3rd category of answer to the question: why do we choose what we choose?


To Be Continued….


14 thoughts on “On definition

  1. Okay, so you listed three options:
    1) Choices are deterministic.
    2) Choices are incomprehensible.
    3) Chaos reigns.

    We can discard (2) and (3).

    If you were to write down your options, and the criteria you used to judge between them, and the reason for your selection, you can actually observe your mental process and even show it to someone else. So we can discard (2) because choices are usually comprehensible.

    We can discard (3) because if chaos in fact reigns then everything has gone to hell and nothing matters anymore.

    The correct answer is that choices are deterministic. That means simply that there are reasons that we make our choices. They reflect our values or our desires or simply our best option as we see it at the time. The things we take into account during our mental consideration of our options are all part of the decision making process.

    The decision represents our will at that moment. If we are free to act upon our own will then we say that our will is free. But if we are coerced to act differently than we decided by someone else, then we are not acting of our free will.

    If someone holds a gun to your head and makes you commit a crime, then they are responsible for the crime and not you. Also, if you are mentally ill, such that your illness controls your choices, the method of correction would be a hospital rather than a prison.

    But if you are in your right mind, and you choose to commit a crime yourself, then you are held responsible — which means you are subject to correction by lawful penalty.

    As you can see, your choices are made according to your will, which is a decision made deterministically taking into account your reasons and your feelings.

    • Currently you’re talking sense – – – I gave three altenative theories for how choice could work in reality – – – Notice at the stage of production of theories truth is irrelevent – – – that is the next stage of the process.
      Before we can test for truth there needs to be things we can test for truth that is where theory making comes in.
      So using that – we produce 3 theories called determinism, free-will and chaos. These three theories offer 3 possible accounts for how choice happens. You wonderfully showed how theories 2 and 3 don’t match reality. On this we agree.

      Now when you start talking about free-will you err. You are basically saying “Oh shit we’re gonna have to modify the content of free-will in order to keep using it.”
      This isn’t needed. All because free-will is false doesn’t mean that we aren’t able to deliberate – – – in fact deliberation and other things such as will-power only work within the framework of determinism and not with-in the framework of free-will (which is defined by the 3 characteristics i mentioned in the next blog. That is to say that the debate between free-will and determinism has been using that definition of free-will.)

      I mean you’re just making a new definition for free-will. Which you can do but it’s dishonest to then say “Ahh I have solved the debate there is no contradiction between free-will and determinism!” And I’m like “What do you mean by free-will?” And you’re like “Free-will is when we are free to choose what we want!” and I’m like “Sorry dude that’s not the definition fo free-will we are using!”

      • I know how choice operates in reality. I can choose to have pizza or a hamburger or a salad for lunch. I decide to have pizza. (A) My wife says I have to have a salad. I’ll eat the darn salad, but not of my own free will. (B) My wife says I can have whatever I want. I eat the pizza of my own free will, and my diet goes out the window.

        All of this happens within a deterministic universe. For example, suppose we have an objective observer, with perfect knowledge of all of the relevant causes of my choice, all of the relevant characteristics of my personality, and all the relevant characteristics of my character. With that omniscience he has all the information required to predict what I will choose. And we’ll add to that sufficient power to calculate my choice in advance.

        (1) His reliable prediction of what I will choose is only possible because we live in a deterministic universe.

        (2) What I eat will be determined either by my own free will, or by my wife’s free will.

        Both concepts are active and meaningful. Neither destroys the other. Determinism and free will coexist compatibly.

        It is your definition of free will that is suspect. You wish to destroy it’s meaning by suggesting it is impossible to coexist with determinism.

        So this concept of free will, which our species has created for use in matters of justice and responsibility, would no longer exist if you had your way.

        Why would anyone go along with that?

      • Because it serves a function in enabling us to think thoughts we could otherwise not think. By equating free-will with choice we lose the ability to think of free-will seperate from choice – – it limits the possible conceptions through which we view choice. It enables us to make sense of a possible situation (such as one in which we knew all the bits and the laws that governed the bits yet choices couldn’t be explained)

        Justice is no longer based on free-will!!!! It is based upon protecting members of society and/or trying to reform people. In the past it was based on free-will – because free-will was believed it was seen as just to kill people in painful ways because they deserved to be hurt for their actions which they commited of their own free-will.
        When we dropped belief in free-will we started thinking of reformation, and social benefit instead of retributative justice.

      • The role of free will has not been abandoned in the judicial system. It plays a key role in determining an effective penalty. The fact that the offender chose to commit the crime of his own free will (as opposed to having a gun to his head or being controlled by a mental illness) means that a corrective penalty might effect a change in what he decides to do the next time.

        Of course, if the offender is incorrigible, then he cannot be corrected, and might need to be imprisoned permanently.

        But corrective penalty assumes he will think twice next time, and hopefully choose of his own free will not to commit the crime again. If his will is to continue to commit the crime, then we will imprison him longer on the second offense, and a third strike may take him out of society permanently.

        But if his will is now to make his way by honest means, then he is welcome back among us.

        And, again, deterministic cause and effect is working hand in hand with free will. His behavior causes us to apply corrective penalty. The penalty causes him to change his behavior. Ideally, after corrective penalty, he will choose for himself to behave better.

        We never dropped free will to get to reform. We never dropped free will to change from punitive to corrective penalties. It is specifically the will that is being corrected.

        If you drop his free will from the equation, then you must monitor him constantly and intervene to make the correct decision for him in every case where the temptation arises.

        The point of free will is that he chose to commit the crime on his own and after corrective penalty he will choose not to commit the crime on his own, by his own free will.

        No, we have not tossed the concept of free will. You may want to take Richard Carrier’s course on Free Will over at SecularActivism.org. He is repeating it in August.

      • What is is.

        A “philosophical” definition of something that cannot exist is useless. Therefore philosophy, if it is to be useful, must define terms in a meaningful way. Free will is clearly meaningful. And so is a deterministic universe. Since both can be observed in the empirical universe in which we live, the idea that they conflict must be an illusion.

      • I don’t think philosophy has to be useful. It has to concern itself with the truth – but the truth doesn’t have to be useful. I mean look at the majority of mathematics. The majority of that discipline is useless and very few pure mathematicians would say they are trying to be useful.
        When you say free-will you do not mean what people debating free-will and determinism mean. The concept free-will (the libetarian definition of it) is useful because it offers a third alternative to determinism and chaos. It may be that when we are able to observe all of reality and have figured out all the laws of reality that we will still not be able to predict human choice in which case free-will (the traditional definition) will offer a way of looking at it… it will provide a conceptual niche for it.
        Now I don’t believe that that conception of free-will exists in reality. But the scientific method is one in which you create competing theories for phenomena and test them against reality – – – the theory that fails is not real – yet it still has meaning!!!!

        Choice is what is observed – – – determinism and free-will are not directly observed – – they are an metaphysical entities (like all physical laws and theoritical entities) used to make sense of what is observed.

        I agree free will is meaningful – – – untrue but meaningful. As Ayer says (whos definition of meaningfulness you are so ineptly using :P) for a statement to be meaningful there must be a circumstance which would either proove or falsify it. The libetarian statement of free-will provides such a circumstance in the thought experiment where you imagine two possible worlds both the same but in one world a person makes one choice in the other another choice (well that could be accounted for by chaos as well but I’m not trying to defend free-will).

        Anyway Ayers verificationism has been binned because the criteria for verification cannot themselves be verified therefore they are meaningless by Ayer’s standards. Or you have to allow an exception and allowing exceptions is a slippery slope!

      • Oh and that course sounds to me like the courses a lot of the christian charismatic churchs have where they teach you how to make converts… You’re an ardent evangelist I’ll give you that :p (Tongue in cheek)

  2. Also why confuse things – – – we already have words for choice and deliberation…. choice and deliberation lol!!!!! if we include free-will as another word for choice or deliberation how are we to say something like “Free-will is why choice is unpredictable” It seems to me you are guilty of doing with concepts what the state in “1984” tries to do with words. That is you are decreasing the range of concepts we are able to communicate.

    • As you say, we have words for choice and deliberation. We also a word for “will”. In these discussions with you and with others on different sites, I’ve learned to define “will” more explicitly.

      There is the genetic programming in our DNA that constructs a body with basic needs for food, water, shelter from heat and cold, etc. And one of the parts of that body is a central nervous system that lets us know when we hunger or thirst, or burn or freeze. And a brain that produces a conscious mind which is capable not only of tactical planning, like pick apple from tree and eat, but also strategic planning, like join a tribe, acquire hunting or agricultural skills, get a degree, marry a cook, have kids to play with, etc.

      Those are all things that we consciously will (intend). It is interesting that “will” also implies future, such that one’s will may be defined as the future you intend to construct. Also a person leaves a “will” to tell everyone how he wants his assets divided in the future after he dies.

      So there is a basic intent to survive plus a conscious intent that chooses how to live and what to do.

      In a deterministic universe, does the will exist or not?

      • Yes there is a will – – – but the term free-will is not the combination of a common definition for both words!! Words don’t work that way. The meaning that a word has is arbitrary and is given by the people that use it.

        I think your problem is that you’ve linked the idea of coercion to the idea of determinism – coercion is something that can happen with determinism and free-will – – – people have mistakenly come to conflate overt coercion with determinism but the two are seperate concepts.

        So i think there is no overt control over our wills – we are “free” (if by free you mean no-one is stopping us) to choose what we want. But we are not talking about libetarian free-will (the free-will that is being discussed in the free-will vs determinism debate) we are talking about something else that has no bearing on the debate!
        but with this definition of freedom I see no reason to hold an insane person less responsible than a sane person (the distinction is arbitrary but still) because the insane person just like the sane person believes the he is making his choices… How do you justify this distinction in treatment based upon your conception of free-will?

      • First off, the debate as to whether free will exists or determinism exists is ridiculous. Both concepts describe aspects of the empirical world we live in. Cause and effect logically lead to deterministic inevitability. But our wills are just as much causes as they are effects. So our will is free to cause changes in the environment or changes in our behavior, as needed, to survive and live well.

        The debate is a fraud. Determinism says that everything is inevitable. Free will says I can choose what becomes inevitable. No decision becomes inevitable without a will making the decision. And still, the choice of the will is theoretically predictable in advance.

        When determinists create a free will that cannot exist in the deterministic universe, they create a straw man, a free will that exists for the purpose of disagreement and nothing else. When the free-willers define determinism in a way that excludes the causal effect of the will, they create a straw man, a determinism that exists for the purpose of disagreement and nothing else.

        Enough already.

      • Regarding responsibility, we generally “hold responsible” each of the causal factors that contributed to the harmful event to which we can pragmatically apply correction.

        The disease of the insane serial killer is held responsible to the extent that he is subject to correction in a hospital. The “sane” serial killer is held personally responsible to the extent that he is subject to correction in a correctional facility.

        In the Carrier class, we had readings from Supreme Court decisions. Here are my notes on one of them:

        Question 2: How does the legal system view “duress” and “free will”?

        In Grayson, the issue was whether a defendant, “driven by the urge to remain free”, should be allowed to lie under oath. The Supreme Court held that this was not duress, and that the defendant’s will was not predetermined by that “drive” such that he could not have chosen, of his own will, to tell the truth. In fact, the entire judicial system presumes that people have the capacity to consider their actions objectively, and to choose between good and evil.

        In Morissette, free will was also affirmed, and was considered in play except under the undue influence of someone else’s coercion or deception of the defendant.

        In Conley v Nailor, the Supreme Court used the phrase “in vinculis” meaning “in chains” to describe a will that was not free, but controlled by another’s will.

        In Kozminski, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that a slave was still free to disobey as long as he was willing to go to jail and/or give up his life. They said, “We can all agree that these choices are so illegitimate that any decision to work is ‘involuntary’”.

        The one objection I have is to Carrier’s statement, “Compatibilism is the standard assumption of the law.” There is no need for “compatibilism” if one sees no conflict between free will and the principle of cause and effect. The court need not explicitly reject “libertarian free will” since it does not legitimately exist. And since normal free will has no problem with normal cause and effect, the philosophical school of “compatibilism” can be closed down.

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