Free Will, Schmee Will

But of making many notes there is no end!

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It may be asked what the putative purpose of these notes is. A putative answer: to assert or recall that free will or a belief in free will is not necessary for ethics, for discussions of ethics, or for systems of justice and punishment. A belief in free will may be necessary for the human psyche, even if the belief is otherwise ill founded.[1] Some might ask, however, if this need could be so great as to create an otherwise non-existent thing: free will.



A person interested in ethics, be this from a philosophical perspective or to try to better regulate his or others’ behavior, would seem to have a tremendous interest in the question of free will.[2] It might seem that, if free will is an illusion or fantasy, any discussion of what a human being should do is diversion and denial, a way of avoiding an unwelcome fact: all our actions, our thoughts included, are dictated by our circumstances—genes, hormones, culture, economic circumstances, etc.[3] But, of course, included under the heading of culture would come ethics. That is, one of the factors determining (and determined by) our behavior is our ethics, be its recommendations explicit or implicit. Ethical prescriptions and discussions can play a role in our lives even if our capacity to make choices, consciously, is an illusion.

boxes9A simple example: If we are raised to say please and thank you, it may take some special intervening circumstance for us not to use these words in certain situations. But if we are raised in a culture without this tradition and belief, it may never occur to us to use such words. The many, many people who over millennia were themselves driven to contribute to the development of our particular ethics of politeness have caused us to use these words, often involuntarily and over and over again. And, once more, only at odd moments—moments when the flow is interrupted, we might say—will this thanking behavior alter and give us the impression (correct or incorrect) that we have made a choice, we have free will![4]



Often these days one sees free will discussed in the context of responsibility and thus of justice and law enforcement. If a person has committed a murder, can he be held accountable? Well, his lawyers may argue, he was provoked, he acted in self-defense; he is crazy or quite limited intellectually. He did not know what he was doing. At an extreme the argument may be: If we do not enjoy free will, then we have no choice as to what we do and are not responsible for our actions.[5] The guilty party, we might say, is our circumstances (internal and external).

I have no problem with this. I do not believe we have free will. We bathe, rather, in the illusion of it, and this with help from the limits of our understanding of our circumstances and of causality and thanks to how eager we are to convince ourselves that we enjoy free will. But none of this implies that we cannot be nor should not be held accountable for our actions. The fact that a murderer may be jailed or killed by the state or for revenge is one of the factors that influences our behavior (e.g. when we get angry, but not so angry as to be un-influence-able). It may also be the case that the state or another grouping believes that the murderer might murder again and so has an interest in imprisoning the murderer until such a time as he no longer seems likely to be driven to murder. (Legislators, prosecutors and judges, we would then say, are being driven to imprison murderers. And this behavior may or may not influence significantly the behavior of potential murderers.)
Another example: A man who was violent in his youth might be thought to have been calmed or broken by his advancing age, and by years of incarceration in prisons or in the workforce and in domesticated life. And, thus, he may be presumed to be no longer a threat, no longer likely to act violently. We might even say, “Now he knows better than to attack other people.” (And this might be as legitimate as any other use of the verb “to know.”) In a free-world-less world, this would be to say that the man’s behavior remained determined by his circumstances, but his circumstances had so changed, or had so worked him over, that the threat or fact of incarceration or revenge was no longer needed to keep this man from physically harming other people.



As I was working on these notes I came across the following passage, translated from Scènes et doctrines du nationalisme, a book by the xenophobic, anti-Semitic French writer Maurice Barrès (1862-1923).[6] I cannot say I was pleased to find an implication of my notes on free will being explored by a writer whose politics I find distasteful. But certainly Barrès’s text provides a useful example, and above all because it raises questions about the politics of free will. The idea that our circumstances govern our behavior bolstered Barrès’s anti-Semitism. In campaigning against Zola and in favor of executing Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, Barrès proposed: “I conclude from his Jewishness that Dreyfus is capable of treason.” (I.e. Jews are naturally traitors.) And Zola’s error, Barrès said, lay in the fact that he was not really French, but rather an uprooted Venetian.

It may be further asked: Is there something fundamentally reactionary about a rejection of free will? Does the fact that we cannot choose justify an acceptance of the status quo? Is the “rightness” of the status quo vouchsafed by the fact that it is the inevitable product of the circumstances (however difficult to identify) that led to it?

Well, not really, I would say. Many are driven to champion hatred and narrow-mindedness, and to be opportunists, standard-bearers for wealthy factions eager to advance their narrow interests. So, too, are many driven not to accept the status quo, to be iconoclastic and rebellious. That some are driven to demand changes does not make these demands any less legitimate than equally driven demands to preserve ancient prejudices and entrenched economic interests. And that the current status quo is a product of circumstances does not make some future, radically different status quo equally the product of circumstances. (See the later remarks regarding change in note 7.)

The translation from Barrès’s text:

The individual! His intelligence, his ability to grasp the laws of the universe! We must reject all that. We are not the masters of the thoughts born in us. They do not originate in our intelligence; they are ways of reacting that translates very old physiological dispositions. How we judge and reason depends on the milieu in which we are immersed. Human reason is so bound to the past that we all walk in the steps of our predecessors. There are no personal ideas; even the rarest notions, the most abstract judgments, the most self-infatuated metaphysical sophisms are general modes of feeling, to be found in all organically kindred beings exposed to the same images. . . . We continue our parents. . . . They think and speak in us.[7]



boxes8A world without free will can certainly include decision-making processes and the feeling, say, that when a coin is flipped into the air, you have an equal opportunity of opting for heads or tails. But the fact or feeling of such processes would not mean that you indeed have a choice—either to make the particular “choice” you feel like you are making, or to feel or not feel as if you are involved in a decision-making process. The fact that while a coin is in the air you can shout out, “I mean heads, not tails!”—the fact that your mind can change—this does not imply that you are exercising free will in noting, however vociferously, this change.

It is possible to be presented with an array—a smorgasbord—of seeming choices and to dwell at length on all the possibilities before you. And you can waffle and ruminate and delay. While your circumstances—the attractiveness of smorgasbord items included—are dictating which “choices” you are going to make. (A key phrase: an “only choice” or “only choices”—ones that can be only made one way.)

In La structure du comportement (The Structure of Behavior) the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests that our putative choices are framed and to a large extent made by a “preobjective” contact between subject and world. That is, for our purposes, the what of an event and the whos who are taking part in it are products of the interaction between them. In one circumstance (aggressively confronted at a crossroads) Oedipus is a violent and powerful man. In another (ruler of a troubled city-state) he is a courageous seeker of self-knowledge. In a third (having learned that he has murdered his father and sired children with his mother), he is a grandiose self-mutilator (and this perhaps above all to avoid being executed for the murder).[8]

These “who’s” are both products of his circumstances and productive of them. Imagine that instead of Oedipus at that putative crossroads, there was a woman or man of a different character (e.g., an intellectual, artist or religious person), or someone who lacked the stature and physical strength of Oedipus. Imagine a child, or a person of a different social class, not raised as a king’s son but, say, as a slave or artisan. Most, if not all, such people would not simply have acted differently than Oedipus acted at one of the great crossroads of his life; most of these people would not even have perceived there was a crossroads or a confrontation.[9] Here comes a band of men one of whom is obviously of great stature and status. “I” do not need to even think about stepping aside, I am stepping aside. These others are not in my way because in fact our ways are so different our paths do not cross, and the differences between us are so ingrained in me that in fact they are not cause for reflection. In stepping aside “I” feel proud to be in the presence of a superior and to be demonstrating to him my self-knowledge and sophrosyne—my self-control, knowledge of my place.[10]

A non-Oedipal example of how this works in practice, from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:

Dixon felt that his role in this conversation, as indeed in the whole of his relations with Margaret, had been directed by something outside himself and yet not directly present in her. He felt more than ever before that what he said and did arose not out of any willing on his own part, not even out of boredom, but out of a kind of sense of situation. And where did that sense come from if, as it seemed, he took no share in willing it? With disquiet, he found that words were forming in his mind, words which, because he could think of no others, he’d very soon hear himself uttering.[11]

As with Sophocles’s account of Laius and Oedipus’s mortal combat, which we do not witness but learn about from recollections, so, from a phenomenological perspective, choice takes on meaning only in memory, or more formally, in history, when we reflect. To interpolate some choosing process into the flow of our perceptions, movements and interactions is to create a misleading metaphysical phenomenon.[12]

box hatI would not beat a dead horse, but rather hope that some reiteration will prove useful. Imagine, then, yourself saying, “Given that there’s no free will, it’s stupid from me to even be thinking about ethics.” Imagine yourself thinking you were deciding—even feeling like you were deciding—to stop thinking about ethics. Even if such statements and feelings were succeeded by your ethical reflections ceasing, it could be wishful thinking, above all, that was driving you to also imagine that you had some freedom to make any other decision, take any other action, have any other feelings than the set just described.

The fact that we feel as if we are making choices or the fact that alternatives flit through our minds or are debated on television—none of this proves that we are in fact able to make choices. And, turning this around, an ability to indeed make choices is not necessary for us to be able to think and feel we have this capacity. There is a history of American men, artists and entertainers among them, who have been impotent or homosexually oriented, and who, in order to prove to the world—and to themselves, first and foremost—that they were potent heterosexuals, engaged in any number of romantic and sexual behaviors and made a great deal of them. It might be said that these men were pretending or acting out of character, but this does not mean they were not compelled to behave as they did. Similarly, it can be the case that our lack of free will has reified our belief that we in fact have this capacity and has greatly increased our desire to prove to ourselves that we have this capacity. And thus we are compelled to engage in a charade.



I often eat alone in restaurants, working as I eat, and thus it is for me alone to “decide” where I am going to eat. To borrow a few words from Melville, I live in the “insular city of the Manhattoes, . . . of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks”.[13] Evenings, I do not engage in “ocean reveries,” but as I walk downtown-ward restaurant possibilities play in my mind. I consider the food that is offered in different places, how well I have been able to work at them in the past, the noise, lighting, prices and so forth. It would seem that here is a prototypical example of choosing, for all the choice is insignificant (unless of course the quality and quantity of my writing should prove of great significance!). But in fact the process I experience is not one of choosing between these alternatives but rather of discovering a fait accompli: discovering where I am going. As I consider the various possibilities, my mind keeps coming back to one. It is as if this one is un-dislodge-able, and thus it becomes clear that this is and has been where I want to go and am going to go.

box casketOf course the fact that I can feel this choice-less-ness, does not make my feeling any truer than someone else’s feeling of making a choice. I offer the example, rather, to suggest what may be happening at those times when we think or feel we are making choices. At the same time as I am revising these notes, I happen to be reading about the First World War. Many putatively powerful European men were involved in the “decisions” that led to war being declared and fighting beginning. We can imagine many dramatic councils of state at which options were hotly debated. But it is easy to get the sense that the “powerful” in this case had no choice; war was going to break out. Léon Jouhaux, a major French labor leader—who might have been expected to speak out against the war, yet championed it—spoke many years later about how there are circumstances that make a man evoke more or less forcefully thoughts that seem foreign to him.[14] It may be that the real distinction is between, on the one hand, when circumstances lead us to act in ways that circumstances cause us to find unremarkable, and, on the other hand, when circumstances lead us to act in ways that circumstances cause us to find remarkable.


boxes chocolatesI am aware that there are those who believe in unconscious choosing. And this could be made to relate to Kant’s, or Plato’s, superimposing of an ultimately unknowable noumenal realm on the familiar world of appearances and of time and space. From such a perspective, one could call my choice of restaurant an example of an unconscious choice, or one driven by what I am calling noumenal influences, the result or appearances of which it takes my conscious mind some time to discover.

I cannot even pretend to know whether or not an unconscious—whatever such a thing or analogy may be—can choose, but what is the usefulness of such an idea? For one, why presume that inside the black box of the unconscious “choosing” is taking place, rather than, say, assuming that a very little guy in there amuses himself playing dice or that chemicals and electrical impulses are colliding and mixing in response to their properties and whims? For another, suppose my unconscious is indeed making autonomous choices, but I am only consciously aware of the results of these choices and am not able to consciously intervene in the decision-making process. In what sense is my situation different from that of a being whose behavior is entirely determined? I am willing to believe that my situation is different, but . . . For example, do I have greater access to and greater influence over my unconscious than do other humans and non-human phenomena? What do I mean when I call, or someone else calls, my unconscious choices “mine”?[15]



boxes chocolatesTo say there is no free will is not the same as to say that there is no change in the universe or in human behavior and history. The problem and the necessity of change is itself a complex one, and it was hardly for nothing that Lucretius came up with his idea of the clinamen (the swerve) and that we have clung to this concept, in one form or another, for several millennia now.[16] But the swerve, and change more generally, will have to be another set of notes. Here, as with water, we have our hands full with free will.



In my continuing attempt to keep this set of notes relatively simple, I am also not discussing the possibility that our behaviors are not strictly determined, but rather determined or governed by probability, somewhat as, in the quantum-mechanics model, the positions of electrons are thought to be governed (probabilistically). Nor will I do more than here tip my hat to the possibility that the intensity of determining phenomena varies depending on the circumstances, so that in some cases—strong forces—our movements (actions) are rigidly proscribed by these circumstances, and in other cases—weak forces—it matters so little to the system what we do (cemetery or crematorium) or what we think or feel (outraged or not by HSBC’s ongoing criminality, or by how it exemplifies the fundamental criminality of business)—it is as if we are, temporarily, floating free.

Again, chaos theory would propose that, at times, our various floatings or movements can be extraordinarily consequential. Nonetheless, I would stress that speculations about the role of probability or about strong and weak forces, et al., are above all diversionary complications. Their greatest use may to be help us ignore the quite likely fact that it is not free will that we enjoy or suffer from.



[1] In an article “Structure and choice,” the sociologist Bennett Berger called attention to the fact that while determinism and freedom are fundamentally metaphysical issues, “[p]eople care about whether they feel free or trapped, or somewhere between.” And he proposes that often the distinction involves whether we are in or out of step with what he calls the pushes and pulls of our culture’s structures and ideologies. That is, our sense of our own free will is based, rather than on philosophy or sociology, in psychology and on our circumstances. When the Internet helps us quickly find some factoid or product we are eager to find, we feel that modern technology is increasing our capacities and even our freedom, and when I find that dating has been reduced to electronics or when I have to keep going on-line to keep up with changes in my son’s soccer-team schedule that would not have been made in the pre-Internet age, I feel I am but a cork on the sea of technology. Bennett M. Berger, “Structure and choice in the sociology of culture,” Theory & Society 20 (1991): 1-19.

[2] N.B.: I use the word “ethics” in a most general sense, to refer to most any thinking about what a human being should do, either on some larger stage like world politics or moment to moment—e.g. what should I eat for breakfast today?

[3] A large goal here is to avoid writing a dissertation on free will. And so I will here lean (dangerously) on Kant, and but briefly. A Kant phrase, in translation, proposes that free will is a faculty through which the sensible (recognizable) condition of an empirical (recognizable) series of effects first begins. (My italicizing and parenthetical words.) Thus, we might imagine, that nothing recognizable—not hunger, sexual deprivation or anxiety; not the fact that I can’t quite figure out what words to type next—is now causing me to take another spoonful of oatmeal. This action is either undetermined or the product of noumenal influences that are ultimately unknowable by me or other humans, and thus beyond my or our control. The action may, however, lead to a quite recognizable series of events which could involve my digestion, my prose, the New York City sewer system, global warming. Like the proverbial butterfly of chaos theory, I could, with one flip of my wings (or spoon), be changing the world. Or it could turn out that the series of effects following my eating decision was a quite short and inconsequential series. But the key is that, if I can act with a free will, I, like God or the Big Bang in the first moment of time, can—not in the midst of nothing, but without any knowable cause or motivation—do something. From a theological perspective, what we have here is “creatio ex materia” (creating, albeit with pre-existing materials, energy or possibility). From a materialist perspective we could say that free will depends on there being materials, forces or possibilities entirely inaccessible to our science. Far from increasing our power or control, whatever free will we have is linked to the limits of our understanding.
boxcar hobo
I would stress that, because of the limits on human understanding, we cannot say that human beings, or gods or physical forces, are incapable of creating in this manner—of acting with free will, being the first cause of some causal sequence. But we are here in the realm of speculation and of the human need to impose an order, however complex, on experience. We are in the realm of our need to have this order reflect, at least to some extent, how we humans wish the world was. As we cannot know what led to the universe’s creation—the event prior to the first event, we might call this—so we cannot know that we are incapable of escaping the laws of causality, incapable of ourselves being, at times, a first cause. But this, we could say (were we English), is hard cheese. The fact of these possibilities may be enlightening, but they cannot give us confidence that we can stand up out of the river of causality and decide to set out on a new and undetermined course, or, say, get the US Congress to do so. See my later remarks, in the main body of this text, on “unconscious choosing.”

Source is Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A552/B580, and, more generally, the section on the Solution of the Cosmological Idea of Totality in the Derivation of Cosmical Events from their Causes.

[4] I wonder the extent to which, in modern life or in general, assertions of autonomy and independence (non-dependency) involve saying no—and do not or perhaps cannot involve saying yes? There is the old Situationist saying, “The only free choice is the refusal to pay.” There is also the behavior of adolescents whose efforts to achieve autonomy often involve rejecting or expressing rejection. In New York I have come across adult single women whose sense of autonomy seems based in part on the fact that they have stopped doing this or that, stopped eating meat or wheat, stopped drinking alcohol, stopped having sex. (I deny myself, therefore I am.) And there is an idea in Freudian psychology and social psychology that men attempt to establish their (false sense of) independence by rejecting their mothers or their dependence on their mothers or, by extension, their dependence on anyone else. (I deny my connection to others, therefore I am.) The Greeks had the concept authadeia—self-willed independence—which, again, might be thought of as negatively defined: refusing to yield to one’s fate.
boxes matches
[5] In Jean Anouilh’s “La culotte,” a play written at the time when Freudian concepts were a rich lode for comedy, a hapless young delinquent (“un enfant de la psychanalyse,” he told the judge) blamed on his father’s penis and Oedipal conflicts his various petty crimes and limitations. Afraid of pens, he failed at school. « J’avais entendu papa traiter maman de saleté au déjeuner et, le soir même, je volais une salière ! Ils ont dit qu’elle était en argent, mais moi je n’y avais même pas pensé ». (There is a play on French words here, but, for our purposes, the point is simple: His father’s treating his mother like dirt—or like salt, we might say—had led him to steal a salt shaker. Apparently it was an expensive one, but he had not even noticed that.)

Again, for our purposes, as regards free will, the young man was proposing that the motivating force of his self was a sort of alien being, or alien force, that had unfortunately taken up residence in his psyche. I can imagine another play in which, rather than blaming her father’s penis, a young woman blamed her hormones or PMS, over which she claimed equally little control. And if there is no free will, both Anouilh’s young man and the young woman are right at least in this: They were vehicles through which forces they could not control expressed themselves.

I see that driverless cars are being called “autonomous vehicles.” In this regard it might be asked if we will have succeeded in turning ourselves into robots before or after we have developed robots to do all our work for us? But in a world without free will such a question is moot. In a world without free will “autonomous vehicles” is a good description of what human beings are, and even at those moments when we are designing other kinds of autonomous vehicles.
In his twenty-second lecture on psycho-analysis, Freud proposed that “a child’s super-ego is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents but of its parents’ super-ego.” The child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s follow-up: “every symptom is a transgenerational task. A crisis is always also on behalf of someone else, even if that someone else is part of oneself.” (My italics.) Are we, then, autonomous vehicles that are equipped with onboard computers that contain code (instructions, software) that was designed for autonomous vehicles that preceded us?

Sources: M. Mitchell Waldrop, “Autonomous vehicles: No drivers required” (Nature, 4 February 2015). Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1932/3), Standard Edition, XXII, 67. Phillips, “On Success,” in On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (Harvard University Press; Reprint edition, 1998), 46.

[6] True to his thoughts about how our thoughts are determined, Barrès was a chameleon, his politics and pronouncements shifting quite dramatically as he aged and as his times changed, and in accordance with the company he was keeping or whether he was writing for publication or in his private journal. In 1917, in Les familles spirituelles de la France, he praised French Jews and proposed that the soul of the country was made up of Jews, along with traditionalistes, protestants et socialistes.

[7] Maurice Barrès, Scènes et doctrines du nationalisme (Juven, 1902), as translated in Frederick Brown, The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 (Anchor Books, 2015), 62. The judgments of Dreyfus and Zola also appear in Scènes et doctrines. Barrès was influenced, inter alia, by the proposition of the French critic Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) that “race, milieu and moment” were the three principal conditioning factors behind any work of art.

[8] In the Laws, Book IX, Plato writes that if a parricide is not (justifiably) killed by his own children:

the servants of the judges and the magistrates shall slay him at an appointed place without the city where three ways meet, and there expose his body naked, and each of the magistrates on behalf of the whole city shall take a stone and cast it upon the head of the dead man, and so deliver the city from pollution; after that, they shall bear him to the borders of the land, and cast him forth unburied, according to law.

We might imagine that, by blinding himself, Oedipus was able to avoid punishment.

[9] From a Freudian perspective, while sons must perceive their fathers to be in the way, this does not mean that fathers are in the way for anyone else.

[10] Regarding the ancient Greek virtue of sophrosyne, see Helen North, Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature. The discussion of Oedipus is taken from my “Finding Ourselves in Oedipus Again and Again: Ten views of human agency,” Zeteo, Spring 2012.

[11] Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (Penguin, 1976), 186. [Link is to a New York Review of Books Classics edition.]

[12] This would not be to say that retrospective judgments regarding supposed choices (or the creation and use of this metaphysical phenomenon) are irrelevant. It would be better to refer to the framing of choices as themselves contacts between subject and world (notwithstanding that often these contacts occur after the event which, it comes to be claimed, they predate). As ethical prescriptions play a role, large or small, in directing our behavior, so do metaphysical ruminations, and be they ill-founded or not.

[13] Herman Melville, Moby Dick: Or, the Whale (1851), second paragraph.

[14] Brown, The Embrace of Unreason: France, op. cit., 18 fn.

[15] I was first introduced to the sociological concept of unconscious choosing by the Sharon Hays’s article “Structure and Agency and the Sticky Problem of Culture,” Sociological Theory 12 (March 1994): 57-72.
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[16] Lucretius: “When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.” According to Lucretius, not only does the clinamen allow for a universe of things and change, it provides the “free will which living things throughout the world have.” Lucretius, ii. 216-224 and 251. Translation by Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson, The Epicurus Reader (Hackett, 1994).

William Ellery Leonard’s verse translation of Lucretius’s text (De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things, 50 B.C.E.) has been accessible via The Latin text has been made available online by the Latin Library. Readers may note that Lucretius does not seek to prove that we enjoy free will, but rather accepts this as a given and seeks to explain it (along with change more generally).


  1. P.P.S. An alternative explanation for all your boxes, including the old-fashioned icebox and the box car, is that we are all boxed in, since we have no free will. However, (as should be evident to anyone who’s had the patience to read all of what’s been going on here), I prefer thinking of them as containers freely chosen for the many notes you’ve freely chosen to make. Back to you, Wm.

  2. Hi Wm. My personal answers to the questions I asked are implied in the way I asked them. (And also in my failing to click “like,” perhaps the first such failure since having “discovered” Montaigbakhtinian.) I was/am nevertheless interested in *your* responses to these questions because I find you a particularly interesting blogger, in that you present problems of apprehension, both intellectual and personal, and I like solving (not just apprehending) real life problems. Clearly I’m not there yet with you.

    A “Comment” section is obviously not the place to engage you point by point as devil’s advocate, either as to the post or your reply to my questions. A few observations, however: (1) Negative reactions in themselves take us nowhere; they leave us where we were. (Perhaps you should have forced yourself through Illusions Perdues just as I made myself read all of “Free Will, Schmee Will,” including the footnotes.) By contrast, exploring the reasons for negative reactions may be productive. (2) My own negative reaction to this post is based on what I believe is an interest we have in common: how to live. And I don’t see how your 4000+ word ruminations on free-will-or-no-free-will advance thinking about how to live. (3) Although I thought of myself as an “intellectual” when young, having read and reflected on many books by then, although not nearly as many as you (or in as many languages), living a long time has made me a pragmatist. Which is why I asked about utility. (In that respect I rather like Marvin Edwards’s comment, although there seems to be nowhere on the blog to indicate that.). I therefore personally reject using what time I may have left to live in engaging in open-ended and airy challenges not rooted in what I perceive as “real” life, even if still unsaid. You, who probably have more time left than I do, apparently think otherwise. So perhaps you ought to explain what you mean by “intellectual” in some future post, to ensure all your readers and followers are on the same page as to definitions. (4) As a pragmatist, chained to the quotidian facts of life, I would worry about a man who can’t stop working long enough to eat his dinner. (5) Veuillez excuser mes longueurs.

    Best, Nina

    • Hi Nina. There might be many ways to reply to your thoughtful comments, and I would certainly propose that dialogue is more the point than, say, you and I deciding we are in agreement, or not. Which leads me, contentiously, to note that we do seem to disagree about “utility.” For one, my sense is that the word, and perhaps like all words, can prove rather quickly to be grounded in meaninglessness, or at least in the limits of human understanding. (Useful for what? would be a question. On the fourth page of my “Of God, beginning in Grammar” there’s a paragraph about this. Url is

      Another point of divergence would be around your rejection of using your remaining time on Earth to engage in open-ended and airy challenges. To me, and particularly in light of the limits of human understanding, engaging in dialogue and speculation is a means of escape from the human predicament, which predicament can feel particularly acute in the latter stages of life. And it’s not just the mortality part; it’s also the machine breaking down. “Aging is not for wimps,” as the saying goes. In light of this, can we say that utility comes to see less useful? And, as we become a bit alienated from the cares and competitions of younger bodies, might we — or do we? — find pleasure in the open-ended (and au lit as well as en ligne: in blogging)? Best, Wm.

      • Ah, Wm. After considerable non-open-ended debate with myself as to whether or not I should leave you with the last word in this amicable tournament of contentions which you call dialogue, I have re-entered the lists once more — if only to suggest that should we continue these dialogues following future posts of yours, it would be helpful if you not ask large questions already answered in prior rounds. For example: your query: “Useful for what?”

        To which, like the lawyer I once was, I would have to respond, “Asked and answered.” See mine of March 23 at 6:21 p.m.: “What is the utility of these notes without end (and the lines of thought contained therein), *either for understanding oneself better or for seeking to lead a self-directed life (of whatever kind)?*” I haven’t yet read your ten-year-old piece suggesting all words are grounded in meaninglessness, but you can’t have it both ways; in the second paragraph of your most recent reply you say the utility of the kind of open-ended speculation your piece represents is that it serves as a means of escape for you from the human predicament, especially as it presents in the latter stages of life.

        While I, who have more than twenty years on you, certainly understand open-ended congress au lit, I fail to empathize with the comfort you find in endlessly batting about en ligne ideas that don’t help us (even philosophically) along the rocky road ahead. I’m not looking for recipes for the best pot roast exactly (although sometimes that’s not a bad idea if you’re not a vegetarian), but perhaps some thoughts concerning not what we may not have (free will) but what we still do have — intelligence, insight, human understanding and affection — as the machine begins to break down.

        Is anyone reading all this except us? I suggest we call it a draw until next time.


        P.S. What are all the boxes for? Storage of notes without end?

  3. Walking and standing exist in the physical form, in the muscles, ligaments, bones, and the neurological connections to centers of balance, sight, muscle sensation, etc. We do not call walking an “illusion”.

    Thinking involves the physical form as well, in a complex neurological structure connecting the body’s sensory areas to the brain and especially the parts of the brain that provide memory, imagination, forming words and hearing ourselves sublingually talking to ourselves. Thinking is no more an illusion than walking.

    The mental process of deliberately choosing, which is a form of thinking, clearly cannot be an illusion. It is grounded quite well in physical reality.

    The mind mediates between the biological will (to satisfy a person’s true survival needs) and the environment in which the person finds him or her self. Sometimes we change our behavior (stepping from stone to stone to cross a stream) and sometimes we change our environment (build a bridge across the stream).

    We are not free of our basic needs. We are not free of the reality of our environment. We are not free from causality, rather, we depend upon a reliable causality to effect our will.

    The only freedom that free will insists upon is the freedom to decide for ourselves what we will do next, without being forced by someone else to act against our will.

    It is nice, I suppose, to have a catalogue of famous people’s thinking on the issue of free will. But I believe it is better to actually get the correct answer to the silly puzzle.

  4. This is a genuine question: What is the utility of these notes without end (and the lines of thought contained therein), either for understanding oneself better or for seeking to lead a self-directed life (of whatever kind)? When the notebook is full, could it perhaps be seen to have been no more nor less than a headache-producing means of relieving guilt?

    • Hi Nina. In a sense i am most interested in your own answers to your question (what is the utility . . . ?) The answer might be “negative” without, say, being negative. That is, for example, when I read the opening of Balzac’s novel Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions) I am horrified by the example he gives at the outset of a father cheating his own son and by the good-hearteded son’s incapacity to resist being cheated. What is horrifying is that Balzac’s story is all too real, reaches too deeply into human experience. I would of course not seek to make the same claim for my notes on Free Will, but I do think our negative reactions (be they your headaches or my resistance to reading further in Balzac’s novel) can take us to interesting places.

      As for my own motivations, some are discussed at the top of the Notes themselves. An other is that I am an intellectual; I am well engaged by intellectual challenges. Another is that I seek to say “the unsaid” and in many a domain, and my feeling was that the points I had to make about free will were going unsaid. Finally I would note Montaigbakhtinian is not simply (or only) personal reflections on personal experiences; it is underpinned by constant, intellectual reading and reflection. As we say at Zeteo, the goal is to combine “the personal, the political and the intellectual.” It may be that some pieces are almost all “personal” and others, such as these Notes, are almost all “intellectual.” But overall, over the course of the many months, it is hoped that a balance is struck.

      As for relieving guilt (or a sense of inadequacy), of course that could be a subconscious motivation, but that was not a conscious goal, and the Notes themselves suggest that guilt can easily remain, even in a free-will-less universe.

      Best, Wm.

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