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The “zero control” argument against free will

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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It starts out this way:

Imagine looking down at an earth without you in it. Now ask yourself how much control you have over that world. How much do you consciously affect what goes on in it? I think we can all agree the answer is zero.

Next, consider what happens after your parents have brought about the preconditions for your life. As you sit in the womb, sloshing to and fro as a collection of molecules and cells that you had no input into the organization of, what degree of control or choice do you have regarding your actions? What choices are you able to make that are not fully dependent on inputs from your genetic makeup and your environment? I think most will agree that the answer is still “none”.

Read the rest here.



  1. chuckarama says:

    So his proof is that because of lack of control in pre-existence and pre-birth, you have no control – ever. Nobody can really argue that. You’re a product of inputs at that point. But then his challenge seems to be, because we can’t pinpoint the exact moment that the switch is flipped, then it must always be the case that we have zero control.

    “The burden is on the believer in free will to describe, after admitting that a non-existent human has zero control, and a baby in the womb has pretty much the same amount, how exactly it is that someone switches from being purely deterministic to having free will.”

    It seems clear to me, at some point, we can begin to manipulate the inputs. They don’t all happen at once, but are built upon each other, which seems to make it vague as to exactly when it happens.

    Gravity – I learn to overcome it and toddle. Gravity is a constant input, it’s always there and even though I’ve learned to manipulate it with my given “biological hardware”, it’s not enough, and I want to manipulate it more. I figure out how to fly. I have no “biological hardware” for processing the input in this manner, for flying, so I invent the hardware.

    I think this is maybe where he goes wrong or where I disagree:

    “To be more pointed, at what point did the transition occur between being a simple collection of inputs processed by biological hardware, to being some sort of free being capable of making choices independent of inputs?”

    We are never independent of the inputs, but we can always manipulate them. The fact that we can manipulate them beyond our biological hardware is capable of should be proof. Free Will may be ill-defined as independent of inputs, but perhaps it’s better thought of as our ability to manipulate inputs that surround us.


  2. Huenemann says:

    “Free Will may be ill-defined as independent of inputs, but perhaps it’s better thought of as our ability to manipulate inputs that surround us.”

    I think you’re right, and free will is best thought of in terms of control rather than any sense of “could have done otherwise.” I know there’s more explaining to do, and here’s a good start:


  3. Rob says:

    Strawson’s revised edition of “Freedom and Belief” — which I just began diving into — is also highly recommendable:

    (My copy arrived a few days ago from Book Depository, in the UK, where it’s at a better price than in the States.)


  4. Source says:

    I’d be really surprised if this argument has any traction with free-willers. Although they’d probably agree that a zygote lacks free will, by the time a fetus starts to look like a human, people are already attributing all sorts of emotions, thoughts, and desires to it.

    And is it really so hard to imagine having free will as a fetus? “What choices are you able to make that are not fully dependent on inputs from your genetic makeup and your environment?” I don’t know, but if I try to imagine myself as fetus, I import the subjective feeling of freedom that I always carry around. It seems to me that the author thinks naturalism is so obvious that he forgot his audience (purportedly free-willers) is likely to disagree.


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