Tag Archives: free will

Anna Funder

‘You’re late—we were expecting you earlier,’ the man behind the desk said.
‘What? Who told you I was coming? I didn’t know myself I was coming here until half an hour ago.’

Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, New York, 2002, p. 39

Albert Einstein

Ich glaube nicht an die Freiheit des Willens. Schopenhauers Wort: ‘Der Mensch kann wohl tun, was er will, aber er kann nicht wollen, was er will’, begleitet mich in allen Lebenslagen und versöhnt mich mit den Handlungen der Menschen, auch wenn sie mir recht schmerzlich sind. Diese Erkenntnis von der Unfreiheit des Willens schützt mich davor, mich selbst und die Mitmenschen als handelnde und urteilende Individuen allzu ernst zu nehmen und den guten Humor zu verlieren.

Albert Einstein, ‘Mein Glaubensbekenntnis’, 1932

G. A. Cohen

I said that believing that no inequality could truly reflect real freedom of choice would contradict your reactions to people in day-to-day life, and that I lack that belief. I lack that belief because I am not convinced that it is true both that all choices are causally determined and that causal determination obliterates responsibility. If you are indeed so convinced, then do not blame me for thinking otherwise, do not blame right-wing politicians for reducing welfare support (since, in your view, they can’t help doing so), do not, indeed, blame, or praise, anyone for choosing to do anything, and therefore live your life, henceforth, differently from the way that we both know that you have lived it up to now.

G. A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?, Princeton, 2009, pp. 29-30

Ted Chiang

By now you’ve probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you’re reading this. For those who haven’t seen one, it’s a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

Ted Chiang, ‘What’s Expected of Us’, Nature, vol. 436 (July 7, 2005), p. 150

William James

Old-fashioned determinism was what we may call hard determinism. It did not shrink from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, necessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism which abhors harsh words, and, repudiating fatality, necessity, and even determinism, says that its real Dame is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom. Even a writer as little used to making capital out of soft words as Mr. Hodgson hesitates not to call himself a “free-will determinist.”

Now, this is all a quagmire of evasion under which the real issue of fact has got entirely smothered up. Freedom in all these senses presents simply no problem at all. No matter what the soft determinist mean by it, whether he, mean the acting without external constraint, whether he mean the acting rightly, or whether he mean the acquiescing in the law of the whole, who cannot answer him that sometimes we are free and sometimes we are not? But there is, a problem, an issue of fact and not of words, an issue of the most momentous importance, which is often decided without discussion in one sentence, nay, in one clause of a sentence, by those very writers who spin out whole chapters in their efforts to show what “true” freedom is[.]

William James, ‘The Dilemma of Determinism’, Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine, Vol. 22, No. 8. (September, 1884), pp. 197-198

John Gray

Pre-Christian philosophers such as the Epicureans speculated about free will. But it only became a central issue in western philosophy with the rise of Christianity and has never been prominent in non-western philosophies that do not separate humans so radically from other animals. When secular thinkers ponder free will and consciousness they nearly always confine themselves to humans, but why assume these attributes are uniquely human? In taking for granted a categorical difference between humans and other animals these rationalists show their view of the world has been formed by faith. The comedy of militant unbelief is in the fact that the humanist creed it embodies is a by-product of Christianity.

John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, London, 2007, p. 266

Thomas Nagel

I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.

Thomas Nagel, A View from Nowhere, New York, 1986, p. 112