I have, over the last few years, put out a number of arguments against the possibility of free will. My most popular so far has been that of my Two-Lever Argument, which can be found here. I now wish to make a separate, distinct argument argument against free will called the Zero-Control argument.
The Zero-Control argument asks one to imagine a world before he was born. 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”.
The task now is to look at the next milestones of development–say, being a “willful” toddler who terrorizes households and disobeys the commands of parents. If one is to offer that such displays of “will” are now “free”, this raises the obvious question of, “When did that happen?” 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?
The same scenario can be extended to adolescence, or even full adulthood. 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. 1 Let’s go from step one to adulthood:
- You don’t exist. // control 0
- You are a spermatozoon. // control 0
- You are a fertilized egg. // control 0
Up to this point it’s probably pretty clear that we, at this stage, are simply atoms bouncing off of each other. The key is to ask what changes as we progress.
- You are an embryo in the womb. // control 0
- You are a newborn. // what are you doing other than responding to your environment given your genetic makeup?
- You are a toddler. // you now appear to be willful, but what has actually changed?
- You are an adolescent. // now you have your own opinions, can be creative, etc. But again…same problem.
- You are an adult. // see above
It seems clear that no transition ever takes place from zero control to more than zero control. We continue to be a collection of atoms bumping into each other, just as we were when we were spermatozoons clearly without free will. The perception of free will that comes as we mature is no different than the perception of intent in complex things like weather. As a primitive species, when we don’t understand something due to it’s complexity and hidden cause, we ascribe a sentient, mystical element to it.
We used to do this in how we described natural disasters and disease (it must be God!), and now we do the same with free will. The more we learn about the brain the more we’ll learn the actual, deterministic causes for the decisions we make.2 The mystery will fall away from this just as it has for countless other natural phenomenon in the past. To assume otherwise is nothing less than foolish. ::
1 Compatabilists, in my mind, are contorting free will to mean something other than making choices outside of natural inputs, therefore are excluded from the discussion. They’ve changed the definition as most think of it into “practical” free will, which I agree with by the way. See my essay on Absolute vs. Practical Free Will.
2 This is already happening. We’re already able to observe “free choices” being made in very predictable fashion prior to the subject feeling they’ve made the choice, and we’re also able to directly influence people to make choices we want them to while the person feels they’re making the choice.