Free Will

Last nite I went to a philosophy meeting of the North Yorkshire Humanists. The title is as the above, with a reference work called Free Will by Sam Harris. David was chairing the meeting and his main question revolved around how we can know, if at all, that we have free agency and control over our decisions. I thought his intial question to each of us what good.

Think of any city in the world!

Most people picked something random, which reflected their own experience and outlook, which is unsurprising. As I was tired I was not being inventive and chose London. I found it quite odd that most other people had said they had thought of London first but wanted to put “something of themselves” into the decision. I thought the fact that that was the first choice really indicated how much is pre-determined for us. It was almost as if the majority had to fight against their initial decision to demonstate to themselves that thay had a choice.

David was interested how Harris seemed to align liberalism with the determinist ( we do not have control) view while the conservatives with the Libertarian view , which is related to a Christian view that we have choice to do good or bad etc (I really think this was a bit of a Democrats vs Republicans rant myself). It is wothwhile that this was only in the chapter on politics.

Harris generally posited the idea that we have no free will and the sooner we get used to it, the better. He layed out the thought experiment of 5 scanarios in which a murder is committed, in a sliding scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the case of a small 4 yr old boy shooting a woman dead with his fathers gun on through more 3 greyer areas (a man with a brain defect killing her, a man with a terrible childhood killing her) onto a man from a good family killing her for no reason other than the fun of it. Of course everyone agreed the kid was not cuplable and the the man from a good family definitely was. Its the areas in between where the grey contentious areas lie. Harris was also quite dismissive of Compatabilism (there is pre-determination , but we still have choice withing this) as:

“a puppet is free as long as it loves its chains”

which I interpret as rather too emotive a statement for a rational argument ( does Harris secretly resent the lack of free will?)

David then returned to the main question. He mentiioned the experiments outlined inHarris’ book that indicate our brains action our intentions and movements microseconds before we are concsious of what we intend to do. Many did not agree that this provided conclusive evidence, including myself. Most other people said they did agree with the Compatilist view, that 98-99% of the time we have choice. I mentioned that we are on automatice pilot for most of our lives. When I was learning the violin my teacher told me I would only really play when I did not have to think about it. He did not like that, saying we will always have automatic reflexes and the like. I do not agree with that. I think we do have auto reflex actions, ok, but we are not aware how many of our actions and decision happen this way. Otherwise , if we had to make every decision, or work well in groups, we would get nowhere (not sure if I explained this well as I was tired from a bad nites sleep before).

The convesation then centred around the punative vs rehabilitative perspectives of prison. We discussed the Jamie Bolger case, the tabloids outrage in the UK at the time in comparison with a similar case in Sweden, where the perpetrators were merely viewed as mentally ill and not wicked, as was the case in the UK.

A novel called The Diceman by Luke Reinhart was then recommended. David summed up in the main conclusion was that we cannot fully know if we do have free will and full agency, but we can only witness it, as sometimes our consciousness drives us and not the other way around. I agree.

Spinoza’s Ethics

Basically this , as I see it , is an attempt to explain the nature of the world we live in and a treatise of how to live in it.

You can find it at:

This was a book to read for the North Yorkshire Humanist’s Philosophy book club at:

I am glad I had to read it for this meeting as I found it hard going and had to read secondary sources on the net to get an explanation. One explanation can be found at

The above should be a preview (you have to be a full member to hear everything) but it gives you an ok summary of the main points, notably about the nature of God.

The Ethics is divided into 4 parts.

Part 1 – Concerning God
(broke up into Axioms, Propositions, Appendix)

Summary: God is nature, all around, in us, is infinite, but not a conscious being like  one of traditional monotheism. God is the cause of our existence, though not our essence (not sure if this is meant that God does not exert influence over the will).
Part 2 – On the Nature & Origin of The Mind
(broke up into Definitions, Axioms, Propositions, Appendix)

Summary: mind as part of mass consciousness of nature, and by extension , God.

Part 3 – On the Origin and Nature of The Emotions
(broke up into Definitions, Postulates, Definitions of the Emotions, General Definitions of the Emotions)

Summary: Emotions are part of the body’s functions (in 3 parts – stimulation, merriment, pain), instinct is everywhere, even in animals. Emotions and self interest can work against us, must be able to identify the emotions and rise above them.

Part 4 – Of Human Bondage, or The Strength of the Emotions
– Of The Power of Understanding, of of Human Freedom
(broke up into Preface, Axioms, Propositions)
Summary: Influences of the emotions can be good or bad, depending on your situation and perspective. We are influenced by everything, but the highest good is the knowledge of God (this again does not comply with any traditional monotheistic beliefs). Do not live by the emotions , or be restricted by them. The way forward is through rationalism.
Overall, Spinoza meant the Ethics to be an organised approach, based on Euclidean geometry. In this respect, it’s not surprising that I found it too logical in parts
and too detached to have any real practical value. It’s a good book to study for from a strict philosophical point of view, but may have restricted practical value.

This sentiment was mirrored in the group and there is a sense in the book that Spinoza is denying the emotions than trying to live with them. This is impossible and Spinoza does come across a bit harsh at time, notably when talking about such emotions as pity. The group found similarities to Buddhism and Schopenhauer. Spinoza’s view on knowledge , as divided into 3 parts – imagination (bad), reason and intuition, was favourable though. Everyone thought it did need some explanation through reading secondary sources. I liked the idea of God as nature and infinite (as did most others). I found the idea of mind and body (extension) in agreement with nature to be a coherent argument also. The idea of rationalism as a guide to living is naive though. It definitely needs a few reading and a few diagrams.