Eric – you make a very good point that the way that we exercise our free will is affected by the many other factors that have conditioned our worldview – he lists sex, race, religion, the stars born under, mother, father, nationality, wealth or poverty, education, thousands of other environmental influences, and dumb luck.

I agree that these are all factors in how we exercise our free will. However….

[And for a moment here I wish that we could have this discussion, as Rico previously described, in a slightly over-caffeinated state in a comfortable coffee shop. A blog is a far from perfect forum for lively exchange of ideas. I just hope that my next comment comes across in the spirit in which it is intended – of philosophical debate, rather than contradiction.]

I would suggest that free will is still free will, even if we poor limited humans are not capable of exercising it freely. Let’s imagine that free will is like a camera. It is a fine camera, brand new, in perfect working order. If we take a bad photograph, it is because of poor eyesight, or a shaking hand, or because we aimed the camera too high or too low. It is the human that is at fault, not the camera. These faults can all be corrected – better eyeglasses, improved breathing control, reframing our picture – through the means that Eric suggests – a conscious attention to day to day life with Buddhist like mindfulness. And then free will can be exercised accurately and effectively. The image in our camera viewfinder will be clear and pleasing.

A few other comments brought up the question of limiting circumstances, and here it is important to make a distinction: we may have free will, yet not have freedom of action, nor freedom of choice. I might decide that I want to be a basketball player, but at five-foot-four I am unlikely to succeed. To continue the camera metaphor, I am restricted to aiming it at things that are within my line of sight, so I do not have free choice of what will appear in my photograph. It is a camera, not a gun, so I can only shoot photographs, not bullets, so I do not have full freedom of action. But, according to my worldview, I still have free will in the sense that I choose what to aim my camera at, and when to fire the shutter. There is no omnipotent micro-manager raising my hand, taking aim, and pressing the shutter for me.

UncaDoug put this well: “We have free will in how we navigate and negotiate the obstacles that arise. Our ability to respond creatively and to initiate are how we rise above destiny. Destiny might be the unpredictable events over which we have no control. But our inventiveness reflects our personal choice.” To refer to my hero Viktor Frankl again, it is almost impossible to imagine more restrictive circumstances than being a prisoner in a concentration camp, yet he still exercised his free will when he resolved to always act with dignity and integrity, no matter what was being done around him and to him.

As to whether free will and the existence of God are mutually exclusive – far from it. To draw a parallel: as my mother sometimes says, with a sigh, she brought me and my sister up to think for ourselves. There is no disputing that she gave birth to us, but that does not mean that she controls every aspect of our lives. She brought us into this world, equipped us as best she could, and then sent us on our way. I agree with Daniel and Thomas’s comments on this one.

So, what is the upshot of all this? Is it just an intellectual debate, or does it have practical ramifications? I think it has very real, and very immediate relevance, and you won’t be surprised to hear that I see it in relation to the environment.

There is a school of thought that we would not be allowed to exploit the Earth’s resources as we do if this was not part of the divine plan. According to this logic, the very fact that we are doing it proves that it must be not only our right, but in fact our destiny. If it was not our destiny, God would intervene and stop it from happening.

I prefer to take the view that we have free will to choose how we treat our one and only planet. We have evolved (or been blessed, depending on your belief system) with intelligence, the ability to consider long-term consequences, and the capability to make wise decisions based on scientific evidence and common sense.

Believing in free will necessarily means taking responsibility for our future. We get to choose, because nobody else is going to make that choice for us. Believing in destiny means that it is all pre-ordained and no matter what we do now, we are either destined to survive or doomed to extinction.

Which belief do you prefer?

Other Stuff:

The sea anchor is out. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had to use it, but the wind is against me. Over the next 48 hours it is due to move around anticlockwise through all the points of the compass, before getting back to normal. Neptune only knows where I’ll be by then. And everything had been going so well, too….

Problems with incoming email again. As podcast listeners will know, I’ve been having poor satphone connections recently, which affects my data service as well as my weekly calls with Vic. And in any case, this blog is plenty long enough already. Hopefully normal service, including responses to comments, will be resumed tomorrow.

Quote for the day: “Life is like a game of cards. That hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” (Jawaharlal Nehru)

Sponsored Miles: Grateful to Erica Vaccan and Allison Urban for sponsoring some of today’s miles.


  • A comment on your Quote of the Day. I came across a solitaire card game for the computer the other day, and discovered it has a flaw in the way it shuffles the cards. The result is a game that is impossible to win most of the time because the cards are quite literally stacked against you. There are days when I suspect Someone is doing the same thing with my life.

    Oh, well, it’s early on a Friday morning here on the East Coast of the US, and Hurricane Irene is fast approaching. Time to be dealt another hand…

  • Joke in today’s paper:Older
    man: “I do not envy your generation, in my day every generation could
    expect to do better than its parents, but you…you’re the first
    generation that’ll do worse. But look on the bright side…compared to
    your future kids, you’re doing GREAT!”

    “God cannot exist in our time because he created time, you have to exist before you create.” Interesting. Also if God knows all, he cannot change it, it would be like everything that ever happened and everything that will happen was contained on a computer, then if God decided to change something now, it would change everything from now on and then God would have to redo the computer model, which makes the original model wrong and God cannot be wrong!

  • Tongue in cheek…I’ll be on duty for Irene this weekend and I am sure to see the huge variation in the extent to which people have evolved (or been blessed) with intelligence, the ability to consider long-term consequences, and the capability to make wise decisions based on scientific evidence and common sense…yikes.

    The trick is to get people to switch off the autopilot and and grab the tiller…to begin to acquire that “mindfulness” and to look beyond their immediate circumstances…overcoming inertia is a bitch…but that’s what we’re faced with.The nice thing is that the evidence of people waking up and caring is visible.

  • For those of us who are creationists and read the Bible we must also recognize that our “dominion over” the creation places us as stewards of God’s creation under His authority.  To abuse our stewardship of the resources God provides makes us unfaithful children and subject to His chastening.

    I do not think of myself as an environmentalist because I think that has come to be a religious world view contrary to mine.  I prefer the older term “conservationist” such as John Muir and T.Roosevelt might have termed themselves.

    But regardless there are some things that make sense to us all, like “Ban the Bag!” and “Row Roz Row!”

  • Roz . . . I see free will as being free to exercise our will with the choices that are presently available to us.  You say that quite well.  The conundrum arises when folks keep slicing the pie ever more finely but the reality is that the only moment that counts is the present moment and the choices we have in that instance.  Sure we can do things that might make it possible to do something in the future–set the ball rolling as it were–but until that moment arrives we do not have the ability to exercise our will and do it.

  • please, when you return, can we all sit around a (large) table and debate this topic…it is fascinating!!!. As you have said Roz , it is not always easy to get the point over all that successfully on a blog ..I mean me…not you!. I guess we would need a convention centre. So who can think of the best venue for the Philosophy debate of the decade 🙂 🙂 🙂
    David Church

  • Hi Roz,

    I’m glad to hear things calmed down enough for Philosophy Friday.  I hope the wind starts blowing right.

    You’re right and your metaphor is apt.  My point was exercising free will takes tremendous effort – at least for the difficult things.   If it was easy the world would be a much different place. 

    As for the “exploitation is destiny” school of thought, those people should be allowed to breed only on one condition: They have to buy each child a shiny new sports car, a full tank of gas, and a case of liquor in it on their 15th birthday.  Then give them the keys, walk away, and let “destiny” take its course. 

    “Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.” – John Wayne


  • Roz,  You said “we may have free will, yet not have freedom of action, nor freedom of choice”

    I think this is true. Freedom of action does not have to be available to have free will. Free will is reflected in freedom of action, and might be thought of as the visible form of free will, but free will is a part of life, even when in a prison or on a small rowboat in the middle of an ocean. We might say “I think, and therefore I have free will.”

    Free will is a responsibility, and as Eric has said takes tremendous effort. The responsibility of free will is either accepted or ignored, and those who ignore their responsibility include those who ignore the necessary stewardship of Earth, whether it is called environmentalism or conservationism.

       Row on Roz!

  • As happens when one is over-caffeinated … and especially on Philosophy Fridays … I’m going to NOT discuss the subject under discussion, and am going to go off-topic.  I still believe that we (in the West) are spending a lot of time discussing the wrong topics.  We get wrapped up in a lot of things, and the media and Facebook and Twitter get us even more wrapped up in these things, that really are of little consequence to our lives and futures.  And meanwhile, the “really big issues” are hardly ever discussed or worked on.  And while I am VERY pro-environmental, or pro-conservationist as Daniel might prefer, I still believe that there are worse problems coming down the road toward us.  A month ago, on a Philosophy Friday, I talked about my number #1 fear for the future, which is “global economic collapse”, because of the enormous implications that a collapse of the economic and financial systems would have for every aspect of our lives.  Hospitals would close, food distribution systems would grind to a halt, police protection in the streets would be minimalized, diseases would spread, millions of people would die.  Today, on another Philosophy Friday, I’ll mention my number #2 fear for the future … “the coming police state” in many developed countries.  I don’t know how it is in Europe currently, or in other developed countries, but the nature of life in the United States has changed dramatically in the last ten years.  Partly it is due to the so-called War on Terrorism which has allowed “the powers that be” to really erode individual privacy, and partly it is due to our burgeoning technological age.  But I read recently that in the last ten years, some 30 million new security cameras have been installed in public places throughout the United States.  This is in addition to the computer chips being installed in our cars, in our credit cards, in our passports, to the toll-roads with camera-based toll-plazas replacing our once “free” national highway system, to the credit report companies which now control more and more aspects of our individual lives.  And while many of these things may have some purpose in a War on Terrorism, I think they can easily be transformed in “police state control measures” to be used against the population itself, as society continues to break down, as it already seems to be doing.  Whether these two fears of mine (and there are actually some more) will ever come to pass, is rightfully a matter of conjecture, and an easy topic to debate on Philosophy Fridays.  But all I am trying to say is that while we work on global warming and the pollution of our oceans and these related issues, it is equally vital that we keep our eyes and minds on “the big picture” of what is happening all around us.

    • Greed + Control + Paranoia = CHAOS.

      From the Human aspect, life is chaotic.

      However,  Roz’s blog, purpose, mission, is FOCUSED – principally on environmental issues which includes options to explore, and motivates us to engender individual solutions to perceived problems that bother us.

      By sharing our individual viewpoints / comments, we do have a forum on environmental issues here. 

      But, as you have stated, there are many other major issues that need to be addressed; however, I believe they each need a separate forum to be reckoned with and fully understood before a collective solution can be engineered. 

      Time to stop, as too many tangents are opening up. 


    • Rico,

      I certainly think that these topics you mention should always be open for discussion; discussion that hasn’t occurred in the US, when legislation restricting our freedoms has been passed.

      However, I am wary of such discussions in this forum. Politicians have often used the excuse of “larger” topics to shut down attempts to care for the environment with comments such as “we cannot afford to talk about the environment in economic times such as these,” or “the environment is not important in the light of the terrorism going on.” These political excuses have been used for decades.  In fact, there is no better time to discuss how we as individuals, groups or countries can better care for the environment than right now.

          With respect,

      • I could make the argument that we’re all just friends here, having a conversation.  And that there really are no topics that are off-limits.  And that the main purpose of the blog (as I see it) is to provide Roz with some intellectual stimulation and entertainment while she’s working her way across the Indian Ocean.  But since I seem to have bothered several people with my off-topic meanders, I certainly will desist from these kinds of comments.  Thanks to all of you for being so straightforward and forthcoming.


  • Whenever I think of the fine line between destiny and free will, I will forever think of this exerpt from a very good read… it can be found on the bottom of page one…

    These boats do not appear to yearn for the open ocean as their masted relatives do. In fact, they appear barely seaworthy. They have no sails and no engine; their only means of propulsion is by oar, powered by human muscle. And one of them, the Sedna Solo, belongs to me.

    …shivers mi timbers till now…

    The author also gave me this little quote…

    “There came a time, when my convictions became more important than my desire for comfort.” ~R Savage

    ( btw… does UncaDoug have a good story for you! )

    Row Roz Row!

    “Individually, we are but one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” Ryunosuke Satoro

  • Rico~ in regards to concerns and police states.. there are many options for shaping a better future being discussed in TED talks… I feel quite good about some of them. Collaboration, Innovation and Open Source information searches will probably be of interest to you, as they are “new” concepts. For example, ten years ago, if someone were to say that a free encyclopedia written by the readers would overtake Encyclopedia Brittanica, most of us would have responded with an insanity plea.

    We are getting smarter about “The Prisonser’s Dilema.”

    Btw, not to lose all hope in fellow humans… the Japanese also have an ancient culture living in “development”… not one recorded episode of looting or rioting after the tsunami. Almost no police, and almost all police resources are used to help solve disputable points of view, including psychosis, not disturbances.

    Having been to or through many hurricanes including Camille and Katrina, I wish Margo, Tom, Ian and anyone else on the east coast well and safety vibes…

    Row Roz Row!

    Howard Rheingold on collaboration:

  • Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense. 

  • As serious as this discussion on free will is, not to mention how serious the subject is, I would have given up a long time ago if it weren’t for humor and the friends that care about me. 
    I don’t believe there is any scientific way to quantify human ideals like right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and bad. Happiness is the measure I use for my interactions with the world and others. Long term happiness requires long term thinking. I am shaping the future of my children and I desperately want them to be as happy as possible…whew!

  • Thinking on these lines, I am reminded of an interview I saw several years ago. 
    An only child of a street drunk dad and a mother with AIDS, this young lady had cared for her mom till her death while attending school and working to bring home food. The girl entered College at the age of 16 and graduated with a medical degree at 21!  An Md.!  When one of the “Today’s” hosts ask her if she was very bitter towards her parents, her answer put the audience and the interviewer in complete silence!  She said, “I loved my parents very much and they me, and without them we wouldn’t be having this interview .”

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