Free-Will? — Flowchart Answer

The question of whether we are endowed with free-will is as old as human civilization. In this post, we offer a new perspective to this question — addressing it via a series of consecutive questions, located at decision-points of a flowchart.

Each answer directs us to a different path on the flowchart. Some answers land us at a dead-end. This requires regressing back to the recent decision-point, re-thinking our earlier decision (answers that landed us at a final-point on a path in the flowchart). Once we reach a final decision-point, which answers accurately the question (do we have free-will?), we are assured that the answer is well-founded, adopted only after all other options have been carefully explored, examined and rejected (or not, dependent on circumstance).

The flowchart includes Ovals (marking beginning or end of a path in the flowchart), Diamonds (decision-points) and Rectangles (steps in the flowchart). Other symbols commonly used in drawing process flowcharts are not needed. For each decision-point (diamond) — a question is asked. Each rectangular — provides an answer, addressed in detail below.

The questions forming the decision-points in the flowchart indeed form three filters, that only after we have “succeeded” passing them, can we be assured of the validity of our final conclusion, confidently asserting whether we entertain free will or otherwise.

The flowchart is now displayed, followed by comments relating to each of the decision-points (represented in the flowchart by ovals).

Enjoy the journey!

Professor Haim Shore Blog_Free Will Flowchart_June 14 2020

As we may now realize, the general structure of the flowchart comprises three fundamental questions/filters. They are:

  • Scientific?
  • Faith?
  • Optimization?

We now address each filter, what it means and what are its implications, regarding the basic question:

Do we exercise free will?

  • Scientific?

A scientific theory, or scientific claim, requires that a criterion be provided how this claim can be rejected, falsified. For example, an acceptable criterion is that if a scientific theory predicts a certain outcome (obtained from experiment, or from sheer observation of nature, where “experiments” are hard to manipulate, as in cosmology), and if this predicted outcome fails to realize — that alone  may collapse a scientific theory, invalidate it.

Is the claim “Humankind has free will” scientific? Since this claim relates not to humankind as a collective, this question reduces to the following:

Can we predict human response to any given Free-Will situation?

The answer is a resounding — No.

Human conduct can be predicted, to a certain degree, only regarding the collective, not individuals. Furthermore, given that randomness is part of nature, observed all around us, we never know whether the unpredictability of human response to given free-will situations is the result of nature randomness, observed everywhere in nature, or due to existence of individual free-will.

In short: The claim that human beings have free-will is not scientific, not falsifiable. We need to regress back to the decision-point and select a different path on the flowchart, which lands us at the next filter;

  • Faith?

This question relates to a single issue (for members of the monotheistic faiths):

Do you believe in God?

If positive, do you believe in the Divine source of the Bible, and consequently, in the truth of the Bible?

If the answer is again yes, then we have to decide that human beings do have free-will, as individuals, because this is a theme asserted endlessly in the Bible (refer to two quotes, from Torah and the prophets, in a most recent post, here). This ends our journey — Yes, there is free-will because that is what the Bible preaches, in all forms and shapes, and we believe in the Divine source of the Bible.

If we are non-believers, or agnostic — we need again to regress to the most recent decision-point, choose another path that leads us to the last filter;

  • Optimization?

Many free-will situations are not really what they look like. Often, these are just optimization situations, ego-centered decision scenarios, where the ego attempts to optimize the outcome of its decision. For example, what would I gain and lose from pursuing this path and not another? We then choose the optimal path for which the net gain is maximal. This scenario is typical to most decision scenarios we encounter in everyday life. Therefore, one cannot say that the situations, where the ego optimizes its response, are indeed free-will situations. They are merely optimization scenarios, the simplest of which can be answered by a computer (refer to an earlier post, discussing these points more extensively, here).

What then characterizes free-will situations?

These are decision-points in life, where we can act, on ethical grounds, against our ego and our best interest, to achieve ethical goals that do not necessarily benefit us. Examples:

  • Risking one’s life in battle to rescue fellow soldier;
  • Persisting in resuscitating a patient, undergoing heart failure, even though an acceptable standard for exercising such effort has long-ago been surpassed;
  • Sharing food with fellow human beings in conditions of extreme food scarcity;
  • Ego-free donation.

All these scenarios, few drops in an ocean of possible scenarios that one may conceive of, demonstrate exercising ego-free free-will decisions, based on ethical principles, even when these may go against self-interest and self-preservation. An old Jewish idiom comes to mind (in the original language of Chazal, tractate Avot 4:1):

“Who is a hero? — Him, who overcomes his desire”.

(Tractate Avot, or Pirkei Avot“Ethics of the Fathers”, is a tractate of the Mishna, part of Talmud, which details Torah’s views on ethics and interpersonal relationships; A modern day PC translation would probably read: “Who is a hero? — Him/her, who overcomes her/his desire”.)

This end-point in our journey teaches us a powerful lesson:

We are not born natural free-will individuals.

We have to work on it, nourish it, grow it throughout our lives, in order to free ourselves of the suffocating grip of the ego, to subdue it to ethical moral principles.

Only then — may we exercise ethical principles and ethical judgement in our conduct, in our negotiations with fellow human beings, capable of converting optimization decisions (ego-centered decisions) into free-will decisions.

Then, and only then, do we become liberated free individuals, capable of exercising free-will out of free-will-decision.

General Shorties

Shorty*: Free will?? — Only when the “Ego” is subjugated to “I”

“Free will” is an essential component of our lives as humans. It refers to common decision scenarios, when we confront multiple choices and one has to be selected. A philosophical question then often arises:

Are we, human beings, free to make our own choices, out of free will? Or are we always just “optimizing”, selecting that which is, or seems to be, best for us?

What is the difference between free-will choice and “optimization”?? And how are these related to two major components of our psyche — “Ego” and “I”?

Observing and studying the centuries-old debate for and against “free will”, one realizes that participants to this debate often do not grasp the true nature of free-will. Once this is cleared and clarified (by answering the above questions), the debate of whether free will exists largely becomes irrelevant and redundant.

What is “optimizing”?

An “Optimization decision” scenario occurs when all factors that may affect our decision are external to our free will and independent of it (or optimization, which always aims to benefit the ego and its needs, could not have taken place). Our behavior in such decision scenarios is therefore purely deterministic, devoid of free will; In fact, a robot, fed with the correct data, could have made the decision for us, possibly even better than we do (since a robot expectedly does not commit errors).

What, then, is the essential ingredient that renders a choice situation from one of optimizing to an exercise of free-will?

The answer is simple:

A “free-will” scenario is one where our ego is made irrelevant to the choice we make.

In other words, in a “free will” scenario, created out of our own free will, all factors affecting our decision are within us, under our control, subject to the ultimate decision-maker within our psyche, the “I” (not to the ego).

What differentiate the “I” from the “Ego”?

The “I”, exercising free will, may decide on giving; The ego, by its very nature, decides only on “taking” (NEVER on giving).

This is perhaps why Jewish prophets so often refer to the Divine as the ultimate embodiment of “I”. Here is prophet Isaiah:

I am I am Jehovah and besides me there is no deliverer” (Isaiah 43:11); “..I am the first, and I am the last, and besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6); “..I am He, I am the first, I am also the last…  (Isaiah 48:12);  “I I have spoken, Indeed I have called him, I have brought him, and he shall succeed in his way” (Isaiah 48:15).

And this is the ingredient by which to judge whether a choice scenario is a “free will” one:

A free-will scenario always contains a moral and ethical element — Will we act against our own interest, against our own ego, to benefit others? Will we decide to give instead of take? Will we decide to love (give) instead of hate?

Or, in the original language of Chazal (tractate Avot 4:1):

“Who is a hero? — Him, who overcomes his desire”.

(Tractate Avot, or Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers”, is a tractate of the Mishna that details Torah’s views on ethics and interpersonal relationships; A modern day PC translation would probably read: “Who is a hero? — Him/her, who overcomes her/his desire”.)

Given these perspectives regarding “free will” and its relationship to the two main ingredients of our soul, the “Ego” and the “I”, a powerful lesson may be learned:

Qualifying a decision scenario as free-will (“I”-related), and acquiring the necessary sensitivity to distinguish it from an “optimization” decision (ego-centered one) — these are first essential steps towards genuine personal growth, moral development and personal maturing.


* Shorty is a short post