Starting Discussion of "Free Will"

  • This is a hot topic that flares up regularly. If anyone has anything to offer on this to get the ball rolling, please go ahead. Otherwise at some point I'll find a way to phrase the question so we can at least get the ball rolling. The key passages are at the end of the Letter to Menoeceus, one of more Vatican Sayings, and this from Lucretius: (Martin Ferguson Smith, the best and most recent translator, from Lucretius Book 2):

    "Moreover, if all movements are invariably interlinked, if new movement arises from the old in unalterable succession, if there is no atomic swerve to initiate movement that can annul the decrees of destiny and prevent the existence of an endless chain of causation, what is the source of this free will possessed by living creatures all over the earth? What, I ask, is the source of this power of will wrested from destiny, which enables each of us to advance where pleasure leads us, and to alter our movements not at a fixed time or place, but at the direction of our own [260] minds? For undoubtedly in each case it is the individual will that gives the initial impulse to such actions and channels the movements through the limbs.

    Have you not observed too that, at the very moment when the starting gates are opened,16 the horses, despite their strength and impatience, cannot burst forward as suddenly as their minds desire? The reason is that the whole mass of matter throughout the whole body must be actuated: only when the whole frame has been actuated can it respond with energy to the eagerness of the mind. So you can see that the initial movement is produced by the mind: it originates from the act of mental [270] will, and is then diffused through every part of the body."

  • Another fragment from lucretius Drn 4.878 -898 same translation

    "Now I will explain how it is that we can step forward when we wish,

    and move our limbs at will, and what the force is that propels the huge

    bulk of our body. I want you to take in what I say.

    I maintain, as I have maintained before, that first of all images of

    movement present themselves to the mind and impinge on it. Then

    comes the act of will: no one can begin to do anything until the mind has

    foreseen what it wills to do; and what it foresees is determined by the

    image. So, as soon as the mind stirs itself in such a way that it wishes to

    move forward, it acts on the spirit, whose force is disseminated through

    all the limbs and members of the body; and this is easily done, since mind

    and spirit are intimately connected. The spirit in its turn acts on the body.

    and so little by little a forward motion is imparted to the whole mass.

    Moreover, once in motion, the body becomes rarefied and air, as

    one would expect of a substance that is always quick to move, penetrates

    the opened pores in an abundant stream and is thus distributed to every

    minute part of the body. So the body is driven forward by these two

    separate forces like a vessel propelled by the action of wind upon its


    The post was edited 1 time, last by Maciej ().

  • An excellent catch Maciej! The entire topic of "images" gets far too little attention in our online discussions, and it definitely relates to "free will." I think somewhere (maybe more than one place) Cicero ridicules the Epicurean treatment of images. Found one here:


    I think you must be a little ashamed at this being the third letter inflicted on you before I have a page or a syllable from you. But I will not press you: I shall expect, or rather exact, a longer letter. For my part, if I had a messenger always at hand, I should write even three an hour. For somehow it makes you seem almost present when I write anything to you, and that not “by way of phantoms of images,” as your new friends express it, who hold that “mental pictures” are caused by what Catius called “spectres”—for I must remind you that Catius Insuber the Epicurean, lately dead, calls “spectres” what the famous Gargettius, and before him Democritus, used to call “images.”

    Well, even if my eyes were capable of being struck by these “spectres,” because they spontaneously run in upon them at your will, I do not see how the mind can be struck. You will be obliged to explain it to me, when you return safe and sound, whether the “spectre” of you is at my command, so as to occur to me as soon as I have taken the fancy to think about you; and not only about you, who are in my heart’s core, but supposing I begin thinking about the island of Britain—will its image fly at once into my mind? But of this later on.

    Maciej do you have an opinion on what Epicurus was saying about free will here? (Bailey translation):

    "He understands that the limit of good things is easy to fulfil and easy to attain, whereas the course of ills is either short in time or slight in pain; he laughs at (destiny), whom some have introduced as the mistress of all things. (He thinks that with us lies the chief power in determining events, some of which happen by necessity) and some by chance, and some are within our control; for while necessity cannot be called to account, he sees that chance is inconstant, but that which is in our control is subject to no master, and to it are naturally attached praise and blame. For, indeed, it were better to follow the myths about the gods than to become a slave to the destiny of the natural philosophers: for the former suggests a hope of placating the gods by worship, whereas the latter involves a necessity which knows no placation. As to chance, he does not regard it as a god as most men do (for in a god’s acts there is no disorder), nor as an uncertain cause (of all things) for he does not believe that good and evil are given by chance to man for the framing of a blessed life, but that opportunities for great good and great evil are afforded by it. He therefore thinks it better to be unfortunate in reasonable action than to prosper in unreason. For it is better in a man’s actions that what is well chosen (should fail, rather than that what is ill chosen) should be successful owing to chance."

    Text is here:…rd-1926#page/n89/mode/2up

  • I see here 4 observations about "free will" in this fragment:

    1. It is one of the three powers that determine course of events.

    2. It gives us control over some events.

    3. What is in our control is subject to no master (other than us). Implicitly it depends on us.

    4. To that which is in our control is naturally attached praise and blame.

  • Good breakdown Maciej. Everything in that list seems eminently sensible to me, and it is frustrating that people with other agendas seem to want to insist on definitions of "Free will" that no one in their right mind, on either side of the debate, should consider to be reasonable.

  • What I keep running into is the two extremes - some people want to define free will as "there are absolutely no limits on anything I want to do" which is obviously untrue.

    Then there is "there is absolutely nothing I can choose for myself" even whether i pick salt or pepper, and that seems to me to be equally absurd.

    It seems obvious to me that the common sense position is similar to what you have listed - some things are in our control, some things out,

  • This is among my favourite topics. The debate philosophical and psychological debate has raged forever and for me it seems to come down the "momentary ability to assess information and choose what is correct".

    Here is my blog about it. which explains this is more (but not tons of) detail.

    I make no claims as to how or why or to what extent our will is free. Bigger brains than mine have grappled with that down the ages. :)

  • Great essay Eric! and it is a good thing that we enjoy that debate because it never goes away. And maybe that's why Epicurus basically laughed at it with:

    VS42 - The man who says that all things come to pass by necessity cannot criticize one who denies that all things come to pass by necessity: for he admits that this too happens of necessity.