Free Will … Maybe – Part 1

Despite the fact that Daniel Fincke and I once, a long time back, mutually challenged each other to debate it, I’ve been putting off this post, or any post on the subject, for some time. And I’ll tell you why:

Mainly, I’ve just realized, it’s because I’m afraid of it.

For someone like Sam Harris to say explicitly that free will is an illusion, or for Daniel Fincke, whom I respect, to assert the same thing, disturbs me greatly.

Because … no free will? That’s like saying “You’re not real, you’re not there, you’re not YOU.”

Or – at the very least – not as You and you think you are.

I don’t WANT to be not-Me.

But I already sort of figured it out, really. Because my own conception of free will is that it’s possible, but very, very difficult. And so, most people don’t have it, or don’t have much of it.

Except me, right? And you, of course.

All of us think we have it. The subjective little mindstorm in my own head seems very You-ish to me. But that’s probably the case with all of us, I guess.

In thinking about déjà vu years ago, that dramatic feeling of “I’ve been here before, doing this exact same thing” – with its corollary that we all have some sort of precognition, and this is the proof – I looked at the thing as a real-world pragmatist and tried to figure out what it might be if it wasn’t evidence of a spooky psychic power.

It was pretty easy to come up with an idea about what it might be:

Postulate that there’s this mechanism in your head, a sort of “Oh, hey, I recognize this!” mechanism. And postulate that, though it fires off properly most of the time, when you actually DO recognize something familiar in a slightly-emphatic way, it also sometimes fires off at odd moments, in a sort of tiny, tiny seizure-thingie, and for a few seconds you get déjà vu.

Years later, I read an article about it, and heard that brain scientists have concluded that that’s pretty much precisely what déjà vu is.

Anyway, that clued me in to the fact that my brain, the meat mainframe on which my You runs, is prone to mechanical errors. Which sort of underlines the fact that there IS a meat mainframe underneath all this You-ness, and that it operates in some real-world mechanical way, with neurons and molecules in place of gears and wires.

Which means, first, that my You is, in deep, profound ways, a sort of illusion. But also that IN ADDITION to the massive number of errors in my You-program itself (and oh man, have I had to live with an enormous amount of screwed-up-ness), I have to contend with the fact of a clunky, flawed mechanical platform on which that supposed You-program runs.


None of us wants to believe we’re not real. We’re prone to instantly reject the assertion that we’re nothing but meat robots, with nothing of choice about what we think, say and do.

A little aside here: I haven’t read Sam Harris’ book. Like I say, the subject scares me – I didn’t want to face a reverse-Pinocchio scenario where, thinking myself a real boy all my life, I’m forced to discover I’m nothing but a string puppet.

Which means that everything I’m writing here is written in the dark, in ignorance of what some of the better thinkers on the subject, the actual brain researchers, are writing.

But I wanted to trek out into the subject on my own for a bit, to see what I come up with, before I compare notes with the experts.


Free Will.

The simplest argument for it is, “I’m me. I know I am. It’s obvious. And I do stuff all the time just because I want to.”

The objections to that viewpoint pretty much leap out at you.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, there’s a creepy-funny scene late in the story where a couple of mouse researchers want to study main character Arthur Dent’s brain by removing and dissecting it. They offer him a replacement robotic  brain, asserting that nobody would notice the difference.

Dent protests “I would notice!”

The mouse-scientist answers “No you wouldn’t. You’d be programmed not to.”

That literary scene was, to me, a scary answer to the supposedly obvious nature of You-ness. What if we aren’t actually real, but are only programmed to think we are?

But I was grappling with the subject from as far back as the age of 15 and arguing with nerd friends while losing games of chess in the high school cafeteria.

The simplest argument against the idea of free will was “Hey, you can’t just flap your arms and fly, man! Therefore you don’t have Free Will!”

There always seemed something wrong with that argument, though. My answer, which I was never erudite enough to get out during one of those arguments, is that “Hey, you can’t define it like that! If ‘free will’ means ‘able to flout physical laws at will,’ we might as well not even discuss it, because we obviously can’t do that.”

If it means anything at all, ‘free will’ has to mean something else. Because yes, that meat mainframe is under everything that goes on in our minds, and under that is the real physical world, with all sorts of evolutionary realities of human-species-ness along for the ride, all of which utterly limits the sorts of things our little software-y selves can think and do.

If free will means flouting the laws of physics, then it doesn’t exist.

But again … if we want to talk about it at all, if we want the phrase “free will” to mean something worth thinking and arguing about, it can’t mean that. For it to be a viable subject for thinking about, talking about, we have to define it in some other way.

To explain my earlier statement that I think most of us don’t have it, but that it’s possible for some of us,  I’ll have to go back a ways and sort of sneak up on the subject.

So in Part 2 (which may be a few days in coming) I’ll talk about why I don’t think we have free will, and then in Part 3 (another few days) I’ll talk about why I think we might.

Beta Culture: A Third Approach to Gender Equality
Thoughts on “Privilege”
The Book of Good Living: How to Avoid Being Killed By A Train
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
  • judykomorita

    Since I can’t follow heavy philosophical arguments, I ignore them. So I will be very curious to see what your well-thought-out, everyday-language comments will be.

  • Brad

    I haven’t examined the “we don’t have free will” arguments in great detail, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to find that they could be persuasive.

    My primary thought on the whole issue, though, is the following:

    * Even if free will is ultimately illusory, it is important that we believe we have free will.

    I know my own motivation would be impacted if I really believed that I had no real ability to make an impact on the world around me. I also think I remember a study that showed that I’m not the only one that thinks this.

    • rapiddominance

      That was a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and humble comment. I hope my criticism comes across the same.

      The thing is, suggesting the necessity of believing in a nonexistent entity like free will is similar to the Berlinski school of thought that its important for human society to have god(s)–even if there are none. (I think I’m interpreting Berlinski correctly)

      These are separate issues, of course, so the answers CAN legitimately go in entirely different directions.

      None the less, its some pretty spooky shit to think about. But then, why would mother nature NOT demand of us that we manufacture ghost contrivances?

      • Brad

        I can see some similarities, I guess, but one of the major themes of atheist writings is the harm that religion/theism does, which is only partially countered by some of the positive feelings it might give believers.

        I don’t see the same parallel here with believing in the concept of free will: even if you could make a solid argument for the deterministic position, its pretty clear from the research that belief in free will causes a measurable (positive) impact on our behavior.

        I don’t see any equivalent downside of believing in free will, so the common atheist argument (“I’d rather believe an uncomfortable truth than a comforting lie”) isn’t compelling in this case.

    • Brad

      Found a few articles/studies that talked about how belief in free will can impact our behavior:

      According to several studies, this belief in free will increase the tendency of individuals to devote effort into their activities and thus override their natural inclinations or impulses.

      Deric Bownds profiles a study by Vohs and Schooler of the University of British Columbia, which found that the presenting arguments for determinism increases the likelihood of selfishness and cheating.

      Free will may be an illusion. Yet we persist in believing we are the masters of our fates — and that belief affects how we act. Think you determine the course of your life and you’re likely to work harder toward your goals and feel better about yourself too. Think you don’t, and you’re likelier to behave in ways that fulfill that prophesy.

      What we believe, it seems, affects us much more fundamentally than previously thought. At least when it comes to free will, disbelief can affect neural processes at a stage before we are even aware that they are taking place.

      Ironically, it seems that what we believe about free will can change our behavior, but are we choosing that belief? Or is it determined for us? ;)

      • rapiddominance

        Enjoyed the feedback.

        The results in each of the cited pieces are like one might expect them to be.

        INTUITIVELY, the idea of not believing in freewill SEEMS almost dangerous (and possibly irresponsible).

        Again, great comments! Thanks for that.

  • Jim Baerg

    My will is free in about the same sense that an undammed river is free.

    • rapiddominance

      That’s reassuring.

  • MLR
    • Beth

      Good article. Thanks.

      I thinkit did a good job of summing up the problem in a nutshell:

      We talk about the world using different levels of description, appropriate to the question of interest. Some levels might be thought of as “fundamental” and others as “emergent,” but they are all there. Does baseball exist? It’s nowhere to be found in the Standard Model of particle physics. But any definition of “exist” that can’t find room for baseball seems overly narrow to me.

      This site also has some interesting discussion of the subject.

      I particularly liked the following sentiment:

      skepticism about free will seems to me to be akin to radical skepticism about reality in general (the idea that all of reality is an illusion, or a computer simulation, or something along those lines): it denies what we all think is self-evident, it cannot be defeated logically (though it is not based on empirical evidence), and it is completely irrelevant to our lives.

      The claim that free will does not exist is simply not a falsifiable claim and therefore, it is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested but a philosophical idea.

  • Ben

    If we really do have “free will” in the sense that we can think and make decisions then it must be a violation of the laws of physics. Because the very fact that we can think at all is a result of physical events that are inextricably bound to physical laws. There is no way, that I can see, to separate the thinking process from the laws of physics. Our brains are chemical and electrical reactions from start to finish.

    So, at this point we can conclude that there my be some non-physical mechanism that allows our minds to somehow circumvent physical laws and become independant of them or we are imprisoned by the physical laws. We have no evidence of any non-physical mechanisms for freeing our minds, so skeptics should reject that until we have evidence to support it.

    I recently watched an old debate between Sam Harris and Deepak Chopra (among others) that dove into this stuff. Chopra had some kind of fluffy, new-age explanation of how the mind is separate from the brain, but offered no evidence of how these things are separate. His mechanisms and explanations were nonsense to me. If we can’t answer the question of how our mind can overcome physics while still recognizing that our minds still seem inseparable from our physical bodies and brains then we have no case for free will.

    • Ben

      Looking at this statement again “If we really do have “free will” in the sense that we can think and make decisions”

      I should add “independant of physics”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Because my own conception of free will is…
    My answer, which I was never erudite enough to get out during one of those arguments, is that “Hey, you can’t define it like that! …
    If it means anything at all, ‘free will’ has to mean something else…

    A large fraction of the verbiage spewed on the topic of free will is completely wasted. We should decide on a definition before discussing whether we believe in it or not.

  • rapiddominance

    If we don’t have free will, then aren’t creationists sort of like copiers or snack machines that aren’t quite working like you think they’re supposed to?

    In work rooms and lounges you see people all the time cuss, punch, push, and kick these things when they’re not “putting out” correctly. Sometimes, a push or kick seem to work.

    But it always looks foolish on the part of the aggitated individual who is verbally or physically assaulting the machine.

    On the other hand, gently tilting that Little Debbie to her freedom or calmly tinkering with the components of the photocopier comes across as rather intelligent.*

    *Well, I guess it depends on how the person is positioned when he/she is tilting the vending machine (as to whether its intelligent or not). Those things are heavy and they can slip out of control fast!

  • rapiddominance

    Sorry to be writing a book on this blog, but I just thought of an idea I wanted to run by you guys. I had Brad’s comment on my mind when I was reading Ben’s.

    This might be warped, so note that I’m not standing behind this thing:

    The world is flat AND the world is round.

    Of course, its round. No kindergardener thinks he lives on a cube or a table. (The “Round World Theory” is taught in grade K, yes?)

    Yet, as we divide land, we do so in terms of area (not volume or surface area*). When we build structures on that land, we build them parallel (level) to the perceived flat surface of the ground. When we map out a destination, most of us denote it as a bending, unbroken line on a flat map; but even on a globe we see it as a left/right/forward/back afair without any depth or height whatsoever.

    So, at least for most of us, we COULD live our lives as if on a flat earth.

    Any thoughts?

    *I understand that surface area HAS been taken more into account historically; but not so much now.

    • rapiddominance

      Comment #8 makes better sense after reading #2. Otherwise, it might look like I meant to post it on another thread.

    • pyrobryan

      Though I’m not quite sure what this has to do with free will, I think the issue of “living on a flat earth that is actually round” boils down to perception. We build buildings as though they were on a flat surface because the curve of the earth is shallow enough that vertical supports that are parallel to each other are still “perpendicular” enough to the surface that the angular force of gravity is negligible.

      As for the paths we take when travelling, we have no need to consider the curvature of the earth because gravity takes care of that for us. Assume the planet is a perfect, smooth sphere. We couldn’t just face one direction, start walking in a straight line and wind up in space because gravity is constantly pulling us back toward the surface.

      In short, for our day-to-day lives, on a very local scale, we might as well live on a flat earth. Of course, if you make a mid-day call to someone on the other side of the planet, don’t be surprised if they tell you differently when you wake them up in the middle of the night.

      This also reminds me of a story I heard where an Australian living in the US was reminiscing about how they missed warm, sunny Christmases, drinking wine on the beach. Me, born and raised in America, I don’t think I could enjoy a holiday season that wasn’t cold and, preferably, snowy. Perception.

      • machintelligence

        Indeed, to a first approximation, the earth is flat (the radius of curvature is very large). Of course, to a first approximation, all animals can fly (to a first approximation, all animals are insects).
        Physics may not be the right place to look for free will, though. The answer may be in evolutionary biology: See Daniel Dennett “Freedom Evolves”.

      • rapiddominance

        The only point would be that a person can “know” that there is no freewill and yet live life as if it was real.

        Its about attitude more than anything. Each person finding what works for him/herself. The word “doublethink” comes to mind, only its a form of deferment rather than a premeditated strategy.

        But again, I’m definitely not working with a clear and defined idea.


        • pyrobryan

          Ok, now I see the connection. We can live our day to day lives as though we have free will, just the same as we live our day to day lives as if the earth is flat. In our “small scale perception” things may appear one way, but looking from another perspective, a different truth may be revealed.

  • 8-bit

    At our scale (both physical and temporal) free will is a perfectly adequate way to describe and model our interactions with the universe. Yes, if you break everything down, our actions are all a result of a series of physical interactions of particles, but they all happen at a scale below our ability to know or sense. In that frame, free will is completely valid for modeling the situation allowing (mostly) accurate actions and predictions without having to know all the component parts.

    It is the same way that Newtonian physics is a perfectly valid model for a whole lot of situations, even though we know that they are incorrect at small scales where quantum mechanics needs to take over. Newtonian physics works well at scales common to us without needing to model all the quantum effects and while it may not be “complete” it can still be considered “correct”.

    • Lou Doench

      That’s actually one of the best responses I’ve seen 8bit, very thoughtful.

  • Russell

    The problem with most arguments on “free will” is that few define precisely what they mean by that term. I guarantee that most people arguing for determinism are saying nothing about whether you or you or not. When you decide to flap your arms, isn’t it you who determines that? And if not, does that somehow make you more free? The opposite of determinism is stochastic, and the opposite of free is compelled. Consider the possibility that those label quite different axes.

  • Mark


    I think you have stated the argument against “no contra-causal freewill” in the most succinct, honest way I have ever seen it put to paper (or at least cyber-paper). People don’t want to give up the idea because they think that they’ll lose themselves, become something that they don’t want to be, throw away their morality… wait; does that sound like another set of arguments? With this audience I won’t bother to fill in the blank. But understanding that human behavior is materially caused doesn’t mean any of those things. In fact it makes life even more interesting. The fact that evolution programmed the love for my children doesn’t cheapen it, it makes it more rare, more precious, more perfect that I understand it. When I err, an understanding of materialism makes me less judgmental of myself and more willing to objectively accept (and learn from) the mistake. It also makes it easier to move beyond the errs I perceive in others.

    When I’m getting ready for work in the morning, I look in the mirror and ask the question “I wonder what that crazy SOB (son of the brotherhood) is going to do today?” And on the vast majority of days, given the imposed constraints, I’m usually very pleasantly surprised with outcome.

    Accepting the evidence for a complete lack of contra-causal freewill doesn’t reduce our freedom, it doesn’t eliminate our humanity; it magnifies both.

  • Pen

    If people think they have free will, does that change how they behave?

    Like if people think, perhaps because they are taught to: ‘I can choose what to do, so I owe it to myself to spend time thinking about what the best choice will be’ – as opposed to just reacting. Then maybe, choose and implement a lifestyle change, a different way of thinking, whatever…

    But then, aren’t the people who do that subjecting themselves to a bunch of forces even more that the ones who just react?

    • Pen

      Doh – replying to myself…! What I mean above is, I like the idea that there are good reasons for what I do. But by the same token, I’m acknowledging that my behaviour was caused. So, no free will?

  • Kristjan Wager

    I must admit that I hate the “free will” debates. Why does it matter? Outside religious concepts, that is.

    I think that what we call “will” (an ill-defined concept if there ever was one) is a result of chemical processes in our brain reacting to outside impulses, drawing upon past experiences.

    This doesn’t mean that it is predetermined what we will decide – this is entirely dependent on impulses, experiences, and perhaps even a random factor (who knows?).

    What we certainly can say, is that each of us are entirely unique in our experiences, and perhaps in our decision biases, so for all practical purposes, we can look at ourselves as individuals processing our own unique, free will.

  • judykomorita

    Kristjan says:
    “I think that what we call “will” (an ill-defined concept if there ever was one) is a result of chemical processes in our brain reacting to outside impulses, drawing upon past experiences.

    This doesn’t mean that it is predetermined what we will decide – this is entirely dependent on impulses, experiences, and perhaps even a random factor (who knows?).”

    Thank you for that. You put my thoughts into words better than I could.

    When I sit and think about a decision I have to make, list the pros and cons, prioritize them, consider my feelings on the subject, and make a decision, I can’t see how that is *not* free will.

    It doesn’t make sense to me to say that just because my brain is physical, and its processes are physical, that I had no choice in my thoughts, feelings, or decisions.

    I suppose this could be some kind of argument from ignorance. But I stand by it until someone convinces me otherwise. :P

  • Ed

    The kalam cosmological argument supposes that for every effect there must be an antecedent cause. Christians assume that the universe had a beginning and therefore had to have a first uncaused cause. However, a self-existent eternal universe is no more absurd that a self existent eternal Being. Unless, you believe that there is some dualistic nature of man, (soul and physical) then it seems inescapable that our choices are the product of man choosing according to his greatest desire at the moment of choice. This gives the illusion of freedom, but does not address the underlying genesis of our desires, which, as far as I can tell, are affected by our genetics and environmental neuro-input of the world around us. Not only do you choose in accordance with your greatest desires at the moment of choice but you must.

  • johnhodges

    Years ago I decided that the issue of “free will versus determinism” was untestable with regard to science and irrelevant with regard to ethics. Since then I have tried to avoid wasting time on it. I have an essay about it here:

    For those who care, I tak a “compatibleist” position.

  • Robert B.

    I also think that this question is a problem of bad definitions. I think I have free will because what my mind does is determined by its own nature. (Yes, its physical nature, were you thinking of some other nature?) The common idea of “free will” sounds to me like being mind-controlled by a magical random number generator from beyond space and time.

    People hear “there’s no such thing as free will” and think that our ideas of the thoughts and processes that make up our “selves” must be illusions. That’s not the case. All your choices, your feelings, your doubts, your image of yourself, your sense that you might have chose something different but you chose this instead, those are all real. They just happen to be physical events, rather than Cartesian magic from the astral plane.

    Yes, if someone knew you perfectly (meaning far, far better than you know yourself, which is in turn probably better than any real person actually knows you) they could always predict how you’d react to things. Is that bad? Would you prefer to act unpredictably, to arbitrarily betray yourself for no reason?

    Do you desire to improve yourself? Great! You totally can. And doesn’t it make you feel better to know that this desire to improve yourself was already and always a physical part of you, and nothing short of physical disaster could have taken it away?

    To say “my thoughts and feelings are determined by neurological events in my brain, and nothing else” doesn’t actually mean anything different from “my thoughts and feelings are determined by who I am and what happens to me, and nothing else.” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that being who you are takes magic. That just lets the magic-peddlers control who you think you are.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hank, rejecting non-determined free will is not the same thing as rejecting all meaningful senses of free will. You need to read up on compatiblism. In particular, back in September I addressed what you have anxiety about, this idea of not being yourself. Here’s the heart of what I wrote:

    we are our minds, we are the sum of our biology, our individiual neuro-chemistry’s idiosyncracies, our socialization, our past experiences. So, when we act from these things, we express not some alien programming but we express and realize ourselves through the program of what we are. We are each some kind of complex order which is every moment developing itself further, and so to express our unique complex order, our program, is to express ourselves.

    When I spoke previously about how we are not in control but our programming is, I was identifying the “self” in there with our consciousness that the libertarians want to identify ourselves with because I was attacking the libertarian conception of free will, not because I thought we had no (determined) free will or because I accepted their notion of the self as somehow distinctly the conscious part of ourselves which is somehow distinctly undetermined by our neural programming and its interactions with the environment.

    I think our selves are the programming and so when we follow it, we freely realize ourselves. I feel freest when I can follow my inner compulsions without external encumbrances. Insofar as I can also rationally realize there are greater ways to be objectively powerful within my existing potentials and values, I can have the goals to become a stronger, more positively effectual program in the world which creates greater goods. This is where my ethical motivation comes from. It comes to me by a rational apprehensionIt is a result of my choices to the extent that my programming in the past and present makes choices to rationally inquire about the good and to seek it. But I am not the ultimate source of that more fundamental programming itself—it is the source of me and what constitutes me.

    I am relevantly unfree not just in any case when I am determined by my nature to be who I am and do what I do but when other people can coerce me to obey their will against what I would do according to my internal programming either left to its own choices. I am also unfree to the extent that impersonal forces beyond my control, the chance of circumstance, also thwart my unencumbered self-expression and interaction with environments according to my desires.

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