Can Free Will Truly Exist In a Mechanical Universe?

This is one of the key questions in science and philosophy, but I confess that I have not thought deeply about it at all. I read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained more than a decade ago, but didn’t understand much of it. And I’d really like to hear thoughtful people who have grasped with this question comment on this article by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who says of course free will exists.

Scientists take delight in (and advance their careers by) claiming to have disproved conventional wisdom, and so bashing free will is appealing. But their statements against free will can be misleading and are sometimes downright mistaken, as severalthoughtful critics have pointed out.

Arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions. Most experts who deny free will are arguing against peculiar, unscientific versions of the idea, such as that “free will” means that causality is not involved. As my longtime friend and colleague John Bargh put it once in a debate, “Free will means freedom from causation.” Other scientists who argue against free will say that it means that a soul or other supernatural entity causes behavior, and not surprisingly they consider such explanations unscientific.

These arguments leave untouched the meaning of free will that most people understand, which is consciously making choices about what to do in the absence of external coercion, and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Hardly anyone denies that people engage in logical reasoning and self-control to make choices. There is a genuine psychological reality behind the idea of free will. The debate is merely about whether this reality deserves to be called free will. Setting aside the semantic debate, let’s try to understand what that underlying reality is…

As Anderson explained, the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life. These causes operate at different levels of organization. Even if you could write a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings, that (very long and dull) book would completely miss the point of the war. Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.

I welcome comments on this that will help me understand it better or consider alternative explanations and positions.

"He played golf last weekend. Maybe he should have rested instead. Don't feel sorry for ..."

Trump Publicly Fellates Putin. Film at ..."
"I don't think Trump could have done anything other than he did. He's all bluster ..."

Is Trump Being Blackmailed?
"Says the guy who's too scared to cross the starting line and cite evidence, instead ..."

Christian Con Man Disproves Global Warming

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • doublereed

    I honestly don’t know Roy Baumeister is saying. A simpler way to say it imo is just say “Yes, we have wills, wants, and desires, but they are all deterministic,” but I’m not sure if that’s what he’s saying.

    I generally take Daniel Dennett’s view. I’ve never read Consciousness Explained, but in this video he talks about it straightforwardly.

    In general, I try to be a pragmatist about things. And what I like about his viewpoint in this video is that it is practical. Some things we have control over and some things we don’t.

  • Your Freethoughtblogs colleagues on Reasonable Doubts have written and podcasted extensively on free will. They’re the guys I’d go to with any questions on the subject.

  • brucegee1962

    I agree with doublereed, it’s best to be pragmatic about these sorts of things. If you assume free will, you tend to get better results in most areas (childrearing, criminal justice) than if you don’t, because you can then assume that people are responsible for their own actions.

    A similar case would be the “inifinite worlds” hypothesis — the idea that a universe exists for every possible random fluctuation of thought or matter that can exist, down to the subatomic level. Subscribing to either theory makes all actions pointless, so why go down the rabbit hole?

  • Brian Crowell

    Not informed on this debate, but thought I’d throw my two cents in. I’ve come to understand free will as an illusion, a complex output of a chaotic system.

    Think about the things you use to determine consciousness. Unpredictability, for example. Ever had a “temperamental” car? A computer that “didn’t want to cooperate today?” We attribute, unconsciously, human attributes onto inanimate objects just because they exhibit complex, unpredictable behavior. Couldn’t we just be machines with a greater number of random inputs?

    The really interesting thing is that, if you really wanted to, you could drill down to what makes these objects behave the way they do.

    You can’t do that with a brain. It’s one of those machines that is so complex that the only way to find out what it will do is to turn it on and watch it go. A lot like attractors, actually.

    So if our brains turn out to be completely mechanical, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we can’t simulate or predict them. They appear autonomous. And I think that appearance is enough to be called free will.

  • theguy

    I think the most plausible definition of free will asks the question of whether we can change our internal desires. Do we control what we want, or do our wants control us?

    Since people can fight addiction, and people with OCD can fight against compulsions (even to the point of changing their brain chemistry!) I would say that free will, by this definition, exists. People can change their desires, although it requires some effort.

    But if people are advocating a view of free will that is neither causal nor random, then I don’t know what that sort of free will would look like, or how it would work (regardless of whether immaterial souls exist or not)

  • colnago80

    I believe that PZ has pontificated on this issue as has Jerry Coyne over at the whyevolutionistrue web site. Very frankly, I tend to agree with Feynman that philosophers are as much use to scientists as ornithologists are to birds.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions. Most experts who deny free will are arguing against peculiar, unscientific versions of the idea, such as that “free will” means that causality is not involved…

    So far so good. Free will, AS ORIGINALLY DEFINED, is not compatible with our current scientific understanding of the world. Some people accept this, and therefore deny that free will can exist.

    Other people, like Roy Baumeister, insist that we shoud redefine free will with a more scientifically compatible definition.

    I compare this to the way God has been continually redefined over the ages. It used to be that gods controlled everything, including the weather. Nowadays, most people have given up on such a simplistic concept of gods, but have been unable to discard the idea of gods entirely, instead gods have become more nebulous and apophatic.

    Hey, maybe next we could redefine phlogiston and “the ether.” Why discard something when you can redefine and recycle it?

    Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution Is True had run a lengthy series of posts about free will, and that might be a good place to look for more verbiage on the topic.

  • asonge

    Anyone who doesn’t involve God and the supernatural in the free will discussion really shouldn’t bring about the conflict between free will and determinism. Complete randomness, complete determinism, or even the most-likely description of “soft” determinism (events are quantum/probabilistic, but most of reality is adequately explained by deterministic frameworks) do nothing to make free will less or more likely if you already don’t believe in a soul or God. It really is all a argument about definitions.

    For Hume and many others, free will was best explained by someone’s moral responsibility in making a decision. We *want* this to be causally linked to reality in as deterministic a way possible. We want our sensory experience of the world, along with the values we have, to give us the best description of reality (to correspond most highly to reality) so that we can make the best morally-aware decision that we can. But for Hume, you can take someone’s free will away by coercion…hold a gun to someone’s head and they’re not morally culpable for the actions you demand of them…their capacity for free will is diminished. You can also diminish someone’s free will by not giving them enough information when you ask them to make a decision, etc.

    Now, some people just say “well, that’s not what people really think about when they think about free will” or “that’s not really free will”. And when you do polls, the question is extremely sensitive to the way you ask the question. So we have a perfect storm of debating what qualifies as a valid definition for free will, and no clear way to move forward.

    This is why it takes alcohol to make a good free will discussion.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    BTW, as most of the other comments reveal, most people are not concerned with free will per se; the important question is moral culpability. Why not admit that and discuss moral culpability rather than retrodefine free will?

  • scienceavenger

    I read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained more than a decade ago, but didn’t understand much of it.

    I’m with Colnago80 Ed, the fault is theirs, not yours. Philosophers might lend a hand here and there in correcting sloppy thinking, but for the most part their importance in the great human intellectual experience was eradicated with the invention of the modern scientific enterprise.

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Of course it can, if you use a common-sense/plain English sort of definition of “free will” rather than the ridiculous philosophical one.

  • eric

    These arguments leave untouched the meaning of free will that most people understand, which is consciously making choices about what to do in the absence of external coercion

    I somewhat disagree with the “most people understand” assumption. I think religious dualism (i.e., you have a soul and that’s the bit that causes free will) is very much alive and well among “most people.” I also think that ivory tower arguments that amount to saying we should ignore such believers are socially myopic, in the same way that ivory tower theologians telling us to ignore creationism are socially myopic. The Academy might comfortably ignore such opinions as uneducated or not well thought out, but in terms of social policy, we ignore the “not well thought out” majority view at our peril. It’s not the academic theologians or psychologists that I worry about trying to undermine K-12 science education; its the creationists (and to a much lesser extent, dualists who promote the idea of souls).

  • asonge

    Reginald: I’d like to ask you how you know 1 definition of free will predates the other? Stoicism predates Christianity and isn’t really dualistic in nature and has a moral culpability version of free will.

  • CJO

    Dennett’s Freedom Evolves is a better source for the compatibilist stance on free will. He spends a whole chapter explaining why determinism is a red herring in the discussion, that free will defined loosely as the ability to make meaningful choices is no less possible in “a Mechanical Universe” than in a non-deterministic one.

    Mostly, as the article here says, the discussion founders on semantics. It comes down to issues beyond simply caused or uncaused, but turns as well on what a “self” is and what powers we’re willing to grant such an entity. Also of interest in this regard are the views of philosopher Thomas Metzinger. He proposes that conscious awareness represents the ability to monitor and attempt to predict one’s own behavior, not to control it. It seems like a radical inversion at first glance, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Animals have a long evolutionary history, and for most of it they would appear to have gotten along just fine without robust consciousness and the kind of episodic memory we enjoy. So why, given everything we know about evolution, would an increase in awareness of an integrated sensorium and the ability to introspect sudenly “take over” from the kind of rapid unconscious decision-making that’s been guiding animals’ response to stimuli for hundreds of millions of years?

    It wouldn’t. So our common-sense belief in what feels like unconstrained free will is the product of the persistent illusion that there’s a conscious “self”, in control and independent of the unconscious processing and decision making that, when you think about it, everyone knows are still operating much as they do in other animals. But just because that kind of free will doesn’t, can’t, really exist, still doesn’t mean that we don’t make meaningful choices. It just requires understanding that we are organisms, and when we act “we” aren’t really in control in the sense that there is no “you” living in your head the way there seems to be. But the whole organism, unconscious decision heuristics in the lead, is acting, responding to stimuli and selecting alternatives. Our robust awareness isn’t useless in all of this (again, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s way too metabolically expensive to be a mere frill): its ability to retrospect, predict, and match likely outcomes to counter-factual scenarios –to think– definitely plays a role. It just isn’t the star of a one man show the way naive introspection makes it seem.

  • It’s been a long time since I thought the question “Does free will exist?” to be interesting. For one thing, the central idea of this question remains poorly defined. But in any case we know that decision-making exists and that values exists. You can call the interaction of values and decision-making “free will” or not, but it has the same nature regardless of what you call it.

    Our choices and decisions are always circumscribed by our emotional state and how we feel about the various possible options for each choice. There are people who want to have this discussion on a purely philosophical plane without noticing that emotions and motivations are pretty much the same thing. That doesn’t seem terribly useful.

  • doublereed


    Dennett doesn’t say we should assume free will just because it’s useful. It’s stronger than that. He says it like this:

    All the varieties of free will that are worth wanting, we can have in a deterministic world. I can define varieties of free will that are incompatible with determinism, but they’re pointless. They aren’t needed for moral responsibility. They aren’t needed to give your life meaning. They are gratuitious. They’re sort of bizarre metaphysical conceits. They don’t pull their weight. You don’t them. Who cares.

  • doublereed

    You don’t them = You don’t need them.

    By the way, he says that quote at the end of the video I posted up top.

  • Abby Normal

    It’s very similar to the question of whether or not randomness exists. Roll a pair of dice. The results are unpredictable and we generally accept that as random. But the result isn’t truly random at all. It’s the result of natural forces acting on the dice and if we exactly duplicate those circumstances the results will be identical every time. Throwing the dice creates the illusion of randomness, which is good enough for any practical definition of random.

    I view free will in a similar light. Say you’re lost, walking along a road in the middle of nowhere. You come to a crossroads with no indication of which way will take you where you want to go. You must make a choice to continue and you do. It would appear you exercised free will in making that choice. But, if an outside observer were able to rewind time so that when you reached the crossroad everything was exactly the same, would you always choose the same path?

    I think so. I see no reason to expect otherwise. If so then, like the dice, your choice is really the result of forces acting in predictable ways. The same neurons fire at the same times and the same road is taken. The choice creates the illusion of free will, which is good enough for any practical definition of the term.

  • Alverant

    I’m surprised no one mentioned that episode of “through the wormhole” where they ask this question.

    I have no justification for this apart from my own beliefs, but I choose to believe that I have free will. If we don’t then we can’t really be held responsible for our actions. We need to have free will (or believe we have it) to be moral humans. We might not have as much as we think we do, but we do have it.

  • eric


    the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life.

    I think the counter-argument is that a limit of human knowledge or predictive power is not a good argument that “we aren’t robots.” Nor is QM very useful to invoke, as QM indeterminancy is not volition; take a robot and introduce QM indeterminancy into its decisions, and it just makes us robots with some a random number generators added.

    Reginald Selkirk:

    most people are not concerned with free will per se; the important question is moral culpability. Why not admit that and discuss moral culpability rather than retrodefine free will?

    I agree. In fact I’ll go further – I don’t see how an answer to the question of ‘do we have free will’ could impact criminal justice or social policy one way or the other. Its a distraction at best, and a waste of important resources at worst. Soulless machine or free spiriit, the issue is really what sort of policies are most effective at managing antisocial behavior.

    Contra Jerry Coyne, we could be robots that respond most effectively to punishment, not treatment. Or he could be right and we are robots that respond better to treatment than we do to punishment. Or we could be free spirits that respond more effectively to punishment, or free spirits that respond most effectively to treatment. But the real issue for policy is which is more effective. The question of robot vs. free spirit is orthogonal to the social policy question of what we should be doing to reduce bad behavior.

  • There is a genuine psychological reality behind the idea of free will.

    Typical compatiblism: “I feel like I have free will, therefore: free will!”

    The problem with that is that we might simply be a meat robot that includes, in its programming, the illusion of free will. Compatiblists like Dan Dennet occasionally admit that the notion of free will that they promote is hardly the kind that most people think of when they say they have free will (i.e.: the compatiblists are re-defining the term so that you can have something they call free will, even though it’s not what you call free will. I see that as a contemptible philosophers’ trick that does not deserve respect – we should be, instead, trying (as if we have any choice in the matter!) to understand how to live in a world in which our notion of “choice” is an illusion foisted upon us by our brains, which are in turn foisted upon us by evolution and the necessity for untold generations of meat robots to survive and reproduce. Our achieving understanding of our nature as meat robots is important, since it’s another way of breaking down our self-deception of specialness.

  • Walton

    No, we don’t have meaningful free will. Contra-causal free will is incoherent, and compatibilism is unhelpful. Read this interview with Galen Strawson, who absolutely nails it.

  • grasshopper

    If you think you have free will,choose not to have your very next thought and see how that pans out.

  • eric


    I choose to believe that I have free will. If we don’t then we can’t really be held responsible for our actions.

    And therefore…what? We let everyone out of jail? Kill them with impunity? If you suddenly find out that all the badly behaving humans are just meat robots, you’ve still got a lot of badly behaving meat robots on your hands. Ideally you want to make them well-behaved meat robots in the most effective manner possible, while minimizing the cost and pain to all meat robots in general…which is exactly the same goal you’d have if they’re not robots. IOW, free will really makes no difference to the issue of what are good and bad social policies.

  • steve oberski

    I’m with Brian Crowell on this.

    If you discard supernatural explanations for consciousness (i.e. a “soul”, what ever the fuck that is), then consciousness is solely (as opposed to soully) a function of the material brain and the current state of the brain is a function of the previous state and external inputs.

    Even if some of those inputs are truly random (in a quantum mechanical sense), conscious is just a state machine, albeit a very complex and chaotic one.

    Unless you want to say that the matter that makes up the brain is somehow privileged and has attributes not seen in other material structures made out of the same constituent matter, but then we are getting back to souls and all that dualistic dreck.

  • Chiroptera

    Free will vs no free will.

    Which “theory” (if that’s the right word) has more predictive power?

  • eric

    Then of course there’s this research. While not technically killing the idea of free will outright, it certainly delivers a pretty solid body blow to the idea of conscious free will. Whether your decisions are ultimately free or determined, the “you” that is self-awarely thinking about itself as you read this isn’t the thing that’s making them.

  • pacal

    This is fun sort of philosophical debate, like arguing whether or not external reality exists, and such. It is great fun. But the bottom line it doesn’t mean much for real. For even if it is true that nothing out there “really” exists, we can’t make it go away. The same with so-called “free will”, regardless of whether or not it is an Illusion we can’t make it go away. We end up operating like it is for real, just like we end up operating like everything external is real.

    This whole thing is in my opinion much like discussing how many Angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  • CJO

    I see that as a contemptible philosophers’ trick that does not deserve respect

    You say this every time you weigh in on the issue (almost as if you had no choice), but it’s an overblown accusation. Scientists and philosophers do this all the time when they’re communicating with the public. There are folk-categories and there are rigorous terms in which the professional-level debate is conducted. Often, the rigorous terms are framed by the folk-categories simply as a reference point, so that the average non-specialist knows what the hell the philosopher is even talking about. It’s no more underhanded than any other deliberate shorthand. As long as the issues are unpacked and the proper disclaimers are issued, I really can’t see whom, exactly, compatibilist philosophers think they are deceiving in your view with this supposedly underhanded trick. Just by talking about “varieties of free will worth wanting” in contrast to the naive folk concept of contra-causal or “ultimate” free will, Dennett would appear to me to be completely above-board in the distinction he goes on to draw in detail.

  • M can help you with that.

    Arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions.

    …and then he goes on to talk as if the phrase “free will” refers to a specific thing, we just need to figure out what that specific thing is. Which is pretty horridly conceived just in terms of how language works.

    “Does free will exist?” isn’t a debate, it’s a whole family of debates, with the content, usefulness and defensibility of conclusions depending entirely on which definition is at issue. “Free will” is in the same ballpark as “god” in terms of use in arguments where people loudly insist that conclusions can be reached without ever defining the terms of the question.

  • bushrat

    It’s good to know that when I don’t do the dishes it’s not really my fault. I’ll have to pass that one by the girlfriend. “No honey, it was determinism that didn’t do the dishes. I’m as much of a victim as you are. You can’t stop physics. Well, I think I’m pre-determined to have a beer now”

  • lorn

    I’ve always wondered about free will. We are so narrow of our conceptions about what is going on, where we want to go in terms of time, place and situation, and how to get there. So much of life, and generally how things work out comes down to, resembles, serendipity.

    Consider the old incandescent light bulb. Someone wanted a device that safely and effectively turned electrical current into visible light. He got his light, but he also got a device that is many times more efficient at producing heat than light. Unintended consequences are often a greater magnitude than the desired effect.

    Columbus was looking for a short route to India to gain a decisive advantage in the spice trade. He ran into North America and to this day we call native Americans Indians. Knowing where you want to go isn’t the same as being able to get there. The consequences of the trip are often more important than getting to where you wanted to go.

    Reintroducing wolves back into Yellowstone increased the numbers of birds and narrowed the rivers. Very few people predicted those effects. Even the experts are shining dim lights into vast dark spaces.

    Generally people tend to fire the arrow of effort and will and then draw the target and establishing the goal after the arrow lands. Then we falsify the memory to make ourselves feel better about the result. Awareness, experience, and knowledge favor the ego over accuracy and truth.

    Do we have fee will? Hard to say.

    Our memories are flexible. We instinctively seek to flatter ourselves in our conclusions. Our greatest successes are usually a failure to meet our original goal. Our science says that there are strict limits on what we can know. Even within those boundaries we are limited. We can’t long predict the moments of even an idealized three-body problem using simple Newtonian formulas because the sensitivity of the initial condition is so delicate.

    We are limited in our abilities and bounded by physical laws. Our instruments are faulty. We do things we don’t remember and remember things we haven’t done. We see patterns where none exist and fail to see patterns when they do. We struggle and sweat and strive to do something and fail. Then one day we learn and it is all so simple and easy. We think in terms of infinite forms and perfection but we live in a world of flawed approximations. And every other human, every life form, seems to be just as flawed and inadequate as idealized agents.

    None of which implies the existence of anything supernatural.

    I think I’ll get another cup of coffee. Is that an act of will undertaken by an independent agent? Or is it a biologically programmed act triggered by thirst and an addiction to caffeine? Is my mind/body perceptual and conceptual apparatus capable of discerning the difference?

    I think we lack the equipment to derive any meaningful answer. On this subject we are still goat herders looking up at the sky and wondering what the points of light are. We can speculate, or make up stories, but myth and storytelling are not science or understanding.

  • Why not admit that and discuss moral culpability rather than retrodefine free will?

    We could go a step further and ask what we need to do to build working, happy, societies in which the idea of moral culpability is recognized simply as an evolved behavior or a matter of practicality.

  • trucreep

    See, I’ve thought of that scenario, that there exists a universe for every possible outcome. And you have free will in that you consciously make the choices you do, just that it is the choice that you were GOING to make. It further ties into the idea that time doesn’t “flow,’ but there are instead points in time that all relate. That’s what I’m told at least 8]

  • Just by talking about “varieties of free will worth wanting” in contrast to the naive folk concept of contra-causal or “ultimate” free will

    Yeah, but then why call it “free will”?? It’s like me calling a dog a cat because you really want to have a cat but all I have to offer you is a dog.

  • CJO

    Yeah, but then why call it “free will”??

    Just because that’s the rubric under which the debate has traditionally been conducted.

    Take “evolution”: For Darwin’s grandfather, it was a term that denoted a teleological process of progress and steady improvement. Darwin himself did away with all that, for scientists and the scientifically literate. But the discussion goes on, and we call the subject “evolution” and a lot of people still think about it in terms of progress. Biologists could abandon the name, considering it a semantic trick to continue to talk about it in a way that isn’t what most people mean when they use the term, or, they could, y’know, use the term itself only as a convenient touchstone for a set of related concepts, and actually proceed to educate the public on the matter. But of course that won’t do for Marcus. Rigor is all, and once a term has been poisoned by the masses’ incomplete or faulty understanding it must be disavowed.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    Imagine some scientists or computers or whatever know everything I know and predict accurately what my decision about something will be. That may work as long as I am ignorant of their prediction. Once I’m aware of their prediction, I become unpredictable, because I know n+1 facts: everything I know plus their prediction on my behavior.

  • doublereed

    Just by talking about “varieties of free will worth wanting” in contrast to the naive folk concept of contra-causal or “ultimate” free will, Dennett would appear to me to be completely above-board in the distinction he goes on to draw in detail.

    Yeah, but then why call it “free will”??

    Because he’s talking about the motivations for this “naive folk concepts.” It’s not like we just randomly came up with this nonsensical, capricious idea because determinism is icky. The reason we did is because people think it infers other ideas like “there is no such thing as moral responsibility” or “life has no meaning.”

    Dennett is saying that the motivations for developing the naive folk concept is incorrect. Moral responsibility and whatever other reasons people have for liking the “free will” concept are compatible with determinism.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    Atheists must be aware that “free will” is mainly a Christian theological concept. It must be postulated that people have free will to sin or to not sin to make sense of the harsh punishment for it.

  • Cuttlefish

    Our free will, or its illusion,

    Is the source of much confusion;

    We make choices all the time, but can we say that they are free?

    Mind and body in cohesion

    Make us think we are Cartesian,

    But the whole of modern science makes me want to disagree!

    A causal mind’s existence,

    Though a meme of some persistence,

    Has the weight of long tradition, but the evidence is slim.

    Our environment controls us;

    Though Cartesian thought consoles us,

    The truth is, we’re reactive, and we never act on whim.

    Even my creative rhyming

    Is controlled by sound and timing

    And a history of consequences leading to this end;

    Rhymes appear as chosen freely,

    When the truth is different, really—

    There are multiple parameters to which I must attend!

    (Parenthetically, I mention

    That “free will” will draw attention

    To the action and its consequence, but little to its cause;

    The resulting shift of focus

    Makes it seem like hocus-pocus;

    Through a bit of misdirection, it appears we break the laws!)

    My practical question to the Baumeisters and Dennetts of the world is this: if I can make you want to do something, and you then do this thing you want to do… have you acted freely? I tend to take a very different view from, say, Bruce in comment 3– if you assume free will, there is no motivation to look to the environment and see what is really influencing behavior. If you want to make the world a better place, changing the world so that it is easier to be good and harder to be bad is a hell of a lot better than assuming free will and personal responsibility and punishing people after they have already done something you could have prevented under different assumptions. We have no free will… and that is very good news.

  • That may work as long as I am ignorant of their prediction. Once I’m aware of their prediction, I become unpredictable

    No, because the computer would factor in the likelihood you’d act perversely, as well. It’s like Vizzini’s poison puzzle in The Princess Bride. 🙂

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    My problem is the hidden premise that many people hold in this discussion is that it is undesirable if your mind, thoughts, actions, desires, etc,. are deterministic, and it’s undesirable if it’s merely bound to physics in the usual reductionist sense.

    I bought into that view for a while too. However, as soon as you stop and think about it, it makes no sense. I am very happy that my preferences have influence on my future behavior. I am happy that I don’t randomly punch people I meet on the street. Again, I am happy that my thoughts and actions are not pure chaos but instead are deducible, and dare I say even derived from, my preferences, values, and so on. I also value that my values are not in a state of constant flux, and that I learn from my experiences, and my values change in a certain way over time.

    While I think the idea of a soul is silly for other reasons, for this argument presented here, it does not matter if this causation happens in the brain or in a soul. There is causation. If all of this happens in the soul, then there is causation in the soul. Adding a soul doesn’t do anything to solve this problem.

    You should be happy that your actions are (partially?) determined by your past experiences and and present mental state. The alternative is a kind of cartoony pure chaos – whatever that would look like.

  • doublereed

    My practical question to the Baumeisters and Dennetts of the world is this: if I can make you want to do something, and you then do this thing you want to do… have you acted freely?

    I may be mistaken, but I believe the answer is a simple yes. You can think of their argument as essentially trashing the “free” part as nonsensical and unnecessary.

    After all, how exactly can you distinguish between “being made to want to do something,” and “wanting to do something.”

  • adobo

    I think that when most people think of free will, they mean to say that their sense, perception and exercise of it are not at all related to a deterministic reality. I think that is where the disjoint happens. It feels so arrogant and so anthropocentric to me. So my attitude is to leave them with their delusion.

    I wonder if Im exercising free will by doing that?

  • Dennett is saying that the motivations for developing the naive folk concept is incorrect. Moral responsibility and whatever other reasons people have for liking the “free will” concept are compatible with determinism.

    Well, duh. That’s a no-brainer. The naive folk concept is self-contradictory. That’s not hard. And Dennet’s point that you can still act like moral responsibility makes sense (which is different from saying that moral responsibility makes sense) is another thing. What Dennet does, basically, is say that “what we call ‘moral responsibility’ is the moral responsibility that is compatible with determinism.” That’s what compatibilism is. We have this perfectly good concept “free will” that – even though it’s refuted by determinism – we’re going to continue to use, because, uh, it’s a useful concept. Yes, and you can call a dog a cat all you like, but it’s still not a cat. The fact that the folk concept of free will is nonsensical doesn’t argue that we should just repurpose the word. We should discard it. What Dennet describes is “making a choice” – we can experience the sense of making a choice, and make choices, without having free will. The sense of making a choice is an illusion just like our sense that we have 3d vision or that we are unitary beings not collections of cells and molecules that die and are replaced every 14 months or so. In that sense, we don’t have a “self” either, though we have a “sense of self” – another illusion.

    Philosophy gets accused of being obscure and playing word-games; that’s what happens when you start re-speccing a vocabulary in order to make it convenient to win your argument.

  • I thought, when I started reading this thread that Modusoperandi would be along presently, hitting one out of the park with his schtick. Then I hoped for some levity but there is precious little. Now, I’m depressed by the thought that all of the evil shit that I’ve done to other people wasn’t even my own fucking idea.

  • doublereed


    What you’re saying is that Dennett’s Compatibilism = Determinism + Semantic Argument? I can see that, I guess.

    I wouldn’t really choices as illusions, though. I mean when you’re making a choice and going back and forth between two ideas, there is a physical thing in your brain that must be representing going back and forth between the two ideas. That’s not really illusionary, even if it is deterministic.

  • The internal “thing” that’s doing the looking in self-reflection–the thing that can’t reflexively look at itself–is, IMO, the “agent” to which we attribute free will. I write thing in quotes because separating the internal looker from the internal watched is itself a problematic split, analgous to splitting a material and immaterial self, but I think that an inferred internal watcher is the imlplicit, conceptual black box that gets credit for operating with the guidance of some evanescent force we call free will. “I’m looking here. Now I’m looking there.” But whatl is really directing this shifting process that we can’t really, in the moment, look directly at as it’s happening? We do know that situations, internal and external, give rise to a great deal of what we see, “decide” and do, and it’s clear that, after the fact, we often write stories of why we thought this or that, but we also know how thoroughly and demonstrably wrong people can be in making these narrative attributions to their thinking and deciding.

    I simply don’t believe anyone has this sorted out, but believing in some mental activity called free will can feel reassuring.

  • enki23

    I think you can boil the debate down to this question: do we make ourselves? Do we, in some sense, decide to be what we are?

    Libertarian” free will says “yes.”

    (And, if they aren’t full of shit, that means each of us is a little unmoved mover, a nucleus of uncaused cause. Nearly all theistic bullshit simultaneously requires and forbids this.)

    Compatibilist” free will says “not ultimately, but proximally.” We can’t will what we will, but we can do what we will. We hold a brain responsible for being what it is, as seen by the reasoning it engages in. One of the examples sometimes given is that a drug addict in the worst throes of addiction isn’t very responsible for what he does, but that he is responsible for wanting to get better. Unless he is so far gone that he can no longer want to get better, at which point he’s labeled a “wanton” and is not responsible for much of anything. They often say that it is causality that is actually important, for if a person’s choices aren’t determined by who the person is, then we’d have no basis for morality.

    Incompatibilists” agree with libertarians (in the free will sense), that true free will must necessarily be contra causal, and agree with the compatilbilists on everything else. Causality is not at any point broken, and that even if it was, that doesn’t actually help establish responsibility. In fact, it probably makes the problem worse. People still must be dealt with as people, as little nuclei of behaviors, whether they are ultimately responsible for them or not.

    Thinking in this mode might, I would think, do some good in helping to stem thinking of behavior control in terms of retribution, to some extent. Compatibilists, on the other hand, sometimes are seen to worry that telling people simply that they don’t have free will might have some negative social consequences. There is absolutely no consensus, or sufficient data to decide which is a larger, or more important effect. Or whether either effect even happens much at all. That leaves aside the question as to whether it should be academic/intellectual policy to be careful not to meddle with people’s folk definitions because it might lead in some cases to unwanted behaviors. After all, the very same thing is sometimes (often) said about belief in a god.

  • Scientismist

    I agree with CJO (#14 above) that Dennett’s Freedom Evolves is probably the best book on the subject in the last decade or so. Before I read it, my position was that complete physical determinism meant that free will could not exist (but that didn’t bother me, as I have not subscribed to the notion of complete physical determinism since I took a quantum mechanics course back in 1965).

    Dennet has a chapter in which he tries to explain why “libertarian” free will (which I understand to include the argument that quantum indeterminacy provides room for free will) can’t be the case. Many biologists, as well as philosophers, take what I consider the untenable position that QM can’t have any effects in biology — “Where do you insert the quantum uncertainty?” — More to the point is all the effort living systems go to, to keep indeterminacy down to an acceptable level. Please explain to me how QM can be dismissed from biology, when the faithfulness of the base-pairing of DNA depends on the bases being in their more common tautomeric forms during replication, and the quantum electron sharing in the less-common forms leads to some very well understood mutation mechanisms. Here is QM indeterminacy at work, helping to drive evolution.

    That chapter of Dennett’s utterly failed to convince me; but then for most of the rest of the book he argued that even if physical determinism holds, “free will that is worth having” (his phrase) can nevertheless develop in an evolving living system. That argument did convince me. Dennett’s style of free will, it appears to me now, depends only on the inability of the evolving system to completely predict its own future. Determinism does not entail predictability.

    Of course QM says that the precise state of a particle system cannot be known, either because it partakes of true quantum randomness (Niels Bohr); or because it is entangled with other systems, some of which would be outside the light cone of the portion of the universe which is at all potentially knowable (David Bohm). In either case, the future is unknowable. For me, Dennett just introduced yet another consideration for how knowledge of our own evolving physical system can never be absolute and complete, even in a deterministic universe. My disappointment with Dennett is that I came away not sure that he understands that his own argument still works without denying that QM is part of biology.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    @Marcus Ranum: The problem is, my decision would be based on a different set of facts than those on which the prediction was based. If the computer took into account that I would change my decision upon knowing about the prediction, and would issue a new prediction, then I would still be one step ahead, because I knew that prediction too. And so forth. The n+1 prediction problem.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    The concept of free will is rather meaningless for me, outside of the theological thinking.

    What makes sense is to study our processes of decision-making.

    First, about predictability, I think it is undermined at the lower levels by quantum mechanics. Then there is the practical unpredictability that comes from our extreme complexity.

    Our free will seems rather strange from a psychological point of view. We are not even conscious of most of the parameters that influence our decisions. Most of our relevant information doesn’t even appear in our display, our conscience. Sam Harris says some of our decisions are made before we know about them. Are we helpless about ourselves? No, because we can critique our decisions and influence future decisions.

  • Chaos Engineer

    Doesn’t all of this depend on the level you’re looking at?

    If you’re working on the level of Psychology or Sociology or Economics, it’s useful to draw a distinction between, “I chose to do X”, or “I was brainwashed into doing X” or “I was coerced into doing X” or “I didn’t think of doing Y”, and the concept of free will gives us a useful vocabulary for talking about this.

    If you’re working on the level of Physics or Chemistry, it’s more useful to say, “It was predetermined that X would happen but the underlying systems are too complex to describe and anyway it was just a bunch of boring atoms moving in all different directions.”

    So it makes sense to say something like, “Free will is an emergent property of the brain-as-a-whole; but individual neurons don’t possess free will.” I understand that some people want to get rid of the concept of free will, but I just don’t see any benefit to doing that.

  • thephilosophicalprimate

    colnago80 (and a few other people who expressed agreement). The question of the nature and meaning of free will is a philosophical question, not a scientific question. And with every philosophical question (as with every scientific question), the first thing that must be done is to define your terms. And in my extensive experience, scientists have been much less use to philosophers with respect to the task of defining and clarifying the concept of free will than ornithologists are to birds.

    (Also, you got that quote completely wrong. What Feynman said is that philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. Of course, it was an asinine quip, because philosophy of science is not really intended to be directly useful to science, any more than ornithology is intended to be useful to birds. Philosophy of science does not ask or answer scientific questions, but rather examines science from the wider scope of human experience outside of science, asking such questions as “How (if at all) does scientific reasoning differ from other forms of reasoning?” — which is not itself a scientific question.)

    Here’s my Philosophy 101 version of the free will/determinism issue. (Literally. I teach Philosophy 101 every semester.) Actually, here’s what I try to get my students to figure out for themselves without explaining it to them quite so directly…

    The problem with the concept of free will is that, like every other subject of intellectual inquiry, it got muddied up by Christian theology for centuries. But philosophers with no theological axe to grind from Aristotle to Hume have had a perfectly comprehensible view of the subject. First, they distinguish responsibility and blameworthiness. Did you take an action? Did you know what action you were taking? Congratulations, you’re responsible. Did you go through a process of deliberation before taking action? Congratulations, you have free will because you made a choice. But being responsible for a choice does not equate to blameworthiness or praiseworthiness. Aristotle gives the example that sailors who throw cargo off a ship in a storm are certainly responsible for doing so. But they just as certainly should not be blamed for doing so, since the alternative could very well have been the loss of the cargo, and the ship, and their lives (Greek ships of Aristotle’s day being what they were).

    As for that notion of deliberation and choice, here’s what Hume wrote about our decisions, using the word “liberty” for the concept under discussion in this thread as “free will”:

    For what is meant by liberty, when applied to voluntary actions? We cannot surely mean that actions have so little connexion with motives, inclinations, and circumstances, that one does not follow with a certain degree of uniformity from the other, and that one affords no inference by which we can conclude the existence of the other. For these are plain and acknowledged matters of fact. By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and in chains. Here, then, is no subject of dispute. [from Section 8 of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding]

    In other words, what choice a given person makes in response to a given set of circumstances will be DETERMINED by their motives and inclinations. Different motivations and inclinations, different action chosen in response to a given set of circumstances. If someone is not free to respond to circumstances as their motives and inclinations would otherwise lead them to act — such as being a prisoner — then one lacks liberty. In other words, the opposite of free will is not determinism, but constraint. Of course the choice a person makes in response to a given set of circumstances is determined by who that person is, the motivations and inclinations they enter the situation with. That’s why we don’t expect different people to make the exact same choices even when faced with the same circumstances. And of course we cannot simply spontaneously manifest completely different motivations and inclinations: Our characters are shaped by prior experience, early development, inheritance, and so on. We make choices based on motivations and inclinations, we don’t choose what motivations and inclinations to have. But still, we do make choices — and act on them, if we are not constrained from doing so.

    The modern neuroscience which is starting to delve into how decisions actually take shape in the head and what parts of the brain light up when someone is deliberating and the research about how we use rough and often flawed heuristics to arrive at decisions — all of that is just details about the operations of what Hume broadly labeled motivations and inclinations. Modern science effectively adds nothing to this picture, at least at the level of understanding what free will means and how it is compatible with a deterministic universe (or, more accurately speaking, a stochastic universe, rather than deterministic in the old mechanistic sense).

    That, in a nutshell, is the position on free will labeled “compatibilism” in philosophy circles. It is completely consonant with how everyone actually thinks and talks about human behavior and choices (as Hume argues in the first part of Section 8 leading up to the paragraph I quoted), and it is no way in conflict with sensible notions of responsibility and moral praise/blame (as Hume argues in the rest of the section). Compatibilism thus has much to recommend it, and nothing coherent to said against it that I’ve ever heard. But a lot of people don’t like compatibilism because they want to cling to some definition of “free will” that involves, well, magic. So much the worse for such conceptions of free will.

    I think that the general idea Baumeister is trying to convey is exactly this sort of compatibilism, but frankly I don’t think he did a very good job at all.

  • blindrobin

    Philosophy – rhetorical masturbation with semantic lubrication. A fine and pleasurable exercise unless it is is indulged in overmuch or mistaken for anything more than it is.

  • eric

    Carlo @51:

    If the computer took into account that I would change my decision upon knowing about the prediction, and would issue a new prediction, then I would still be one step ahead, because I knew that prediction too. And so forth. The n+1 prediction problem.

    Mathematicians have been able to solve problems which include infinite regressions since the 1700s. Moreover, ‘satisfice’ and other similar human decision-making theories argue against humans doing the sort of infinite-loop analysis you propose above; we don’t continue to analyze every single bit of new data that comes in – at some point we just cut bait and act.

    Both of these observations support Marcus and undermine your point. Your “n+1” problem isn’t a problem because (1) such a computer could simply calculate the end point of an infinite regression of decisions if we thought that’s what the human would actually do, and (2) because that’s not what a human would actually do.

  • Akira MacKenzie

    Ugh… I don’t know what thinking is more wishful: that we have “free will” or that our lives have purpose and meaning. And coming from “atheists” no less…

    Face it, we’re meat puppets dancing to a biochemical tune with blind, mindless, evolutionary forces as our scriptless puppeteers in a Punch & Judy show that no one is watching.

  • Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges.

    Which things, specifically? I tend to believe that, there’s voices in my head telling me to believe that, and I really do WANT to believe that — but in all honesty, there’s still no bankable evidence that that is true.

    No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life.

    Again, that SOUNDS kinda true; but we’ve learned a LOT about carbon atoms, and the number of things our knowledge doesn’t explain keeps on shrinking. Even if it never goes all the way to zero, the trend we’re seeing doesn’t look good for the “there’ll always be holes that science can never fill” theory.

    …philosophers are as much use to scientists as ornithologists are to birds.

    Sometimes the Likudnik chickenhawk comes up with something worth stealing. I’m stealing this one.

  • I understand that some people want to get rid of the concept of free will, but I just don’t see any benefit to doing that.

    There is none, and possibly never will be, unless we get the ability to organize colossal amounts of information about everyone’s circumstances — at the atomic level if not lower — and make real-time predictions of the actions caused by the complex interactions of billions of human brain-cells per human. Like the matter-transporters in “Star Trek,” this requires more computing power than we’re ever likely to invent.

  • Sam N

    I don’t think Dennett is underhanded as some have said. I just think he’s lame.

    I am thoroughly on the side of those who say discard the word free will.

    If you want to talk about the culpability, responsibility, capacity to make choices. Fine. Get rid of the baggage of that dumb-ass word.

  • Alverant

    @eric #24

    You should be asking those questions to those who say we don’t have free will.

    Also prisons aren’t just to punish bad choices but to protect society from people making those bad choices and hopefully convince them not to make those bad choices again. You can argue about how effective it is, but that is part of the purpose of prisons.

  • enki23

    An exercise I used to think about compatibilism was to read some of what they wrote but replace the word “will” with “brain” (“nervous system” might be better, but I wanted brevity this time, for some reason). It all makes sense, if you consider it an exercise in evaluating a brain.

    So, if you took ten thousand randomly selected brains and placed them into the same non-brain circumstances, what would they do? Another way of putting it would be to call it a sensitivity analysis, where you’re looking to see whether having different brains (“wills”) makes much of a difference in outcomes.

    If you got a very narrow range of responses, then differences in brains did not do much to explain the behaviors. No “free will” of any variety came into play.

    If you got a large variety of responses, then differences in brains explain much of the difference in behaviors. We can choose to call this “free will” if we are a) essentially lazy (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and/or b) think it’s best to pander to folk definitions for fear of upsetting the social order.

    Nobody thinks the brains are not, likewise, developed from circumstances. We don’t pretend brains choose to be the brains they are. We don’t carry that baggage, like we do for “will”. And yet, we all understand quite well that our brains need to deal with other brains, and that it’s important to know just whom we’re dealing with, and whether they can be trusted.

    Of course, it all comes down to this repetition that’s all through the thread: it’s a matter of definitions. We can evaluate brains like we do cars: good ones and bad ones. Or we can evaluate wills like we do cars: good ones and bad ones. In neither case does it make sense to believe they make themselves be themselves (i.e. they can do what they will, but they can’t will what they will), so all the libertarians actually gain is that they push it out a level into nebulous territory nobody knows anything about, sparing it all the inconveniences of being testable.

  • enki23

    Garbled that a little. The point is that, if behavior under a particular set of circumstances is highly sensitive to the brain that is coordinating the behaviors, then that set of circumstances provides you with useful information about the differences in those brains. Then, in this imaginary scenario, you can look at the brains themselves, and all the differences therein, and find differences in that that predict the behaviors they chose. That information can be used to enhance your model of other brains.

    In that model, circumstances under which brains had a large effect on the outcome would be circumstances under which we could say they had compatibilist free will. The brains played a large role in the outcome, and therefore we were able to learn something about the differences between them. Circumstances in which we have reason to apply the idea of “free will” are circumstances under which we can gain knowledge to better predict other behaviors under other circumstances.

    (As loose, and as sloppy as all that actually is, when brains are doing it. For instance “the brains of brown-skinned people seem to….” yadda, yadda. And we’re pretty much shit at actually defining what should count as reasonably similar circumstances. yadda, yadda.)

  • eric


    You should be asking those questions to those who say we don’t have free will

    I ask you because you were the one who said “If we don’t then we can’t really be held responsible for our actions.” I want to know what you think the “so what” factor is. How, in your mind, would this answer change social policy. Do we lock up less people because they are not responsible? Do we become fine with locking up more people because we are not responsible? I can’t see how it would change things at all (though I can certainly see how fallacious arguments and nonsequiturs could be invoked by both sides)