Free Will Is as Real as Baseball

By Sean Carroll | July 13, 2011 9:40 am

A handful of musings about free will have been popping up in my blog reader of late. Jerry Coyne has been discussing the issue with Eric MacDonald in a series of posts (further links therein). Russell Blackford writes a long post that he promises isn’t the post he will eventually write, David Eagleman has an article in the Atlantic, and Zach Weiner also chimes in. So we have a biologist studying theology, an ex-Anglican priest turned agnostic, a philosopher and neuroscientist both of whom write science fiction, and a webcartoonist studying physics. That constitutes a reasonable spectrum of opinion. Still, what discussion of reality is complete without a cosmologist chiming in?

In some ways, asking whether free will exists is a lot like asking whether time really exists. In both cases, it’s different from asking “do unicorns exist?” or “does dark matter exist?” In these examples, we are pretty clear on what the concepts are supposed to denote, and what it would mean for them to actually exist; what’s left is a matter of collecting evidence and judging its value. I take it that this is not what we mean when we ask about the existence of free will.

It’s possible to deny the existence of something while using it all the time. Julian Barbour doesn’t believe time is real, but he is perfectly capable of showing up to a meeting on time. Likewise, people who question the existence of free will don’t have any trouble making choices. (John Searle has joked that people who deny free will, when ordering at a restaurant, should say “just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.”) Whatever it is we are asking, it’s not simply a matter of evidence.

When people make use of a concept and simultaneously deny its existence, what they typically mean is that the concept in question is nowhere to be found in some “fundamental” description of reality. Julian Barbour thinks that if we just understood the laws of physics better, “time” would disappear from our vocabulary. Likewise, discussions about the existence of free will often center on whether we really need to include such freedom as an irreducible component of reality, without which our understanding would be fundamentally incomplete.

There are people who do believe in free will in this sense; that we need to invoke a notion of free will as an essential ingredient in reality, over and above the conventional laws of nature. These are libertarians, in the metaphysical sense rather than the political-philosophy sense. They may explicitly believe that conscious creatures are governed by a blob of spirit energy that transcends materialist categories, or they can be more vague about how the free will actually manifests itself. But in either event, they believe that our freedom of choice cannot be reduced to our constituent particles evolving according to the laws of physics.

This version of free will, as anyone who reads the blog will recognize, I don’t buy at all. Within the regime of everyday life, the underlying laws of physics are completely understood. There’s a lot we don’t understand about consciousness, but none of the problems we face rise to the level that we should be tempted to distrust our basic understanding of how the atoms and forces inside our brains work. Note that it’s not really a matter of “determinism”; it’s simply a question of whether there are impersonal laws of nature at all. The fact that quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component into physical predictions doesn’t open the door for true libertarian free will.

But I also don’t think that “playing a necessary role in every effective description of the world” is a very good way of defining “existence” or “reality.” If there is anything that modern physics has taught us, it’s that it’s very often possible to discuss a single situation in two or more completely different (but equivalent) ways. Duality in particle physics is probably the most carefully-defined example, but the same idea holds in more familiar contexts. When we talk about air in a room, we can describe it by listing the properties of each and every molecule, or we speak in coarse-grained terms about things like temperature and pressure. One description is more “fundamental,” in that its regime of validity is wider; but both have a regime of validity, and as long as we are in that regime, the relevant concepts have a perfectly good claim to “existing.” It would be silly to say that temperature isn’t “real,” just because the concept doesn’t appear in some fine-grained vocabulary.

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. It’s true that we could take any particular example of a baseball game and choose to describe it by listing the exact quantum state of each elementary particle contained in the players and the bat and ball and the field etc. But why in the world would anyone think that is a good idea? The concept of baseball is emergent rather than fundamental, but it’s no less real for all of that.

Likewise for free will. We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients. That’s the “variety of free will worth having,” as Daniel Dennett would put it.

I’m not saying anything original — this is a well-known position, probably the majority view among contemporary philosophers. It’s a school of thought called compatibilism: see Wikipedia, or (better) the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Free will as an emergent phenomenon can be perfectly compatible with an underlying materialist view of the world.

Of course, just because it can be compatible with the laws of nature, doesn’t mean that the concept of free will actually is the best way to talk about emergent human behaviors. (Just because I know the rules of chess doesn’t make me a grandmaster.) There are still plenty of interesting questions remaining to be clarified. At the very least, there is some kind of tension between a microscopic view in which we’re just made of particles and a macroscopic one in which we have “choices.” David Albert does a great job of articulating this tension in this short excerpt from a Bloggingheads dialogue we did some time back.

I don’t generally think that the superior wisdom one acquires via training as a physicist grants one the power to see clearly through complicated issues and make philosophical conundrums dissolve away. But this is a case where insights from physics might actually be useful. In particular, what we are faced with is the task of reconciling effective theories at different levels of description that have apparently incompatible features: the impersonal evolution of the microscopic level (whether we go all the way to atoms, or stick with genes and neurons) and the irreducible possibility of “choice” at the macroscopic level.

This kind of tension also appears in physics. Indeed, the arrow of time is a great example. The microscopic laws of physics (as far as we know) are perfectly reversible; evolution forward in time is no different from evolution backward in time. But the macroscopic world is manifestly characterized by irreversibility. That doesn’t mean that the two descriptions are incompatible, just that we have to be careful about how they fit together. In the case of irreversibility, we realize that we need an extra ingredient: the particular configuration of our universe, not just the laws of physics.

In fact, the connection goes beyond a mere analogy. If you look up arguments against compatibilism, you find something called The Consequence Argument. This is based on the “fundamental difference between the past and future” — what we do now affects the future, but it doesn’t affect the past. Earlier times are fixed, while we can still influence later times. The consequence argument points out that deterministic laws imply that the future isn’t really up for grabs; it’s determined by the present state just as surely as the past is. So we don’t really have choices about anything. (For purposes of this discussion we can ignore the question of whether the microscopic laws really are deterministic; all that really matters are that there are laws.)

The problem with this is that it mixes levels of description. If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei. Given our lack of complete microscopic information, the question we should be asking is, “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?” The reason why it might is precisely because we have different epistemic access to the past and the future. The low entropy of the past allows for the existence of “records” and “memories,” and consequently forces us to model the past as “settled.” We have no such restriction toward the future, which is why we model the future as something we can influence. From this perspective, free will is no more ruled out by the consequence argument than the Second Law of Thermodynamics is ruled out by microscopic reversibility.

None of this quite settles the question of whether “free will” is actually a crucial ingredient in the best theory of human beings we can imagine developing. I suspect it is, but I’m willing to change my mind as we learn more. The context in which it really matters is when we turn to questions of moral responsibility. Should we hold people who do bad things responsible for their actions — even if our understanding of neuroscience improves to such an extent that we can identify precisely which gene or neuron “made them do it?” (This is the focus of Eagleman’s article.)

This is a resolutely practical question — who gets thrown in jail? Criminal law has the concept of mens rea, guilty mind. We don’t find people guilty of crimes simply because they committed them; they had to be responsible, in the sense that they had the mental capacity to have known better. In other words: we have a model of human beings as rational agents, able to gather and process information, understand consequences, and make decisions. When they make the wrong ones, they deserve to be punished. People who are incapable of this kind of rationality — young children, the mentally ill — are not held responsible in the same way.

Might we someday understand the brain so well, reducing thought to a series of mechanical processes, that this model ceases to be useful? It seems possible, but unlikely. We know that air is made of molecules, but the laws of thermodynamics haven’t lost their usefulness. Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come. At least, that’s what I choose to think.

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  • Alex R

    This is an elegant description of the compatibilist position. But here’s interesting comparison for you: the reality of “free will” to you has a while lot in common with the reality of God to a liberal religious person like me. Is God a necessary and irreducible part of my physical worldview on the very lowest level? Probably not. But do I believe that the concept of God is valuable in describing the world of human beings, their experiences, and their beliefs? I do, and for many of the same reasons as you give for accepting the concept of free will.
    What’s more, the argument that you and some other atheists use against liberal concepts of the divine, that we are trying to redefine what has customarily been meant by “God” cutoff also be mass against a compatibilist definition of free will.
    So if this is ok for free will, why not for God?

  • Shecky R.

    If I don’t have free will than I guess there’s no point in even commenting on this post since any such comment will have essentially been pre-determined at the time of the Big Bang (or, before) 😉 I might as well just respond with ‘random’ (whatever that is) letters: slkhjeuiyrycbnmzpughendxih, while awaiting to see how other human-robots respond.
    Seriously, I don’t believe the “free will” debate can be resolved (in foreseeable future), and falls into the class of arguments encompassed by the old quote: “If the brain was so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

  • Allen

    Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.

    ON THE STEAMY first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them…


    WHILE OUR CURRENT style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.

    Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?

    The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive, underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society safe.

  • Audun

    ^Alex R:
    I think the answer to your question would be twofold:

    1. When we reject your redefinition of god, it is because we want to argue against the stronger kind. That is, we want to argue against the people who still believe in a god that is tangible, real and supernatural.

    2. I would argue that your kind of God is not nearly as interesting as Sean’s kind of free will. We can easily talk about nature, culture, psycology, neuroscience, economics, ethics etc. without appealing to any kind of God. Free will seems more difficult to get around.

  • Justin Loe

    You make an excellent point when you state “Likewise, people who question the existence of free will don’t have any trouble making choices. (John Searle has joked that people who deny free will, when ordering at a restaurant, should say “just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.”) ”

    I don’t believe that a compatibilist or duality concept is the solution here. That is, I think it’s better to admit that we simply don’t understand how it is that we have the perception of conscious choice, when we can’t derive it from physics. My view is that it is wiser to admit that either our physics is incomplete or our perceptions are incomplete or both, and that we simply can’t answer this question empirically. However, all of us get of bed and choose to order this or that item at a restaurant or get angry at someone who hurt us can only do so if we believe in free will. We don’t know whether our beliefs are ultimately false and our actions are determined or whether physics and our perceptions simply are incomplete. The question simply can’t be answered at the moment. Free will is analogous to the hard problem of consciousness; it is better to admit that we simply don’t have adequate explanations. Good post.

  • Allen

    I agree with the critics of compatilism in this passage:

    “Critics of compatibilism often focus on the definition of free will: Incompatibilists may agree that the compatibilists are showing something to be compatible with determinism, but they think that something ought not to be called ‘free will’.

    Compatibilists are sometimes accused (by Incompatibilists) of actually being Hard Determinists who are motivated by a lack of a coherent, consonant moral belief system.

    Compatibilists are sometimes called ‘soft determinists’ pejoratively (William James’s term). James accused them of creating a ‘quagmire of evasion’ by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism. Immanuel Kant called it a ‘wretched subterfuge’ and ‘word jugglery.'”

    My problem with compatibilism is that it’s generally just an excuse to maintain the status quo in the criminal justice system and the ordering of society.

    Compatibilism has no use other than to resist societal changes that would reflect what we have learned from physics and biology.

    It would be far better just to accept that we don’t have “Free Will” as it is commonly thought of, rather than play compatibilist “word games” whose only purpose is to keep in place an unjust and obsolete social system.

    The article above shows the way.

  • Eric

    I think the big thing comes down to what it means to have a choice – what it means when someone says “I could have chosen differently.” Most of this is covered pretty well over at LessWrong by Eliezer, and it’s the first compatibilist explanation I had read for free will that actually made sense to me.

  • Audun

    This is also the essence of Dennet’s argument, which is wonderfully presented here:
    (edit: correct link now)

  • Justin Loe

    Also, see Neuroethics Journal:

    “In Italy, a judge reduced the sentence of a defendant by 1 year in response to evidence for a genetic predisposition to violence. The best characterized of these genetic differences, those in the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), were cited as especially relevant. Several months previously in the USA, MAOA data contributed to a jury reducing charges from 1st degree murder (a capital offence) to voluntary manslaughter.”


  • Isaac D.

    Compatibilism seems like it is redefining free will in order to make a definition of free will that is compatible with a universe that operates completely by the laws of physics. I don’t really see how choices could ever be considered to be free if they are fully determined by the laws of nature. I like how Alex R compared liberal theologians redefining what god is to compatiblists redefining what free will it. I think that’s a pretty good summary of the matter.

    On a side note, I wonder how a waiter at a restaurant would react if I ordered my food accordingly with Searle’s joke. Maybe I should try it, just for laughs.

  • SpeakerToManagers

    You make an excellent argument, one I agree with completely. In fact, I’d take it a little further:

    “If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? ”

    Even in principle, Laplace’s Demon doesn’t work. Assume for a second that it’s possible to measure the entire set of quantum states that affect some future set of states (of course that’s impossible, but just assume for argument’s sake). Now in order to compute that future state to an arbitrary degree of precision will require at least as much time as is available between the collection of the data and the time of the state being computed, even using some form of quantum emulation algorithm. The fastest computation with sufficient accuracy that current physics (and, I suspect, any future physics, though that’s a belief on my part) allows is an exact simulation of the quantum evolution of the starting state into the final solution state, and that’s just a copy of the physical system we’re trying to predict.

    That means that for every level of organization between the fundamental particle physics and the system you’re talking about there’s a gap of prediction: you can’t, even in principle, compute the causal connection between the low level events and the high level description. So the Consequence Argument fails because it cannot be appealed to even in principle. In a certain sense, we have to take the underpinning of the higher levels by the lower ones on faith. This doesn’t affect the arguments for accepting that underpinning; as long as experimentation continues to provide positive confirmation, we can continue to accept that our models work. That’s precisely the justification that we use in science even when we’re not dealing with the kind of epistemological gap that different levels of organization cause.

    What the failure of Laplace’s Demon does is it logically decouples levels of organization and gives us even more reason for considering the description of higher levels independently from the lower levels when talking about cause and effect on higher level descriptions.

  • Gabe Eisenstein

    I think we compatibilists should allow that empirical understanding will probably keep modifying our picture of volition and responsibility around the edges, as it has been doing for awhile now. A future science powerful enough to change our view of ourselves in fundamental ways may be in the cards, but I think it’s too far away for us to sensibly imagine from here. Our basic concepts of personhood should prove useful for at least a few more millennia.

  • FmsRse12

    “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?”

    ….but theory of humans must predict something…..but if theory predicts something then how can they be considered to have free choice??….humans become predictable the day someone finds a theory about them…….or theory turns out that there can’t be any theory about human being because they have free will and unpredictable……

  • Mike

    My tentative view is that free-will is the inability of an intelligent, self-aware mechanism to predict its own future actions due to the logical impossibility of any mechanism containing a complete internal model of itself rather than any inherent indeterminism in the mechanism’s operation. Oh, and I love baseball, but I’m not sure what that has to do with it 😉

  • Etienne

    We understand “can” in “can I change the future?” as roughly synonymous with “if I wanted to, could I change the future?”. That conditional is certainly true, and that may be all we mean by free will. If I want to refill my coffee mug, then it will happen. The only reason it is already determined that it will not happen is that it is already determined that I don’t want to get up from my chair.

  • David Brown

    Compatibilist free will is what Edward Fredkin calls “pseudo free will”, which he says definitely does exist. Is Fredkin one of the greatest philosophers of our era? Does Fredkin-Wolfram information underlie quantum information? Is there a decisive empirical test of the ideas of Fredkin and Wolfram? Is free will a gift from God? Fredkin claims that Fredkin’s mind is “in a simple state” and that quantum physics reduces to information processing no matter what. Can Fredkin’s ideas be empirically tested? According to Witten, “Whereas in ordinary physics one talks about spacetime and classical fields it may contain, in string theory one talks about an auxiliary two-dimensional field theory that contains the information.” Is Seiberg-Witten M-theory empirically valid if and only if (A) nature is infinite and (B) the Rañada-Milgrom effect is empirically valid? Is modified M-theory with Wolfram’s automaton empirically valid if and only if (C) nature is finite and (D) the space roar profile prediction is true?

  • Eric Habegger

    I think this is a particularly interesting topic because it gets at the roots of the human condition and it’s relationship to physics. Duality and the size scale of abstraction are the most relevant concepts, as Sean seems to have suggested. There is another concept that I also think is important and that is entropy. In entropy any fluid or gas of mixed states and unit container size will find a balance in which it will become more isotropic over time.

    However there will be instances over shorter lengths of time where gases and fluids of different
    energy and elocity states will become even more segregated with less mixing. This can be analogized to both criminal and exemplary human behavior. These people are outliers from statistical probability over shorter period of time. If a human is born into an unusually cruel or kind environment then this contributes to the probability of that person becoming a statistical outlier. But it doesn’t control all of it. There are many cases where people seem to act spontaneous good or
    bad that is undetermined by their upbringing. In actuality the former situation of horrible or terrific upbringing really can’t be considered anti-entropic changes because energy was brought to bear to make that person good or bad. But in the latter case where people spontaneously act good or bad it really should be considered a true cases of short time limit entropic reversal. Rupert Murdoch might be one those, but I don’t know his early influences.

  • Richard D. Morey

    Following up on what I think FmsRse12 (#13) was getting at: in what sense can “free will” be part of a good theory of human behavior, apart from perhaps being another name for what we call “statistical noise” or “unexplained variation”? In this sense, it can never *explain* anything. “Free will” will always be that aspect of behavior that is unexplained, because it it were explained, we would cease to call it free. Thus “free will” explains nothing, and is completely unnecessary (and does not belong) in any real theory of human behavior.

  • Robert Oerter

    “If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future.”

    As you well know, Sean, a quantum Laplace’s Demon could only predict some set of PROBABLE futures. So, in a quantum world, the consequence argument can’t even get off the ground.

    See here for more:

  • Sean the Mystic

    Well I for one find free will mysterious. To be able to say: “in exactly thirty seconds, I will throw this baseball through that window and cause the glass to shatter” and be correct seems like a form of magic in a mechanistic universe. Are we really saying that the universe already decided to throw the baseball in 30 seconds, and we are just fooled into believing that we made the decision?

    I don’t think it’s at all clear that volition, which to me is one of the properties that separates animate from inanimate matter, has been explained by current physical models. Where does life emerge from collections of particles, according to physics? I don’t see it anywhere, in theory or experiment. It seems more like a leap of faith than a proven fact. In any case, my head spins in circles trying to understand this problem…

  • Roberto

    In an exercise of my non existent free will, I do endorse Mr 18.( Im sure you already pissed off a bunch of human behaviourists). Impecable physics, assuming you are one (physicist)

  • spyder

    Might i suggest that whatever philosophical view one chooses to hold re: “unrestrained willful choices,” that same view needs to apply to the larger kingdoms of life as well. We all play, make music, exhibit leisure, etc., all under the rubric of unrestrained, uninhibited choice.

  • Mr. G

    Do not torture others with unnecessary complexity.

    Free should be free.

  • Mr. G

    Speaking of free, my further opinion is that other really smart people aren’t necessarily as free as my years think they could be if they didn’t try so hard.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Just as our knowledge is imperfect, so our choices are going to be imperfect, and contingent on local conditions and previous events. It may not be our fate to get run over by a drunk during rush hour, but events may trend that way.

  • John S. Wilkins

    “Free will” is a polysemic term that covers two different issues: causal determinism, and moral responsibility. All our actions may be (and probably are) causally determined), and yet we may still be free in the moral sense. I take free will to be agency that is not coerced; hence whether or not agency is causally determined, we are free to act (according to our “natures” if you like) when we are not unjustifiably coerced in our choices. I discuss this here.

  • Mike

    Perhaps the great paradox of our lives is that free will is fundamentally an illusion but we have to live as though it is real.

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  • Charon

    @Alex R.

    Is God a necessary and irreducible part of my physical worldview on the very lowest level? Probably not. But do I believe that the concept of God is valuable in describing the world of human beings, their experiences, and their beliefs? I do…
    So if this is ok for free will, why not for God?

    Because I (and I’m pretty sure Sean) completely disagree with you that the concept of a god is useful in describing anything, at any level. Thermodynamics is wonderfully predictive and explains a lot, using temperature, pressure, etc., within a certain physical regime. The god theory predicts… nothing, at least nothing you can get religious people to agree on. (There’s no equivalent of PV=NkT in religion – at all.) The theory of god has no explanatory power. In any regime.

    Free will is like temperature in that it’s a very useful concept, and it certainly appears to exist according to everyday definitions of it. God isn’t useful, and doesn’t appear to exist, at a fundamental or emergent level.

  • Matthew Putman

    it is fine to talk of free will as an emergent, or even convergent result, yet if that result is an illusion, then we still can’t call it real. I would say that Free-will is less like a basebal and more like a mirage in the dessert. It is as real to us as water when we see it, but when we get up close it disappears.

  • nick herbert

    Sean claims physics at the medium-size level is completely understood, But can Sean come up with a convincing narrative concerning what happens during a measurement? When he does so, then I’ll pay attention to what he as a physicist has to say about free will.

  • Matthew Putman

    to stick with sports balls as a metaphor, my father is an inventor (myself a material scientist as well), and in the 1970’s he invented a croquet ball made of polyurethane. The idea was it for it to behave like a wood ball. The real baseball Sean talks about is a bit like this plastic croquet ball to me. it may work like a real wood ball, but when you look at it it is clear that it is indeed plastic. The baseball of free-will is a different product, or to be ungenerous, a fake.

  • Tom Clark

    Sean writes:

    “Thinking of the collections of atoms we call ‘people’ as rational agents capable of making choices seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come.”

    Yes, it will always be useful, and true, because there’s no conflict between being a fully deterministic system whose future is fixed, sitting out there in the 4D block universe, and making choices and having control, Choice-making in light of reasons is just as real a causal process as anything else in nature, so will remain an essential ingredient of how we explain behavior at the level of intentional action.

    However, to call this “free will” is problematic given the long-standing libertarian connotation that the will is somehow free from causation. Better to call it free action, freedom, or free choice, where the freedom in question is that of not being coerced or constrained by agents or circumstances that block one’s desired course of action. Such freedom, very much worth wanting, is perfectly compatible with the deterministic evolution of behavior in accordance with whatever laws govern it, at whatever level.

    But seeing that we don’t have contra-causal, libertarian free will, that we could *not* have done otherwise in actual situations as they played out (as opposed to counterfactual situations, see ), puts pressure on the traditional notion of desert-based retribution, hence has significant implications for our criminal justice system. David Eagleman makes this point in his Atlantic article and in his book Incognito. Sam Harris takes the same position in The Moral Landscape, discussed at , as does biologist Anthony Cashmore for the National Academy of Sciences, . To the extent our beliefs, attitudes and practices related to responsibility, credit and blame are premised on the notion of contra-causal free will, they will all be affected as we naturalize our notions of freedom and human agency,

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  • Dunc

    If free will is the ability to make choices, what shapes those choices? “Preferences”, the economists say… So where do preferences come from, and can you choose to change them? If you can’t simply choose a different set of preferences (and I submit that you cannot), then in what sense could your choices be said to be “free”? They are determined by your preferences, without any need to get down to the basic physics of the matter. If you present me with a menu with a choice of either steak or smoked halibut for the main course, I’ll choose the steak every single time – because I absolutely hate smoked halibut. Is that choice the result of a meaningful exercise of free will? Could I simply choose to like smoked halibut?

  • Richard L

    So you say Free Will is as real as Baseball. You failed to actually provide any useful definition of free will, though, so I have no idea what this post was about…

    Is it free will to be able to choose between Mountain Dew and Pepsi? Or is it free will to decide which I will choose? I for one can’t decide what I choose when the options are so closely related. I can rationalize my choice (by e.g., reading the caffeine content, recognizing that I think one of the two taste better or just being willing to test one again [we don’t have Mountain Dew in Sweden :/ ]) but I can’t decide what I choose.

    Lets simplify the problem I face between Pepsi and Mountain Dew down to taste. Is it free will to be able to choose between these soft drinks, or is it free will to decide which one I think taste better by your definition?

    To me it seems that the first option isn’t really free will as factors, such as the taste, are beyond my realm of choice. The second option seems more like free will, but as far as I know, you cannot choose to like one taste over another… perhaps we can alter our sense of taste in the future, but for now I don’t think free will has emerged to the level of choosing which soft drink you like.

  • Frank

    I think an important point (which you may have made and I overlooked) is the answer should depend on what question you are asking.

    If you are asking in a very general, philosophical way, then the answer should be: ‘there are physical laws, these determine our choices, thus we have no free will’.

    If the question you are asking is ‘does a model of the behavior of an individual or a group of people need to include free will to be accurate’, then, I think the answer is yes. But you could just as easily call it something else; stochastic behavior. Or something.

    Calling it ‘free will’ just because we don’t understand the connection between the rules and the outcome seems disingenuous. Why do we need to call if ‘free will’? Why not just say people are unpredictable? We have trouble predicting weather, but we don’t claim that clouds have free will.

  • Braden B.

    “There’s no free will,” says the philosopher;
    “To hang is most unjust.”
    “There is no free will,” assents the officer;
    “We hang because we must.”

    –Ambrose Bierce

  • Lou Jost

    Sean, I am surprised and puzzled that you would say “If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future.” As you know, the particular outcomes of many quantum processes are uncaused. These outcomes have macroscopic consequences. I gave an example on Jerry Coyne’s site:

    Suppose Schrodinger keeps lots of his cats in a small shielded room deep below the earth’s surface, and brings a gun triggered by a Geiger counter into the room. The Geiger counter is aimed at a weak radiation source, which triggers the Geiger counter once every few minutes. He comes back later (or sits and watches—this is not an observer effect) after hearing a bang, and finds one cat dead, and lots of live cats. We can indeed give good causal explanations at some level for why one of the cats died, but we cannot give a causal explanation for why that particular cat died and not one of the others.

    This kind of uncaused event could also affect the human brain. Granted, this does not mean “free will” but only randomization. Still, the point is that Laplace’s Demon has been out of a job for almost a century. Don’t you agree?

  • Oliver

    HI Sean

    You say : “There’s a lot we don’t understand about consciousness, but none of the problems we face rise to the level that we should be tempted to distrust our basic understanding of how the atoms and forces inside our brains work.” The fact that we do understand how atoms and forces work yet don’t understand how consciousness works should be of some concern as consciousness is the means by which we understand those forces and the workings of the atom. This is equivalent to using a tool without knowing what the tool is, and whether or not that tool alters the nature of the thing it interacts with. To a hammer, everything is nails. To consciousness everything is … what ? And how does that alter what might be there if we were not conscious of it in some way.

  • Mike

    “To a hammer, everything is nails”

    Yes, and deep inside a hammer everything is atoms and forces, but we have a pretty darn good idea how the thing works.

  • Phillip Helbig

    If one really believes that we have no sort of free will at all, then by the same token we should not worry about what consequences this has, for criminal justice or anything else—you are saying “what should we decide (about something specific) if we (i.e. everyone in society) can’t decide at all (in general)?” this is a self-contradictory question.

    The idea that one should not be punished if one is not responsible, couldn’t have decided otherwise etc invalidates only some reasons for punishment, namely educating the convict to mend his ways and, perhaps, revenge (assuming one accepts that as a valid reason at all). It does not invalidate other reasons, such as protecting society from those proven dangerous and deterrence. The latter might seem a bit strange; after all, if someone could not have chosen otherwise, then how could he possibly be deterred? One has to see the whole system. For example, even allowing that, say, a rapist couldn’t have decided otherwise in a given context (say, a society in which rape is frowned upon but tolerated) does not imply that he would not decide otherwise in another context (say, in a society in which rape is strictly punished). Even if we are automatons with no free will at all, that doesn’t mean that information such as expected punishment etc doesn’t play a role in the “decision”.

  • ARDReeves

    Sean, can you elaborate on this statement you made: “the fact that quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component into physical predictions doesn’t open the door for true libertarian free will.”

    What I fail to see is how the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics doesn’t open the door to free will…? If Newtonian physics were the end all be all of physics then we could predict every event in the future and therefore all interactions would be predetermined and free will could not be true in the sense that all decisions were made before you were even born. However, with the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle we are unable to predict anything with 100% certainty and therefore I perceive all our actions (or the actions of particles colliding) as reactions to the current environment rather than a single step in a predetermined chain of events. This leads me to believe that free can be considered true on almost all levels.

    I understand that at the level of the brain and consciousness quantum mechanics doesn’t necessarily play a major role, though it does appear that many proteins and large molecules exhibit quantum behavior. Still, with the nature of quantum mechanics it will not be possible to accurately predict all thought processes perfectly because there will be some variation, even if only in the environment the person lives in.

    I’m not a physicist nor a philosopher but I love discussing this topic. Thanks for this post Sean!

  • Phillip Helbig

    The problem with #43 is the assumption that since free will is the opposite of determinism, and the stochastic component of quantum mechanics is the opposite of determinism, then the stochastic component of quantum mechanics must imply free will. In other words, just because we can’t predict something even in principle doesn’t mean that it must be governed by free will, unless your definition of free will means that a decaying nucleus has it.

  • kirk

    “just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.” What if I have operant conditioning that produces a verbal report to the waiter “Bring me another cheese burger just like the cheeseburger I had yesterday”. Or I have operant conditioning that I must not eat at the same restaurant everyday. Or I never eat anything I have never eaten before by ‘force of habit”. At the very least, we mostly make predetermined choices. Paper or Plastic, black or with cream, whole wheat or white. Are these subject to agency and volition. Really?

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  • Rick

    I found this quote from Popper to be an interesting take on the question of free will:

    “New ideas have a striking similarity to genetic mutations. Now, let us look for a moment at genetic mutations. Mutations are, it seems, brought about by quantum theoretical indeterminacy (including radiation effects). Accordingly, they are also probabilistic and not in themselves originally selected or adequate, but on them there subsequently operates natural selection which eliminates inappropriate mutations. Now we could conceive of a similar process with respect to new ideas and to free-will decisions, and similar things. . . That is to say, a range of possibilities is brought about by a probabilistic and quantum mechanically characterized set of proposals, as it were – of possibilities brought forward by the brain. On these there then operates a kind of selective procedure which eliminates those proposals and those possibilities which are not acceptable to the mind.”

  • Roman

    Since some of you readers grew up in “soccer” parts of the world you should be careful with using baseball as an example of something “real”.

  • Richard Wein

    Sean’s main point seems to be this:

    “We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients.”

    How is it useful to include that phrase? What would be lost from our model of the world if we omitted it? Nothing that I can see.

    I’m neither denying nor assenting to the existence of “free will”. I think it’s too meaningless a term to be worth taking either position on.

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  • Eric Habegger

    I’m not sure why people object so much to the notion of free will. Sure, it’s not a very accurate or physically descriptive term but it is historically defined as a key concept. That should be enough to legitimize discussion of it. We shouldn’t think of free will as being something that allows us to be independent of all current and previous forces in our lives. Rather it should be seen as allowing us for short time periods to rise above (or below) those influences. We know those exceptional and unexplainable events occur occasionally and you can’t discount them. It just seems to me that it is an unfortunate historical accident that it came to be called free will. It may not be any more free than events that we understand.

    I have a vague feeling though that for every one of these odd events in each person’s life there will be a corresponding opposite reaction in another person somewhere else in the world/universe. I do think humans have portions of both classical and large scale quantum mechanical processes working on them. Most of the time it is classically modeled but not always.

  • Shecky R.

    Perhaps this old quote of JBS Haldane’s is pertinent here 😉 :

    “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to believe that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

  • Kati

    If we have free will or not, how would we know? It certainly feels as if I have free choice, but perhaps all my decisions, including those that seem “free” to me, were predetermined eons ago?

  • Brendan H.

    How is attributing free will to quantum indeterminacy different from saying that human behavior is at least partly the result of tossing really, really small coins? And what is the moral significance or utility of that?

  • Eric Habegger

    Brendan, Some things don’t have an answer and any attempted answer by me would just be a facile response.

  • Jochen

    I think you make two very good points that are often overlooked in this discussion, and quickly lead down blind alleys — one is that quantum mechanics’ indeterminism doesn’t give carte blanche to those arguing for free will; the other is that just because something isn’t present at the fundamental level, there’s no sense to saying it ‘doesn’t exist’ if it very clearly is part of a useful description on the applicable scale (I have sometimes joked that just because a description of my body on the cellular level does not mention my arms, it does not make sense to say that my arms don’t exist). So in that sense, both the ‘the universe isn’t deterministic, so we can have free will’ and the ‘the fundamental laws contain no freedom’ camps are missing the point somewhat (besides, I can’t resist pointing out that QM’s indeterminism is quite interpretation-dependent).

    But, as is very often the case in such discussions, I believe there is a slight case of misunderstanding here, as not everyone is talking about the same thing when they talk about ‘free will’. Those that point towards the immutable time-evolution of physical systems given the requisite laws and boundary conditions generally argue against a ‘could have done otherwise’-definition of free will: that even given the exactly same physical conditions, a different course of action would have been possible. Such a concept, I think, requires an irreducible metaphysical component.

    However, while this is certainly a position held by some, I think there is actually more variance to the concept. For instance, another definition is that the will is its own ultimate cause, which superficially seems to be saying the same thing — but there is a somewhat subtle issue here that permits drawing a distinction, and that is the fact that Laplace’s Demon can’t always accurately predict the future, even in a completely deterministic universe, even given complete knowledge of all the physical laws and states. Or rather, he can’t predict it without doing the equivalent to observing the system’s evolution.

    The reason for that is computational: a sufficiently complex system may be regarded as a universal computer; being able to uniquely predict its evolution then would be equivalent to being able to solve the halting problem. Take a ‘ballistic’ computer, essentially an n-body problem; set it up appropriately, such that its evolution performs some computation. The question of what state the system will be in after a certain time can then always be re-interpreted as the question of whether or not the computation will halt. Even Laplace’s Demon, provided he does not have access to hypercomputational means, will have no other choice, in order to ‘predict’ the system’s evolution, to observe the system’s evolution, though possibly in some simulated form — which, however, does not change anything about the system’s essentials: whatever states the system goes through, the simulation must also undergo.

    Now, humans are systems of the required complexity; thus, in order to find out whatever a human will do, the only way is to either observe their actions, or simulate them and observe the simulation — which, however, would be entirely equivalent: the simulated human would make the decision in just the same way the ‘real’ one does; he would know no difference. In this sense, then, the will may be its own ultimate cause, while still there is no possibility of ‘could have done otherwise’ — indeed, the notion does not make sense in this analysis: there is no fact of the matter of what one could have done, as the only factually certain thing is what one actually has done; and as Dennett observes, the ‘same exact situation’ is something unique, so it makes no sense to talk as if one could revisit it and ‘change one’s mind’.

    This still does not solve the problem of moral culpability — here, I think, Dennett’s concept of ‘evitability’ bears fruit: one can’t escape the outcome of any given situation, but one can modify the likelihood of some undesirable outcome occurring in a host of similar situations. Like the golf player can train himself to make the put in more cases than the amateur, although in any given case, his success is precisely determined by the physical variables, so can a moral agent ‘train’ himself to raise his ‘evitability’, i.e. his ability to evade consequences considered morally undesirable in any given situation. The judgement of being ‘morally good’ is thus put on the same, unambiguous footing as the judgement of being good at golf; criminal prosecution and punishment constitute ‘training’ towards greater moral capacities, towards higher evitability.

  • AI

    There is no free will.

    There is no evidence to support the existence of free will.

  • Dan

    I think the error being made by (almost) every post here is to focus solely on the ‘free’ part rather than the ‘will’. If you assume that the will/mind is entirely materially based, usually by equating it with the brain, then of course it becomes part of the natural laws that we know about, whether quantum or otherwise.

    However, there are big problems with this assumption, one of which is that there really hasnt been put forward any satisfactory explanation for how a purely physical object would result in consciousness. You can point to its adaptive usefulessness (which im sure it has), but that only partly explains why there are lots of us with it, rather than explaining its unique properties. I think this has come about due to a huge exaggeration of what we think we can know from neuroscience, which is in fact an incredibly crude and inexact science. Many of the claims upon which this tendency to ascribe consciousness to the brain are based are actually laughably bad from a scientific point of view.

    Anyway, given how little we actually know about how the brain works, and the fundamental lack of a satisfactory explanation for how a physical object alone could produce consciousness, we have to allow for the possibility that mind, and in this case will is something of a type that we do not yet fully understand. Im aware that this smacks of the religious explanation, but I think its more of agnostic view. We have to accept sometimes that there are things we do not (yet) understand, rather than assuming everything fits into the rules and laws we already have. It seems pretty arrogant, though hardly a new thing, to think that with a few latest discoveries we’ve solved problems that have persisted for millenia

  • michael corner

    well, here goes: several years ago I worked out the six-fold set of semantic confusions underlying the concept of ‘freedom’ when applied to volition – it’s not even clear what ‘free’ adds to voluntary as opposed to involuntary behavior, a thoroughly respectable neurological distinction without any necessity for metaphysical overtones. Anyway, I’ll be glad to send the whole argument to whomever would like to think the question through; who knows, I may have overlooked something! try

  • RP

    Free will is two words. Will which is defined as our ‘ability to make decisions.’ Free defined as ‘without restraint.’

    Most people who say ‘free will’ really mean ‘will’.

    Certainly we make decisions, but we do not do so without restraint. Ordering off a menu is a good example, I can go to McDonald’s and decide between a Big Mac and Chicken McNuggets but can’t decide on a Whopper.

    What we have is not a free will, but an influenced will, we make decisions based on the influences around us, most of which of out of our control. I didn’t choose to be a first-born male to poor parents (who later became middle class) in the United States in the late 60’s. Nor did people choose to be born to Ethiopian parents during the famine of the 80’s. Who would choose that given a ‘free’ choice???!! These events so obviously out of our control have a dramatic effect on the choices we do make throughout our lives.

  • nick herbert

    Baruch Spinoza: “Free will is merely ignorance of the causes of our actions.”

  • Mark

    Regarding criminal culpability:

    If free will exists, it is right that we judge and punish people for their crimes and the harm they inflict.

    If free will does not exist, then we have no choice as to whether we judge. If we do judge and punish, then we were always bound to do so.

    In other words, judgement and punishment is either good or unavoidable.

  • Anchor

    I agree with RP and others: I may WISH to visit the Moon or levitate to 1000 meters with nothing but my own volition, but my alleged ‘free will’ is influenced and constrained by circumstances beyond my control within the natural environment governed by physical law. Whatever I MAY achieve (like deciding to make coffee or tea) must always be confined within the potentially doable. The capacity to ‘decide’ on a permissable course of action isn’t at all evidence for ‘free will’. Not even a respectable hint of it.

    Our ‘wills’ are subject to our experience of what is potentially doable. If some hitherto unknown physical phenomenon provides a fresh direction for action, we discover we’ve expanded the frontiers of our potential ‘working space’ and call that ‘learning’ (and that addresses our definition of ‘intelligence’ – the ability to capitalize on information), but our ‘freedom’ must remain within the penitentiary of the laws of nature. And so it is with our practical wherewithal – I COULD conceivably visit the Moon if I could summon enough money and persuade and organize armies of engineers to obey my bidding. The laws of nature do not explicitly forbid it, but there are many such limiting probabilistic inertias that make many such goals so exceedingly unlikely as to represent many layers of nested barbed-wire fences around the compound…and those fences prescribed by physical law are innumerable and exist at every scale. Some of the barriers may have chinks of weakness or may even be entirely illusory, but there must inevitably be those that are impassable, in principle and as a matter of practicality or probability.

    If determinism can’t escape the boundaries of the possible, certainly, neither can mere wishful thinking whimsied up by human imaginations partial to illusions such as the ‘self’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ or whatever else we fancy might be in the driver’s seat. But while free self-determination is an illusion, nature is luxuriously generous with what games and toys and dreams we ARE allowed to play with. If we ever attained authentic freedom, it would be tantamount to being dead…but then we wouldn’t be ‘we’ anymore, would we?

  • psmith

    Compatibilism describes the extraordinary word juggling that you are driven to when compelled to reconcile incompatible beliefs that are the inevitable consequences of your ideological mindset. If you must have your cake and eat it, can I recommend solipsism as a world view. All things are possible there.

    In fact there is a far better approach that comprehensively solves the problem if you adopt the position that laws of nature are merely descriptions of observed regularities (Regularity vs Necessitarianism). I would hazard that this is the only defensible position for a card carrying atheist.

    See this article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
    The Regularists’ Trump Card – The Dissolution of the Problem of Free Will and Determinism( )

  • Andrew

    This article correctly identifies that free will and free choice are different concepts with different meanings. Since the article talks about free choice almost exclusively, I find it regrettable that the distinction wasn’t better elucidated… not that this deficiency isn’t found as a pervasive condition throughout the general writings on will and choice.

    For my purposes, I think of freedom of choice as being on a scale where one’s freedom to choose among options is in direct proportion to ones ability to influence the brain ahead of time. With this model (soft determinism perhaps?), the choice may be impacted by our efforts through conditioning or environmental exposure, but by the actual moment in time when the choice is made, one’s own ability to actually choose is effectively zero.

    I have found the pervasive belief of freedom to act quite perplexing. We are not free to act in any way we wish or choose. I cannot fly by flapping my arms. In like-kind fashion, I cannot cause my brain to produce predetermined behaviors because my physical architecture provides no such mechanism for the absolute control of the brain. I only have the benefits of habitual/systematic behaviors which are easily activated as a consequence of their presence/existence which ultimately derives from outside of me, either from inherited genetics, epi-genetics, or environmental conditioning.

    The freedom to will is limited both by the relative degree of freedom to choose and the opportunity to realize choices through action.

  • NChen

    There are some inaccuracies in the article. Both libertarianism and compatibilism are basically physicalist theories (or actually classes of physicalist theories). Neither ” invoke[s] a notion of free will as an essential ingredient in reality, over and above the conventional laws of nature.” Libertarianism says that free will or moral responsibility is only compatible with indeterminism while compatibilism says that free will or moral responsibility is compatible with determinism.

  • Scott Aaronson

    In fact there is a far better approach that comprehensively solves the problem if you adopt the position that laws of nature are merely descriptions of observed regularities

    psmith #64: I read the article about “Regularism” with interest (as I have sympathy with the idea), but there’s a crucial issue that the article doesn’t address.

    Instead of talking about physical theories in the abstract, let’s talk about a specific theory, like the Standard Model. And instead of debating whether the Standard Model “necessarily” holds, let’s consider only the empirical fact that it has been found to hold, in every low-energy, non-gravitational situation known to humankind.

    Now, is the Regularist view that the Standard Model can be violated inside a human brain? If, as the article argues, “the laws of nature accommodate themselves to our choice” (whichever choice we make), then it would seem the answer has to be yes, since the Standard Model (within its domain of validity) gives a complete set of rules for evolving an initial quantum state into a final one. (Unless, that is, the role of our choices is to retroactively determine parts of the initial state of the universe, which is an interesting though radical idea.)

    In any case, the point I’m trying to make is that, if you want to talk about the laws of nature “accommodating themselves” to human choices, then you can no longer stay safely on a philosophical plane! Like it or not, you’re now (at least in principle) asking empirical questions about physics.

  • Scott Aaronson

    One of the only things I feel confident about here is that, if you notice your metaphysical views on free will influencing your views on crime and punishment, you’re making a mistake! As an example, it’s not the case that determinism would invalidate “some” reasons to punish criminals (like revenge), and not invalidate other reasons (like public safety). Any reason to punish that’s good in an indeterministic world is equally good in a deterministic one! The simple argument for this was already given by several commenters; see especially the Ambrose Bierce poem quoted by Braden #38.

    Personally, I even find something patronizing about the strangely-persistent idea that the determinism of the laws of physics (if true) could ever be a valid legal defense. It’s as if people reason: “yes, of course those poor uneducated criminals steal and murder all the time: they have to, because of their genes and environment! But shame on us educated enlightened people if we choose to punish them, since our free will was never in question.”

  • Kaleberg

    This is as silly as arguing that computers cannot add numbers. At a certain level, they can’t. They can only manipulate electrons so that the relationships between the original and final voltages and currents can be interpreted as adding two numbers. There is nothing that “adds” in a computer circuit any more than in a mechanical adding machine.

    Biologists are as bad as computer scientists. They’ll correct you when you say that MRSA has evolved resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria don’t evolve resistance, they’ll say. It is only the selection by the toxin as applied to the statistical population that changes the frequency of the blah blah blah. I usually stop listening even before this point.

    Free will is about the decision process, and we know that making decisions involves ATP, oxygen and neurotransmitters. We call people lacking ATP, oxygen and neurotransmitters dead and, in most cultures, they are regarded as incapable of making decisions without the help of a shaman, ouija board or executor. With suitable instruments, we can even watch decisions being made as neurons interact to produce a consensus, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the future. Free will is no less free for being predictable and comprehensible. That’s why we have novels. (I’m re-reading Lord Jim, so I’m sort of wallowing in this.)

    I’ll agree with Scott Aaronson among others. The issue of moral responsibility operates at a societal level. It has nothing to do with how individuals make decisions, but rather how our societies enforce behavior. Libertarians tend to have a problem with this because they have one particular belief system about how behavior should be enforced and, like so many others, defend it on religious, though not supernatural, grounds.

  • Justin Loe

    One brief observation: Scientific or physics specific descriptions of reality appear to negate metaphysical concepts, for some people, according to one line of reasoning. Accordingly, if the reductionist deterministic argument is the one that’s held (which John Conway of Princeton disagrees with, then it follows the future is strictly determined. Essentially, a determinist in that sense shouldn’t be bothered to debate anyone, since the outcome of that argument has likewise itself been determined itself.

    Of course, it may be predetermined that you will argue for predeterminism anyway, and that John Conway is predetermined to disagree with you.

    In any case, as Dr. Conee and Dr. Sider argue, if a determinist is punched in the face, he really shouldn’t be angry about it. After all, it was bound to happen anyway.
    I quote this amusing solution:
    “If someone believes in hard determinism, here’s a little experiment to try. Punch him in the face, really hard. Then try to convince him not to blame you. After all, according to him, you had no choice but to punch him! I predict you will find it very hard to convince him what he preaches.” (Conee & Sider, 118, Riddles of Existence)
    good stuff

    No advocacy of violence in philosophical debates is implied or suggested by my citing the above quote from Conee & Sider.

  • Justin Loe

    One more thought: (seriously, as opposed to the above)
    Rather than using the example of crime in this debate, it is also useful to consider such syndromes as schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, adhd, etc. Each of these illnesses have significant genetic components, and although the specific genes have not been found, they likely will be found in the future.

    It is non-trivial to state that individuals suffering from each of these disorders have been stigmatized by society and held culpable for their illness in past history. Before the 20th century, mental disease was seen as a consequence of sin or other misconduct or other types of misdeeds by parents.

    Recent genetic advances challenge that bigotry. Science shows that these people are not at fault for their illnesses and that their parents do not cause them, as was regrettably suggested by previous psychologists.

    In these instances it is useful and morally important to know the cause of illnesses, to recognize that they contribute to impairment in judgment, and yes, free will. By illuminating the real causes, the mystery of mental illnesses is dissipated.

    If free will is only thought of in libertarian terms, then it is easy to condemn the mentally ill homeless person, and dismiss their fate as the simple result of poor decisions.

    These people have impaired power of choice, i.e. impaired free will, and the laudable and important contribution of science has been to illuminate that fact, not because society wants to excuse bad outcomes or violent behavior, but because we need to understand these illnesses, the way in which they impair brain function, so that we can treat them.

    Additionally, this scientific understanding of psychiatric disease, allows psychiatrists and families to come to terms with their patients and family members respectively, and to recognize that perceived bad behavior reflects a disease process that can be treated. Society, when it recognizes the person behind the disease, in spite of misconduct and poor behavior, and understands the disease process at work, can be moved to better treatment and humane care.

    In that sense free will can be lost, through illness or disease, and possibly regained, through enlightened treatment and potential advances in the future.

    Freedom is not universal at all times and for all people; the goal of science should include the restoration of free choice to those who have lost it, through disease, accident, or other misfortune, and to understand to the extent possible, how it is that bad outcomes and misconduct occurs, so that, to the extent possible, it can be treated.

  • psmith

    For an alternative view of the subject consider Philip Clayton’s paper:

    Neuroscience, the Person and God: An Emergentist Account

    Terry Horgan provides a very clear exposition of the compatibilist position here:
    Causal Compatibilism and the Exclusion Problem

  • Max Thomas

    Every claim that “I did something,” or that “you do something,” presupposes free will lest those claims make no sense. When I say, “I made a sandwich,” I claim that I am the cause of the sandwich and that I alone am the cause of that sandwich. Free will is when the agent is the sole cause of something, in the sense that without that agent’s acting, the something would not have happened. Most human beings are causal agents such that they choose something without there being any prior cause compelling them to do it.

    Moral responsibility comes into play when I choose to do good over evil, or evil over good, and although I am tempted to choose evil, nothing forces me to do so. That is, I cannot be forced to choose evil because such is a contradiction between “choice” and “being forced.”

    If I was compelled to kill her, then I did not actually commit the killing because the true cause is whatever compelled my body to perform in that way. I am compelled by my body to recover from a stumble because that recovery is nothing I choose to do. But, if I murder her, then I am the sole cause of her death, such that without my acting, she would not have died.

    Thus, the existence is free will is not proved so much as it is presupposed in nearly everything we do and think. Of course, there can be no scientific (empirical) proof of free will because science necessarily and rightly presupposes that nothing happens without a cause.

  • Just a point

    It is absolutely ludicrous that anyone can “understand consequences”. That is the whole point of the result of Bell’s inequality. So there is absolutely no certain outcome to any event until after the observation of the consequence occurs.
    The flaw in some of your statements is that you are still warped by some notion of universal justice, which simply can not be supported based on the strengh of human logic. Human logic is invaribly flawed when put to paper, and contradictions arise and propogate through the system and are exploited by people everyday (go talk to some tax lawyers if you don’t believe me).
    So the only understanding one has to have is que sera sera, which is entirely a probabilistic situation and has nothing to do with fate.

  • Que sera sera
  • Zenphamy

    I wish I had found this blog a little earlier. Can’t change that regardless of free will, but the consequence is that I’ll be doing a little more exploration to see what else is out there. Is that pre-deterministic, or was it chance, or was it the result of a continually variable being, (influenced by a set of past exposures and genetic make-up and whatever and whatever as well as free will).
    I maintain that the belief that our understanding of physics and laws determined from our observations and analysis still has vast gaps in it based on the limited range of our present perceptual abilities, as well as our understanding of a brain and the mind that develops within, or with it. Much of this type of discussion still depends on definitions, which in spite of all efforts, still vary individually. It’s one of the most dramatic (and fun and sometimes scary) aspects of what it is to ‘be.’
    But yes, free will is. My free will is, at 64, to keep looking for, keep observing all, keep learning more, keep imagining more and keep foremost in my ‘mind’, which seems to reside in my brain as the receptor and manipulator and analyzer of all of my senses, that there will always be more to understand.
    I see little to be gained by including a vague and amorphous concept of a God in this discussion nor do I see any advantage in a vain hope of understanding or defining the insanity, drives, or causal relationships that become a serial killer. At the same time, trying to learn how society can detect them and try to minimize their impact on the rest of us can’t be other than worthwhile. But I seriously question any level of ‘understanding’ that will permit prevention of their development.
    The awesome variabilities of being and evolution will always provide some things or some actions that we don’t understand and can’t control and therefore fear. The best we can hope for is to gain enough understanding, within the limits of our perceptial abilities, to enable us to better control their impacts. That, I think, also applies to everything else that we think about.
    There are way too many attempts to compress our understandings of anything into elegant and simple formulae and laws and rules, based on beliefs and concepts that we can stop the continual evolution of and variable changes in anything long enough to make that determination.
    Rather, for myself, it’s much more interesting to explore and evolve, with the thought that there will always be more, because everything will evolve and change beyond my present understanding.
    Great article, by the way.

  • KH

    Suppose we lived on a closed timelike curve. All the microscopic particle worldlines and field values are appropriately periodic in time, so everything is consistent. What would be our perception? Would we “remember” the future by recalling the past cycle of time? Would we feel free will in the same way, or would the illusion be spoiled?

  • Eric Habegger

    It seems this debate is moving towards an unofficial conclusion that there may actually be an element of free will in everyone. If that is the case, and I’m not saying that is the unanimous consensus, then the the next question would be how much are our actions predetermined by everything that has molded each of us up this point, and how much are our actions determined by chance/free will, or however you define it. I’d suggest looking at the case of identical twins in various environments to make a scientific analysis of it.

    My superficial past reading of how identical twins behave would lead me to believe that there is a much smaller proportion of free will in all of us than we are led to think. Of course, the identical twin analysis adds an interpretational problem. Perhaps we should treat them as one quantum
    mechanical object who change TOGETHER subject to a higher level of free will than their individual differences would indicate. That is, perhaps their behavior is still dictated by a high level of chance but whatever that behavior is there is then a strong correlation between the action of the two twins. My understanding is that this would agree with quantum principles on much smaller scales. It is confusing how one should interpret this.

  • Justin Loe

    @Habegger: For one take on the heritability of political beliefs, see Alford’s 2005 twin study:

    Summary from Sciencedaily:
    “On the issue of property taxes, for example, an astounding four-fifths of identical twins shared the same opinion, while only two-thirds of fraternal twins agreed.”

    One of the better twin studies was by Bouchard, of twins raised apart, and he found: “When journalists first began interviewing Bouchard’s twins-raised-apart, they focused on the spectacularly similar pairs, like the Springer-Lewis twins. But those twins turned out to be outliers in the Minnesota study….. On average, identical twins raised separately are about 50 percent similar — and that defeats the widespread belief that identical twins are carbon copies.” source:

  • Eric Habegger

    Justin, thanks for the references. I read them all and was really impressed with the first one you mentioned.

  • Free will

    I would like to point out that under a model of determinism, there is no such things as willing slave

  • bizarre

    Apperently the spam filters find the words “free content” to be spam, wild,

    Noise is free too.

  • Pandaemoni

    @ Max Thomas (73): When I say “My robot butler made me a sandwich” (or, less fancifully, “my chess computer chose to move a pawn”), I am not suggesting that either has free will.

    While I believe in free will, we should take note that there are already machines that process information (with embedded feedback mechanisms), consider various alternatives, and then select a course of action (i.e. they “make choices”). Chess computers are an obvious example. Humans engage in the speculation of the counterfactual position that we “could have” made different choices in the past, whatever our actual choices were. So long as human choice selection algorithms were chaotic (i.e., incredibly sensitive to initial conditions) to explain the high degree of (seeming) variability in human decisions, I don’t see how we can definitively state that the counterfactual is true.

    The impression that we have free will in making choices, could simply be a byproduct of our remembering that we were considering different possible choices, much as a chess computer considers various possible moves, even though e actually had as little ability to defy our biological programming as that chess computer would have had to defy its program.

  • Albanius

    An excellent statement of the compatibilist position in 1966 by then future Nobelist, the great neurologist Roger Sperry:

    Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists September 1966:
    (This is a pdf of a photocopy.) The essay evolved into Sperry’s book Science and Moral Priority.

    Sperry asked “Is it possible … in principle, to construct a complete objective explanatory model of brain function without including consciouness and mental phenomena in the causal sequence?”

    Sperry said that his “mentalist” position was then in a tiny minority, but per Sean it seems to have gained since then.

  • Justin Loe

    Quotation from Robert Kane, The Significance of Free Will (1998), pp. 214-215:
    “If we want to be independent sources of activity in the world, we must accept ambivalence, uncertainty, struggle, and conflict within ourselves – all of which are connected to the indeterminacy that is required for free will. The ambivalence, uncertainty, and risk are in turn related to competing images of the good that must inevitably confront those who would be ultimate creators of their own ends.”

    Professor Robert Kane teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and received his PhD from Yale in 1964.

  • Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed()

  • psmith

    See this book
    Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy
    for a complete, detailed and thoughtful treatment of the subject

  • Eric Habegger

    Interesting comments and references offered here. I think it might be worthwhile reading Doyle’s book that was just listed if I had more hours in the day. Going back to the reference :

    …it says in it that identical twins as they are growing up often try to act as independently from each other as possible in order to be recognized by first their parents, and then their other siblings, and then their friends and acquaintances. It sounds like they artificially create a slight variation on how they really see themselves so they can each have their own identity.

    Later when they become adults and get some spatial separation they naturally give up that self induced differentiating. The similarity in lifestyle, professions and political views between them often become profound at that time even if there is not much communication between them. If you think about this they really are behaving conceptually exactly like quarks in a nucleon. That is, there is asymptotic freedom when the twins are in close proximity. This would be the high energy state when the quarks are close together. In the low energy condition when there is almost complete spatial separation their actions then become highly correlated and similar.

    It might seem like this is stretching analogy to the point of ridiculousness. I just happen to think that these patterns keep showing up at larger and larger scales because quantum interactions in biological systems are perhaps what makes the difference between inanimate (or animated objects) and what we define as life. What we define as life is just the arbitrary line we have come with for large objects that are defined largely by quantum principles and indeterminism rather than classical behavior.

  • Eric Habegger

    That was a bit of cold blooded analysis by me. It does not represent the real feelings I attach to life. I think William Blake might have been the one that said all life is holy. I agree with that.

  • Matt B.

    I like to make an analogy with signals. A signal can be random, regular, or , between those two, it can carry a message.

    Absolute lack of free will would make us automatons, like a regular signal going through the same bleeps and blorps (though the analogy is that sentient beings automatically follow laws of physics, not that they repeat their actions).

    Absolute free will would mean making decisions without basis on sensory input, it would be a random signal. However, I believe we do act randomly when newly born, and that that’s how we learn how to act with purpose. You cannot be a moral actor with this kind of free will (if it were permanent).

    Meaningful free will is like a signal with a message. Unlike the other two kinds of messages, this kind is worth listening to. We choose our actions based on sensory input (including the influences of past perceptions), so it’s not random, but it’s not entirely regular either, if such free will exists. Oddly, this concept of morality seems to require a striving toward regularity, trying to become an automaton. (There may be an extra analogy possible here, involving zipping a file. To be moral, you must be as predictable as possible, or the most zippable.)

    Maybe we think we have free will because we never get all the way from randomness to regularity.

  • melior

    @70: Some guy punched me really hard in the face, then tried to convince me I shouldn’t blame him because I agree that free will is like baseball in the sense Sean describes.

    I had to bend over and listen closely to hear him make his argument though, since he was doubled up on the ground as a result of my knee striking him so hard in the groin in reaction to his punch. From what I could make out through his whimpering it sounded like some sort of silly attempted reductio ad absurdum of a straw man version of compatibilism couched as a joke that wasn’t even amusing the first twelve times I heard it, so I lost interest pretty quickly. I put some ice on my black eye and it’s fine now though.

  • MMA Houston

    Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, treated species as artificial categories and living forms as malleable-even suggesting the possibility of common descent. Though he was in opposition to evolution, Buffon is a key estimate the history of evolutionary thought; his work influenced the evolutionary theories of both Lamarck and Darwin.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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