Is Free Will an Illusion?

Tis the season to ask the title question, as it was rhetorically asked by Shaun Nichols, an academic “experimental” philosopher at the University of Arizona. Nichols has sympathy with those who say that “free will is a figment of our imagination. No one has it or ever will. Rather our choices are either determined—necessary outcomes of the events that have happened in the past—or they are ­random.”

I claim—Nichols would say I have no choice but to claim—that this view is asinine and those who hold it are at a minimum mentally addled. Let’s see what evidence there is either way (but if Nichols is right, your being convinced one way or the other is rigidly determined or random, so do not despair whatever view you come to; but if you do despair you were meant to).

Nichols says, “Typically philosophers deal with [philosophical] issues through careful thought and discourse with other theorists.” He eschews this approach and choses to instead “administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to understand the sources of our instincts.” We used to call that sort of thing science, not philosophy, but never mind.

Here is an anecdote that convinced Nichols that free will is a folksy illusion:

[Scientists] widely agree that unconscious processes exert a powerful influence over our choices. In one study, for example, participants solved word puzzles in which the words were either associated with rudeness or politeness. Those exposed to rudeness words were much more likely to interrupt the experimenter in a subsequent part of the task. When debriefed, none of the subjects showed any awareness that the word puzzles had affected their behavior. That scenario is just one of many in which our decisions are directed by forces lurking beneath our awareness.

Thus, ironically, because our subconscious is so powerful in other ways, we cannot truly trust it when considering our notion of free will. We still do not know conclusively that our choices are determined. Our intuition, however, provides no good reason to think that they are not. If our instinct cannot support the idea of free will, then we lose our main rationale for resisting the claim that free will is an illusion.

Before interpretation, let’s hear from an authority more eminent than Nichols: Scrooge

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your own senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”…

“You see this toothpick?” said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.

“I do,” replied the Ghost.

“You are not looking at it,” said Scrooge.

“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”

“Well!” returned Scrooge, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug!”

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror when the phantom, taking off the bandage round his head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must…”

In other words, if you emerge from a Comedy Club at 10pm you’re likely to be happier than your conspecifics who stayed at home watching PBS. Or if you ride the 7 train after a Mets game your language will be coarser than if you called 777-7777 and were driven home listening to Mozart waft from the speakers. Or if you have dinner you’re more likely to feel full than your fasting brother. Similarly, if you emerge from your repast with ptomaine poisoning your outlook on life will be darker than your sibling who heated his beef to the proper temperature.

Of course the environment affects our moods! Whoever claimed that it did not? But because it sometimes does, it does not imply it always does or always does so to the same degree. (This is a non-experimental philosophical argument.)

In short, Scrooge had it right.


  1. DAV

    I don’t know about random unless he means in an unfathomable way. However, what if every decision is actually the outcome of a conscious (or otherwise) cost/benefit analysis? If so, then past events are the driver and there is no free will. One might claim the ability to make a bad choice but can you really? How can you be completely sure that you don’t see (or subconsciously feel) some benefit from doing so (like the pleasure of “proving” the hypothesis wrong or the pleasure outweighs the cost)? In fact, isn’t a lot of training (as in “don’t hit your brother because …”; “do your homework because …”; “don’t do that or God will punish you”; “you shouldn’t do drugs because…”; etc) precisely education of benefits and consequences?

  2. William Sears

    Scrooge had most things right until he was tortured by the three spirits of socialism.
    A related question is: do dogs have free will? When did self awareness evolve and how does one even begin to answer such questions? You know me boss, I don’t get no ideas.

  3. genemachine

    It would help me understand your position better if you performed this thought experiment:

    If we have a pile of atoms and assemble them into a copy of Mr Briggs that walks, talks, blogs and does stats the same as the original does then:

    1) Does our new Mr Briggs have free will, or is he one of David Chalmers’ zombies?

    2) If he has free will, did he acquire it due to the structure of the nervous system, allowing our him to think and act? (Dennett’s compatibilist free will)

    3) Did a miracle occur to suspend the rules of physical causation and give him true freedom?

    4) Is it impossible to create such a copy since there is more to Mr Briggs than a mere arrangement of physical matter?

  4. JH

    Mr. JH’s behavior is predictable, but does this mean that his behavior is predetermined and that he makes no volitional decisions? What are free will and determinism? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Perhaps, we need more precise definitions of the terms free will and determinism.

  5. Ken

    Shaun Nichols, in his article in Scientific American, confounds intuition with free will and discounts/ignores the “thinking” that is unavoidable. Intuition and free will are completely different things — and that alone is sufficient basis to discount everything he presents as the dopey extrapolations of one stepping far afield of their area(s) of expertise.

    For example: Any pilot will tell you that their survival depends on trusting their instruments — “seat of the pants” flying invariably leads to very wrong perceptions due to centrifugal forces, etc. that create feelings & intuitions wildly at odds with reality. Survival, in other words, depends on dismissing inputs from numerous bodily senses & placing trust away from intuition…and no amount of experience can offset this completely.

    Chances are, Nichols (& those of his ilk) endorse the “free will is an illusion” and related viewpoints because if true–or if they can convince themselves this [mis]understanding is true–much of what they do, or don’t, etc. is no longer a matter of personal responsibilty. This is absolution from accountability/culpability.

    In other words, this is the intellectual pursuit of hedonism.

  6. Lionell Griffith

    The argument that free will is an illusion is equivalent to arguing that one’s existence is an illusion. It is as if non-existence has priority over existence. However, he implicitly accepts that illusions exist and that he can know they exist as he asserts that free will is an illusion. Only existence exists. What that existence is, must be discovered.

    He argues the question by assuming the conclusion and expects you to accept that you don’t have free will because you do in fact have free will and are able to accept or reject his argument as valid. The proof of a fundamental principle is that you must implicitly accept that principle even as you attempt to reject it. A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time with respect to the same aspect.

    If you don’t exist and/or you cannot choose what to focus on and how to process the information obtained from that focus, any discussion has no more significance than the wind blowing through the leaves on a tree. As a consequence, I am quite willing to accept that the professor has no free will and that his utterances have no relationship to reality other than they are mechanical generations of noise. Talking with him would have no more effect that talking with a fence post: the entropy of the universe would be slightly increased from the effort.

    The bottom line is that the professor is objecting to the fact his will does not create reality and that no matter what, he cannot choose to do what reality does not permit. Hence, like an angry child, if reality won’t play his game, he will take his toys and go home. I say to him, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    Free will does not mean you are able to do anything even in contradiction to reality. It simply means you are free to choose among the things that reality permits. If you attempt to choose otherwise, you will not be able to put your choice into effect. The consequence of such attempts will be failure and often with painful or fatal result.

  7. Gary

    Why is the question always framed as an either/or condition? Certainly our choices are limited by physical conditions as well as perceptions. The interesting question is how much free will do we have at every decision point. I suppose if you are a relativist, the existence of free will doesn’t matter because no choice can be judged as moral or immoral. But those who accept the premise of an absolute moral standard can now judge their choices accordingly. Will they be heroes or cowards? To some degree the choice and consequences are theirs.

    Maybe that’s why Shaun Nichols is trying so hard to banish free will — he doesn’t like the responsibility it puts on him.

  8. I am a pragmatist; in fact I just realized I’m an “experimental” pragmatist. No, let’s make that a New Pragmatist! This is the beginning of a Movement, right here and now in the comments of this fine Blog. The New, Experimental Pragmatist Movement.

    So, what is this philosophy all about?

    Axiom: Free Will=God. Neither can be “proved” from within the very framework that they stand outside of. A version of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem applies: There are always statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system of arithmetic, and there are always going to be statements about free will that are unprovable from within my free-willing intellect. Same with God, as the Uncaused Cause of all things. How are you supposed to prove His existence from “within the system?”

    Experimental: I spent 10 minutes imagining that I was a machine made of chemicals in a Godless universe with no free will, just executing the biological imperatives of my gene’s desire to survive and reproduce. Since I have already reproduced and have very limited prospects of doing so again at my advanced age, and since my back and shoulder are hurting today, I soon became convinced that there was really very little point in existing. Even the prospect of imitating atheistic master of the Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins and bedding a series of younger women was only mildly interesting, since such bedding would be only the result of the firing of billions of mechanistic brain switches (or chance).

    I then spent 10 minutes contemplating being a unique individual with a certain degree of free will living in a universe created by a loving God. Remarkably, I then produced something useful and interesting, and my back even began to feel better!

    Us Bitter Clingers in Flyover Country have the misfortune to not apprehend all the intricacies of Academic, much less Continental, much less “Experimental” Philosphy. It is sad that we with our B.A.s from state universities don’t have the superior wisdom to embrace the hard truths of Existentialism: “Life’s a bitch, then you die into nothingness, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

    As a New Pragmatist, all I got to say is that Free Will WORKS, as does arithmetic. A man designs a bridge and says it will stand 150 mph winds, and it gets built, and Behold, it does. That is a truth more precious than all the tough-minded Denialists laid end-to-end, doubled and redoubled.

    Credits: A host of people who I borrowed all this from. No original thought is implied.

  9. Lionell Griffith


    While there is much of value in your analysis, your “it works” requirement offers you a challenge. How do you know when something “works”? Do you simply decide that by whim or what set of ideas, principles, and logical processes by which you make your decision? If you have those, how do you decide if they work or not? There are many levels of prior to discover, validate, and verify before you can get to a concept of “it works”.

    The problem with pragmatism in either its old, neo, new, or revised form is that it is a philosophy without a foundation. It starts in mid air with a statement “what works” and floats off into fantasy from there. Even then, pragmatism offers no guidance what happens next after “it works”. Will it work the next time? Who knows? You have to try it again to see if “it works”. Is even your notion of “what works” correct? Again, you can’t know beyond a foggy “it seemed to work.” You will get entangled in an infinite regression similar to the tunnel of mirrors in a hall of mirrors.

    I suggest we need a philosophy more solidly tied to reality. I also suggest the mind of man is capable of getting there and has done so.

  10. Eric Anderson

    Lionell, good points.

    Arguing against the existence of free will has got to be one of the most self-defeating positions in all of intellectual discourse.

    The sorriest group are those who make a career or a living peddling determinism (Nichols, Dawkins, Provine, et al.), as though it is a meaningful concept and a means to free us from the superstitions that would otherwise weigh us down.

  11. “…if you ride the 7 train after a Mets game your language will be coarser than if you called 777-7777 and were driven home listening to Mozart waft from the speakers.”

    Too bad military training is out of vogue for intellectuals. One of the first lessons in Officer Training School is “above all, maintain your military bearing.” Several hundred demerits later, we all figured out that meant “never, ever, act like a jerk.”

  12. DAV

    I know X is true because I believe X is true. Religious arguments are circular out of necessity. Arguing against them is self-defeating as they do not follow any logic. “I must be special because I want to be”.

    “In other words, this is the intellectual pursuit of hedonism.”

    Really? In what way? If an apple tree falls and crushes your head it is doing so out of determinism? Does that mean it’s OK? It was just enjoying itself?

    What we really need is a quelling of the infernal desire to pass out blame which ultimately solves nothing except make us feel better when dishing out consequences. Whatever someone else does only matters when it affects me. If it does, I frankly don’t care what the reason.

    What exactly is wrong with hedonism anyway and what does determinism have to do with it? Just because an action was deterministic (which means predictable, incidentally) doesn’t mean that consequences will or should be avoided (if that’s your argument). That apple tree is going to find its sorry trunk will be chopped to pieces.

  13. Rats! I deliberately chose not to comment on this thread but alas, it was pre-ordained otherwise.

  14. David

    I’ve always suspected that Scrooge was done in (i.e., gave up on his previous views about Xmas) because of over cooked brussel sprouts. Over cooked brussel sprouts are one of my mother’s specialties so I speak from some experience.

    I’m not sure what is ‘random’ about overdone brussel sprouts but I’ll let that go. They do have a punitive effect on the taste buds and I suppose this is, like gravity and falling apples, a completely determined effect.

    As a six year old I did exercise my wish not to eat the over done brussel sprouts. It was not clear to me then that this had anything to do with free will. At that early age, in those bygone days of Edenic happiness, it is was all about giving up on dessert.

    My taste buds, instincts, stomach, brain all clamoured for dessert. I passed.

    Now I just have to find the instinct that determined the choice. Fortunately, I have my trusty Swiss army knife on hand and can start digging until I find the responsible neurons.

  15. Lionell,

    Thank you very much for your pointed questions–as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

    I think it is agreed by most that all arguments must begin from unprovable axioms or postulates. My New Pragmatism (which is just a joke, albeit a serious one) begins with:

    1) Existence exists. If a tree falls in the forest, it bloody well makes a sound whether anyone is around to hear it, or not.

    2) Human beings are a different, and special, class of object in the universe. Each individual human is an end in himself. In the sustenance of humanity, cows, for example, are means to our ends.

    3) “What works” is what is good for humans qua humans. The Empire State Building works. Interstate 80 works. America works. Canada works. Even Europe works. North Korea does not work and the Third Reich and the USSR did not work. Slavery doesn’t work. Etc.

    I would argue that this philosophy is on a solid basis of well-chosen axioms and contains a definition of “what works” that allows us to prospectively evaluate things and make a reasonable estimate of whether they will work.

    I am a Christian, but you will note that the chosen axioms absolutely do not require a belief in God, or anything else. I could expand on all of this of course, and make it better–what does “humans qua humans” mean? Why is the Empire State Building “good” if five guys died building it? Don’t cows have a right to their lives, too? Etc.

    But hey, this is the comments section, not a dissertation. To go back to the original post, believing in Free Will works extremely well, for human beings. That, for me, is reason enough to believe it is not an illusion. The fruits that you shall know are now on display in the United States and North Korea. They are not an illusion either.

  16. DAV

    I can’t help notice that the only support given for Free Will in the above posts is its “obvious” existence. JH made a rather useful suggestion but unfortunately it’s one of those things that will be hard to pin down. It’s a lot like defining “thinking” or “intelligence” or “life”. Something we seem to recognize without being able to say what it is.

    For those who are actually ready to think about the question:

    Consider this. How does one housebreak a dog? By using systematic reward and punishment? Does it work because dogs have no free will and will do whatever they perceive to be best for themselves or does it work because dogs have free will and now its choices will be better informed?

    You wish a child to have better table manners. Do you you use systematic reward and punishment? You may argue that a child can be reasoned with but I ask how. By saying things like “People will see better of you” or “It makes others uncomfortable” or “No dessert if you don’t”? Humans seem better blessed than dogs and thus can use reasoning but reasoning really means the rewards and consequences don’t have to explicitly consist of biscuits and rolled newspapers. It also means the child might figure it out alone. So, does this system work because the child has no free will and will do whatever is perceived best or does it work because the child has a free will and now will make better informed decisions.

    In both cases: How do you know?

  17. DAV–JH wrote: What are free will and determinism? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Perhaps, we need more precise definitions of the terms free will and determinism.

    Okay, I’ll take a shot. Determinism means that cause and effect can be traced back to the beginning of the universe, and forward to the end of the universe, and every event in the universe is determined by its antecedent causes. Free will means that consciousness can force events in a non-determined direction. That, it seems to me, requires that consciousness have some component that is not strictly materialistic. By my definitions, they are mutually exclusive.

    Dogs do have a degree of consciousness, I would argue. Their behavior is not entirely deterministic. A computer algorithm, no matter how many lines of code it has, is deterministic. Sure, one can include some random number generator to give different answers sometimes. A stone goes where the universe takes it. There is a category difference.

    Strict materialism has no place for free will, unless one wants to argue that quantum uncertainties in the atoms in brains can produce an illusion of free will. I am currently reading Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind. 330 pages of math and physics background have been required to just begin talking about the meat.

    Has anyone else here read it? Seems germane to the discussion.

  18. Greg Cavanagh

    I think you’re all mad.

    If I think it’s true, does that make it true?

  19. Doug M

    As a chemical machine that seeks to maximize pleasure and minimise pain, as I apply alcahol, 1) seeking pleasure rises in priority relative to minimization of pain. 2) The time value of pleasure / pain contracts dramatically.

    Considering the large number of factors I can consider when sober to acheive the pleasure / pain ballance sure seems like free will.

  20. Lionell Griffith


    You are one level closer to untangling the recursive tunnel of mirrors you have forced yourself to live inside of. Still a way to go. As for it to be necessary to start from unprovable axioms and postulates, this depends upon what is necessary for proof. If proof is limited to only deduction, then you are right. It has been used that way since Euclid. Is it so limited? No. There are two other processes of thought to consider: induction and reduction. Together they can provide validation and verification of your axioms and postulates. From there you can build to knowing anything you must know.

    Ultimately, proof means to demonstrate the connection of a thought, idea, or notion to the facts of reality by means of induction, deduction, and reduction. It isn’t easy and takes a lot of mental effort and excruciating intellectual honesty.

    We were given a hint how to check our work by the ancient Greeks: “A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time with respect to the same aspect”. It was given to us through the works of Aristotle. Rediscovered nearly 2000 years later that thought, almost by itself, give us the industrial revolution.

    We don’t have to rely on guesses, faith, mysticism, magic, authority, and the like. Our minds combined by our senses are capable of discovering truth and knowledge. Compare our high technology civilization to the stone age civilizations of prehistory. The difference is the result of the mind of man, used correctly, making a difference that makes all the difference in the universe.

  21. Bob Ludwick

    Fortunately for Shaun, he has a built in alibi: He had no choice but to write such drivel.

    Just out of curiosity, is this ‘The Debbil made me do it!’, Rev 2.0?

  22. Well hey, Lionell, thanks for the encouragement. I have heard of that “Law of Identity” thingy, y’know. Um, I think that perhaps it wasn’t completely forgotten for 2000 years before the Industrial Revolution.

    I appreciate that I “still have a way to go,” but not really thinking that I’m still in the recursive mirror-tunnel. In fact, the way forward looks pretty clear.

    Here’s some induction for you:

    1) Statistically, people who believe they have free will are better people.
    2) Better people is a good
    3) Therefore, believing in free will is a GOOD.

    see for example.

    As for your reduction, I will make it explicit that I think free will needs consciousness, and that consciousness is not reducible to algorithmic operations of neuorotransmitters. But that is an opinion.

    I completely agree with your last paragraph, BTW. My “pragmatism” has ought to do with faith and all that jazz. I’m not sure where we differ.

  23. Lionell Griffith


    Sorry that I didn’t specify the kind of reduction I meant. By the intellectual process of reduction I mean the tracing of the logical connections of your higher level concepts to the facts of reality according to their logical hierarchy. It is a rigorous reversing of the process of integration that led to the formation of the concept in the first place but one that eliminates all the fuzziness, dead ends, correction of confusion and the like. The goal is to remove all contradictions from your matrix of knowledge from the earliest primitive concepts to the latest and highest concepts and to connect the whole to reality.

    This kind of reduction is quite different from reduction in pure materialism in which the fact of consciousness is to be reduced to atomic algorithmic operations of neurotransmitters and then from there to interactions between atoms and ultimately to subatomic particles.

    The first can be accomplished by observation and careful philosophical thought. The other is a matter of a very long chain of scientific processing that we have only begun. We have not gotten far enough into the tangle of mechanism to know that it is possible to untangle or even if it needs to be untangled let alone know were we will end in the process.

  24. Lionell Griffith


    If we are to take Shaun at his word, it isn’t even as good as “The Debbil made me do it.” His utterances have less cognitive content than the chattering of a parrot. It is all simply noise without purpose or intent. I for one am quite willing to take him at his word and ignore everything he says.

  25. DAV


    Interesting. I wonder though why “consciousness” would have such an effect. The term has several meanings but generally means self-awareness. Why would the appearance of it induce the ability to impose “non-determined direction”? But you actually said it the other way around: “Free will means that consciousness can force events in a non-determined direction.” Would it be fair then to say your definition of Free Will is the ability to act non-deterministically? If so, it begs the question how one would go about (*ahem*) determining the proper deterministic response. Isn’t it possible that what appears to be non-deterministic is just a shortcoming of not having all pertinent facts available to the observer?

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “consciousness” is pattern that emerges from certain configurations of neurons in much the same way an image emerges from a certain configuration of pixels. No supernatural explanation is required for the latter so why should it be for the former?

  26. DAV

    Robert again:

    “Strict materialism has no place for free will, unless one wants to argue that quantum uncertainties in the atoms in brains can produce an illusion of free will. ”

    Going to the quantum level isn’t necessary. Optical illusions are caused by the way we process sensory information. There is no reason to think that conceptual illusions don’t have an analogue.

    For that matter, if it does turn out that consciousness is a next-level pattern built on configurations of neurons, it seems reasonable that a built-in error correction mechanism exists so that individual neurons and their actions aren’t nearly as important. While this is conjecture there have been research studies showing patterns of brain activity (energy usage) to stimuli.

    All of the talk of Free Will assumes that actions really are non-deterministic in the sense that they don’t have an underlying natural cause. I can see no basis for this claim.

  27. Lionell Griffith

    Perhaps “free will” is a member of natural causes and is simply an emergent property of the human mind which could simple be an emergent property of the human brain. The effect of the cause is choice over becoming more or less aware, of becoming more or less focused, of being able to select what to focus upon and how to process the information received from that focus or to shift the focus and the nature of the processing. Still, it is bound by natural law and must be what it is and cannot be what it is not.

    I suggest you are thinking of linear causality where there is a prime cause and then an effect. The effect becomes the cause of the next effect and so on until the heat death of the universe. However, in this presumption existents are omitted with cause and effect floating without connection to anything. What is, is not real. What is real, does not exist. This leads to disintegration of knowledge and to radical skepticism in which the skeptic knows that knowledge is impossible to acquire. What passes for knowledge is the dependence upon another to know who depends upon still another to know without end. A summation of zeros equaling zero. Kant would be proud to know his writings have come to full fruit along this path.

    Alternatively, existence means to have an identity. The entity is capable of only what its identity permits. Entity, identity, and existent are simply different ways of viewing the same thing. Causes ARE entities acting. Effects are result of entities acting upon each other. The nature of the effect is simply the integration of the identities/entities/existents interacting. In all cases, existence is the primary and that is what makes up what reality is. Causality is a closed loop of entity back to entity. Knowledge is possible. The individual can know and can be both emotionally certain and intellectual certain and be right in that certainty without reference to what anyone else thinks they know.

    You have free will. Take your choice. You can do it. What you can’t do is avoid the consequences of your choice. Bummer….. That means you must choose correctly. Neither your god nor I can help you make that choice. You are alone and on your own. You are the prime mover of your mind.

  28. DAV–I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “consciousness” is pattern that emerges from certain configurations of neurons in much the same way an image emerges from a certain configuration of pixels. No supernatural explanation is required for the latter so why should it be for the former?

    Lionell–Perhaps “free will” is a member of natural causes and is simply an emergent property of the human mind which could simple be an emergent property of the human brain.

    “Emergent propert[ies]” only emerge in minds. Without minds, pixels are just dots. In fact, without minds, the whole Universe is nothing but whirling atoms. A “chair” is just a somehwat denser concentration of atoms than air. A “cloud” is a “thing” only in minds. Otherwise, it’s just a slightly higher concentration of water vaper than other airspace nearby.

    Emergent properties has been argument for Strong AI for at least 5-60 years, In Heinlein’s great novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for example, the computer Mycroft Holmes just “woke up” when the number of connections reached some point > the human brain. As much as I love Heinlein and this book, I’m not convinced. Pretty soon we’ll have the computer with this much power, so I’m waiting to be proven wrong. When the Singularity is Here, let me know, and I’ll acknowledge I was wrong.

    Addendum–Lionell, as a person who has read all of Rand’s books multiple times, I’m sure she would be proud of how you’re carrying the torch. 🙂

  29. DAV


    Did you think of that yourself? It seems a lot like taught-ology. Lovely sunscreen but too much of it will make your argument pale.

  30. DAV


    AI came out of Cognitive Psychology in an attempt to create computer models of conjectured mind processes. The goal wasn’t to create a mind but to show which processes had promise. Several things became clear. To understand language for example requires context that is difficult to achieve without experience. But the primary lesson was: the problem space is very large.

    As for Mycroft, it’s doubtful that computer power alone would cause sentience (let alone free will). The human brain didn’t suddenly come into existence and neither did the mind. While the cases are still anecdotal, there is growing evidence that sentience exists at least in all mammals. It may be that the supposed necessary computer power isn’t as large as previously thought and driven more by the number and type of connections. IOW: it’s not how much you know — it’s how you use it. If a Mycroft were to ever occur, it will likely come from a computer similar to the IBM Watson. (I have heard the name is a h/t to Heinlein).

    Can computers think? It’s an interesting question in itself. A lot depends on definition. Reading Alan Turing’s article on the question is a must. I also recomend Doug Hofstadter’s “The Mind’s I”.

  31. Alex Heyworth

    There is experimental evidence that simple choices, at least, are determined as much as five or six seconds before we are aware of them. Whether that means that free will does not exist, or that free will exists in our unconscious mind, I leave to the reader to determine.

  32. Luis Dias

    People say that “Free Will” is incompatible with basic empirical knowledge of how the world works.

    Mr Briggs reply: “Ridiculous!”

    Therefore he is right.

  33. Briggs

    Luis Dias,

    Amen, brother.

  34. DAV


    just because it’s subconscious doesn’t mean it’s not controllable. Moving one’s arm is entirely subconscious (think not? try explaining how you initiate it) but obviously controllable.

    More pertinent are those who have undergone a frontal lobotomy which alters the personality. That means their decisions are now different (“John certainly doesn’t act the way he did before”). That implies a physical connection to the decision process implying in turn a cause and effect relationship. The person has lost the ability to decide to make pre-lobotomy decisions. Of course, they may be choosing not to 🙂

    A person with a damaged corpus callosum seems (maybe not always) to suddenly develop a second hidden personality that makes its own decisions. People in this condition have attacked themselves. Very strange decisions. OTOH, this may indicate we don’t have as much control over our actions as we think.

    For that matter, why would alcohol or drugs cause (enable, perhaps) a change in the decisions made?

    Gotta wonder why physical change would cause these. The simpler explanation is that material things follow cause and effect implying deterministic behavior if all relative facts are known.

    Other than we think we have it, what evidence is there for Free Will?

  35. Roman

    The experimental philosophy is ridiculed, the whole discussion circles around non-experimental philosophy.
    Just one voice, Alex, mentions experimental neuroscience. If I can trace the origin of willful action in the structures of the brain then it is mine without yet claiming if it is free or not. But if the tracing method uncovers that certain groups of neurons are active before an individual is aware of his will AND that activity allows to predict the willful action, then what? Does it change our concept of free will? If it is free does it mean that we have to be aware of it from the very moment of its formation? Or does the fact that we are unaware of our will for a few moments after it originates nullifies the concept of free will?
    Is it free because it is uniquely mine?

  36. In the world of mathematics, at least, there are real numbers that are neither recursive (analogous to deterministic) nor random. For example, if you take an uncountable recursive set of measure zero and remove all recursive real numbers from it, no point in the remainder will be random. (A random real is defined as a real number that belongs to the complement of every recursive subset of the number line of measure zero.)

    As for the empirical evidence that supposedly demonstrates the absence of free will, I’ve noticed that the experiments often have pathetically-small sample sizes, even by the so-called standards of social science.

    Also see Bryan Caplan’s defense of free will.

  37. Luis Dias

    I think that any discussion about “free will” that won’t even have the balls to actually try to define what the heck one means about “free will” is ridiculous.

    So when people here say “It’s ridiculous! Of course free will exists, how could it not exist?”, I wonder if they even understand what the hell they are saying (and always reach the conclusion that you don’t, in fact, understand, sorry).

  38. Luis Dias

    Joseph, Caplan’s defense is somewhat a strawman. He is basically saying that until scientists can distinguish between free will and “non-shared environment” then free will exists.

    Is it the “god of the gaps” all over again? Of course it is. But this time it is mixed with semantical problems and prejudices that are also shared by the Behaviorists. I’d say that while I don’t buy the behaviorist picture quite well, I think it is ten or twenty or a hundred times (infinitely to be precise) less insane or crazy than postulating the existence of a “will” that is outside of physics, outside of time and logic, outside of everything really (even god if he existed), since they termed it “FREE” from all these things.

    It’s always hilarious to see people declaring other people’s beliefs as being “ridiculous” without one microsecond afterthough about whether if his [i]own[/i] beliefs would even survive a tenth of such assault.

  39. Luis Dias–I had my definition of free will above. Feel free to critique it, instead of killing a strawman by poisoning the well:

    Determinism means that cause and effect can be traced back to the beginning of the universe, and forward to the end of the universe, and every event in the universe is determined by its antecedent causes. Free will means that consciousness can force events in a non-determined direction. That, it seems to me, requires that consciousness have some component that is not strictly materialistic. By my definitions, they are mutually exclusive.

  40. Outlier

    I gather that Nichols couldn’t make up his mind whether free will was an illusion, or had not by the paywall limit to that article. You might as well debate whether existence is an illusion. Any philosopher will tell you: we’re only seeing the shadows on the cave wall. Although I prefer the physicist view that we are only seeing the observables, not the hidden ‘things’ that produce the observables. Whether the hidden thing is speculation or a wave function or whatever. But first…

    Einstein really had a problem accepting quantum mechanics; there is the famous quote that God does not play dice with the universe. Looking back, it seems his ideal of God was rather limited. God is not an observable. If you replaced God with the dice, could we tell the difference? (If everything is totally deterministic, there is no need for a god).

    Moving ahead one step, what if everything was random at a small scale and at a large scale the determinism that we see is just another law of large numbers?

    Now, back to the physicist view. See Lubos Motl’s comment on Feynman here:
    Feyman uses the double-slit experiment to make a point:

    The probabilistic character of the predictions seems to be Nature’s intrinsic property; it is not due to the lack of knowledge of the internal wheels and gears. As someone said, Nature Herself doesn’t know which way it will go.

    Deliciously enough, near 52:10, Feynman mentions that a (pompous) philosopher once said (in a deep authoritarian voice) that it is necessary for the processes in science to produce the same results from the same conditions. Well, they don’t, Feynman responds. 😉

    Perfect determinism does not exist, there is always some imperfection or noise, therefore there is still room for free will. Although I think the question is silly. Free Will is like Democracy or The Free Market — it is a concept, an ideal, which is to say an idea with an L on it. God is also in this category. There is no question that the concept exists; whether it matches any reality, that’s a hard or impossible question, or in other words, silly.

    Here’s another good Lubos quote:

    Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others realized that physics isn’t a framework to describe how the world is; physics is human activity studying the true statements we may say about our observations.

  41. DAV

    One has to wonder what Feynman was thinking when he said “The probabilistic character of the predictions seems to be Nature’s intrinsic property; it is not due to the lack of knowledge of the internal wheels and gears. As someone said, Nature Herself doesn’t know which way it will go.”

    Classically, the lack of predictability implies missing information and also implies that the current model needs modification. So it begs the question of how he could say “not due to lack of knowledge” in the face of unpredictability. He was THAT sure he could know EVERYTHING about the experiment and the fundamental mechanism(s)? It would seem to me he had fallen for the fallacious “can’t think of any other explanation so this one must true.”

    The “(pompous) philosopher” did get it right though. In the search for the One True Model, pretty close is not close enough.

    “Perfect determinism does not exist”
    How do you know? Is it possible you are confusing the limitations of current models and information collection with ultimate fact and perhaps have fallen into the No-Other-Explanation trap yourself?

    Just because a question is hard to answer doesn’t make it silly.

  42. Luis Dias

    Robert, it’s quite shameful to attack me for “poisoning the well” while presenting a definition of what free will “is not” (not determined) as if you are presenting a definition of “what is”. Saying that it has a component “not strictly materialistic” is as vaguish and outright crackpottery as it could be.

    Again, I ask the audience that still cares, what *is* (not what it isn’t) Free Will?

  43. Luis Dias

    DAV, people are still trying to think classically in a quantum world. And you are just one of those who will not accept it. I also cringe at the notion that the universe behaves “intrinsically” anything, since I don’t think physics is about what it “really is”, but about observables. Quantum Mechanics is born from a well-known limitation to observations namely the Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Physicists like Lubos will teach us that this limitation is somehow engraved in the universe itself rather than within our observations, and I don’t understand it – however I am still sufficiently intelligent enough to know that I am completely stupid at these matters and that probably I am missing a lot of things by the fact that I don’t understand the maths behind it all.

  44. DAV


    Well maybe that clarifies what Lubos meant. He made it sound as if physicists make observations for the sole purpose of expounding truths about them. Philosophers have been doing that much longer but eschew expensive observations for cheaper assumptions.

  45. Luis–final thoughts.

    Robert, it’s quite shameful to attack me for “poisoning the well” while presenting a definition of what free will “is not” (not determined) as if you are presenting a definition of “what is”. Saying that it has a component “not strictly materialistic” is as vaguish and outright crackpottery as it could be.

    Let me REPEAT AGAIN: Free will means that consciousness can force events in a non-determined direction. That is an “is” definition, friend. The part about it seems to me, requires that consciousness have some component that is not strictly materialistic is speculation, and needs a whole book to back it up. Feel free to destroy it… 🙂

  46. Luis Dias

    That’s terribad, Robert, although I appreciate the honest attempt. Thing is, what the hell is a “non-determined direction”? Nevermind how this picture gets messed up inside what is obviously a quantum world, not a “classical world”, where events are constantly being “forced” in a “non-determined direction”, but I wouldn’t guess that you meant that electrons had free will.

  47. Outlier

    I didn’t (and wouldn’t) try to prove that perfect determinism doesn’t exist. I would just say that it is absurd, and that nothing could convince the person who wants to believe in it. Discussing free will may be fun but not much will come out of it. Determinism on the other hand is serious business. Where would the Rolling Stones be now if Keith and Mick hadn’t met? A probabalistic based world view is much more useful. Does everything happen for a reason? (a popular belief) I say no, and not just that the reasons may be unknown; just another roll of the dice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *