Is There Free Will? A Conversation With Dr. Sam Hurtus


I got the idea for this from regular reader Jim Fedako, who points us to a cute video showing the screwiness of p-values. Turns out the video was created with the simple-to-use software at (this is a plug for which I receive no consideration; I just like their site).

After seeing the p-value, I spent an hour at xtranormal and did the above. Corney, yes; crude, certainly; hard to follow, absolutely. But what fun! Kisses to all! (Watch and understand.)


  1. bob sykes

    Very, very nice, both your effort and the p-value cartoon. I also appreciate the other stats cartoons, enough to bookmark the site.

    I don’t know how many times I heard this lecture from a statistician, but like the clinician I keep back-sliding. I’ve even given it to my grad students, to no avail.

    Some current philosopher or scientist has said that we might not have free will, but we do have free won’t, meaning that consciousness can veto at least some of the stuff the unconscious proposes. Very Freudian.

    Hurtus believes in the clockwork universe. He is also unaware that quantum mechanics is the true physics and applies at all scales of material organization. The Newtonian thingy is just an approximation that sometimes applies at larger scales. Lubos Motl can help him.

    If you are interested in neuroscience (Hurtus seems to be.), you might like Raymond Tallis’ “Aping Mankind,” Acumen Pub., Ltd. Tallis is a neuroscientist works in the area of brain imaging, and his book is a critique of that science.

  2. I kept waiting for a huge object to squash the guest, the host to rise and say “I had no choice” and the curtain to close. 🙂

  3. Luis Dias

    To say that it is easy to win a debate with a non-believer of free will when he is being voiced by your selection of “his” words and reacting by your own design and fashion.

    Also, a lot silly. It’s like showcasing how tough a guy you are while beating a puppet. Congrats for putting down a puppet.

  4. Luis Dias

    (Having said that above, I do not find myself agreeing with many Harris’ ideas and arguments. But they are a lot less silly than portrayed here.)

  5. William Sears

    The debate between free-will and not-free-will is I think much more subtle than portrayed here, although I realize that you are just having fun. I suspect that when (if) the issue is ever resolved that we will see that reality does not clearly support either position.

    But where I disagree the most is the use of either end of the dipole to support any particular social policy. Surely a lack of free will would make criminal punishment more and not less effective as the corrective measure could be tailored to a particular response. For some strange reason it is always assumed that only people with free will can respond to punishment, or the threat thereof. Maybe the argument is that only people with free will deserve to be punished, but this makes no sense to me.

    This is easier to see in dogs, who presumably have less free will and are more instinctual. Their highly predictable behavior to a given stimulus makes them trainable. Thus, is the free will seen in humans simply an illusion resulting from the complexity of human instincts or something more fundamental? I don’t know.

    Your video is a good parody of the misuse of the free-will versus not-free-will divide to support a particular social agenda but it does not fairly represent a real philosophical dilemma.

  6. Luis Dias

    William Briggs usually confuses comedy for philosophical commentary.

  7. Ye Olde Statistician

    Descartes has a lot to answer for. That whole res cogitans thingie has created a host of non-problems. There is no more a “mind-body problem” than there is a “sphere-basketball problem.” Form and matter are separable as mental objects, but inseparable in physics.

    The will is simply the intellective appetite: a hunger for (or against) the products of the intellect (i.e., concepts). Since you cannot desire what you do not know, the will is free to the extent the object is incompletely known. When something is completely known, such as “1+1=2” in the normal usage, the will cannot withhold consent. When something is incompletely known, such as “world peace” (what does it look like, how do we get there) the will has “play” or “freedom.” It’s really fairly simple.

  8. William Sears

    It has suddenly occurred to me that part of the problem in this debate is a confusion between free-will versus determinism and free-will versus predestination. I believe that one has to clearly specify which type of non-free-will one is presenting in the debate. Without doing this the debaters are simply talking past each other. Also, one must realize that deterministic is not the same as predictable or inevitable. Deterministic chaos in classical mechanics is thus a much better analogy than quantum mechanics.

    Briggs, is this a religious issue of competing theologies of free-will and predestination?

  9. Thanks for pointing out the “xtranormal” site!

    This is a debate which really can never be answered by humans. There is no way we can know if our choices are free-will or not, at least not scientifically. It was always a fun topic for 2AM in the college dorm hallway, were you could argue to all kinds of ends. But much like the Star Trek holdeck in a holodeck episode (forgive my use of sci fi, but it was the best example I could come up with here), only those at the very top of the knowledge chain can know, be that God or whomever. What we are really asking here is should people live like lions or not?

  10. Luis Dias

    For reference, here’s how Sam Harris “chooses” to explain his own opinion on the matter:


  11. DAV

    The Harris video Luis linked is more in line with the way I view Free Will. What we call “Free will” is more likely a cost/benefit balancing of actions suggested by the subconscious that we have entered our awareness. We are no more free to change the outcome of such an analysis than a balance beam has in choosing which side will hang lower.

    On the side, I notice Harris (more than once) alluded hearing words in his mind. I find that interesting. I see images and only hear words when I’m thinking about communicating in speech or writing.

  12. Bill S

    I have had dreams that came true (hard determinism).
    I have had dreams that almost came true (soft determinism or maybe quantum mechanics?).
    I have had dreams that cannot come true (too much egg nog?).
    Where does that put me in a debate on free will?

  13. Sera

    I chose not to comment on this post.

    Oh, crap!

  14. Sander van der Wal

    And then there’s the notion that Free Will is part of the consciousness only. Why must it be?

    The entiere Mind is responsible for its acts, so it should not matter whether it is the slow but accessible conscious part, or the fast but inaccessible subconscious part which makes the Free Will decision.

    A smart consciousness will still vet the subconsciousness decision, and train it to make better decisions.

  15. Congrats on putting all that together in just an hour! It seemed quite as coherent as any other discussion of “free will” that I have ever seen.

  16. DAV

    Sander And then there’s the notion that Free Will is part of the consciousness only. Why must it be?

    Doesn’t have to be I suppose but who do you know that can control or even modify their subconscious mind? If you can’t control it, wouldn’t you just be a puppet subject to your subconscious whims?

  17. Sander van der Wal


    Controlling and modifying the unconscious is rather easy. Take exercise. Strength is muscle, but also neural control, part of the unconscious. Raising children is very much about controlling their unconsciousness. Getting rid of bad habits and taking on good ones is control of your own unconsciousness. Part of that is tricking it, a form of subversion.

  18. In some abstract technical sense do we have free will? No. In any practical useful human sense do we have free will? Of course.

    Confusion arises because words like ‘intent’ have subtly different meanings in different domains.

  19. DAV

    Sander Controlling and modifying the unconscious is rather easy.

    I was thinking the ability to control the subconscious is like trying to control eye-blinking and hunger. Hard to see how your eyelids and stomach are exercising freedom by deciding to do what they are programmed to do.

    Having your subconscious make its own decisions

    Getting rid of bad habits and taking on good ones is control of your own unconsciousness.

    And to do that requires conscious effort which may be the only way we have Free will. Also, habits don’t pop into existence on their own. You don’t suddenly wake up one day with a habit of smoking after the morning coffee if you’ve never done it before.

  20. Sander van der Wal


    Not being able to control the subconsciousness on that level does not automatically mean you cannot control other parts of the subconsciousness.

    There is no reason to assume that either the entiere subconsciousness is controllable, or the entiere subconsciousness is not controllable. These are reasonable initial hypotheses, but that’s it.

    Which parts are controllable and which parts are not will be a matter of self-experimentation, with no guarantee that different humans must have the same controllable bits.

  21. In 2010, I published a peer-reviewed critique of the research that has been interpreted as proving free will to be illusory. Those experiments are highly flawed, and science does not support any position on the matter.

    Common application is daily human living operates on different principles than quantum mechanics.

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