Do We Have Free Will?

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New York Times hedges: Do You Have Free Will?  It’s The Only Choice. I don’t know what that means either.

It covers the usual gamut of philosophers (excluding Buddhists, go figure), psychologists and physicists, with the consensus being that it’s an illusion but we have to act like it isn’t.

They invoke the murderer example: can Bill be held responsible if there’s no free will?

But in another way it makes perfect sense to hold Bill fully accountable for murder. His judges pragmatically intuit that regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.


Right there is where the whole article and most of the popular debate goes wrong.  It wants Bill not to have free will, but the judge to retain free will.  The double standard:  how do we have the free will to judge or not judge him?

If he was fated to kill, we were fated to judge.

Certainly I can’t solve the question of free will, but I can point out something about the way which we debate this question.  Particularly interesting to me is the way in which modern writers (e.g. NYT) attempt to derive moral law from the existence or absence of free will, i.e. since there’s no free will, he’s not morally responsible, when, in centuries past it was done the other way around: starting from God, and then later a universal morality, and deducing the existence of free will.   We can say that way is silly today, but there’s nothing (i.e knowledge/information) today that makes one direction of the argument more valid than the other.

A typical mistake is to confuse rational free will with determinism.  When you say it’s predetermined, are you saying also that the existence of the dolphin’s lung was predetermined?

What’s the purpose of a dolphin’s lung?  “To breathe.”  That’s what it does, but what was it designed to do?  Was it designed?  To say its purpose is to breathe is an evolutionary description, not an explanation.  Nothing about that lung is necessary, not its design, not its function.  If there’s no free will, based on the arguments of determinism, then there’s (for example) no evolution.

Debate welcome.


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30 Responses to Do We Have Free Will?

  1. boeotarch says:

    I’ve always seen the free will vs determinism debate as one of the most fruitless in a field already full of fruitless debates. Determinism, like nihilism, is a position that is internally consistent but absolutely useless. But I don’t really see how a belief in a deterministic universe cancels out evolution- maybe you’re confusing determinism with creationism?

  2. snufkin says:

    I’d recommend to everyone the following quote. It seems pertinent to the discussion to me, by basically arguing that there’s no contradiction between free will and determinism.

    It’s slightly long, but worth the read.

    Free will exists, but every thing is determined. There is no outside perspective by which it would be possible to see all the determining factors (though it’s possible for people to conceive of an outside perspective). The only true outside perspective possible would be “God” or “Nirvana” or whatever you want to call your satori of choice, but even that is a subjective experience.

    I don’t really have any answers, per se, so if all this sounds like I know something, I don’t.

  3. Neex says:

    Oooooh fun fun fun. This topic has fascinated me since I was a wee 15 year old endeavoring to profoundly understand the meaning of the universe (read: huge dork with no social skills overthinking by default of having nothing better to do than pretend my condition was profound)

    The question of free will is fascinating and like most topics, how we answer it does tell us a good bit about ourselves and who we are more than getting us closer to an actual answer. I’ve always felt there is no free will in the sense that scientifically speaking, all atoms do exactly what they do, and amino acids coming together to form RNA getting protected by a phospholipid layer all happens by virtue of atoms behaving exactly as atoms behave. Proteins can move.

    Why? How? Is their movement determined by anything other than the laws of science applied to the atoms within them? Scientists will say, no, just laws of science. There is no will in a protein. Yet studying the actions of proteins, their functions are absurdly complex and seemingly “purposeful”. Abiogenesis fascinates me exactly because of this question of will. Do cells have will? Because really, if by default of being alive, we have will, then surely so do cells. And if cells have will, it would seem that proteins do as well, because the complexity of their functioning is really no more or less governed by anything other than the laws of atoms.

    One of the theories is that RNA learned to self replicate before it became “living”. Just RNA hanging out replicating itself until it became encompassed in a protective phospholipid shield. (Around this time beginning to have the features to qualify as “living”) It would seem the atoms themselves had a purpose—- to maintain the ideal energy states that possibly felt— pleasant? And sought to maintain that state and interestingly had a “desire” to allow a portion of that RNA to go on even in leaving behind other portions that will seperate and disintegrate.

    I get around the question of free will by believing that atoms can feel their existance. However— this really only demonstrates that i have a desire to anthropomorphize non human objects which is a common feature of people who are lonely. So what we have learned here is that I am a lonely person.

    There was recently a study about how during decision making processes there is literally a competing proess in the brain in which varying neurons seem to compete in order to “win”. I may not have understood that study correctly or the study may have been bad in and off itself, I’m not knowledgable enough to judge it— but I would gather that this is really no different than any other biological process dictated by the laws of physics. The cellular and synaptic communication will involved generations of stored cellular processes, adaptations to environments, and memories stored in the brain. What exists within will determine which neurons ultimately win.

    That being said— the “illusion” of will is huge. If a desire to go in a certain direction is present there is a huge capacity for human being to make drastic changes in their lives and to perfom feats that breach near impossible levels of effort. But what determines if that desire becomes present? What determines if compassion is present? What determines if we are able to intimately imagine the feelings and needs of others in order to act truly on their behalf? What determines if we are to care about all this at all? What determines the arousal of desire for a particular outcome? And more cynically, what determines that compassion is anything but a function of primates surviving together instinctually, and no more romantically than yeast floating about mating and reproducing?

    Ultimately, particularly because I can be so cynical about our purpose as humans, I have to believe in love and it has to come from beyond what science gives me or I will find nothing but a cold meaningless existance. And love involves will. We will it into existance. Or it’s existance is within us and gives us will.

    But what do i know, I’m a lonely person who romantizes the emotions of atoms.

  4. cat says:

    The biological determinist would say that Bill murdered because his genes made him do it. He was genetically fated to kill.

    Nothing about that lung is necessary, not its design, not its function.

    Except the lung doesn’t have a design (unless you believe in creationism and “intelligent design”).
    It evolved over a very long time period in relation to external influences and random genetic drift, because it has a function – to breathe.

    • His genes? I don’t think anybody is arguing that your genes make you do something. Genes may give you a tendency, but I would say that how you grow up, how your environment affects you, is actually what really influences you. The debate over punishing people even though they may have only committed a crime because of their upbringing has been going for centuries. There are many more problems with the concept of free will than materialism.

  5. Neex says:

    But why do the atoms respond. Wouldn’t movement in response to a stimuli indicate “desire” or “will”? The developed because the atoms were responding to the environment with a very directive purpose– to continue homeostasis. WHY? The **** if I know. I think we are going to find that genes are more responsive to the environment than we currently believe. I don’t think there is anything random about random genetic drift.

    Our genes “want” to go on existing. They developed a purpose before life itself. Their “desire” to be is what made life. But that’s really just random philosphical comfort jargon. In all reality every human on this planet functions on the basis of assumptions that have no proof.

  6. Neex says:

    I mean really when it comes down to it we don’t really have any more proof that atoms are “meaningless lumps of hardened energy” than they are “profound bodies of awareness”

    I mean what is an atom, really? It’s made of matter. What is matter? It’s something that exists. What is existance? Something that takes of space and has mass.

    All of these words come back on each other because in all reality we don’t know what the fuck a basic unit of matter really IS. We just know it’s there and that it seems to follow basic rules. Other than that, the sky is the limit, really.

  7. Jackie says:

    TLP, I was mulling over the above piece, getting (I think) what you were saying –until I got to this:

    *If there’s no free will, based on the arguments of determinism, then there’s (for example) no evolution.*

    Are proponents of determinism really saying that? It doesn’t make sense to me. Why would the evolution of, say, a mushroom have anything to do with whether or not humans have free will? Weren’t fungi evolving just fine before mankind and the issue of free will came along?

    Now, back to that thing about the dolphin’s lung …

  8. Adrian says:

    I think this “free will” is a false problem as it comes from a religious discussion/necessity (God allows people to take their own decisions). Even this creates problems since God presumably knows the future, he knows what decisions you’ll take (if he didn’t he wouldn’t know the future), how are the decisions free then? But since I’m an atheist and don’t believe in God the concept of free will doesn’t even make this much sense, “free” from what?

    Humans take decision based on info they have, their ideas (software) and based on their brain (hardware), there’s also probably a random element. But where can “free will” intervene here? Again, free from what, free from the info they have, free from their ideas, free from their brain structure? I don’t see what that *free* will might mean, once somebody explains what this free will is I will tell you if it exists or not.

  9. Vigil says:

    Dude, they’re not pretending the judges have free will, they’re figuring out what determinism should determine they do, and trying to do it with all the inevitability of logic. It’s like why I vote/donate/etc: I know my contribution is negligible, but if I was inspired to act, others are probably inspired to act too. My action is proof the argument was convincing.

    “If there’s no free will, based on the arguments of determinism, then there’s (for example) no evolution.”

    This sentence seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere, and I don’t understand it. The lung is necessary because it works. Things that work keep going, and things that die end. Of what relevance is choice and purpose?

    Know what isn’t necessary? Consciousness. If we’re just along for the ride while our matter does its thing, why the hell are we aware of it? Learning about quantum phenomena made me realize that determinism is a simple easy fairy tale (though randomness + no free will is still a possibility), but in reality shit’s crazy and I wouldn’t bet a single dollar on any theory of consciousness/will out there.

    I ran across this paper recently, which introduces the intriguing idea that consciousness/free will are the macro effects of quantum phenomena, as inevitably harnessed through evolution. Unfortunately the paper has glaring problems and appears to be mostly bullshit (if someone here has a quantum physics background, let us know), but I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that were more rigorously shown.

    • CubaLibre says:

      One problem is that there are no macro effects of quantum phenomena. Or, rather, that the probability of reinforcing (rather than canceling) quantum effects happening simultaneously in high enough volume to register on a macro scale is so vanshiningly tiny as to basically be impossible, like rolling snake eyes 10 trillion times in a row.

      I agree with TLP that the free will question is more interesting in the asking than the answering. As a pragmatist, my only real concern is that people act as though there is free will, whether there “actually is” or not. (Similarly, as a pragmatist, I don’t vote: I recognize the negligibility (actually, in some senses, the actual nonexistence) of my contribution, and it’s not worth my time.) I don’t like the disingenuous, not-so-subtly pro-materialist viewpoint of the NYT, which is that “we have to believe because society is built on it,” like some kind of distastefully necessary Republican (Plato) noble lie. It’s like a fourteen year old saying: those dollar bills, man, they’re just pieces of paper, everyone just pretends they’re valuable. Yes, young man: and that is why they are actually valuable.

      • Vigil says:

        Thanks for this answer. I know that “there are no macro effects of quantum phenomena” is the common wisdom. How well proved is that? If there were really no hope, I suspect quantum computing wouldn’t be such a big field.

        Your explanation reminds me of electro-magnetic forces. They’re present pretty strongly in everything, yet at the macro level things cancel out so we don’t notice them—until we run into a special case like a magnet and say “whoah, that’s weird.” Then we get electricity working and chat with each other on the internet. Maybe you can tell me if this is a completely irrelevant metaphor.

      • George says:

        “I don’t like the disingenuous, not-so-subtly pro-materialist viewpoint of the NYT, which is that “we have to believe because society is built on it,” like some kind of distastefully necessary Republican (Plato) noble lie.”

        Plato was the liberal, Aristotle was the conservative (by modern standards). If you really want to understand the left-right divide take the advice of Jonathan Haidt and read Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions”.

        You can see a video relating to the book here:

        As for your Republican crack, what you’re missing is that we actually have a single bi-factional ruling party, the Democrats being the other faction.

        Liberalism is most certainly a tribal moral community that puts up a forcefield to block out beliefs that challenge its faith based claims. See:

        • ThomasR says:

          haha, he wasn’t making a “republican crack” or representing Plato as a conservative, he was referencing Plato’s book, Republic. He added the name Plato in parentheses to keep people from misunderstanding him. Ironic.

          • boeotarch says:

            Somebody references Plato and the guy throws out an article blaming liberals for bad science. I think the man just wanted a soapbox.

  10. George says:

    “Right there is where the whole article and most of the popular debate goes wrong. It wants Bill not to have free will, but the judge to retain free will. The double standard: how do we have the free will to judge or not judge him?”

    Weather or not we have free will doesn’t mean criminal justice has to stop. A person who steals, rapes, murders etc. is a danger to the rest of us and needs to be removed for our protection. The lack of free will may mean that current jails are inappropriate. So maybe removal to another kind of facility, but removal is still needed.

    Even if the criminal has no free will, most humans can still learn new behaviors so correction may be possible (though I’m not aware of any research which shows there are reliable methods of rehabilitation). If correction is not possible then it would seem that the lack of free will would point us towards harsher sentences for criminals. Can’t stop stealing? Go to jail for life. Maybe it’s not fair the criminal can’t choose otherwise, but they are still dangerous and that is what matters if you want civil society to hold together.

    A rabid dog may not be able to help that he is stick, but we’ll still shoot him.

    • 79zombies says:

      Actually if there is no free will then no one has the power to choose to do anything. If there is no such thing as free will then you cannot choose to punish someone, you will punish him and have the illusion that you have made that choice.

  11. pyrotix says:

    “Free will” as it is usually understood is an entirely incoherent concept. And discussed badly.

    If free will means undetermined, how does that grant responsibility? If a person’s actions are not *determined* by the person’s character, then it would be absurd to suggest that the person is responsible for those actions.

    Conversely, some measure of determinism is necessary for responsibility. If my actions don’t follow as a result of some cause originating *in me,* suggesting that they are my responsibility (when I’m no longer their cause!) is ridiculous.

    At this point its easiest just to go with Hume, equivocate free will with responsibility (and I think this was what TLP was getting at) and make free will a description of the way people engage in choices.

    And as a description, just because you can reduce the element under discussion to more fundamental elements, does not mean the description is no longer apt.

  12. automaton says:

    The debate about free will is complicated since different people mean different things when they say “free will”, so it is important to explain what you mean by free will to avoid arguing about semantics. Some people believe that there is a sort of free will which allows us to transcend any deterministic laws. People holding this view generally believe that free will is incompatible with determinism, and this view is known as libertarianism (unrelated to the political/moral philosophy).

    Others believe that free will is compatible with determinism. This position is known as compatibilism, and is probably the majority opinion among philosophers who specialize in this area. Compatibilists try to define free will in a way that roughly matches our intuitions about free will and they generally try to connect free will with moral responsibility. An example of compatibilist definitions of free will are that you are acting freely iff you are able to do as you wish, providing that you are not being coerced in any way. Compatibilist theories often run into problems when trying to account for specific situations or thought experiments.

    Hard incompatibilism is the theory that because of determinism, free will does not exist. Both compatibilists and hard incompatibilists generally believe that probabilistic physical theories do not help free will, since having ones actions determined by chance is not what anyone means by free will (are you acting freely if your actions are controlled by the roll of a die). Some of the disagreements between these two group just a matter of how free will is defined, with compatibilists believing that our intuitive concept of free will is meaningful and important on issues of moral responsibility, and hard incompatibilists believing that our feeling of free will is in some way mistaken. Some hard incompatibilists believe that the idea of moral responsibility is also largely mistaken.

    The psychological/neurological aspects of how free will is experienced is probably relevant in these arguments. I believe that the feeling of free will, is the feeling of your mental algorithms making choices. This process is purely physical and determined by the laws of physics, and that all conscious feelings can be explained by these laws. This view is elaborated by Eliezer Yudkosky here. I also believe that questions of justice do not have much to do with free will. It is of course still okay to punish people who are acting in ways that are harmful to others, since this works as a disincentive to others, causing an overall benefit to society, and can keep dangerous criminals where they cannot harm others. I believe that these are the only legitimate reasons for punishment, and that retributive justice is morally wrong.

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has extensive articles on all positions on free will for those interested.

  13. Simbera says:

    What really needs to be noted is the conception of Self that goes into the Free Will argument. Ok, so a lack of free will would occur when your actions were originating from a source other than yourself – the simplified answer being ‘the atoms’. Okay, fair enough. So what is yourself? What is this mystical consciousness that is supposed to be making these decisions, but isn’t? The collection of atoms in your brain.

    It is always the physical matter, it is always determinism, but that doesn’t affect the notion of Free Will at all. If a decision comes from “you” or if it comes from the matter that makes up your body and brain, what’s the difference? The idea that free will is incompatible with determinism is grounded in both narcissism and Cartesian dualism, and therefore is fairly pointless.

    The only real-world application for questions of free will, really, is in judging criminals. We say things like “Oh, he had a bad upbringing” as though that excuses him. What they’re really saying is “The true cause of these actions is the upbringing, not the person themselves, so they shouldn’t be punished for it.” This too rests on narcissistic notions of the Self – what is a person, if not the sum of their genes and experiences? Furthermore, the (ostensible) main point of criminal sentencing these days is to rehabilitate them so that they may be fit to re-enter society; this rehabilitation is a deterministic cause in exactly the same way that the person’s upbringing or genes are. It’s not about blame, it’s about effecting change.

    • 79zombies says:

      I disagree. Determinism implicates no free will. If everything can be linked in a deterministic way then the future is already written, and our whole life experience is just a mere formality. We are born, we play the parts that were scripted for us by the time that the universe started (whenever that may be), and we die without ever truly deciding anything. Meanwhile we have the illusion of making that choices, and we call that illusion free will. That means that although the criminal had the illusion that he had a choice to break the law and that he made a decision to break it, he was merely playing his part; in fact, he was supposed to break the law. In the same way, the police that caught the criminal and the judge that judged him were all supposed to do exactly what they have done. They had no say in it, but they all experienced the illusion that they were making actual choices.

      One counter argument to this deterministic vision is that there is true randomness in the universe, which is supported by observations of some quantum phenomena. In this case you cannot describe how the future will be because you don’t know the outcome of those random processes. But you can still condition the future on the possible outcomes of the random processes; you can make assumptions of what the outcomes of those processes will be and construct a possible future. Then you make all possible assumptions for all random processes and you get a set with all the possible futures. Except that that doesn’t redeem free will. You still have no control over the randomness. The universe picks the future, and we follow along.

      • I think you are working with an ill-defined concept of free will. Randomness does not help at all.

        Let’s say some individual decides to do A. Now, if deciding to do A was a consequence of the state of her mind plus the state of her environment, doing A was inevitable. But how could she not have done A? There are two options: There could have been randomness involved, e.g. some quantum magic. But randomness does not really solve the problem. The other option is that some other non-random thing would have influenced her decision, but then we are at determinism again! That notion you are using for free will is not even possible in principle! There is only determinism or randomness, you can not really escape that.

        The reason that non-sensical notion of free will feels so real is because to learn from our mistakes, we need to imagine ourselves in the past doing things differently, that’s how we works, we simulate different realities in our mind to try to make good decisions. So we feel that is our free will, to be able to have done something different in the past. But that is not the case. Free will is being able to do something different in the future, even though determinism is inescapable.

      • Simbera says:

        We’re really just using different terms for the same thing. But I think ‘illusion’ has the wrong connotations; it’s just an abstract concept. It’s how we distinguish complex situations, where the deterministic maths is way too complicated to figure out in real time (human thought), from simpler situations where we can ape the maths and figure out what will happen (trajectory of a ball) It’s the distinction between animate vs inanimate objects – the distinction is ultimately arbitrary but that doesn’t make it any less useful.

        And I guess the reason I’m saying that it doesn’t invalidate Free Will is because the core premise of Free Will – that I am the author of my own actions – is still true. It just requires a more accurate image of who “I” am.

        (the quantum randomness tangent, as has been pointed out, is not an effective counter to determinism, at least not in this context)

  14. Frozen says:

    Maybe I am one of the few that agrees with the NYT article. I think it’s important to respect at least the illusion of “free will.”

    If we assume that every state is predetermined, then progressing from a state where people are held accountable for their actions should theoretically lead to a better state. That is, it’s better that someone who kills their co-workers can’t be extricated simply because it was in their deterministic future – because then they’d be more likely to kill.

    The question then is how did we initially get to a state where we value, and punish, actions based on “free will?” I would argue we actually evolved to that state – at a societal level. While that evolution may have been completely deterministic, it did result in a state where people are instilled with a morality (to some degree) and a fear of consequences. If we never (as humans) respected free will, we may not have gotten to the point where we can debate it online.

    On a final note, it is interesting that we do not hold people accountable (to the same degree) for their actions in cases that we can “conclude” were out of their control. Mental Illness is a prime example. Jail time can be avoided because a mental state (that we assume is accurately diagnosed) determined action. Currently, we can’t really figure out much beyond the gross labels offered by psychiatry/neuroscience. But what happens if we extrapolate these actions. Imagine we had an infinitely precise fMRI scans that could show that someone had a significantly increased number of “murderous rage” or “tax evasion” neuronal connections? What then?

    • ThomasR says:

      What’s interesting to me is that so many people associate free will with moral responsibilty. Moral responsibility does not have an absolute correspondence to free will. Sure, if the universe is completely deterministic, then moral responsibility is pretty much a defunct concept. But why should having free will assume that people have moral responsibility? Morals are basically a religious concept, and I find it unusual to find the NYT promoting a religious concept.

      Or maybe they believe morals are a necessary “noble lie” just like free will? Eh, I can’t disagree.

  15. Sfon says:

    Reminds me of a certain type of religious argument. Some examples:
    We must believe in God because valuing life is important.
    We must believe in God’s judgment because it is important to behave.

    Right along with those is:
    We must believe in free will because it is important to be held accountable.

    The former depends on the latter. Without the latter having reasons other than the former, the former has no value and thus neither have value.

    That people make these arguments is itself proof that there are other reasons aside of the existence of God or free will. Otherwise instead the answer would be “Oh OK, life/ethics/accountability is not important then.” But they are important, we know this even if we have trouble articulating why. Otherwise those saying we need to believe in them would be wrong and there would not be any good reason for them to do that.

    Why are we upset about accountability having no value? That is why it is of value.

    “But God and/or free will DO exist.”
    If they exist, those reasons are not needed. If they don’t exist and there are other reasons, those reasons are not needed. If they don’t exist and there are not other reasons, they are not needed because there is no need for them and thus no need for reasons justifying them. Besides, what is the reason for justifying valuing whatever God does? If the answer is “punishment”, then what is the reason to fear that punishment?

    “But the sheeple won’t understand.”
    We understand, and we are them. Nothing good comes from thinking power must be denied everyone else because because they don’t get it like the present company does. Yes, those lies (false reasons) would be a denial of power. They would be the act of getting everyone else in line with our wants because we know better than them, and thus our benevolent hand is needed to run their minds for them. Minds that are not given our thoughts, because they are not seen as good enough for our thoughts.

  16. What baffles me is the implicit assumption that a legal system whose aim is pure punishment can be moral. Punishment understood as revenge is immoral, in any case. A legal system based on protecting the greater good, of society and on re-education (even though I feel slightly fascist using that word) is the only moral grounding we can give it. On that ground the (ill-defined) concept of free will become irrelevant.

  17. Eneasz says:

    Fortunately the Free Will problem was solved long ago, and apparently the NYT still hasn’t caught up (surprise). In summation: “If the brain uses X specific algorithms without conscious awareness of it, the corresponding mental ontology would appear from the inside to generate the following intuitions and apparent impossibilities about ‘free will’” It’s obviously a very aborted summary, but the best one can do when trying to cram a dozen pages into one line.

  18. Jackie says:

    Free will vs. Determinism

    In that debate, which side is more likely to be on the antidepressants?

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