A question posed in my Cognitive Science course:

There are two states of being, chaotic and orderly. It is a choice between the two. Now, if the world is orderly, and everything can be predicted, how can there be free will? Likewise, if the world is chaotic, and nothing can be reliably predicted, and nothing happens for a reason, then how can there be free will?

There is no free will. If everything is orderly, then everything is predestined. If everything is chaotic, all action is chaotic and, by definition, meaningless.

Okay, the obvious point is that this is a false alternative. 'Order' and 'chaos' are not the only choices out there. How about somewhere in between? Or moving from one to the other? Or maybe, in the interaction between 'orderly' things and 'chaotic' things, free will exists.

Thoughts? Anyone?

I am of two sides on this (of course).

On the one hand, the logical hand, I can't argue with determinism; cause and effect, cause and effect. I wish someone could inform me of something truely random, then maybe I could dump the determinism.

On the other hand, deep down in my heart I feel like I really do have free will. How can't I, I make so many choices in a day and most of them seem (if you don't think really hard about it) caused by nothing but my will.

There doesn't seem like any good way to reconcile the two either. You can take cause and effect back, back, back and maybe (just maybe) you get to a God, then maybe (just maybe) he gave us free will and there is the causality behind it, but there are about 4.... billion maybe's in this last statement. Damn.

If you didn't have free will, would you know it?

I'm sure other's have had this thought before me, and probably even written about it someplace, but I've rarely seen my particular take on it anywhere. The Matrix was the only movie I've seen that came close, and I was gratified to see that Hollywood didn't dumb it down too much.

This is just a little thought experiment:

Imagine you had a kind of 3-dimensional scanner that could scan any object in an instant and record the positions and velocities of every sub-atomic particle in the object. (Never mind for the moment minor inconveniences such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, I'll get to that.)

Imagine you also had a super-fast computer, running a program which could read the data from this scanner, and simulate the motions and interactions of all the paricles which the scanner had recorded in some instant of time. Actually, the computer doesn't have to be all that fast if you have enough time on your hands. But you don't, so it better be fast. And big. And the scanner has to be impossibly fast.

Now, this scanner is big too, say big enough to scan an eniire room. In fact, an entire room is exactly what we will mentally scan into this imaginary computer.

Before scanning this room, we'll put a microphone and a video camera in the room, and turn them on. And we'll put a loudspeaker and TV set in the room too.

Then we'll sit in front of the camera and the microphone and press the big red "scan" button.

Zap. Exactly one instant later, we're all scanned into the computer and the simulation commences. The simulation has some special features. It has special simulated walls that can exchange simulated CO2 for O2 etc. And it can monitor the (simulated) voltage levels on the plug of the (simulated) microphone. And it can monitor the (simulated) CCD chip in the video camera. That's so we, the we that's outside the simulation, can see and hear what's going on inside the simulation.

And so we look into our computer screen to see this simulated collection of molecules and what do we see?

Here's where the questions start.

If our simulation and our scanner are good enough, then what we should see would be ourselves. We would see ourself look around and see the simulated walls, and hear our simulated self say "Oh crap, I'm the simulated me, and I can't ever leave this room, because that's all there is to this simulation! Hey, (looking into the simulated video camera) Don't turn me off, OK?, I'm glad we got that UPS."

And we could talk back to ourself by using a real microphone that caused simulated electrons to flow down simulated copper wires forming the voice coil of a simulated loudspeaker.

So into this computer simulation, which, in it's construction, has only rules about how subatomic particles interact, and nothing about conciousness programmed into it, we have dropped a concious being, ourself in fact. So does the self inside the computer have free will? The computer mechanically calculates the influences of each particle on each other partical, perhaps with some errors, some randomness that may influence outcomes, some degree of uncertainty, but with high enough fidelity that the simulation works, and the creature inside it appears to function. Does this creature have free will? If it doesn't, does it know it doesn't? Does it know anything at all?

If you say the creature inside the computer does not have free will, then ask yourself this, do you? If you do, how do you know? How do you know it's not just the molecules of your body and brain bouncing around in their usual way, a way that you have no control over.

You have free will because you can decide to do or not to do things? It's just those molecules bouncing around in your head in such a way that the outcome is that "you think" (do you even think?) that you have decided something. I'm not saying that everything is predetermined. That would be saying that the system is deterministic. It might not be. There might be some randomness in there, or even a lot of randomness. But non-determinism doesn't get you free will. It doesn't get you control. It just means you can't predict the future. It does seem rather clear though that at least on a macroscopic scale, there isn't so much randomness that nothing can be predicted. If I tip over a domino, it will usually tip over the next one, etc.

Why am I bothering to type these words? Molecules.

Does any of this make any difference to me? Of course not. It can't. The question of whether you have free will or not is really completely meaningless, in a very real sense. Suppose you do have free will? Great. No difference from what seems intuitively obvious. Suppose you don't? What will you do about it? Well, if that's the case then what you will do about it is not even up to you, is it? Whatever the answer, it can't and won't change anything, by the very nature of the question.

I promised to get back to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

So, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says, in a very strict and deep way, that you can't know both the position and velocity of anything to some arbitrary precision. (with some interesting effects when you cool things to near absolute zero and their velocity becomes known with a high degree of precision, i.e. pretty much zero. What happens to the knowledge of the object's position? The particle in question sort of spreads itself out in space. Boseman condensation I think it's called.) Anyway, so the scanner couldn't work perfectly, probably couldn't ever be made to work in any real way at all. Neither could the computer. So what? That doesn't really affect the experiment, the fact that it could not actually be carried out.

Oh, and a funny thought just occurred to me. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and all that quantum mechanical crap is really weird stuff. What if the reason it's so weird is because we're just looking too closely at the simulation that we're all running in, and what we're seeing are artifacts of the simulation's limited resolution? Now that would be funny. (Of course I don't believe that.)

So, anyway, just something fun to think about, (whether you want to or not, heh.)

Ah, crap, the real me tells me that he's got to turn off the big computer, it's using up too much power, so "Bye".

Everything that happens in the universe (and our minds) depends on some combination of two things: There is no middle ground. This is awkward for us as individuals who think of and speak of volition, will, and self-control. Few people will make the statement "My choice was wholly determined by internal and external forces I do not understand", however accurate it is.

Each one of our actions comes from a series of processes that take place within our minds. Some of them we happen to understand, but these are the small minority of what goes on.

But without free will, much of what is part of us and our society seems to crumble. Where is the place of praise and punishment when the action was a result of chance or something that was determined to be. It is free will that forms part of the judgment of good and evil. We feel virtue when resisting an evil temptation, but how much of that is our choice?

Through childhood we learn about various forms of coercion and compulsion and resent it when people use them to influence us. We as thinking beings want to make our own choices, even as a child. It is difficult for us to accept something that we cannot control being held as 'responsible' for all of our actions. There are more than a few people who become depressed about the futility of a universe of predetermination which is tempered only by chance.

The illusion of free will is an essential part of who we are as humans. The notions of responsibility, good and evil, self control and volition. Justice and punishment are closely linked to the question of free will - who are we to punish people who were destined to do as they did.

Probably one of the most hotly contested issues in science, philosophy and religion, the question of free will has plagued humanity in one form or another for thousands of years--at least, the portion of humanity whose basic needs are taken care of, and who have enough idle time on their hands to waste it sitting around discussing lofty philosophical notions. For the portion of humanity that spends their days making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s the issue is of no immediate concern.

In the beginning, was the Word. The Word came in different guises, depending on one's culture. For the Jews, the Word came on an immense scroll called the Torah, to be lovingly reproduced and passed to future generations. For Muslims, the Word was the Qur'an; the Christians had their Bible.

In a society which has grown accustomed to the idea of the Word as absolute truth, to question free will makes little sense. When you take it for granted that God created you and is telling you how to live your life, it is only natural to make the minor jump to believing that God is directly controlling your life.

As the years passed, technology and science evolved from obscure tools of the literati to religions in their own right, and people began to ask: what's so sacred about the Word, anyway? At about this time a number of early scientists, known at the time as natural philosophers, tried to unify the ideas of God and Nature. Within a few hundred years of each other, Anselm, Aquinas, Kant and Paley all took a crack at it. Suddenly, the appropriateness of determinism was in doubt--because the idea of God's very existence was in doubt!

Then came a chain of radical new ideas, completely at odds with convention, that yielded Newton's laws of motion, and eventually, Rutherford's model of the atom and Freud's nurture-over-nature explanations for human behavior. Suddenly we were all living in a clockwork universe, our actions dictated by easily derivable laws, and it was only a matter of time until we understood the working of the universe down to the last subatomic particle. In 1906, the dean of Harvard physics was heard to remark to prospective incoming freshmen that physics was a very poor career choice for aspiring young men, because there remained only six unsolved problems in the entire field.

Within thirty years, those six problems had turned classical physics upside-down. The work of Bohr, Einstein, Maxwell and Heisenberg (among others) fueled a paradigmatic shift; in this brave new world the universe is random, chaotic and unpredictable. Alan Turing showed us that, not only are some problems unsolvable, but some problems cannot even be determined to be solvable, or unsolvable. In the brave new world of 20th-century physics, free will was suddenly on very shaky ground. The straw that broke the camel's back was the development of quantum physics, which buggered the entire problem by suggesting that things might be deterministic and unpredictable. In the end, nobody was sure of anything regarding free will, and a lot of people threw up their hands in disgust.

Not me, though. Growing up, learning the history of science and coming to think about the world from a modern point of view, I was always fascinated by the concept of free will. And, after a great deal of thought, I have come to a conclusion: the question of free will is irrelevant.


  • Before you have made some decision, there is no way to predict the outcome of your decision, because you have not made it yet. This is true whether or not free will exists.
  • On the cusp of your decision--as you are making it--there is no way to prove, or disprove, that your decision is the result of your own free will.
  • After your decision has been made, the outcome has been decided. Because the outcome can never be changed and the decision can never be exactly repeated, there is no way to determine whether a different outcome was possible.

In other words, having or not having free will makes no difference in your day-to-day life. Your best bet is to act as if you have free will, and not to fret about what might be coming in your future if you don't have free will. The future is impossible to predict, irrespective of free will. The past cannot be changed, irrespective of free will. Worrying about it isn't going to make a whit of difference.

As xriso writes, there are manifold definitions of free will.
Most of them boil down to one of these, and here are some of the problems with any/all of these definitions.
  1. Random will, in other words, the ability to choose completely independent of any cause. By this definition a photon has free will. Experimentally, at a slit a photon may choose to go right or left and no one can know which way it will go before it does.
  2. Unfettered will, the ability to choose completely independent of a frame of reference. Such a definition wouldn't even support itself, a choice by its nature exists within a frame of reference. You must choose something over something else. Even choosing not to choose would exist within a system where choice exists.
  3. Causality-free will, the ability to choose without being influenced by past decisions. Such a form of free will would render the act of choosing moot. If your choice cannot affect the future, what is your choice affecting?
  4. Will undirected by God, the ability to make your own choices independent of what God wants you to do. This depends entirely on the definition of God one chooses to use. An All-powerful All-encompassing singular God implies a lack of this kind of free will. Even if God let you act against his/her wishes, you would still technically be fulfilling his/her wishes to act as you chose. Of course such a definition of God leads to many other paradoxes as well.
  5. Insanity as free will. if you yourself cannot determine your actions, then you have no choice at all.

Free Will

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Translation by H.I. Woolf, New York: Knopf, 1924

EVER since men have reasoned, the philosophers have obscured this matter: but the theologians have rendered it unintelligible by absurd subtleties about grace. Locke is perhaps the first man to find a thread in this labyrinth; for he is the first who, without having the arrogance of trusting in setting out from a general principle, examined human nature by analysis. For three thousand years people have disputed whether or not the will is free. In the "Essay on the Human Understanding," chapter on "Power," Locke shows first of all that the question is absurd, and that liberty can no more belong to the will than can colour and movement.

What is the meaning of this phrase "to be free"? it means "to be able," or assuredly it has no sense. For the will ''to be able '' is as ridiculous at bottom as to say that the will is yellow or blue, round or square. To will is to wish, and to be free is to be able. Let us note step by step the chain of what passes in us, without obfuscating our minds by any terms of the schools or any antecedent principle.

It is proposed to you that you mount a horse, you must absolutely make a choice, for it is quite clear that you either will go or that you will not go. There is no middle way. It is therefore of absolute necessity that you wish yes or no. Up to there it is demonstrated that the will is not free. You wish to mount the horse; why? The reason, an ignoramus will say, is because I wish it. This answer is idiotic, nothing happens or can happen without a reason, a cause; there is one therefore for your wish. What is it? the agreeable idea of going on horseback which presents itself in your brain, the dominant idea, the determinant idea. But, you will say, can I not resist an idea which dominates me? No, for what would be the cause of your resistance? None. By your will you can obey only an idea which will dominate you more.

Now you receive all your ideas; therefore you receive your wish, you wish therefore necessarily. The word "liberty" does not therefore belong in any way to your will.

You ask me how thought and wish are formed in us. I answer you that I have not the remotest idea. I do not know how ideas are made any more than how the world was made. All that is given to us is to grope for what passes in our incomprehensible machine.

The will, therefore, is not a faculty that one can call free. A free will is an expression absolutely void of sense, and what the scholastics have called will of indifference, that is to say willing without cause, is a chimera unworthy of being combated.

Where will be liberty then? In the power to do what one wills. I wish to leave my study, the door is open, I am free to leave it.

But, say you, if the door is closed, and I wish to stay at home, I stay there freely. Let us be explicit You exercise then the power that you have of staying; you have this power, but you have not that of going out.

The liberty about which so many volumes have been written is, therefore, reduced to its accurate terms, only the power of acting.

In what sense then must one utter the phrase - " Man is free "? in the same sense that one utters the words, health, strength, happiness. Man is not always strong, always healthy, always happy.

A great passion, a great obstacle, deprive him of his liberty, his power of action. The word "liberty," "free-will," is therefore an abstract word, a general word, like beauty, goodness, justice. These terms do not state that all men are always beautiful, good and just; similarly, they are not always free.

Let us go further: this liberty being only the power of acting, what is this power? It is the effect of the constitution and present state of our organs. Leibnitz wishes to resolve a geometrical problem, he has an apoplectic fit, he certainly has not liberty to resolve his problem. Is a vigorous young man, madly in love, who holds his willing mistress in his arms, free to tame his passion? undoubtedly not. He has the power of enjoying, and has not the power of refraining. Locke was therefore very right to call liberty "power." When is it that this young man can refrain despite the violence of his passion? when a stronger idea determines in a contrary sense the activity of his body and his soul.

But what! the other animals will have the same liberty, then, the same power? Why not? They have senses, memory, feeling, perceptions, as we have. They act with spontaneity as we act. They must have also, as we have, the power of acting by virtue of their perceptions, by virtue of the play of their organs.

Someone cries: "If it be so, everything is only machine, everything in the universe is subjected to eternal laws." Well! would you have everything at the pleasure of a million blind caprices? Either everything is the sequence of the necessity of the nature of things, or everything is the effect of the eternal order of an absolute master; in both cases we are only wheels in the machine of the world.

It is a vain witticism, a commonplace to say that without the pretended liberty of the will, all pains and rewards are useless. Reason, and you will come to a quite contrary conclusion. If a brigand is executed, his accomplice who sees him expire has the liberty of not being frightened at the punishment; if his will is determined by itself, he will go from the foot of the scaffold to assassinate on the broad highway; if his organs, stricken with horror, make him experience an unconquerable terror, he will stop robbing. His companion's punishment becomes useful to him and an insurance for society only so long as his will is not free.

Liberty then is only and can be only the power to do what one will. That is what philosophy teaches us. But if one considers liberty in the theological sense, it is a matter so sublime that profane eyes dare not raise themselves to it.
The Philosophical Dictionary: http://history.hanover.edu/texts/voltaire/volfrewi.htm

A Case for Free Will


I do two things in this essay. First, I present a coherent account of free will. Second, I demonstrate the existence of free will.

1. A Coherent Account of Free Will

We often hear that free will is incoherent, or at least impossible to define. The motivation behind the first camp seems to be this, that every cause is either determined or random. The concept of free motion is a concept of a form of motion that is neither determined nor random; so, they argue, free will does not exist. This argument has swayed many people including, it seems, some of the previous posters in this node. The motivation behind the second camp seems to be to preserve free will from rational scrutiny, perhaps because the concept is perceived as important but fragile. Well, it may be important but the concept of free will is not fragile in the slightest. We can do away with both camps, since a coherent account of free will exists.

In this section, I develop the concepts central to this account of free will, present the account, and answer the argument that free will is conceptually impossible.


Anything can be divided into its properties, capacities, and parts. Let's take an arbitrary thing - say, my cat. My cat has the properties of whiteness, cuteness, being about six inches tall when walking, and so on. Its capacities include things like its ability to catch birds and its ability to someday learn to walk the tightrope. Its parts include its tail, feet, body, and head; though we could divide it up into a different set of parts if we so chose. Now, something has all of my cat's properties, capacities, and parts without being had, in the same sense, by anything else. That is my cat's substance.

The idea of a substance seems coherent. We talk about S having a property P all the time, and such talk would seem to presuppose the existence of substances. S could be had by something else, granted, but that can't go on forever. So predication would seem to presuppose the existence of substances, which means that the idea of a substance must be coherent.

Ultimate Cause

Take a specific, arbitrary time. We're going to call that time, t. Now at t there is a way that all of reality is. Call the way that all of reality is at t, the state of affairs at t. The state of affairs at t necessitates certain things about the state of affairs at t+1 (which is a time after t). Now let's say that for some t, part of the state of affairs at t+1 (and we'll call this part A) is not entirely necessitated by the state of affairs at t. Now if A is the beginning of a causal chain, A is an ultimate cause.

Here's another way of putting it. Think about a chain of causes that has a beginning. A causes B, B causes C, and so on until Z. There is a cause in this chain, A, which has no prior necessitating cause. A in this chain is an ultimate cause.

The idea of an ultimate cause is prima facie coherent. We have evidence that it is coherent, since people employ the idea in philosophy and physics.

A Coherent Account of Free Will

My account is just this, that a human has free will if and only if his substance is an ultimate cause.

The concepts of substance and ultimate causation are prima facie coherent. Since this account was created by combining two prima facie coherent concepts, we have evidence that if someone does not believe that it is coherent, they are simply failing to understand it. Further, it seems conceptually possible for any existent to be an ultimate cause; so, since a substance is an existent, there can be no incoherence in the combination of the concepts of substance and ultimate causation. The account is coherent.

Conceptual Determinism Refuted

Conceptual determinism is the belief that it is conceptually impossible for an event to be neither random nor determined, and free will is neither random nor determined. With the above account of free will, this position can be refuted quickly. An event is random if it is caused by nothing, determined if it is caused by a previous event, and free if it is caused by a substance.

The appeal of conceptual determinism comes from the presupposition that all causes are events. If that is true, then every event is either caused by a previous event or by nothing, or, in other words, either determined or free. When we introduce substantial causation into our ontology, we create a third form of motion that we can plausibly call free.

Summary of Section 1

The substance of X is what has all of X's properties, capacities, and parts without being had by anything else. An ultimate cause is a cause with no prior necessitating cause. A human has free will if and only if his substance is an ultimate cause. Conceptual determinism, the belief that only random and determined events are conceptually possible, is false because substantial causation is conceptually possible.

2. Demonstration of the Existence of Free Will

Free will exists, because we had to get the concept of causality from somewhere, and we could only get the concept of causality by experiencing our own free will.

The Concept of Causality is not Innate

If we didn't acquire the concept of causality, then it is innate in us. Or perhaps it was produced by some sort of illusion, or given to us by revelation, or something like that; we will treat these all alike. Now, by the burden of proof principle, the burden of proof for the existence of any entity is on the person who proposes that it exists, and this applies to the notion of an innate concept of causality. The person who believes that there is such a concept has to meet an enormous burden of proof, if he wants to remain rational. He would have to prove, with scientific data, that this concept is in our heads from the beginning. Positive evidence of the sort that is wanted almost certainly does not exist.

Further, if the concept of causality is innate or whatever, then it is completely unlike our other concepts and beliefs. We have thousands of experiences of forming concepts by observing things and integrating them. The same is, if anything, truer of our beliefs. This gives a reasonable person a strong presumption that the concepts we cannot remember forming, including that of causality, were acquired at some point, not innate.

So we have two arguments against the view that our concepts are innate, or illusory, or revealed, or whatever: first, it fails to meet the burden of proof, which, by the burden of proof principle, justifies us in failing to affirm it; and second, that would be totally unlike our other concepts and beliefs. So, we can conclude that we acquired the concept of causality.

The Concept Comes from the Self

So, we got the concept of causality from somewhere. This had to be either from the external world or from introspection. There is no form of perception that we could have acquired the concept from other than extrospection and introspection. And it sure didn't come from the external world. There is no entity labelled "causality" out in the world. We cannot see cause and effect in things like we can see the color blue in things. So we must not have gotten the idea, the concept, the category if you will, of "cause" by looking at things out in the world. So, we acquired the idea of causality by introspecting.

In introspection, we can identify a self, beliefs, and a great shifting mass that we can call the passions for our purposes. The same argument that eliminated the external world eliminates our beliefs and passions, since we cannot perceive causality in them any more than we can perceive it in the external world. We must have gotten the concept of causality by experiencing causality in our innermost self.

The Concept Comes from a Free Self

So, with a single argument, we have disqualified the external world, our beliefs, and our passions as the thing that gave us our concept of causality. Our innermost self experienced causality at some point, and it must have experienced it either as a thing caused to act, or as an ultimate cause. If the self is an ultimate cause, then we are free. This is so, by the way, because the self is a substance. You will notice that the self has beliefs and passions, and the self is not had by anything else.

But the same argument that disqualifed the external world, our beliefs, and our passions eliminates the possibility that the self experienced causality as the thing acted upon. There would be no perception of causality when the self was acted on, only of change. And so the self must have been the initial, primary generator of motion. The self is an ultimate cause, and the ability of the self to act as an ultimate cause is what we call free will.

Summary of Section 2

The burden of proof principle and induction justify the conclusion that the concept of causality is not innate, so we acquired it from somewhere. It could not have come from the external world, introspection of our beliefs and passions, or the self's determined motion - we can only perceive change in these ways, not causality itself. We could only have gotten the concept by generating a cause from our innermost self. Therefore, we have free will.

The problem of free will is one of the most discussed in philosophy, and although I believe it has something of the character of a mirage - the closer you get to it, the less it seems there is to it - it does not disappear entirely even when it is pinned down. Once you get past the false dichotomies and irrelevant abstractions, there are important ethical ramifications to the nature and extent of our free will.

I should start by saying something about what I mean by 'free will', which is one of these terms - like 'consciousness', or 'beauty' - that people bandy about, and have whole elaborate arguments around, as if everybody knows what everyone else is talking about. Then, when people get explicit about what they actually mean, it often turns out that most of the disagreements are to do with different people having different definitions in mind, if they have definitions in mind at all. The meaning I am most interested in is something like 'the capacity of an agent which means that in some set of circumstances, they could have made different choices'. The big question, then, is what it would have taken for them to choose differently.

The first thing to say about the will is that it's not free in the sense that it costs something to keep ourselves from doing something that some part of us wants to do1. Our stomachs are always telling us that we should be eating more, and many other parts have their own demands. If I want to overrule those wants, I need willpower to do that, and it doesn't come free. Like a muscle, the will gets tired, and a sapped will must be replenished before it can really be relied on. It's not much use saying 'you just need to exercise more willpower' when it's an experimentally verified fact that the stuff runs out, which suggests that there are limits to how much we can rationally blame people for failing to exercise enough of it. I won't delve deeply into the moral implications of this fact here, but it seems likely that they are substantial.

The next sense in which our will is importantly un-free is that both our inclinations and our actions are constrained by what makes up our selves and our environment. This ties in with the debate about determinism - the idea that everything that happens is determined by what has gone before. I would argue that this idea is seductive, but largely meaningless; and to the extent that it is meaningful, it is largely irrelevant. The ways in which our will is significantly constrained by our environment have very little to do with determinism in the usual philosophical sense.

Determinism is seductive because it is obviously true that if our actions are determined by what has gone before, they cannot be said to be entirely our own. It is, however, largely meaningless because of chaos - because there is no way for anyone to make reliable predictions based on known starting conditions, for anything but a very simple physical system. Complexity gives rise to something that is either identical to or indistinguishable from genuine novelty. Maybe an all-knowing deity could predict what you're going to do by completely simulating everything about you and your environment, but so what? Physical considerations mean that such predictions are impossible in principle within our own universe - and even if we were rigorously simulated, maybe the simulations would have free will!

Determinism is largely irrelevant because whatever it is that constitutes ourselves - our minds, brains, bodies, particles, ideas or whatever else - plays a major part in determining what happens. We may or may not be machines, but if we are, we are machines with rich, emergent powers of decision-making. Our decisions are our own, and there is no way, in general, for anyone to predict your decisions or mine. This happens to be true whether or not the present and future are in fact uniquely determined by the past. Standard interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest that the universe is fundamentally random, and subatomic particles routinely 'choose' one outcome or another just by chance, but this fact buys us nothing when it comes to figuring out the extent to which anybody is responsible for their own actions. If your decisions depend on the configuration of subatomic particles in your head, what do I care if those particles move at random or not? There are several levels of description in between the level of subatomic physics and human-level behaviour, and as far as anyone can tell, none of them are affected in the slightest by the question of whether there is yet another, deterministic layer of reality underlying the probabilities expressed by the quantum wave function. Personal responsibility depends on psychology, not physics.

However, the fact remains that we are the product of our environment (and our genes, and the laws of physics, and so on and so forth). We have limited powers of self-transformation - much about me is inescapable, however much I might wish to change it. In principle I may have the liberty to become a breatharian if I want, and just stop eating entirely, but I very much doubt I could manage it in practice. If I wanted to go the whole hog and just stop breathing, too, I would be guaranteed to fail because - to gloss over the neurology of it - my lungs would overrule the part of me that ever thought that was a good idea. The notion that the conscious part of my mind is free to make any choice it wants ignores a mountain of evidence against the unity of the self2.

Our decisions are profoundly constrained by our natural inclinations, our capacities and the ways they relate to the social and material contexts we find ourselves in. This makes it impossible to support the proposition that any of us is completely responsible for our own actions.

Once we acknowledge that the ideas of absolutely free will and absolute personal responsibility are untenable, we are left with some interesting questions. For example, to what extent is personal responsibility just a convenient fiction? How much does it matter, when it comes to things like justice and social order? How much responsibility do we all have for other people's wrongdoings - particularly those of us in positions of power, like parents, teachers, politicians and company bosses? Has the concept of personal responsibility been allowed to act as a smokescreen for a broader concept of social responsibility - or, indeed, vice versa? What are the dangers inherent in acknowledging the limits of either personal or social responsibility, and can they be avoided?

These questions are probably better addressed elsewhere, but I hope I have shown that even after millennia of discussion, the notion of free will is vital and relevant. Science has a lot to say about it, and some of the questions that it throws up are of profound importance - but the genuinely interesting questions are not necessarily the ones that philosophers and others have spent the most time on.

1 Roy Baumeister at Florida State University has done some very interesting work on this phenomenon, which he calls 'ego depletion'. It turns out to be tied up with glucose levels. Here's a brief summary in Wired; here's a book he co-wrote about it; here's a handy Google Scholar search. Note also that stress has a way of shutting down the ability of our 'higher self' to overrule the demands of our hindbrain.

2 One classic experiment on this was conducted by Benjamin Libet et al in the 1980s. Subjects were asked to flip their wrist at a random time, and report the exact time they decided to do so. This was compared with measurements of activity in their brain, which turns out to start about half a second before the participants thought they had made the decision to move. Although it is sometimes taken to refute the idea of free will, it only addresses 'free will' as a capacity of consciousness as such; a naive notion of the conscious mind being solely responsible for all of our decisions.

Free will (?).


A will free from improper coercion or restraint.

To come thus was I not constrained, but did
On my free will.


The power asserted of moral beings of willing or choosing without the restraints of physical or absolute necessity.


© Webster 1913.

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