Does Free Will Exist?

I’m creating this topic in order to extract a discussion about free will from another thread.

It started with a mention of these lectures:


How goes the investigation into Free Will? It’s an interest of mine.

My current thinking is that we are essentially meat machines and Classical FW doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s closely linked to ideas of a Self, which I also don’t believe in. That’s right, I actually don’t believe I exist! :slight_smile: I like Dennet’s position that FW is a useful social fiction, like money.

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Good news then… AI will not take over when it becomes self aware.

(see what I did there) :wink:

(Sorry, I was going to move these posts to another thread about free will, but then I moved them back.)

I don’t think that people have as much free will as it seems. I’ve never seen an argument for free will that holds up well under scrutiny, and those lectures covered the main debates without pushing any specific conclusion.

I suspect that some free will exists for one reason that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere, but I need to think about it a little more before I write it up. I lean towards the idea that there is some free will but much less than it seems.

We have to live as if it exists, so the answer to the question doesn’t change the way I live. There are at least two trillion galaxies out there, so I don’t feel like the existence or nonexistence of free will is shattering to my world view. This reality is already strange enough. :slight_smile:

I bookmarked some sections of the audiobook and will go back and extract them at some point.

Do you remember where Dennet wrote about free will? I started Consciousness Explained but didn’t finish it yet.


It was a live talk he gave here in Santa Fe. He mentioned that modern neurological research shows that the body often initiates an action before the actor is aware of his “choice”. He argued that social cooperation requires that the participants have “skin in the game” and so it’s an important, perhaps vital social construct. I do believe we are wired with an appetite for punishment.

If we frame Classical FW as having complete unfettered freedom to choose between available alternatives, how does this work? We understand the world in terms of cause and effect. There are no uncaused effects (QM doesn’t really help here). How is one’s decision not simply a reflection of the balance of circumstances behind it? Perhaps I choose not to steal the bread because I value honor more than my hunger, but the next man is near starvation and grew up as a street urchin, what does one expect of him?

And, as Hume points out, if your decision is not the logical outcome of the balance of influences weighing upon you, of what value is it? Is it better to say that I was free of the pressures of my code of ethics and decided not to take the bread because…? because of some arbitrary whim?

This problem doesn’t go away if you introduce Deus Ex Machina. If the supernatural soul is not governed by cause and effect, it must be an incoherent or chaotic entity.

Nor does an appeal to QM do any more than introduce randomness. Classical FW should be to some degree unpredictable but that’s a necessary not sufficient condition. FW is more than some randomly unpredictable choice

I ponder this: I come from a large European Jewish family that stretched from France to Russia. Except for a handful, they disappeared into the camps and never came out. It is hard to fathom how so many human beings could choose to participate in an evil of that magnitude. Yet I wonder, had I been a young Aryan German in 1936, what would I have done? I have no reason to think I would have done any differently. I would have been a man of my times.

Classical FW is a construct that has been used to justify a great deal of human cruelty. I notice that when dealing with domesticated animals we manage them and train them very effectively without having to resort to this notion. Dogs are incorrigible food thieves. If you own dogs you just deal with that and invest your efforts elsewhere. You don’t waste time fretting over how immoral it is.


Who knows… think of the Edelweiss Pirates (Edelweißpiraten)… obviously, not everyone was part of it back then, I don’t know if in 100 years from now the history books will say that everyone voted for Donald Trump back then (when it was really only half), but that just goes to show…

Your point is more an “under duress” argument… which is something that would, for example, render a contract void. Not having free will because you’re oppressed is not the “philosophical” idea of free will. Do this or I’ll shoot you… that’s not free will that’s your amygdala…

a different scenario that comes down to utility basically (in the economical sense)… obviously, you could do something that does not increase utility, but since you’re a “rational agent” (again economics) why would you do that?

see previous point.


I realized that the audiobook comes with a 139-page PDF, so I don’t have to go back and listen to the bookmarks to find the information.

It covered free will libertarianism (not related to politics), hard determinism, and compatibilism. Wikipedia has a chart:

The PDF notes recommended these in the quantum mechanics section:

I have trouble thinking about “what if?” scenarios. If one small piece of the system is rearranged, then everything else is going to be different.

There is something that mentally blocks me from seeing a person in another time and situation as being “me”. Even if I could clone myself or upload my brain into a computer1, I don’t think it would be me.

I feel like I can consider and plan for future scenarios, but someone else in another time and place would just be a roll of the dice about what any random person might do in that time period.

A book that looks related to free will was posted over here this morning: Effects of temperature on memory? - #3 by elitely

1 I don’t believe that it’s possible to truly upload a mind into a computer — it’s just an example.


IMO this is a distraction and goes down a rabbit hole that questions the concepts of Self and Identity both of which are very slippery to nail down. Would it have been me in Pre-War Germany? Dunno. Would it have been me had I been born with blond hair? Dunno. What I can argue is given the resources I have for making decisions, a combination of wisdom and the will to execute, I probably would have been swept up in that tide. The fact that I’m a good person and not an evil one seems to be largely a matter of circumstance.



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It is not easy to talk about ‘’ more’’ or’ ‘less’’ in this topic.
if it refers to what we can want, then we can want anything, desire anything, and that is part of free will.
if it refers to what we can actually do with our choices, then, it is very little indeed.
But we can choose to love, and we can love. How do you measure that? (and I don’t buy the simplistic reduction of love into chemistry).

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Compatibilism basically dodges the issue by saying we don’t care what happens inside your head. You have all it takes to operate as free agent and we are going to deal with you that way.

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Daniel Dennet considers Free Will, a useful social fiction, like money. According to him people have to have “skin in the game”. I think that’s true of our culture but I am not convinced it is necessary, though I don’t welcome alternatives. In other cultures the idea of free agency is played down and people are viewed as subject to a fate. People act according to their natures, much like animals and reprimands are delivered with the purpose of modifying behavior.

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I guess I don’t understand that way of thinking. I need to find some people who act as if free will doesn’t exist and talk with them.

It might be an interesting experiment to spend a few days trying to get into that mindset. I read your post on my phone before I got out of bed, and then for a moment I tried to imagine that I had no free will and that it was destiny for me to get out of bed even though I didn’t feel well. I managed to jump out of bed immediately instead of spending another 15 minutes failing to fall back asleep. I guess it could be a useful psychological trick, if you have the right beliefs about fate. :smiley:


I saw this in a newsletter today. I didn’t read it closely yet, but it looks interesting.


Readiness potential doesn’t help with the terminology. “Free will” is a nuanced term and few people are on the same page regarding what it means.

@Josh asked for an example of people who act as if they don’t have free will, but I feel that is missing the point. There’s a difference between acts of will and being free to have chosen otherwise in the flow of time. You might think you were free to have chosen otherwise, but in reality, you did not and there is no way to go back.

Given what we know about memory, particularly procedural memory, most of what we do is done before we can reflect on it, and by that time it cannot be changed. So how were we “free” in any meaningful sense of that term? We cannot even rely on our prospective memory to “remind” us to act better in the future based on lessons from the past.

If we can rely on our prospective memory and it does remind us to act better in the future, how are we free? At best, whatever one thinks of their “I” as having some say in the matter is in collaboration with forces that “I” neither created or particularly understands.

And to you directly, Josh, if you think you have free will, think back to our conversation yesterday.

I’m not trying to convince or persuade you to accept some fast conclusion that “free will does not exist.”

But in practice terms, what we were discussing was all about the absence of free will - decisions that have to be made because more than any individual “I” is at stake. And they are all built of brains that produce a “collaborative” rhizome of many forces, many of which are nested in memory.

All of which is to say that the answer to the riddle of free will is not likely going to be found in neuroscience. There are too many possible angles from which to look at it. And in very real, everyday practical circumstances, what people have is the ability to select from limited sets of options, very few of which were “chosen.”

If I could choose, you can be sure that I would have chosen a completely different world than this. That’s not fantasy - it’s just evidence that “I” had no “will” in it. Being free to select from a range of possible options in no way makes my will “free.” Quite the opposite; it constrains my freedom.

Note: This is not necessarily a bad thing.

And to connect it to memory techniques, essentially what we are doing when refining our practice is selecting rules and adhering to them. We are limiting our “freedom” to just randomly associate, but “obeying” principles and “surrendering” to decision parameters.

In the contest setting, the one who wins is probably the one who is best at surrendering to these rules so well that they can do it without thinking - and since all the levels of memory happen so fast, I ask again: Where is the will in this?

All I see is surrender to discipline. And the most surrendered to the rules seems to be the one who wins - and not just in memory competition.

Tony Buzan to me over dinner:

“The rules will set you free.”


Related to free will: "Is It Time to Give Up on Consciousness as 'the Ghost in the Machine'?"

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LOL - I memorize and study ancient philosophy in Sanskrit.

People were urging people to give up on consciousness thousands of years ago. And that’s just this one particular tradition.

Evolving Beyond Thought by Gary Weber is a good book on this topic.

That’s meant to be a positive LOL, not a dismissive one, but the way. Thanks for the link, @Josh.

I would respond but before that, I suggest @Josh make this an independent topic. It’s much to big an issue to appear as a side discussion in Favorite Books, IMO.

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Good idea. I extracted the discussion into this new thread.