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Might We Have Free Will?

I hope no one is wasting time this evening listening to the Sith, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing much worthwhile.

. . .
Prefatory Notes:

1.  One thing I cannot stress enough: There is no, NO, non-trivial and logically consistent system of thought that does not rest upon postulates: unproven presumptions about existents within the system and relationships between them. These postulates are the foundational “givens” of the system. This is as as true of moral philosophy as it is of any other system. In reasoning about the nature of humans and their faculties (such as free will) you will always hit up on an unprovable assumption.

2.  Note this also: It is the nature of the human mind that, having formed a concept and then having found the concept logically problematic–or wanting in some other respect–it will seek a different angle, a change to the concept so as to get around the problem. This cannot always be done, but in the case of the concept of Free Will, I think the conventional concept is based on a misunderstanding and must be re-cast slightly if we are to maintain our belief that we live in a cause-and-effect (that is, a rational) universe and yet hold to the idea that real choice exists for each of us, and that we are indeed properly held accountable for the choices we make.

3.  My own belief, and starting premise, is that we are part of the physical universe and as such are systems made up of matter and energy like everything else in it, and that all of our constituent parts, whether considered as isolated or as subsystems, are subject to the same laws of cause and effect. The following is written from that point of view.

. . .

In the more common, or conventional, or traditional conception of “free will,” there is some faculty of human beings which serves as a prime mover–i.e., it is causeless–and yet, simultaneously, it is under the control of the human, the moral agent, the actor. This has been a problem for Western (at least) philosophers since the Greeks. Miss Rand, among others, tried to get around this by saying No, the faculty is not “causeless”–it is caused by the human will. But this begs the question (i.e., the argument already assumes that which is to be proven), because the “causeless” faculty under discussion is the will itself. The question, as always, is, How comes the Will to will as it does?

For religions which posit the existence of a “soul” distinct from the physical body, this need not pose a problem; for them, the Soul is the essence of what we are and the driver of what we do, and Free Will simply means that God or the gods allow the Soul to direct, or at least to strongly influence, the person’s actions as it will, without His or their intervention. And they are quite welcome to their understanding, their fundamental postulate; the following analysis is not for them, but for those who are trying to square a reliable principle of cause-and-effect with “Free Will,” whose existence is to most of us (I think) self-evident.

The “soul-body dichotomy” is implicit even in Miss Rand’s own insistence upon the existence of traditionally understood “Free Will” (though without any gods). And she spoke forcefully against any idea of “determinism” as applicable to human beings, because, in her view, not only would a deterministic view invalidate the very concept of logic, but also it would make morality “a sick joke.”

But we see that people “make choices.” One guy goes left at the
crossroads, the other goes right. What then? How can there be choice without freedom to choose?

Now note: I’m limiting the following discussion to include only entities which we commonly think of as possibly having some sort of “mind.” Humans, dogs, mice if you think so…; fish are an open question. * That’s to keep the discussion from becoming as long as the OED. (In a posthumous volume I will discuss the free will of creeping juniper, celery, and sacks of hammers. )

To the observer, whether external or internal, the actions of the entity being observed are not 100% absolutely knowable in advance. I know that you are about to go out, and that it’s raining, and that there’s an umbrella by the door. Still, I can’t say with absolute certainty that you’ll take the umbrella with you, let alone use it. This is the result of the fact that you do have a choice–a real choice.

That choice exists because there is no mechanism external to yourself that would prevent your taking the umbrella or that would force you to take it; along with the fact that you have the biological capacity to develop the motivation to pick it up or to leave it, and the capacity to exercise your muscles in accordance with the motivation. It’s the lack of absolute external compulsion, combined with your internal capacity to evaluate and to act according to your evaluation, which together constitute the availability of your choosing.

(Of course I may well know from previous experience that you ALWAYS–or, conversely, NEVER–in the past have taken the umbrella when it’s raining. But that only allows me to say that “knowing you, I know you will [or won't] take the umbrella”–you are not CONSTRAINED to take it, or not take it, by circumstances external to your physical self.)

. . .

Yet we often say, “I had no choice; I HAD to do it.” In this case, the entity finds itself FEELING constrained by the fullness of circumstance to act in a certain way. One person says, “I had no choice”; another, in a virtually identical situation, says, “I felt I had no choice.” And the latter formulation, I believe, is the accurate one, and it points out very well the real meaning we ought to attach to the concept of “choice.”

Contrast this with the genuine experience of being literally unable to act upon the capacity of choosing, because external constraints prohibit it. The two experiences FEEL entirely different. (I’ve been there.)

“Free Will” arises from the fact that a being possessing the faculty of “will” is not completely constrained from without to behave in a certain manner. It–the being, the entity–is constantly faced with choices. “Shall I turn east or west? Shall I hunt for a job or go on welfare?” It is the system of internal mechanisms, considered in their totality as the system of which the acting being consists, which both enable and require that being to act as it does in any given situation.

Thus, in what I believe is a much better conception of “Free Will” than the common one, it is the whole man, not some human subsystem or ancillary system, that has “free will” or the ability to “choose”; and this “free will” lies in the perception of the observer, whether he is some other person external to the actor or is the actor observing himself, and not in the disconnection of some subsystem of the acting entity from physical reality and the laws of cause-and-effect which make that reality available to human reason.

There is a real capacity to choose, and there is real free will, in that it is only the acting individual himself who picks and then acts upon one particular alternative among the ones, plural, available.

. . .

PS. Contra Miss Rand (and many, many others), this viewpoint specifically does NOT disallow judgments about the morality or responsibilities of persons, which are based on observations of the whole person and what he does or has done.

PPS. One of the delights of growing older is discovering that other, brighter guys than oneself have long since made similar observations and come to similar conclusions. :>)))

PPPS. Lengthy discussion on this issue yesterday and today at


  1. John Galt says:

    I am a borderline agnostic/atheist, in that I don’t think there is a god, but I am sufficiently uncertain to acknowledge my own uncertainty.

    I find theist approaches at best uncompelling and at worst comparable to belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I assess myself as being closest to Spinoza’s rather irritating Pantheism in philosophical outlook (essentially the universe itself being ‘god’)

    I look at the human mind and consciousness from the perspective of evolutionary biology, cellular biochemistry and physics (right down to the indivisibly microscopic) and see nothing but biological, chemical and physical laws and processes being followed.

    At every level, regardless of cellular order or quantum mechanical chaos, there is universal determinism, in that things behave the way they do because it is in the nature of the universe in which we inhabit that they behave in such a way.

    This does NOT mean that the universe itself is simply a recipe unfolding, that given the right ingredients and the right temperature, a cake of a specific flavour and texture will emerge. Absolutely not, for at every level there is uncertainty, unpredictability and ultimately at the human level, what we misleadingly view as the concept of choice.

    I believe that the concept of ‘free will’ is a creation of artifice, that it reflects the need within ourselves to have self control and ‘agency’ (as Paul Marks so eloquently put it), but that this view is simply a lie that we tell ourselves.

    From the smallest bacteria to the smartest human, we are formed bottom-up and the delusion of ‘choice’ is simply a reflection of our physical, psychological and hormonal balance at a particular point in time that a ‘choice’ is made.

    However, in true human style, I continually delude myself that I have free will or ‘agency’ as it provides me with a fig-leaf that I am not simply a piece of cellular refuse fluttering in the quantum mechanical breeze, subject to the uncertainty of the universe, but rather that the universe changes when I decide to act rather than the other way round.

    I do this to preserve my sanity and prevent myself from falling into a pit of depression over my inconsequentiality (at least on a universal scale of measurement).

    Your mileage may vary.

  2. David Deutsch is pretty convinced that the very fabric of reality itself suggests we have free will, hehe.

  3. Well, if you think that way, that’s your choice…

  4. John Galt says:

    But is it Jeremy? or is it just the illusion of choice arising from quantum fluctuation within the most microscopic pathways of the brain?

  5. NickM says:

    Oh Dear Gods ze kvantum! It is not “random”. Individual quantum events can be stochastically irreducible. This means they are truly random in the way a coin toss isn’t because in principle the flight of a tossed coin can be described by Newtonian Mechanics perfectly. Stochastic irreducibility is a fascination of mine – because it is the true random*. As are other forms of what is perceived as random as is the transitions of those other forms between random and predictable.

    This is, for me, a key unanswered question in physics…

    Thought experiment. Take a cook’s box of matches and chuck two on the floor. How many parameters do you need o describe the situation? Position and orientation for two items? What about 10, 50, 100, the whole lot? Now here is the interesting point. The situation is analyzable at the low end and becomes impossible at the middle end but at the high end returns to understandable but in a different way. Particle interactions are easy when you have few particles, when you have more than 2 they can become the stuff of undergraduate nightmares and this only increases if you up the number up to a point because at that point you give up thinking of the trees because it’s now a forest. Or the progeny of a forest – a collection of match-sticks on the floor.

    I guess I’m trying to say that complexity increases and then decreases. The physicist will study and understand the interaction between two water molecules, 10 get a computer, 100 call Seymour Cray, 1000, forget it! A trillion though? That becomes fluid dynamics and a different game is afoot because you can abstract (in the correct sense of that word) and it is no longer individual interactions but is best met by considering the stuff in a totally different way.

    There is no such thing as a fluid. There only atoms and the void but thinkingwise sometimes the fluid model works. Sometimes. When you have enough of them. Now wherein lies that boundary? You know like between a “small number of matches looking like a Russian Orthodox cross” and a whole heap of matches the individual orders of which are so disordered that a fair description would be “a heap of matches” and the mathematics changes.

    Where do you draw the line between the micro and the macro because the maths is very different?

    My rather tortured point is that the emergent is not the same as the start. Two H2O molecules interacting does not explain the Niagara Falls. Neither does biochemistry explain why I have a weakness for Raymond Chandler’s prose.

    How emergence works is unknown and that scares people. If we figured that we would become as God.

    Apologies for banging this out because it matters and I need to spend more time on it.

    *Don’t ask me – ask the CIA or the Russkies. They spent a bloody fortune on passwords that were secure because otherwise it would always be “swordfish” and used things like nuclear decay (which is truly random) to get their codes.

  6. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    I have to say JnC, this is an awesome post and one of the reasons I read ‘cats’

  7. Mr Ed says:

    In one way, I have often considered humans (and other sentient beings) as ‘doomed to seek utility’, in that any particular person will repeatedly seek to alleviate ‘unease’, whether by seeking material comfort, wealth, shelter or fulfilling other imperatives. A sentient being might seek its own destruction, e.g. a kamikaze pilot, but that is to alleviate ‘unease’ at pending invasion, save the family or national ‘honour’ etc., there is a motive, however horrible the circumstances giving rise to it. A parent may risk or choose death to save a child, preferring to die that the child might live. Or I might have a glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon on a chilly winter evening, to alleviate ‘unease’. Bearing in mind subjective valuations, time preferences and varying motivations. A self-flagellating Shi’ite or Catholic no doubt gains utility, perhaps from alleviating unease at the prospect of not being sufficiently devout.

    If one were to take a ‘contrary’ position towards utility, and seek ‘suffering’, that would only be to satisfy the ‘unease’ of relieving ‘unease’, a chain of reasoning which ends up chasing its tail.

    Now in alleviating unease, I still have free will, I can, within practical limits of what is achievable, chose whether or not to indulge myself, to suffer or not, to defer or not and so on. But can we ever release ourselves from a taxis towards seeking utility, if there is one?

  8. john malpas says:

    lots of words – lots and lots of words.
    So what’s on the teev?

  9. Julie near Chicago says:

    Acts, Thank you for the kind words. Much appreciated.

    Nick, “Neither does biochemistry explain why I have a weakness for Raymond Chandler’s prose.” My guess is that biochemistry can indeed “explain” it. As you read, neurons are electrochemically stimulated to fire, certain chemicals attach to or detach from certain receptors, and you experience the resulting biochemical state as one in the category labelled “pleasure.” (One of the hallmarks of such states is that we wish them to continue. Whether we act on the wish is another matter, of course; obviously we often don’t.)

    It seems to me that you are really getting at the issue of whether our experiencing of various bodily (biochemical) states MUST be taken as irreducible primaries–logical primitives–or whether we will eventually be able to understand, at least conceptually (I’m not saying “able to predict” because that involves further problems), the rules for mapping the physical state of the body into our emotional (or quasi-emotional or quasi-physical–we do have sensings that are somewhere between physical and emotional)* awareness of that state.

    My tendency is to say that “the map is not the territory” and the explanation is not the experience; in this way, the experiencing IS a primary. On the other hand, a lot of the physical pain that we feel we recognize as physical. Perhaps it’s just that we (or at least, many of us) haven’t learned to associate emotional and other sensitivity-states with our bodies.

    *Depression, for instance, can cause one to have “sensations” that are “nearly physical,” in that they feel rather like the earliest adumbrations of, for instance, a coming attack of nausea. I speak from direct experience.

    Anyhow, as is not surprising, your comment suggests plenty of material for discussion. If you do a posting based on it, I will be interested to read it.

    Mr. Ed, Agreed, up to your final question. But to the point of that question, Nature urges us toward wanting certain things, emotions, experiences, and we ARE bound by that. Still, isn’t the question circular? I mean, in the sense of the economists, “utility” just means gratification of some urge or satisfaction of some want or need. Or so I understand.

    PdeH, Perhaps we should get Mr. Adams to return from his current place of residence to explain to us here and on Samizdata the True, Intrinsic Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    Or, if not, I would happily settle for a copy of Prof. Walther von der Vogelweide’s lectures as delivered by the world’s all-time greatest lecturer, Mr. Severn Darden, on his magnificent LP The Sound of My Own Voice.

  10. NickM says:

    Thanks for your kind suggestion as to a posting and it is the sort of thing I think on but…

    For now…

    If you haven’t read Borges, then seriously consider him. He is ace. For me he is up there with JRRT in C20th lit. I dunno if you read Spanish but the best trans into Eng (in my opinion) is the earlier ones. They are not as “true” to the original but more “of the spirit” which is a rather Borgesian concept. But then perhaps Pierre Menard awaits!

    But this covers it for me…

    “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

    - Einstein.

    Or consider this…

    Lot’s of people try and explain sexual attraction in terms of bodily ratios or facial symmetry or pheromones or whatever but does that ever explain who one marries or shacks-up with or whatever.

    And how useful is that on the dance-floor at 1.59am?

    Or, and this might sound obscure but can you take it apart with itself?

    It’s apparently an in joke with the AI crowd.

    I hold that the human condition – to the extent it can be understood – is not a scientific question.

  11. Paul Marks says:

    The “lie we tell ourselves” (and so on – as if there would be anyone to lie to, or to tell the lie, if there were no agents-agency).

    I choose not to waste any more time with this discussion.

  12. RAB says:

    I don’t have Free Will I’m afraid. I have a wife you see. :-)

  13. Philip Scott Thomas says:


    Wow! This is a stonking post. Well done you. I love it when a topic moves onto my sort of area. As was said above, this is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to CCiZ.

    Unfortunately, there’s so much here to digest that a considered response is going to take a day or two. One thing, though, regarding your first prefatory note – There is no, NO, non-trivial and logically consistent system of thought that does not rest upon postulates: unproven presumptions about existents within the system and relationships between them.

    Well, yes. That is Kurt Goedel all over, isn’t it; he was the chap who caused Whitehead and Russel to abandon their seminal work. But ‘unproven’ isn’t the same as ‘plucking the premiss out of my arse.’ Sorry, my Aristotelian roots are showing, but the starting point of a system may also be a self-evident statement. A ‘self-evident statement’ is a statement the opposite of which it is impossible rationally to think.

    So for instance, we could start with the statement that all persons, regardless of race, sex, ability, age, sexuality and so on, are equally human. Why is this self-evident? It’s self-evident because thinking the opposite would mean believing that non-whites or women or the handicapped or gays are somehow less human than their otherwise-endowed counterparts.

    Starting with that as our foundational statement we can then build the rest of our postulates. For instance, we can say that since all persons are equally human, all persons share the same humanity. And because they all share the same humanity, they all share to the same degree the same human nature. And because they share the same human nature they also share the same rights inherent in that nature. And so we go on.

  14. Julie near Chicago says:


    You ask “And how useful is that on the dance-floor at 1.59 am?”

    I will explain.

    You put your left foot in,
    You put your left foot out;
    You do the Hokey-Pokey and you shake it all about.”

    See? Do that with the chick of your affections and you won’t need any more theory. :)

  15. Julie near Chicago says:

    PST, Cats is going to be very mad at you. You forced me to post a whole nother thing in response to your comment. ;)

    RAB, I’m glad to hear that there’s someone to ride herd on you when your attempts at self-autonomy would obviously cause great and irreversible catastrophe chez RAB&Ness Towers. ;) :)

  16. CountingCats says:

    Cats is going to be very mad at you.


    Since when do I get mad at anything?

    Sigh, other than at gratuitous abuse or obscenity that is, but I would rather not go there….

  17. CountingCats says:


    This raises the issue of a definition of humanity.

    You could argue that we are equal because we are all moral beings, able to understand and make moral decisions, but we then hit a problem with people of diminished capacity. Are they human?

    Although, that definition does allow for claims of equality by morally conscious non humans. After all, what would the legal status of of the first alien intelligences we meet?

  18. Julie near Chicago says:


    It dawns on me that I may have given altogether the wrong impression. I very much enjoyed your comment (and the kind words–thank you!), being of Aristotelian bent myself, and was thereby prompted to post a response that ended up fairly long. So I thank you also for pushing me into trying to write up my understanding of the issues you raised.


    The said “fairly long posting” might of course, depending on one’s assessment of it, be thought a massive waste of the Felines’ bandwidth. In that case, you must realize that I had no choice. So blame Philip (see above) and not me. ;)

  19. NickM says:

    But does “human” matter?

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