Do We Have Free Will?

ANIL MITRA © MARCH  2017—April 2017

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Do we have free will?

1.     What is free will?

2.     Is determinism compatible with free will?

3.     Is indeterminism sufficient for free will?

4.     What does science have to say about free will?

5.     Can we argue for or against determinism without appeal to physics?

6.     Objections to free will from neurological experiments

7.     What do evolution and adaptation suggest about relations between conscious and unconscious processing in relation to free will?

8.     An argument from pain and emotion

9.     But if science—physics and neuroscience—is not determining, then what is?

10.       Let’s begin by analogy with a famous argument of Descartes

11.       Can we import a similar argument to the issue of free will?

12.       How would we approach such an argument?

13.       We will therefore look at another problem of philosophy with the same kind of dilemma—the problem of philosophical solipsism

14.       A possible answer is that if two accounts cannot be distinguished then they are the same

15.       A further issue—the “free will theorem”

16.       As a side note consider the problem of simulation—are we real or are we a simulation?

Some problems

17.       Problem 1: to improve the arguments

18.       Problem 2: to develop a similar argument for free will (below)

19.       Problem 3: remain open to all approaches to the issue of free will

Some resolutions

20.      Note then that each of cognitive science and physical science each may inform the other

21.       What tentative conclusions may we draw from these consideration?

22.       Block universe—deterministic or indeterministic?


Do We Have Free Will?


This was written as part of a answer. The agreement with Quora is that they have non-exclusive rights to answers, therefore there is no infringement of rights.


For those who want a quick response to the question of whether we have free will, there is a conclusion at the end.

We do not have a modern consensus on the existence of free will or whether a proof of existence, positive or negative, is possible.

Therefore, I think that it is important to think about the problem and not just directly plunge into answering it (this is true of many conceptual issues and much problem solving).

Do we have free will?

Here are some issues to reflect on:

1.                  What is free will?

It is not just enough to define the concept but to consider examples to illustrate and refine the meaning. The usual conception is that “Free will is the ability to choose among different possible courses of action.” Important terms are ‘choice’, ‘different’, ‘possible’, and ‘course of action’. It seems to say that there are different possible courses of action—i.e. that the world is not deterministic. The word possible implies that not just any imagined choice can be executed but some can (I know that some people have interpreted free will to mean that we can choose to do anything). The word ‘choice’ suggests that we actually do choose and we usually think that we make a conscious choice (and it is not just the brain making a choice and consciousness registering this afterwards).

2.                 Is determinism compatible with free will?

It would not seem so but compatibilism is the name of a view that holds free will (and not just the illusion of free will) is possible under determinism. I have not reconciled even the conceptual possibility of that view. Incompatiblism is the very reasonable view that strict determinism and free will are not compatible—that indeterminism is necessary for free will. Below I will argue that even the illusion of free will should not occur under strict universal determinism.

3.                 Is indeterminism sufficient for free will?

But if free will requires indeterminism, a frequent objection is that under random processes and outcomes how can the individual be said to have made a choice? There is an answer to this, by the way: and it has to do with the idea that the world can be a mix of indeterminism and order and orderly process. Another way to put this is that indeterminism is very general and allows determinism under its scope—indeterminism is not mere randomness (also see the argument in item 5 can we argue for or against determinism…, below).

4.                 What does science have to say about free will?

Does quantum theory tell us that the world has indeterminism (as well as order)? The answer is not yet in: while the equations of quantum theory are deterministic there is the problem of interpretation of the wave function and of observation. In any case, there’s no guarantee that quantum theory—particles or fields—is the final theory. Science so far can at most suggest. The physicists that think they are the new priests are thinking prematurely. Conclusion: physics does not at present determine the issues of indeterminism or free will. Perhaps I should add that I really enjoy physics and have studied it extensively (e.g. most graduate level courses in physics)… and have also studied, read, and written on philosophy of physics and science.

5.                 Can we argue for or against determinism without appeal to physics?

We can. If there is true novelty over time, there must be indeterminism—for true novelty is not determined by what came before. Is there true novelty in the universe? Here are two arguments. An argument from biology is that the novelty from the standard variation and selection paradigm—due to Darwin and finely honed by a subsequent 150 years of biological thought—clearly produces novelty; and that in consideration of the nature complex organisms and minds, it is essential novelty. But perhaps it is already part of the underlying physics in some sense? Let us, then, argue as to novelty in physics. Is there an explanation of our cosmos and its laws? We don’t have a detailed one but could we outline how the explanation might go? It will not be the laws themselves because that is part of what we want to explain—the laws may be deep but not deep enough to self-explain. We want something deeper. What then? It would have to be either (a) the origins or (b) logical necessity—but there seems to be no logical necessity to cosmos or laws. What about origins? Perhaps the laws and the cosmos originated in a proto situation. But then we would need an explanation for that situation. But even if we don’t have that explanation, the origin from absence of our laws to our laws should be indeterministic. Let us forge ahead and think of a ‘proto cosmos’. To explain it we resort to a proto-proto and so on (“turtles all the way”). Here we have two alternatives (a) this goes on forever (no real explanation unless some how the sequence of explanations telescope into a single and necessary explanation) or (b) it terminates in something that requires no further explanation. Ultimate simplicity might be one requirement for such a terminus. The idea of the void—absolute absence: no space, time, matter, spirit, laws, or even quantum vacuum and so on—is in some sense ultimately simple. Consider now the following line of argument: if the universe is in a void state it has no laws; so every logically possible state would have to emerge from it because otherwise there would be a law that that state does not occur; the ‘emergent’ states include our cosmos but also every other possible cosmos; and more: imagine transient worlds emanating from the void, imagine anything as long as it is logically possible. But the void already exists alongside every particle of being; therefore every possible state has existence; and the universe is the greatest possible in this sense. But the emergence of the manifest from the void is not only necessary on this account it must also be indeterministic on any account. That is, on this argument, the universe is indeterministic. It is absolutely indeterministic in that given a state, no state necessarily follows ‘next’, but it is also absolutely deterministic in that every state will follow at some point. The universe is indeterministic as well as deterministic-in-a-carefully-defined-sense. Now problems with this line of explanation are (a) that it seems—bizarrely—counter to experience and (b) there is a plethora of cosmoses and more and yet here we are solidly in this cosmos. Well, it is not counter to experience because our experience is limited to our cosmos; in fact it is consistent with and even requires our cosmos (because of “all logical possibilities”). The plethora then, though true, is irrelevant in some sense. But we might like to know whether our more or less stable cosmos is somehow different from the also allowed improbable, transient, and perhaps even absurd logical possibilities. Analogy with the process of biological evolution suggests an answer to this concern. It is the stable and so adapted systems that dominate the universe because population should be an increasing function of the multiplicative product of (a) efficiency of mechanisms of origin and (b) longevity (the latter follows from stable adaptation). The phantasmic truth is too fleeting to be “material”. We see here two new paradigms of explanation (a) the variation - adaptation or indeterministic - deterministic paradigm that is analogous to biological evolution and has been recognized recently in cosmology and systems theory and (b) a metaphysical paradigm based on considerations of the void and necessity which, though elements of it have occurred earlier in the history of thought, appears, in its bringing together of various elements of being and explanation, to be entirely new (it sounds like but is different from the modal realism of David Lewis).

6.                  Objections to free will from neurological experiments

What about neurological experiments  that purport to show that really an unconscious ‘decision’ is made and consciousness catches up in such a way that it does not affect the outcome? These experiments (the Libet Experiments) were widely adopted by determinists as showing free will does not exist. However, as Libet argued, that is a possible but not necessary interpretation: there is time in which consciousness may have entered into the decision making. Additionally, these experiments involve trivial decision making, and do not account for the individual to attempt something a number of times, to train their consciousness in the intervening times to (also) affect action on subsequent occasions. That is, important cases of free will (if they exist) would include action over long periods of time—and as we all know (I think) that is how life choices evolve… a little choosing (I think), a little learning from trials, a little tinkering….

7.                 What do evolution and adaptation suggest about relations between conscious and unconscious processing in relation to free will?

In a situation that required rapid and standard response, it would be adaptive to have that response close to direct stimulus to response without intermediate conscious deliberation. However, a situation that is non standard or the improvement of a standard response would be adaptively served by a feedback between unconscious and conscious response. In general creative endeavors would be served by conscious and deliberate reflection in interaction with intuition that is distributed somewhere over a conscious-unconscious spectrum.

8.                 An argument from pain and emotion

We have been thinking in terms of adaptation. It is at least difficult to see how pain would arise as an adaptation if it did not influence behavior away from a harmful-painful outcome vs. a non-harmful-non-painful outcome.

9.                 But if science—physics and neuroscience—is not determining, then what is?

Why not study mind directly? Perhaps should the study of mind should be mind itself? But the objection is: how do we know that self observation is correct? How do we overcome illusion?

10.             Let’s begin by analogy with a famous argument of Descartes

The situation regarding illusion is reminiscent of Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum argument: I think therefore I am as proof that something exists (because he exists). The argument has been refined: the experience of thoughts shows only that there are thoughts (but not an “I” which however may be a subsequent demonstration). Another objection: the experience of thinking may be an illusion. However, an illusion is experience: whether the experience is real or illusory, there is experience. Now there needs to be another observation or improvement on the formulation of “I think therefore I am”. The word “therefore” suggests premise to conclusion. But what is really happening is that the essential content of Descartes’ argument is to point to something so fundamental as to be given (even illusion is experience) and then simply to say it is given (and to name it “experience”). Part of the point of Descartes’ argument is to show that there is an absolute given; that not every argument chain must begin with an unfounded premise (which we are sometimes led to believe by the rise of the axiomatic method and what is sometimes called a relative philosophy).

11.              Can we import a similar argument to the issue of free will?

A common reply to the issue of free will is “illusion or not we all act as though we have free will and our legal and moral institutions have basis in it” so it does not matter whether there is free will. Pragmatically, that is good enough but not entirely satisfying. We would like to come up with a principled demonstration of the reality of free will. Can we come up with such an argument?

12.             How would we approach such an argument?

At root the problem of free will, from the point of view of the direct study of mind, is that we cannot distinguish between two interpretations: free will as real vs. free will as illusion. To tackle that problem let’s consider another problem where we are faced with apparently undecidable alternatives.

13.             We will therefore look at another problem of philosophy with the same kind of dilemma—the problem of philosophical solipsism

It is a skeptical problem: when you consider your experience you have the following experiences—the world; me; my experience; others; others seeming to have experience; and so on. But it could all be just a universe of experience without an experiencer or experienced (you’ve probably heard of the brain-in-a-vat and other versions of this problem). How do you counter that? It’s not terribly interesting, one might say, but the point is that looking at the problem clarifies our understanding and consequently we can do powerful things with the same understanding. First off, its not mere experience: there is experience of experience and so at least the field of experience is divided into regions. Pushing this forward, experience is divided into all the conventional regions that we call the world. The problem now is how do we distinguish between the two accounts of reality?

14.             A possible answer is that if two accounts cannot be distinguished then they are the same

If this is true, it would be an important principle of reason or argument in philosophy—and its uses. But how would that work? It would work by seeing that the accounts are not mere accounts but also interpretations. In “the world is a field of experience” the experiencer is not the individual of the conventional interpretation: “they” cannot be but they have to be far greater because of their far greater information capacity (it would seem). That is, different points in the “one experience” interpretation are different individuals in the conventional interpretation. Which, after all, says that the two interpretations are the same.

15.             A further issue—the “free will theorem”

An issue that has not been considered above—what are the implications of the Free will theorem - Wikipedia “of John H. Conway and Simon B. Kochen states that, if we have a free will in the sense that our choices are not a function of the past, then, subject to certain assumptions, so must some elementary particles. Conway and Kochen's paper was published in Foundations of Physics in 2006”? Given the incompleteness of the two sciences (matter-energy and cognition) its status cannot yet be too much more than “very interesting”.

16.             As a side note consider the problem of simulation—are we real or are we a simulation?

First off being a simulation does not mean that we are not real. So the problem is—are we a zeroeth order simulation (not a simulation) or a higher order one? I believe the above principle of metaphysical indistinguishability would be a useful and powerful approach to answering this question. Just as a side thought—I know that ‘simulation’ refers today to computer and software simulation—but are we not via adaption a high order simulation and simulator of low order physical reality? That is, are not our biologies and minds simulators because they are simulations?

Some problems

17.             Problem 1: to improve the arguments

Improve the argument in items 10 let’s begin by analogy… through 14 a possible answer is…

18.             Problem 2: to develop a similar argument for free will (below)

Come up with a similar argument for free will—see item 21, What tentative conclusions… below.

19.             Problem 3: remain open to all approaches to the issue of free will

Keep on developing physics and neuroscience but let us not make premature conclusions from an incomplete physics, incomplete empirical cosmos, and incomplete neuroscience.

Some resolutions

20.            Note then that each of cognitive science and physical science each may inform the other

This is rather contra to a common presumption that physics is the science that informs all other science (and philosophy). This presumption is not valid because we do not know that physics is anywhere near complete and even where we have good theories we are not certain as to there implications. We conclude a certain ‘democracy’ that the scientific disciplines and philosophy may influence considerations of necessity and possibility in each other. But may one determine considerations in another? If physics were definitely complete and deterministic that would rule out free will (unless one accepts the improbable case of compatibilism). But in review of the arguments above and below in item 21, we have strong arguments from philosophy and direct study of mind, that there is free will. This strongly suggests (1) that any final and complete physics will be indeterministic (but item 5 suggests that there may not be a final complete physics or alternatively that any final ‘physics’ will be significantly and paradigmatically different than modern physics and further reflection on item 5 will show that this difference is likely to obtain with regard to the two modern fundamental aspects of the quantum and the space-time-matter) and that consequently any complete and deterministic physics cannot be final (2) and so, our modern physics, cannot be both complete and deterministic.

21.             What tentative conclusions may we draw from these consideration?

Let us collect some conclusions: physics so far does not determine whether the universe is deterministic or not; an argument from philosophical cosmology shows that the universe is indeterministic but this allows and necessitates order; the direct study of mind reveals the impression that we have freedom of will; but this may be illusory; but we cannot apparently distinguish the case of truth vs. illusion of the impression; therefore it is strongly indicated that both interpretations are valid in some way; from previous arguments true freedom of will would obtain in a temporal setting—and this is the setting in which we as limited creatures live; but the freedom would perhaps illusory from a ‘block universe’ perspective in which every ‘thing’ is already laid out—but we do not yet live in this setting and will do so only if somehow our limited consciousness were to merge with omniscience (if such should obtain). There is of course tentativeness to these conclusions.

22.             Block universe—deterministic or indeterministic?

I discuss the idea of the block universe—a static object of N + 1 dimensions, i.e. the number of space dimensions plus 1 dimension for time—because some people argue that because it is a deterministic picture it shows we have no free will.

If we view world lines of particles as never intersecting, the block universe would temporally be deterministic.

On the other hand world lines could intersect or bifurcate. With appropriate interpretation, it would be it would be temporally indeterministic yet block-wise deterministic.

With infinitely (or very very) many world lines, it would be too complex to know.

There would be freedom of will—i.e., freedom of will is consistent with the block universe view.