Does the concept of free will have any meaning?

Discussions of ‘free will’ lead to arguments because free will means two unrelated things.

by T.J. Nelson


A lbert Einstein once said he didn't believe in free will. What did he mean? Did he mean his destiny was predetermined by motions of atoms in his body, and he had no choice but to create the theory of relativity? Or was he just being modest, saying that anyone with his particular brain, upbringing, and life history would have done the same as he did?

Do we have free will? Millions of words have been poured onto this question over the past two millennia. Can anything new really be said about it? In this article I will argue that free will means two unrelated things. One is a near-tautology and the other is a linguistic construction—an expression we use, like swear words, solely to motivate other people. Considering how much has been written about this topic, this is almost certainly not an original interpretation, but it seems to have been forgotten in the recent debates between science and religion.

Deterministic free will

A common idea is that determinism negates free will. According to this idea, the motions of every atom and molecule in your brain can be predicted from their past behavior. Obviously, higher order phenomena, like cell metabolism, would have to be taken into account, either implicitly or explicitly. But something is either caused or uncaused, and if our minds are caused then everything we say and do is predetermined, and our belief that we have free will is only an illusion. This is the view expressed in Sam Harris's book (reviewed and critiqued by Paul Pardi here.) Daniel Dennett disagrees (PDF).

In the past hundred years, science has discovered that, at least at the quantum level, the universe may not be strictly deterministic. Some physicists suggested that this quantum indeterminacy could restore the concept of free will. But it was soon realized that indeterminacy would not solve the problem; uncausedness deprives us of free will even more effectively than determinacy (see my article here for a summary).

Non-quantum phenomena destroy determinacy in practice. The mathematician Émile Borel once calculated that moving a mass of a few grams on Sirius by a few centimeters would create enough gravitational disturbance on Earth to completely change the state of a collection of gas molecules on Earth. But in principle, even this could be calculated.

Paper crane contemplating
Paper crane contemplating free will

But all is not lost. Here are some thoughts as to how we might proceed:

1. We don't understand what consciousness is. Perhaps the brain is actually a clever device that somehow, by some unknown means, manufactures free will. From this one might argue that a dog or cat would have less free will, an ant would have almost none, and a rock would have none at all. Thus, free will would be proportional to our ability to ‘will.’

Clearly, even if a rock were conscious, it cannot act, and therefore cannot have any free will. Thus we would have to say that free will also requires the ability to act.

2. Often, however, we do not know what our will is. Psychologists tell us that our conscious mind continuously manufactures a narrative that provides a plausible, and often incorrect, explanation of why we do what we do, and the self is merely a theoretical construct. Our choices are based in large part on conditioned responses learned throughout life, which are mostly unconscious and inaccessible to us. Of course, we can change them by learning new conditioned responses. But it is clear that we have only partial control of our will (or motivations, as psychologists would call it).

For example, it is thought that humans may be genetically programmed to be afraid of snakes. Whether and how we choose to react to that programming depends on a number of complicated calculations that we make. But these too are determined by our physiology, our training, and our past experience.

3. One might admit that we don't know how we make decisions, but maintain that we don't need to know; we only need to know whether we are free to make them. But the decision-making process involves adding and subtracting motivations that we are not fully cognizant of, and thus it goes to the very heart of the question: do we decide ‘freely,’ whatever that means, or on the basis of unconscious motivations and drives? On the basis of the foregoing, it seems inescapable that it makes no sense to claim that we decide freely. When we decide, for example, whether to eat vanilla or strawberry ice cream, it is meaningless to say we decide freely, without any reason. We either have reasons—we evaluate the costs and benefits—for each decision, or we are irrational, in which case we have no will at all, free or otherwise, and are merely acting randomly.

This is what is usually meant when philosophers say there is no free will. It is close to being a tautology. But they also talk about free will in the moral sense.

Moral free will

Suppose the decision has serious moral consequences. Suppose I really like strawberry, but I know that if I choose strawberry, someone will die. (Maybe, for instance, it gives me seriously bad breath.) In that case, moral considerations, as well as costs and benefits, enter into the decision process. We voluntarily refer to our abstract philosophical, religious, and traditional beliefs about good and evil. So it is clear that in this sense free will is a meaningful concept, but only in a social context; that is, only if you or someone else will blame you for something over which you have nominal voluntary control. If it is not under voluntary control, they say you don't have free will. Thus, free will means two different things:

  1. Caused vs. uncaused / deterministic vs. nondeterministic / rational vs. irrational
  2. Voluntary vs. involuntary

There are two quite different things, both of which happen to be called free will. By (1), there is never free will; by (2), there can be. The critical point is that (2) is independent of (1). Actions can still be ‘voluntary’ even if they are predetermined, because in principle, if your beliefs were different, or if you had thought more about the consequences, you would have decided otherwise and picked vanilla like any normal person. Mentioning this point motivates others to think about the moral and legal consequences of their actions, thereby changing their behavior. Free will in this sense not just a convenient fiction. It means something else entirely: you are free in the same sense that you are free in society, even though you may be a wage slave, the candidates you vote for, the ideas you argue about, and the range of acceptable opinions have all been pre-selected for you, and you have little real freedom.

Centuries ago, people argued vigorously about what life is. Nowadays when someone asks, we just give them a pile of biology books: books on biochemistry, virology, genetics, neuropathology, and so forth. That shuts them up pretty fast. The answer turned out to be so complex as to make the question nearly meaningless: we also say a car ‘died’ and talk about computer programs as if they were alive. Someday, when we understand how the brain makes decisions, we may likewise discover that the answer is so complex it renders the question of free will almost meaningless.

See also:

Indeter­minacy in Science
Is the universe really indeter­minate at the smallest level?

Scientific materialism and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness
Some scientists assert that subjective phenomena cannot be studied scientifically. But subjec­tivity is an irrefutable fact of nature. Under­standing it will be essential to under­standing the mind.

Is the universe mathemat­ical?
We use mathematics to deconstruct the universe. Could it also build one?

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
mar 05, 2015; updated mar 06, 2015


to top