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New Skeptical Inquirer column by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York.

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(Note: The following is a quick and dirty polishing of an outdated post that I wrote years ago.)

What free will isn’t

A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

Free will does not and cannot be defined as the ability to make decisions without cause, random or unpredictable decisions. All those qualities, although partly present in complex systems, would contradict the notion of willful intent. What we want, and therefore do, must be based on reasonable ground. Random convulsions do not satisfy our notion of volition. It is defined as purposive striving and thus has to have a reason, it has to be a result of causal relationships.

What really matters to you is not that nobody is able to predict what you are going to do, but that you are capable to do so. What matters is that nothing prevents the realization of your goals. What matters is that you are free to do what you want.

What you want to do in the first place is not a matter of choice. You don’t even care about that. You solely care about being able to satisfy your needs and preferences. And I think that is the only reasonable, necessary and desired definition of free will that exists. To be free to realize what you want.

And that is also where predictability becomes an important aspect. If you are able to predict that you are unable to realize a certain goal, then you feel constrained. But most of the time we do not know if we will be able to realize our goals. We are unable to predict our success. That’s why we have to try. Uncertainty allows us to feel capable and therefore free.

Ask yourself, what is it that you want to be “free from”? You just want to be “free to”. To be free to do what you want. You do not want to be free from the constraints of mathematics, physics and rationality. You want to be constrained by reason, sanity and rules. You don’t want to be free in any sense that contradicts determinism. What you want is possibility, potentiality, enough room, enough resources to possibly realize your goals.

A futile definition

There’s no scientific reason to believe that we have free will. There’s no buffer zone that we’ve found in any of the physical laws of how the universe works to make room for free will. There’s non-determinism; but there’s not choice. Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.

Mark Chu-Carroll

Looking for free will as seen from a strong philosophical viewpoint is a futile effort. It’s asking for rainbows end. Reality, reason and logic forbid the notion of libertarian free will. Because libertarianism implies freedom of choice, which in turn implies absolute control, which is impossible.

Here is the problem. Internal causes are ultimately indistinguishable from causal relationships between a defined agent and the environment it resides in. But sufficient control over internal causes is prohibited.

To have a choice, an agent would have to understand its own workings and motives completely. Yet no system can understand itself for that the very understanding would evade itself forever, like a bin trying to contain itself.

A redefinition

Determinism is true but thermostats can still control the temperature. And nobody denies that thermostats control the temperature.

— Steven Landsburg paraphrasing Robert Nozick in The Big Questions

I would like to define the concept of free will as an agent’s ability to transform the world. Free will is the influence an agent does exert on the world versus the influence that the world has on the agent. More precisely, an agent can make free decisions if its internal stability can withstand external influences to a greater extent than the external influences can withstand its influence.

The degree to which an agent qualifies as free is dependent on the extent to which it satisfies the following criteria:

  • Its goals and internal decision procedures are stable under environmental influences.
  • It does exert goal-oriented, specific and orderly influence on the environment.
  • The complexity of transformation by which it shapes the outside environment (in which it is embedded), does outplay the environmental influence on itself.

Free will is a middleman.
Consciousness between cause and effect.
The intelligent refinement of causation into an effective agent.
The sun at your back – your shadow in front.
You are the shadow player.
Nevertheless, to claim sovereignty is trying to get ahead of your own shadow.
You imprint reality with a pattern of volition. But not without its implicit consent.

Is it real?

How does all this relate to our actual experience of free will and our use of the concept?

You have free will if you experience, or possess, a greater extent of freedom proportional to the amount of influence and effectiveness of control you exert over the environment versus the environment over you.

Here is an example. Children and some mentally handicapped people are not responsible in the same way that healthy adults are responsible for their actions. They cannot give consent or enter into legally binding contracts. One of the reasons for this is that they lack control, are easily influenced by others. Healthy humans exert a higher control than children and handicapped people.

Is it useful?

How much sense does all this make? I don’t know. I do not have the expertise to base my ideas on firm ground or even judge the credibility of my thoughts. Nonetheless, so far the above is as close as I can get towards a satisfying framework for the notion of free will.

I must also admit that my definition of free will does only work once you arbitrarily define a system to be an entity within an environment, contrary to being the environment.

The universe really just exists. And it appears to us that it is unfolding because we are part of it. We appear to each other to be free and intelligent because we believe that we are not part of it.

Nevertheless, I think it might after all be a useful definition when it comes to science, psychology and law. It might also very well address our understanding of being free agents.

Don’t get me wrong though, I believe that, from a purely practical point of view, we can do without the notion of free will just fine. People still have to go to jail in order to protect society from them, to educate them and because a general policy of deterrence is useful. Responsibility is not necessary.


Morality is an objective property of a system that consists of a person that utters moral statements and the specific entity in, or feature of, the world that the statement identifies or denotes. Yet Morality can be explained in terms of lower level interactions. This does not contradict, systems can have properties that their parts alone do not.

Ethical statements

Let’s take a look at two ethical statements:

  1. It is morally wrong for Alice to lie to Bob.
  2. It is morally wrong for Bob to strangle Alice.

What do people really mean when they utter those statements? Let’s try to pin down the underlying reasons and motivations of the first statement by paraphrasing it:

1: Due to my genetically hard-coded intuitions about appropriate behavior within groups of primates, my upbringing, cultural influences, rational knowledge about the virtues of truth-telling and preferences involving the well-being of other people, I feel obliged to influence the intercourse between Alice and Bob in a way that persuades Alice to do what I want, without feeling inappropriately influenced by me, by signaling my objection to certain behaviors as an appeal to the order of higher authority.

But what is meant by an appeal to the order of “higher authority”? To make this more clear, let’s now take a look at a chat between hypothetical Bob and myself:

Alexander: I don’t want you to strangle Alice.

Bob: I don’t care what you want!

Alexander: Strangling Alice might have detrimental effects on your other preferences.

Bob: So? I don’t care, I assign infinite utility to world-states where Alice is dead!

Alexander:  But it is morally wrong to strangle Alice.

Bob: Hmm…I think you are right, I don’t want to be immoral!

What happened here? I have been trying to convince Bob not to kill Alice. In other words, I tried to get Bob to do what I want. I used three different methods:

  1. Accounting for third-party preferences.
  2. Weighing one preference against all other preferences.
  3. Evoking guilt.

Explanatory remarks to methods 1-3:

1: Primates don’t like to be readily controlled by other primates. To get them to do what you want you have to make them believe that they actually want to do it themselves.

2: Humans who are in a temporary rage often discount all long-term consequences of their decisions. To be persuasive it might take some subtle, non-obvious incentive.

3: Using moral language is really a form of coercive persuasion. Since when I say, “It is morally wrong to strangle Alice.”, I actually signal, “If you strangle Alice you will feel guilty.” It is a manipulative method that subtly influences Bob to say, “You are right, I don’t want to be immoral!”, when what he actually means is, “I don’t want to feel guilty!”

Method #3 works by making use of various cultural and otherwise present connotations carried by the label “morally wrong”, primarily by evoking negative emotions and the prospect of a loss of social reputation. The difference to methods #1,2 is that #3 does derive its authority from a complex (obscure) interrelationship of evolutionary, emotional, environmental and cultural factors. While method #1 asks Bob to be altruistic and #2 selfish, method #3 does posit a fuzzy imperative.

Further reading

‘Moral Ontology’ by Richard Carrier

Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

Trivers on Self-Deception

Ego syntonic thoughts and values

The limits of introspection

Homo Hypocritus Signals

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