Who has free will?

I’ve been gone most of the day, and am only now beginning to catch up with the many good comments about free will.  I knew that I wouldn’t get broad agreement (or even much agreement) on my contracausal notion of free will, but I do think that the advances of science have forced people to rethink and redefine “free will.”  I’ll be back in action tomorrow, but for the nonce I’d like to pose this question:

To those who think that “free will” resides entirely in the making of choices, even if in some sense those choices are determined, please respond to this:

How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds?  Mice? 

Animals, after all, appear to make decisions the same way we do.  Anybody who has cats knows this: at naptime they appear to consider their options for a sleeping spot, and when faced with a human about to open a door, they seem to ponder whether to come in or not.  When a female sage grouse approaches a lek of males, frantically displaying to get her attention, she appears to choose which male to mate with.  How neurologically simple must a species be before we stop saying that it makes choices?

Ergo, I’d like to know peoples’ own concept of “free will” (if, indeed, they think it’s a coherent concept), and then, according to that notion, a judgment about whether the facility is limited to humans (Dan Dennett, as I recall, thinks it is).

And I promise not to post on the topic again for at least a month.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I do not believe anyone has free will. Too many things are controlled by hormones or other proteins and decisions are biased by past actions/memories and influenced by culture and other people’s actions and words. There is nothing left free, other than which flavor to pick currently ( which is also influenced by the above).

    • Dominic
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      I think I agree. Either we all (living things) have it or none of us do.

      • GaryU
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        How do plants exhibit free will? Or bacteria?

        • Dominic
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          By ‘choosing’ which way to direct a root or a shoot, or by ‘choosing’ which direction to flow in. If it existed which it does not. It is all mechanical, we are machines with understanding, get over it! 🙂
          I will now flow to bed.

    • NMcC
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      At first, I was going to agree, then I changed my mind.

    • ryansaville
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I tend to agree. Yet I think you have not taken it far enough. The physical DNA we receive is not dissimilar to the social environment we inherit. We are not ‘free’ to choose what we will, we are limited. For example; I cannot fly like a bird, nor can a heroin addict stop all addictive behavior, or should we expect the same academic success from ‘the poor’ as from ‘the affluent’? Our freedom is limited. As a Christian I might add this explains the problem of evil. We simply are not ‘free’ but that’s exactly what we long for.

      • Miles
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Ok, I’ll bite. How does limited freedom explain bone cancer in children?

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to set notify – I was distracted by grandchildren, daughter and wife.

  3. Posted July 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    They say chimps and apes can recognize words and write using a vocabulary ranging from hundreds to thousands, though their grammar isn’t as good as ours. I imagine consciousness, self awareness, theory of other minds, abstract thinking, and higher order logic are much the same way: present in some non-human animals to a much more limited extent.

    For me, will* is more about conscious choice than choice alone – after all computers can be said to make choices. So the question becomes: do they have a sense of self? Do they just think “Will this be good?” or do they think “Will this be good for me?” Do cats even have consciousness? Are they even thinking at all or is the pause just gears whirring like a computer crunching a difficult Java application?

    My pet (snort) distinction between large brained organisms and single-celled organisms / computers is that the latter runs on an if-then framework, while the former runs on an association framework: X-is-associated-with-Y-and-Y-with-Z-and-Z-is-good-or-bad. Like door associated with outside associated with running and chasing and hunting associated with happy fun time vs. not door associated with inside associated with kitchen associated with food associated with yummy fun time; which is better? Calculating… Choice! If so, is an association framework all that’s necessary for consciousness, and if so do tiny brained creatures have consciousness?

    *Enough talk about free will. We have a will, does it matter whether it’s free or not?

  4. Miles
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I meant to put Miles as my name >.<

  5. Jeremy
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    The idea of free will that I care most about is the notion that well-formulated reasons can guide our actions, at least some of the time. (That’s consistent with our actions also being determined by physics, IMO.)

    A simple test for free will: If you come to one conclusion, then can change your mind and take a different path on the basis of reasoned argument, you have free will. I think that’s limited to humans.

    • Tyro
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Cats change their minds all the time based on any number of factors. How can you say this is limited to humans?

      It also sounds like you’re making speech a necessary precondition for free will. That seems like a big problem.

      • Jeremy
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Changing one’s mind isn’t the crucial thing per se; it’s being open to argument and reason as an avenue for changing your mind and making a new choice. As much as I’d like to say my cat is open to reason, she just isn’t.

        You raise an interesting point about speech. I’d say some linguistic capacity probably goes hand in hand with the capacity for reasoned choice.

        • Tyro
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          As much as I’d like to say my cat is open to reason, she just isn’t.

          That sounds very definitive. And very unsupported.

          How do you know that animals like cats do not reason? There was an interesting experiment on Nova ScienceNow with a dog that could make some complex-seeming inferences and guess at intent. The dog had memorized names for 300 individual toys and could retrieve them on demand. When the host asked him to fetch “Darwin” (a toy the dog hadn’t seen, and a name he hadn’t heard), the dog figured it out and fetched it anyway.

          I would say this requires several steps of reasoning.

          Because cats are different, they reason differently but they too do make observations and react in complex ways which require reasoning.

          If you want to defend your blanket assertion, I would like to hear how you can do so.

          You raise an interesting point about speech. I’d say some linguistic capacity probably goes hand in hand with the capacity for reasoned choice.

          I thought so. It sounds like you aren’t talking about free will but some sort of verbal persuasion. Your definition sounds far removed from how others use it, and it looks like an all-too convenient way to dismiss other positions without any reflection.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:41 am | Permalink

      If “you change your mind” it’s not a case of going back and doing something differently though. It’s a new set of variables calculated in a new position in space-time, thus an entirely new and separate “choice”.

      • Jeremy
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        It’s not entirely new and separate, because the question you’re addressing remains the same. I don’t want to make too big a deal out of changing one’s mind. It’s just a useful test for how a different perspective can lead to a different (and I think freely chosen) outcome.

        BTW, if free choice doesn’t exist, then we can never hold anyone accountable for their views or actions. You can never call a creationist an asshole. I’d find that difficult to accept.

        • Tyro
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

          BTW, if free choice doesn’t exist, then we can never hold anyone accountable for their views or actions. You can never call a creationist an asshole. I’d find that difficult to accept

          I often call creationists assholes. In fact, I think your argument is so off the wall, I’m thinking of colourful words right now.

          I don’t think free choice exists so where is the conflict?

          You’re making a lot of bold claims yet I don’t see any supporting argument.

          • spikethatstory
            Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            “I often call creationists assholes. In fact, I think your argument is so off the wall, I’m thinking of colourful words right now.”

            Pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

            Please, no name-calling here, even implicitly.


  6. Hempenstein
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Well, again, I don’t think it’s worth trying to define if it’s a matter of countering religious claims, because whatever the scientifically literate might settle on won’t satisfy the religulous. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s not what they meant in the [X]th century*. The whole thing IMHO is a [whatever the adjectival form of theodicy is] excuse to get off the hook for why people do bad things to each other, and should simply be dismissed on those grounds.

    *On the other hand, most of the same people will adamantly reject the notion that the right to bear arms should apply only to late- 18th-century arms.

  7. Aaron Baker
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I largely agree with you. Compatibilists redefine terms like “free will” and “freedom” in ways that simply don’t match what most people understand by these words. You can make any two propositions “compatible” with this definitional sleight-of-hand.

    Since I want my freedom full-bloodedly contracausal or not at all, I’ve regretfully had to stick freedom in the “probably a consoling delusion” column, along with God & immortality.

  8. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    No, I don’t think there’s a meaningful notion of free will, nor do I think it is necessary for a moral or legal system.

    However, if there would be such a thing as free will, and it would have something to do with the ability of making choices, and consideration of the consequences of our actions, it seems highly implausible that humans would be the only species to have it.

    • Marella
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      Which leads to the conclusion that none of us have it. A tiny amoeba using it’s flagellum to navigate away from a stimulus doesn’t have free will, it cannot decide to ‘damn the salt’ and swim towards it rather than away from it. Our complexity makes our behaviours more complex, but it doesn’t give us free will, only the illusion of it.

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink

        Well, I’m not sure that follows, because I don’t think you could say that amoeba’s even have the appearance of free will, while for instance mammals and birds do. But it’s not likely that there is a hard threshold in complexity, where we can say an organism does or doesn’t have the appearance of free will. And it’s even less likely that only humans are above it.

      • SAWells
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

        What exactly did you want your complexity to give you? Clearly, whatever your beliefs about free will, you think you’re capable of reaching decisions and of apprehending truth. What else are you asking for? A “get out of the laws of nature free” card?

  9. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I would agree with Dennett on this one, that there’s no threshold that separates those beings with real honest-to-goodness free will from those that are mere automatons. Free will exists in all sorts of grades. We all have had experiences where our will is thwarted, or where our agency increases (e.g. when you learn a new skill). But I do think humans at their best have much more of it than any other animal.

    • Marella
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      I have loved listening to every word Dennett has ever said, except the stuff about free will, it made no sense at all. Maybe that’s just my lack of intellect but I simply couldn’t follow it.

  10. Josh
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Like Stephen Hawking, I’m pretty confident that the brain is just a complicated meat machine, just a collection of particles (or manifestations of quantum fields, if you prefer) following the laws of physics. It’s gonna do what it’s gonna do, and any correct notion of free will better comport with that fact, although I’m not sure if any such notion is needed or useful.

    The more interesting question is the so-called “measurement problem” of quantum mechanics. In particular, if quantum evolution is deterministic (and I think most physicists think it is) why do “I” seem to be aware of only one “branch of the wavefunction”? Are there other “me”s that are aware of other branches and does it make sense to ask why “I” am not one of them? (note: decoherence doesn’t resolve this)

    Also, I’m fine if you break your one month moratorium on this topic, Prof. Coyne.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      The more interesting question is the so-called “measurement problem” of quantum mechanics.

      Quantum mechanics, which provides genuine uncertainty at observation, may be interesting for the philosophical idea of “free will”. (But hardly for the folk psychology “free will” I use.)

      However, the measurement problem isn’t part of that. Today it seems fairly reasonable to assume decoherence happens during observation, though a sufficiently good test doesn’t exist yet.

      if quantum evolution is deterministic (and I think most physicists think it is) why do “I” seem to be aware of only one “branch of the wavefunction”?

      That is yet another problem. Quantum states evolve deterministically while observation gives stochastic results. That is not something physicists think, it is what quantum mechanics says.

      The stochastic outcome is easy to understand as a consequence of the wavefunction, though it takes too much space to go through this here.

      If you discuss “branches of the wavefunction” you are discussing specific quantum theories. (Different theories exist, say because they incorporate decoherence or not, see above.)

      Are there other “me”s that are aware of other branches and does it make sense to ask why “I” am not one of them?

      This rather sounds like you are entertaining many worlds theory among the different theories still valid. This is a popular theory among theoretical physicists. It incorporates decoherence and realism, so that decohered states exist independently.

      Branches are only correlated during the decoherence process, so in that aspect we are “aware” of their existence. Interestingly experiments on decoherence shows that the process is continuous and reversible.

      Why they are individual branches is of course because they are … individual. To ask why one was taken is to ask what effectively looks like genuine stochasticity to be deterministic. It doesn’t work that way, so why would anyone think the question makes sense?

  11. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    “Free will” is an incoherent phrase; again, events are deterministic, random, or probabilistic — including those caused by dualistic ghosts in machines. In none of those three options is there wiggle room for the kind of independence is commonly (and fuzzily) referred to by the term.

    That writ, whatever it is that you think humans have that fits your definition of “free will,” I can most definitely assure you that cats possess at least as much of it.



  12. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I am a hard determinist for myriad reasons, simplistically, there is no place to draw a line for when determinism stops and free will begins.

    The argument that free will is ‘determined’ by the apparent randomness in quantum mechanics is, in my opinion, untenable. First of all, most physicists don’t believe that anything is truly ‘random’ but that there are many ‘hidden variables’ which give the appearance of randomness (and what an awful word random is, itself…) true randomness would be utter chaos. Even if there were some undetermined action at the deepest quantum level, it would still be constrained by its environment. Further, any apparent randomness is quickly eliminated and goes to determinism while still at the atomic level.

    Then there’s the predetermined versus determined bit – predetermined implies a static state but we all know existence is anything but static. Determinism is an ongoing, complex beyond comprehension, series of events which follows a forward progression in time.

    Determinism does not remove individuality, to the contrary, it makes every being impossibly unique. Every thing each person does is a result of the genetics and physical state of his/er body as well as every external event leading up to the moment at hand. There is no place, as I mentioned above, for one to red-light the course of events in order to permit free will.

    Finally, determinism changes nothing in our experience – we are evolved to act as if we have free will. Knowing that the actual decisions we make are a result of everything that has gone before us is no cause for despair, as some claim. Rather it should make us a bit more understanding of others as well as ourselves.

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      First of all, most physicists don’t believe that anything is truly ‘random’ but that there are many ‘hidden variables’ which give the appearance of randomness…

      This is a tangent, but: that’s exactly what I’ve not heard any physicists say about quantum indeterminacy. I’m not expert, but I’ve done some reading in order to try and understand how scientists can say that something is truly random – as in, caused by nothing. I still don’t get it entirely, but they do indeed claim that there is true randomness on the quantum level.

      • Tim
        Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re absolutely right. As far as I understand, there is no evidence for hidden variables, nothwithstanding Einstein’s objections.

        • Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

          There you have it – two out of two Tims agree.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

            How about three out of three Ts?

        • SAWells
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

          Not just no evidence for hidden variables; the Bell inequalities show that no description of quantum theory can be both local and causal, so local hidden variables are actually ruled out.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      The argument that free will is ‘determined’ by the apparent randomness in quantum mechanics is, in my opinion, untenable. First of all, most physicists don’t believe that anything is truly ‘random’ but that there are many ‘hidden variables’ which give the appearance of randomness (and what an awful word random is, itself…) true randomness would be utter chaos.

      Eh, what? This is exactly the reverse of what quantum mechanics says and Bell test experiments test! There are no hidden variables in QM.

      This fact has been known for decades, you may remember that Einstein was opposed to this at the beginning of it all. In fact these experiments are nowadays the best test in all of physics, one of them say no hidden variables to more than 30 sigma (!), see the link.

      You can prevaricate on “local” variables and waffle on “reality” (i.e. imply quantum weirdness instead*), but relativity makes this exceedingly difficult. When you stretch such physics it collapses the light cone and other nasty stuff.

      In fact, QM all by itself seems to say “no gods aka hidden variables”. Which is a fact you don’t hear the religious muse over often.

      * Zeilinger mentioned in that link loves to push non-realism aka quantum weirdness. He is also openly religious. It may be an entangled state…

  13. RFW
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    My cut on free will:

    The operation of the brain is, like the weather or the orbits of the planets, deterministic but unpredictable. [This may amount to calling it “chaotic” in the formal, mathematical sense, but a chaoticist will have to tell us if this is the case.]

    The net result is that overall such phenomena look random and arbitrary – pretty much a description of free will.

    Further: free will implies the existence of an “I” separate from the function of the rest of an organism, an “I” that sits and decides “what to do next?” This contradicts the fact that the body and mind function as an integrated, inseparable whole. Example: when we are sick and running a fever, we don’t think straight. Anyone who does brain work and has gone to work sick will remember the number of mistakes they made when ill.

    Footnote re orbits of planets being unpredictable: astronomers doing numerical simulations of the orbit of Pluto found that some millions (billions?) of years out, it was chaotic and hence unpredictable. If Pluto’s orbit is unpredictable, so are the orbits of the other bodies in the Solar System. To me, this implies that the general three-body problem is insoluble because it is chaotic.

  14. Kolmogorov
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The concept of choice is clearly a useful shorthand for talking about complicated systems whose mechanisms can’t be succinctly summarized. The Jeopardy playing computer Watson can reasonably be said to have “chosen” an answer, in the sense that many answers were considered and narrowed down to one. Was that choice “free”? What do we mean by free? If free means merely “not fully determined in advance”, then it’s choices may well be free if, for example, part of it’s algorithm had some randomized component (e.g. the machine learning technique called “random forests”). There is a random element to many algorithms that makes their output not fully deterministic. Of course, we have to ask what is random, then. In practice a pseudo-random number generator is typically used, and that is actually deterministic. So this leads us into an even bigger question of the nature of randomness. Are there actually random sources of bits that could have been used (cosmic ray noise? thermal fluctuations?), or are those merely poorly documented deterministic events?

    I think as a practical matter, our notion of “free choice” captures *something* meaningful, and people are justified in objecting to jettisoning it completely, just as the idea of “consciousness” captures something meaningful, though it is a bit tricky to say exactly what. In the case of free choice, I think it partially just means that our choices are inscrutable, that there are no -simple- summary descriptions for all the choices we make.

    • AT
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      i would insist on having _explicit_ and _unambiguous_ definitions

      if we cannot do it among so many “smart” people then maybe the concept is the waste of time and should be abandoned

      we all “plugged” into the same physical reality

      at the same time our personal-perception-physical reality is unique for every one of us

      in view of this uniqueness it is of utmost importance for us to come up with definitions that we _all_ agree as _useful_ for us as _organism-whole_

      this is how physical property of “deliberative capability” and its manifestation SCIENCE is useful for us as a species

      we are CONGRREGATIONAL and COMMUNAL species

      we will all be better off if we communicate effectively without ambiguity

      in fact that is the outcome towards which the system is evolving (think from multiple gods to ONE PHENOMENOLOGICAL SCIENCE with STANDARD definitions shared by ALL people of the planet)

      matter – > life -> homo species -> science as the shepherd of human condition

  15. Capercaillie
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t there a central flaw in free will in the CAUSALITY aspect of it? I mean; where is the decision originating and what is driving it? If not from within the observable scientific world (ie purely mechanical, natural cuases), then where? Is it “god” pulling the strings..? Is energy and whatever appearing out of nowhere? How does that fare against the various laws of thermodynamics? And how does “free will” advocates combine this idea with e.g. the Kalam cosmological argument, which is entirely causality driven?

  16. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?

    What makes that an awkward question, is that many people would require an ability to express a choice in natural language as prerequisite to considering that to be a choice involving free will.

    The cat, the mouse, and perhaps all biological organisms, exhibit apparently purposeful behavior. Mechanical systems, such as the components of the gear box in my car, have no ability to exhibit any sort of behavior other than direct causal reaction to the forces that affect them.

    That distinction, between strictly mechanistic behavior and apparently purposeful behavior, is what I take to be the important one. Some of the arguments against free will seem to be arguing that there is only rigidly deterministic behavior, and that does not seem to fit the world of biological organisms.

    There’s a series of posts on purpose (or apparently purposeful behavior) at my blog. Check the “intentionality” category.

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      But the only reason our behavior is apparently purposeful is that 1) we’re designed to see certain objects as agents, and 2) the chain between input and output is so complex. With greater understanding of the brain, even a human would begin to look like a transmission.

      • Chris Granger
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:53 am | Permalink

        Agreed. Orders of magnitude more complexity doesn’t change the fact that everything that happens within the brain (and environmentally outside of it) is confined to strict physical laws, just like the car transmission’s movements are.

      • SAWells
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        And with greater understanding of matter, a wave would start to look like a whole bunch of molecules- but that already happened, and it doesn’t stop anybody surfing. Sure, with enough understanding you could trace all your brain’s physical activity. So what?

  17. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    As I’ve said on WEIT several times, I don’t see any way that we can make decisions except through our neurobiology, which is entirely subject to physical laws. There is no “free will” in the usual sense of the word.

    The issue keeps coming up because most people still cling to dualism in some form.

    We indeed make choices by processing inputs with our complex brains. But at root, it’s all chemistry and not magic mind pixies doing the choosing.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but I think that’s a very simplistic view of how our decision-making faculties arose from our evolutionary history and how we use them to freely choose between a variety of options.

      Yes, it’s chemistry…but chemistry isn’t the man behind the curtain or the unseen puppet master. You do have volitional will. You can get up from that chair this instant, should you choose to do so or if the house suddenly were to burst into flame.

      I’m afraid the argument that “it’s all just chemistry” does not lead to the conclusion “therefore, nothing we do is truly our own choice.”

      And no, I don’t believe in dualism. It’s dead as a doornail.

      • Tyro
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        Running away from flame sounds just like the behaviour we’d see in an ant or spider which some people deride as “deterministic”. If that’s your example of free will, I think that puts you far to the fringe.

        As for deciding to get up for other reasons, I also fail to see how this shows free will. My cat lies down and then sometimes decides to get up – does she have free will?

        If we looked closer at the process which triggered our decision to rise, what would we find? Without resorting to some magical dualism, we would trace the decision back through some chemical and physical chain. The decision to rise isn’t some free-floating notion, it was itself caused. As someone quoted so well above, “A man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.”

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

        It’s “simple” because it’s a short blog reply. Brain functions are of course enormously complex and at present are only partly understood, but at their base they are just chemistry, which does not have “free will”, whatever that might be.

        As brains increase in complexity, at which point does this “free will” stuff come in?

        And yes, I do have volition to respond to stimuli. That’s not “free will” as it is generally asserted to exist.

  18. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    The attribute called “free will” is logically incoherent – it’s an illusion
    *We* are only a complex naturalistic process
    If complex super-naturalistic processes exist… that still does not open the door to free will
    Complex naturalistic processes are (probably) unpredictable even if the universe is found to be deterministic

  19. Badger3k
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you – while we appear to have free will, our choices are made within our brains (probably before we “make” our conscious decisions) from the choices available, our genetic predispositions, all our experiences, other environmental factors, and who knows what-all else. I wonder if we need a new term to describe this – while “determined” works well, I think it carries too much baggage in people’s minds (of course, I think we need to be proud of atheist to try and change what people think, so maybe we can also change what people think when we say “determined”).

    • Badger3k
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Further thinking about it, I’d say that animals have as much free will as us, they just (I believe) can’t consciously rationalize it like we can. Their choices may be determined from a smaller pool than ours, but the system is the same for them as us.

      • AT
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink


        we can observe the animal consciousness because we have the concept of consciousness

        animals operate in much the same fashion only to much limited degree

        it is entirely possible if for whatever reason all humans suddenly disappeared of the face of the planet chimps would have evolved (there is enough of deep time for it) into another homo species – exactly like our ancestors did

  20. Kolmogorov
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think the question that people really care about isn’t whether or not we have this abstraction, “free will”. What people care about is in what practical sense does it matter if we have “free will” or not?

    Suppose you learn definitively that you do have the quality “free will”, would anything be different for you? Would you think or behave or feel different? How so? How exactly are you, and the world, different with this quality?

    Conversely, suppose you learn definitively that you do not have the quality “free will”, what will be different for you? Would you empty the prisons on the premise that determinism implies no responsibility? Would you look at Creationists differently since they had no free will in their position? Will you stop wasting your time mulling what ice cream to eat, since it’s pre-determined?

    Sure, we shouldn’t shy away from the facts about our nature because we don’t like the conclusion or because we think the knowledge will have negative effects. However, what we mean by “free will” is a bit obscure, so it may be more fruitful to contemplating it’s meaning in terms of how it’s presence or absence would affect anything as a practical matter than to try to pin it down neurologically.

    • AT
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      “free will” only exist as a “concept”

      it is for us to decide if the concept and meaning attached to it is “useful”

      each of us individually cannot have much impact on “human condition” but collectively all our thoughts and utterances and discourse are summed up into “human condition”

      this is why discussions here, in this space, do have, albeit infinitesamally small, effect on all other people on the planet

      each humn on earth is connected to all others by virtue of sharing the same planetary system and by contributing its individual viability into viability of the species

      under classical evolutionarry process the population of humans is not constrained by anything because we have our deliberative capability that allows us to “expand” our environment

      we have already achieved the level of genetic manipulation – and we will not stop – science cannot be stopped

      but we are yet to properly apply the science to “human condition” and see that our “multiplication” comes _at the expense_ of our environment

      we ar _actively_ diminish informational content of our environment before we get to learn it – the situation that is yet to be fully understood and appreciated by us as species

      the system will stabilize at some point – that is for sure

      but since each of us cannot possible comprehend or wait for the system to stabilize we are compelled to _further the science_ without understanding _why_ and _what_ makes us do it


  21. Peg
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you completely regarding your take on free will in your most recent and earlier posts, although I don’t know that it is necessarily depressing (it does kind of relieve some of the pressure of being human). I wanted to share a passage that I like from David Eagleman’s book Incognito:
    “The first thing we learn from studying our own circuitry is a simple lesson: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you–the ‘I’ that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning–is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The ‘I’ simply has no right of entry. Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.”

    • Marella
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Yes that’s a fascinating book.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

        consciousness has nothing to do with free will

        They are independent (unless you can show otherwise)

  22. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m really curious about this ongoing “free will” discussion but I don’t know much about it because I haven’t read any of the essays here or on Sam Harris’ site. I wonder if I’ll change my mind eventually and start reading about it. I sure hope so.

  23. Aaron Novick
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I’d say any conscious animals that are capable of deliberation and considering various options before acting have “free will,” not in the sense that they possess some metaphysical faculty that no one can explain (which is absurd to posit for humans as well, of course), but simply in the sense that they deliberate about choices and consider options.

    I’ll leave it up to psychologists and neuroscientists to determine which non-human animals fall under this category.

    Since I think the concept of free will only has any useful application in application of moral notions of responsibility, and should be seen as contrasting with coercion (by other people, by brain tumors, etc.) rather than with determinism (since ideally we will eventually have an account of just how conscious deliberation at the psychological level is caused by the interaction of cells/molecules/atoms/electrons/etc. at the neurobiological level), I don’t really think the distinction matters much at all when it comes to non-human animals. We hardly ever need to decide when an animal was coerced and when it acted freely, so why draw the distinction. The only interesting question is what psychological processes go on for them, and, again, that’s a question for psychologists and neuroscientists to answer, not me.

    Note that, as I have said in previous posts, I am perfectly happy to get rid of the concept of free will altogether, since it comes with all sorts of baggage thanks to its history (and present) of being treated as a metaphysical faculty. So long as we can draw the morally relevant distinctions between actions that are coerced and actions that are not, I don’t care what we call the latter.

    As one final note, let me add that there is no contradiction in supposing that physical determinism is true (to some extent, and where it isn’t true, all you have is randomness, which is no comfort) and supposing that we make choices. The only way there is conflict is if you define “choice” relative to the metaphysical notion of free will, and then argue that there is no choice because there is no free will. But this would be as silly as saying there are no stars because they aren’t what Ptolemy thought they were. There are stars, we see them in the sky, and, thanks to the effort of lots of incredibly smart and dedicated people, we know a lot more about them than Ptolemy did. Likewise, we experience the psychological process of deliberating and making choices every day. We know that it isn’t because of some silly metaphysical faculty that somehow supersedes the laws of physics. The appropriate response isn’t to deny the phenomenon of choice as incompatible with what we now know, it’s to come to understand it better. This starts by divesting it of its metaphysical baggage. Likely, this understanding will be largely determinist (with perhaps some randomness), because that concordant with our understanding of the rest of the universe. This understanding may also change our moral outlook on choice (it already has). But it doesn’t require that we divest morality of the difference between free and coerced choices just because they’re both determined at the level of cells, atoms, and molecules.

    As usual, I don’t feel I’ve expressed what I wanted to say quite as well as I’d hoped, and I’ll be happy to clarify anything that I expressed poorly here.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      No worries — what you wrote seems fairly clear, for the most part, and mirrors a lot of what I was thinking. Thanks!

  24. Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I wrote about this a while back, to the effect that I thought we’d been trapped into accepting the original concept, which stuck around long after its source had been discredited and dismissed.

    When you first posted about this, I was away, and in catching up the thread itself was quite thrashed, so I never bothered then. The hazards of popular ablogs… 😉

  25. GotTheBlues
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    We’re made of atoms. It seems to me that free will would require, at some level between atoms and organism, that atoms exert will onto other atoms. What would be the physical mechanism for that?

    • Marella
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      So atoms have free will?

      • Chris Granger
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink

        I think GotTheBlues is saying exactly the opposite: that there’s no room for free will in the “space” between atoms and organisms…

  26. Marella
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree that free will is a dualist notion which is no longer valuable once you realise that the mind and body are not separate entities. I was watching an old ep of ‘Stargate Universe’ last night (there was nothing on) and they were using the stones to transport their consciousness back to Earth to another person’s body. Of course this idea is based on mind/body duality and is nonsense. A mind is not an independent entity which can be relocated with the right technology once you have accepted the implications of that free will dies a natural death. Even contrasting it with coercion doesn’t really help, is the need to pay the rent or get chucked out on the street coercive? Sounds like coercion to me. “Pay the rent or else!”

    • Aaron Novick
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Assuming this was directed at me, do you think there should be no legal difference between the treatment between the criminally insane and criminals who are perfectly sane? Between the person who steals food from a grocery store because he’s starving and the person who steals to buy a nicer TV?

      If you do, then the distinction between coerced (broadly defined) actions and (________) actions is essential. As I said, I don’t care how you fill in the blank, and if you want to avoid the term ‘free’ because of the baggage, by all means go ahead.

      If you don’t, why not? Should we look only at the crime and not at the reasons it was committed?

      All I am arguing for is that (a) the particular ways that our brain and body cells interact give rise to psychological phenomena of various sorts, one of which is deliberating about what actions to take, (b) that some deliberations differ from others in morally relevant ways, (c) that (a) and (b) are enough to give us everything worthwhile that the metaphysical notion of free will is supposed to give us, without the metaphysical baggage of that concept. I’m not sure why either (a) or (b) would be controversial, and nothing you’ve said touches on (c).

      Even if I grant that paying rent is coerced, all your rent example shows is that the morally relevant differences between the choices we make (choice, remember, having nothing whatsoever to do with contracausality, but only the psychological phenomenon, however we come to understand it) are more complex than I made them out, and can’t be divided along a single axis (coerced vs. not coerced). Even if I don’t grant that paying rent is coerced, I’m perfectly happy to concede that coercion isn’t the be-all and end-all of moral distinctions between actions. That concession has no bearing on the larger point I made, so I see no need to expend the mental effort needed to construct a solid argument for whether rent is coerced or not, though my gut instinct says no.

  27. Posted July 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy rarely seems to solve anything. Free will versus determinism is an ancient debate. Neuroscience is a fledgling specialty recently kick-started by imaging technologies. Whether you address the question of free will with philosophy, neuroscience or both, you have to acknowledge that free will REQUIRES that a creature be both self-aware AND future-aware . . . and they, in turn, require that the brain have mental feedback. I try to explain this in my blog post at http://www.atheistexile.com/2011/04/17/expressions-of-causality/.

    Anyway, we don’t need to know what happens in the computing cloud between a user and a distant server to know that there are purposeful transactions occurring. In the same way, we don’t need to know what happens in the brain to know that purposeful transactions are occurring. In the case of humans, we KNOW that we routinely make plans and execute them with (hopefully) a high level of success that can’t be explained by mere chance. In other words, the “purposeful transactions” of humans is our ability to hack our own paths into the future. Once again, please see the blog post referenced above for more details.

    So if an animal is to have free will, I believe it must have mental feedback AND sufficient intelligence to be both self-aware and future-aware. The ability to anticipate the future is essential because it represents the ability to understand and predict causality. “Future-awareness” (prescience with sufficient intelligence) is necessary for self-determination (my replacement word for free will) and is, essentially, a temporal advantage over causality.

    If any animal has free will, it’s nowhere near as flexible as human free will. We practically live in the future. Whether it be a half second from now or a half century from now, we easily anticipate the future and adapt our plans as necessary. Tomorrow’s shopping list for dinner or the purchase of our own burial plot — we know what’s up and how current trends might play out and plan accordingly. No other animal has ever demonstrated anything near the human capacity for complex purpose.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Really? Chimps organize raiding parties against neighboring tribes. Lion prides organize hunts.

      If that isn’t “future awareness”, I don’t know what is.

      • Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        You appear to be assuming that I think animals can’t have any form of free will. If you’ll reexamine my words, I only stated that they would need to be self and future aware in order to have free will. But saying such awareness is required for free will is not the same as saying such awareness ensure free will.

        Purpose, it seems to me, is part and parcel of free will. How can you have free will or purpose without being both self and future aware?

  28. Tyro
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    We may be free to choose between alternatives, but are we free think something other than what we think? I change my mind because a thought goes across my mind “oops, try something else” but what causes that thought? Not a conscious choice, that’s for sure. Thoughts are things that describe me or happen to me, they aren’t things which I can chose. In the end, I’m a prisoner to my thoughts and mind.

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      “A man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” ~Arthur Schopenhauer

      • SAWells
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

        “Our will does not always want what we wish it would want” – Montaigne.

  29. grasshopper
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I choose not to have my next thought.

  30. grasshopper
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Well, that didn’t work.

  31. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve outlined my position several times in these threads, but I’ll try to summarize briefly.

    If you insist that the “free” in “free will” must be synonymous with “magic” or “uncaused”, then obviously we don’t have it and there’s nothing to talk about. So the fact that we’re still talking about it must mean that it’s not that simple.

    Nor would uncaused free will be something desirable or useful to have. It would make our choices indistinguishable from random, and would provide no lever by which bad behavior could be corrected. If you want justice and accountability, you must accept a causal basis for behavior.

    I take “free” in the same sense that physicists use to describe the degrees of freedom of a particle. It does not mean that the particle’s behavior is whimsical or indeterminate, but merely that it’s unconstrained in certain dimensions. A particle’s trajectory may be fully determined by the forces acting on it, but it’s impossible in principle to have perfect knowledge of those forces, so we settle for “degrees of freedom” as a description of the space in which the actual trajectory (whatever it turns out to be) is embedded.

    In the same way, we are free to choose from some space of available behaviors. Which behavior actually gets chosen in any given instance is the outcome of some fully deterministic and astronomically complex physical process to which we give the name “free will”, and the biological systems that implement that process are what we call “us”. We choose, whether consciously or not.

    This sort of free will is not a binary thing that you either have or don’t have. It’s a matter of degree, with more freedom of choice accruing to those creatures with better mental faculties for weighing possibilities and modeling future outcomes. Imagination is a key part of it. So it seems likely that other apes share it to some degree. Cats to a lesser degree. Ants and spiders? Not so much.

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      @Gregory Kusnick,

      Imagination is a MAJOR part of it. Imagination, memory, analysis: these are all manifestations of mental feedback. It takes mental feedback to reflect on the contents of our own brains. Otherwise, we could not have awareness — everything would pass right by (through?) us. We are both self-aware and future-aware. So much so that we’re inured to it, taking it for granted.

      It takes imagination to make plans: to anticipate. We take our understanding of causality and anticipate what we need to do to prepare for consequences ON OUR OWN TERMS. We are all products of causality: heredity and experience and biology. Causality doesn’t stop at the skull. It’s responsible for the electro-chemical processes within the brain. We don’t have free will in a libertarian sense. Our free will is limited to what causality has equipped us for. I believe it’s impossible to act beyond or ourside our heredity/experience/biology. Even reflex and instinct stem from causality. Hell, even inspiration stems from causality.

      I still think of the universe as a clockwork system; inexorably playing out cause and effect. Modern science(quantum theory) seems to call predeterminism into question but I don’t think that really relates to free will. To me, it’s a paradox that we have independent agency in a clockwork universe and that our self-determinism is PRODUCED by causality encountering human intelligence (which is itself a product of causality). It’s causality all the way through.

      We’re very expert at anticipating and preparing for causality. Whether it be catching a ball suddenly flung at you or plotting the trajectory of an extra-solar spacecraft. We might be good at it but we’re still slaves to causality. We operate within a scope limited by causality. We are, in the final analysis, an expression of causality that took billions of years to come to fruition. The universe, it seems, was destined to admire itself.

  32. Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I just wish my student loans were subject to contracausal dematerialization principles.

  33. Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I dunno about you, but my computer chose to open this web page!

    It took input it was getting from its environment, processed it according to its programming, and produced the output it was determined to produce.

    Of course, its environment was me, so as a silly human I tend to think that I was the one making decisions and not it. But why should that matter?

    A lot of people here touch on the idea of humans being able to reflect on their choices, consider alternatives, imagine future outcomes, change their minds, etc – as I was able to when I clicked this link.

    But what does this really mean? It means my program takes a while to determine its outputs. It means that when provided with an input to act on, my program first provides a tentative output, but continues to modify that output based on further processing – thus “I” may start to do something and then change my mind. It’s recursive, if you think about it – my program has goals for its goals.

    People seem to think this is noteworthy. But my “ability” to change my mind is a feature that I cannot turn off. Until I physically perform an action, there is always the possibility that a thought will arise in my head that causes me to reconsider my decision. It’s physically impossible for a human to make a decision that will not be open to later revision. That too would be an “ability,” and it is reserved only for those animals with simpler programs, animals that have goals, but do not have goals about goals. What makes a program that “goes meta” better or more noteworthy than one that doesn’t? What makes this program deserve the title of having free will, when having “goals about goals” is not a feature, it’s a compulsion.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      A program that “goes meta” or has “goals about goals” has access to a broader behavioral repertoire than one that doesn’t. The ability to form and carry out complex long-term plans makes such a program objectively freer (in the sense of having more choices), and that’s why it merits the term “free will”.

  34. Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I think free will is the ability to act rationally. To quote Daniel Dennett, this is “free will worth having.”

    What many people mean by free will, before they think about it, is action guided by some aspect of our mind that is free from the laws of cause and effect. If there is such an aspect, then it must act irrationally, inasmuch as acts without cause. This is *not* free will worth having.

    The sort of free will we do have, although bound by the laws of physics at a molecular level, has been honed by evolution to be pretty darn good at making rational choices.

    One might say that to the extent our will is *determined* by physics, it is *free* from stupidity.

  35. Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    There’s the question of what sorts of cognitive, behavior-controlling capacities humans, other animals, and artificial systems have, and then the question of what to call the deployment of those capacities. Obviously there’s a spectrum of complexity, and we ordinarily call the activation of human-level behavior control in certain situations “choosing” or “making choices” or “deciding” or “deliberating.” Whether or not to call other systems’ analogous actions (at various levels of complexity and flexibility) choosing, etc. is a matter of stipulation, not a matter of fact. If you think deterministic systems, however complex, can’t fairly be described as making choices, then you have to find another word for what they do in arbitrating between alternatives.

    Same goes for “free will”: there are 1) the facts about human agency and 2) what to call them. Science and logic strongly suggest that the contra-causal behavior control capacities that many folks (and a few philosophers) believe they have don’t exist. There’s a long history of calling the exercise of these (fictional) capacities “free will.” So contra-causal free will doesn’t exist. But there’s also the long-standing philosophical compatibilist tradition of calling the exercise of certain *fully caused* behavior control capacities “free will.” So compatibilist free will exists.

    What’s important to realize is that beliefs, attitudes, interpersonal behavior, and social policies premised on contra-causal free will are not necessarily supported by compatibilist free will. The best policy, imo, is to drop talk of free will altogether, and simply focus on what conditions agents (human and otherwise) must meet to be held responsible, and on how we should hold them responsible, staying consistent with humanitarian principles of minimizing suffering and protecting human rights. If you talk about free will (instead of, for instance, freedom or free action) it’s important to specify which kind you’re referring to.


  36. Scott de B.
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    My definition is this:

    Free will is a process that arises out of consciousness, that is, the existence of a “part” of the human brain that is in some sense self-aware. A conscious being is aware of what it does on a meta level, and is able to use that awareness to affect its own behavior in a recursive process.

    To wit: a cat, who eats too much, and is growing fat, will never choose to eat less because it is unaware of its pattern of behavior. A human, however, can become aware of its activities and modify them accordingly. That is free will.

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      Then just say that our programs use recursivity. The term free will is loaded with baggage, and most people who don’t understand your meaning will assume it means theirs.

      • Darth Dog
        Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Actually, It’s that they’re self referencing, as per Douglas Hofstadter.

  37. Neil
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    “And I promise not to post on the topic again for at least a month.”

    What is that promise worth from someone who lacks free will?

    • Chris Granger
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink

      Further, we readers who may “want” (I’m not sure what that means in the context of determinism) Jerry to post again, and say so, are part of the environment that acts upon Jerry’s reasoning.

  38. Kevin
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    As with all things in nature, there’s a continuum. I think simple creatures respond only to stimuli and so do not make choices. Although you can teach C. elegans, so even there you see the beginnings of a rudimentary choice system.

    Bees, ants, termites, etc. do not seem to have much of a choice system. Their behavior appears to be almost entirely deterministic.

    But larger animals with bigger brains? Absolutely.

    Another reason why I think Dennett is wrong in this instance.

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:12 am | Permalink

      You said that bugs’ behavior appears to be deterministic, but larger animals’ behavior does not. Could it be that the larger animals’ behavior is deterministic, but in a much more complicated way? How would you distinguish between complex determinism and non-determinism? As Arthur C. Clarke said in another context, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

  39. Craig
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Humans also have a massively greater capacity for self reflection. Our ability to think about the choices we make gives us the freedom to make different ones. No other animal can decide how much salt to add to their dinner.

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    To those who think that “free will” resides entirely in the making of choices, even if in some sense those choices are determined, please respond to this:

    How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?

    While I’m not saying that “free will” resides in (the making of) choices, I’m saying that it is a fully functional effective theory on a sufficiently complex substrate that is mappable on system displaying taking alternative pathways.

    Any time you can’t predict individual behavior because the system response is sufficiently complex that it can’t be captured in stochastic distributions you may, if you will, attribute free will to such behavior.

    I would think that such complex behavior starts with prokaryotes, so it is a property of all life.

    It is also a property sufficiently complex machinery, cities et cetera, which display similar behavior. Whether you would want to attribute free will to that, I don’t know. What would be the purpose, if it is mostly used for modeling of own behavior?

    And I promise not to post on the topic again for at least a month.

    If you will.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      I just read the accompanying piece on Horgan and Dennett. It seems to me the main difference between me and Dennett is that he couples “free will” to humans ability to self-reflect. While I say that the ability to reflect isn’t important for the model but the reason for it (obviously).

      Dennett’s variant is anthropocentric, and I don’t like to entertain such ideas.

  41. Posted July 7, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the one aspect overlooked in this lengthy discussion is that much like the concept of god the concept of free will is entirely man-made as a byproduct of our self-consciousness. Additionally, it may be argued that the entire framework of causality and thus determinism is man-made as well.

    Studies in social psychology, however, indicate that a belief in free will for most people may be necessary in order for them to hold themselves and others morally responsible for any actions.

    It is this fundamental functional reality that makes a compatibilist belief in free will a near necessity at this time regardless of its proof or factual existence.

    In other words, if someone needs god or free will for them to behave well toward others, so be it, let there be a god and let there be free will. (Keep it quiet that an omniscient god makes the idea of free will difficult.)

  42. MadScientist
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    “… please respond to this”

    I wouldn’t respond other than to say the “this” is nothing but a distraction. It is absolutely irrelevant whether any other species has ‘free will’. The question of “what level of brain complexity gives us free will” is just like the “no transitional forms” argument – even if we were to assume the existence of free will, why should we unnecessarily complicate the case by assuming there will be some clear delineation between the haves and have-nots?

    The assertion that absolutely all behavior must come down to historical selection is something which remains to be demonstrated; it is disingenious at best to say that there can be no free will because everything is somehow predetermined. I will have a provisional acceptance of the “no free will” argument if we have an identical twin study in which decisions on non-trivial matters can be predicted >97% of the time, and there are no cases of twins living in the same conditions making significantly different decisions. In the case of identical twins living in different conditions we can expect the “it’s got to do with nurture” argument and there is the added task of demonstrating how the “nurture” part is in harmony with how behavior comes down to evolution. I will not accept a “it’s too complicated” excuse because that is not science.

    I will agree that there seems to be no coherent notion of “free will” (which makes it somewhat silly to argue against it). Perhaps we should search for a good description and then refine it before we continue to argue about its existence or non-existence. The concept as it exists today may simply be too vague to lend itself to scientific scrutiny. For me, ‘free will’ has only been a concept to vaguely describe the fact that people can weigh evidence and make choices, sometimes even deliberately making a decision which is not in the individual’s best interest. I see no reason to claim that this must be a uniquely human capability – after all, I know nothing at all about the function of other animals’ brains other than corresponding sections of the brain are involved in some particular tasks just as they are in humans. Keep in mind that simply because something may be an evolved capability does not mean that it must be predetermined (non-free) – for example, reasoning is obviously an evolved capability but the invention of aircraft is not obviously predetermined by nature.

  43. bad Jim
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    I’m uncomfortable with any top-down armchair argument about how things work. Is there an experiment we could use to settle this question?

    Sure, when our brains are imaged there’s evidence that our choices are made before we’re aware of them, but our consciousness is not the same as our experience. If it’s just our immediate recording of events, definitely handy in speaking complicated sentences, it’s not surprising that occasionally one freaks “Oh my God! A dinosaur!” when out of the corner of your eye you see a tortoise walking into the house.

    My consciousness is not just the mind movie I’m watching, it’s everything that gets me off the ground and keeps me from banging off the walls when I walk around. As an English speaker I can rattle off compund sentences with little thought, whereas a German has to stack his verbs.

    Moths and butterflies are conscious creatures. Whether they’re willful is a question I’d prefer to defer.

    • bad Jim
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      At least the occasional dog is as capable of free will as we are, I’d guess, if unpredictable silliness is any guide. Corvids seem to be convinced of their own agency as well, with good reason.

      If we humans were more predictable social sciences would be more respectable. It’s a weak argument, but in this case perhaps sufficient.

  44. Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    If you want to answer the question, you have to define “free will” at the very least in such a way that I could know introspectively that I had it. Even better would be to define “free will” in such a way that I could infer its existence in another being by observation.

  45. Ludo
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    “How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?”
    This question makes only sense if one supposes an evolutionary continuity between these animals and humans regarding the property “free will”. In other words, if ones supposes that “free will” is a biological trait. I do not think that is the case: the concept “free will” is, I think, purely a cultural concept, and has no biological “reality”.

  46. Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    Everything! Even plants and bacteria. Ever seen a vine of ivy climbing up the side of a building? It appears to ponder and consider its path — just way more slowly than cats and humans.

    Now the question is whether viruses have free will…

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      Only organisms that have been ensouled have free will, and God has seen fit to ensoul only two species: H. sapiens and F. catus.

  47. Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    Free will is conditional.

    In a room with either my wife or my cat I have no free will.

  48. SAWells
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Our choice-making has to do with foresight; we have the capacity to run little imaginative models of the world as it might be, and make choices based on those. A cockroach doesn’t seem to have that capacity; a chimp seems to have it.

    If the point of the exercise was to make “free will” something unique to humans, that was misguided from the beginning.

    And I still don’t get why, outside theology, this whole “free will” thing is obsessing Jerry so much.

  49. freedtochoose
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Whether we have free will depends on how we define (characterize) it. If it is a question of whether we can override the results of biological processes, I agree it does not exist, to the extent we understand those processes.

    For example, in the sixties, y early work in the computer field involved programming and running an analog computer. Each pass began with an “initial condition” with the resulting resulting computation recorded for analysis. Since the computing elements were accurate to only 0.01%, the accumulated error for the ‘solution’ could be as much as 1%. Each succeeding ‘solution’ from the same ‘initial conditions’ varied a bit. The final solution used was the result of analyzing multiple passes.

    With this in mind I think of the mighty neuron with its dendrites and synapses all connected to others. We can observe that incoming signals can cause a neuron to ‘fire’ sending many up to hundreds of signals to its downstream connections… What a wonder to consider.

    My wonderment is whether the neuron is an analog or digital device. Is their reaction to stimulus predictable or uncertain. We live in a digital world, but that may be an accommodation to reduce the uncertainty of an analog reality.

    My view is that I have free will in that I am free to choose within limits, three: nature (DNA), nurture (society,language, education…) and comprehension (knowing and non-knowing), but that’s just me. Whatever you think is fine, too.

  50. Scott
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    As others have said, the answer to the question of free will depends on many things, including the definitions of consciousness and “the self”. I believe that we have some level of free will. It may not be entirely “free” (ie, it is influenced by genes and external stimuli), but I don’t think it’s entirely externally determined either. I also don’t think we understand consciousness enough to properly describe how that will is exercised.

    But to get to Jerry’s question, I think that any organism with a neuron or neuron-like cells has some level of free will.

  51. Kevin Meredith
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    For purposes of discussion, here’s my attempt at two alternative definitions of free will:

    Free Will Definition 1: The sensation of choice an entity feels as it obeys inviolable behavioral laws

    Free Will Definition 2: The capacity of an entity to select from several behavioral options following conscious deliberation

    If you accept Def. 1, there is no free will. If you accept Def. 2, free will does exist.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      I disagree – if definition #1 is accepted then Free Will surely exists, but the phrase is merely a description of a subjective phenomenon in much the same way as we might say there is a “beautiful blue”.

  52. Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Hello Dr. Coyne,

    I’m a member of SSA-Whitewater and I came to atheism in large part because I couldn’t reconcile an omniscient being with free will. Ironically the more I think about it the less I believe in free will at all. To my understanding free will is the illusion of choice. There are many choices we could make but we can only make one choice at a time. Each choice will be the result of our preferences which were shaped long before the current choice is presented to us.

    What I don’t like about this is I can see how people can look at this and say “aha there is no free will so I’m not responsible for my actions.” Since we cannot calculate every variable to determine every choice a person will make, we should in practice operate as though people do have free will for society to function. Determinism may be the correct underlying principle, but free will is practical for everyday use.


  53. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    It’s a difficult empirical question being studied right now by people who study animal cognition. I would imagine that there are non-human animals who make choice and deliberate to some degree. The only reason that I can think that Dan Dennett would limit free will to humans is that we are the only species which uses language. (Many species communicate, but language is more than just communication). Without a practical normative concepts like “I should do X”, perhaps deliberation and action is different in ways that are relevant to the question of free will. The important thing is that with a Compatibilist account we have re-entered the world of scientific possibility and there is a research program that we can pursue to study non-human animals as agents.

  54. Rob
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    For the question of whether or not something has free will, is tool use a good proxy?

    It shows knowledge of consequences, which IMHO, is an important part of free will.

  55. Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    DAMMIT, I just spent 45 mins replying to the series of T’s objections to my comments regarding quantum indeterminacy vs hidden variables and accidentally hit the wrong key and lost it all. ARRRGH!!!

    So I’m going to try and summarize what I said…

    First – I am not a physicist nor a scientist of any flavor, and you certainly may choose to dismiss me on that alone. I have studied particle physics and quantum mechanics as well as cosmology, astronomy etc, and I write about science. To that end, I have conversed with numerous accomplished physicists, astronomers, etc, in order to be sure what I think they’re saying is correct.

    The idea of randomness fascinates me, so it’s one I pursue with a number of scientists and mathematicians. I’ll add that I don’t have the ability to do these calculations myself, so I have to choose my sources carefully.

    All that said – what I have been told, quite plainly, by most of those I have asked, is that while we currently describe an unpredictability (randomness), it is a mistake to infer that this means an absolute unpredictability – that many scientists believe that when our technologies are improved, we may have the ability to recognize the causality in what now appears to be unpredictable. In other words, that QM is deterministic. Again, NOT ALL scientists have said that to me… one in particular, a quantum physicist, is quite convinced that there IS a TRUE randomness… and he uses that as his evidence for a god.

    For the sake of fairness, I did add a comment regarding QM randomness and free will: “Even if there were some undetermined action at the deepest quantum level, it would still be constrained by its environment. Further, any apparent randomness is quickly eliminated and goes to determinism while still at the atomic level.”

    As I understand ‘hidden variables’ there is nothing religious contained within the idea – it simply means causes which we are currently unable to identify.

    To the best of my knowledge of the Bell’s theorem experiments, there has never yet been one fully able to eliminate an error range. If I’m wrong, then… I’d love a reference.

    (One thing I’ve yet to be able to reconcile with a hard determinism is the many-worlds interpretation … still working on that!)

    In any case, I remain unconvinced of true randomness given the above. I don’t have anything invested in any theory – for me, I simply want to understand the state of the art the best I am able.

    So… I’d love to hear what others think about philosophical determinism… in the sense of Dr. Coyne’s query. I think it would be useful to give our definition of what sort of free will we’re discussing. I thank you folks who replied to me.

  56. physicalist
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    It seems clear to me that there are degrees of responsibility, and this is tied to someone being more or less free (in the compatibilist sense).

    We forgive a child for something that we hold an adult accountable for, because the adult “really should have known better.”

    So no no-human animal (that we know of) is free to the same degree that we are, but it’s clear that many social mammals act freely (i.e., they do things because they want to do them, they make choices). Which animals have which cognitive abilities is obviously an empirical question that we’ve barely begun to answer.

    If you want a picture of full-fledged human freedom, you might want to look at Wolf’s account, which ties freedom to the notion of sanity. Which animals can be sane/insane?

  57. KP
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “And I promise not to post on the topic again for at least a month.”

    Good luck with that…Seems like nobody wants to let this one go.

    “How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?”

    EXACTLY. This is my question. Where is the cut-off for free will and do other species show ‘free will’ to the extent that you’d expect it if “choice” evolved with brain complexity?

    Religious folks might restrict it to having free will in terms of “choosing” to “have a relationship” with God or not, given these nuances and other species, etc. etc. blah blah.

  58. Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Whatever free will is, or whatever it is that provides the illusion of free will, it must, I think, be founded on the ability to make rational choices, rather than just “instinctive” or reflexive ones.

    It also seems to me that rational thought is required for problem solving, so any animal that exhibits that kind of intelligence also has free will (or whatever it is that isn’t).

    So, the usual list: apes, Cetaceans, corvids, parrots, octopodes, and so on.

    Apes have it, for sure. Once, in a zoo in the Netherlands, a youth was having fun banging on the glass of the apes’ (chimps’, I think) enclosure when a big chimp threw himself at the glass, and the youth jumped back in fright. The chimp looked slyly amused… It was very clear to me at the time that this was a premeditated move, not just an irrational, angry reaction. (Of course, I could’ve just been anthropomorphising… )


  59. benjdm
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?

    0, then x++1′.

  60. matt
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    “How neurologically simple must a species be before we stop saying that it makes choices?”

    What is the difference between a choice and response, you ask? It’s the same as the difference between species. I would expect a little more tolerance for the squishiness of life from a biologist.

  61. Dominic
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I heard that it was that bloke who lives around the corner.

  62. chemicalscum
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Neurological systems, brains and ultimately consciousness, have evolved to enable organisms to maximize maximize their reproduction in Hilbert space. The multiplicity of potential contrafactuals creates the appearance or indeed reality of existential radical freedom.

  63. Janney
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Maybe the naive concept of free will works fine as long as we don’t imagine an omniscient point of view from which we could see the future as the past.

    Absent the idea of the future as a place which already exists, we give every appearance of being free to cause, or prevent, or influence events which haven’t happened yet. But the Omniscience meme contains the Clockwork Unwinding meme–if the future were something one could literally see, then clearly it would be as good as done already.

    (I wonder if free will isn’t so insisted upon by Christians because it’s so obviously undermined by the presence of an omniscient deity.)

    Free will is a pretty good heuristic for day-to-day use. It’s oversimple, but it works pretty well most of the time. It breaks down if you look at it too closely, but a lot of useful rules of thumb do, like up vs. down, and the solidity of solids, and species membership.

  64. ratobranco
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you are absolutely right here.

    In fact, we don’t even need to get into the scientific evidence against free will to see the problem. The idea of free will itself is incoherent a priori.

    Philosopher Galen Strawson explains:


    Basically, the argument goes like this. A choice requires a motivation for choosing. If you choose X over Y, there has to be some motivation within you that leads you to choose X over Y. That motivation can be described in psychological terms (as a consequence of your feelings, emotions, etc.) or in neurobiological terms (as a conseqeuence of the state of your brain). Either will suffice.

    Now, if your choice is constrained to follow a motivation within you, then it obviously cannot be described as free. It cannot deviate from that motivation. (Note: if a free will supporter says that you choose your motivation for choosing, then we enter an infinte regress–based on what motivation do you choose that motivation?).

    So the only way a choice can be free is if it lacks a motivation. But then it cannot really be described as being a choice, and especially not as being *your* choice. For its directionality arises randomly, rather than from some motivation within you.

    Therefore the idea of a free choice is incoherent. The choice is either determined by a motivation (not free) or random (not rational, not appropriately described as your choice, morally irrelevant).

    This author elaborates more deeply:


    Game, set, match.

    IMO Free-will is just another construct that tries to skate a false middle between contradictory concepts, much like other religious concepts such as God.

    As for animals having free will, nothing in the universe has free will. Even if there were a God, he would not have free will. The very concept is sheer nonsense put together by human cognition. It is a way of codifying our ingrained feelings about responsibility (priase and blame), which evolved in virtue of the useful learning and behavior feedback functions they fulfill.

  65. Cherry Poppens
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I look at awareness, the sense of a ‘world’ that we see, hear, etc and I don’t see why this would be necessary or even possible given a completely cause and effect world of particles bashing into each other and having reactions UNLESS particles or energy are all aware OR unless there’s some ‘complexity threshhold’ for awareness ‘written in’ to the base rules for the universe OR unless there’s some kind of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. Now, I’m NOT saying “There’s a god!”. I’m simply saying that hard materialism either can not explain awareness in terms of the brain OR that it has yet to do so. With most of what we do such as hunt, gather, mate, write poetry, play chess, whatever, I’m perfectly content to just say “Look! The brain is great at playing with data! It’s a really cool computer!”. But awareness seems, to me, to be different. We could do everything we do (except, perhaps, wonder about our awareness)without being aware. It serves no evolutionary purpose and it’s hard as hell to explain in terms of a ‘meat computer’. So why do we have it? I don’t know.

    But then I look at choice. We seem to have choice. But maybe we don’t. But maybe the same source that gives us awareness gives us choice.

    And finally, it seems really really cruel that the universe would give us awareness and NOT give us choice. It’s like “Hey, here’s a horror movie and you have to sit through it and I’ve put plastic hooks in your eyelids to force you to watch it.”.

    And yeah, ‘argument from cruel universe’ and ‘argument from incredulity’ aren’t good arguments BUT before I jump onto the ‘there is no freewill’ bandwagon, I’m going to need PROOF. Not ‘supporting evidence’.

    Sam Harris gave a lecture attacking freewill. Well, I do need PROOF so that attack is necessary as ‘proving that free will does not exist’ is pretty much an ‘attack on freewill’. BUT he argued against freewill simply by repeating what we know about the brain. The problem with this is that choice, if it exists, is magical. No, hear me out. Science is, IMHO, an attempt to find cause. Even quantum physics with it’s ‘randomness’ is simply where they are with respect to their understanding of the root causes of what they observe about electron and sub-nuclear particle behaviors. So here’s science trying to find cause. But choice, by definition, can not have a cause.

    Yeah, it’s a mind-fuck. BUT still, choice, by definition, can not have a cause. B/c if it did have a cause, it would simply be another effect. Therefore science can never explain it, therefore choice must be magical. Explaining away choice in terms of the brain misses the very point of what choice IS (or would be if it exists).

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] asks for a coherent definition of free will. I’m not a sophisticated philosopher, but to be honest […]

%d bloggers like this: