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Who's in Charge?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of others. I am not the first one to defend these views and opinions, but far from everyone agrees.

Please, do join the discussion in the comment section below, and do share your own views and opinions!

Does free will exist, or is it merely an illusion? Think about it! Are we the authors of our own actions? The thinkers of our own thoughts? Or are we mere witnesses of our lives? Prisoners of the strict laws of cause and effect, with no room for freedom of choice? That's the question I want to tackle today. But before we start, please fill in this poll (for reasons which will become clear further on):

Puppets 1

Now, you'd better sit down, as I'm about to convince you that free will is really an illusion. Deep down, we are all moist robots. Nothing more, nothing less! Don't understand me wrong, we are magnificently complex robots, but robots nonetheless. In the great play that we call life, we are the puppets, and the laws of physics the puppeteer, pulling our strings in a deterministic fashion. Put simply, we have as much free will as a rock — which is to say none at all!


The problem of free will

I realise the boldness of such a statement. After all, I certainly feel like I have freedom of will. I feel in control of my own actions and decisions. I feel as if I'm shaping my own future. The more I gauge my thoughts and actions, the more I also feel as if I were inside my head, steering my own body, while peering at the outside world through my eyes. I feel like a ghost in the machine.

The Cartesian Theater

The Cartesian Theater

But is this really true? After all, where am "I" in my cranium? As far as I know, there's no lobe called "me" or "self".

The illusion of free will

The illusion of free will

So who's really behind the steering wheel? Who's in charge? Is it really "me", or could it be my genes, my upbringing, the biochemistry of my brain, the laws of physics?

Like all big questions, the problem of free will goes back to the early Greek philosophers, and it has haunted humankind ever since. A recent survey by the Scientific American showed that roughly 60% believes in free will. In another survey, that number went as high as 85%. And yet, paradoxically, modern physics and neuroscience suggest free will is really an illusion.


Defining free will

Now, before I unpack their arguments, let us be clear on what we mean by free will. I will take free will to reflect our ability to choose among a set of alternatives. When, for instance, I ordered a cappuccino this morning, I did so freely and consciously.

Free will reflects our ability to choose whether to go left or right.

Free will reflects our ability to choose whether to go left or right.

Of course, I could have chosen otherwise, and ordered a cup of tea instead. Which brings me to the second part of my definition. Free will implies that if I were to replay the tape of my life, I could have decided differently. To summarise: free will is our ability to choose, and to choose otherwise. With that settled, let us turn to the arguments against free will.


The demon of Laplace

The world according to modern physics is completely deterministic. Granted, there might be a sprinkle of indeterminism due to quantum mechanics, but let's set that aside for the moment. Now, in a fully deterministic Universe, the state of affairs right now determines the state of affairs at any later time:

\large \text{State of the Universe now} \;\; \xrightarrow{\text{   Laws of physics   }} \;\; \text{State of the Universe later}

One of the first physicists to realise this was Pierre-Simon marquis de Laplace (1749–1827). In a now famous thought experiment, Laplace asked his readers to imagine a vast intellect, since known as Laplace's demon. If the demon were to know the precise location and momentum of every atom in the entire Universe, and assuming that the "intellect was vast enough to submit these data to analysis, [...] then nothing would be uncertain, and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

Such a deterministic worldview followed naturally from Newton's laws of motion. Newton too saw the Universe as a gigantic clockwork. Hugely complex, but utterly predictable.

A Clockwork Universe

A Clockwork Universe

On this view, every event in the Universe — be it past, present or future — is the result of a previous cause. It's really like a set of dominoes, stacked in one long row. As soon as the first domino tips over, it will cause the next in line to topple too, and so on. Nothing comes from nothing; all is predetermined by previous events. In exactly the same sense, Newton and Laplace believed that the entire history of the Universe had been engraved in stone since the dawn of time.

Now, since we are a product of Nature, just like everything else, we must be part of this great causal chain too. Everything we do therefore — from the motions of our bodies to the conversations we have with the people around us — must be determined by what happened billions of years ago. Life then is not a winding path whose final destination depends on the forks we choose; it's a straight railway track.

Like dominoes, all our thoughts and actions are determined by the strict laws of cause and effect.

Like dominoes, all our thoughts and actions are determined by the strict laws of cause and effect.


No free lunch

How can we reconcile this deterministic worldview with the idea of free will? How can we possibly break free from the causal chain of events? Clearly, free will doesn't comply with the laws of physics. If we're nothing more than a bag of molecules, which obey the laws of chemistry and physics, we can't "will" anything. In a world of cause and effect, there's no wiggle room for freedom, creativity or spontaneity. Our sense of agency and free will, therefore, must be an illusion! As Owen Jones put it: "Will is as free as lunch."

That's a hard pill to swallow. There's no denying in that. But if you take physics seriously, the conclusion seems inescapable. After all, free will implies that our brains can supersede or transcend the laws of physics; that we can "will" an event into being, without any prior causes, by living in some sort of causal vacuum. Such freedom of will would require entirely new laws of physics; laws which would have to break with the principle of causality.


Quantum mechanics to the rescue?

Some people have argued that the laws of quantum mechanics do just that, and that quantum mechanics has therefore reopened the door to the possibility of free will.

A coin flip

A coin flip

The reason is that quantum mechanics is inherently indeterministic. That's right, down at the subatomic layer of existence, in the realm of the microscopically small, determinism gives way for indeterminism, and events do occur at random, without any prior cause.

Consider, by way of example, a simple coin. Whereas the result of a coin flip is perfectly predictable in a classical world (at least to someone like Laplace's demon), this is no longer the case in the quantum world. The best quantum mechanics can do, is to assign a probability to each possible outcome. But which possibility will be actualised at any given throw is utterly unpredictable. When Einstein angrily opposed and exclaimed that "God does not play dice", Bohr bitterly responded: "Stop telling God what to do."

In summary: quantum mechanics teaches us that due to the inherent quantum fuzziness and uncertainty at the microscopic level, future events are no longer fully determined by past events. And this, many take, is sufficient to break free from the iron fist of causality and determinism and could restore our notion of free will. Here's Michio Kaku, arguing along exactly these lines:


To me, this is utter bollocks! I simply don't see how such an element of chance could restore free will. Randomness does not equal freedom. Whether my actions were programmed into the Universe from the moment of the Big Bang, or whether they depend on a random coin flip, in neither way am I in control or "willing" anything. Whether the world is deterministic, indeterministic, or both, free will is an idea ready for the dustbin.



Peering into the brain

Perhaps you're still not entirely convinced free will is a grand illusion? In that case, let us look at some of the mounting evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences.

Peering into the brain

Peering into the brain

It all began in the 1960s, when neuroscientists started to tackle the issue of free will head on — and quite literally so, as George Dvorsky remarked. After carefully monitoring our brain functions, this bunch of neuroscientists made a most disturbing observation: we all seem to be making our decisions long before we're consciously making them!

Take, by way of example, John-Dylan Haynes research of 2008. After putting his participants inside a brain scanner, he asked them to press a button with either their left or right index finger whenever they felt the urge to do so. Meanwhile, Haynes monitored their brain activity in real time via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and what he saw was shocking to say the least! As Haynes later told Nature News:

"The first thought we had was 'we have to check if this is real.' We came up with more sanity checks than I've ever seen in any other study before."

Decisions are made unconsciously, before breaking into our conscious awareness.

Decisions are made unconsciously, before breaking into our conscious awareness.

But the conclusion was irrefutable. Sure enough, the participant's conscious decision to push one or the other button was made about a second before the actual action. Nothing surprising here. But Haynes and his team discovered another pattern, hidden in the unconscious brain activity, that occurred up to ten full seconds before the decision entered the participant's conscious awareness. That is, long before the participants consciously made their choice, Haynes and his team could already predict which decision they were about to make.

Haynes wasn't the first neuroscientist to pull of such a trick. In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a neurophysiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, monitored brain functions by hooking up his patients to an electroencephalogram (EEG).

And low and behold, the exact same thing was observed: our decisions are first made unconsciously, and only then does awareness kick in and do we get the false impression that we consciously made that decision.


In summary: neuroscience echoes modern physics in telling us that we are moist robots who are under the illusion of having free will.


Compatibilist (non)sense

Despite all this evidence, and for reasons that defy my understanding, the fashion these days (at least among the majority of contemporary Western philosophers) is to maintain that science hasn't conclusively ruled out free will at all. Enter compatibilist (non)sense.

Four positions are typically distinguished in the debate on free will:

The four main positions in the debate on free will.

The four main positions in the debate on free will.

Libertarians (like Peter van Inwagen and Thomas Reid) reject determinism and accept free will. In a sense, we all intuitively feel libertarian. Hard determinists, in contrast, accept determinism, and reject free will. Proponents of this position include the physicists Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, the biologists Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the psychologist Steven Pinker, and many other eminent scientists.

While both camps belong to opposite ends of the spectrum, they agree that determinism and free will are incompatible with one another. Hard incompatibilists go even further and claim that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism. This is the position I have been defending so far.

Hard Determinism

Sadly enough, there is yet another camp, the compatibilist camp with proponents like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Daniel Dennett. Compatibilists (or soft determinists) claim that determinism and free will are compatible. If only we (re)define our notion of free will correctly, they maintain, free will can live comfortably with determinism.

Semantic games

Semantic games

Now let me be clear at the outset: to me, compatibilism is just that, a semantic game of remoulding our notion of free will so that it fits with our deterministic worldview. The result of this "word jugglery", however, is that there's nothing really free anymore about compatibilist free will.

Compatibilists define free will as the freedom to act without external constraints or hindrances from others. That is, as long as I'm not in physical chains, locked up in a prison, I have free will.

In other words, because I was able to raise my arm without hindrance when the thought of raising my arm occurred, I must have free will.

A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

But freedom of action is not freedom of will! As Arthur Schopenhauer famously said: "Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills." Compatibilists take comfort with the first part of Schopenhauer's quote. But whereas freedom to act is a necessary condition for free will, it isn't sufficient. The compatibilist notion of free will is simply too weak. Whatever will it is, it isn't genuine (libertarian) free will.

Compatibilists thus evade the problem. As Sam Harris sharply put it, compatibilists act according to the creed: "A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings."

To be fair, I believe most compatibilists and hard determinists are talking past each other since both endorse entirely different notions of free will. In that sense, both might actually be right. Compatibilist free will (i.e. freedom of action) is of course compatible with determinism. No determinist will ever deny this. Similarly, libertarian free will (i.e. genuine free will) is clearly incompatible with determinism. Here again, even a compatibilist like Dan Dennett agrees: "that that kind of free will is an illusion — well yeah, we've known that for over 100 years."



At this point, you might start to worry: if genuine free will really is an illusion, what about the moral implications? After all, if we don't have free will, we can't be held responsible for our actions. If so, in what sense are we to be blamed for our sins and bad actions? If free will is ready for the dustbin, so (it seems) is moral responsibility.

The danger of free will.

The danger of free will.

Many people therefore worry that the illusion of free will will be used as an excuse to do as we please, and to cease to be good to one another. But, don't forget, if we're just moist robots, we can't do as we please at all.

As a matter of fact, the realisation that free will is an illusion might have a positive effect on humankind. Suppose for instance that Jack killed or raped a random stranger. Since all of his thoughts and choices were ultimately determined by his genetic and social conditioning, Jack can't be held morally responsible.

What's more, in a strange sense, Jack is a victim too: he was born with the wrong genes, brought up in the wrong environment, hanged out with the wrong people, and read the wrong books.

Is Jack morally responsible or not?

Is Jack morally responsible or not?

In short: Jack can't help it that he was born a psychopath. If you were to exchange every single atom of your body with his, you would have done the exact same (horrible) thing.

This of course doesn't mean we can no longer distinguish good from bad. Even though Jack can't take credit for the horrible things he did, it would still be best to lock him up forever, to prevent him from causing further harm.

But our desires to take revenge, to make Jack suffer as much as his victims suffered, would no longer make any sense. In a world without free will, there's no room for guilt or blame, pride or praise. As Einstein once put it: "This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper." I couldn't agree more!

Having read my entire post, please take the poll one more time, and let's find out how many of you have been converted into believing free will is really an illusion (or otherwise)! Also, don't hesitate to share your own views and opinions and to continue the discussion in the comment section below. Thank you!

Pieter Thyssen

Whereas his left brain was trained as a theoretical scientist, his right brain prefers the piano. At work, Pieter builds time machines (on paper) and loves to dabble in the history and philosophy of science. He often gets stuck in another dimension, contemplating time travel and parallel universes, or thinking about ways to save Schrödinger's cat (maybe). He explores the world on foot, and takes life one cup of (Arabica) coffee at a time. Follow him on Twitter @PieterThyssen or at You can reach Pieter via email at

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  11 comments for “Who's in Charge?

  1. November 24, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Very interesting debate here Pieter!

    None of this 'sit on the fence' stuff! You clearly have little time for these free will compatiblists! And while I largely concur with everything you say here (I too would place myself in the hard incompatiblist category) I still feel a lot of sympathy for the proponents of free will. So here are a few thoughts for you.

    First of all I agree with your take on Kaku's comments - he's leaping from one conclusion to the next there. From my layman's perspective I wouldn't have reckoned quantum mechanics could be applied literally to the question of whether or not free will exists. But at least the randomness of the quantum world rescues us from Newton's deterministic 'clockwork' universe somewhat. Until we find a better theory perhaps!

    The key point of contention for me is the very definition of free will. What do we even mean by 'free'? I think most of us get lost on this issue straight away and never recover! In a sense it's a nonsense question. Freedom of choice seems, as you say, to be more of an afterthought. A rationalisation post the decision making process of the choice we have made. I would call it a built in desire almost. So I agree - free will can only be an illusion.

    And yet this illusion, in my opinion, is completely necessary. And this is where I feel it needs a little more credit! We inhabit this world of illusion we call free will whether we like it or not. Not only do we require it, I would go as far to say that all rational human beings inherently believe in it.

    Obviously the concept of 'belief' is not traditionally compatible with scientific rationale. What validity does 'belief' even hold in this argument? For one thing you cannot deny it's powerful stuff! Sure,you can take a step back, analyse and see the fallacy of the free will argument. And as you say, the neurologists say that all our actions are determined well in advance by our unconscious minds. This may very well be the case but who can truly say they understand the human sub-consciousness? Do our brains function like clockwork? I'm not arguing for the case of free will here but there are so many elements of uncertainty in this debate I think we must embrace.

    On top of this I feel like dismissing free will entirely makes it all a little bit depressing via-a-vis the moral implications. In this world nobody is to blame because they had no actual choice and concepts of responsibility and justice become meaningless really. It feels all too redundant to me and leads us down a neverending spiral of thought illustrated by several of your amusing cartoons. We can reject both determinism and free will but personally I still like to believe in the illusion of free will because it projects us forward.

    Looking forward to more posts!


    • November 24, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      Hi Dave!

      Thank you so much for your comments!

      It's of course great to hear you're a hard incompatibilist too. And it indeed seems to me we agree on the defining points:

      1. Determinism is incompatible with free will.
      2. Indeterminism (in the quantum sense) doesn't really "free" us from the shackles of cause and effect.

      But I also understand your sympathy for the proponents of free will, and I think you raise a couple of interesting points.

      1. First of all, you mentioned that "at least the randomness of the quantum world rescues us from Newton's deterministic 'clockwork' universe."

      True! And I can see how this might be a comforting thought. If there really is an element of chance involved in the unfolding of the Universe's history, than future events are no longer fully determined by past events. That is, the future is no longer fixed (as in Newton's deterministic Universe), but open. Even someone like Laplace's demon would be at a loss in predicting what will happen in the future. We're still unable to "will" or control anything, but at least it seems anything can happen. Our life's history is not set in stone. There are still an infinite number of potentialities out there in the future waiting to be actualized in the present.

      Notice though that not all interpretations of quantum mechanics would agree. Einstein, for one, really disliked indeterminism, and he argued that quantum mechanics was therefore an incomplete theory. He believed there were further facts in the world, so-called hidden variables, which determine everything. However, since we have no empirical access to those variables, we can only make probabilistic predictions. The randomness we observe in quantum events is therefore not an objective fact of the world, but a subjective one due to our ignorance and insufficient knowledge. But the world, on this hidden-variable interpretation, is completely deterministic. Scientists and philosophers are still debating this issue today.

      2. Next, you raised some concerns about neuroscience's understanding of the brain, mind, and consciousness. I do agree we're far (very far) from a complete understanding (as far as this is even possible), and I strongly expect big revolutions and paradigm shifts to occur in this field in the future. How those revolutions will change our views on the mind and consciousness, and how this will affect the discussion of free will, is an open question. The case I made against free will in this post, was solely based on the (limited) scientific knowledge we have today. But I remain open-minded, and would be happy to change my views on free will by 180 degrees in light of new evidence.

      3. Finally, you felt dismissing free will entirely would be "a little bit depressing" and you therefore preferred to believe in free will (against all odds) "because it projects us forward". I would argue on the contrary.

      If Jack really had free will, and freely chose to murder that random stranger, it would make sense to blame him, and I could understand people being revengeful. After all, things really could have been different. But notice that moral responsibility, in this case, would not really be forward-looking as you said, but rather backward-looking.

      If, on the other hand, we take free will to be an illusion, then "nobody is to blame" in this world for their actions. This means I can't take credit for anything I've achieved in life (which, perhaps, is indeed a bit depressing), but it also implies Jack can't be held responsible for his sins. As I tried to explain in my post, this realisation has an important positive effect: it would keep us from taking revenge, and moral responsibility, I would claim, would become more forward-looking.

      As Sam Harris beautifully explained in his Marionette's Lament: "Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future. The notion of moral responsibility, therefore, is forward-looking."

      That said, there's no denying I also feel free and happily live under that illusion in my daily life.

      Thanks for opening a really fascinating discussion! And looking forward to more of your comments!


  2. Mogens Michaelsen
    November 26, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    As far as I can see, the experiments made by Haynes and Libet are seriously flawed!

    The experiments are not about a decision. They are about TWO decisions:

    1) Deciding which button to press (choosing).
    2) Deciding to press the chosen button (acting).

    It is true, that the decision to act (2) is almost simultaneous with the act, but the first decision (1) is not. What is measured in the scanning is (1) which comes 10 sec. before (2). The fact that both decisions are subjectively experienced as being simultaneous can be explained otherwise. One possibility is, that it is practical to "synchronize" the conscious experience of the two decisions this way, because they are closely related.

    The experiments does not prove that we have no free will. They prove, that it is false when we think, that our own decisions are necessarily simultaneous, if we consciously experience them at the same time. It is necessary to make a distinction between the decision and the conscious experience of it.

    And another thing: It would be really interesting to make an experiment, where you try to PREDICT the result of the measurements in the experiments mentioned above.

    • November 27, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      Dear Mogens,

      Thank you so much for your comments!

      Let me start by saying that in the Libet experiments from the 1980s only one button was used, not two. Hence, the participants only had to make one decision in this case: when to push the button.

      Now, Libet noticed a negative brain potential, the so-called readiness potential, in the supplementary motor area or SMA (a region of the brain involved in the control of movement) that occurred a few hundred milliseconds before the conscious decision was made (see figure). It thus seemed as if the unconscious brain had made up its mind before the participants themselves realized it.

      The readiness potential

      But not everyone was convinced by Libet's results, and his work has been heavily criticized in the last decades. For one thing, the time delay between the readiness potential and the conscious decision was only a few hundred milliseconds. Many scientists therefore were afraid that Libet might have had the relative timing wrong due to experimental inaccuracies.

      Perhaps even more importantly, it wasn't clear whether the decision was being made in the SMA, or whether the brain was merely preparing itself for the decision.

      To resolve this issue Haynes and his team decided to repeat the Libet experiments, but to use two buttons this time instead of only one such that his participants would have to choose between two alternatives: left or right.

      Interestingly, Haynes and his team noticed two distinct brain signals, one for each decision, which allowed them to predict what choice the participant was going to make. They therefore ruled out the possibility that the unconscious brain was merely getting ready for the decision making.

      What's more, by using more advanced monitoring techniques such as fMRI, Haynes and his team were able to make these predictions a full ten seconds before awareness kicked in — a lifetime in terms of brain activity.

      I hope this answers your questions. It is indeed "necessary to make a distinction between the decision and the conscious experience of it" and it turns out that our decisions are made well before our conscious experience of them.

      What's more, by tapping into our unconscious, neuroscientists can predict which choices we will make long before we ourselves are aware of them.

      Have a great day,


      • Mogens Michaelsen
        November 27, 2015 at 6:06 pm

        Thank you for your reply. It seems that Haynes was aware of the points I made in my comment. But if you make a distinction between the decision (choosing which button to press) and the conscious experience of it, then the brain scan measures the outcome of the (unconscious) choice. It doesn't predict it in any way.

        As I mentioned in my comment it would be really interesting to know if this is possible: Is it possible to measure the state of the brain BEFORE the decision is made, and predict the choice from that?

        My guess is, that this is actually NOT the case, because quantum mechanical uncertainty is involved. I am not talking about individual quantum events, but rather a complex of quantum states in different parts of the brain, that constitutes the decision (and not just elementary quantum events).

        As I understand Quantum Mechanics it is not correct to say, that it has only influence on individual events in microcosmos. The overall state of the Universe depends on Quantum Mechanics. A universe that are exclusively governed by classical laws simply cannot exist. The Universe is not deterministic in the way you think.

        • November 29, 2015 at 1:42 pm

          Thanks Mogens. I'm hearing you loud and clear! We indeed need to distinguish between two kinds of predictions:

          1. Predicting which action will occur (e.g. pressing the left or right button) by studying brain signals in the unconscious brain.
          2. Predicting which brain signals will occur in the unconscious brain before they have appeared.

          Haynes and his team were successful in the first kind of prediction. But you are wondering if neuroscientists will ever be able to make predictions of the second kind.

          In a fully deterministic Universe, someone like Laplace's demon would have no difficulties with such predictions.

          But you rightly point out that with the advent of quantum mechanics, our Universe might no longer be fully deterministic after all. Depending on which interpretation of quantum mechanics you prefer, there might indeed be an element of chance involved in the unfolding of the Universe's history.

          However, it is far from clear whether or not quantum mechanics — with all its fuzziness, uncertainty and indeterminism — plays a fundamental role in the workings of our brain.

          Once again, you are right that quantum mechanics is a Universal theory. It doesn't merely apply to the subatomic realm of electrons, protons and photons. It applies to the entire Universe. After all, everything around us is ultimately composed of electrons, protons and other elementary particles.

          But due to a process called environmental quantum decoherence, much of the "quantumness" is seen to disappear on a macroscopic scale. For example, whereas an electron can be in superpositions of being at two places at once, we don't generally observe the same thing for, say, a chair or a table. Quantum decoherence is therefore a vital tool in understanding how the classical world of Newton and Laplace emerges from the quantum world.

          Since our cranium is a warm and humid environment, and our brains are macroscopic objects, many scientists believe that quantum phenomena, such as superpositions and entanglement, cannot play a role due to quantum decoherence. This, however, is a large open question. Only time and future research in fields such as quantum biology will tell us how important quantum mechanics is on the level of the brain.

          But coming back to the original discussion about free will, I don't think any of this really matters. The fact remains that all our decisions seem to be made in the unconscious brain. Our sense of agency and conscious will is therefore an illusion. Whether scientists will be able to predict our future actions or not, the fact remains that we ourselves are not consciously choosing anything.

          • August 17, 2016 at 9:33 pm

            I posted these links on the Backreaction blog some months ago and I see it on your blogroll so you may be aware:



            Those experiments are similar to the Haynes experiment except these use a computer to generate a quasi-random sequence of images, some emotionally stimulating, others not, all the while monitoring a half dozen or so physiological parameters. The dynamics of the parameters indicated that the heart and brain became "aware" of the stimulating events on average about 4.5 seconds before the image appeared on the screen! This seems to indicate information transfer at super-luminal velocities. They followed up those experiments with the following:


            It seems to me that in the future scientists may have to modify their ideas regarding what consciousness really is! In some meditative traditions they actually distinguish between five or six distinct types of consciousness, generally delineated by subtlety. In the end, the question of free will, I don't believe in it but not because of any of the reasons you discuss, hinges on a more subtle question: who or what is it that supposedly does or does not have free will? Or, more succinctly, what is a human? But then I have a Buddha bias so . . . In Madhyamaka Buddhism a sentient being has freedom within their own mindstream, the freedom to choose how they perceive: with clarity or with delusion.

  3. Allan Bracker
    November 28, 2015 at 3:33 am

    Free will is first and foremost the experience of freedom that we have when we decide to do things. The fact that we misinterpret it as an overriding of the laws of physics doesn't mean that it is no longer a useful idea. It is still very important in our consideration of moral responsibility. Finding a way to continue calling it free will maybe a "semantic game", but it's a game worth playing. Insisting that libertarian free will is genuine free will seems like insisting that biological life is not genuine life because it isn't animated by a soul. These days, aren't we all compatibilists with respect to life?

    • November 29, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks Allan for sharing your views and opinions. It's great to have you contribute to the discussion.

      You seem to be a compatibilist about free will, and this is probably why we don't agree on all points. As I explained in my post, many compatibilists and incompatibilists disagree because they uphold radically different notions of free will. The same seems to be the case between you and me.

      If, according to you, "free will is first and foremost the experience of freedom" of choice, then sure, most of us certainly seem to have free will. If this is the definition of free will, I'm definitely on the same page with you.

      But, according to me, free will has to be more than just an experience or a feeling. The fact that I consciously feel as if I'm choosing which button to press (or which coffee to order) is not enough. I want to be able to make that choice, freely and consciously.

      I used the term genuine (for lack of a better word) to distinguish between this stronger sense of free will and the weaker compatibilist sense. But I grant this might not have been the best choice of words.

      I have the feeling most compatibilists are compatibilist mainly because they want to retain a sense of moral responsibility, even if the Universe would turn out to be fully deterministic. I'm not convinced by their programme though.

      And as I have pointed out in my post, the realisation that no one can be held morally responsible for his/her actions can have a positive effect on society and human wellbeing too.

      For an interesting discussion on free will and moral responsibility, see the debate between Daniel Dennett (a compatibilist) and Sam Harris (an incompatibilist).

      Have a great day!


  4. November 29, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    Hi Pieter,
    Have you seen this attempt at reconciling quantum indeterminism with free will?
    (It does not convince me, but I'm interested to hear what you think.)

  5. R Shanmuga Sundaram
    July 28, 2016 at 9:31 am


    Interesting article. While i do not believe that free will exists, I am hard pressed to resolve this hypothetical scenario.

    Imagine you are at a fork in a road. I have a machine that can analyse your brain and predict what road you will take, Now, I tell you which road you will take. What stops you from taking the other road or what forces you to take the predicted road?

    You can argue that the state has changed. So, the machine factors in the fact that you will be told what road you will take and then it predicts the road you will take. In this case, will you be forced to take the road predicted or you can take the other road?

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