Philosophy, Psychology, recent, Social Science

Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards

It’s hard to discern the main point of William Edwards’s article The Academic Quarrel over Determinism, as his argument is discursive, confusing, contradictory, and sometimes misleading. In a first reading you may dimly perceive that he has a problem with determinism, and sees the negation of determinism as evidence for free will.

But what does he mean by “free will”? He’s not explicit about it. Since he contrasts it with determinism, it appears that for Edwards free will means our physically uncaused ability to change our decisions so that, at a given moment, we could have done something other than what we did.

And what does Edwards mean by “determinism”? He seems fixated on biological determinism—the view that all our actions are coded in our genes, a “DNA-driven view of the social world,” as well as a vision that “our future…is written in our DNA.” Edwards sees little or no influence of the environment on our actions: “Our trials and triumphs…are encoded in our DNA sequence.” But no biologist is a determinist in this sense, as all of us accept that the environment has a huge effect on our actions.

In fact, philosophical determinists—who reject free will because there’s no mechanism for “decision” that is free of the physical substance of our brain—base their determinism not on DNA but on the laws of physics. Our brains are made of molecules; those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions derive from brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject not to an alterable “will” but to physical law. QED: no free will.

And you needn’t believe in pure physical determinism to reject free will. Much of the physical world, and what we deal with in everyday life, does follow the deterministic laws of classical mechanics, but there’s also true indeterminism in quantum mechanics. Yet even if there were quantum effects affecting our actions—and we have no evidence this is the case—that still doesn’t give us the kind of agency we want for free will. We can’t use our will to move electrons. Physical determinism is better described as “naturalism”: the view that the cosmos is completely governed by natural laws, including probabilistic ones like quantum mechanics.

Edwards also seems to conflate determinism with predictability: “The future cannot be precisely known or determined from the present.” But this conflation is wrong: a deterministic process can be so complicated—weather patterns are one example—that precise predictions are impossible.

But let’s ignore these problems and see how we can parse a coherent argument from Edwards’s piece. Although he gives no explicit definition, Edwards apparently construes free will, as do most people, as “contracausal” or “dualistic”: we have the ability at any instant to make more than one choice by exercising “will” that influences our molecules; we have a unique ability to overcome the laws of nature.

Edwards’s evidence for this is threefold: there is fundamental indeterminacy in nature; we feel like we have free will; and there are aspects of human mentation, like consciousness, that we don’t fully understand. Let me take these three arguments in turn.

First, as I explained above, any fundamental indeterminism in nature, such as that apparently present in quantum mechanics, doesn’t give us a scintilla of free will. Even if that indeterminism acts in our neurons and can affect behavior, it’s not an effect we can control with our thoughts.

And the feeling that we have free will—Edwards’s second argument—says nothing about the existence of free will, any more than the feeling that the Christian god exists is itself evidence for such a God. There are many subjective feelings that are illusions, and some reasons why evolution might have installed a feeling of agency in us despite the fact that we don’t have it. (For example, those who feel they have agency might have neuronal modules making them work harder, thus securing more rewards—and offspring.)

Finally, Edwards drags out the old canard of the mystery of consciousness—the Argument for Free Will from Ignorance:

Why does [consciousness] exist and what exactly is it? How does something become “aware” of something else? Gödel’s incompleteness theorems indicate that there are truths about numbers that cannot be proven through calculation or computation. In math and physics there are singularities; times and places where all “rules” break down or don’t seem to apply. Is it far-fetched to suppose that conscious choice is real, but rules, processes, and definitions don’t apply?

The answer is “Yes, it is far-fetched.” As the physicist Sean Carroll has pointed out, ditching the laws of physics in the face of mystery is both unparsimonious and unproductive:

. . . in the face of admittedly incomplete understanding, we evaluate the relative merits of competing hypotheses. In this case, one hypothesis says that the operation of the brain is affected in a rather ill-defined way by influences that are not described by the known laws of physics, and that these effects will ultimately help us make sense of human consciousness; the other says that brains are complicated, so it’s no surprise that we don’t understand everything, but that an ultimate explanation will fit comfortably within the framework of known fundamental physics. This is not really a close call; by conventional scientific measures, the idea that known physics will be able to account for the brain is enormously far in the lead.

Arguments from ignorance have repeatedly failed, as one phenomenon after another, initially imputed to numinous, divine, or preternatural causes, has eventually received a naturalistic explanation. Contracausal free will is the modern equivalent of black plague, magnetism and lightning—enigmatic phenomena that were once thought to defy natural explanation but don’t.

So much for Edwards’s arguments in favor of “contracausal” free will. He goes on to suggest that there are salubrious personal and social effects of believing in free will—that we should believe in free will, even if there are no rationally compelling reasons to do so. Edwards says this: “Needless to say, there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour.”

But this is selective citation, as the literature on the effects of accepting libertarian free will is complex and contradictory. Edwards, for example, cites a Psychology Today article about a paper showing that belief in free will increased helping behavior and reduced aggression. Yet those results were contradicted by another study showing that disbelief in free will decreases aggression and promotes kindness. A well known paper supposedly showing that free will decreases cheating was contradicted by a set of four studies showing no association between belief in free will and more moral behavior; its results also failed replication in two other studies. This is not surprising given the weaknesses of such studies, which estimate short-term effects in the laboratory produced by reading selected passages.

The upshot is that there’s no convincing evidence that believing in free will has beneficial personal and social effects. Given that, it would seem premature to promote belief in free will as a social good. Yet that’s exactly what Edwards wants. He says we should believe in free will because the negative effects of accepting determinism on society and our own behavior would be too great. Edwards couches this idea as a form of Pascal’s wager, the claim that we should believe in God because if we’re wrong the penalty is small, but if we’re right, and God exists, we have the huge payoff of eternal life. As Edwards says:

. . . it is worth remembering the well-established relationship between risk and reward, because whether or not we believe in free will may turn out to be the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, any professional gambler worth their salt should bet on free will. There is just too much about the universe that we don’t understand, and the potential pay-off from agency is staggering.

There are many objections to Pascal’s-Wager-style arguments, not the least being that for many people it’s impossible to believe in something that we’ve rejected due to lack of evidence, regardless of what we stand to gain. I could no more force myself to accept god—or free will—than a tiger could force itself to turn vegetarian.

For many reasons, belief in free will resembles belief in gods, including an emotional commitment in the face of no evidence, and the claim that subverting belief in either gods or free will endangers society by promoting nihilism and immorality. But a commitment to truth compels us to examine the evidence for our beliefs, and to avoid accepting illusions simply because they’re beneficial. It makes no more sense to believe in a numinous “will” that subverts the laws of physics than to accept a god for which there’s no evidence. Any reforms of society should begin by accepting the unalterable truths of nature.


Jerry A. Coyne is Professor of Ecology and Evolution, emeritus, at the University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution is True and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. You can follow him on Twitter @Evolutionistrue

Photo by Jan Genge on Unsplash.

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  1. Memetic Tribe says

    The statement from step 3 of Alcoholics Anonymous compels you to “turn your will over to the care of God as we understood him”.

    This cornerstone of recovery has saved millions if lives, and harmed no one (unlike the church).

    Maybe it is self delusion, yet it works.

    • Steven B Kurtz says

      Self-hypnosis can work. Yet there is a history in each of us (all life forms) combining heredity and experiences since conception. That history is 100% physical less a non-physical anything can be evidenced. None has to date. If it is done, a Nobel Prize awaits!

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Steven B Kurtz

        ” a Nobel Prize awaits!”

        On the contrary, career suicide and being unpersoned awaits. One may as well say that heresy is the path to sainthood.

        Nobel’s are awarded in science. Science studies the physical/material universe. Devotees of science can come to feel that what science does is all that can be done therefore any non-material anything cannot, a priori, exist, therefore would be nonsense to study and therefore cannot take the first step to the long journey to winning a Nobel.

        There is actually voluminous evidence of non-material phenomena but you give us a fine demonstration of the fact that it will simply be dismissed out of hand by those who have already decided that it can’t exist because their religion says it can’t. Thusly I won’t give you any examples because, as a man of faith, you already know that they can’t be real.

        • Elaine E says

          There is not voluminous evidence of non-material phenomena; there are people claiming this evidence exists. It is only dismissed due to lack of evidence, not due to faith. Atheism/agnosticism is not a religion; exactly the opposite. You cannot give examples because none would constitute evidence.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Elaine E

            “You cannot give examples because none would constitute evidence.”

            See? Dismissed before being considered.

    • Andrew Vanbarner says

      AA doesn’t have a great track record for its adherents avoiding relapse, like most forms of rehab. It’s certainly less harmful than drinking, but sobriety rates after entering “the program” aren’t particularly good.

      Whether AA is more beneficial than churches or religions in general is dubious, as people tend to conflate political events, such as wars over money and power, with religious beliefs, which tend to reject materialism.

    • Nicolaas Stempels says

      The % success rate of AA can be counted in single digits. NOT a great score, but still ascore.
      That being said, if it worked for those few, so much the better.
      There are at present more effective ways than AA to curb ethylism, using opiate inhibitors (yes, brain chemistry) is part of that.

      • Memetic Tribe says

        No one knows the actual success rates of AA because it’s an anonymous program. It is also less effective when it becomes court mandated (i.e. Drug Court). That is, it rarely works when people don’t show up by their own “free will”, and are forced by the courts.

        I was simply stating that AA is a good example of the existence of free will, not trying to debate its effectiveness. A great many people who show up by their own free will do recover, especially those who are able to voluntarily curtail their limbic desires through acts of kindness. The term “became willing” is a common term in AA literature. As well as “the suggestions”, (ie choice).

        The fact that people are able to curtail their destructive will is proof that it existed in the first place.

        • Christopher Moss says

          What of the common saying that ‘you have to hit bottom before you can start to recover’? Doesn’t that imply reaching a point where you have no other choice? Anyway, ‘turning your will over to God [etc]’ sounds like the opposite of free will, if it involves letting your God take charge.
          Finally, curtailing one’s destructive will might be proof the the will existed, but it says nothing about whether it was deterministic or free. But it might just be neuro-chemical mathematics: there are thousands of factors that weigh into a decision, most of them unconscious. If we knew all of them, and the weight they carried, we could predict a person’s decisions with complete accuracy (save for a tiny percentage where random quantum factors altered the outcome). When the factors weighing in favour of sobriety (maybe loss of a job and the threat of a divorce) become heavier, they can change a final decision into not having that next drink. It may not be curtailing some base desire by force of will, but simple arithmetic. Confusion only arises because there are too many factors for us to begin to understand them all, so it looks like free will.
          None of this, by the way, would make me tell a newly sober drunk that I am glad their neurochemistry got it right at last! I’ll congratulate and praise them as much as I can, even if only to add my finger to the scales the next time they have a craving.

        • staticnoise says

          Exactly, where are the studies that support AA as a failure? It is anonymous therefore stats are not tallied.

          I quit drinking 26 years ago by choice (reading the writing on the wall) exercising my FREE WILL. How is not free will? Answer me that. No one forced me, certainly not physics, not my wife, not the law, not society. It was me making a decision based on something that had not happened yet – me becoming an alcoholic. Believe me every person in my life was shocked when I gave up alcohol.

  2. Severely Ltd. says

    It’s definitely the case that most materialists can’t accept that free will exists, but that doesn’t change the fact that accepting that position drains significance and meaning from life if faced squarely. There’s no moral responsibility if there’s no free will; right and wrong have no compelling meaning if there’s no free will.
    The foregoing is no argument for the existence of free will, but if you don’t believe it exists, you ought to face the fact that punishment for crime is nonsensical and/or cruel, that objecting to behavior for any reason is only indicative of your own determined preference. And why should you expect anyone to agree with you? Or if they do, what does it matter; it was always going to be from the beginning of time and causal chains.

    • @Severely:

      “There’s no moral responsibility if there’s no free will …”

      That depends on how one construes “morality”. Morality is all about value judgments about how we treat each other, and that does not change in a deterministic universe.

      “… if you don’t believe it exists, you ought to face the fact that punishment for crime is nonsensical …”

      No, it isn’t, since the threat of punishment acts as a deterrent and affects whether people do the deed. Again, that does not change in a deterministic universe.

      • Severely Ltd. says

        Coel, deterrence implies choice, which you’ve already ruled out. Determinism means that whether the person pulls the trigger or not was baked in since forever.

        • @Severely: “Coel, deterrence implies choice, which you’ve already ruled out.”

          We’ve not ruled out “choice” in the sense of taking all inputs and calculating a course of action — which allows for deterrence — we’ve only ruled out forms of “choice” that involve a dualistic, non-material mind directing matter.

          • Severely Ltd. says

            You mean you’ve ruled out ‘choice’ defined as anything approximating our intuitive conception of free will. If you define choice as the end result of physical processes, all you’ve done is move it into a column marked ‘mechanistic’ and ‘inevitable’. Not what we intuitively understand to be choice.
            A valid, intuitive understanding is an acceptance of a truth beyond our grasp, like infinity or eternity. No one doubts their existence but who can really reflect on either concept and claim to really grasp it?

            In a deterministic reality, the resultant action that you call a choice is predicated on antecedents billions of years ago. Can something predetermined that long ago–or really, even 5 minutes ago–be considered the result of free will? Not as we conceive it. And determined behavior empties life of meaning given any honest reflection at all. Again, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this is no argument proving there’s free will. It just shows where we are if it doesn’t exist.

          • staticnoise says

            OMG what you have here is a circular firing squad. Everything, nothing, anything, this thing that thing means nothing or does it mean everything. Well, but it doesn’t matter, right? Since it was always going to mean nothing, or was it everything? I hate the determinism argument, it makes life completely meaningless, but worse, it’s so boring.

        • Albigensian says

          As the author points out, “you needn’t believe in pure physical determinism to reject free will.” Whether or not the person pulls the trigger might depend on deterministic inputs plus a whole lot of quantum noise. Sort of like biological evolution might be thought of as random genetic damage plus selection pressures.

          My disappointment with this article is that the author seems unwilling to be agnostic on the issue of free will but instead has faith that science will figure out the riddle of consciousness and discover that, yes, it doesn’t exist.

          Perhaps the author should consider that at this point both belief and disbelief in free will might equally be faith-based.

          In the meantime we (well, most of us) perceive ourselves as having free will, and proceed accordingly. It’s as if someone declared the color green doesn’t really exist even though we all (all of us who are sighted, anyway) see plants and other green things every day: perhaps the burden of proof here that things are not as they seem should be on the skeptics?

          • Ray Andrews says


            “the color green doesn’t really exist”

            A little common sense goes a long way doesn’t it? Some philosophers think that philosophy should add clarity but others feel it’s a sort of word game where we construct chains of sentences that would seem to prove nonsensical things.

            “the author seems unwilling to be agnostic on the issue of free will”

            Yes. He is a theologian and he has faith that his religion is the True one even tho his religion would seem to liberate him from making any decisions (since they have already been foreordained) and no one can possibly do that.

          • Photondancer says


            It depends on what you mean by saying the colour green exists. You are conflating 2 different definitions in your comment. First you suggest it is a property of the observer (one has to be sighted) then you suggest it is a property of the object (things are as they seem). The author is unlikely to make such an elementary error. Philosophers involved in the free will debate are very well aware that people perceive themselves as having free will. This does not put him under any obligation to be ‘agnostic’ on the issue.

      • Ray Andrews says


        Right. I don’t know where the silly idea that determinism implies that punishment is immoral comes from. If I’m training a dog to retrieve ducks I use punishment and reward to mold his behavior; this has nothing to do with any idea of the dog being good or bad in the moral sense. We can use punishment simply as a way of controlling behavior and ‘morality’ needn’t come into it at all. BTW I’m not a determinist but that’s a poor argument anyway.

        BTW if a child murderer can say: “But I didn’t have any choice but to rape, torture and murder those kids, so you can’t punish me!” I simply reply in his own language: “Likewise I have no choice but to sentence you to hang by the neck until you are dead, so don’t suppose either than I have any choice in this or that I’m bad for sentencing you to hang — it is written in the stars and I’m helpless to do otherwise.”

      • David of Kirkland says

        How does punishment deter if my actions are not under my control? I had no control over the bad action. You had no control over catching me, trying me, then punishing me. I have no control over whether that punishment will prevent future bad actions or will cause me to do even more bad actions in the future.
        Determinism is for the lazy, for authoritarians who dislike the notion of liberty and prefer coercion which is centrally planned determinism.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @David of Kirkland

          “How does punishment deter if my actions are not under my control?”

          Easy. You are a programmable mechanism and you will instinctively recoil from an action that is associated with punishment. I am a programmable mechanism too, and my actions are those that will protect me from you — so I reprogram you. Nonsense of course, but that’s what they’d say. Point being that determinists can rationalize punishment very easily.

        • Photondancer says

          Moralistic fallacy. Whether determinism is true or not is independent of its alleged moral effects.

    • Steven Kurtz says

      See above reply to Memetic Tribe re evidencing anything non-physical. In social mammals, the tribe/herd/etc. is the responding unit to deviants that endanger/harm the group. It is automatic. So, correction, ostracism, or death results for the good of the social unit. Notions of good-evil are anthropogenic alone, a part of our Achilles Heel of mysticism.

    • GBJames says

      Those assertions simply are not true. There is no “draining” of significance or meaning of life any more than there is an absence of moral responsibility for those who reject the concept of contracausal free will.

      This argument is weirdly reminiscent of religious believers telling atheists that we have no meaning to our lives and lack morality. It is a tiresome trope and would be offensive if it were worth taking seriously.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      Coyne does accept all those things, and indeed argues for a justice system that junks the idea of vengeance altogether. As for why he would expect anyone to agree…I suppose because he assumes that people can think for themselves.
      As for right and wrong: they have no objective meaning regardless of the free-will argument. It’s not hard determinism that renders them subjective, it’s the incoherence of the very idea of objective values that does that.. You can’t get an ought from and is – and all attempts to embed moral values in some kind of objective bedrock have failed. Hume and Euthypryo are always there waiting at the end of the tunnel.

      All you’ve said in your comment is that hard determinism is bleak and scary and thus should be rejected. It’s no different from the idea that atheism is bleak and scary and should thus be rejected. In both cases it’s up to you to explain why people like myself can live lives full of significance and meaning despite not believing in free will or god.

      Now you could argue that the meaning and significance I derive from my life is not objective: and you’d be right. Significance and meaning are entirely subjective, human values. But they’re subjective for you just as they’re subjective for me. There’s no extrinsic entity who’s going to spoon out dollops of ‘real’ meaning for you. the best you can do is lie to yourself.

      Finally, re. “what does it matter?” – well, you’ve alluded to the answer when discussing morality and the justice system. If free will is an illusion then thousands, millions, even billions of people have been tortured, killed and incarcerated for lifetimes as a form of codified vengeance. And none of those people had any genuine control over their actions. The sense of moral vertigo that you get when reading that is natural – this is politically controversial ground. But in terms of the science and the philosophy undergirding it, it’s utterly _un_controversial.

      • Nicolaas Stempels says

        “If free will is an illusion then thousands, millions, even billions of people have been tortured, killed and incarcerated for lifetimes as a form of codified vengeance. ”
        But then, those carrying out/ perpetrating the torture, killing and incinerations could not have acted otherwise either. 🙂

      • Severely Ltd. says

        You’re wrong that that I advocated rejection based on hard determinism, rather I made it explicit that what I said doesn’t prove free will exists. The points I made merely show the emptiness when free will is rejected. Not proof: Consequences.
        Meaning has no significance if one doesn’t acknowledge that there’s an objective truth with which we should do our best to align our subjective understanding. Of course, if there’s no objective basis under-girding morality, the only thing that should compel our actions is our will. And the promptings that shape our will. See Nietzsche.

        You say “billions have been tortured, killed, and incarcerated” like it’s somehow not a good thing. Are you implying that it’s “bad”? Torture, murder, and unjust imprisonment are just someone’s subjective take on ethics? No basis beyond an individual’s judgement? Do you accept that on a fundamental, intuitive level?

        The tragedy of that position is that there really is nothing to keep, say, Progressives with that mindset from Stalinist purges or worse.

        • @Severely:

          “Torture, murder, and unjust imprisonment are just someone’s subjective take on ethics? No basis beyond an individual’s judgement?”


          • Jim Gorman says

            Then why are Trump’s actions considered as bad, I.e., racist, misogynistic, and everything under the sun? If his actions are predetermined, then he can’t help himself and others making moral judgements are wrong to do so.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          @Severely Ltd – No, there isn’t anything to keep right-wingers from throwing people out of helicopters or gassing millions of Jews either. And history has demonstrated this as a reality: there really is no objective value there for us to agree on. We have to argue it out among ourselves, and the last two thousand years has been the story of us doing just that.

          And a lack of objective morality is not a consequence solely of hard determinism. Objective morality simply doesn’t make sense at all, and hasn’t made sense since Euthypryo and Hume demolished the idea a long, long time ago. It’s up to you to make your way past the roadblocks they erected, whether you’re a hard determinist or not. It’s as much of a problem for you as it is for me, and for anyone else.
          Give me some kind of objective grounding for morality yourself and you’d at least have the glimmer of the start of an argument. But you’d have to do that first.

          And bringing in ‘objective truth’ confuses things further. Truth on the one hand and values like morality/meaning on the other are two very distinct things. There is an objective reality out there. We try and tally our beliefs so that they align with it as accurately as possible. That is a constrained, ad hoc but basically accurate definition of objective truth(ignoring for the moment logical/mathematical truths).
          What you will NOT find out there in reality is anything like ‘values’. They’re human concepts. We invented them, and when we go extinct, so will they. How could it be any different? D’you think ‘peace’ and ‘hate’ and ‘love’ are going to float in the vacuum once we’re gone, like black holes slowly decaying?

          As for ‘a will to power’ and that rancid crank Nietzsche – I’m not at all interested in his ramblings.
          As I’ve said, all you have to do is look at the actual world we live in to see that we manage to agree on moral principles by using our reasoning, our sense of positive-sum bargaining, our general desire for human flourishing. People who disagree strongly on all manner of specific moral issues do that day in day out. They come to arrangements and make forward progress despite thinking their opponent is fundamentally wrong about morality.
          The idea that not having an objective morality to agree upon means we’ll have to rely solely on a ‘will to power’ is contradicted by reality every second of every day.

          • Severely Ltd. says

            @Saul Sorrell-Till—The Abolition of Man is a book that makes a strong (non-Christian) case for an objective morality and the historical coherence of it. You seem to attribute that coherence and teleology to human reason, but when you deny any transcendent source, reasoning itself has no grounding.
            You invoke a vague, general sense of human flourishing, but what that meant for Hitler was a Germany without Jews and for Stalin, a Soviet Union without those recalcitrant Ukrainians. What makes your concept of flourishing superior to theirs? There’s no rock-bottom premise available without a transcendent foundation; it’s turtles all the way down.

            If there is a transcendental basis for morality then it’s timeless and that leads me to think that tradition would embody it. Of course tradition embodies plenty, and our task seems to be to tease out the truth from it all. What I don’t think it shows us is that we can ignore the lessons of tradition and religion and forge ahead in the manner of Progressives, remaking ethics as we see fit. As we feel it. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, all the twentieth century mad-men, ignored ethical traditions in favor of modern ideologies and look at the results. What makes you think this century won’t end up as bloody as the last? The Left has no basis for their ethics beyond feelings, which I’m pretty sure those mad-men weren’t short of.
            Nietzsche was indeed rancid and a crank, but he was also prescient and saw the inevitable end that comes of an entirely materialistic view of reality.

          • Jim Gorman says

            Saul Sorrell-Till — “Give me some kind of objective grounding for morality yourself …”. It is simple, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. That covers everything from love and kindness to killing others.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Saul Sorrell-Till

            ” There is an objective reality out there.”

            It there? If you try hard enough you can convince yourself that there isn’t. Or, going half way, you can convince yourself that all we have is the subjective constructions in our minds that attempt to organize qualia and which might be entirely different to an octopus and are no more objective than love. Going all the way, we find ourselves, much to our own astonishment, back in science and contemplating the observer effect which seems to suggest that the most profound thing in the universe is consciousness!! Strange stuff eh?

            “We invented them, and when we go extinct, so will they.”

            Or maybe not. The materialist convinces herself of this hard dichotomy between the objective physical universe and the nebulous nothings of the mind/soul. But it might be exactly the opposite.

      • Alexander Allan says

        You “can live lives full of significance and meaning ” but “meaning are entirely subjective…the best you can do is lie to yourself.”

        I also expected atheists spent their lives lying to themselves, now I have the evidence.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          There’s no contradiction there unless you’re lazy enough not to make the distinction between objective and subjective meaning.

      • Stephanie says

        “In both cases it’s up to you to explain why people like myself can live lives full of significance and meaning despite not believing in free will or god.”

        Because you stand on thousands of years of culture that incolcates an acceptance of free will and God that you act like you believe even if you think you don’t.

        • Ray Andrews says


          Steph, you are a clever girl 😉

          They do not know the ground they stand on. They think they float in the air. They are fish that know nothing of water. The proof of their mistake is the very fact that they cannot see the mistake. The solidity of our grounding is the very fact that folks can pretend that they don’t believe it, and yet carry on exactly the same. The Flat Earther nevertheless uses GPS to tell him where he is on the globe but does not see the difficulty. I say there is no such thing as free will! … but I should have planted peas a couple of days ago, and I’ve still not done it and the illusion of my executive function has the illusion of trying to decide right now how I’m going to get it done. What will I do today? Gosh, it sure seems like I have to decide.

      • Emblem14 says

        “As for right and wrong: they have no objective meaning regardless of the free-will argument.”

        “Finally, re. “what does it matter?” – well, you’ve alluded to the answer when discussing morality and the justice system. If free will is an illusion then thousands, millions, even billions of people have been tortured, killed and incarcerated for lifetimes as a form of codified vengeance.”

        The issue with this way of thinking is that by being radically agnostic about moral claims, you undermine any of your own you might care to make. But I’m sure you realize that. I just find it weird that in one breath you’re dismissing the validity of right and wrong as an intersubjective, illusory function of some more banal natural mechanism, and in the next you’re using all this emotionally charged language to describe your indignation with the concept of vengeance. Why the inconsistency, or are you willing to say your sense of moral disgust at revenge is as arbitrary as any other subjective preference?

        • Severely Ltd. says

          @Saul Sorrell-Till: I think Emblem14 zeroed in on a deadly inconsistency in your argument. I’d like to hear your answer to the last sentence.

          “Why the inconsistency, or are you willing to say your sense of moral disgust at revenge is as arbitrary as any other subjective preference?

      • Dean says

        I wonder what “think for themselves” means without free will though?

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        “they have no objective meaning regardless of the free-will argument”

        So you assert. But does asserting it make it true? In either case, you ask people to pretend that, say, when we see someone torturing an animal, we are not, universally, repelled. We are not subjectively repelled in the same way that I, subjectively, prefer Bach to Mozart and you the converse, we react as if it were actually objectively wrong. I submit that in the same way that consciousness does not exist (but the illusion of consciousness, which is universal, is congruent with consciousness so the distinction is pointless), neither does objective morality exist (but the illusion of objective morality is universal and is congruent with objective morality so the distinction is likewise pointless.)

        • Peter from Oz says

          Preferring Bach to Mozart?
          Ray, you are incorrigible. But I would add that I’ll behaves the determinists in this debate to tell us that somehow the fact that so much of our conscious decisions are subjective doesn’t prove the fact that we have free will. Surely if the world is a Calvinistic hell where all our fates are predetermined, there would be no need for subjectivity.

    • Roo says

      I suspect this idea – that downgrading the role of individual agency robs life of meaning – is somewhat specific to Western culture. Maybe not, maybe it’s ubiquitous for humans to elevate their own status in the grand order of things. Either way – by way of contrasting example, imagine applying such a paradigm to the weather…

      “If thunderstorms don’t choose to happen then life is less meaningful”

      “There’s no compelling reason to ‘punish’ floodwaters with sandbags if floods don’t freely choose to wreck things”

      “Why should people study meteorology? The weather was predetermined anyways so why care about tornados and hurricanes?”

      As long as people continue to have a subjective experience in the absence of free will, they still have a great deal of motivation (predetermined motivation maybe, but so what,) to engage meaningfully with the world.

      I think what people really worry about losing, then, when it comes to free will, is a dissolution of agency itself. But I don’t think there’s any reason to say that agency is incompatible with deterministic processes. An ocean is an emergent phenomenon (in the colloquial sense, I’m not getting into the philosophy of emergent properties here) that exists in dependence upon a huge number of other factors, including an uncountable number of water droplets. That does not, however, negate the idea that there is something conceptually unique about “ocean-ness”, that it doesn’t have its own ways of moving and dynamics once formed. It just means that none of that happened freely. And I think the same is true of free will. Agency still very much exists, only the idea of uncaused agency – or oceans that appear out of nowhere, no water droplets involved – disappears.

      • doug deeper says

        If there is no uncaused agency, all is determined, and there was a cause for the creation of the universe. But that cause had a cause, so to quote Severely Ltd., “turtles all the way down.” And this is infinity, and we are unable grasp infinity, and I suspect science will not help us to understand infinity, nor consciousness, nor free will. But I only suspect such things.
        I must say I envy the fundamentalist atheists and orthodox determinists such as the author. It must be so comfortable to know the answers absolutely.
        Perhaps I just value humility too much.

        • Roo says

          “Cause” is a surprisingly elusive term when examined closely, so it’s probably not the best descriptor (although I don’t know of a substitute term.) Instead try thinking of it in terms of mathematical relationships and see if that changes your perspective or not. For example, did 1 + 1 = 2 not exist until a point in time when this truth was “created”? Or is such a concept outside of time altogether, with no linear point of creation where it ‘became’ true?

          • Ray Andrews says

            @ Roo

            On another thread I was arguing with a guy who said that 1+1=2 is nothing more than a brain state, and absent brains, it has no existence. Weird.

          • Roo says

            @Ray – That is a strange take. Extreme solipsism maybe? I’m not sure. I think if you want a bit of room to ‘move mystically’ within the idea of mathematical relationships, the more obvious solution is to say that there is no such thing as a single, absolute point or ‘1’ in reality (any point could hypothetically be divided into a smaller point, after all.) So while the equation 1+1=2 is likely true no matter what, there is probably some relativism in what, exactly, is designated as ‘1’ unit (bring on the quantum mechanics and observer effect here, if you are so inclined.) But to simply say that 1+1=0 once we fall asleep seems like claiming absolute certainly that if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, it most definitely does not produce even sound waves. The whole point of that thought experiment is that no one can claim to definitively answer such a question at all, much less answer it with one of the *least plausible answers (as we can, based on inference and the consistency of how things work in the world, assume that sound waves *are produced even when no one is around, and that 1+1 continues to be 2 even when we are asleep. Structures that rely on engineering would be in bad shape if math was null and void at such times.)

          • doug deeper says

            Roo, I am not in a position to answer that question. I cannot comprehend a world without time just as I cannot comprehend infinity. Perhaps 1+1=2 only exists in a world in time. My main point regarding such questions is that I do not know how atheists and hard determinists can be so certain. And I suspect their often arrogant certainty may say more about their lack of intellectual integrity.

          • Roo says

            @Doug – It seemed to me that you were saying there is a fundamental flaw in determinism (the basis of the idea that there is no true free will, although even in the absence of determinism, free will doesn’t make a lot of logical sense,) ergo we cannot use determinism in making inferences about free will. So my point was that the ‘first cause’ argument is not necessarily a flaw in the idea of determinism, assuming the cause-effect relationships within determinism are not ultimately purely linear. First cause arguments point more to a flaw in the idea of linearity, to my mind – but so far as I know, nothing says that determinism *has to be a linear model.

            I don’t think it’s arrogant for people to come to a conclusion that makes sense to them, based on logic and the available information, either. We all do this all the time. Anyone can take their opinions and act arrogantly about them in dialogue, of course, on any topic. So if you say “I’ve met a lot of arrogant atheists”, that’s different – we all know different people, maybe you have. But simply coming to logical conclusions and acting on them is something we all do every day, I don’t think it’s fair to call that arrogant in and of itself.

          • doug deeper says

            Roo, thank you for your thoughtful replies. You are right if determinism allows for a first cause, then I am good with determinism. But to assume that science or a material explanation will explain the first cause is a step too far for me. If first causes are nonlinear, can’t they also be non-material? I do not know, but the longer I live the more persuasive I find the arguments for things immaterial that may be beyond human understanding or our robots’ understanding.

            There are arrogant people on all sides. I just find the Richard Dawkins of the world to be dangerously demeaning to those of us who are unpersuaded by his logic.

      • Just spoke with a devout Buddhist. He was as troubled by determinism as me. He usually hedges on philosophical arguments, but on this one he had strong agreement.

        • Roo says

          @Bryan Stiles – Why was he “troubled by determinism”?

    • KD33 says

      These statements are simply false, as has been explained numerous times and in great depth by authors Coyne cites (e.g., Carroll) and many others. It’s worth your time to read Carroll’s the Big Picture. Lots of great stuff in there, even if you don’t adopt his conclusions.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes. There’s also no Liberty without free will. How can a person be free if their will is not free?

      • …and how free is your free will? I suggest it’s only as free as you think it is. Square one?
        On the human terrestrial level there is only action, behaviour if you will, regardless of how it came about. If it is to inflict harm you will meet resistance, naturally.
        Non free will vs free will is a philosophical placemat within your brain and your behaviour is all that matters, and that is how your character will be measured.
        Human history is littered with horrendous and fine acts of human endevour and this free will arguement has had no bearing or influence. Faith, political ideology or just plain deranged, lack of, or a bucketful of free will has not altered the outcome, liberty, personal or otherwise, in this sense, has no meaning.

        “Your” is not specifically “you” but rather refering to sentinant beings.
        I for the record am a non compatalist, no free will.
        The universe and our human behaviour within it.

      • Mathew Goldstein says

        Lack of coercion is different from being coerced, and this distinction between being free and being coerced remains in place without contra causal, libertarian, ghost in the machine supernatural, free will.

  3. Steve Bowden says

    I am a huge fan of science but always on guard for people who make conclusions with insufficient evidence. In my mind we do not know enough to determine either position scientifically.

    I do agree that many beliefs are in our greater good whether they are strictly true or not. If believing in “free will” and “god” cures your alcoholism then who the hell cares whether it’s true or not. That fact that you have changed from a person who is likely to run over a kid in his car to a productive member of society is all the evidence I need for the value of your beliefs.

    • DeadAmalekite says

      That really makes no sense. We should believe lies if they make us behave better? Why not use truths to alter behaviour, they are easier to remember than lies and far more durable. Not to mention that those “beliefs” you blithely mention come with a lot of baggage that promotes other negative behaviours. There is nothing moral about, for example, monotheism. It promotes an ancient set of values that are mostly regressive and oppressive: Satan is coming for you, those who believe differently are bad, women are inferior, slavery is good, religious blasphemy should be punished, this life is “sin” but eternal life can be yours, abortions are murder, and on and on. Such immoral beliefs do not compensate for helping someone stop drinking. There are more honest fruitful ways than believing a bunch of lies; After all what happens when you cant believe the lies anymore?

      • Stephanie says

        “Satan is coming for you, those who believe differently are bad, women are inferior, slavery is good, religious blasphemy should be punished, this life is “sin” but eternal life can be yours, abortions are murder, and on and on.”

        None of that is inherent to monotheism, only an ignorance of polytheistic religions and animosity towards your parents and their religion can bring you to that conclusion. Indeed, the Jewish claim that God created man and woman in His image is what paved the philosophical road to equality for all.

        As for finding the killing of humans acceptable if they are sufficiently young, the strongest source of opposition to that is modern biology, not religion. If you want to argue for a secular morality, at least let it be based on scientific facts and consistency with the premise humans have intrinsic value. Otherwise you’re just demonstrating why it’s not a good idea to let people make up values based on their own self-interest.

        • Ray Andrews says


          You’re in your best form today my lady.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Just like believing that Goop or CBD or vegetable extract pills cured your (MS, cancer, arthritis, gym aches, gout), you say “who the hell cares whether it’s true or not?”

      Well, before I shell out $ I’d like to know there’s at least SOME biological plausibility there. Placebo/nocebo effects are strong, and also forms of self-delusion.

      The truth of “let go and let God” is that we need to admit we’re not in control of the universe–fate, luck, mortality, asteroids, hurricanes–any of it. Worrying oneself sick about things one can’t control is a peculiar malaise of our time; and one the media feeds us relentlessly and profitably.

      We are constantly told things to believe every single day, many wrapped in the imprimatur of “science.” Fact-check some of this crap and “study shows” it’s incapable of proving causality and the supposedly elevated “risk” doesn’t even rise to the level of a rounding error. Yet it’ll be screamed from the front page of every newspaper and web site on earth as though an incontrovertible fact, never mind that it proves irreproducible. That doesn’t even merit a correction on Page 40! Pure nonsense, and often irresponsibly harmful to boot.

      I think college-educated people are actually the MOST susceptible to this syndrome, as they are conditioned throughout youth to swallow arguments from authority unquestioningly. Nowhere is this more prevalent than medical school.

      Whereas, We Deplorables upon being told something dubiously scary first ask “Who says?” and the answer to THAT question is frequently extremely interesting–in more ways than one!

      • dirk says

        Truth is very valuable in science and jurisdiction (has he done it or not? is CO2 useful or not for plant growth?), however, for daily,ordinary human life, there is no such thing as truth, everything goes. Forget about truth in daily life, politics and ideology!

    • David of Kirkland says

      Why? If it’s deterministic, then my drinking and driving and running over a kid is what reality required of me.
      There is substantial evidence that I can make a decision. You have zero evidence that something else outside of me is making that decision for me.

      • Mathew Gokdstein says

        The decisions that you make are indeed yours, provided there is no coercion, and they are also determined and fixed by the laws of physics like a computer’s calculations are determined and fixed by the laws of physics.

        • dirk says

          Does that coercion make a lot of difference, Mat? Imagine, the colonel in a war situation orders me (and others, the peloton) to shoot somebody, and I do so, is that act then determined? In case I don’t, and I am shot afterwards for not obeying, is that not-determined because of a lack of coercion?

  4. Thad the Lesser says

    I believe in free will. I can’t help it, determinism makes me do it. I’ve tried to change my mind, but I can’t. You can try to convince me I’m wrong, I won’t be offended because I know you can’t help it.

    • Nicolaas Stempels says

      The illusion is very strong indeed -and Sensei Jerry is well aware of that-, but that does not mean it is not an illusion.

      • Nicolaas Stempels says

        My apologies lesser Thad, I got you wrong at first reading, I was a bit slow to get your beautiful irony: “I believe in free will. I can’t help it”. Brilliant! Kudos to you!

        • David of Kirkland says

          Consciousness is an illusion. We all have it, mostly in our native language, yet clearly we’d be conscious without learning any language. It’s why crazy people can truly believe that spiders are crawling on them, for example. Or the fact we can’t see ultraviolet light, sound waves, or feel pain in a missing limb.
          However, I can choose to raise my hand. In your non-existent, perfect information world, you could tell me in advance whether I will or not. Yet predicting the future is a greater illusion/delusion.
          Absent evidence that another entity (not part of me) is making a decision for me and I cannot override it, free will is obvious, just like it’s obvious I can see better with light than in full darkness.
          The anti-free-will people are just counting angels on a pin head, mental masturbation.

        • David of Kirkland says

          @Nicolaas Stempels There’s no need to give kudos because Coyne had to write this article, Quillette had to publish it, the computer and Internet had to be invented to transmit and display it, Thad had to write his comment, you had to read them, and you had to find it brilliant, then you had to write that finding because “outside forces” controlled it all.

    • staticnoise says

      Hat tip: Thad
      There you have it folks. Thad nails it, end of subject, leave it at that.

  5. “Our brains are made of molecules; those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions derive from brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject not to an alterable “will” but to physical law. QED: no free will.”

    More accurately, our brains are made of molecules; those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions MAY RELATE TO brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject to BOTH an alterable “will” AND to physical law. QED: free will.

    But of course, if Professor Coyne so desperately wants to believe he has no free will, far be it from me to dispute his belief about himself.

    • Joe says

      “those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions MAY RELATE TO brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject to BOTH an alterable “will” AND to physical law. QED: free will.”

      Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise. Saying that our decisions “may” relate to brain activity still doesn’t provide any evidence for the effects of an “alterable will.”

      • David of Kirkland says

        When I have to sneeze in a place where there are no people, I can just let loose. When in a crowded or quiet space, I may take all sorts of actions to subdue it. But I guess that thinking is outside of my control and in the control of something else.

    • Steven Kurtz says

      Is your “alterable ‘will'” non-physical? If physical, it has antecedents which are unalterable after they occurred. Memories are physical. Sensations and our filters of them are physical. Win a Nobel Prize and a ~ million bucks if you can evidence calorie free memories, thoughts, emotions, sensations, actions…

      • Alexander Allan says

        @Steven Kurtz

        “Memories are physical” –

        I propose memories are supernatural and are part of the form (soul) that makes man. During life on earth memories are inhibited by matter (the body). Therefore someone who has dementia, does no loose their memories but only access to their memories. In death, the soul is no longer constrained by matter and you have complete recall of all your memories conception to death.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      “our decisions MAY RELATE TO brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject to BOTH an alterable “will” AND to physical law. QED: free will.”

      “Alterable will” is just a euphemism for ‘free will’, so all you’re doing is making a blunt assertion, not an actual argument. Putting ‘QED’ at the end of it doesn’t make it any less vaporous.

      And of course our ‘decisions’ relate to brain activity. What else are they going to relate to?

    • A C Harper says

      If our decisions MAY involve non-physical activity how does that non-physical activity interact with the physical molecules. If non-physical activity exerts a force we should be able to measure it, otherwise molecules are just going to do what molecules do. No magic required.

      • How does software cause the letters I am typing to show up? Measure the force exerted by the software for me.

        • Mathew Goldstein says

          Bryan Stiles: The software is physical, from the physical writing to the physical execution, it is physical and mechanical and material from start to finish, with force exerted.

    • Stephanie says

      Are you happy because your brain has released seratonin, or has your brain released seratonin because you are happy? Of course there are physical manifestations associated with memories, actions, and emotional states, but the direction of causality is not obvious. Belief that our consciousness is the result of chemical processes has resulted in treating depression with chemical mood boosters, but increasingly it is clear that these treatments are only effective at superficially masking the problem, not actually increasing happiness. This would imply that our mood leads our chemicals, not the other way around.

      • David of Kirkland says

        Few do not think we are made up of physical stuff, with chemicals and reactions taking place. But lacking free will suggests something else makes all those calls. When I throw a baseball at a window, I don’t have to deny the physics or chemical properties or likely result. But the ball didn’t up and throw itself, nor do any other entity, just me. That’s free will. That my will relies on my being alive, yes. That I can think, yes. That I can act, yes. I clearly live in a world constrained by biology, chemistry, physics, but until you provide evidence of another entity making a choice I’m presented with, the choice is mine, even if I’m just following the crowd, even if I’m just following a law, even if I’m just following a religious/moral edict, barring the crowd/law/religion making the decision that I cannot refuse.

        • Mathew Goldstein says

          David of Kirkland: no, that is not free will. We have agency, we have will, we make decisions and act. We could not have willed or acted otherwise. Everything, including our existence and our actions, are determined by the laws of physics. People who claim otherwise claim so contrary to the available evidence that everything that exists is physical, material, and mechanical.

      • Mathew Gokdstein says

        Stephanie: no, the nerves fire first, and the corresponding moods follow, We are already committed to our decisions before we are even consciously aware of what decision we made.

  6. Alexander Allan says

    “…and some reasons why evolution might have installed a feeling of agency in us..” – How and why would a Darwinian materialistic evolutionary process seek to install a feeling of agency when it is a process driven purely by unguided random mutations? It appears Coyne is calming that materialistic evolutionary process has the agency to install the “illusion of free will” because such an illusion of agency may produce benefits to an individual such as “making them work harder, thus securing more rewards—and offspring”. So a completely purposeless process lacking any telos has agency but man, who seeks meaning, does not have agency.

    Furthermore Coyne seems to contradicts himself because, as mentioned above, he infers a benefit to the “illusion of free will” but towards the end of his article states ” that there’s no convincing evidence that believing in free will has beneficial personal and social effects. So why did evolution install “a feeling of acing in us” if there are no benefits?

    • dirk says

      Yes, true Alexander, once a professor in evolution and Darwinism (in which progress is the result of natural, arbitrary mistakes (mutations) and the slow exclusion of less adapted life forms) it seems very difficult to believe in such a teleological thing as is free will. But, is my daily behaviour , my choices to buy meat or fish for dinner (or to do the right or the wrong), in any sense determined by evolution and Darwinism? Don’t think so!

      • Nicolaas Stempels says

        dirk, “….my choices to buy meat or fish for dinner (or to do the right or the wrong), in any sense determined by evolution and Darwinism?” Yes, of course it is, natural selection gave us a gregarious species, having a high ‘load’ of what is right or wrong, and your desire to eat meat or fish in this or that circumstance too,
        Do you seriously think that it is not your brain chemistry that makes you decide whether to eat this or that?

        • dirk says

          Yes, Nic, I do. Any biological or cultural reason that this is not so? And what if the ads for a cheap piece of good meat (only today) determine my choice? Any role for my brain chemistry?

        • David of Kirkland says

          @Nicolaas Stempels If it’s my brain chemistry, then it’s my will. My will comes from me. Lack of free will implies something outside of me does it; and that I’m compelled to do so even if I want to do something else.

    • @Alexander Allan:

      “How and why would a Darwinian materialistic evolutionary process seek to install a feeling of agency when it is a process driven purely by unguided random mutations?”

      Evolution doesn’t “seek” to do anything, but it does install things in us if that causes us to leave more descendants. And it’s not purely about “unguided random mutations”, it’s also about natural selection, which is directional, not random.

    • Thad the Lesser says

      Good point. From a purely evolutionary perspective, there must be a benefit to belief in free will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved such a belief. Of course, it could be that the benefit is no longer beneficial, though this seems unlikely. Even if this were the case we ought to at least identify how it was beneficial and now isn’t. To simply discard it without evidence or even a theory as to why it no longer useful is terribly presumptuous.

      However, if one limits themselves to believing in only that for which there is evidence, one must stop believing in free will. This puts one in the odd position of discarding something that is very likely beneficial to themselves and their species. The only good reason for doing so would be some net benefit that occurs a result of discarding belief in anything supernatural. It is hard to imagine simply discarding it would beneficial. It would seem more likely that trading it for something would be more likely to procure a net benefit. I suspect this is in part why there is a constant push to sell the idea that religion and science are incompatible, as though one cannot accept both the natural and the supernatural at the same time but must instead always trade in one for the other.

      The case has to be made for the benefit of believing in only that for which there is evidence. Secular Western society current holds up evidence as the only right foundation for belief. I agree it should be a strong factor in many beliefs and in some cases the only factor. Yet I also believe that for certain beliefs it should be a secondary factor and possibly not a factor at all. Certain beliefs should be held on the basis of beauty, not evidence. I have never heard a good argument as to why the only basis for all beliefs should be evidence alone.

      • @Thad – “From a purely evolutionary perspective, there must be a benefit to belief in free will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved such a belief. ”

        This isn’t how evolution works. A mutation or variation does NOT have to be beneficial, it just can’t keep the organism from reproducing. Consciousness and the illusion of free will could also be an emergent quality resulting from the evolution of many other factors.

          • David C Fischer says

            Not entirely accurate. If there is a cost to maintaining a feature, it will be lost unless it is adaptive. There is no reason to consider the experience of free will less useful to the human species or therefore real than pleasure, joy, pride, or love.

        • NashTiger says

          OK, explain homosexuality. Is it purely deterministic, arising from a mutation? It can’t rightly be passed on, in most cases, if so. Doesn’t it sometimes result from sexual trauma inflicted during pre-adolescence?

      • @Thad:

        “From a purely evolutionary perspective, there must be a benefit to belief in free will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved such a belief.”

        Not fully true, it could be a “spandrel”, a by-product of selection for other things.

        • Alexander Allan says


          “..but it does install things in us if that causes us to leave more descendants.”


          “ just can’t keep the organism from reproducing.”

          Since atheists are notoriously useless at reproducing, often preferring to have no children and rarely having more than two, this surely, based on your statements, makes atheism a regressive evolutionary trait that will eventually die out.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till says

            It’s not looking that way old bean. We’re on the increase. You might want to go back a thousand years and check the proportion of people who were atheists then. There were pretty much none. Five hundred years ago? There were more. Four hundred years ago? More still. Three hundred years ago? etc…

            Basically, we’re coming to convert your children to godlessness and spiritual ruin, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

            (Not that it would make the whole god thing any less ridiculous if we were dying out of course)

          • Nicolaas Stempels says

            That would be true if religiosity were a fully genetic trait. But apparently it is not. As a child I used to be quite religious, but now I’m grown up and know better. And possibly a majority of atheists are.
            Is atheism a virus spreading horizontally, like religion? If so, I’d dare to wager that that is the only way Atheism resembles Religion.

          • Christopher Moss says

            “Since atheists are notoriously useless at reproducing, often preferring to have no children and rarely having more than two, this surely, based on your statements, makes atheism a regressive evolutionary trait that will eventually die out.”

            Silly boy – atheists aren’t born as such; they are created by reading your comments.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Alexander Allan

      Fabulous. So first Coyne et al beg the question: The illusion of free will exists because it helps us to survive. Yes, but WHY/HOW does it help us to survive? Bacteria survive very nicely without it. Survival is surely enhanced by adaptation to reality? Yet we are helped by something which is a pointed departure from reality? Surely the illusion of consciousness and free will are expensive? How many joules does my brain expend generating the illusion of ‘me’? It seems like a whole lot of trouble for nothing.

      Then they cut themselves off at the knees by claiming that there are no benefits anyway.

  7. Aristodemus says

    I can entertain the possibility, even the overwhelming probability, that free will is an illusion, when I’m in a philosophical frame of mind. At all other times I speak and act as though I believe that people can do other than what they do. Which I suppose is another way of saying that, most of the time, I do believe in free will. Maybe it’s an irrational belief, but it doesn’t seem to be one I can dispense with. Maybe certain cognitive biases are evolutionary adaptive. Maybe, like everything else, they’re inevitable.

    • David of Kirkland says

      It’s easy to “entertain” what you experience throughout your life. Like a solid rock may in fact be mostly space at the physics level, it turns out solid doesn’t mean “more stuff than space,” just enough stuff in space that I can rely on it holding together. Is a solid rock an illusion?

      • Mathew Goldstein says

        David of Kirkland: There are different levels of description with different properties. Solid or liquid are properties found only at a higher up aggregate level, they are emergent properties from the lower levels where the solid or liquid properties do not yet exist.

  8. Thad the Lesser says

    “It makes no more sense to believe in a numinous “will” that subverts the laws of physics…”

    Of course it doesn’t make sense. Free will is, by definition, non-mechanistic. Everything we “make sense of” rationally (certainly scientifically) is understood on a mechanistic basis. Therefore, free will is not “understandable” in a rational sense, it is, by definition, a black box, the inside of which can only be understood as it is experienced. There are no inner “workings”, what is inside is not a mechanism. There can never be any proof it exists and all effort to secure such proof is a fools errand. It’s been said before: “If the mind were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we could not.”

    It’s also been said, “It is wrong always and everywhere for anyone to believe anything without sufficient evidence.” – W.K.Clifford – The ethics of belief

    Yet this is problematic when it comes to the supernatural. Just because you don’t have evidence for something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, particularly if that something, by definition, precludes evidence. The proper measuring stick to use when deciding what to believe about the supernatural is not evidence but beauty. To become adept at such measurement, one requires an education in the recognition and appreciation of true beauty. That education will involve appropriate suffering.

    • David George says

      Well said Thad.
      The author (Coyne) believes he is entirely driven by prior experience and mysterious impulses; that he as no agency over his actions? That he has no evidence of individual free will. It’s difficult to imagine a life lived that way as anything other than a complete mess, try living like that if you want proof of the power of your choices. Try encouraging your children to, see how that works out.
      Free will, like beauty, is a spirit; in a realm beyond the material world, it’s perfectly understandable, therefore, that we can neither explain it or explain it away. A shallow and disappointing attempt at what is really a religious/philosophical question Mr Coyne.
      A wee clip from Dr Peterson might help, at the very least, contextualise the issue.
      Determinism versus free will.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till says

        A ‘wee clip from Dr Peterson’ rarely helps clarify any intellectual issue.

        “Free will, like beauty, is a spirit; in a realm beyond the material world”

        I think I saw it written on a poster of a dolphin leaping over a rainbow.

        • David George says

          Thanks Saul, I must keep an eye out for that poster.
          As I said, I don’t believe that free will is, like beauty or God, an issue for the intellect, an intellectual issue. No doubt the arguments will continue to, and beyond, the point of absurdity; the protagonists would perhaps be better employed observing and understanding the basis for their own actions.
          Another wee clip that might help our understanding. Do You REALLY Have a Free Will? – Jordan Peterson.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Saul Sorrell-Till

          Be careful what you accuse dolphins of doing.

          So what is beauty then? A brain-state? Strange that this non-existent thing is so universal and so powerful.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @ Thad the Lesser

      Geez there have been some fantastic comments on this thread, both ways I might add.

      “Therefore, free will is not “understandable” in a rational sense”

      The materialist simply presumes the truth of their religion, but what if their religion is not correct? We all experience free will every moment of our waking lives yet these folks want to say that it doesn’t exist? Because if it did, then it couldn’t be mechanism. Would it not make more sense to question the absoluteness of mechanism?

    • Mathew Goldstein says

      Thad the Lesser: supernaturalism does not “by definition preclude evidence”. Some people post-priori create this restriction for supernaturalism to try to excuse their a-priori insistence that supernaturalism must be true. Beauty is not a valid epistemology for determining ontology, that method has no track record of success..

      • Thad the Lesser says

        @Matthew Goldstein:
        Indeed, I should have said “sufficient evidence”, although “sufficient” is subjective. In reference to the W.K.Clifford quote I was referencing, what do you think is meant by “sufficient”? I expect he meant that the scale tilts in one direction.

        To your second point, that beauty, as a method, has no track record for success: This is exactly why I concluded with a statement about pursuing an education. Few people seek an education, in large part due to the spectre of misery. It is much easier to print a diploma, and history is littered with the carnage of frauds. The fault is not with beauty as a method, the fault is with the fraudulent use of beauty as a method. It is grim irony that the final victims of the fraud are not the fraudsters’ gullible followers but those that wish to avoid being taken in, and lie comatose in their caution. The field is flush with horses that have no wings. Many foolhardy in their flight, many afraid of heights. A poor track record indeed.

    • Kawakara says

      What other phenomena would you consider to occur on a non-mechanistic basis? Is it mostly constrained to the concept of consciousness or does it apply more widely? Thanks!

  9. Rick Frey says

    Great article and great conversation. Two things hit me as key:

    First, all the variants of folks saying, “so what if free will isn’t real, it works for me”, or, “look at the benefits” I don’t think are thinking this through. You can get your kids to “behave better” by telling them Santa Claus only gives presents to the good little boys and girls, but at some point, when you understand reality, it stops working. Having a generation of adults choosing to believe things they know aren’t true just because they supposedly help is a recipe for disaster.

    In terms of Coyne’s argument, I think he makes one huge problematic assumption that I’ve been wondering about and would love to hear more about from anyone who knows more than I do. Coyne’s argument for philosophical determinism is basically, “there’s no mechanism for “decision” that is free of the physical substance of our brain”. He says it in a couple of ways to be clear, but I think his critique is based on a fundamental misconception.

    Why would the free-will agent need to be separate from our molecules? His argument seems to be the same one Pinker makes in the Blank Slate arguing against the concept of a soul, which is great, and I buy. But why does the free-will agent need to be separate?

    If the argument is that anything that is made up of molecules is therefore determined and governed by the laws of physics has problems. First, of course molecules operate by the laws of physics, but that doesn’t mean that the behavior of all those molecules as a system is deterministic–his own example of the weather at least partially contradicts that. He acknowledges that weather is a system too complicated to predict using the laws of physics, so why couldn’t conscious decision making be similar? The fact that many decisions or patterns in behavior can be predicted shows the rule-based nature, but the lack of pure predictability demonstrates the complexity.

    Secondly, given that brains process information based on information they posses, on experiences that they’ve had and encoded, the molecules that are doing the deciding so to speak are my molecules. The internal arrangement of molecules inside my brain is me to a significant degree, so when my brain decides something, it’s me deciding it. While I make many quick decisions that I have no doubt are hugely influenced (or even at least partially/mainly determined by external factors), I make many decisions that take days and even weeks. While he accuses Edwards of having too simplistic a definition of free will, I think Coynes has too simplistic a definition of determinancy.

    At the end of the Blank Slate, Pinker has a great section where he tries to carve out the tiniest space for what free-will could look like. Granted it’s a bit convoluted and limited in scope, but it’s the best way of looking at it I’ve seen. It’s basically what I described above, admitting that many of the “decisions” I make in a day are caused to varying degrees by outside factors. But, humans seem to have the ability to step back from quick decision making and use something closer to rational analysis at times which can be different than deterministic decision making. It’s still the same brain made up of molecules doing the deciding, but by choosing to make decisions based on the guidance of rational thought that takes into account the best understanding of determinism and factors affecting decision making possible, it’s the closest thing to freedom going that I know of.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      If the “free-will agent”(I’m guessing you mean the part of the brain that makes decisions) is also made up of particles that obey the laws of physics, as all particles do, then it is either determined or stochastic(ie. random). So, yes, you’re right that the behaviour of the brain doesn’t necessarily have to be determined in advance…but the only other alternative is that it’s random, or semi-random. Which doesn’t give us free-will either.

      Really, if you want to try and find a place for free-will in the brain you have to completely tear down physics, biology, chemistry, etc. as we know them and rebuild science from the ground up. That’s how jarring and conceptually nonsensical the idea of libertarian free-will currently is.

      • Nicolaas Stempels says

        Yes Saul, you beat me to it.
        That does not mean that the illusion is not useful in it’s house-and-garden shape. We really need it to get angry at this a$$hole next door. 🙂

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        “you have to completely tear down physics, biology, chemistry, etc. as we know them and rebuild science from the ground up”

        So maybe it does not come from the brain. As always, the question is begged.

        • Mathew Goldstein says

          Ray Andrews: it is your side that is begging the question. There is lots of empirical evidence that the universe operates on a physical, material, mechanical basis. There is no empirical evidence otherwise. There are lots of opportunities for supernaturalism to be empirically evidenced but that does not happen. That free will exists physiologically, in people’s imaginations, everyone recognizes is true. But imagination is better at producing fiction than non-fiction so we will need something more to properl justify the conclusion that libertarian free will is non-fiction.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Mathew Goldstein

            It is certain that the physical universe operates on physical laws; the question is whether there may be non-physical aspects to the universe which do not obey those laws. You say:

            -The universe is entirely mechanistic.
            -Therefore there can be no valid examples of non-mechanistic phenomena.

            I say:

            -We have apparent examples of non-mechanistic phenomena.
            -Therefore we should be open to the possibility that the universe is not entirely mechanistic.

            “There is no empirical evidence otherwise.”

            There’s tons of it. Do you follow Penrose’s work? Or just do the ‘person behind me’ experiment yourself, it’s a fun party game. I recall a program where some orthodox were attempting to debunk the almost invariable non-chance results of person behind me experiments and it was almost comical. “It can’t be true. It can’t be true. It can’t be true” they recited, starting that (what do you call it?) forward bobbing motion that you see in madrassas or in front of the Wailing Wall.

            Now, there are very good reasons why the methods of science will have great difficulty demonstrating these phenomena. The methods of science are designed around their own premise, namely that all things are determined and thus perfectly replicable. Psychic /mental phenomena tend not to be that way. A premonition is not a replicable event. Plausible deniability will almost always be available.

            Anecdote: When I was a kid in Barbados, there was a day when our maid told my mother that she (the maid) must go home. My mother asked why. Mildred said that she didn’t know why, but she must go home and needed the rest of the day off. Ma said, yes, of course. Mildred got home and took her kids to the very back of her house and shortly thereafter an out of control truck demolished the front of her house. Not replicable. You will say it was a coincidence and I can’t prove otherwise. But was it?

      • David of Kirkland says

        Saul Sorrell-Till – No, physics (and offshoots like biology and chemistry) is fine. The issue is whether there’s something outside of me that makes choices. Free will doesn’t require magic, just that there’s no other actor making a decision other than myself.
        I may constrain my behavior in front of a police officer, or family members, or a boss, that I wouldn’t do while alone or with a group of like-minded folks. To pretend that physics changes behavior based on situations means that physics has agency, that physics has a will, that physics makes the choice.

        • Mathew Goldstein says

          David of Kirkland: “Free will doesn’t require magic, just that there’s no other actor making a decision other than myself.” We are physical and material and therefore “no other actor” equals operates by the laws of physics. Libertarian free will requires magic, free will requires something outside the boundary of possibilities set by the laws of physics.

    • “Why would the free-will agent need to be separate from our molecules?” – They wouldn’t. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Thank you.

      The “contra-causal” (mis)interpretation is based on the idea that you are a ghost in a machine. But you are not. You are a living organism with an intelligent brain. “My brain made me do it” is a way of admitting responsibility, not ducking it – at least if you know what you are.

    • “Why would the free-will agent need to be separate from our molecules?” It wouldn’t. You nailed it. The “contra-causal” definition used by both Edwards and Coyne is mistaken. Only people who believe “me” means “ghost in the machine” should be willing to draw any connection between “up to me” and “contra-causal”.

      My experience doesn’t tell me that my decisions aren’t caused by anything. No one’s experience tells them that. It tells you that your decisions were made by you – but if you are a living organism with an intelligent brain, then that requires physical causation (instead of contradicting it). And you are.

      • Vampyricon says

        Then you haven’t seen the study linked by PCC(E). While I appreciate your comments on most issues (on WEIT), you keep insisting that your take on free will is the correct one, which is contradicted by evidence, or at the very least, as yet indeterminate.

        It starts to get frustrating after a while, when someone insists on ignoring the evidence.

        • I do tend to ignore evidence that isn’t relevant to the subject at hand. Raw opinion polls are not a good way to determine definitions. For example, most people would agree to a definition of “biological sex” as “either male of female, with nothing in between.” When scientific investigation turns up a few cases of in-between genital structures and in-between chromosomal patterns, does that mean we’ve discovered that there’s no such thing as biological sex?. Or does it mean that we’ve discovered that most people have overly narrow ideas about what biological sex is?

          It’s possible to trace the logic by which people arrive at the conclusions that people report in opinion polls. That logic involves definitions, but usually more importantly it also involves beliefs about matters of fact, generalizations from observations, and the like.

          • To clarify, I don’t think that the survey research Dr. Coyne cited, about people’s ideas about free will, is completely irrelevant to finding the core meaning of the idea. It’s just that a lot more evidence is needed, to pull apart definitional issues from mistakes about matters of fact.

  10. cfkane1941 says

    Can anyone tell me what difference it makes? How does knowing one way or the other benefit anyone in the slightest? Further, do you think anyone would change how they lived if it was definitively proved one way or the other?

    Because this all seems like really smart (or credentialed) people trying to be right.

    • NashTiger says

      It is pretentious gobbledygook at its core

    • David of Kirkland says

      The difference is that some suggest physics has the agency and makes all the outcomes deterministically; others take the obvious experience (evidence) that we can make decisions and we do so all the time. Why would physics determine if I bought twitter ads or facebook ads or no ads whatsoever?

      • Mathew Goldstein says

        David of Kirkland: Because physics is our empirically derived description of how the universe functions and we are components of the universe. In any contest between our psychological beliefs and the empirical evidence, the former is very good at producing fiction while the latter dictates properly justified non-fictional conclusions about how our universe operates, .

  11. Randall Schenck says

    The logical conclusion that you do not have free will is made quite well and also dismisses the idea that not believing in free will cause a breakdown in society and crime running rampant in the streets. The environment you experience changes with time and will adjust and change the decisions made without your ability to do otherwise.

    • Thad the Lesser says

      “The logical conclusion that you do not have free will…” was made based on a lack of evidence. But free will – by definition – precludes any conclusive evidence. Therefore the conclusion was not logical at all. Logic would hold that if something exists outside of the natural realm, looking in the natural realm, for conclusive evidence for its existence, is going to be fruitless. To do so, and then make the assertion that it must therefore not exist, is certifiably illogical.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till says

        By using the same ‘logic’ I could posit any number of absurd things and just fob off any demands for evidence by saying they “exist outside of the natural realm”. For example, I have a trained breed of pink ninja cats who are preparing to invade Iran at this very moment. You demand evidence? Don’t be illogical: my ninja cats exist outside of the natural realm.

        Needless to say, that’s not how arguments work, and it’s certainly not how ‘logic’ works.

        • Thad the Lesser says

          Your cats are irrational, but I don’t see anything strictly illogical about their existence. I do have questions, such as, in what way are they cats and what makes them pink if they aren’t physical material phenomenon? Also, how would they damage Iran? Finally, I don’t believe your cats exist, even in the supernatural realm, but I could be wrong. Apparently, Schrodinger had a cat like that. You would have to convict me of the beauty of believing in your cats before I would give them a second thought.

          I await your lesson on how argument and logic work.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till says

            None of the questions you pose about my ninja cats require any evidence to substantiate them, since my cats exist “outside of the natural realm”. I have simply used your absurd argument to sidestep any demands for evidence. Their colour? It is a supernatural colour, that exists outside of the natural realm. How are they ‘cats’? They are cats in a way that you wouldn’t understand rationally, since they exist outside of the natural realm. See how easy this is? This is where we end up when you fob people off with empty supernaturalism.

            As for why my ninja cats wish to harm Iran? They don’t. They wish to pacify and civilise the people living there. They will have boots on the ground(supernatural boots, obviously, that exist outside of the natural realm) and over a number of years will win the Iranian hearts and minds.

          • David of Kirkland says

            Schrodinger’s cats confused quantum effects with large scale effects. When probabilities are so low as to be non-deterministic (like quantum effects), yet all we see/experience is built on quantum effects where the probabilities become so high we’d consider it a foregone conclusion (throwing a sufficiently big and solid rock at a normal glass window at a typical velocity will always break the window).

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Saul Sorrell-Till

          You’re getting bitchy Saul. Too bad, your arguments above have been masterpieces.

          “By using the same ‘logic’ I could posit any number of absurd things”

          Sure but why wouldya? We have no reason to believe in pink ninja cats, but the existence of consciousness and free will are something that every human being lives with ever second of her waking life. It is omnipresent and omnipotent. It is a profoundly powerful reason to question the doctrine that mechanism is everything. Perhaps the materialists will one day explain these things, but they sure haven’t done so yet. May as well have a fish deny the existence of water.

        • Thad the Lesser says

          @ Saul
          “None of the questions you pose about my ninja casts require any evidence…” Of course they don’t, and I’m not asking for evidence.

          “…I have simply used your absurd argument to sidestep any demands for evidence…” How is the argument absurd? On the contrary, if there is a realm that is incomprehensible to mere humans, it is absurd to demand that it be comprehensible. And that is what you mean when you say you demand evidence, isn’t it.

          Lastly, although I don’t demand a preponderance of evidence, in this arena, I do demand another criteria. As stated before, unless you convict me of the beauty of believing in your cats, I will not give them a second thought. Beauty is an unappealing criteria, certainly, and it is so mainly because you and I have rather pathetic defences against its fraud. As such, it is tempting to reduce one’s attack surface by always demanding sufficient evidence. Remain in the Shire if you wish.

  12. augustine says

    “…for many people it’s impossible to believe in something that we’ve rejected due to lack of evidence, regardless of what we stand to gain.”

    This may be true in some instances, but many people do believe in all sorts of notions that represent “gain” yet are deficient in supporting evidence. Examples include the belief that the poor exist because others are rich, “diversity” (usually without definition or metrics) is a good that must be pursued universally, Socialism is a viable, positive idea, etc. The problem being that neither the lack of evidence idea, nor contradictory evidence, arrives on the shores of their thought process to begin with. Such bias is ubiquitous.

    A lack of evidence per se can be problematic sometimes but does not necessarily mean something is untrue, or true.

  13. Farris says

    The Big Bang problem: The Big Bang theory is pretty much universally accepted by science. But such was not always the case.

    “The big question in cosmology in the early 60’s was, did the universe have a beginning? Many scientists were instinctively opposed to the idea, because they felt that a point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God, to determine how the universe would start off.” Stephen Hawking

    “This widespread bias that the universe has no beginning or end grew out of the materialist philosophies of the 19th century, and by 1917 it held such sway that Einstein himself was afflicted with it.” Dr. Chris Clemens

    Given such resistance, how did the Big Bang Theory come into existence?

    “Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre used Einstein’s Equations to construct the theory that later became known as the Big Bang, and to predict the expansion of the universe 2 years before Edwin Hubble measured it.”
    “ Fred Hoyle, another Cambridge astronomer, and an atheist, applied the name “Big Bang” to the theory as mockery. Hoyle hated the idea of a Universe with a beginning, and even after Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the universe, Hoyle did not believe the question was settled, but proposed that along with the expansion, new matter appeared to fill the void, so the Universe could still be eternal. He was happier with the spontaneous unobserved generation of new matter than he was with a beginning to the universe.”
    “In 1965, when radiation from the “primordial fireball” of Lemaitre’s theory was observed by Bell Labs engineers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, even the diehard skeptics were convinced, and now the Big Bang is the standard model astronomers use to think about the universe. And almost all of them agree it had some kind of beginning very different from the conditions we see now.” Dr. Chris Clemens.

    Best observation:
    (“There were two ways of arriving at the truth. I decided to follow them both…” )
    “Nothing in my working life, nothing I ever learned in my studies of either science or religion has ever caused me to change that opinion. I have no conflict to reconcile. Science has not shaken my faith in religion and religion has never caused me to question the conclusions I reached by scientific methods.”
    Georges Lemaitre.

  14. augustine says

    I see my comment missed a key part of the quoted portion: something that has been rejected. People routinely reject ideas due to a lack of evidence, but how many more ideas are adopted in spite of this lack?

  15. The evidence the author uses for dismissing free will is contingent on thousands of scientists and mathematicians who freely chose to set up experiments and/or analyze problems in a search for truth. If the actions of those searchers were not driven by a choice to find truth, why should we believe their results. Their conclusions like everything else would be predetermined by their physical environment in a way that need not bear any relationship to the truth. Furthermore my own analysis to determine whether or not to believe their results would also be determined by physical laws rather than the truth of the proposition so it would not matter what I believe anyway.

    I find this logic hard to refute so I would rather dismiss the author’s claim that my choices are driven by brain activity. Although I would leave open the possibility that brain activity itself is not fully determined by the physical environment. Not sure what “physical” means precisely but I doubt it includes “the truth of a proposition.”

    • Mathew Goldstein says

      Bryan Stiles: Switching from believing we have libertarian free will to believing we have no such free will very much alters the (psychological based) perspective we have of ourselves. But this does not in any way conflict with, or change, any of our existing knowledge of how the universe operates, including how science operates. You seem to think that libertarian free will is somehow necessary for humans to actively pursue obtaining answers to questions about how the universe operates and therefore is not disputable.That is not true. Libertarian feee will versus no such free may result in a big change psychologically regarding our self-understanding of ourselves and our universe, but there is no change at all regarding the actual operation of the universe, including our own role.

  16. By the way the fundamental reason I believe in free will is that I experience it directly. Subjectively speaking, I find it easier to believe that quillette or the author or science itself is an illusion than to believe that about my own free will.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      People say the same thing about Jesus and Allah. You can believe something as fervently as you want, no-one’s stopping you. And no-one’s suggesting that this is an easy idea to accept, or that it’s even possible to accept it in your bones(I don’t think it is). Nor is anyone suggesting that if society were to accept that free-will doesn’t exist it would happen overnight.

      But the things that science and philosophy reveal about reality are true whether or not you believe in them. And the fact that they outrage our core instincts is utterly irrelevant.

      As for the idea that truth has no meaning in a deterministic universe; that doesn’t follow. We can see the causal relations between things and test our theories against reality regardless of whether we had any choice over doing so. Einstein had no control over the fact that he was right about gravity and Paley had no control over the fact that was wrong about the provenance of life on earth. It doesn’t make their conclusions any less valid and invalid respectively.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        “People say the same thing about Jesus and Allah.”

        But it’s a poor comparison. Free will is something that we experience within ourselves. As many have noted above, it is in fact impossible to get thru the day without it — you might say as an intellectualism that you don’t believe in it, but in practice you will behave exactly as tho you do.

        “But the things that science and philosophy reveal about reality are true”

        Yes, but are they revealed? Science if it is to be honest can only say that free will cannot logically exist in a purely mechanistic world, which is entirely true, but again it begs the question.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, big thinkers came to the conclusion “I think therefore I am” as a way to dismiss that all of reality may not be real, just in my thoughts. These people say that because my thoughts use an organ made up of molecules that obey physics, that the thoughts that arise are created elsewhere and are not under my own control. It’s weird because this article, your comment, have now helped direct my own comment. To assume that I could have posted or not was not up to me lacks evidence. And I have many times written a comment and then decided not to post it. Often I think up a comment, but don’t write it. Sometimes I write a comment and post it before I’ve reread it so it says the opposite of what I mean.
      Of course my mind can produce things that are not there to others, yet they are there to me. I can see them, fear them, etc. That my thoughts are constrained by my brain is also obvious — drugs show how my thoughts can vary widely; and dreaming shows I can think up stuff that only exists in my mind. I’ll believe in “no free will” when the mechanism for all choices is shown to be external to me. I can choose to raise my arm, but less able to control a slight kick when my knee nerve is hit, or close my eye when something flashes in front of my face. But I can also open/close those same eyes, and kick my knees on purpose. We clearly have involuntary and voluntary aspects; when voluntary, that’s free will. When forced by external pressures, it’s not.

  17. Rick Frey says

    Imagine this thought experiment:

    For today, I come up with three possible responses when faced with simple decisions:
    1. Do it now
    2. Don’t do it
    3. Ask again later

    When I come to a decision today, I roll dice. Instead of my molecules making the decision, my molecules make the decision to “hand off” decision making to an external, random process. I roll dice, and do whatever the dice tell me to do.

    These dice based outcomes would not be determined by my molecules (my molecules have no control over the dice). These decisions were random, but not in any way related to the randomness of my own molecules. Yet this strategy did not require some extra-molecular will or soul to make it happen. It is possible, using my own molecules to access models of decision making that are completely indeterminate and not derivative of my own molecules.

    Once you get here, free-will is just around the corner …

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes, good point. I can always answer yes. Always answer no. Answer no when the correct answer is yes. Answer yes when the correct answer is no. Or I can roll the dice or use a random number generator or act based on the roll of dice.

  18. The decider. Man has set himself apart from animals because men believe they can ponder a situation and make a decision based on their own pondering, and animals cannot. Animals only react to situations by instinct, while men ponder a situation and think they are the decider. This seems to be delusional on both counts. Ultimately it is the brain/mind that decides in order to perpetuate its own survival.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Or to post this comment and disagree, yet that choice has nothing to do with survival.
      Unless it’s your brain making my decision, I have free will. Until you have evidence that shows you know my choice before I make it, I’ll stick with the abundant evidence that you can’t predict the future and I can make a choice.

  19. codadmin says

    Maybe free will Isn’t an ‘either-or’ thing.

    Maybe it’s a state of mind that can be achieved but is very difficult to achieve.

    People who commit suicide, for example, are bypassing every single deterministic biological fail-safe humans possess, but they manage to do it anyway.

    • Klaus C. says

      Not at all. Like other animals, we’re programmed to try to extract ourselves from dangerous or unpleasant circumstances. Unlike other animals, we’re knowledgeable enough to realise that killing ourselves is one way of doing this.

      It is however a fairly drastic way, since doing it means we will no longer exist. But there are circumstances where people decide that no longer existing is preferable to the existing unpleasant state of affairs, which they feel they can’t change.

      I’m sure that if other animals were aware of death, and knew how to kill themselves, there’d be very much more suicide going on in the animal world.

      • David of Kirkland says

        Most animals understand death; they try to avoid it, and work hard to prevent it.
        All animals also have brains/minds, and they also are constrained by physics (and thus biology and chemistry) and per the author are unable to decide for themselves just like humans cannot decide for themselves.

        • Klaus C. says

          Not sure what to make of this reply. No, there’s no evidence that any animals apart from humans understand death, in the sense that they themselves and all living beings are destined for death.

          And humans “decide for themselves” all the time, about all kinds of things. Humans are extremely flexible animals because we’re able to creatively change the ways we live, the ways we conceive of the world and the ways we change it to suit ourselves.

          There’s little physical difference between the modern humans of the neolithic and the modern humans of the 21st century, but many very substantial differences in the ways we live and the world we have created.

  20. Nicolaas Stempels says

    Let us be honest, after all these discussions and ‘but’s, Sensei Coyne demolished Edwards-kun ‘s conjecture.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      He did. I must say I approve of this Coyne fellow’s argumentational chops – any idea if he has a blog- sorry, a website of some kind? Possibly one that discusses atheism and politics? And ducks?

      Just wondering.

    • Farris says

      Being honest:
      If mankind lacks free will the he would likewise lack the ability to reason, which in my humble opinion is demonstrably false.

  21. I think Professor Coyne successfully demolishes Edward’s article. However, I disagree with the conclusion that we don’t have free will. Certainly we don’t have the magic kind of free will where something outside of chemistry and physics acts within our brains. The problem, I think, is with the definition of free will.

    It is somewhat ironic that Coyne quotes Sean Carroll here as Sean has written about free will: “Free Will Is as Real as Baseball” ( Carroll believes, and I agree, that free will operates at a different level of description than determinism. There are several ways of looking at this. As Rick Frey comments above, if we can’t use determinism to predict our behavior, it is hard to see how it affects our agency. Another is that agency is an emergent property. Although everything runs on a fundamental physics substrate, determined or not, the rules of physics are not very helpful in explaining human level concepts.

    In the jargon, Sean Carroll and I are Compatibilists. However, I really dislike this term because, in my view, free will and determinism don’t need to be compatible as they don’t interact. Is chess compatible with determinism? Perhaps the outcome of all chess games is predetermined but we find we still have to play the games to find out who will win. Free will is like that.

    • augustine says


      Thanks for this comment. I hadn’t though of an alternative like this before. Determinism and free will then are not in opposition but orthogonal to each other instead.

    • David of Kirkland says

      If chess or any sport/game were predetermined, nobody would watch to find out who wins.
      Gambling would not exist if outcomes were deterministic.
      Education, Laws and Morality and Culture would not be necessary if outcomes were deterministic.
      Who knew that humans had to evolve, that they had to create English and Math, that the scientific method had to exist, that global climate change had to occur as it’s all deterministic because of physics.

      • augustine says

        David K,
        Determinism does not require that we know or can know the outcomes. As I understand it, outcomes are predetermined by all prior variables, in the infinite past and going forward. Why couldn’t one of those variables be free will?

  22. Saul
    I did not say truth has no meaning in a deterministic universe. I said that if one’s conclusions are predetermined there is no reason to believe they are correct. Why does the author disbelieve in free will? There are two kinds of answers to this question. One kind involves a final cause. The author is trying to get to the truth so he looks through all the evidence and constructs a chain of proof. This chain of proof convinces him that free will does not exist. The other kind of answer involves a first cause. Physical phenomena impinged on the author’s brain leading his neurons to fire in such a way that he was convinced free will does not exist. It seems a stretch to imagine that both of these chains of logic exist simultaneously not just for this one instance but for every single case of correct scientific reasoning.

    As an engineer I deal with lots of scientific models. A good model explains the data, is self consistent, and is simple/elegant. Such a model is also useful, you can code it up and use it to predict reality. A materialistic / no free will model of the universe fails to meet these criteria. Treating people as if they have free will is a much better predictor of their behavior than any deterministic model. When we predict human behavior we examine the purpose the person is trying to achieve thus presuming free will. We do this kind of modeling all the time every day and it works well. The free will hypothesis is an essential part of practical models of human behavior.

    Free will is needed to explain each of our subjective experiences. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” All information including thought can be broken up into bits, binary on/off 0/1 “decisions”. Thinking is just the process of constructing information from many such bits. If we choose each 0 or 1, we are thinking. If something external to us chooses, it is the thinker —not us. Solipsism is the belief that nothing exists except yourself the thinker. Most of us progress beyond Solipsism because we believe the beings that we perceive around us are also thinkers. Calvinism is the odd belief that there was only one thinker, God. Materialism seems to me to claim that there are no thinkers at all.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      @Bryan Stiles – I do understand your point, that getting caught in the flow of determinism appears to render the truth of one’s beliefs an accident. I actually think this argument is one of the more subtle and interesting arguments made against determinism, although I still disagree with it.

      Yes, the conclusion about whether you believe in something will come at the end of a long line of causes, none of which were avoidable. But those causes can still be either valid or invalid. The causes can be epistemically valid or epistemically invalid, and we can make judgements in retrospect about that. And those judgements will be similarly determined in advance. But the fact that beliefs either tally with reality or they don’t; that’s unavoidable, and it is something that separates false beliefs from true ones.

      The argument in your comment makes us pause because we think of rational thinking(eg. scientific reasoning, mathematics, etc.) as somehow qualitatively different from, and obviously better than, instinctive reactions or emotional feelings. So when we find out that they’re all governed by the same deterministic processes, it seems to reduce them all to the same level. But the deterministic chain of causes that leads to a belief either makes sense or it doesn’t. It’s either sensible or it isn’t.

      Off to bed in the UK now.

      • Rick Frey says

        The idea that all the judgments about a belief can be determined in advance doesn’t fly. I might be working on a belief, weighing it, thinking about it, and on the final day, the weather was horrible–rainy, cold, miserable, so I make one choice vs. another.

        Humans have interactions with the external world that affect our decisions. Since you acknowledge the weather can’t be predicted, and events like the weather can affect human decision making, there’s no way to know what judgement a person will arrive at in advance.

        Once you get that humans regularly make decisions based on factors outside of their own molecules that are indeterminate, it shoots any version of determinism dead.

        I’m not arguing at all that it proves free-will, but it’s not determinism.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        But sad to think that we have no choice which to ‘choose’. Rather I should say: Sad that we can’t help but thinking that the decision as to whether we adhere to sense or nonsense is already made for us. Indeed it was predetermined that I’d consider it sad.

    • @Bryan Stiles – I agree with Saul’s reply, and I want to add one more point. Evolution deals harshly with organisms whose brains represent things differently from the way things are. Those poor critters wind up being somebody else’s lunch. It is therefore not an accident, not even close, that people mostly reason well. The causes active in human and prehuman history have been well aligned with truth-seeking.

  23. Sylv says

    Sorry, but I was destined to believe in Free Will; there’s no escaping my fate.

  24. Some commenters seem to accept the notion that if no known physical law can explain something, then it must be “magic, as in something outside of “physics and chemistry” cannot interact with our brain because that would be “magic.” I find this an odd idea. Current models of the universe are hardly complete. Physics cannot explain dark matter or dark energy which comprise the majority of “stuff” in the universe. Why would we expect it to explain phenomena like consciousness or sentience or free will which we have not only never studied empirically but can not define and cannot even posit an experiment to study? I don’t think words like magic, natural, or supernatural have much meaning. We tend to put concepts we don’t understand in a box and presume they are unimportant or fully explained by current theory even when that is clearly not the case. Everything is “natural” once you understand it.

  25. I think much of the modern debate about free will is to avoid letting God in the door. This is ironic because many of the ancient or early modern believers in determinism believed in it because God had to be all powerful and human free will would take away from that.

    God said “I am that I am “
    Materialism says “ You are not and neither am I.”
    Or perhaps “I am not because if I was then you might be.”

    God or gods almost certainly exist. We should just get over that and not tie ourselves in logical knots trying to avoid the concept.

    The universe has existed for 15 billion years. There are billions of habitable planets that have had billions of years longer to develop life than Earth. What would you call a being from a civilization a billion years more advanced than ours? Gods.

    Conversely if we are the most intelligent life in the universe or at least there are none so sufficiently advanced that they are gods to us, wouldn’t that be a special universe indeed! How would such a universe come about? One wonders.

  26. A C Harper says

    I have read that when you use a hammer your brain and body extend your body image to include the hammer as if it were a part of you. This makes sense in evolutionary terms – if you (or a chimp or a raven) use tools then it is more economic to use a mind/body/tool combined mapping then being constantly surprised to find yourself gripping a hammer as your hand moves. But you can still put the hammer down and reset your mind/body mapping without difficulty.

    Perhaps ‘free will’ is just a name for a different mind/body/tool combined mapping? The things you do away from your body are mapped with the inference of agency. But the ability to infer agency does not necessarily reflect a true property.

    I recommend ‘The Mind is Flat’ by Nick Chater or reading about The Grand Delusion. From an article in the New Scientist:

    “But it feels so real. We all have a sense of agency — the conviction that even though we did one thing, we could have done another, and that at any given moment we have free choice of any number of actions. Yet it seems that this is an elaborate illusion created by your brain.”

    So if you assert that you have free will you have to prove first that you are not kidding yourself. The burden of proof now increasingly falls on those making the claim for the existence of free will.

  27. I reject that the burden of proof falls on the pro free will side. Agency is something we all directly experience. Everything else is contingent. One need not posit a model to probe the existence of something one sees every minute of every day. Rather models that exclude that thing deserve more scrutiny.

    • A C Harper says

      Can you prove to me that your feelings reflect reality rather than what you believe reality to be? People can feel all sorts of things (many of which are interpretations of poorly perceived context), which turn out to be misjudged.

      • David of Kirkland says

        That two humans under the control of the same physics in very similar environments (human society on Earth at the same time) can have diametrically opposed understandings of reality suggests free will over a will created externally.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Bryan Stiles

      “Agency is something we all directly experience.”

      Exactly. The burden is on the other side to explain to the fish that there is no such thing as water. One of our tests for truth is that it is consistent, and the consistency of the belief in free will is nearly universal. Too bad about the Calvinists, but even they do not go thru the day without exercising their wills in reality.

  28. Thad the Lesser says

    Strange, I haven’t noticed anyone mention the obvious answer. Some of us have free will and some of us don’t.

    • Emblem14 says

      or the more nuanced version – human agency is on a spectrum. Some people have a lot of agency – many things occur to them, and they deliberate on their many choices. Others have almost no agency – they exist almost completely on unquestioned learned routines, and unexamined impulses, and then they die.

      No one can say which kind of existence is “better” from a moral standpoint, but there’s no doubt that some people are imbued with far more possibility of thought and action than others for whatever reason.

      • Thad the Lesser says

        Hear, hear. Not only a spectrum, but a spectrum upon which one may find himself occupying different positions, at different times in life.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Thad the Lesser

      Ha! That might be it: I and others here do, and others here simply don’t, the course of their lives is written. I’m glad mine isn’t tho, how boring.

  29. Klaus C. says

    Decent piece, Jerry. As I argued in the comments of the previous piece, sticking the word “free” onto the concept of “will” results in a pretty nonsensical construction.

    By “will” itself, when we’re talking about a conscious process, we mean a deterministic process of decision-making – i.e., choices made for various purposes, in line with selected criteria, as opposed to rolling dice. Adding the word “free” to this adds no comprehensible meaning, except in the legalistic sense of meaning that we’re making decisions free of coercion from other people. But we never make decisions free of factors that are beyond our control.

    There are also plenty of decisions made “intuitively”, i.e., without being aware of “why” we reach a certain conclusion. A simple everyday example is deciding what we feel like having for dinner – it’s just a process of scanning our “feelings” without bothering to account for them. Although then we might contrast those feelings with our awareness of actual dietary requirements and knowledge of nutrition etc, to either accept or reject the intuition.

    I think it’s fairly clear that “will” is a real aspect of cognitive processes, not an “illusion” – we really do make many decisions in line with consciously selected criteria and this does make a very significant difference to our lives and to the world around us. But it’s a deterministic process like any other, although can be very much more complicated, especially when we try to trace its links to non-conscious deterministic processes.

    Ditching the unhelpful term “free will” will allow us to concentrate on better understanding “will”, not as some magical property of “the human soul”, but as a dynamic deterministic property of ordinary human cognition, taking place in the central nervous system and its interactions with the environment.

    • David of Kirkland says

      @Klaus – It’s really not that hard. Say there is a button in front of you. If you raise your hand and push the button, that’s free will (even if someone is pointing a gun at your head, where you’d not be legally free, but you could choose to risk being shot instead of pushing the button). If you are asleep or I can otherwise lift your hand and push it against the button, then your action was not your free will; it was my free will.
      I agree that “will” and “free will” are likely the same thing in common usage, but “will” just implies that your mind has made a decision that must affect something in the future. I can freely choose and decide to be wealthy, but that’s not free will as I cannot force that result.

      • Klaus C. says

        When people use the term “free will” in the context of these discussions, the word “free” is usually intended to mean “non-deterministic”. But as I pointed out, “will” is by definition deterministic, because it means determining outcomes in accordance with specific desires, priorities and other decision-making criteria.

  30. I think the point of saying “free will” rather than just “will” is to distinguish from cases in which all of our choices are predetermined by someone of something else. Calvinism argues that all choices were actually predetermined by God. We just had the illusion that we were making the choices. Free will does not imply there is no reason for our choices but rather the reasons are our own. They are not determined by God or by external forces. If for example people were unable to make certain choices that would imply free will. An addict is an example of not so free will. They may want to quit the heroin but they find they cannot. Nonetheless some addicts do quit and arguably most can if they exert sufficient will. I would still say free will applied. However, I allow for the possibility that there exists a drug so strong and an addict so addicted that his will is no longer free in this regard. Nonetheless such a person could still freely choice corn flakes over wheaties in the morning.

    • Klaus C. says

      “I think the point of saying “free will” rather than just “will” is to distinguish from cases in which all of our choices are predetermined by someone of something else.”

      I’d say that “free” is a misleading term in such distinctions (except in the legal sense of determining “who’s to blame” when someone does something involving coercion from others).

      People exercise will all the time, but a “person” is just a particular event occurring within a larger chain of events, which predetermine its initial order and much of its subsequent development, including the extent of its ability to introduce new deterministic outcomes.

      A person is however a very complex event displaying variable internal order, controlled to some extent by those systems of order themselves as they unfold and interact with the rest of the world. The “agencies of control” that arise within the event include what we experience as “consciousness”, a powerful tool with the ability to re-route developments along various alternative deterministic paths.

      You can think of it as a complex dynamic pinball machine in which greater complexity arises if certain routes are taken, with some routes resulting in the construction of paths that wouldn’t otherwise have come into being.

      It should be perfectly possible to create models of human cognition in which “human agency” is understood both as a creative tool and an entirely deterministic process.

      • dirk says

        I wonder, I have a cucumberplant growing on my balconry, shooting out prehensils, looking for some support to curl around. Sometimes I help them with that, because they seem unsure in which direction to grow. It looks like, they want some support to be able to grow better and higher-up. Can I call this a plant will??

        I doubt so, but, where a chipmunk climbs up the garden table to find an acorn, certainly that may be called a will, though not a free will.

        What about a baby trying to grasp a toy?

        • Klaus C. says

          In these discussions, what we normally mean by “will” is the ability to make deliberately conscious decisions for conscious reasons (or what we experience as such), which enable outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

          Most behaviours of most organisms don’t require that cognitive bridge between “feeling” and “doing”. Many human behaviours don’t, as well, and all conscious human behaviours obviously also require non-conscious input.

          It’s clear that the far wider range of decisions that humans are able to make is due to our very sophisticated brains. It’s also clear that our brains function in a deterministic way, which is mirrored in our actual decision-making processes.

          So this argument over determinism and will is pretty stale, but not likely to go away soon because many people don’t understand the basic concepts and often feel threatened by them.

          • dirk says

            Threatened, yes Klaus, for possibly not being in full command of the situation and their own life. Freedom was an exception for many people in history, until the French Revolution was ushered in, the first word on the banners was LIBERTE ( and fraternite as the last).

            Also, I wonder whether the freeness of that Liberte stood for axactly the same as the free in free will, it might be something of the sort only.

  31. David C Fiscer says

    There are eminent physicists who, more humbly than the author, assess the extent of their knowledge of the “unalterable laws of nature” and believe both in free will and that it can be grounded in physics, e.g., Roger Penrose.

  32. ADM64 says

    Presumably Mr. Coyne opted to write this article because of some physically pre-determined forces with the intention of convincing others who have no ability to change their mind, except as physically determined, to in fact agree with him?

    The major problem with Coyne and many of the new Atheists is that, accomplished scientists though they are, they are also ideological fanatics who address these questions in terms of, “If religious people believe God gave man free will, then there must be no free will.” Speaking as an atheist, such knee-jerk responses are highly unscientific. The essence of human consciousness is its ability to conceive of things that are not predetermined. Otherwise, the industrial revolution would have happened 2300 years ago in Greece and the Dark Ages not at all.

  33. Chris says

    Mr. Coyne demands of free will proof that he cannot provide for the absence of free will. Let’s see him predict somebody’s actions accurately. That’s proof. But he cannot do so.

    His argument is simply the assumption that everything is controlled by laws. This is a philosophical position, not a proven fact.

    Science is the study of controllable and repeatable phenomena, so it will always and forever be blind to free will, by definition. My psych professor used to very persuasively say that free will was in the experimental error. Unlike physics, experimental psychology has no results that are fully determined by initial facts. There are always many exceptions to any psychological principle, and in these exceptions we can find free will.

    Assuming there is no free will, how would a state of free will differ from our current perceptions? In no way at all. In what way is it parsimonious to doubt the evidence of our experience based on a principle we can in no way prove?

    Everything in our experience tells us there is free will. Doubt it if you like, but why? How will this change your life?

  34. I know what it is like to be a person. I feel no need for mental gymnastics in which I am supposed to forego that first hand knowledge in order to think of myself as a poorly understood complex system. However one models the system, one needs to accept that internal knowledge. If the best scientific model cannot explain that knowledge that is fine. The model just isn’t correct yet. What is bonkers is too deny experience (data) because it does not fit in the model. Models are made to explain data. They are not truth in themselves. In mathematics one can make statements about one class of concepts that seem self evidently true but are actually wrong in a more complex set of cases. Multiplication is commutative in real numbers but not in matrices. In a sufficiently complex numerical system there are statements you can make that are neither true nor false. Electrons are not people, and even the behavior of electrons has its weird hard to interpret side. Perhaps electrons have a simple free will of a type that is statistically representable but non deterministic. Perhaps people have something much more complicated.

  35. Determinism would imply that even thoughts are deterministic. If I am not the author of my thoughts, there is no me. The concept of self itself would be an illusion. I can imagine a universe where all people are automata and their is no such thing as self. I cannot imagine a universe where the automata understand their universe. How can something without the ability to think it’s own thoughts understand anything? There could only be the illusion of understanding. It is not even clear to me that the concept of illusion makes sense without control of an inner dialogue.

    Frankly I think the notion of illusory free will in internally inconsistent. There is no perception and no illusion without agency at least within one’s own thoughts.

    • dirk says

      But, Bryan, do you really think you are only yourself by having thoughts? Do you have dreams at night? Or do those dreams have you, come to you from somewhere? I have strange ideas all the time, and wonder where they come from, I read something here, on Quillette, and something pops up in my mind, I wonder whether it makes sense or not, but I just write it down. Just like this one again.

      • Whether some of your thoughts or dreams come from someone or something else is an interesting questions, but if none of them come from you then there is no you.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Bryan Stiles

      There can be no illusion without someone to be fooled by it. These folks contradict themselves even in the words that they use.

      • Klaus C. says

        I agree that the term “illusion” is unhelpful in this context. An illusion is a “cognitive error” and when we make decisions our cognition is not normally malfunctioning or misperceiving. (Although of course we have just as much capacity to make bad decisions as good ones, that’s not due to decision-making being “illusory”, but all too real).

        There’s also nothing illusory about the many ways (both good and bad) we’ve changed the world as a result of making conscious decisions. But it’s not at all necessary to conceive of human will as being “non-deterministic” in order to recognise it as a creative agency.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Klaus C.

          This might be called the ‘soft’ deterministic position: Yes we make decisions and yes we go to some trouble to try to make the right ones and it matters. Yet somehow Que Sera Sera. But what is this besides a word game? There is no free will and yet in every possible way we must behave as if there is and it is quite impossible to go five minutes without acting as tho free will exists — yet it does not exist. What, really is the use? There is no such thing as green. Tell it to the cop when you get a ticket for going thru a red light.

  36. A B says

    I want to add to Brian Styles comments.

    Professor Coyne only permit two models of the universe- the fully mechanical model, and a model with randomness. A mechanical model is not compatible with free will, and a random model doesn’t help since a coin flip is not a choice.

    But before the 20th century, there was only one model of the universe – the mechanical one. Why stop at two models? That is a limitation of imagination. Indeed, there are mathematical models that bridge the gap between pure mechanics and pure randomness. These models have been studied for over a hundred years and could provide a model for free will. They satisfy a key component of free will – their expression seems random, but actually may have some higher meaning that is not knowable to any observer. As a trivial example, a series of decisions that mimicked the answers to the halting problem would look random to any observer, but are not actually random.
    I’m not saying that free will exists. I’m saying that we need to be careful before saying the universe cannot contain it.

    • Vampyricon says

      Actually, randomness does not exist. Although most people say that quantum mechanics is random, most people who work in quantum foundations agree that quantum mechanics is deterministic.

  37. Rick Frey says

    I wrote this in a response to a comment, but it feels like a major problem with the argument for determinism. Here’s the basic idea:

    Humans have interactions with the external world that affect our decisions. Since it seems that many/most people acknowledge that complicated physical events such as the weather can’t be predicted, if weather could affect a human decision, that decision would not be determined.

    Once you get that humans regularly make decisions based on factors outside of their own molecules that are indeterminate, it shoots any version of determinism dead.

    It clearly doesn’t prove free-will, but it’s not any form of determinism that I’ve heard described here.

    Given that human decision making is hugely affected by the external world, and given that it’s at least reasonable to argue that the exact details of the state of the physical world that affect my decisions is indeterminable, there is no basis to talk about determinism at almost any meaningful level in relation to human decision making.

    The next point is that while the exact state of the universe can’t be determined and there’s no 100% infallible way to predict the future of human decision making, there are many patterns, tendencies, and statistical regularities that have huge predictive utility.

    • Klaus C. says

      The weather is deterministic in nature, as is human decision-making, which evolved to be able to take variable environmental factors into account. Indeed that’s one of the main advantages of being able to make new decisions, instead of being slave to inflexible behaviour patterns like less cognitively sophisticated life forms.

      You don’t seem to realise that a decision that “takes the weather into account” is by definition, a deterministic decision – the outcome is determined by using the weather as a criterion – “if it rains, I’ll do this, if it’s sunny, I’ll do that” etc.

      • Rick Frey says

        Weather is deterministic in a broad, general sense that there are weather patterns and clear physical factors that affect it. But “the weather” is indeterminable in reality. It is too complex, dynamic and interactive of a system to be able to model or predict.

        The way you describe “taking weather into account” makes it sound like it’s this simple little thing. The fact that weather has been demonstrated to have an effect on human behavior doesn’t at all mean that it’s a clean, linear function you can just apply. Not only is the weather indeterminable, but the myriad of ways that weather can affect human decisions is again, indeterminable which leaves the effect of weather on humans indeterminable as well.

        • Klaus C. says

          As you apparently agree, the extent to which the behaviour of a complex system can be predicted by observers makes no difference to whether it’s deterministic in nature. Chaotic systems like weather patterns are deterministic, i.e., non-random.

          Those who reject that human will functions deterministically usually claim that it is inherently non-deterministic in nature, but are unable to propose any scientifically meaningful alternative.

    • Vampyricon says

      You don’t seem to differentiate practical predictability from determinism. Human behavior is not predictable with our current technology, but that does not mean it is indeterministic.

  38. Closed Range says


    I think you’re on the right track that it is good to think about free will as a model of human behaviour. But it seems to me the flaw in your argument is that you confuse determinism with predictability.

    “Treating people as if they have free will is a much better predictor of their behavior than any deterministic model.”

    As I explained in a comment on the previous article, something can be perfectly deterministic yet entirely unpredictable. If you’re an engineer you will have likely encountered pseudo-random number generators.

    I’ll just go ahead and quote myself how these are two different concepts, and how it relates to free will.

    “Your brain is deterministic in the sense that it’s state from one instant to the next is purely a function of it previous state and its inputs from stimuli. If you could rewind it back to its previous setting and give exactly the same inputs, you would get the same outcome. This is what physicists and mathematicians mean by determinism.

    This brings me to the difference between determinism and predictability. Your brain is a deterministic machine, but it is entirely unpredictable due to its complexity. By this I mean that there’s no practical way of knowing what the full state actually is, and even if you could guess it’s current state, it would be nearly impossible to reproduce it’s workings to know it’s next state (especially given that we have only our brains to comprehend such things).

    It is even possible, but not certain, that it is chaotic in the mathematical sense that small differences in inputs can have big differences in output. This however does not stop it from being less deterministic than an analogue watch, but unlike a watch it is it’s complexity that makes it unpredictable.

    If you’re thinking at this stage that I’m contradicting myself, then I suggest reading up about (pseudo)-random number generators: they are entirely deterministic processes that appear random in their behaviour. You will see there is no contradiction.

    It is around this scale that you can talk about free will. You don’t free will in the sense of a magic soul that can break the determinism in your brain. Yet you have free will in the sense that nobody can ever rig your stimuli to guarantee a certain outcome in your behaviour, due to its unpredictability and possible chaos. It is here that you have personal responsibility because you can never truly claim “they made me do it”.”

    So in conclusion, my take is that people have free will in the sense given above and they are also deterministic. We treat people as having free will because it is an effective model of their behaviour.

    • Bryan Stiles says

      My soul isn’t magic. Mine is a normal soul. Only elves have magic souls.

      More seriously, terms like magic and soul are not well enough defined to use in argument for or against free will.

      I get that human behavior can be hard to predict and still deterministic, but I cannot get away from the notion that if all my thoughts are determined by something other than me, then there is no me.

      Someone created Hamlet. I find the notion that it originated from chaos theory, quantum fluctuation, interaction with the weather, or pseudo random number generation absurd. I use pseudo random number generators all the time. They rarely write any interesting plays at all. Typing monkeys (especially emonkey) are much better at it, but still subpar.

      • Closed Range says


        I was not saying that random number generators write plays. I was saying they are examples of how determinism and predictability are different.
        But since I can tell you’re not attempting to engage with the idea, I shan’t bother to continue the discussion.

  39. Urusigh says

    I do love when the comments are better than the article.

    The author pretends to have demolished free will with an argument, but all he’s really done is repeat the implications of a several premises that he cannot prove: 1) that existence is purely mechanistic, 2) that the laws governing those mechanisms are immutable, and 3) that our current understanding of those laws is substantially correct and/or will eventually be correct.

    Frankly, he fails at premise 1, free will is by definition not a mechanistic effect, therefore to presuppose that non-mechanistic effects do not exist is begging the question. He is like a man trying to use a metal detector to search for rubber, then declaring that rubber must not exist because he did not find it.

    Remove that invalid assumption and we get a modified premise 2) the laws governing those mechanisms may have exceptions, but otherwise hold away. This is frankly a better match to our currently patchy and inconsistent understanding of physical laws, so let’s start there. People follow determinatism except when they choose not to. Obviously this is both intuitively true and defensible on the evidence: people routinely do what would be expected by the various scientific disciplines, but not always. Then the question becomes more a matter of under what circumstances that Will may overrule determinism and vice versa.

    A reasonable analogy might be made to physical movement. All matter remains at rest unless acted upon. Your body therefore remains motionless except when your brain tells your muscles to move. Nonetheless, there are injuries and/or physical restraints that can prevent a person’s muscles from moving according to their brain’s instructions. Clearly, those limitations cannot therefore prove that the brain did not send the signal to move.

    Likewise, whatever non-physical entity produces exceptions to physical laws may nonetheless be limited in when and how it can override physical determinatism (I. E. Such as when the body is drugged or mentally ill). Imagine that the body is a computer. It follows programs in a purely deterministic fashion. However, a user sitting at the keyboard is quite capable of issuing commands to the system directly and interrupting running programs. In keeping with this metaphor, the author here is like an artificial intelligence that examines its own code and thereby concludes that it has neither a programmer nor a user. After all, how could an electronic entity directly perceive anything but the 1’s and 0’s of which it is made? If it cannot perceive it, can it exist? That AI might well disbelieve in the physical reality which humans occupy. We are in much the same position in regards to the supernatural. This did not require that we believe in everything impossible, but it does require that we accept the possibility that nothing is impossible and that any given seemingly impossible thing might well exist. Given that we all share the perception of free will, that strongly implies that it most likely does exist, just as surely as anything we see or hear likewise most likely exists.

    As to meaning or morals, in a deterministic world they do not exist, not even subjectively, because in a world of nothing but matter ruled by physics there is no “You” to experience anything. The very concept of “self” is incompatible with the purely mechanistic framework. It is the utter rejection of “I think therefore I am” but instead “I do not think, therefore I am not.” That any person calls themselves an atheist believer of a purely mechanistic reality merely proves that they are practicing doublethink rather than reason.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      No offence intended but you fail at the first hurdle yourself. The onus is on supernaturalists(or non-materialists; whatever you want to call yourself) to demonstrate that there is something besides physics that influences our actions.

      We have trillions of examples of physical causes; we have no examples of non-physical causes whatsoever. The onus is on you to demonstrate that the latter exist.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        “The onus is on you to demonstrate that the latter exist.”

        Fine. Free will demonstrates it. We actually have trillions of examples of things happening without physical cause but you will reject them ab ovo. When you cannot avoid facing some of them, like free will, you simply make the faith statement that the cause must be material. But that is the question.

        • Klaus C. says

          We know why we are creatures of will: via natural selection, we’re the beneficiaries (or victims :-)) of powerful brains that enable a much wider and more flexible range of behaviours than other animals. While many organisms have the ability to make “choices” of some kind, humans have vastly extended abilities of this nature.

          That our decision-making is an activity of the brain is not theory, it’s established fact. We know that various kinds of brain damage affect decision-making abilities in various ways, and can trace these effects to specific damage in specific areas.

          Our understanding of how the brain works is not complete, but there is no fundamental “mystery” involved.

          “We actually have trillions of examples of things happening without physical cause”

          We have none. “Physical” just means “real”.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Klaus C.

            It can end up as a tug of war over definitions. If you say that all real things are physical then the dispute is resolved via definition. But is that useful? It seems to me that love is real but is it useful to say that it is physical? 1+1=2 also seems to be true/real but is it physical? My consciousness seems to me to be something beyond states of matter and energy even tho, as you say, the state of my brain is very relevant to it. Music is mere sound waves. Really? Why do folks say such things?

      • Urusigh says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        “The onus is on supernaturalists(or non-materialists; whatever you want to call yourself) to demonstrate that there is something besides physics that influences our actions.”

        I’m curious, why do you think the onus would be on us? You are attempting the impossible task of proving a negative, that a thing does not exist. Your position is thus logically untenable from the beginning. You then compound your error by insisting on inapplicable means. If a blind man tells me that there is no such thing as “sight” because he has not experienced it, in what way can I prove to him that sight does exist? If I cannot prove it to him, should I then disbelieve that I have sight? Obviously not.

        That I experience free will and conscious self awareness is proof enough that both exist by empirical standards. Both of these phenomena are mutually exclusive with a purely material world. Moreover, your own language betrays you, “our actions” conceptually requires both an individual self and the capacity to choose from multiple courses of action, which is to say free will. In a deterministic universe there was only ever one action and everything since then is nothing but physical reaction chains based on those initial conditions.

        “we have no examples of non-physical causes whatsoever.”

        No offense, but that is an absurdly ignorant thing to say. History, up to and including the modern day, is full of accounts of miracles. Even a single one is sufficient to disprove your framework. Can you explain and reproduce all of them using purely physical means? Of course not. Just so you can’t claim unreliable narrator though, let’s start with the one we know for absolute certain happened: The Big Bang. First proposed by a theologian and bitterly rejected by the mechanistic scientists of his time because they (rightly) considered it incompatible with their beliefs for time and space to have a beginning.

        Physical laws govern spacetime and all the matter and energy therein, correct? Which means that either those laws derive from something other than those material things they govern (and are therefore themselves evidence of nonmaterial things influencing material things) or their existence is an emergent property of spacetime and cannot exist outside of it. Likewise, matter and energy cannot exist without a space to hold them and a time to define their duration, so each of these things is interdependent, none can precede the others. Which further means that there could not be anything material or energy prior to the start of time. Thus, spacetime cannot have a material cause. The First Cause is by definition not material and therefore not bound by physics. It caused physics, not the other way around.

        Since we then have proof by elimination that a nonmaterial thing can create a material thing, it becomes absurd to insist that a force or entity proven capable of creating the physical universe is thereafter somehow incapable of interacting with it. Conversely, it is entirely reasonable to assume that this interaction is hierarchically one-way such that the supernatural can affect the physical, but the physical cannot affect the supernatural, much as a programmer can alter a simulation at will, but nothing within the simulation can directly observe or affect the programmer.

        If you are clinging to your belief in a mechanistic world because you have an a priori commitment to atheism, I’d like to point out that your position has the same logical problems in the context of the Simulation Hypothesis. For all you know or can prove, we’re really just AI in a simulation created by a more technologically advanced society (which may or may not also be human) arguing here about whether we are True AI in the sense of possessing autonomy or merely procedural processes designed to appear as such with our sense of self and autonomy nothing more than the feedback of diagnostic routines verifying that the appearance is being maintained. Scientific anomalies could be merely bugs in the code or underlying hardware defects. How could you, as an AI in the simulated world, ever test or disprove whether the programmers exist and what they can or cannot do within the Sim?

        • Ray Andrews says


          Tour de force.

          “The First Cause is by definition not material and therefore not bound by physics. It caused physics, not the other way around.”

          Which is why we now have the multiverse and we’re back to where we were before Lemaître! An eternal …. well, it was hard enough to imagine our mere instance of a universe as being quite something to pop into existence from nothing, nowhere, never, but now it’s merely one of an infinite number of universes all of which sorta pop up like the number balls in one of those lottery machines — but at least there IS a lottery machine to pop them up, so, to the taste of some folks, that’s progress. Not to my taste tho.

  40. If you believe (pardon the expression) in determinism, why even discuss the matter? The only thing that will change your mind are subatomic dice games.

    My apologies – I know you can’t help yourself.

    • Klaus C. says

      States of order on a macroscopic scale involve deterministic processes that are not apparent on a subatomic scale, where everything tends to look much the same. There is a vast amount of information on the subatomic scale that is simply irrelevant to what occurs on a macroscopic scale, and conversely there is much complex order on a macroscopic scale that is not found on a subatomic scale.

      Biological processes, including the functioning of the human brain, occur on the macroscopic scale. These processes are of course deterministic, which simply means they consist of cause-and-effect relationships occurring on that scale of order. It’s not a “bunch of electrons” etc that are responsible for human decision-making, it’s the biochemical functioning of the brain.

      Roger Penrose suggested that quantum effects might be responsible for various aspects of brain functioning, but I don’t know of any other physicists, or any biologists, who regard that view as having credibility.

  41. There is no onus on nondeterminists to come up with a model that explains our shared subjective experience. It is sufficient to say the deterministic model does not explain it. Furthermore, we already know that God does play dice with the universe, and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics further highlights that there is a problem describing “the observer” (subjective experience again) in the best current theory.

    To the commenter, who mentioned pseudo random numbers and the weather. First, there is no need to consider pseudo random explanations since we know true randomness exists already from quantum mechanics. Second, because I consider the weather or any other external factor does not make my decisions deterministic. Typically our actions are functions of our purposes (often whims) and external factors. For example, on a whim I might decide I want to go on a picnic. I then check the weather report. My actions are influenced by both my purpose, how much weight I assign to that purpose, and the result of the report. If the weather is sunny I will likely go on the picnic. If not, if I assign little importance to my picnic, I will stay home. Otherwise I may take a tarp or drive far enough away to escape the rain. Other people’s free will also effects things, my wife may not want to go on a picnic. All of this is common sense. People only argue against it because of their own strong free will driven ideological peculiarities and attachments to physical models with known flaws.

    • dirk says

      OK Bryan, if your wife starts to interfere and hates that picnic, everything stops of course. That’s how it goes!

      • Clearly there are limits to freedom. I can make some choices and not others. I cannot choose to ignore gravity or my wife as both are irresistible forces of nature.

    • Vampyricon says

      The ignorance of physics here is astounding. The measurement problem does not involve a conscious observer. No solution to it does.

  42. Can some one define a physical and/or non physical cause for me? It seems to me this is very loosely used. One could say dark matter is a non physical cause since no physics describes it (yet?).

    Perhaps non physical is used as a pejorative for things the writer does not believe in (e.g. Gods or angels) I gave an example above of physical gods (eg a civilization a billion years more advanced than ours.)

    I can give numerous examples of nonmaterial things ( things that don’t take up space). Photons, Love, the Pythagorean theorem, the truth of a proposition, etc.

    I would also posit that my whim to go on a picnic is a non physical (or at least non material) cause for me walking out the door. Trump being a jerk is a nonmaterial cause for me voting against him.

    One could argue I suppose that material causes produce love or jerkiness but I don’t see any reason to believe that. Certainly the truth of a proposition is often an uncaused nonmaterial thing. The Pythagorean theorem has always been true. If the truth of it played any role in causing Pythagoras to discover it, then that discovery also had a nonmaterial cause.

    • Tim Vanier says

      All causes are part of nature. FYI: photons ARE physical things.

      • I just noticed this comment. Would you say love is a physical thing? How about the truth of a proposition? Pythagorean theorem? If those are physical things why do you think agency is not a physical thing? If you ever read the Ender’s Game series, it mentions the concept of a philote. A philote is an agent that becomes associated with every sufficiently complex structure once it forms. In this view everything from electrons up to people have agency with increasing amounts of freedom with increasing complexity. Is a philote physical? Why or why not?

        • Tim Vanier says

          Hi Bryan: I’d read up on philosophy of language if I were you and then come back to this. We have a unique ability to create realities with language, which makes us different than other conscious beings. (John Searle is very good on this, but others also.) Love and photons are different things, of course.

  43. Tim Vanier says

    So many repliers view the determinist argument as: we don’t make choices. This is wrong and is not the argument. Determinism says that when you choose you could not have chosen otherwise at that moment.

    • derek says

      So then what we do is not deterministic. Because we all face choices and decide based on many many factors. We train ourselves to take decision paths that would lead to more reliable decisions.

      You can change your biochemistry in your brain by what you think about.

    • This claim of determinism is then unfalsifiable, because we cannot hope to recreate exactly the same conditions all over again to see if the choice would proceed differently.
      However, practice shows that very similar people in similar circumstances do not always make the same decisions. So this claim seems very dubious, as well.

  44. Tim Vanier says

    I’m also very depressed at how few comments actually relate to the topic of the essay.

  45. If you could not choose otherwise than you did not choose at all.

    I am intrigued by what you mean by “at the moment.” If you mean at the moment of the choice I stand by the first statement. If you mean after that I don’t see why that matters.

  46. If you could not choose otherwise you did not choose all. Simply redefining the word “choose” in a different manner does little to aid the discussion in my opinion.

    It occurred to me that the “illusion of free will” is akin to “the dinosaur bone trick.” There is a group of young earth creationists that believe there are no real dinosaur bones. They believe God created the dinosaur fossils in place as a test. To support their world view it was necessary to say the observed data was not real. This saves their model but it appears contrived. It also does not fit too well with their concept of the character of God and gives them some cognitive dissonance. There is nothing impossible about their explanation but I feel no onus on me to show them they are wrong. I also don’t argue with them at all because I do not believe their solution but I fully understand their reasons for it. Thus I have clarity and feel no need for discussion.

    Similarly materialists assume their own agency is an illusion because that better fits their world view. If anything this gives more cognitive dissonance. Your typical young earth creationist need not think about dinosaur bones very much. It is hard to avoid agency. Every morning you get up and choose what to eat for breakfast, you must believe that there exists some invisible outside phenomena constricting your choice even though it seems free to you. Also when your wife gets up you are well advised to respect her illusion of free will in your dealing with her. In fact if you forget anything in your common daily activities, you forget that agency is an illusion and act as if it were real. That is some strong cognitive dissonance. The reason I keep having these discussions despite no temptation on my part to believe free will is illusory, is that I don’t understand the commitment to this view. I hope my comments above illustrate why I don’t think such a view is necessary to preserve any particular world view.

  47. derek says

    We can’t use our will to move electrons

    I do this every day. In multiple ways. Designing and wiring up devices that use electrons and their charge to do work or control processes. When i do computer programming i an controlling in very precise ways whether an electron charge goes here or there.

    I can, and do regularly, change the biochemical processes in my brain purposefully. I am learning a few new skills all the time as well as maintaining multiple skills I already have acquired. Particularly difficult skills required enormous effort and persistence, and are accompanied by physical discomfort due to the very deep and expensive in resources biological processes that are happening in my brain. Very low level changes in the structure in my neural networks caused by my thinking about something.

    I think philosophers should get out a bit more. They might move electrons in their mind.

    • Testing Testing says

      There are countless thought experiments which can be used to demonstrate that free will exists.

      I view the denial of free will as a mental illness. 🙂

    • I like this comment. It takes a statement literally and points out that it is false. Thereby challenging its author to rephrase it if he meant something else, or withdraw it. That’s how good philosophizing gets done.

  48. Tim Vanier:

    I replied to one of your posts above with some questions about what you consider a physical cause. If you have an answer to that I would be interested. I would claim the “truth of the proposition” is non physical and one of the causes of Pythagoras’s discovery of his theorem. I also claim that software is a cause of computer “behavior” but is itself non physical.

  49. David of Kirkland says

    ”reject free will because there’s no mechanism for “decision” that is free of the physical substance of our brain’
    Free will does not suggest it exists outside of a human mind/brain/body. It just implies that I make the choice versus ANOTHER being. If a God or other Human or Machine or Nature makes the call, then we have no free will.
    Will I raise my hand after I post this comment? I have the choice to do so, my free will, and while my brain gives impulses I don’t control to cells I don’t control, the effect of my hand going up was under my control, my will, freely chosen by me and nobody/nothing else.
    To pretend this comment to this article was deterministic fails any scientific test you can propose. Saying it wasn’t my will has as much evidence as saying God/Devil made me do it.

    • Rick Frey says

      Helpful distinction to point out that in deciding to raise your hand or not after making this post no other being or other force is raising your hand (or keeping it down). For a long time, that was the crux of the argument of free-will.

      The other half of the argument, however, is could you have made a decision other than the one you made? If you raised your hand for example, could you have kept your hand down or was that decision “determined” by a host of factors, some that clearly are you (the molecules in your brain) but other factors come from outside you and influence the molecules in your brain. Again, it will always be your brain controlling the nerves and muscles that raise your hand, but the argument folks are on about here is could you have kept your hand down, do you have any real choice?

  50. Tim Vanier
    I never said photons were not physical. I said they were not material. Matter has mass and takes up space. Einstein showed that matter and energy were interchangeable so material and nonmaterial causes became a much less important distinction. Energy and matter are the same kind of thing and effect one another. Information is another important concept in modern physics. I don’t think of information as physical but it can certainly be a cause. Whatever may be responsible for agency may be better described as information than as matter but it may be a different concept entirely. I think people’s thoughts are more like software than like rocks. Software is information. It can be copied from one medium to another. In fact thought is the initial medium of software. Agency leads to thought which leads to software which causes rockets to fly by Saturn. Where agency comes from is an open question.

  51. Determinism is equivalent to the statement “Information cannot be created.” Free will means the human mind can create information. When I wrote this comment or when William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, I say each of us created information. This seems obvious to me. The alternative is that the information in this comment or Hamlet existed before we wrote it and in fact existed at the beginning of the universe. I find that ridiculous. Consider the single bit of information whether or not Hamlet died in the end. This could not have been known at the beginning of the universe. Positing it could is extreme magical thinking.

    I don’t see how chaos theory or quantum randomness can avoid this problem either. Quantum randomness is too unstructured to produce Hamlet. If Hamlet or for that matter agency itself could spring from chaos, one might as well talk about gods born from chaos as the Greeks did.

  52. Rick Frey says

    This doesn’t fly. Every second of existence, new information is getting created, the position of planets in their orbits, how far the universe has expanded, the size of some stalactite in some cave, all new information, all created by deterministic forces.

    Information theory doesn’t care if information is new or old and there’s nothing special about creating new information, it happens all the time.

    • A ball rolling hill does not create information. If the universe were truly deterministic, the initial conditions of the universe and the laws of physics would encode everything that could happen at all times. I claim each free will choice introduces a new bit of information without which one cannot fully determine all events. As I mentioned chaos theory and quantum randomness violate these assumptions but not in a way that seems likely to explain the information in Hamlet.

  53. Geary Johansen says

    God is not a supernatural being. It arose from the initial quantum background void, interacting with innumerable other quantum voids formed within the first few hundred thousand universes (which were random) as one giant neural network made possible by the null entropy conditions within the void, the infinitesimally small pockets of n-space/time generated by quantum fluctuation and the wave functions properties of cumulative coalescent awareness formed from network intelligence. If you want to make AI self-aware and autonomous simply build wave functions into the basic processing of it’s simulated intelligence.

    The soul is a by-product of effect feeding back into causation outside the space/time bubble of the universe- as life, sentience, memory and tool-use creating infinitely higher potentiality, drives the chance of the event that leads to the spontaneous generation of a universe without thinking life down to nil. This process is an expanding frontier throughout time and space, requiring the external storage of compressed potential selves outside of, but linked to, the self of the here and now, necessary to manage the emergent potentiality along this branch of space/time- as suitably unique and complex beings require the resource of an external self, but simpler life can be expressed as a compilation of shortform coding built into the structure of the universe.

    Post-death the ‘soul’ is stored in a null entropy layer which allows energy and coded past-potentiality, to exist as a coherent energy form without physical apparatus. This process could have happened by design or evolution. It goes without saying that the ‘temperature’ of this layer would be absolute zero and interactions with the physical universe, though far rarer than reported, would result in localised cold phenomena. Routes to return to physical life would probably exist, but within strict parameters, to avoid pointless duplications of self-identity.

    Just a theory. 🙂 Plus I don’t have the physics. 🙁

  54. dirk says

    Just some more ideas about free, free will and determinism, after reading again in Doris Lessing’s travelogue in Zimbabwe this morning. The blacks there, she wrote, thought that the good life would immediately begin after independence (in 1980 or somewhere). “However, nothing much happened after that day, people were told, you’re all free now, can do what you want, the only thing you need is knowledge, the things one needs to know to be happy, you have to learn to do it yourself now, you decide now, you write your own book”

    Indeed, that’s freedom and free will. It doesn’t mean much. It’s just a luxury, for us people, not for the majority of the world’s masses. Determinism is what counts.

    • Mathew Goldstein says

      Dirk: By claiming that free will is equivalent to non-coerced decision making and action you are obscuring the unique function of that phrase “free will” to also reference the additional power of being a stand alone first mover without physical, mechanical, or material constraints. There is a persistent conflating of being an agent that decides on the one hand, which is compatible with physical, mechanical, and material constraints, with free will on the other hand, but the former does not actually entail the latter.

      • dirk says

        Maybe technically and philosophically not the same thing, was also not the message of Doris I think, that message was more akin to Bryan’s ” You are all individuals now” .

        Cynism on the new freedom after independence.

        • dirk says

          “Brian” I meant of course, the Monty Python’s one.

  55. “We can’t use our will to move electrons.”
    This must be the stupidest statement I read today. Pretty much any action one taken under one’s will, from drinking a glass of water to turning the electric light on, will move electrons.
    It’s harder to use one’s will to prevent electrons from moving, but it can also be done, with the appropriate tools.
    This is what always baffles me about these free will arguments — is will supposed to operate as some sort of Jedi mind trick, free from physical limitations and without using any tools or hysical contact?

    • derek says

      I think it starts from some weird place; freedom cannot exist where there is gravity, free will cannot exist without any physical limitations.

      Of course we are limited by many things; we need to sleep, much of our bodily processes are out of our control; we get hungry, ill, our upbringing and genetics has an effect. All those things are true and real. I work hard so I can eat. My children require care, as do my relationships with other people. We are constrained in many ways. But we are also conscious, and aware of these relationships and limitations. We make choices within the confines of our bodily existence.

      Some would say that our limitations define us. We are flesh and blood, biochemical machines. And that is true to an extent. But we are also capable of defining our limitations. Gravity is useful and we can defy gravity by designing things that fly. As I age I feel limitations, no question. But how do I function and carry myself within those limitations? That is up to me.

  56. Mïkl says

    LOL wait, there are actually intelligent people who believe that and who think it’s something important they need to cling on to?

    ” Our brains are made of molecules; those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions derive from brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject not to an alterable “will” but to physical law. QED: no free will. ”

    You don’t need to have a precise microscopic molecular model of the mechanisms of causation for all decisions. Maybe it’ll be discovered in a 100 years. Who cares? The very act of thinking and examining the arguments for and against a position and reaching a conclusion means you can choose. Duh. Thinking and making choices doesn’t violate the laws of physics LOL

    If you’re some intellectual blowhard with a stick up your 4ss and you choose to write a book (or an article) about the inexistence of ‘free will’ then you just defeated your own argument, and I don’t even need to read the book it would be a waste of my time. I freely decided to read this page and I concluded it was indeed a waste of my time but it’s Sunday evening and I’m half asleep so it’s not a big waste.

    I presume it’s some kind of intellectual trend among the so-called ‘free thinkers’ of the capital A Atheist variety and they’re stuck in a dumb false dilemma: oh sht those christian creationists believe in ‘free will’ and they’re the enemy so we must say the contrary or else they win and evolution isn’t true! Something ret4rded like that. I’m glad to be a small a atheist and not one of those cult members.

    Oh and Jerry the Genius finishes with “Any reforms of society should begin by…” — wait, so we can make rational choices now?

    And what reforms of society is he talking about? Reforming society by declaring that ‘free will’ does not exist and therefore our decisions from now on will be based on this Unalterable Truth of Nature because Science says so LOL

    This guy seems to be so stuck in his bubble of doublethink that he doesn’t realize he’s shooting himself not in the foot but in the head. It’s embarassing.

    This kind of useless philosophical masturbation is silly.

    …But imagine being autistic to the point that you take that sh1t seriously and you invoke the laws of physics and claim that those who don’t agree with you believe in magic and then you talk about the need to reform society to install some new program or something. WTF?

    Autoritarian autism?

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Miki

      Or you could just use a dice. Any random number generator should be enough to defeat the most sophisticated predictive AI.

  57. Pierre Pendre says

    I can make a conscious decision to do A or B but the decision I make may be influenced by sub-conscious biases of which I am unaware in which case I am not exercising free will. Or there’s instinct. A non-suicidal man in the path of a speeding train can by an effort of will decide not to move but it’s much more likely that he’ll obey his instinct to jump to safety.

  58. dirk says

    If we may believe Freud’s TRAUMDEUTUNG, we need a psycho-analyst to understand our dreams, and not only our dreams, also our behaviour, likes, reasoning, emotions , in short, ourselves.

    Of course, the unconsciesness, subconsciesness plays a part in that self, but not for 100%, I would say.

    And is there still a role for what we once called the soul?

  59. dirk says

    @ Pierre: I wonder what our american friends think of Freud, the subconsciounce and its influence on human behaviour. reading the comments as above, I fear, very low esteem! Why is that? Education??

    This is really new for me (good that I am here on this blog, anyhow!). One never is too old to learn something.

  60. Poor Saul doesn’t seem to realize that his belief in “objective reality” is itself just the final vestige of the very belief system he attacks.

  61. The Hang Nail says

    I don’t even think there is an illusion of free will. From a phenomenological perspective I can’t even find it. Decisions just sort of happen. And when I am exercising so-called free will I am typically making decisions that are obvious. If I am hungry, I eat. If the light is green, I go. When I decide not to go on green it is not because I am exercising free will but because I have some other reason. Maybe to just prove to myself that I have free will so that I can feel good about holding on to the argument that free will exists. But then that doesn’t really seem like a freely chosen action on hindsight.

    Even the most basic action of free will – choose the exact time to wiggle your finger – poses a dilemma. Do I plan it out and choose to wiggle it at the 10.76 second mark? Not really, but let’s just say, for argument, that I do. Why did I choose the 10.76 mark? Who knows?! It doesn’t seem like I really chose anything. My finger just wiggled and I thought to myself that I chose it to happen.

    Even in the realm of morality free will seems non-existent upon further reflection. When we deem something good or bad or one action commendable or not why are we “choosing” this prescription? Even if we grant the unwarranted assumption that we applied moral reasoning then isn’t the logic of the moral reasoning doing the choosing for us? And if that is the only role free will plays is in whether or not to choose to allow moral reasoning to guide our moral decisions or not. We literally choose whether to be good(follow moral reasoning) or bad (don’t follow it). But that’s silly. No one literally stares at moral reasoning and then outright rejects it. If they decide to do something that goes against good moral judgement it is because some other cause is at play – hunger, sexual temptation, emotional triggers, etc. When we are weak-willed, so-to-speak, it is because we surrender to the causal or determined universe. But then when we “decide” to follow moral reasoning despite our determined urges, we decide to adhere to a set of moral rules that are beyond our choosing.

    But perhaps there are competing moral rules that we must decide upon. There is no master recipe we can follow to ensure that we do the right thing. If that is the case then, we are morally off the hook because we cannot be faulted for “choosing” the wrong moral code.

    And so on it goes. Stare at the act of “choosing” anything and free will disappears. It’s not just an illusion, it was never there to begin with.

  62. Severely Ltd. says

    Hang Nail, you’re arguing against the possibility of Free Will by invoking materialist objections, but the argument isn’t there unless you’re content preaching to the choir. There’s no case to be made for Free Will from that perspective, which should be obvious from the comments above or a little honest reflection.
    The belief that Free Will exists is admittedly a belief that intuition indicates it is so. It’s a belief that there is a transcendental realm unreachable by the scientific method. Like concepts such as eternity and infinity, it’s beyond our conceptualizing.
    Before you go “Ah Ha! I knew you had no basis for your silly idea, you admit it’s all just feel-good emotion”, let me point out that all of our rock-bottom principals are based, not on emotion, but on a knowing that transcends emotion. Our deep intuitions are the basis for all our foundational beliefs. It’s the only thing below that bottom turtle. (

  63. Surface Reflection says

    “In fact, philosophical determinists—who reject free will because there’s no mechanism for “decision” that is free of the physical substance of our brain—base their determinism not on DNA but on the laws of physics. Our brains are made of molecules; those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions derive from brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject not to an alterable “will” but to physical law. QED: no free will.”

    No sir.
    None of it works as you claim. But the tricky answer is even weirder (and more wonderful) then either of the opposing binary sides think.

    Neither you or the author of the previous article are right and you both make the same mistakes, just from the different angle.

    The actual empirical Science proves you both wrong.
    The will is neither completely absurdly “free” from the physical Universe, NOR is it completely controlled and predetermined by it.

    The idea that it may be either of these absolutes extremes is – absurd.
    The whole argument actually stems from the old and ridiculous notions about how the reality works argued from religious side and the ancient 300 hundred years old misinterpretation of Isaac Newton discoveries. You are all behind times in such ridiculous ways it isnt even funny.

    You see, the ANSWER is – it depends.
    The fact physical processes work as they do – does not mean our decisions are predetermined – because physical processes are not linearly directly connected to our decisions.
    And we do have an ability to refuse many, many physical imperatives – even to our extreme detriment. While on the other hand, it makes no sense to refuse acknowledging and behaving as many situations demand. FOR EXAMPLE, you or anyone else may see your kid running after a ball onto the street infront of an approaching car, or maybe falling into the water (too young, cant swim) – and although you can theoretically refuse to listen to every cell in your body screaming to make you run or jump after them – refusing to do so will only create a tragedy and destruction of meaning of your existence.

    This is a simple and easy to grasp example, but the varying every shifting and changing situations in our lives are of course much more complex and idiotic unscientific binary extremes literally CANNOT be applied to them as some kind of blanket rule.

    Our wills are emergent virtual features that are semi separated from direct connections with basic physical processes, which is the REASON WHY your argument quoted above doesnt make any sense and IS UNSCIENTIFIC.

    And you also use arguments from ignorance, only shifted to your angle when it pleases the defense of your own idea. You. Do. Not. Know. everything there is about physical processes – The Science is still discovering things mate. Mkay?
    Dont you EVER AGAIN make such claims as if you or anyone else knows everything about everything.

    Plus, as i said above, our minds, our consciousness and the ability of “Will” are semi decoupled from direct physical processes – WHICH ARE ALSO OFTEN OPPOSITE TO EACHOTHER, or too complex, or completely determined only when they become past events – when probabilities collapsed into a specific single choice, which is where our wills come in.
    They are made to deal with such complexity and probabilities of the future – based on what knowledge we can get from the events in the present and the past.

    We must breathe air to stay alive, (or eat food or whatever else) and refusing to do so, which is possible, is nonsensical. While in another situation, it may make all the sense and save other people lives.

    There. Is. No. Easy. Binary. Answer.

    The will is neither completely free, nor is it completely controlled.
    To think about it in such a way is absurd nonsense. Literally. And against everything we empirically know about our biology and physics.

  64. To have an organism, there is a physical boundary between the organism and an external world. Disrupt that boundary and you have a condition of death.

    Organisms react in response to their environment. A bacteria will move to from areas of relative darkness to areas of relative light, organisms will display preferences with respect to food sources and maters, etc.

    At a certain level of complexity, people will begin to posit agency to the organism. “The lion attacked a man was he wandered outside the village.” We certainly attribute agency to human organisms, except perhaps when doing legal work in defense of human organisms (and human organizations) in which case we will use passive voice formulations.

    The question is often asked “Who did this?” The attribution of a “who” is, of course, to specify the agent responsible for the action.

    Note with respect to human agents, we distinguish between “voluntary” and “involuntary” behaviors, which also correlate with different parts of the human brain. What we do when we are sleep walking is generally deemed “involuntary”, and people are generally not subject to punishment for it.

    That is to say, overlaid on the concept of agency in human is moral agency. An action deemed involuntary is not the subject of moral condemnation.

    Within “voluntary” behaviors, there is a subset of coercion, which is when someone does something under the threat of violence to themselves or their families. If someone puts a gun to a bank teller’s head, and the bank teller opens the vault for the robber, we are not going to morally or criminally sanction the bank teller.

    An voluntary action undertaken by a human agent, in the absence of coercion, is deemed to be an act of “free will”, and can be the subject of both moral sanction as well as legal sanction.

    Science has nothing to do with this fact. Even if I came up with a super computer and I could accurately predict when exactly certain people would commit crimes in the future, those crimes would not be anything except the products of voluntary actions by human agents in the absence of coercion.

    One of the philosophical problems of naturalistic reductionism is that it has no self-evident way of modelling agency. In fact, more fundamentally, it can’t really even distinguish between an organism and its environment, so it can’t even posit individual identity. If everything is just atoms bumping into atoms, then there is no outside and no inside, and no difference, and therefore no identity. There is also no real life and no real death from that perspective.

    This is, of course, because an organism is a whole, a unity derived from a many, in which the whole is distinguishable (if not separable) from the many.

    The question of whether physics is deterministic or not is really irrelevant to the concept of “free will”. Further, let’s assume Einstein/Spinoza was right, and everything proceeds deterministically, necessarily from a first cause. Given epistemic uncertainty in measurements and nonlinear effects, it is entirely unlikely that the super computer that predicts crimes ten years in the future will ever exist. A “scientific understanding” that cannot translate into practical engineering remains forever in the domain of metaphysics, theology, and philosophy, where it can engage in interminable debate with other philosophies and theologies.

  65. “. . . it appears that for Edwards free will means our physically uncaused ability to change our decisions so that, at a given moment, we could have done something other than what we did.”

    Here we get to the nub of a distinction in law between but-for cause and proximate cause.

    The proximate cause of a tort is the agent(s) responsible for the tort.

    The but-for cause would be the intermediary causes between the intention and the result (for example, poison coming in contact with a victim, or an automobile contacting a pedestrian in a sidewalk).

    The point of the proximate cause is to assign liability or punishment to the agent responsible for the harm. No science here. In contrast, the but-for causation describes what might be called the scientific explanation for the occurrence.

    Now, we use the same word “cause”, but the concept of “causation” functions differently in both contexts. The second kind of cause is capable of scientific exploration and scientific testimony in a legal context. The first kind of cause is typically the province of a jury. Who is responsible and how much are they responsible ultimately is a question for naked human judgment.

    This should lead us to realize that we are talking about two separate things even though we are using one word. Moreover, just because “agency” and liability and blame have no scientific basis (at least in terms of modern science), they retain their utility, as even Dr. Coyne acknowledges.

    I suppose I am saying the scientific description of the world is incomplete, but we already knew that, didn’t we? It can’t tell us about qualia, or what the rules of grammar should be for pronouns, or to whom economic surplus should be distributed, or how to construct a legal system.

    The problem here is treating a legal concept with a particular function (proximate cause) as if it was a scientific explanation of a phenomenon, or by claiming a concept isn’t valid because it isn’t a scientific explanation, as if it can’t be otherwise socially useful, perhaps even necessary.

    Money has value, but there is no scientific explanation for why it has value, it is based purely on social agreement. Dr. Coyne could write an essay on why, from the perspective of science, money is actually just paper. . . and he would be correct. But that would not erase the utility of paper currency in the modern economy, nor would it create a run on gold.

    Dr. Coyne’s naturalist, reductionist metaphysics may very well be true. It would not matter from the standpoint of the legal concept of “proximate cause”, or “legal guilt” or anything else unless that metaphysics could translate into practical engineering, which it will likely never do. In the absence of being able to predict what humans will do in the future years later, we will continue to use schemes of punishment and liability, because they are the best we have. But note, even where we have a strict scientific explanation–paper currency is just chemically paper–we still continue to pretend that it has value and exchange it as if it has value.

    • Since the value of paper money is an illusion I cling to as an existential truth even in the face of science, I suppose that makes me the real materialist.

  66. The paper currency example is important for teasing out the conceptual confusion in this “debate”.

    Paper currency has value by virtue of the way it is used in a social system (its circulation). The value of “currency” is not imparted through transubstantiation at the moment the Great Seal is affixed in minting. However, after currency is printed, it can be legally used in a different manner than it was used prior to printing.

    There is not scientifically paper + ink + value, nor is “value” magically imparted to paper during printing, causing the money to physically change through a magical mechanism unknown to physics or chemistry.

    Blame and liability (the cash value of free will) are part of a social system, and they are important to that social system in ways similar to cash currency. But not because of transubstantiation, or “causes” outside of known science.

    • Why do we have criminal laws?

      Well, in the absence of criminal laws, you end up with blood feuds. Why does tribal band X retaliate against tribal band Y when Y kills or rapes a member of X? Probably survival from a game theory perspective if its not hard-wired.

      So the King has to punish murderers, rapists or robbers, or you have private blood vendettas.

      You have to distinguish between natural deaths (accidents) and deaths caused by agents, and perhaps deaths/injuries attributable to accident versus intentional murder/mayhem. In the process, free will is invented, and perhaps the gold coins are mixed with some nickle.

      Why do we have laws of tort and contract?

      You can make up another just-so story. . . but the point is we are talking about something practical and ultimately social.

  67. A thought experiment:

    Scenario One:

    Q. “William Wallace, why did you conduct a revolt against the Crown?”

    A. I was driven to revolt by the tyranny of the English, I had no choice in the matter.

    Scenario Two:

    Q. “William Wallace, why did you conduct a revolt against the Crown?”

    A. I chose to revolt and to become a free man, although I could have swallowed my gall and chosen otherwise.

    What empirical facts would tend to show that William Wallace was lying in his response in either Scenario One or Scenario Two? If no empirical facts would determine if Wallace is telling the truth or lying, then doesn’t that suggest we are not talking about something amenable to scientific explanation? [That is to say, they are expressions of self-identity, not propositions which can be assigned a truth value.]

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