Sorry if this question is stupid or answered in another post but I really can't imagine how people who believe in libertarian free will think decision making happens.

If I am meant to choose between 2 options, say whether to eat an apple or an orange, I will weigh the pros and cons of each, feel one is better, and choose that. Now, the pros and cons of each option just pop into my head out of my subconscious (we obviously don't choose what ideas we get to have, or else everyone would simply choose to have a million dollar business idea. Ideas just pop into our brains). For example, I may think,

  • Oranges taste better than apples
  • I dislike peeling oranges because it makes my hands sticky
  • There isn't a faucet nearby to wash my hands afterwards

Once I've thought of pros and cons of each, one option will seem better. In this case, I will intuitively feel that the apple is the better option. The pros and cons which popped into my head were out of my control and it similarly feels that the better option also just pops out of my subconscious.

Does a proponent of free will believe that we choose which option feels more correct, that we are able to choose the option which does not feel correct, or something else? Option 1 doesn't seem possible. It brain just seems to do some sort of hedonic calculus subconsciously and I then desire the apple instead of the orange. It doesn't seem to me that any part of the weighing pros and cons process happens consciously. Option 2 would seem to make free will a purely negative thing. How would I ever benefit from the ability to make a decision is against my interests? How would the product of evolution ever acquire this ability? So then it seems like a proponent of free will would reject my idea of how decision making works. What alternative model would they use?

  • "we obviously don't choose what ideas we get to have, or else everyone would simply choose to have a million dollar business idea" does not seem correct. Some ideas are intentionally produced, others are not. At any rate, for something along the lines of what you're looking for, see about Kant's distinction between Wille and Willkür. Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 17:49
  • One of my favorite quotes: "Thought presents alternatives. It was not meant to solve problems or decide things." - Zulaikha Mahmud
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 19:19
  • @KristianBerry If you choose to try to intentionally produce an idea, then the desire to do so was there prior to you making that choice, and the idea you end up having is a product of the thoughts that unintentionally pop into your mind during the idea-production process.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:51
  • @NotThatGuy that doesn't seem correct, either. But part of the issue is that terms like "desire," "intentionally," and so on need to be fixed better in the occurrent argument, otherwise anyone can deduce whichever picture of these things they fancy, without any of these pictures ruling out specific alternatives. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:30

1 Answer 1


Free will is not about choosing between preferences, free will is about choosing actions.

Preferences are formed more or less automatically, beyond our control. We cannot choose how we feel about available options.

But your muscles are almost totally under your control. No-one else can mess up with your muscles and you have only a few spinal reflexes, which are causal reactions to stimuli.

Voluntary actions you must choose. You must come up with a plan to get you some of your favourite fruit.

  • 1
    When I go to get fruit, I choose to walk with my legs rather than my hands because that's far easier. I then reach for it with my right hand instead of my left because that is more natural. It seems to me that it's preferences all the way down. If my actions are always based on preferences, then in what way are they free?
    – Kcris
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 20:30
  • Preferences only tell you what you want. They don't tell you what to do to get what you want. You have to figure it out yourself. Freedom, in general, is the opportunity to act according to your own preferences. You are free, if you can do as you prefer. Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 20:59
  • Consider the pet dog who is eating its food just when other members of the family arrive home. The dog will vacillate between running to greet the family members and running back to its food for a few seconds and then usually "decides" to greet the family members first and then return to its food. Pavlov's dog salivates whenever it hears a bell because it has associated the sound of the bell with the arrival of food. This pattern is called operant conditioning. Belief in deterministic subconscious process causing behavior in sensory context is similar to the idea of operant conditioning. Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 2:02
  • "You are free, if you can do as you prefer" - that's a reasonable definition of "free", but that's absolutely not what libertarian free will means.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:54
  • @NotThatGuy Free will means the ability to choose your actions. Libertarian means that it happens in the absence of determinism. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:18

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