I've been having a less than productive discussion with someone about perspectives on free will. I feel confident in my position, but experience has taught me that my confidence is often in direct opposition to my accuracy.

It is my assertion that if 'free will' is defined as 'the ability to make decisions', then free will is controversial, and that Schopenhauer (via implication) denies we make decisions. It is my counterpart's assertion that Schopenhauer does not deny our ability to make decisions and that to do so would be "absurd".

I contend that Schopenhauer did not believe in free will. He is quoted as saying:

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.

From this I infer(?) that Schopenhauer does not believe that we actually make decisions.

Why? Well...

1) If a person cannot will what he/she wills, then

2) They cannot will what they decide (because a decision requires will).

3) Therefore what we experience as decisions are illusory.

Edit: To make this more explicit in terms of Schopenhauer's quote, I'll use an example:

"A man can do as he wills..." (he can eat an apple)

"...but he cannot will what he wills" (he has no choice over whether or not he wills to eat an apple).

If he has no choice over whether he wills to eat the apple, how can a 'decision' to eat the apple possibly exist? Surely any such decision is rendered illusory if Schopenhauer's quote is taken literally.

I am particularly interested in responses to the above break-downs of his quote, especially in any which can show how a decision can still be said to exist, addressing the example I've provided.

More broadly, is the position of many who disbelieve in free will that our experience of making decisions is illusory? Is this a fair conclusion to make from the asserted determinism/randomness dichotomy?

Or am I wrong? Is the ability to make decisions an incontrovertible fact? Is the assertion that we cannot make decisions as absurd as my counterpart claims, or is the question of free will still as open a question as I imagine?

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    I recommend reading some of the excellent answers in previous discussion of exactly this topic: 'What does Schopenhauer mean by 'A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants'?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/32731/… And also our own @Philip Klöcking on Schopenhauer's' Suicide versus the Will to Live' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/28504/… which describes the trap we are in by this picture..
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 29, 2023 at 15:39
  • A few key concepts seem relevant and size is one of 'them. However this maybe a red herring. Aug 3, 2023 at 11:57

2 Answers 2


You are wrong with your interpretation of Schopenhauer.

"Man can do what he wills" means exactly that man can decide what he will do, choose his actions.

"...but he cannot will what he wills" means that man cannot choose his wants, needs, desires or preferences.

Decisions are always about actions. You cannot choose the questions you are asked or the problems you face. But you can always choose how and whether you answer the questions or solve your problems.

Denying the ability to make decisions is absurd, because the very act of denial requires a decision: What do you want to deny?

Free will has many definitions. There is no controversy about whether free will is real or imaginary. There is only the debate about which definition should be used. If the question of the reality of free will is left open, the definition is invalid. It is quite pointless to discuss something that you don't know if it's a real or an imaginary thing.

  • Can you not see the contradiction between your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs? Jul 29, 2023 at 15:09
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    No contradiction there. You can choose what you do, but you cannot choose what you are. Jul 29, 2023 at 15:14
  • How can you choose what you will do, but not choose what you will want to do? Jul 29, 2023 at 15:17
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    "There is no controversy about whether free will is real or imaginary. There is only the debate about which definition should be used." This is silly. Because some of definitions, define free will in ways that make it not real.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 29, 2023 at 15:32
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    So all you're saying is there won't be a dispute between people who agree on a definition. But that's exactly the point, no one agrees. Specifically a lot a physicalist-materialists who've never done philosophy, think free will is a myth, despite obvious issues with that. Plus many unanswered questions about consciousness have a bearing. You say "pointless to discuss something that you don't know if it's a real", that would imply no one should discuss consciousness. You imply 'real' is a simple easily agreed term too, & it isn't.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 29, 2023 at 19:38

This is a complex question, and answering it will involve adressing several aspects of it.

What did Schopenhauer believe, based on his quote?

This is your first sub question, and Schopenhauer is not here to answer. But we on PhilSE have tried to answer this question previously in this link: What does Schopenhauer mean by 'A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants'?

Note, none of the posted answers agree with your interpretation of Schopenhauer. The top answer holds that Schopenhauer considered determinism and free will to both be imperfect categories, and our world and actions are a confusing intermingling of both.

All of the other answers note the different tiers of desiring, or of willing. They note it is true that we cannot choose whether we have the desire for food or not, but can choose whether we have the desire to act on the desire for food, and can choose not to act. The tiers of desiring or willing do not appear in your interpretation.

But if one cannot "will what one wills", where is any choice?

Schopenhauer is not the last word on this question, and the meat of what you want to ask is in the bold above. Whether that is a misunderstanding of Schopenhauer or not, is irrelevant to your more substantive question.

I note that the "tiers of desire, or willing" interpretation does not address your bold, as the determined/random dichotomy can then just be imposed on the higher tier of our will to action.

I have also encountered Virtue Ethics thinking that our higher tier tends to be determined in practice, but AFTER making what we realize is a mistake, we then CHOOSE to restructure our character, so as to avoid that mistake in the future, pushing freedom up to a higher tier yet. This too, does not evade a determined/random dichotomy.

Ultimately, libertarian free will requires rejecting a determined/random dichotomy, for at least one tier of willing, as the first answer on the prior question about Schopenhauer implies.

The determined/random dichotomy is an empirical assertion. It is a claim that this logic limits what our world can exhibit. Note that logicians have realized there are infinite different logics. Whether a particular logic matches our world or not, is an empirical question. The need for a third option, that of agent causation, to apply in our world, is just a description of the logic form that is needed for libertarian free will to hold. With infinite logics in logic space, we will be able to find one that supports three options, where the third matches reasonably well our understanding of agent causation. I don't think we have yet found that logic yet, but Agent Causation theorists have been searching for it.

Is the position of many who disbelieve in free will that our experience of making decisions is illusory?

Yes. For free will incompatibilism, anyone who is a free will denier will say we do not make decisions.

Free compatibilists will not deny free will and will say we make decisions. But they will redefine both free will and decisions such that they do not match the libertarian assumptions.

Is the ability to make decisions an incontrovertible fact?

No. There are no "incontrovertible facts". We could be mistaken about our willing, about our experiencing, about our selfhood, and about the state sequencing of time.

BUT -- these are all VERY basic observations. Empiricism relies upon observations, which we draw inferences from. These observations are the base data of empiricism. Most of these -- have instances where we are mistaken about our base observations. That is part of being human, we are fallible, even in these very basic perceptions. BUT any argument that we should throw out whole categories of our basic observations, rather than a few erroneous instances, carries a massive burden of justification.

This applies to Einstein's claim that the "now" of time is not real, to Dennett's claim we have no experiences, and Dennett and Gautama's claim that there is no real self, and to your claim that we have no will.

In each case, that of Dennett, Einstein, Dennett again, and you here -- the denier of experiences has a THEORY, which the experiences appear to contradict. Rejecting the data of experience, in favor of a desired theory -- is directly contrary to the scientific method.

The answer, for an empiricist, is: look harder, and find a theory that encompasses all the data.

For Einstein, it is to try to find a theory of time that includes both block time, growing time, and presentism. For Dennett, it is to find an ontology that accommodates experiences, and selfhood, as well as our physical world. For you, it is to develop a theory of causation that allows for agent causation.

OR, if you could put a strong enough evidenced case together that there can only be one valid theory of causation, and determined/random is it, AND the experiences of willing are so unreliable that one should dismiss them, then you could reasonably argue for your POV. I have seen no effective presentation of such a case, and the history of our revisions to causation theory, and its current weak characterization today, suggest such a case is impossible.

Your disputant's response: "the assertion that we cannot make decisions is absurd", is not particularly helpful. Rather than "absurd", it is instead in contradiction of basic observations, and is a prioritization of theory over data, without the accompanying very strong case that such a prioritizing requires.

  • A very interesting, relevant and considered answer but it still misses my main bounty question which is whether there is any fault in my logical analysis of his phrase. See the apple example. If you added a section on this I would be close to accepting your answer. How can we have no control over our will, yet still have control over a decision (if a decision requires will)? Aug 3, 2023 at 23:59
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    @Futilitarian I thought I anticipated your question in my 6th paragraph. The “tiers” answer still suffers from the same problem at each tier. My answer is in the 8th and 9th paragraphs. The logic of causation in this world is more complex than the determined/random dichotomy.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 4, 2023 at 0:27
  • Oh yes. I read it again. Thanks. Aug 4, 2023 at 1:26

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