In relation to the question "What are the necessary conditions for an action to be regarded as a free choice?", it came up that one way to insure the possibility of free-will was to have more than one choice. But that doesn't separate free-will from non-determinism or from randomness.

In the context of a human making a choice, wanting to know 'Are my actions predestined?', 'free-will' means they can make the choice, 'random' means the choice is unpredictable (but by who), and 'non-determinism' means there is more than one choice. What is the relation of these three concepts? I think that non-determinism is a necessary condition for the other two, but that one could have free-will but still be predictable, and that randomness does not imply willful-ness.

Is that an acceptable reading of those concepts? If not, what are alternate workable definitions?

11 Answers 11


Let us imagine a simple case. We have three tiny people, each of whom is placed in a box with a pencil and a limitless supply of slips of paper. Every minute, they each write a number on a slip of paper, and slide it out through a slot in their box.

One of these people has "free will". By this we mean that the person can choose to write any number he or she feels like.

Another of these people has a book of predetermined numbers in the box, and is instructed to copy these numbers onto the slips of paper in sequence.

The third person has a source of entropy-- let us say a lava lamp-- and copies numbers based upon a suitable formula applied to an element of the entropic source.

Given this scenario, a few things become evident.

First of all: there is no way-- and I mean absolutely no way-- that we can rigorously determine which of the three boxes contains which of the three people based upon the numbers output. We don't know which of the number streams is the product of free will, which is the product of a determined process, and which is the product of chance.

Second: upon closer examination, we see that each of the three alternatives is actually problematic, even if we know which person is in which box. The predetermined list is following a deterministic process in that it is copying numbers from a book, but we don't know where the numbers in the book came from in the first place. Were they freely chosen, randomly chosen, or determined according to some other process? We can't tell (due to #1 above). Similarly, the allegedly random numbers are coming from a source of entropy (such as a lava lamp), but how can we tell if this is truly random, or if it is determinate? Can we be absolutely certain that there is no physico-mathematical model that will accurately predict the movement of the fluid? Finally, the alleged "free choice" was made by a person according to what he or she "feels like" choosing, but where do these feelings come from? Can we be certain that there is not a deterministic process that is controlling the brain chemistry and synapse-firing to cause certain numbers to be chosen?

So, where are we, then?

We are left with the sad fact that we have no means by which to provide a rigorous definition for any of the terms involved, and must rely purely on our intuitive sense of what they mean in context.

Fortunately, this is not really a problem, since the so-called problem of free will isn't really much of a problem, anyway. It certainly appears to us that we have free will, and our actions are predicated on that belief. If that belief is erroneous, precisely nothing changes in our actions-- it cannot, because if the belief is erroneous and our actions are determined, well, then they are determined and are what they would have been. So, at the end of the day, it is much ado about nothing.

  • Yes, that agrees with my preconceived notions of the three principles and their implications, e.g. no way to tell the difference externally. I was hoping though to get a more thorough explanation of the differences among the three: what does it mean that a 'person can choose', does a PRNG (pseudorandom umber generator) satisfy the same properties as the distribution of the output of a non-deterministic process?
    – Mitch
    Sep 19, 2011 at 21:12
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    I never really read this answer before, but after reading it in full now it definitely gets my +1. :) You use a good thought experiment to highlight the futility of the situation. My only gripe is that you conclude by saying that at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter/amount to anything. This perhaps true, that indeed we still have to act as if we are free, but it doesn't mean the probability of us having free will and the probability of the universe being largely (if not all) deterministic are equal. (cont.)
    – stoicfury
    Mar 10, 2012 at 6:00
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    We have massive evidence of a very causal universe, and essentially none for a non-causal universe. As a result, I've accepted that we live in a deterministic/deterministic-for-all-intents-and-purposes universe, and as such I do not hold people morally responsible for their actions. This removes blame and praise for me, is perhaps why I particularly enjoy certain philosophies (such as stoicism), why I don't support the death penalty, etc. So at the end of the day, while it doesn't necessary have to, it very well can make a big difference in someones life! :)
    – stoicfury
    Mar 10, 2012 at 6:07
  • 1
    @KirkBoyer: You write: "Similarly, you can react to behavior in certain ways", which already assumes free will. If you have a choice whether or not to react, we're not dealing with a fully deterministic universe. Sep 2, 2012 at 10:14
  • 2
    Does it change how we think of and treat other people, when it comes to compatibilism vs. libertarianism? In other words, while the two might be identical in is-land, might they be different in ought-land?
    – labreuer
    Oct 20, 2013 at 22:59

Free will          strictly undefined       some property or essence which 
                                            grants unrestrained action

randomness         strictly undefined       the state or condition of having an
                                            unpredictable outcome such that any
                                            outcome is equally probable

indeterminism /    [1]                      See [1]

                   1. (a) the doctrine that human actions, though influenced
                   somewhat by preexisting psychological and other conditions,
                   are not entirely governed by them but retain a certain
                   freedom and spontaneity.
                   (b) the theory that the will is to some extent independent
                   of the strength of motives, or may itself modify their 
                   strength in choice

Sources: Dictionary.com / my brain

  • @DuckMaestro: I would argue that randomness as defined above with "such that any outcome is equally probable" is necessary for the definition to remain valid. Any event in which the potential outcome is biased in favor of a particular event or set of events—even if not wholly fixed—is not truly random (it becomes pseudo-random).
    – stoicfury
    Oct 25, 2011 at 5:35
  • 1
    thanks for the comment back with your reasoning. I suppose relevant to this context the definition could swing either way. Coming from a formal mathematics background (its formalizations not always useful or applicable in philosophy, granted), I felt as written "equally probable" could be distracting. To counter your last argument, I'd say, well, an unfair coin will have a non-uniform distribution yet the outcome is still random; but then it occurred to me that an unfair coin is perhaps characterizable as "deterministic (to some degree)". Perhaps this is your point. :) Oct 25, 2011 at 7:01
  • Yeah it's a fairly convoluted topic, for sure. I suppose you are correct though, that such a coin toss as you describe would be considered "random" in a general sense (after all, my definition is listed under "General Usage"). But in a strict sense I think it's needed, although I'm not sure it would yet be enough to strictly define "random" (which is why I wrote "strictly undefined"). The very concept of a "strict" definition of "random" is paradoxical to me... :P
    – stoicfury
    Oct 28, 2011 at 1:18
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    Mostly agree. I would drop the "equally probable" part. As an example, a weighted coin would be random but not where each output is equally probable. Another example from quantum mechanics is that a qubit in a mixed state could have a 75% chance of resolving to one of two states when measured. In no useful sense are these things "non-random." Apr 24, 2014 at 17:09
  • 3
    What I was getting at is that, in probability theory a Random variable doesn't need a uniform distribution. The "weighted coin" is a common analogy used in probability for an unfair coin. Such a coin is still random even if there's a 90% chance of landing on the head side. Apr 24, 2014 at 19:36

The first problem is that you cannot tell what free will is without giving a definition, but it is hard to give an appropriate operational definition without already implicitly answering your question, viz. taking a stance.

The second problem is that randomness can be characterized in many different ways and these definitions are not fully equivalent. Unpredictability is an important criterion in cryptography, but does not work as a general criterion for itself, for it is too unclear. For example, if you record a sequence of random numbers (generated from radioactive decay) for later use, you may "predict" them before they are used, because you have already recorded them, yet they would still be random numbers. Vice versa, many deterministic processes can be unpredictable in practise. A slightly better practical definition of randomness is that a sequence of numbers is random if you cannot compress it and it satisfies some additional statistical criteria. (That practical measure is related to Kolmogorov complexity.) The problem is that a sequence of numbers might pass all these tests and still not be random, i.e. you cannot really tell from a sequence whether it is random or not by looking at the numbers alone. A random generator outputting characters may spit out all works of Shakespeare at any time, although this is highly unlikely.

Third, non-determinism involves a random choice between alternatives.

So what does this have to do with free will? Since a random choice would not be a choice of your free will but rather a choice made by the respective random source, a choice made of free will does not seem to be the same as a non-deterministic choice. Since on the other hand we do not consider a deterministic choice to be a choice of free will either - perhaps not even a choice at all - the concept of free will might be inconsistent after all. In any case, without a proper definition of free will we cannot give an answer to your question, and if you had this definition you would likely have answered the question already for yourself.

There are two easy ways out of this dilemma: (1) Discard free will in the sense of accepting determinism. (2) Discard free will in the sense of accepting that free will consists of highly complex, non-deterministic, yet rule-based choices.

I personally opt for (2), because it is more in line with modern physics than (1) and supported by the view that human brains are open information processing systems. (Notice that a computational system with the ability of making non-deterministic choices is not a Turing machine, although it might be an extension of one.)


A good question.

The defining property of free will, i.e. freedom in choices, is the "feeling" or consciousness of the own authorship of the choice being made. Even if/when I'm forced to comply I cannot escape the glimpse, at the moment, that nothing actually is selecting the way for me, except that "foolish" me (who is, actually, nobody/anonymous this minute) who agrees with the offered.

Thus, every human choice is a free choice, and responsibility is implied automatically. That would be Sartre's account.

Moreover, even when I stumble and fall down, I immediately and promptly react and interpret the occasion (e.g. by the fear to break an arm and not be able to paint anymore through that). By application of a free interpretation/meaning I emerge responsible for my incident though I didn't choose to stumble. I selected to be thus fallen, instead.

Freedom is spontaneous choice (of meaning and action) accompanied by the awareness of own authorship / resposibility. Or to put it differently, the apprehension that there is nobody/nothing specific is to blame except myself.

The key point here, @HWalters, is that ownership belongs to (is felt by) faceless me, the Nothing, and not to I, the Something. If nothing is the decision maker, the decision is, logically, not motivated by any preexisting structure, i.e. it is not determined (subjectively) by any cause. It is motivated by no cause, a pure gap in causational chain. (It is but later that we can attribute a cause to our decision, to "excuse" it.)

Thus, freedom is human (i.e. conscious) randomness (conditioned upon given circumstances). Within the scope of possible alternatives the circumstance can support, it is non-determined.

A man is an entity whereby randomness becomes own while determinism gets broken. Whenever consciousness comes to play, whenever something comes to being through consciousness, determinism is canceled.

Even conceived/planned decision without instant action is not your "will", it is spontaneous. It was spontaneous when it first occured to you, and it is again spontaneous when you start to act according to it: you re-invent it one more time, using your knowledge of the plan as the circumstance, and act.

So, free will is freedom. Specifically "will" is a redundant word, and people do not do things by "will" as some tension or effort. It is when I reflect back on the thing done or on the difficulty to overcome to do it, I might see that "labour" of my Ego involved and start to think of (free) "will" as my instrument. "Will" is always an artefact of reflection ("I decided and did it myself", "I must decide to do it"). No "will" is actually used in real, here-and-now decision makings.

Also to say: curiously, non-human (out there, universal) randomness is close, in eyes of a human, to determinism (or doom) and not to indeterminism. Both random and predetermined appear to us as contingency which is a characteristic of facticity to where we are "abandoned". Marooned for making free choices in the flight from facticity towards meaningful world.

P.S. Once again, how I feel it, and in a response to a comment elsewhere, where they've just asked me how freedom is different from randomness:

Freedom (free will) is spontaneous self-determination. Randomness is when the cause, "author", cannot be indicated, there is none such. Whereas here we have the cause - it is the prereflective, nonthetical self.

That self, being the cause of a choice, is also causa sui; it is not a consequence of another, so it is not a mediator for the choice, - that is because it is non-being: it is not based/founded on being, on what is.

Further, it (the self) is not a tuple pair (self & choice), but one monad: the self selects itself as one possibility of the object-in-the-world (this glass of water in front, which is so drinkable) and emerges in this act. The self thus generates itself and generates its choice in a single pass, one event. It does not pre-exist this functional act of choosing as something, but coincides with it as nothing. (Nothing is shortage of..., unclasping of..., not an emptiness.) I'm choosing myself as the possibility (or potentiality, or opportunity - don't know for now which word is better) of an object, me-possibility existing as deferred here, but strictly inside the circle of conditions (givennes, including my own empirical Ego) which I therefore appear beyond.

So, the causality with consciousness, or free will, is special: via self-nothingness rather than via being/matter. Spontaneity, aka free self-determinism.

  • So to clarify, suppose that we do indeed: (1) have a sense of authorship, (2) instantiate an intention by selecting a goal based on consideration of possible goals, and (3) the thing doing that selects/instantiates the goal is us. Are you claiming that (1), (2), and (3) are impossible if determinism is true, or are you claiming that given they are deterministic we don't have free will?
    – H Walters
    Jan 26, 2018 at 7:00
  • @HWalters, determinism is not how decisions are made, it is imcompatible with how consciousness is. One should not confuse our thoughts on determinism (which is OK and what science is doing) with determinism of our thoughts themselves. Please, see a related answer.
    – ttnphns
    Jan 26, 2018 at 12:45
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    I'm not sure you understand the point of the question. In this response, up to the point to where you say that freedom is human randomness, everything you propose is consistent with determinism (note I do not say implies determinism). But at that point you're ruling out determinism. It's precisely this that I'm asking about; it's not that I'm confusing thoughts on determinism with determinism of thoughts; it's that you're proposing an implication and I don't see how indeterminism is entailed from what you said.
    – H Walters
    Jan 26, 2018 at 14:50
  • @HWalters, am I understanding your note correctly that what I wrote in first paragraphs does not imply randomness, but than I suddenly turn to it and since then reject determinism? If yes, please tell an example (for me to understand better) in the realm of human behaviour where the three points (your first comment) are consistent with determinism .
    – ttnphns
    Jan 26, 2018 at 17:40
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    @HWalters, I don't see how objectivistic experiments (such as with robots acting) can help understanding. I've added a paragraph in the answer trying to explicate why decisions are not deterministic ("subjectively").
    – ttnphns
    Jan 27, 2018 at 5:17

While Michael's answer contains an awesome thought experiment, I disagree with its "fortunate" conclusion so much I think it leaves margin to a better answer. Also I'm not glad with basically all the definitions I've read here, except one - stoicfury's (read below). Also Karl's input (about the brain) is very insightful.

Contrary to Michael, I think definitions are very, very important. I'd argue it's fundamental for one's well being and it can lead a society to glory or doom.

I once had too loose definitions of words and no religion. So I was often confused with what I should think, with what I should do. Hell, I still have this problem today, and I will probably have to live with it for ever. As I began to give proper definitions in my mind, I also enabled myself to move forward, set a direction to move in my life. It's not much different accepting a definition I created myself or accept one from religion, but I think having it defined is very important if you want to build anything in your life.

As for a society, giving words to concrete objects is easy. And it facilitates communication to do practical things. "Pass me the hammer, please". Similarly, giving words to abstract concepts can help we orient each other to better position each one of us in society and build it up. "Should I get married?". "How many kids?". Yes, "kid" is quite an abstract concept. And I think the facility we have to communicate about it today is in part responsible for how big our Earth society is, despite the babylon of different languages.

So, allow me to give you my own personal definitions in hope to bring some new perspective here. I'm pretty sure they go against some common definitions, such as ones we can see in wikipedia, but those are how I see the concepts they're associated with, based on my social intuitive sense. Of course you can choose to use different words to try and add different definitions, give different meanings. But I think the current meaning people give to those words are quite broken...

Universe = every single thing we can even imagine

Some may perceive an idea / information / data as being something outside our reality. Dreams, for instance, can easily break rules of physics. Or can they? This is no simple concept and I won't digress about it here... Please, just take this definition and see if you can cope with it: there is nothing we can even think of that would be outside the universe. Not just the common concept associated with the "observable universe". There is no "multiverse". Everything is included. What exists, what doesn't exist and what might exist. If there is anything beyond the big bang that might affect us, it is within the universe. This is an important common ground definition I'll use for the other 3 you asked.

Free will = ability to think

I think free will has nothing to do with actions. I would say a restrained prisoner still have free will, even though he won't be able to do anything with it. A coma patient have no free will. Sure, thinking in itself can be considered work (i.e. an action), in a physical sense, as there are universe-embedded-neurons acting in our brains. And, as such, even our thoughts are restricted by the universe rules we live in. But, as long as we are able to rationalize anything, I call that free will. Maybe "free will" is just another word for "intelligence", after all. I love a definition I once saw for intelligence as "capacity to predict the future".

Randomness = events which were unpredictable

stoicfury's definition is spot on to me, just there's no need to say "any outcome is equally probable" as it is implied in the "unpredictable". To me "random" means "unpredictable". The moment some future event becomes predictable it is no longer random. If we live indeed in a deterministic universe (I think we do, but that's beyond the point), nothing is random by definition. Even then we can still perceive things as random while we can't predict them.

Non-determinism = events with unpredictable outcomes

What? So it's the same as random? Yeah, basically. A deterministic universe is a connected universe. If it originated from a single point in space time, the initial variables there and then have determined every single thing that will ever happen within it. Nothing in it is truly random. So a non-deterministic event is an event that will bring at least 1 random result. And indeterminism is just a prettier name for this same thing.

Conclusion . . .

Free will has nothing to do with randomness or determinism. You say random means the choice is unpredictable, but how could it ever be unpredictable if there was just 1 option to begin with? You're confusing definitions there. Unpredictable implies more than 1 option, more than one possible choice. Randomness and determinism are different ways to look at the exact same thing.

To all that, Michael's 3 tiny people experiment still applies, and the conclusion is still the same. Today (and maybe for ever) we can't tell with certainty if our universe is deterministic or not. Even if we define the universe as a non-cyclical infinite space-time continuum it still could be either random or intrinsically predictable. And the foreseeable future indeed make it seem like it is practically irrelevant to have a precise definition for those concepts.

And who's to say it really is irrelevant? So far, even if the universe is not random, we can't predict the future. I can only say, from past events, many definitions some philosophers did in the past are quite valuable today. I don't know why we like to argue about future concepts so much, but the value in defining all this may arise much sooner than we can expect. There is the very small chance we may live much longer to even see it happening. I don't think getting to a good and solid common definition is unimportant at all. Just the personal enjoyment of digressing about all those subjects are of quite enough value to me. Specially if I find someone who share the same view!

If our so called capacity of choice (often associated with "free will") is indeed an illusion, I find it very enjoyable how this deterministic universe can still uphold such a magnificent existential living experience. And finding a person who can agree, who got the same idea coming from a completely different point of view is kind of magical. It's probably the main reason why I go through so much trouble to write questions and answers here.


Peter van Inwagen in his "Metaphysics" (2009) explains point of view that both determinism and indeterminism (which he understands as randomness) are incompatible with free will.

He concludes that as such, free will cannot exist or merely an illusion.

Perhaps the explanation of the fact that both compatibilism and incompatibilism seem to lead to mysteries is simply that the concept of free will is self-contradictory. Perhaps free will is, as the incompatibilists say, incompatible with determinism. But perhaps it is also incompatible with indeterminism, owing to the impossibility of its being up to an agent what the outcome of an indeterministic process will be. If free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, then, since either determinism or indeterminism has to be true, free will is impossible. And, of course, what is impossible does not exist.

It should be noted that there is a chance that can save the free will.

A research by Thomas Breuser concluded that neither deterministic, nor indeterministic universally-valid theories are possible. That means that no theory can predict (even probabilistically) the future of a system which contains the observer himself due to self-reference problem.

As such it seems that the free will of at least the observer can be saved while all other people will appear to him as following the laws of deterministic or random theory and as such, not possessing free will.

Particularly, regarding quantum mechanics Breuer proves that a system which includes the observer has states in phase space which are in principle cannot be distinguished by observer himself however good measurement devices he would employ. Yes these states affect the future evolution of the system.

This can be understood as that there is hidden information which real but unreadable by any physical device which affects the future behavior of the observer.

  • This (also) doesn't actually answer the question...
    – stoicfury
    Mar 18, 2013 at 1:01
  • @stoicfury: doesn't it partially answer the difference between non-determinism and free will?
    – Mitch
    Mar 19, 2013 at 0:49
  • @Mitch: I only see it talking about the compatibility of in/determinism with free will, not their definitions or what makes them distinct from each other.
    – stoicfury
    Mar 19, 2013 at 8:11

Short Answer: I think the necessary conditions for calling something a 'free-will' should be that 'you can take an action unhindered and uninfluenced by current and past events. Because this is what 99% of people all around the world try to defend when they defend 'free-will'. I think other types of (scholarly defined) necessary conditions have to be thrown out since they don't correspond with what most people mean when they claim people have a 'free-will'.

Long Answer: I think the key in sorting out the free-will confusion is to separate 'choice' from 'free-choice' ('will' from 'free-will'). If you claim that you have free-choice you have to define what makes it different from choice. If you claim that we live in a non-deterministic universe you have to describe what you mean. Then you have to provide at least an example (an evidence) for this.

When it comes to randomness and non-deterministic view points you will always be able to present things that seem random or non-deterministic until you understand all of the workings of the universe, which we will never do, and so you will always find evidence for this e.g. before Newton objects seem to move at random, before we found the atom things on that level seemed random, now quarks seem random, next something else will be proven to be random. Determinism (cause and effect) is like math; we just have to agree that all things (abstract things are not things in their own right since thoughts do not exist outside of our scull) can be explained through cause and effect until we find too many things not happening according to cause and effect, just like we just have to agree that 1 + 1 = 2 until too many people start adding up 1 pile of sand with another pile of sand and get confused over why they don't have two piles. Unless we agreed on how knowledge can exist (cause and effect and math being 2 of the most vital) are agreed upon we will get nowhere and have to believe that knowledge is impossible.

When it comes to 'free-will' as oppose to 'will' I don't see how anyone has ever defined 'free-will' in a useful way as something different from 'will', and then shown an example of when this happened. To make it different you would have to make the necessary conditions of 'free-will' something similar to 'you can take an action unhindered and uninfluenced by current and past events' and try to present examples of when this happened. Because no one is arguing that we don't make choices; whether they are free or not they are still choices; choices which are either caused or not caused by something else.

I think the reason for why you find so many people defining 'free-will' basically as 'sometimes we make choices' is cultural pressures. You don't become popular anywhere by talking away this long lasting concept that we base all our blame and credit ideas on; our legal system; our meritocracy. So it is easier for people to define it in a way that lets them say that they believe in 'free-will' so that they don't have to deal with the real consequences of the fact that every effect has one or more causes which ultimately can be understood (even if it is complex esp. all social sciences).

I have been having the free-will - determinism debate at least once every week for over 10 years now and I can tell you that 99% of the people I have been talking to (I am well traveled; have constantly been moving around the whole globe over this time) defend 'free-will' by claiming that you can 'take an action unhindered and uninfluenced by current and past events'

  • So, are you saying that free-will is the antonym of determinism? And are you saying that non-determinism, which I stipulated as having more than one choice, is not the right way to define it?
    – Mitch
    Mar 19, 2013 at 0:52
  • Yes, but not necessarily because that is the only way to see it but because that seem to be the way most people view it before having read 2000 years worth of literature trying to defend free will at any cost. When it comes to 'non-determinism' I have a hard time even comprehending what it means. Because I can't imagine how a non-deterministic universe would work. How would it function if it did not function according to cause and effect
    – Kriss
    Mar 19, 2013 at 2:09
  • (unless by non-deterministic you mean that we cannot determine the outcome because 50/50 type scenarios exists? This would make it impossible to pre-determine what will happen but it would not be an argument against determinism)
    – Kriss
    Mar 19, 2013 at 2:11
  • Making choices is something we all do 1000s of time each day. This mean that we also have 1000s of choices each day. But choosing is a mechanism used to describe how humans function, not a claim about how the world works (whether it is deterministic). It is not a physical explanation but a design explanation (see the intentional stance by Daniel Dennett en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_stance) which is a useful shortcut for talking on a macro level about what is happening. Psychology often use design level explanation while neuroscience are better at mapping up the physical evidence.
    – Kriss
    Mar 19, 2013 at 2:29
  • sorry for leaking :) but I hope it will help :)
    – Kriss
    Mar 19, 2013 at 2:30

It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that someones choices can be derived from previous causal factors. I agree with the derterministic model. In every scenerio the initial conditions and attitudes (like neural conditions) are there, and if it were possible to perfectly identify these conditions with accuarcy and account for ALL variables one could rule out the illusion of randomness. But I would like to introduce the concept that these factors, and their interactions, are literally INFINITE. Chaos theory being what it is, the interactions of all these variables in a system such as the human mind, cannot be quantified or predicted, simply because they number in infinite. And because of this, choice might indeed be free because out of an infinite series of happenings- there is one result. Only AFTER a choice is made, can it be traced to its preceding deterministic factors. But that choice was not predestined. Whether or not this adds up, I believe that the concept of deterministic factors being infinite, means there is something more to this problem of free will then we can really comprehend.


Okay, hold up.

All of your actions is a result of things happening in your brain. Inside your brain is a lot of neurons and other things. Keep that in mind.

Kahnemann has a lot of publications in cognitive psychology that show that brains are not in fact as unpredictable as we think. In fact, most modern neuroscientists agree that all human actions can be explained by way of cognitive algorithms.

So, why do we feel like we have unrestrained action?

Eliezer Yudkowsky gives the answer that we as humans have to take into account how the aforementioned cognitive algorithms feel from the inside. That is, when asking about free will, you have to ask "why does it fell this way" in stead of "does the world look like this?" (given that neuroscience has a negative answer to that question).

Putting it simply, it feels like we have unrestrained action when our planning-algorithm runs. We subconsciously plan everything in terms of sensory-operations and motor-functions. To get down to the corner store, you first have to stand up from the chair.

It feels like we have unrestrained action because all of our immediately available motor-functions and sensory-operations are labeled "free" inside our brain. How much does it cost you in calories to raise your left hand? Virtually nothing compared to running a mile.

This also explains how you can talk about unrestrained action in past-tense. You simply remember (or hindsight-evaluate) that it was a free action in the given situation.

  • You do understand though that "All of your actions is a result of things happening in your brain" is a super positive way of thinking and that everything you say could be simply dismissed with that single premise, which you didn't justify at all?
    – iphigenie
    Jan 27, 2013 at 21:22
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    Karl's answer challenges the hidden presuppositions of the question, I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, he has a very good point. There are not many viable alternatives to "All of your actions is a result of things happening in your brain" that do not fall prey to the interaction problem or a variant of the Homunculus problem. These problems have never been answered in a satisfying way, whereas his position remains compatible with current scientific knowledge. Perhaps Popper/Eccles and Penrose/Hameroff should have been mentioned as alternatives, though. Mar 18, 2013 at 11:50
  • I also think that 'All of your actions is a result of things happening in your brain'. But that's not a particularly satisfying thing (too dependent on local anatomic knowledge). Is that what you mean by it's a 'premise', @iphigenie?
    – Mitch
    Mar 19, 2013 at 0:56
  • @Mitch No, the premise I find more than just a little problematic is that every intellectual activity turns into a property of your brain. I think it was Dennett who actually claimed that that's the case, or maybe it was Searle. There's a whole book on this conversation, but I'm having trouble recommending it: this one. I don't favour the old dualism, but I think it's way too easy to say it's our brain that makes our decisions. I make
    – iphigenie
    Mar 19, 2013 at 1:41
  • decisions, and while it's perfectly clear that my brain has something to do with it, it's not the one and only part of me that does that, because brains don't think, we do, and brains don't choose, and brains don't make wedding plans, and neither do they go on elections.
    – iphigenie
    Mar 19, 2013 at 1:44

Consider a wall-building robot that you have purchased without knowing any of it internals (i.e. could even contain brain tissue or quantum stuff, or fairy dust). You command it to build a straight wall. Different results:

  • The robot is not broken, it builds a straight wall: Deterministic behavior
  • The robot has a bug, it builds a messy useless pile of stones: Random behavior
  • The robot instead builds other robots, an army of them, and subdues humanity: Free will behavior

Here the type of behavior is depending on the input given to the robot, so deterministic behavior just means "determined fully by the command given to the robot."

As a system, both you, the robot, and the universe in this example could all be causally deterministic in all 3 cases. But from the point of view of you giving the robot a command, the three behaviors could be classified like that as being determined, random, or free will responses to your command.

  • This is partly right if you know that there was an input program and know what it was to build the wall. In other words, there is a Creator and his Providence. But what if you don't know what the robot is doing an why / the goal? How will you tell your three alternatives then? Another point: couldn't the robot building other robots instead of the wall be doing it because of an alien (devil's?) program and obeys it, not own free will?
    – ttnphns
    Jan 27, 2018 at 7:10
  • If some other agent remotely controls the robot using free will, the robots behavior is still driven by free will (just not the robots'), so that's no change. I edited the example to indicate it is not relevant who build the robot, for this definition of free will, which looks at the behavior from the outside. Where the free will would 'come from' is a completely different question.
    – tkruse
    Jan 28, 2018 at 1:30
  • But that will shift the problem of distinction of free will (from the other two points) unto that other agent. Instead of solving it. The shift then might be ad infinitum, which hints once again towards an ultimate Creator and controller, the only free willer God, standing at far end of the infinite series.
    – ttnphns
    Jan 28, 2018 at 2:47
  • My answer does not try to solve the problem of where free will would come from. Only how it could look different from determinism and random. There are already good questions and definitions for the problem of what free will could be and where it could come from, no need to repeat them here.
    – tkruse
    Jan 28, 2018 at 2:49

Two cents.

The thought experiment in @MichaelDorfman's answer is somewhat misleading. The reason is that it purports to tell apart free will from randomness and deterministic randomness via a black box experiment. We know that if (libertarian) free will exists it can be as random as any random process (eg simply choose to copy any random process). Similarly it can be as orderly as any law-like process (eg simply choose to copy any algorithmic process). So the proposed experiment is not a good way to argue about free will (or lack of it) because neither its observed randomness nor its observed law-likeness is what tells it apart. Rather, as argued here, it is the plausible conditions that make (libertarian) free will possible in the universe, plus ways to meaningfully attribute it to the agent in principle.

Almost all libertarians agree that free will needs three things, which, as far as we can tell, hold true in this universe (exact mechanisms can differ):

  1. Negation of complete determinism with more than one compatible outcome per given state, such that..
  2. A form of causality or partial determinism holds which links cause and effect, and which makes possible..
  3. Choice or collapse of outcomes, that can be meaningfully attributed as up to the agent

Negation of determinism means "not all events are determined", leaving room for events that are completely determined and also room for law-like processes. These law-like processes implement a form of causality which is necessary if choice is to be meaningful. In this sense, known physical laws can act as a suitable form of causality as long as they do not amount to complete determinism (ie standard interpretations of basic physics are fully in accord with this).

Events not being predetermined are random, however randomness, in this sense, does not mean nor lead to out of one's control. Randomness in the sense of negation of complete determinism is not, in principle, incompatible with agent control and agent choice. Choice, so construed, can be meaningfully attributed to an agent in various ways both objective and subjective (a survey of ways is out of the scope of this answer).

Finally, the agent's reasons, preferences, tastes, goals and whatnot of course play a role in the choice made. Some people misunderstand this in the sense that they take this role to be always fixed, thus the choice is completely determined. The answer is that this role of agent's preferences is not fixed nor static (eg agent can re-prioritise her reasons, or even choose the same thing for different reasons, etc..), nevertheless it is present.

  • But it does show that they cannot be experimentally distinguished by observing the "decisions" alone. Perhaps there is some "free will radiation" or "randomness waves" that are emitted from the different physical processes, but they would be contained by the "black box." May 4 at 7:51
  • @NathanChappell it shows that this thought experiment is not suited for this task. Other kinds of experiments and arguments can be suitable but this cannot be covered in a comment or a short answer
    – Nikos M.
    May 4 at 8:10
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    @NathanChappell there are books (eg by Alfred Mele) advancing and examining free will experiments for and against. Check them out. I am sure you can find even more yourself.
    – Nikos M.
    May 4 at 14:56
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    @NathanChappell here is another one experiment for free will
    – Nikos M.
    May 4 at 15:06
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    @NathanChappell one can say the same for existence of other minds, yet existence of other minds is the best explanation against competing explanations for the same data. So even in this sense certain experiments and arguments do support free will position clearly.
    – Nikos M.
    May 5 at 8:37

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