I have the subjective experience of free will but also observe the following: it does not seem to be possible to plan ahead and make a willful decision as to what one's exact thoughts shall be in 5 minutes (or even 1 minute). By then one may still be involved in a certain overall task (such as reading a book), but what specifically will go through one's mind by that instance (whether a philosophic thought about free will or a thought about dishes in the sink) cannot be predicted or planned with any precision or reliability. Such future thoughts seem to be much more determined by external events outside one's control (e.g. the phone ringing) or other thoughts that immediately precede them. Hence freely choosing one's exact thoughts may be an illusion, and since conscious actions follow from thoughts these may also be more stringently determined that we like to think.

So here is my question: is this kind of thought experiment indeed relevant to the philosophical question of free will and if so, have such arguments been pursued in greater detail elsewhere in the literature?

2 Answers 2


I don't know about the literature. If you want I can write a book quickly and then reference it. Or I'll just reference http://staroversky.com/blog/three-minds-conscious-subcosncious-unconscious. But we have a conscious and subconscious mind. Most of the time not to say always the conscious is just there to pretend to be in charge. Does this then mean the subconscious is in charge or the unconscious?

Well that depends on if you think we exist in a vacuum and are not influenced by our environment. Only then I posit can we have a truly free will and plot our own course - AND know what we will be thinking about in 5 minutes.

And for a reference on Philosophy mentioning experiments:


The will has also recently become a target of empirical study in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Benjamin Libet (2002) conducted experiments designed to determine the timing of conscious willings or decisions to act in relation to brain activity associated with the physical initiation of behavior. Interpretation of the results is highly controversial. Libet himself concludes that the studies provide strong evidence that actions are already underway shortly before the agent wills to do it. *As a result, we do not consciously initiate our actions, though he suggests that we might nonetheless retain the ability to veto actions that are initiated by unconscious psychological structures*.

So yes it is relevant. Still vetoing does not mean having a free will or choice. It's just another more complex "reflex" designed to prevent us from killing ourselves too quickly.

  • +1 for mentioning unconscious (also as in Freud), which is clearly relevant terminology from the field of psychology. It does not answer the philosophic question, though.
    – Drux
    Mar 12, 2014 at 7:48

Sam Harris makes a similar, confused point in some of his speeches. The 'experiment' you describe is, like most 'thought experiments', not an experiment at all, but a conceptual, a priori argument. If it was an experiment, it could be conducted empirically, the results observed, and conclusions drawn. In fact, this does not occur.

Rather, you are setting up or presuming a conceptual equivalence between free-will and the ability to choose what one will be thinking about in the future. This is really a re-definition of what 'free will' normally means. The customary, layman's meaning of free will is an ability to make choices per se.

So just because you sometimes cannot choose what to think about, does not by any means imply there is no free will whatsoever.

  • "The customary meaning of free will is an ability to make choices per se." — Do you mean this to cover both compatibilism as well as libertarianism?
    – labreuer
    Mar 14, 2014 at 23:26
  • I mean customary in the sense of layman's use, rather than a philosophical theory about what 'free will' might really mean. Neither of these can be discovered by experiment.
    – adrianos
    Mar 14, 2014 at 23:29
  • 1
    Neither can a quark, unless you also bring into play a large number of other claims. Compatibilist vs. libertarian free will may be similar. See: coherentism.
    – labreuer
    Mar 15, 2014 at 4:06
  • Actually there is plenty of experimental evidence for quarks. See: science. Coherentism has nothing to do with questions of existence.
    – adrianos
    Mar 15, 2014 at 16:22

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