I've read in a few places that people tend to get depressed and lose motivation in life after losing their belief in free will; that even if you "know" free will does not exist, you are better off believing in it anyway, e.g. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/ (sorry for the paywall). As a disbeliever in the existence of free will myself, I'd prefer not to be forced to adopt a belief system with such inherent cognitive dissonance. So I've been trying to think of ways around that ...

Thought experiment: let's start by assuming we live in a deterministic universe. We conduct an experiment where a subject is placed in a room and asked some trivia question -- a correct answer gets her a monetary reward so she has some motivation to put effort into answering correctly. We know she will answer based on the current state of the universe which includes the current state of her mind.

In this experiment we can create an alternate universe where the experiment is repeated with the exact same initial conditions / state. She will subjectively have the same experience, expend the same amount of effort, and provide the same answer.

Now let's repeat the experiment but this time we prime her with a belief that free will does not exist. Primed with this belief, she concludes she will provide the same answer whether she tries or not and ends up not expending as much effort as she otherwise would have and perhaps chooses a different answer [edit: with only this priming, she is likely (even if mistakenly so) to become fatalistic and less motivated (see similar real life experiments in the linked article)].

Finally, let's repeat the experiment one more time but this time tell her 1. free will does not exist, and 2. effort expended is directly proportional to performance on trivia questions.

  1. Does the priming that effort->results have the potential to counteract the reduced effort observed in the previous experiment?
  2. Do these two beliefs introduce logical fallacies / cognitive dissonance experienced by the subject?

I think (1) is true since our beliefs impact our actions and a belief that effort will get you what you want will lead the subject to expend effort. (2) is the trickier one -- I want to say no because if learning and decision-making can be considered physical processes/algorithms, the beliefs we prime her with causes her to "decide to try" in spite of her disbelief in free will; "decide to try" here being just another run of her decision-making algorithm that makes use of the knowledge that effort->results.


7 Answers 7


Learning vs knowing that free will doesn't exist?

The only support I've seen for the idea that people get depressed knowing that free will doesn't exist has been highly dubious. For example, trying to convince people that it doesn't exist, and then shortly afterwards asking them how they feel about it. That would be like telling a kid that Santa doesn't exist, seeing that they're sad, and then concluding that people get depressed from knowing that Santa doesn't exist. That doesn't follow. That's merely capturing the disappointment from discovering that something you thought was true isn't actually true, without it saying much about how happy someone would generally be without thinking that is true.

Similarly, there are people who conclude that God doesn't actually exist, like they thought he did, and that they won't live forever with all their friends and family, in eternal happiness without any bad things or bad people. Some such people struggle with dealing with that reality, but they tend to get over it. Many people who were always atheists didn't struggle with that, and are perfectly happy.

If anything, of all atheists who reject free will that I've heard from, giving up on religion was far more significant to them, whereas accepting that free will doesn't exist was barely noteworthy.

What's the target audience?

The above people who aren't that bothered by the non-existence of free will tend to be more scientifically-minded, and care about what's true, first and foremost, even if the truth isn't always fun. Although they also tend to enjoy learning more about how the world works (including the underlying reasons for why they are the way they are, and why they think and do the things they think and do).

If someone has little to no interest in science, philosophy or principles of rationality, I can certainly understand how learning that free will doesn't exist may be more difficult for them. But this is a philosophy site, and I might suggest not trying to convince the general public that free will doesn't exist. ... except free will ties in so heavily to justice, and morality, and education, and welfare, and religion, and mental conditions, and... So even if knowing that free will doesn't exist is unpleasant for someone, that would hopefully be tied to better positions on all the above issues.

On a related note, I would generally encourage scientific curiosity, both because science is fascinating and understanding reality is useful. If you can encourage that, i.e. get someone to want to know the underlying mechanisms of how the world works, and if they've already learnt about the underlying mechanisms of many things, it seems less likely that they'd be as bothered to learn about the underlying mechanism of how they think.

What does it mean to reject "free will"?

I think many people, especially those who accept free will, haven't really wrapped their head around what it means to reject free will.

There seems to be a common idea that free will not existing would mean you cannot make any choice whatsoever, but that's not what's being rejected by those who reject free will.

One might say that "free will" is ill-defined and possibly self-contradictory, in that we base our choices on our environment and feelings, which we don't choose. But if our environment and feelings determine our choices, then we wouldn't have libertarian free will. We've also been increasing our understanding of the brain and it's connection to our thoughts. Those who appeal to free will and a non-physical mind need to keep shrinking and shrinking their claim, as there's less and less that it can explain, as our understanding of psychology and neuroscience increases.

Rather than going down that route, we just reject the thing that doesn't seem to make sense, and which doesn't explain anything. If we want, we can just leave it there and live our lives without thinking about it, but let's keep thinking.

On the topic of being able to make choices, the non-free-will view (or one such view, at least) is merely that our choices are the result of neurons firing, which is bound by physical laws. This merely explains the underlying mechanism of our brains, and doesn't suggest that we cannot make choices (unless you definition of "choosing" is as mystical as the idea of "free will" is).

You still get to weigh up various factors, and your actions still have consequences, even if there was only ever one way you would've weighed up those factors. Consider a robot: it may be programmed to behave in a certain way, but it can still observe what's going on around it, have some internal state, and perform actions based on some rules.

My choices matter because they could increase or decrease suffering or happiness of myself or others.

In conclusion: society has attached this massive importance to the idea of "free will", even though the concept itself is poorly defined, and life without free will isn't really as different from life with free will as people might think. But if you reject free will, it may take some time to get over the disappointment of losing something you thought was important.

  • The only support I've seen for the idea that people get depressed knowing that free will doesn't exist has been highly dubious - I don't think it necessarily happens to MOST people, but I do know it happens to some people - I know that because I've interacted with them. I suspect that that feeling is usually fleeting for those people who it does happen to, and passes after some time, but for some small percent of people it's lasting. People can be quite neurotic and react in unexpected ways to philosophical concepts. That being said, I do agree that in general this is a rare reaction.
    – TKoL
    Dec 4, 2023 at 9:48
  • I mean, I've heard of people who react with genuine terror to the concept of infinities and continual forms of mathematics.
    – TKoL
    Dec 4, 2023 at 9:49
  • @NotThatGuy I appreciate your thoughts and tend to agree with you! I think "truth" (as true as we can claim something like this to be anyway) should not be suppressed even if uncomfortable. However I think it would be net beneficial to find ways to improve how it is communicated in order to minimize the social negatives without creating more confusion.
    – user65054
    Dec 4, 2023 at 22:18

It is not possible to restore the motivation lost by rejecting free will without introducing cognitive dissonance/logical fallacies.

That is because it is not possible to reject free will without introducing cognitive dissonance/logical fallacies.

Rejection itself is an act of free will. You must choose to reject, you cannot be caused to reject.


As far as I can tell the only logical reason societies came up with the idea of free will was that it allowed them to punish those who committed acts that the society deemed wrong. The main fear of losing the idea of free will be that it will become harder to justify punishment. I am not sure if its true but I would imagine that those who believe in free will also believe in the concept of good and evil. This justifies punishment such as capital punishment. Those who don't believe in free will accept that there maybe reasons for the way people act that have nothing to do with good or evil. The argument that a person may experience pain or sadness as a result of giving up on the idea of free will seems like a backdoor method of arguing for free will when you are unwilling to express your true reasons. All of the above does not necessarily mean it is a good idea for society to give up on the idea of free will. The idea serves a purpose otherwise it would not have evolved in the first place. Whether its time is past or not is a bigger question.

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    Dec 4, 2023 at 13:03
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    Justice is worse with false beliefs. The question is why you "punish" someone. Preventing future offences could be a good reason, but for that it's crucial to have an accurate understanding of why someone acted the way they do, and how they may act in future. So if free will doesn't exist, we should know that, rather than thinking that it does exist. There are also things like poverty that are linked to crime, so we can reduce crime by addressing those things, but that makes far more sense if you reject free will.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 4, 2023 at 16:03
  • I have been thinking about your statement "Justice is worse with false beliefs". Surely 'Justice is in the eye of the beholder'. If a young girl is raped, justice for her parents might be something brutal, swift and final. I am not sure how knowing the person had a bad upbringing would affect that view. Justice for a uninterested party reading about it in a newspaper might be something different. Society as a whole would have a different view on what constitutes Justice. Which Justice would be better. Dec 5, 2023 at 15:52
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    @MichaelMcgarry My point is e.g. if someone chooses to do harm of their own free will, without that being influenced by external factors, one might be able to make the case for a harsher punishment than if someone doing harm was an inevitable consequence of their upbringing and/or biology. For the latter, the best argument would be for prevention of future harm more than anything else. As for vengeance/revenge, one might hope that one day humanity moves past their need for that - we certainly aren't there yet, but I'm also not sure we can get closer to that while hanging on to free will.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 5, 2023 at 16:35
  • The problem with this debate is that neither side is right. No intelligent being can have free will and no intelligent being can be determinist. All intelligent beings are the sum of their experiences and in the case of humans we have the additional burden of instinct, desires and emotions. Added to all that is the way the outside world reacts to our appearance. All of those experiences are subject to random fluctuations such that even if a computer could take onboard all the interactions that happened today it still could not predict what would happen tomorrow. Dec 5, 2023 at 17:24

This answer is a very extensive discussion of this problem: If Free Will Is Proven Illusory, Is There a Case for Suppressing the Finding?

Note the question the earlier answer was posted to, demonstrates two things:

  1. It is not just anti-determinists who think that determinism vitiates motivation. The advocates of the suppression of determinism, who are actually numerous within philosophy, consider this to be settled fact. And he evidence for their point 1 was strong.

  2. However, even the "rational" philosophers advocating for suppression of determinism were self-admittedly engaging in cognitive dissonance, demonstrating how easily we humans can engage in cognitive dissonance. Also, the opponent of suppression cited, was himself involved in a self contradiction in his argument 3), further illustrating how easily we humans live with cognitive dissonance.

One can reasonably infer from both sides of this debate being immersed in cognitive dissonance, that it is both very rare for ANY position not to possibly involve cognitive dissonance, and that avoiding any cognitive dissonance is an unnecessary constraint.

As an aside, our world is not determined, we know that from physics. Deterministic or stochastic universe?

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    @user65054 -- here is a posted answer that addresses coherence. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/104336/… It is a useful goal, but is not actually achievable. The belief, which is widespread among both philosophers and scientists, that their views ARE coherent -- is another example of the extent of cognitive dissonance!
    – Dcleve
    Dec 4, 2023 at 22:58
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    "avoiding any cognitive dissonance is an unnecessary constraint." That's not a conclusion I would draw, because it leaves one without logical boundaries. It's important to try and remain logically coherent, I think. Just because some people failed at some point doesn't mean it's undoable.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 5, 2023 at 7:19
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    @Dcleve I made a typing error and meant they're much less definitive, as in you're definitively saying that reality isn't deterministic, whereas the answers there are some mix of "we don't know" and "there are different theories". And sorry if I don't put too much weight into you dismissing the physics statements made by 2 people claiming to have a PhD or be a PhD student and whose statements were very positively reviewed on a physics Q&A. Not that those things count for that much, but it sure is a lot better than an answer about physics with a slightly positive score on a philosophy Q&A.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 6, 2023 at 6:35
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    @Dcleve "Every person EVER has failed at logical coherence." How would you know that? You've met them all?
    – Olivier5
    Dec 6, 2023 at 7:02
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    @Dcleve The pluralism of science is a form of diversity and richness which mirrors the diversity of the world. It has nothing to do with incoherence. It's not like biology contradicts physics. Your other objections are similarly ill-placed. We needing axioms to start the logical machine somewhere, to tie the logical chain somewhere, is only natural and not a form of incoherence. It is in fact perfectly coherent throughout all fields of knowledge.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 7, 2023 at 7:26

The unfoldment of reality is a stream of serialized states. What we consider as a cause is a way in which we interpret the change; it is NOT the mechanism by which the change is performed. I want something, you want it too; if only one of us can get it, then the flow of events will be consistent, it will be seen as determinism is not violated but at the end one of us will get it.

Science is compatible with this :

... quantum mechanics, this theory being acausal in the sense that it is unable in many cases to identify the causes of actually observed effects or to predict the effects of identical causes, but arguably deterministic in some interpretations...

Determinism has a meaning inside a context, not in general : if I stop an apple from falling, do I break determinism? It's obvious that a cause exists, but the point is who caused the cause, and why.

Reality is teleological by definition.

  • I used to think in terms of teleology.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 3, 2023 at 23:24
  • If a pendulum swings, will it follow a consistent back-and-forth path, or could it randomly stop in mid air, or could all the atoms spontaneously head off in random directions, turning the pendulum to dust? You could argue semantics over what "deterministic" means, but the important question is whether or not there is only a single chain of outcomes.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 4, 2023 at 5:10
  • Reality is teleological by definition - which definitions are those? This could use explicit clarification.
    – TKoL
    Dec 4, 2023 at 9:50
  • @NotThatGuy, it could stop if I shoot it. That's a change in outcome. Is it so difficult to understand? Dec 4, 2023 at 11:03
  • @TKoL, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleology Dec 4, 2023 at 11:09

Fatalism (the lack of belief in free will) may have psychological advantages, as well as drawbacks. You need to make the most of the advantages, not just focus on the drawbacks, such as this lack of positive motivation you seem to be feeling. Examples follow.

  1. You are not deeming yourself responsible for 'your' mistakes and weaknesses anymore, unlike under a free will framework. You are perfectly entitled to fail and try again. That's how you learn. Fatalism dedramatises failure and neutralizes remorse.

  2. Fatalism can also reassure you when you are afraid or concerned of something. You are "in the hand of God", or "in the hands of the universe". Your survival is not particularly important, since the universe may have other plans. Whatever scares you is beyond your control, so you can relax.

  3. You can think of yourself as more than just a freak experiment of nature, randomly produced among zillions of other possibilities. You are not contingent anymore; instead you play a necessary part in a necessary cosmic plan. You are a part of the big whole. Maybe you didn't write your own lines (as in a free will framework) but the Universe Itself wrote your lines, 13 billion years ago. That must count for something.

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    I've heard few to no people who reject free will say that you aren't responsible for your mistakes. This is more commonly something said about the other side, by those who accept free will, as an attempt to paint rejecting the claim of free will as merely abdicating responsibility. But you are still responsible, and you do still make your choices, even if you yourself think and act deterministically (as per my answer). Rejecting free will under physicalism shouldn't affect reassurance much, for the same reason. Free will also doesn't seem to have much to do with our place in the universe.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 4, 2023 at 15:46
  • @NotThatGuy Yours is a compatibilist outlook, then. I suppose that for the same reasons, you have not felt a loss of motivation. But then, your personal experience is less relevant to the OP.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 5, 2023 at 6:46
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    I don't ascribe to compatibilism, but I also consider that to be a semantic disagreement with most people who reject free will, over what "free will" means. Compatibilists need to define free will as being able to choose deterministically, otherwise their view is self-contradictory. But those who reject free will also define our will to be deterministic, they just don't call it "free will". You may continue to think such people accept free will, but regardless, what you're saying wouldn't be true for many of the people you're talking about.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 5, 2023 at 9:47
  • @NotThatGuy From what you post, it seems you do subscribe to compatibilism.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 5, 2023 at 12:22

If you have no free will, you will be just as motivated because you have no choice:-)

Seriously my happiness, pleasure of having nice things, joy watching a nice movie or reading a good book, pride of my work and achievements and all my other feelings are independent of me having free will or not. Free will or not, I will usually do what’s best for me and sometimes do stupid things. No difference.

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    I would think that if abandoning free will made no difference to you, either you never seriously believed in it, or you still believe in it, deep below.
    – Olivier5
    Dec 5, 2023 at 7:28

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