A recent episode of Robert Kuhn's web series Closer to Truth puts the question of free will to Ned Block, Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at the University of New York.

Block states 'free will' is a 'confused' concept, because it is incompatible with determinism and indeterminism.

"Why is it incompatible with determinism. Well...if an earlier state of your body determines what you're going to do now, how can it be free?"

"Indeterminism though is just as bad, because if you do something by chance, that doesn't mean it's done by you freely... [This] shows there's something wrong with the concept".

He then goes on to redefine free will in a way that diminishes it. As Kuhn notes he seems to be taking a compatabilist tack.

My question is whether Block is right in saying that there is 'something wrong with the concept' merely because it can't be squeezed into determinism or indeterminism. An initial instinct may be that he is invoking the Law of the Excluded Middle, but isn't that inappropriate here?

This may be a weak analogy, but I imagine two other states, say an open door and a closed door. Just because all states of a door's 'openness' are thus covered does not mean one of them should be compatible with an unassociated thing, such as an elephant trying to get from one room to the next.

I imagine strong 'free will' (as opposed to a diminished free will) as the elephant here. There is no reason it can't exist as a coherent concept whilst simultaneously being incompatible with determinism and inderterminism.

Is my analogy...or at least my point...fair? Or am I misunderstanding Block?

  • 4
    Judging by the quote, Block makes an elementary mistake, but it is hard to be sure without context. Indeterminism is just the negation of determinism, and, as such, is not equivalent to chance. However, the problem is not that (libertarian) free will cannot be "squeezed" into determinism or indeterminism, it trivially falls under indeterminism, but that determinism/chance is a false dichotomy. Perhaps, he means that our not being able to produce any clear conceptions compatible with physics aside from those two and combinations thereof despite many efforts, makes his conclusion plausible.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 1 at 11:47
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    if the world is composed only of determined and chance events then there may well be no free will, but that's question begging as it is that they exhaust things, reductionism aside
    – user70707
    Commented Jan 1 at 11:49
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    its intutive appeal may well lie in a conflation to the definition of 'chance': "the occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious intention or cause." i agree that free will does not exist at the level of chance physical events, but ik nothing about the topic and have not read what you cite...
    – user70707
    Commented Jan 1 at 12:43
  • You could say that free will is on a different level of organization from simple determinism. Like how your thesis written in Microsoft Word on a computer is at a different level from transistors turning on and off, and no amount of describing transistors will ever predict your thesis. Too sensible, people will never accept it...
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 1 at 14:18
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    @scottrowe. We can describe the 'different level of organisation' between Word and the transistors. Describing it for free will is beyond us for now....although some libertarians might agree with your analogy. Commented Jan 1 at 15:00

8 Answers 8


Determinism means that every event is completely determined by the previous event.

The negation, indeterminism, therefore means that every event is incompletely determined (=there is probabilistic randomness) and not necessarily by an event (=agent causation is possible).

Block's mistake is to assume that indeterminism means only randomness.


Free will is the idea that the will of a moral agent is the sole cause of the moral agents actions. This is confused because it arises within the general psychological effort to recognize and identify sources of cause.   SEP - https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

The term “free will” has emerged over the past two millennia as the canonical designator for a significant kind of control over one’s actions. Questions concerning the nature and existence of this kind of control (e.g., does it require and do we have the freedom to do otherwise or the power of self-determination?), and what its true significance is (is it necessary for moral responsibility or human dignity?) have been taken up in every period of Western philosophy and by many of the most important philosophical figures, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant.

If the will of a moral agent is not in significant control of actions, that is, if it is not recognized as the sole cause of actions, then the actions are not caused by so-called free will of the agent in question. This is a model of joint sources of cause or of non-moral sole cause.

Consider how we apply causal reasoning in doctrines and cases of law. The law looks for proximate (nearby) cause(s) and deliberately cuts off the chain of reasoning to an ultimate (remote) cause(s). The law makes efforts to identify the sole cause or the joint cause(s). The proximate causes are recognized and identified as voluntary human actions; or as Acts of God; or otherwise map to what I call a source of natural cause.

Even in the context of scientific reasoning it is impossible to escape the philosophical contemplation of supernatural or God-like sources of cause. There is no cause of the force of gravity, for example, except for the presence or absence of massive bodies in space; so in terms of the effort to identify the ultimate source of cause (God? Nature? Reality?) the force of gravity, or action at a distance, has some supernatural or unexplained source of cause. Scientists have to cut off the chain of reasoning to an ultimate source of cause to build models that explain events. Free will or voluntary actions in the moral context simply operate by cutting off the chain of reasoning in the psychological effort to identify sources of cause.

Determinism and probability assume the absence of a moral agent and the presence of system states that change based on state-transition rules over time (determinism) or based on possibilities rather than strict rules for the change of state. In theory a coin flip or roll of the die has a deterministic physical model but in practice the outcome seems to be among a number of possible outcomes not determined by strict rules for the next state of the system. Moral agents have different properties in the psyche than natural systems.

  • Yes. We don't have to explain the whole universe to explain some small thing. If people say it is an incomplete answer, then they can figure out how far they want to carry out the explanation. Also, since we would do all the same things whether we 'have' free will or not, it seems like a moot point.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 3 at 23:53

Block's error is to assert a false dichotomy -- that only randomness and determinism are possible modes of our world.

We know several things -- that classical logic's law of the excluded middle is not universally true, so Block is assuming an invalid logical universal. We also know that determinism is false in our universe, due to both quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

What we DON'T know is how to articulate an agent-causation-logic that is fully coherent and matches our conception of libertarian free will. There are multiple attempts being made by agent-causation theorists, but I don't think any have yet hit on the proper formulation. But we can operate off the assumption that such a formulation will someday be found. Logicians have recently realized that there are infinite logics, so we are exploring a VERY large logic space to find a possible agent-logic, and our not having found the exactly right one so far is not evidence that there IS no right one. Block's false dichotomy fallacy is not a valid counterargument.

  • Its not a false dichotomy: there is simply no alternative to things being either: RANDOM | NOT RANDOM. Literally no third description. Conceptually not a thing. Its possible for things to be random to different degrees (and complete randomness doesn't make sense conceptually either), but its still random.
    – user369070
    Commented Jan 2 at 20:13
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    @user369070 -- repeating a false dichotomy several more times does not make it any less false. And your not being able to conceive of an alternative does not mean there is none, that is another fallacy -- argument from ignorance. We know that determined/random is a false dichotomy, because both QM and chaos phenomena break its presumed LEM. We also know that classical logic is not always valid in our world, because LEM is repeatedly broken in all sorts of circumstances. You need to provide a bulletproof derivation of your claim, and have not done so, and will not be able to.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 2 at 20:20
  • If a third *possibility*(not neccesserily even a middle)is conceptually a thing, then one should be able to describe it, directly (what it is), or indirectly (what are the implications). So, you should be able to describe what would it even mean for things to be both/neither/whatever random and not random. Also LEM has no relation to quantum mechanics:LEM is a logical reasoning method, and the QM fluff is just a method of description used to empathise that the value of some things are unknowable to a certain resolution in certain situations(its still possible to get worse resolution).
    – user369070
    Commented Jan 2 at 20:39
  • @user369070 There are infinite logics. Whether a particular logic applies to all of our universe, or even to only part of it, is an empirical question. The failure of classical logic in multiple tests is why logicians have abandoned it as a plausible candidate for One True Logic. There is an active debate among logicians between logical pluralism and One True Logic advocates, but all the One True candidates are logics that allow contradictions, rather than classic logic. If you are unwilling to admit to these refuting test cases to LEM, there isn't much point to dialog.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 2 at 21:41
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    The false dichotomy is "random or deterministic", not "random or not random".
    – Bumble
    Commented Jan 4 at 2:51

My question is whether Block is right in saying that there is 'something wrong with the concept' merely because it can't be squeezed into determinism or indeterminism. An initial instinct may be that he is invoking the Law of the Excluded Middle, but isn't that inappropriate here?

This is obviously a contentious topic, there's no unanimous view, no consensus, on what free will is or if it exists. Thus, there's no definitive answer to your question, just different answers from different perspectives.

I'm a compatibilist, and in my view this Law Of Excluded Middle here, this "libertarian free will doesn't make sense in determinism, and also makes no sense in indeterminism", is one of the central motivations for why most compatibilists become compatibilists. I don't think it's inappropriately applied - if something isn't possible if A is the case, and that thing also isn't possible if not-A is the case, then... that's a perfect application of the Law of Excluded Middle here.

There's a reason most professional philosophers are compatibilists. I think this is central to that reason.

  • As a compatibilist you have to redefine both free will and determinism beyond recognition. How can you have an agent's actions determined by both the agent herself and the past events? Commented Jan 2 at 11:25
  • @PerttiRuismäki your comment is outside the scope of the question. The question is not about if compatibilism is true, or makes sense, or anything like that - the question is focussed on a particular application of the Law of Excluded Middle, and is asking if it's sensible to apply that here. That's the focus.
    – TKoL
    Commented Jan 2 at 11:46

Block is correct in his assesment of the concept which he is actually describing as being incoherent. He is incorrect, however, in assuming that this concept is the correct definition of words "free will". In fact, as it is incoherent, it is obviously not a correct definition.

Linguistics is a funny thing, and words have different meanings for different people in different context, it important to always remember that. My personal view is that a concept of free will is not violated by determinism as it is conceptually impossible to know everything other than by being everything. And as agents are obviously not also the universe surrounding them, it is impossible for them to determine their (or any but of some specific isolated systems) existance(future actions, etc) entirely. Once again, this is purely my description of what the words "free will".


He's correct that "free will" (as it's commonly defined) is incompatible with determinism.

As for indeterminism, he's supposing this is randomness, which may not be fully justified. But in his defence: randomness is the only non-deterministic mechanism we have some indication might exist, but it's also the only such mechanism we can even conceive of.

He's also not explicitly addressing partial determinism, and partial indeterminism, but this doesn't make "free will" less of a confused concept.

To consider indeterminism more broadly: let's say at any given point in time, you have a set of personality traits, preferences, memories, emotions, etc. Now, we can consider a choice to be "free will" if that there's some part of that that doesn't depend in any way on those personality traits, preferences, memories, emotions, etc. Does that really sound like you have any sort of agency there? It certainly doesn't to me. That can be randomness or some other unknown thing, but that doesn't change the fact that some part of you that could produce "free will" seems necessarily completely independent from anything that makes you "you".

Free will proponents want to have their cake and eat it too, by accepting that we are (at least to some extent) "free" from the bounds of the past, yet this very notion would remove our agency. I suspect many of them (knowingly or not) envision human will existing outside of material existence, and they consider determinism within the context of material existence, which by definition excludes human will, and makes material existence non-deterministic. But it's really hard to get around the incoherency of "free will" when you include human will within your consideration of determinism, i.e. whether or not your choices are determined by your personality.

Side note: I wouldn't say we aren't "free", but rather just that the concept of "free will" is a confused one. Even if our choices are fully deterministic, we are still freely making them. We would not be free if we were non-deterministic beings, but our actions were deterministic. But deterministic beings can be said to be free as long as they aren't compelled to make a choice by some force outside of their own conscious thought (regardless of whether their own conscious thought is ultimately just a deterministic result of their biology and environment). That's my opinion on the matter, anyway.

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    I think your side note at the end leads in a useful direction. Determinism has cast such a long shadow over the whole discussion that nothing can escape its gravity, it seems. My analogy is: "I have enough money to buy lunch". That means I can, and other options are also possible, like getting my car washed. It is not necessary to chase down how the money got in to my wallet, and then back to the printing plant, where the paper came from and so on back to the Big Bang. I can buy a sandwich, cool.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 3 at 18:52

My question is whether Block is right in saying that there is 'something wrong with the concept' merely because it can't be squeezed into determinism or indeterminism. An initial instinct may be that he is invoking the Law of the Excluded Middle, but isn't that inappropriate here?

Out of curiosity, I looked to see if I could find any writing by Block on this subject as he is a fairly prominent professor. I found a freely available book he wrote "The Border Between Seeing and Thinking" and it does address free will and I think may help clarify.

Starting on page 459:

Before I end the chapter on consciousness, I will discuss one more topic: the relation between consciousness and free will. Although this topic is not usually discussed in the context of the nature of perception, I will be arguing that attention to perception clarifies a major controversy about conscious decision ...

At the end of page 460 it seems to get to the part you are asking about:

Some commentators conclude from this sort of evidence that the conscious decision to act is not causally efficacious in producing the action, because the unconscious neural events are sufficient to cause the action. This reasoning is my target. I will explain why this reasoning is mistaken in terms that apply to all mental events...

And a little farther on:

... examples that show that the conscious and unconscious aspects of a mental event can have different and opposed effects on behavior. When the behavior fits with the conscious aspect, we can sometimes be sure that it is causally efficacious even if the unconscious parts precede the conscious parts. The upshot will be that even in the cases where the influence of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mental events point in the same direction, they may make somewhat independent contributions to the behavioral effect.

I don't pretend to speak for anyone else but as I read this, he seems to be arguing something along the lines that the whole concept of 'free will' is based on a false dichotomy. But my interpretation is uninteresting (and likely flawed) given you can read his text using the link above.

  • But I would rather read what you have to say :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 3 at 19:01
  • @ScottRowe About Ned Block's ideas or my opinion on the matter? With regard to the former, I feel unqualified to provide any in-depth analysis. With regard to the latter, that would be off-topic.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Jan 3 at 21:16
  • Sorry, I was just making a dumb joke about having a preference... Anyway, I learn a lot more and think of more ideas by engaging with people here than just reading books and articles.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 4 at 0:05
  • Very interesting and relevant. Commented Jan 4 at 1:55

Ned Block trades our hopes for something we cherish. Free will, did you know, is about choice, specifically to make them freely and the whole world is, at this point in time, crammed with people who make choices. What is our goal here? That's our zero.

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