I don't see the existence/non-existence of free will as meaningful, ethically speaking. I'll explain what I mean.

Let's say we have some agent, and the agent takes an action we think is bad. In a world with free will, that agent could have chosen differently, and are morally accountable for their actions. In a purely deterministic world, the agent could only have done what they did, and are not morally accountable. What I see as common between the two is:

  1. In both worlds, we agree that if the circumstances of that agents life had been different, they would be a different agent, presented with different choices.

  2. In both worlds, we might want to do something to prevent that agent from repeating that action.

If both worlds lead us to the same conclusions from a practical standpoint (e.g. alleviating poverty will reduce crime, and people who commit crimes should not remain free to do so) why does it matter whether "free will" exists?

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    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jan 6 at 13:56
  • I think this question contains an unacknoweleged assumption that I don't think holds. In point two you state that "we might want to do somthing to prevent that agent from repeating that action". This is true. But some also want to make the agent suffer some sort of detrement, irrepsective of whether it reduces that change that agent (or other agents) repeat the action, or even if it makes the world provably worse. Such a position is impossible to defend without a belief in freewill. Commented Jan 8 at 11:44
  • @IanSudbery There's no assumption that some don't want to punish people for basically no gain, just that we can agree that recidivism is a problem to be solved.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 8 at 16:30

17 Answers 17


Personally I agree with you and have found the debate about free will to be pretty pointless.

Yes I think we have free will, but in the end it seems to be just a debate about semantics.

I would say the world is theoretically deterministic, and our past determines our future choices. But that is so theoretical to be useless.The same way throwing a dice is deterministic if we know every variable, but in reality we say it is random. I don't think we have a "special" free will, but I think we can just call the theoretical deterministic world as having free will in practice.

All the arguments about consequences therefore also do not seem important to ME. I like to believe I would act the same towards others, whether I believed in free will or not, or even if I thought about free will or not. Way more important, would be to read books. I think they gave me more empathy than anything else.

So yes,I see no value in the debate about "free will".

  • In casinos people use lasers to get predictions of the roulette wheel outcome. It's about stakes. Eg, can we expect advanced AIs to hack our brains in the future, & control us like we can control ants using synthetic pheromones? There are real consequences to how free we are, & it can be measured how predictable we are.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 7 at 21:01
  • Have you heard that the world is not predictable from initial state? Quantum states are undetermined before a measurement has been taken. I mean not only unknown but undetermined. Read up about it. Commented Jan 7 at 22:40

There are positive and negative consequences to coming to a belief that there is no free will, and to continuing to believe we have free will. Inasmuch as we might ever be able to decide the truth of the matter, our beliefs in relation to whether free will exists have some clear ethical ramifications.

Without making any claims to whether free will exists or not (and acknowledging the fact that if we have don't free will, we have no say in how we think about such an idea, or how we respond to it), coming to a belief that there is no free will may lead many of us to have more empathy for those who are the product of less fortunate circumstances; and to bestow less unwarranted reward upon those who are the product of more fortunate circumstances. Negative consequences might include increased depression and criminality; a sense (rightly or wrongly) that nothing we do has value or importance. Conversely, believing in free will contributes to a sense of identity and purpose, and also justifies our mutual judgement, punishment and reward. These consequences can emerge regardless of whether we have any control over them.

So, is the existence of free will even important? Yes. It has consequences for how responsible we are for our behaviour, and therefore about how we should think about and treat each other and ourselves.

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    It could also lead to people having less empathy because it may treat other people as mechanistic if they are essentially just fleshy robots following a set path. Examples might be our treatment of animals whom we often think of as inferior and instinct driven (which is essentially the same thing as having no free will). If you combine that with the subjective reality of experiencing free will (real or illusion) this can lead to a lot of cruelty. So having an answer might reinforce a philosophy but it's not certain which
    – haxor789
    Commented Jan 5 at 10:46
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    @haxor789. Good point. I hadn't thought of that. Such an attitude might be accompanied by self-loathing too, for a similar reason. Commented Jan 5 at 11:08
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    @philosodad I mean I can see your interaction with "high performing self-acclaimed übermenschen" that mostly got lucky, but attribute their luck to their own ingenuity and conversely attribute the failure of others to their lack of will power. In which case "free will" can lead to a serve as a lack of compassion. But on the other end you also have examples where people think of others as pawns in a game if they are too predictable and the existence of emotions, of intrinsic motivation or passion and of desire beyond what they are told is what makes them human and what fosters compassion
    – haxor789
    Commented Jan 6 at 12:14
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    @ScottRowe "people have more compassion for people they can relate to, and less for those they can't." With narcissists being an exception. Personally, I don't think "free will" in the philosophical sense affects a judgement, it's only the decision making process that matters. A decision making process clearly does not imply "free will", as even animals have some decision making processes, but humans seem to have smarter ones.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 6 at 12:48
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    @ScottRowe But isn't it pretty easy to mimic having multiple goals if you have just one goal, that is if you are able to identify the path to your goal you'll also see milestones and roadblocks and you can quite easily label problem solving and reaching milestones as additional goals so that the list of goals appears to be plentiful while your hyperpath is a straight line. So idk you want to master a particular topic, but in order to do so you still need to sleep, eat, recreate, for that you might need a job, need knowledge, tools etc so plenty to do in order to reach a goal.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jan 6 at 13:18

To start, not everyone sees free will as incompatible with determinism (e.g. the so-called compatibilism, etc). Personally, I think that free will arises due to incompleteness of our knowledge. If we could know our future choices, determined as they might be, then there would be no free will. But we can't know the future, which leaves free will as the only way to choose our course of actions.

To put it simply, we can't always be certain about our next step. So we just wing it, and that -- winging it -- is free will.

As for the Universe, I think it is safe to assume that it is deterministic on the macro level (even though one can tunnel through a wall in theory, chances of that happening are practically zero).

To sum it up, I think free will is a fact of life, as is determinism. Which is also what our intuition tells us -- and that's why, I agree, being unsure about this subject has little effect on our real-life behaviour. We still act as if everyone had free will, and we lose no sleep about teleporting at random either.

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    In other words, Free-will is an illusion due to our incomplete knowledge of the circumstances that lead to our choices. I don't know that the reason I opted to have soup today is because of a fleeting moment where the cat farted yesterday and subconsciously made me smell something that reminded me of a moment in my childhood where I ate a really great soup.. I just know that I'd like soup today. I perceive my choice to have soup as free-will, but in fact, it's just because the cat farted at the right time to trigger a subconscious reaction. Deterministic in reality, but subjectively free will Commented Jan 5 at 11:57

In the free will world, we posit that despite their circumstances, the agent can always choose the morally good option. He has the responsibility, duty, and obligation, to act good. And to improve his character so his future actions will be better than the past. The agent can never justify their actions with their circumstances.

In the non-free will world, the agent is always justified by their circumstance. Anyone else in the same circumstance would act the same. The agent is still supposed to better itself, but now the circumstances (read: the other agents) have to produce the means for improvement (because they determine the choices), rather than the agent itself.

Speaking religion, the second world believes in predestination, and the first doesn't. With all the good and bad that comes from both views.

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    A lack of free will does not necessarily imply predestination. While one could posit a "clockwork universe", the modern understanding of physics is of a stochastic and (mathematically) chaotic universe. Perhaps two identical agents in identical circumstances would always act the same, but tiny perturbations can dramatically change the outcome, so the existence of "identical circumstances" is already pretty much out the window. Commented Jan 5 at 12:41
  • In regards to the second paragraph, what do you mean by justified? I dont really get how an agent without freewill is "justified" by anything. Or really how much you can separate the "agent" from its circumstances.
    – JMac
    Commented Jan 5 at 12:46
  • @kutschkem it is not true that in a non-free will world "anyone else in the same circumstances would act the same" unless those circumstances are such that the "anyone else" has identical memories, endocrine balance, gut bacteria, etc.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 5 at 14:35
  • @philosodad I think that the "anyone else" idea is based on some meaningful criteria being the same or different. Gut bacteria are not implicated in a murder trial. Nor are memories as such. What we want is for people to decide their actions according to criteria that matter to others and to society. It doesn't matter if someone cut you off when you were driving, road rage is not an ok choice. The question is really, what do we think matters to people in general? That makes it a lot easier to answer :-) Someone took a stab at it with, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 6 at 12:06
  • @ScottRowe No, gut bacteria are not implicated in a murder trial, but they are undeniably impactful to your state of mind, as are your memories, and your internal state is part of your circumstances that is part of a murder trial. To be in the same circumstances, you have to be the same person.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 6 at 17:30

I'm don't think the question, as posed, actually holds up internally. Particularly, the issue is that the reasoning in it is fundamentally based on this piece:

In both worlds, we might want to do something to prevent that agent from repeating that action.

In the world where the agent has no free will, the "we" mentioned there also has no free will, and so there is no choice to "do something" or not in order to prevent an agent from repeating behavior. The things that would deterministically prevent the undesirable action will or won't happen, but what we want to happen has no part in it. In other words, this question reads something like, "Maybe free will doesn't matter because we should make the same choices either way," when, in fact, "choices" are a nonsense concept without free will.

Whether free will exists does matter in at least two ways, though:

  1. It matters to us, in the sense that I (and presumably you, and anyone else likely to participate in such a conversation as this) care whether we have it or not. That is, our experience of the universe is altered if we encounter proof or strong evidence for or against free will.

  2. It matters to objective outcomes, in much the same way that the existence or non-existence of steering wheels matters regarding where a car goes. Which is to say, it "matters" in the sense of being a causal factor in the paths and ultimate destinations of us and the pieces of the universe with which we come in contact.

  • that's not a terrible point, but "I want" is just shorthand (if you are a determist) for "the experience of want exists" which is a super awkward phrase.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 6 at 19:54
  • @philosodad a Buddhist would word it that way. One of the "3 Marks of Existence" is that the self we think exists does not in fact.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 7 at 20:28
  • @philosodad, fair, but the original post doesn't seem to me to to be discussing want as only a thing experienced, but rather as a basis on which we would "do [or do not do] something." Do you mean it differently than that?
    – tmcgill
    Commented Jan 7 at 21:48
  • Yes. I'm using a common word "want" that has different definitions depending on a persons stance on free will. Partially because I'm lazy, and partially because it sort of doesn't matter what we mean by "want" in that context.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 7 at 22:22

It is important when you are arguing for "diminished responsibility" in the court, for instance in R V STEWART [2009] 1 WLR 2507;

Facts: The appellant was a chronic alcoholic sleeping rough. One time when drunk he killed a man. He raised the defence of diminished responsibility. The jury rejected the defence and convicted him of murder. He appealed.

Held: The appeal was allowed. Lord Judge CJ said that in such cases the jury should consider “the extent and seriousness of the defendant’s dependency”, whether D’s “ability to control his drinking or to choose whether to drink or not, was reduced”, whether he could abstain from drinking, and whether D was drinking more than usual because it was a special occasion. Although this case is decided under the old law it is likely a similar approach would be followed under the current law.

Another area is proof of causation in intentionality decisions, especially under sections 191(1) and 196(1) of the Housing Act 1996 you can read Joe Barson's paper on the subject, you can also supplement that with Emile Loza de Siles's paper, AI, on the Law of Intentionality: Toward Proof of Intentional Discrimination by Artificial Intelligence which raises and attempts to answer the question of whether "the actor’s challenged conduct was motivated, in whole or part, upon the protected class, actual or perceived, of the plaintiff. Intentionality arises from the actor’s state of mind, but what if the actor has no mind?"

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    It should be noted that this legal use of the term 'free will' is not as closely related as it might seem to the concept of libertarian free will. A person has 'free will' in a legal sense regardless of whether any philosophical conception of free will really is or is not the case.
    – TKoL
    Commented Jan 5 at 15:08

Yes ... no ... maybe.

The thing is the most extreme versions of determinism and free will are probably the clockwork universe and the creator god who has full power over his mind to create an entire universe for and by themselves.

But let's, for the sake of argument, discard the creator god, due to a lack of manifestations to talk about, and move from the "game developer" to the "gamer". That is imagine yourself playing a computer game. Then an avatar, a representation or manifestation of yourself would be serving as your body which would be part of the game world, a world that is NOT of your own creation and that follows certain rules and limits the abilities of your avatar. At the same time your mind would not be part of that game world. You can interact with it and you can be moved emotionally by it but the interaction happens through an interface and there is no deterministic 1:1 relation between the game world and the real world mind.

So in other words despite the fact that the game might be highly deterministic, maybe even predeterministic in parts (cut scenes) or as a whole (predetermined story line or paths), that there is a god in this universe (game developer) and that they gave life in this universe a purpose (called it a racer, shooter, rpg, etc) and even punishes you if you fail to adhere to it (taking damage, "game over!", etc), you might still choose not to follow that purpose and instead give life it's own purpose. Such as finding crashes and explosions in a racing game much more fun than actually winning a race, strolling around in an park rather than going on an epic quest, trying to get away with crime and breaking the game rather than playing by it's rules and so on.

You'd have a mind-body-... not just dualism but even a distinction between the two, your avatar would be in possession of a soul which distinguishes it from NPCs (non-player-characters) who would be more like philosophical zombies or even less autonomous.

Whether you place that "mind" in your brain, your guts, your heart, your stomach or your lower abdomen, it would be in possession of a "free will", one that is not determined by it's environment and that can want what it wants by it's own volition only limited by it's own imagination.

And to a large extend that is the intuition that probably most people feel about themselves and what they conversely see in other people. And what to a large extend has also found it's way into our ethical considerations. The idea that "if I were to swap minds with this other person and take on their body would I have acted the same or would there have been other options".

Because while the "game world", or "the world" for the sake of arguments, can include situations where the circumstances determine the outcome regardless of the actions or volition of the individual, these are largely considered edge cases, same for instinctive decisions vs those that are the result of long and methodic thought which are seen as more of an expression of the self, the mind, then the body. For example an ad hoc homicide in a fit of rage is usually seen as less evil than a homicide with intend and without factors such as self-defense or defense of others.

That all being said in favor of free will, we still could not find any trace of a soul, yet at the same time we have found extensive connections between the body and the brain where we most strongly expected the mind to be...

On the other hand we also developed quite a fondness for deterministic systems because they make the complex nature of the universe appear to be more ... idk digestible? Like if things happen according to deterministic patterns then we could find these pattern and use them to predict what comes next, which greatly increases our abilities to fulfill our needs. And we've been quite successful with that so much so that some argue it might be more than a hypothesis but that the world might in fact be deterministic.

This likely fails to be predetermination due to the fact that there are things in the universe that are likely random (at least from what we know now) and as such the future can't be predicted explicitly but only stochastically. But even in that case actual "free will" would kinda be a problem for that kind of thinking because a truly free will could render our hopes of finding the patterns of the universe to be futile due to the fact that there are still beings, including ourselves, which would pertube the universe ever so slightly or even massively that there is a hard limit to how much we can know about the universe before having to insert human shaped "chaos fields" into our theories.

Also even if the interface between the self or mind and the world isn't 1:1 deterministic it nonetheless works in both directions and the imaginative power of the self is tied to it's impressions and perceptions of the world so the circumstances do shape the mind even if it's less of a careful sculpturing process and more of a big mess which constantly adds subtracts and connects parts.

And that way of thinking also found it's way into our systems of ethics, the idea of observing patterns, of cause and effect relations etc. Even the creator god and the concept of being able to not just find law, but make law and create desired behavior has made it into our legal and ethical considerations.

So if you find no practical difference between a legal system in a deterministic world view and in a free will world view, then that is likely caused by the fact that it already is a compromise between the two having drawn from both of these traditions. So even the concept of the existence or inexistence of free will likely already had a major influence on that debate.

Now there are 2 more things to consider, name "And what is it?" and "Does it matter if we knew?".

And with regards to "And what is it", you probably end up with a similar agnosticism as with regards to whether god exists. In the sense of "we don't know, as of right now can't know and as long as it doesn't manifests in ways that lets us know what it is, it also doesn't really matter". The thing is if it is deterministic and we're just gears in a clockwork, then we had no chance but to ask these questions anyway or even if there was a chance, that's where we are. And if we have free will, then we have free will, whether we want to or not.

That being said it still matters a whole lot whether we know about it or not. Like it could change everything, it might show that a universal morality is in fact real and an emerging phenomenon, it might show that it is complete nonsense and that rather than good and evil there is only a personal good or bad with regards to aligning with the self-interest or not, or it could be both. There could be more empathy or less, there could be more appreciation of the value of the individual or none at all. Rehabilitation could be improved or discarded in favor or "repair" (idk just remove the bad ideas and insert good ones). It could foster a hive mind or an zombification, a fully physical mind could mean eternal life as data, so it could radically alter our conception of life and death and as such what is considered harmful or not. It could give life purpose or remove it altogether.

And with regards to ethics, what if you believe one, act accordingly and it happens to be the other? Because that is inevitably what we end up doing even to some extend. Is that futile, stupid, harmful, rational, ...?

So in other words the consequence of that could be quite profound but as long as we don't know what it is and can't figure it out it doesn't really matter either way.

  1. At first sight one could emphasize that the difference between the two possibilities is captured by the concept of responsibility: In a deterministic world there is no responsibility, while in a world with free will the agents are responsible for their actions.

    The difference implies that in a world with responsibility one could discuss the punishment of agents doing forbidden actions. While in a determistic world the focus is on measures of prevention and change. This has severe consequences for the criminal law.

  2. But these considerations seem rather theoretical as long as we did not solve the problem of free will.

    The problem is: On one hand we feel free and accept to be responsible for our actions (first person stance). On the other hand, we know from science that the search for deterministic laws has been the most sucessfull approach to explain the function of our organism (third person stance) – invocation of indeterminism on the quantum level is no solution.

  3. Hence I am sceptical that the time is already ripe to assess the consequences of the two alternatives from the OP’s question.


Most determinists admit that they have to assume that they themselves have free will, in order to function in this world. This point has significance relative to the moral value of causal agency, vs determinism.

All the talk about punishment and blame-holding, and how societies should be structured, is missing the key point. We need to consider OURSELVES agents, with choices, and moral responsibility for our OWN actions, or we cannot live and operate effectively in this world. See this question, and the large number of determinists making this argument themselves: If Free Will Is Proven Illusory, Is There a Case for Suppressing the Finding? Internal morality is the starting point for all morality, and internal selfhood is the stating point for all sociology. If we can't do selfhood or self-agency without assuming free will and moral responsibility, then you have your answer. It matters.

  • I disagree with your premise. I think it's accurate to say that all determinists think that they do operate as if they have free will, because 1. we're wired to experience the world that way, and 2. We don't have a choice not to.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 5 at 19:16
  • @philosodad if we don't have a choice then there is no point in talking about it. If we do, then we don't need to talk about it because it is familiar ground already.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 6 at 1:19
  • @philosodad If determinists need to operate as if they have free will, why operate as if nobody else does? That behavior— Dennett is a free agent, everyone else is just puppets for him to manipulate, is the moral point I was raising about the immorality that determinism leads to in interactions with others. If you need to assume free will for your own agency, you will need to treat others as having free will too, to behave morally toward them.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 6 at 1:52
  • @philosodad -- Many determinists I have read admit they live their own lives as if they have free will. That is much stronger than "acknowledge that you experience free will", and is explicitly living "as if they have free will". So yes, I understand the difference, as do the determinists who wanted to conceal evidence for determinism from the public, so the rest of us can "live our lives as if we have free will," because the two are VERY different. Note, your question asserts they are NOT different, and the existence of this difference is central to my answer.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 6 at 16:44
  • @Dcleve Well, you changed "assume you have free will" to "as if you had free will". Those are definitively not the same thing.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 6 at 17:38

The argument for free will being important because otherwise people would not be responsible for their actions I find absurd.

If you have absolute free will, i.e. there is some locum of decision outside of the physical processes in your brain, then you'd be responsible for your actions in the absolute sense.

If you don't, because the world is fully deterministic, your brain is a machine that derives decision based on input it receives. Then absolute free will is not available, but you can have a systemic definition of it. A system has free will if at the instant where a decision is made it only makes use of previously acquired input to make the decision (so there is no hidden variable somewhere else predetermining the decision). In this case, the system is still responsible, it is the one that generates the decision. And consequences of its decision, eg going to prison, will affect the system future decision making process.


I like Spinoza's Ethics for this one. In his ontological argument he is very clear: everything is determined by a previous cause and there is no free will.

Everything we do is because something in our context determined us to do that. But for Spinoza the use of reason is just as determinant; meaning we can stop and reason our reaction to those causes that normally determine us without the use of reason.

From here it follows that we can use reason to determine others but only following the necessary causes and effects in the laws of nature. Meaning we can influence in their actions (to some extent).

But if free will does exist that means we cannot determine other people to act a certain way because since their actions are not determined by their context, changing their context would do nothing.

So to answer: free will does determine if we can change people's behavior (by changing their previous causes or context that determines them) or not. So it does matter if free will exists or not.

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    If there is free will then nothing can affect anyone's behaviour because it is completely self-determined. But if there is not free will then we can use the other person's determinations to determine him to act a certain way. To illustrate: we may get rid of poverty in order to determine people not to steal etc. Commented Jan 7 at 20:50

Determinism in human behaviour is the central assumption for human science, including psychology and social sciences. Can we study and predict the behaviour or humans with the same principles we use to predict the fall of a stone or much more complex systems like the weather?

If we assume people can always make decisions without cause, undetermined by the circumstances or their own state of mind, then there is not much to understand in the way humans behave.

Let's say I propose a predictive model for an individual or a human population, use it to make a prediction about how my subject will evolve in the future. If my prediction happens to be inaccurate, can the model be improved to make a better prediction next time?

If we assume people can choose to behave differently in the same initial conditions, there is not much we can do: our prediction is right or wrong based on pure dumb luck. It would be like if a meteorologist said "well, it rained over Brussels when I predicted Paris... I guess the sky freely decided to rain there. Who could have seen it coming? There's nothing I can do to improve my model."

But if we assume determinism it means our model can be improved. Maybe there is a variable we ignored or underestimated the influence of. Maybe we need to collect more data. The endeavour of data collection itself would be worthless if we should expect widely different results without specific reason.

This has practical applications, for exemple when deciding the best punishment for a crime or misdemeanor. What penalty is best suited to both deter would be criminals and allow the reinsertion of convicts in society? What will cure addicts? What kind of campaign or incentive will lead people to modify their behaviour, Etc.

In his Ethics Spinoza suggests relying on this determinism to accumulate knowledge and understanding of our fellow human ("not get angry, nor make fun of, nor lament but understand"). This way we can make accurate predictions about the behaviour of others and avoid disappointment or frustration for smoother social interactions.


If both worlds lead us to the same conclusions from a practical standpoint why does it matter whether "free will" exists?

Except not everyone is practical. I think a belief in free will affects if you think people actually deserve a reward or a punishment. It seems logical for a hard determinist (or someone who believes in randomness and not in free will) to not believe people can deserve anything. Or to but the blame on anyone. Of course, practically, a hard determinist still could think that useful actions should be rewarded: "It leads to better social outcomes when people are rewarded for their labor."

In contrast, someone who believes in free will instead would find it logical that people who did something socially negative deserve a punishment. And this belief is not always practical. For example, it could be, that belief in free will is a method of rationalizing one's negative emotions towards the other: "I am angry he did this thing because his action was wrong." And then they demand the person is punished because that brings an emotional relief (opposed to more practical reasons, such as better social outcomes).

So, the first position rules out retributive justice because people don't deserve to be punished. It instead favors preventive, including possibly rehabilitative, justice and policies. The second position, in turn, favors retributive justice because it holds people accountable for their actions in the sense that they deserve the punishment.

And you can observe this difference: conservative beliefs are associated with stronger beliefs in free will. They also are associated with desire for harsher sentences and desire to not alleviate poverty with external means such as welfare. In part, this actually suggests that a belief in free will makes people not strive to alleviate poverty (including in order to reduce crime).

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    @ScottRowe Even if you don't believe in free will, clearly you don't reward a criminal just because they could not have done any different. The point here is to "correct" their future behavior so they don't repeat it again. If they have done something because they knew no better, you educate them. If they have done it because they have some mental issue, you address that. If they did that as a weighed decision, knowing that they can get caught, well then... you know they are not willing to cooperate with the rest of the society, so you restrict their power to do crime with force.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 8 at 0:18

This discussion could use some explicit and well-informed physics. I myself am no authority on quantum theory but I am a scientist and currently reading the NYT bestseller "Something Deeply Hidden" by Sean Carroll. The naive determinism of Descartes and Spinoza, according to which it has been determined since the first moment of the Big Bang (if there was one) what I would eat for breakfast this morning, is long dead. It was seriously challenged by Heisenbergs Uncertainty Principle of 1927 that we cannot simultaneously measure the exact position and momentum of anything, and therefore cannot exactly predict anything. This does not by itself totally rule out free will because it is possible that everything really does have position and momentum (hidden variables) that somehow cannot be measured. The standard (Copenhagen) interpretation is that everything exists in a "quantum superposition" of multiple states until "measured" by an "observer". Carroll argues (IMHO persuasively but not conclusively) for the Many Worlds interpretation in which all possible states actually exist and all possible outcomes of an event actually happen. His book should regarded as an excellent account of an ongoing debate, and he does not demand that you agree with his conclusions.

The debate is clearly relevant to free-will, but far from clear exactly how because (a) it is not yet resolved, and (b) the phenomena of thought and consciousness are almost completely absent from it. I bring it up for the purpose of discrediting the numerous answers given here that are based on assertions about poorly-digested physics. For myself, I waste little time thinking about free will, because I am so far away from having the information that might make that worthwhile, and I do therefore regard the question as unimportant, in that sense. FWIW, I think that we are now in the same situation with regard to consciousness that we were once in with regard to disease. A few observations and conjectures, but no solid knowledge. Perhaps there is, in all this wilderness, enough space to admit some spiritual reality, and perhaps some people do glimpse it

However, even if I do have free will, there is nothing to prevent me from believing that I do not, and even less to prevent me from asserting that I do not, and am therefore not responsible for my folly or criminality. Others have written about the dire consequences of admitting this, and I will not add to them. I believe that the existence of free will is at present undecidable but that belief in it is essential. I am comfortable contradicting myself.

  • I honestly don't think physics has much to do with it. Yes, naive determinism is flawed, but whether or not we have free will is independent from a naive determinism or determinism itself, really. Similarly, I don't see any justification for "dire" consequences of believing you have no free will. The cited research into this is deeply flawed and in practice most atrocities have been committed by believers in free will.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 8 at 2:06
  • If physics could offer, as some seem still to believe, a decisive rebuttal of free will, it would have a great deal to do with it. But it can't and so it doesn't. I wanted to establish that. There may well be no dire consequences of believing you have no free will, but there I think that there are dire consequences of supposing that you can offer this as an excuse without being held responsible.
    – Philip Roe
    Commented Jan 8 at 2:21
  • There are always dire consequences for trying to weasel out of things, whatever the excuse, but free will is not required to hold people to account for their actions. Circumstantially constraint can be used as a reason not to inflict pointless consequences in the cause of retribution. I see as a benefit, not a flaw.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 8 at 2:26
  • Alas, there are not always dire consequences for weaseling out. I could have expressed more clearly that the dire consequences would be for society if this form of weaseling became successful, because determinism had become accepted.
    – Philip Roe
    Commented Jan 9 at 3:02
  • I also meant that. But that wouldn't be a result of determinism, that would be a failure of the justice system. I should say, another failure, because the consequences of our current system are pretty damn dire already.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 9 at 4:06

Have you considered that maybe your definition of free will is incorrect? Why would determinism be opposing to free will?

Just because it was inevitable that someone made a specific choice doesn't mean that they didn't make it. If anything, indeterminism would mean that some choices weren't made by the agents, but are a result of chance.

Consider the concept of choice at all: why would anyone ever choose something as opposing to submitting to the inevitable? The answer is that from the point of view of the agent, "the inevitable" is unknown. Whatever the choice is made, it might have been inevitable, but it was still a result of the local circumstance, and it was unknown to the agent before they made the choice.

Remember that it is conceptually impossible to know everything (except by being everything or more: any action made by "everything"(that may or may not include you) would simply move you from one point in your knowledge to another, changing nothing). And determinism requires knowing everything that can have an effect.


The question has political ramifications.

The would-be dictator would naturally seek to deny that free will exists, because this position removes any grounds to condemn him when he starts waving a gun around.

Conversely, those who affirm that free will exists must naturally abhor despotism to some degree.

  • It is directly counter to all observed evidence to assert that those who believe in free will must naturally abhor despotism, or that despots historically have sought to deny that free will exists.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 7 at 5:56
  • I said naturally, not invariably.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Jan 7 at 18:53
  • as did I. If the observed evidence indicates that those who believe in free will do not abhor despotism, and that despots do not seek to deny that free will exists, the thing you said is not true either naturally or invariably. It is simply an assertion without any foundation in fact or philosophy.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jan 7 at 19:22

In a deterministic world there would be no life, no agents, no morality. Just a clockwork machine where every object behaves exactly as caused by other objects.

In this real world free will is our ability to make decisions, choose our actions. This ability is very important for the survival of both the individual and the whole humanity.

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    When you say 'no life', do you mean that evolution could not occur in a deterministic framework? Or is it more that what we consider life would still exist but it couldn't be labelled life without free will/agency/indeterminacy? Or something else entirely? Commented Jan 7 at 4:43
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    I just watched a video with Dan Dennett who states "The randomness of evolution isn't quantum randomness. It's deterministic randomness". Commented Jan 7 at 5:37
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    This article describes how randomness (albeit 'random-seeming behaviour') can arise from determinism. Perhaps this is what he means: quantamagazine.org/…. The seeming randomness of evolution might be deterministic in the same fashion. Do you have any references for your claim that there is 'no evolution' in a deterministic system? Also, it should be noted that even Einstein believed randomness is merely a sign of our ignorance of a deeper level of deterministic causation. Commented Jan 7 at 5:50
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    @Futilitarian When every event is completely determined by the previous event (the definition of determinism, not my claim), there is always only one possible effect for each cause. There is no concept of alternative. A causes B, B causes C, etc. The Galton board is a probabilistic device where the balls have a 50/50 chance to fall to the right or to the left at each pin. In determinism there are no chances, a deterministic Galton board has no pins, only one straight line. Commented Jan 7 at 6:58
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    See also: 'Evolution is Deterministic, Not Random, Biologists Conclude from Multi-species Study'. This goes directly against your claim. Summary: "Biologists have concluded that developmental evolution is deterministic and orderly, rather than random, based on a study of different species of roundworms. The researchers note that even where we might expect evolution to be random, it is not". Can you provide any references I can look at for balance? Commented Jan 7 at 7:42

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