The experience of free will certainly exists. That is, whatever is happening when a decision is made by a conscious agent, the agent experiences feelings like indecision, fear, or desire feeding into a final decision.

My question is around the phrasing "I have free will" or even "the agent experiences". What, exactly, is the agent? When a person says "I have free will", what is the "I' that they are talking about?

How have different philosophers defined "I"?

  • You may find this little booklet that summarizes the non dual perspective on "self" illuminating. Also the essay On having no head
    – Rushi
    Feb 7 at 18:48
  • Does this answer your question? I wanted to ask about "EGO", how philosophers have defined ego?
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 7 at 19:14
  • Can you identify that which is nothing but pure identity differently from will that which you already willed?... Feb 7 at 19:42
  • Not exactly. While personal identity has more conventional aspects to it, the issues there are not as intractable as the problem of free will currently is. While many would agree that "experience of free will exists", that is where the agreement ends, people have incompatible ideas even of what "free will" and its "experience" actually mean. There is more commonality on personhood and agency, see See SEP, Personal Identity and Agency.
    – Conifold
    Feb 7 at 21:23

4 Answers 4


The "I", the "self", or the "agent" is the conscious part of the organism which also experiences the acts of will in the sensory-perceptions.

Perceptual Control Theory (PCT)

The main idea in PCT is that the biological organism has sensory feedback systems that enable the effort to control perceptions and to keep perceptions within some acceptable, tolerable, or desired limits. Then the "I" is the conscious part of the biological organism which experiences those efforts as desires, actions, and the self as a cause of perceptions.

In my opinion the core theory of PCT is valid based on introspection but the effort to describe models of the self or of the not-self all go off the rails eventually. The distinction between self and not-self arises in the field of awareness before any model of the self or not-self can take root and have concrete meaning. The belief in biological causes is one in which my self believes that the not-self is more fundamental and preexisting thing but the self is witness to all the thoughts of not-self.


Suffering is an experience that the biological organism tries to avoid. One might introspect and discover that the "I" is that within the organism which consciously suffers the experiences we call pain and/or disability. This is not the whole experience of the "I" or self-awareness but it seems to be the most acute and intense motivation of the "I" or self - to avoid intense pain or disability.

The Buddha taught that all phenomena, including thoughts, emotions, and experiences, are marked by three characteristics, or “three marks of existence”: impermanence (anicca), suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), and not-self (anatta).

The Buddha claims to teach that life evokes suffering and there is a way to put an end to suffering. The doctrine of not-self is part of this remedy.

The problem I have is that not-self is only meaningful as negation of self. Transcending drama would mean no distinction arises between self and not-self. I cannot transcend drama except when meditating or enrapture in nature without concepts arising of self, others, or animals. When I am in pain the sense of self is most acute. During some activities that generate euphoria there are no active distinctions arising between self and not-self. In the past the sense of self would often drop out during peak academic (test taking) or athletic performances, with a sense of euphoria, but my personal intentions were still to dominate some external adversary in the context of drama. The euphoria of just being part of the vast universe with a sense of beauty is qualitatively better in my memories than the drama of competing for potential social rewards.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is the founder of an ethical philosophy called psychoanalysis. In my interpretation of human behavior, Freud confused his ethical philosophy with the practice of medicine, and the so-called experts in mental health or talk therapy went off the rails in their efforts to imitate Sigmund Freud as self-appointed healers. These people remind me of the community of mothers, who find fault with the behavior of men and children, and then try to remedy their behavior, forming a super-group with the claim to authority on the meaning of behavior. I think the so-called Patriarchy can be highly sadistic and moralistic but the children internalize patterns of moral judgment mostly during early life with the biological or social mothers (primary caregivers).

Freud maps the "I" to the conscious and unconscious parts of the biological organism that make efforts to govern action in the sensory context. This "I" was written in German (I think) and later translated into the term "ego" in the English language. The ego is the name for a set of biological functions inside the organism, these functions are the efforts to control perceptions, and the ego idea predates the concepts developed as PCT.

Free Will

Sigmund Freud says the ego is subject to two external sources of cause. These are the biological source of inner drives (the id) and the causes that map to the external world (reality). Psychoanalysis is an effort to understand what happens to the biological ego when the body, driven by biological needs, interacts with the external world of human affairs and natural forces. The main idea is that there are three independent sources of cause in the sensory context. The ego must become a more effective source of cause against the potentially superior impulses coming from the id and the often adverse social and natural forces that map to external reality.

Hugh Gibbons, my professor of Torts and Legal Philosophy (1990-91), describes the will as the expression: I am the cause of my desired perceptions. So, if one is making a Marini to suit one's own taste, then the will is effective because the self is the sole cause of desired perceptions. This concept of the will as a source of cause of desired perceptions is derived very broadly from PCT.

The law, in essence, reduces sources of cause to Acts of God, acts of man, and acts of nature. The law recognizes distinctions between the nearby proximate cause and the remote ultimate cause; between a source of moral cause (man) and sources of supernatural or natural cause (God, Nature); and between a sole cause and a joint cause. Free will falls apart if the ultimate cause of efforts to govern action in the sensory context or perceptual control efforts map to something not in the control of the human will.

Free will is the idea that my efforts to govern action in the sensory context (ego efforts) are the sole effective cause of my perceptions. This is often true in the context of experience. However, it is also true that the external sources of cause are joint causes of perceptions that are not under the sole exclusive control of the human will. I would say that identity, or the sense of self as a source of cause independent from sources of cause that are not-self, is more fundamental than the concept of free will. The experience of the human will emerges in the context of biological self and of forming a unique personal identity.


Short answer

The short answer is a definitive "YES"!!!!

Free will has three fairly well defined answers debated in philosophic circles:

  • Incompatible determinism (we have no free will)
  • Compatibilist determinism (we have something that has some of the characteristics of free will, so yes we have it if we redefine free will)
  • Libertarian free will (Indeterminism in the universe plus agency causation)

The central role of selfhood in agency thinking makes this a very pertinent next question. AND ... trying to nail down identity in general is -- fraught. The Ship of Theseus, and never crossing the same river twice, illustrate this. Apply identity to a concept as ill-defined as selfhood, as opposed to a river or a ship, and the fuzziness of boundaries and definitions just multiply.

So what is a self?

Hume keyed off the issue of difficulty defining self to argue the "bundle theory of the self". This is that we are just a bundle of transient and highly variable experiences, with no intrinsic continuity. Hume held that one cannot identify anything which is the "self" and this concept should be dismissed.

Pretty much any pragmatist will reject Hume's conclusion, though, as it appears we DO have agency, and DO have an "I" model that is central to agency. So Hume's conclusion, that selfhood does not exist, shows his methodology was wrong. Alternative sources of selfhood have focused on inclinations, character, and memories -- as opposed to mere experiences. Each of these also change over time, but not nearly as wildly and erratically as experiences do. And we recognize other selves based on their character, their behavioral inclinations and patterns, and their memories.

This is still a vague definition, but is workable for much of what we use selves for.

Karl Popper, the articulator of our current science model, noted that he never over-specified a "term" or definition beyond the minimum needed to keep a conversation useful. This is because in empiricism, definitions are arrived at near the end of the process, rather than at the outset as in rationality. We do not understand consciousness, selves, or agency fully yet -- these are fields struggling to get out of flux. So -- a definition that is exact -- is going to already have been falsified by some observation or other. Yet, we have selves. so -- this is a field still working to develop an answer that is more substantive than "inclinations, character, and memories".


That’s a great question! Here is one way to approach it: think machine learning AI, like ChatGPT, or DeepMind’s AlphaZero, the greatest chess player ever. Do they have agency? I think the answer has to be “yes” — they decide on their own what to say, or what chess move to make. Their choices were not programmed by humans — rather, they rely on their experience to a) identify what they are looking at, and b) decide what they should do about it.

To be sure, they are not conscious. They lack the introspection, and they don’t contemplate their existence (at least they don’t need those qualities to do what they are doing). Still, they have agency.

And that is also what we, humans, are at the most basic level — we are the neural networks in our brains, learning from experience and using what they have learned to make choices. This, therefore, is the “I”, the agent in us.

UPDATE: Just to clarify what I meant by agency: it’s the ability to learn from experience and develop ideas; to use those ideas to assess the probabilities of different outcomes; and to choose the course of actions that have the highest potential for achieving the desired outcome. This is what neural networks do, whether artificial, or those in the brains of animals, or those in human brains.

Having this agency, however, by no means implies consciousness. In particular, the consciousness of having the agency. Indeed, the capacity for introspection, the hallmark of consciousness, does not arise automatically in neural networks (nor it is a prerequisite to the agency).

  • Do these AIs actually have agency? They weren't consciously programmed, but technically you could still unravel the neural net and receive 1 straight path from input to output with no junctions or if you add a random selection at the end it would be random, but still not deliberate and without agency. Nonetheless if you split these jobs into different parts of a program, then the total thing would have means to "identify", "decide" and possibly even "introspect" upon itself, but it still feels that these are just semantic truths and not actually what we mean when we say that, right?
    – haxor789
    Feb 9 at 15:15
  • @haxor789 — it’s a bit more complicated because in case of neural networks that “straight path” arrives at probabilities of different outcomes — and if there’s no clear winner, it chooses at random. The question, however, is this: assuming that the same computations drive our own behaviour— would it still feel like agency to us? Feb 9 at 19:42
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    Your assumption that humans are neural networked machines — is just an assumption. One that so far has been failing to explain consciousness for a century and a half. Clarifying the difference between an unverified assumption and what we actually know would improve this answer.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 10 at 9:39
  • @Dcleve — I think you are confusing agency with consciousness. I proposed that neural networks possess the former (and are responsible for the agency in humans), but not the latter. Feb 10 at 17:37
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    Humans use consciousness for a great deal of our agency. That we COULD have done this unconsciously appears to be true, as we also do much of our agency unconsciously. The efforts to code an "I" algorithm, and some success in getting AI to operate around a "me" concept, show that this can be done algorithmically, but we humans didn't do that, at least not exclusively. Most of us identify our "I" with our consciousness, and our consciousness is used to veto unconscious agency. See Thinking Fast and Slow. System 2 is almost purely conscious.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 10 at 17:59

Reductionist approaches to free will do not depend on a definition of human psychological identity, and those are typically compatibilist approaches. Whichever smallest part of a physical or digital system exhibits given properties can be said to have free will by definition.

Non-reductionist approaches very much need to delineate the borders between the psychological identity of one agent and all the rest of the non-free world. Typically libertarian approaches are also non-reductionist. But the problem of psychological identity is also not very difficult for non-reductionists, as they will just point to the subjective experience of psychological self and say "this" is me, no further definitions required.

Meanwhile split-brain experiments indicate psychological identity and self-attributions and justification of decisions are are not unitary or simple concepts nor are they exclusively conscious.

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    Split brain studies have shown that selfhood and agency are not unitary or simple concepts nor are they exclusively conscious. They do not show that psychological identity is an illusion. That is a drastic misrepresentation.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 10 at 9:34
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    I am happy to use your words instead
    – tkruse
    Feb 12 at 8:15
  • Thanks tkruse. I think the delusionists have highlighted a lot of very surprising info about how inaccurate our introspection of consciousness is, and how it does not match our intuitive map. This is super important data. BUT they then leap WAY beyond their data and claim all of consciousness is delusion, when it is just some features and some times that we are deluded about. Then everyone else dismisses their data because the delusionists are just trying to misuse it to justify their ideology. I find this very frustrating.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 13 at 2:17
  • "Whichever smallest part of a physical or digital system exhibits given properties can be said to have free will by definition." -- what are those properties, and how can a system be said to exhibit them?
    – philosodad
    Feb 14 at 21:35
  • That depends on the compatibilist theory. For this question and answer, those details don't matter and those should rather be stated in questions dedicated to compatibilism.
    – tkruse
    Feb 15 at 20:09

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