Conway and Kochen have proved a theorem about free will (no to be confused with the related Kochen–Specker theorem, which rules out hidden variables), which states that if we have a type of libertarian free will (our present actions are to some extent independent of our past), then some elementary particles must have freewill as well. In their own words:

It asserts, roughly, that if indeed we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity. More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle’s response (to be pedantic—the universe’s response near the particle) is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe.

David Chalmers, in an attempt to solve the hard problem of consciousness while maintaining some form of physicalism, proposed that consciousness in an independent physical property of matter, like the charge or the spin of an elementary particle, a position which seems like a form of panpsychism.

At first glance, Chalmers's idea and Conway-Kochen's theorem seem very similar, and it is almost trivial that their theorem is indeed an argument for Chalmers's proposal.

But is this true? Or am I missing something in either the theorem itself or the relationship between the two ideas?


2 Answers 2


It is only an argument in the same sense that the Gödel theorem is an argument for transcendent truth or against AI. Mathematical theorems have no philosophical consequences unless they are conjoined with presuppositions that are themselves philosophical in the first place. This theorem is interesting as the strongest available no-go result for certain types of hidden variables, but it tells us little about free will.

Kohen and Conway’s idea of “freewill” is essentially ‘something which is not deterministic or random’, and it is clear from the context that by “random” they mean classical chance. Why they think that determinism/classical randomness/free will exhaust all options is unclear, but “freewill" ends up in the same category as what electrons do in double slit experiments under the Copenhagen interpretation. They mention that “allowing randomness into the world does not really help in understanding free will”, but “this objection does not apply to the free responses of the particles that we have described”. Why quantum randomness is any more help in understanding free will than classical one is also unclear. Finally, they admit that the role of humans in their theorem reduces to that of a pseudo-random generator, as long as that was “freely chosen”. And this is perhaps the weakest link, because this “freewill” appears to have nothing to do with consciousness (in fairness, Kohen and Conway themselves say nothing about consciousness).

So “our provocative ascription of freewill to elementary particles is deliberate, since our theorem asserts that if experimenters have a certain freedom, then particles have exactly the same kind of freedom” may well be right, except for being provocative. The "certain freedom" experimenters have amounts to nothing more than their ability to behave non-classically, same as electrons. One could of course use this to speculate about free will, like Penrose or Kauffman, but this is quite outside the scope of the theorem itself. It certainly doesn’t directly suggest anything like panpsychism.


Freewill is voluntaristic and associated with intentionality; and presupposes a theory of sentience, or consciousness.

This is nowhere mentioned by Conway & Kochen; and they admit that their definition is 'provocative'.

What they show is that given that freewill (in the large) - and without delineating its character - that there is a certain kind of indeterminism in the small, which had not been noted before; and that:

The [physical] world [in the small] is non-deterministic

and whereas classical non-determinism is explained stochastic ally - the random throw of a dice - here

something very different from classical stochasticism is at play

Thus they claim, further, that this rules out hidden-variable theories of the Bohmian type, which (they imply) employ exactly these models of stochasticity to provide a model for the indeterminism associated with measurement.

One refreshingly new angle in Conway and Kochens argument, is that they take freewill seriously enough to see what can be said, because of it, about the physical world.

Thus they also point out:

The tension between human free will and physical determinism has a long history. Long ago, Lucretious made his otherwise deterministic particles 'swerve' unpredictably to allow for free will.

I've made the same argument 'provocatively' (in order to point out the continuing relevance/interest of the philosophy of antiquity); but in actual fact, Lucretious endows his particles with the swerve so that they can interact ie collide - I'm not sure, that there is any argument for (or against) free will in de Rerum Natura - or at least, I can't recall one.

It's worth pointing out here, that Aristotle, though noting the very real successes of the atomic theory of Democritus & Leucippus in dismissing the paradoxes of both Parmenides and Zeno, had missed the full import of Zenos Paradoxes; the classical conception of motion in Antiquity - the notion on which our classical notion of physics is built - he notes, 'isn't adequate'.

  • I didn't think about the intentionality side of it. That does make a difference for any study of freewill, not just this one. Dec 10, 2015 at 21:51
  • @AlexanderSKing: That's what most "modern" versions miss. Willing is always willing of something by someone, a form of directedness towards an object - intentionality. That's where the intuition of emptiness of these notions of free will comes from. Every act is intentional. Kant knew that, Husserl knew that, compatibilists forget about it.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 10, 2015 at 23:40
  • Knowing a little about Conway, find it difficult to regard the FTW without allowing for playfulness (such as the provocative nature of the theorem, and seeming absurdity of the idea that sub atomic particles have volition in the sense of consciousness implied by the use of the term "will".) Thank you bringing up the idea that every act is intentional! Do we have terms to distinguish between "conscious" and "unconscious" intentionality?
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 19, 2017 at 16:01

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