if reality has code that makes you do X, or code that runs a random number generator and then makes you do X and Y, you don't have more free will in the second case. the random number generator used in the code is not free will for you, it's not you choosing.

so physical indeterminism doesn't help with free will compared to physical determinism.

so the question is why are people so mixed up about this basic point?

they constantly are saying stuff about how physical indeterminism is needed for free will without ever discussing what physical indeterminism is (laws of physics with some randomness instead of no randomness) and how that would help anything.

what many people seem to actually believe is that laws of physics are incompatible with free will. indeterministic laws of physics are still laws of physics though, it's not the thing they want. laws with randomness is totally different than lawless physics.

  • 1
    What does 'choosing' mean in the first paragraph? A decision is made, and it was not dictated by what came before. If we are physical beings, then whatever constitutes 'choosing', it will depend upon unforeseen physical events. If the past does not predict the future that is freedom, at least in the statistical sense. To insist upon some other sense is just imposing a more stringent definition which we never agreed upon, and which you fail to state. – user9166 Jun 14 '16 at 12:36
  • I'd agree with your complaint. There is much confusion on this point. Physical indeterminism seems to me to be irrelevant to the freewill question. . – PeterJ Feb 10 '18 at 13:33

There are two positions on freewill (In both cases I will refer to the SEP articles):

  • Compatibilism: Freewill and determinism are compatible. One of their arguments is that people who associate freewill with indeterminism are mistaken about the definition of freewill, and that if they had the proper definition, then they would see that there is no problem. In a sense, they agree with you that people are "mixing up indeterminism and free will" and that a proper definition of the concept of free will shows that we do indeed have free will and that it is compatible with determinism.
  • Incompatibilist freewill, sometimes called metaphysical freewill or libertarian freewill: These hold that freewill and determinism cannot both be true a the same time. For incompatibilists, we don't have freewill unless we are able to choose from multiple future outcomes, meaning that all of these outcomes are possible - and it is our decision that ultimately leads to one or the other to become true. However if more than one future outcome is possible, then determinism by definition is false. The keys for your question here are twofold: indeterminism can be due to more than one thing: as in your example it might be due to randomness, but it also might be due to humans freedom to choose. The other thing that should be noted is that indeterminism is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for freewill. Incompatibilists hold that indeterminism has to at least be true, but that other conditions must be satisfied if we are to claim to have freewill. Incompatibilists, don't "mix up" indeterminism with freewill, but they do consider that one is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for the other.
  • 1
    There do however seem to be at least some philosophers who think statistical theories like quantum physics are sufficient for "free will" (though they don't just conflate the ideas), see section 3.1 of the SEP article on free will with the comment "Clarke (2010) questions the implicit assumption that free agent-causal choices should be expected not to conform to physical statistical laws, while O’Connor (2009a) challenges the more general assumption that freedom requires that agent-causal choices not be governed by statistical laws of any kind". – Hypnosifl Dec 17 '19 at 22:31

People are confused about thinking and emotions and stuff like that in lots of ways.

A lot of people don't examine thoughts and emotions very clearly. So those thoughts and emotions seem spontaneous to them. The output of a random number generator is about as close to that spontaneity as they can imagine.

Another mistake is that people don't understand abstractions very well. They don't understand stuff like knowledge creation. The kind of freedom you ought to want is the ability to find and correct your mistakes. Since people don't understand how to do that, they have a very crude model of free will.


Indeterminism offers two things to those promoting free will. First, it shows that there are situations where alternate paths exist as potentials. Second, it shows that one of those paths is actualized without having physical explanation. This actualization from a set of potentials can be interpreted as free choice. That this occurs at the quantum level suggests we should expect to see it elsewhere as well.

Shimon Malin explores the collapse of the wave function relating it to the philosophies of Whitehead, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and Plotinus in his book “Nature Loves to Hide”. If we consider that the reality we objectify as natural laws is alive, seeing these laws as deterministic may be inappropriate. Laws of physics viewed through the idea of Plotinus’s “Nous” may well be compatible with free will.

Code calling a random number generator to add indeterminacy is not what is observed in nature. This abstraction has value in a computer context, but not outside that context. To associate it with what is happening in nature is an example of what Whitehead calls the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” also discussed by Malin. It is possible that determinism exists only in machines that agents create and program.


The idea is that if everything in the universe can be determined precisely then it's unlikely free will exists but if even the universe has different possibilities then we probably have free will too. Please note, this is not my belief, just how some people view it.


I clearly remember the day that comet Shumacher-Levy hit Jupiter and marveled at the fact that the discoverers could predict that the comet would impact Jupiter. At what point in the past would discovering the comet have made the calculations uncertain? Yet the outcome would have been the same, from the event that created the comets birth. The comet would have broken apart and precisely hit Jupiter July 1994. If all the variables are known then the outcome can always be predicted. There is no such thing as free will or random numbers. The difficulty in prediction lies in having all the data available.

  • Why the vote down without comment? – PeterS Feb 11 '18 at 9:30
  • +1 Although I don't agree. You do bring up the idea that prediction lies in having all the data. That is an interesting point. However, I think the more data we have at finer precision the more we will not be able to fit that data into any deterministic theory. – Frank Hubeny Mar 18 '18 at 0:50

The concept of other possibilities only exists in the human mind or calculations of a computer. There were no other possible outcomes for comet shumaker-Levy comet. At some point the calculations based on the data may have given rise to many possibilities but it is erroneous to contemplate that the comet ever had the possibility of any other outcome. This is my observation.

  • Why the vote down without comment? – PeterS Feb 11 '18 at 9:30

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