So, I am a student in mathematics and physics with no formal training in philosophy whatsoever, although I enjoy reading popular discussions of philosophical questions. However, my question is bound to be vague and badly phrased, for which I apologise in advance.

There is one thing about the debate on the existence of free will that always bothers me. I get that if you consider a human being from a physics perspective, that is, as a sum of physical processes, whether deterministic or not, then it doesn't may not make much sense to attribute to said organism such a thing as free will. However, in that case it doesn't make much sense to me to talk about the organism as having an identity at all - talking about that particular organism would just be a short-cut to talk about the underlying processes. On the other hand, once you assume that "you" is actually an existing thing, then of course it makes sense to talk about free will as well - on the level where "you" exists, so do emotions, thoughts, decisions and free will. The different levels here appear quite important to me: both world-views are equally 'true', but sometimes it's useful to talk at one level and sometimes to talk about the other.

To make an analogy with physics: as long as you see a room filled with gas as a collection of molecules flying around, then notions such as pressure and temperature don't make sense. However, on the macro scale they do and are useful in understanding the world.

So, the point I try to make: to me it seems like the existence of free will and the existence of an "I" are very much intertwined. Assume the existence of one and you get the other, and any argument against the existence of free will applies equally well as an argument of the existence of you.

(The follow-up of this argument for me would be to argue, with I suppose Decartes, that a world-view in which I do not exist is much more unreasonable than a world-view that is not supported by my perception).

I never see this link being made in popular discussions on free will. Does the argument have any merit? Can you recommend any readings that explore this?

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    See related Does having free will presuppose consciousness? and for distinguishing first and third person perspectives How does one bring mind and matter into a single ontology? It makes sense to talk of free will even in the third person perspective to a degree (indeterminism, etc.) however.
    – Conifold
    Oct 30, 2016 at 19:53
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    Your intuition is sound; see René Descartes (1596–1650), Meditations, II,8 : "But what, then, am I ? A thinking thing, it has been said. But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives." Oct 30, 2016 at 20:07
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    See "Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology" by Prof Searle: philonantes.free.fr/…
    – MmmHmm
    Oct 31, 2016 at 22:27
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    I'm improvising here: I think the base-ground of all this is awareness (awareness as in consciousness). It is not that you assume that you exist, rather you know that you exist. and you know that you exist because that knowing that you exist is the essence of awareness. this is where the concepts of I, of knowing and of existing originate. when Descartes says: "I think therefore I am" he is really saying: "I am aware of an internal ever-ongoing going-on. I am that awareness. and that awareness is both existence and knowledge thereof."
    – nir
    Nov 1, 2016 at 18:10
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    This is a fabulous question. Very well articulated and insightful. I tend to learn more from good questions than good answers. Thanks!
    – dgo
    Nov 30, 2016 at 5:51

5 Answers 5


The perspective you are pointing at is emergentism. From that perspective, the problem is that the physical point of view simply lacks adequate context to express the notion of identity and will, not that it actually conflicts with the idea.

As you point out, physics proper does not handle notions like pressure very well. It has even more trouble with notions like acidity. Without the context of the 'bond' to identify which hydrogens are 'free' which can only be observed from a more complex POV than the laws of physics capture well, acidity is not a thing. That does not in any way make us doubt that chemistry has reasonably defined acids.

But somehow, many of us are quite willing to look at the physical sciences together and assume that they should either correctly identify identity and will, or those things do not exist. From a higher-level psychological point of view, it is obvious that identity and will exist, and philosophical takes on rational psychology and political theory do think about that.

From a point of view in one of those frameworks, say psychoanalysis, or Existentialism, you can reasonably say that if you have one of 'identity' and 'will', you get the other. For instance, for Kleinian psychoanalysis will is what allows an identity to detect that it is different from its source, and a maturing will establishes and clarifies its identity in order to defend itself from merger back into that source. From Sartre's perspective, 'will' is the illusion of freedom which we must maintain in order to have responsibility, and we insist upon having responsibility as a way of maintaining our identity.

But if these are properly emergent phenomena, the way chemistry is an emergent framing of physics (which 'supervenes on it', as such people say), then 'will' may still be determined (as the idea it is a necessary illusion points out). More complexity does not necessarily reduce the ultimate nature of cause, it may just hide deterministic cause in the cover of mathematical chaos. If there is not already indeterminacy at the lower level, it should not arise at the upper level.

There are all kinds of arguments that there is no 'free will' in randomness, and randomness and determinism together never result in choice. But, to my mind, they are pasting the ideas together wrong. One can easily say there is 'freedom' in randomness, but there is no 'will'. But then there is no reason 'will' cannot result from an emergence from physics and get its 'free' nature from the underlying randomness.

As a parallel example, one can say there is no 'intention' in genes because there is no 'consciousness'. But that does not mean there cannot be 'intention' in a being derived from those genes. Consciousness arises as an emergent aspect of survival, as a way of keeping better track of one's environment. Then, added to the goal of survival itself, this emergence easily explains how 'intention' is still possible.

  • Fantastic answer! +1 What is the reason of the downvote, whoever did it? This follows exactly the direction of my current work. Thanks for this insight, @jobermark.
    – RodolfoAP
    Nov 3, 2016 at 5:23
  • There have been at least two. I really wish someone said. A lot of people really distrust modern rational psychology and political philosophies, and want to keep the view on the nuts and bolts. But to my mind, the topic simply needs to be addressed with tools at that level (even if they are weaker)
    – user9166
    Nov 3, 2016 at 15:04
  • Yes thank you very much @jobermark, this is indeed what I was trying to express in a much less eloquent way. Would you agree that from this viewpoint, it's not sensible to relate physical determinism to ethics, as is sometimes done?
    – Scipio
    Nov 3, 2016 at 15:07
  • And yes you also got an upvote from me ;) curious to the motivation behind the downvote as well
    – Scipio
    Nov 3, 2016 at 15:08
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    @Scipio This folds up inside itself Sartre's argument about freedom as a part of ethics, which addresses your question directly. Responsibility is an interpersonal phenomenon that we cannot escape, and declaring it pointless does not remove the human drive to assign it. Responsibility drives the evolution of our culture and politics, and just is not optional. So determinism, true or false is not relevant. We hold people responsible for their actions, and we hold ourselves responsible, on a purely social level, and would do so even if we knew we could not behave otherwise.
    – user9166
    Nov 3, 2016 at 15:15

If I understand well where you are coming (mathematics and physics), my answer to your question is "yes" there are intertwined. Furthermore, since the notions of "I" and free will (or lack thereof) are fundamental assumptions (hypotheses), any reasoning concerning them is likey to be circular. Possibly, discussions on their respective merits are also moot.

I assume you are hovering around the logical question of a prime mover unmoved. Something that can issue an original idea must be a cause without an effect, if only in a microscopic part. In energy terms, it must have issued something from nothing.

There are two ways to look at it:

  1. Either, as a not insignificant portion of modern thinkers (influenced by neurosciences), you consider that the law of conservation of energy is inviolable. In which case any thought about free will is bound to be a form of delusion. But in that case, you have to reject a large part of human philosophical traditions, including a significant part of the thinkers of the Enlightenment.
  2. Or you are willing to pursue on your line of thought, in which case you have to admit some form of singularity, where the principle of conservation of energy might not apply, at least in the terms we envisage it. If you pursue even further, you might to have to make a few more assumptions about space and time.

As you see, it's a tough choice, where you are going to lose either the inviolability of the principle of conservation of energy, or the inviolability of deep-rooted intuitions and most philosophical traditions.

All is not lost. Mathematicians and physicists can live with singularities, knowing that they are bound (at the risk of oversimplifying: without being afraid that airplanes will fall from the sky and GPS will stop working). For the rest of society, the notions of incompleteness and singularities are not palatable (hence the initial skepticism about black holes).

As Richard Feynman used to say: "I don't feel frightened by not knowing things". Which is why we might get some advances from that side, rather than from other disciplines where doctrines are more radicated.

As you realize the debate is not only philosophical or (anti-)religious, it is also highly political since free will and freedom of thought (in a social and political sense) are closely connected. According to the position 1 and 2, the imperative of defending freedom of speech, research, etc. might be interpreted in very different ways. With 2, it is necessary, with 1 it is contingent and conventionally accepted as merely functional.

  • Notions of indeterminacy within physics, be they classical or quantum do not violate conservation of energy in any way. There is therefore no reason to think that macroscopic indeterminacy must. So there is no argument here.
    – user9166
    Nov 1, 2016 at 14:55
  • I did not make such a point ("Possibly, discussions on their respective merits are also moot"). The point I am making that apparent inconsistency between two theories does not prevent mathematicians and physicists from sleeping (e.g. from quantum to macroscopic, etc.). The only mistake we can make is to treat what we know now of physics laws as revealed religion and innovative thought as heresy.
    – fralau
    Nov 1, 2016 at 18:03
  • If you make no such point then what are 1. and 2. (Other than both simply false.) You have connected free will to unconserved energy, and there is no logical link there. We have situations with indeterminacy and conserved energy and momentum in our physics already. Even the problem of the unmoved mover has a place in our physics, in the form of virtual particles, and even then, it respects the other laws of physics including conservations you claim it must violate..
    – user9166
    Nov 2, 2016 at 13:14
  • I wrote "where the principle of conservation of energy might not apply, at least in the terms we envisage it". I guess "Indeterminacy" is also an avenue of explanation.
    – fralau
    Nov 2, 2016 at 16:56
  • Thank you for your answer fralau, but indeed I was not trying to argue that physical laws are false, but that they do not contradict free will since the two occur at different levels (see also jobermark's answer on emergence). What I did mean to say is that if you argue there is a contradiction between physics and your own existence (beyond some mechanical processes) as is often done in these arguments, then I would choose my existence above physics, and choosing differently seems unreasonable to me since we cannot fully trust our perception.
    – Scipio
    Nov 3, 2016 at 15:17

I think the problem lies in your assertion here;

once you assume that "you" is actually an existing thing, then of course it makes sense to talk about free will as well - on the level where "you" exists, so do emotions, thoughts, decisions and free will.

If "you" is the collection of cells which are sufficiently connected to one another to be seen as a collective (at one arbitrary scale), then we have a definition of "you" which is meaningful but does not necessitate free will. Emotions, thoughts and decisions certainly seem contained within this collective, but the spontaneous appearance of a causal entity does not necessarily follow. For free will, there needs to be either a physical cause (in which case it is not really free, being constrained by the physical nature of the cause) or a non-physical world from which the cause can be generated by the "I" in your argument. Whilst this non-physical world may well be possible, it is not necessitated by the discussion of an "I", which is simply a categorisation of a collection of cells.

Similarly, the effects which the thoughts and emotions of said collection of cells lead to is not restricted to that collection. Our state of mind and actions clearly influences that of other people so there is no reason to see the "you" boundary as equal to the boundary of our apparent ability to determine action. I can no more guarantee that I will catch a ball despite my intention to do so than I can guarantee that my friend will despite my instruction to do so.

Equally our life would be impossible without the bacteria which inhabit our gut yet we have no connection to their impulses at all. We do not however, feel this as a significant challenge to our sense of self, it's just a biological feature that you have no neural network connection to that aspect of "you".

Nor is this distinction between the reality of the physical "you" and the illusion of the metaphysical "you" a radical or unwieldy one. We deal with it all the time as a society in mental illness and brain damage. We do not presume that the voices in the head of schizophrenics are real simply because they report them to be. We assume, without any trouble at all, that they are an illusion, that their neurons are reporting something which isn't there. That we have such trouble seeing free will this way speaks more about our discomfort with the fact than it does about any deeply true intuition about it.

For further reading I suggest you try Bruce Hood's "The Self Illusion" and V.S Ramachandran's "The Tell Tale Brain", or Daniel Dennett's "Conciousness Explained". All three have their critics, of course, but Together they at least show how free will needn't exist just because we feel it does, or because there is an identifiable agent "you".

  • This simply hates on the notions of self and free will, without discussing the actual question asked.
    – user9166
    Nov 1, 2016 at 14:51
  • @Jobermark The question - the merit of the argument "the existence of free will and the existence of an "I" are very much intertwined. Assume the existence of one and you get the other", my answer - no, "I" can be a collection of cells some of which contain data about the state of the whole, free will is an additional statement about the cause of this collection's actions. The one does not necessitate the other. It may not say what you want it to say, but to suggest it doesn't even discuss the question is just ludicrous.
    – user22791
    Nov 1, 2016 at 16:48
  • A collection of cells does not qualify as 'identity' in anyone's book. You don't make the connection you just claim both phenomena don't really exist.
    – user9166
    Nov 2, 2016 at 12:50
  • The question in your own terms is whether the "illusion of the metaphysical 'you'" requires the 'illusion' of free will. The existence of the "non;metaphysical 'you'" is beside the point from all perspectives.
    – user9166
    Nov 2, 2016 at 13:10
  • @Jobermark 1. A collection of cells is exactly what qualifies as identity in my book and in that of virtually all physicalists, by definition. A collection of cells definitely exists, the burden is not on physicalists to disprove the existence of something other than a collection of cells, the burden is on those proposing that there is something more, otherwise we end up with Russell's Teapot.
    – user22791
    Nov 2, 2016 at 13:28

Scipio, Concurrence from me, great question, very well phrased! It appears that the 'scientifically' oriented aspects of your question have been addressed, so this response will be on the philosophical. As a focal point, Spinoza first came to be known as the most capable interpreter of Descartes' thinking. He published,

'Descartes' Principles of Philosophy". It is not an easy read because Spinoza wrote in a quasi-geometric method. But, to respond to your query, let's examine your comment; "On the other hand, once you assume that "you" is actually an existing thing, then of course it makes sense to talk about free will as well - on the level where "you" exists, so do emotions, thoughts, decisions and free will." Descartes espoused the notion that 'Cogito ergo sum', "I think therefore I am", denotes the 'nature' of a human being and that 'free will' coupled with this organic intellectual capability together, formed a nexus which defines human nature. And so, quite naturally, in your comment you included free will with the other listed items.

Spinoza now enters the picture and says two things; 1- That even though he did indeed write commentary on Descartes' philosophy he did not concur with Descartes conclusions. And 2- Spinoza maintains that free will is an imaginary bi-product of the case that humans 'recognize' what happens in their lives but are 'unaware of the causes' which precipitate these happenings and therefore attribute them to free will. He maintained that everything which happens to us on a daily basis is a direct result of occurrences which affected us in the past (even from the circumstances of our birth), which he termed the 'necessity of our nature'. This is not determinism. We simply do not have the scope to automatically 'see' all of the factors which 'cause' us to make the choices that we do make.

I do realize that this 'response' does not directly respond to your question, but think that bringing up the questionable nature of 'free will' is vital part of any discussion of human individuality. To conclude: your thoughtful and well articulated response to this very real conundrum of identity and free will, for me, marks you as a philosophical person in your own right. I'm certain that there are Philosophy programs everywhere that would welcome someone who thinks so deeply and expresses himself so clearly. Sapere Aude



In complement to @Isaacson, there is a very simple reasoning for determining that the identity of self and free will don't have to be intertwined (they might be, but they clearly don't have to).

As Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Whatever might be the source of my thought, feelings, emotions and sensations, even if I am a pure spirit, a physicalist body or a mere process in a high level computer simulation, it is manifest that there is something having these toughts, emotions and sensations. This something, I call "I", and there can be no doubt that this "I" feels. I don't know about anyone else, but I know about me (and I assume people around me know about themself in the very same way). And the fact that I am the only one to feel my feelings gives me a pretty good idea of what "identity" can be.

But how about my will ? At least, some philosophers doubt that we have any free will (Spinoza, for instance: "people believe they are free only because they are conscious of their actions while they ignore the reasons that determine them to act." - approximate translation, sorry). It is at least quite obvious that we are not fully in control of our actions. Cognitive biases are a good example of external influence upon our very desires and actions. Drug induced behaviors also come to mind: drunk people often take actions they would never take when sober. Yet, while the alcohol is clearly a cause of their behavior, at the very moment they act they don't feel less free than in their usual state. If the free will of a drunk person is an illusion, the idea that the free will of a sober person is just as illusory gains leverage.

So, while it can't be doubted that "I" is the recipient of my feelings, it can be doubted that "I" is the origin of my will. One can reasonably consider that we have a sense of self, yet no free will.

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