I am a computer science student taking an elective on the 'Philosophy, Epistemology and History of Science'. We are required to write a short essay discussing our topic of choice. The course focused and provided references only on Physics although the lecturer told us that other topics such as artificial intelligence are welcome as well.

I would say my curiosity lies mainly in machine consciousness and free will and was wondering if the users here have any good references for me to start. I wonder for machines, if free will leads to consciousness or the other way round.

Thank you !

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    This blog sometimes talk about consciousness and AI, maybe you'll find further references there: consciousentities.com Nov 8, 2017 at 0:00
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    One thing I'd recommend: talk with the lecturer to make sure the essay you write fits their expectations. The concept of machine consciousness is a massive rabbit hole with many different opinions arising. In order to get a good grade, I'd encourage making sure that you strive to write about particular aspects which your lecturer finds sufficiently relevant.
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 8, 2017 at 0:02
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    "Free Will Theorem" in Wikipedia is perhaps a good place to start; Kochen has posted a recent paper.
    – sand1
    Nov 8, 2017 at 9:28
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because AI is scientific speculation. Until AI exists, the question as to AI and consciousness is speculation and all opinion based. Nov 8, 2017 at 12:40
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    I think the best thing that could said of AI studies is that it is helping us to define human intelligence, and here we have to be cautious of those who are hell bent on performing yet another great reduction so that they can claim that they have achieved AI.
    – Gordon
    Nov 8, 2017 at 14:47

3 Answers 3


This is an interesting question, but it would be hard to answer objectively since neither the definition of consciousness nor the definition of freewill are agreed upon in the philosophical community.

For references on consciousness:

  • Daniel Dennett's book "Consciousness Explained", and his lectures and videos on the topic.
  • David Chalmers work on what he calls "The Hard Problem of Consciousness".
  • John Searle's Chinese Room experiment and his lectures on consciousness and philosophy of mind.

For references on Freewill:

  • Daniel Dennett's "Freedom Evolves" and his lectures on the topic (there's obviously overlaps with his work on consciousness).
  • Harry Frankfurt's work on Freewill.
  • The Compatibilism vs Libertarian freewill debate in general.
  • I would add "The Oxford Handbook of Free Will" by Robert Kane to this list, as an excellent introduction and overview of the philosophy of free will.
    – nir
    Nov 11, 2017 at 10:05

"Who came first, the chicken or the egg' is a question without a good answer in terms of chickens and eggs and wondering who comes first, free will or consciousness, is not much different. The obvious step here would consider first a human agent who somehow implements AI.

This is perhaps just a regress but it might be instructive as there is vast literature on this classical topic in philosophy. Actually it would be better to ignore (1) religiously tainted considerations (2) analytic hairsplitting about nuances of (in)compatibilism.

An epitome of the philosophical history notes that the Greeks did not have a concept of will and while modern thinkers (XVII-XIXc) were deeply interested in it. The standart opposition is however between will and reason, with the naturalistic idea that will became reasonable overcoming the view that pure reason somehow found a way to became activity.

Looking backward it appears that a will without any consciousness is just a physical force but consciousness is less than reason, so actually there is a series force-will-consciousness-reason which has to be coordinated with the idea of a free will.

Refs. A highly recommandable paper is Sorabji R, The concept of the will from Plato to Maximus the Confessor, and actually the whole collection where it appeared The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to Present Day, ed. T. Pink and FWM Stone (2004). At the turn of the XXc Henri Bergson devlopped an impressive theory that is still worth studying. At the turn of the XXIc the Free Will Theorem (by Conway and Kochen) generated some interestinig responses e.g. Sabine Hossenfelder's "Free will function" (arxiv1202.0720): according to the abstract "it is posible to give an operational meaning to free will... without employing metaphysics".


I want to point out that the implication of your question is that humans have free will and consciousness. Modern thinking in astrophysics & cosmology is calling that into question.

Put simply; if the universe is algorithmic in nature (as posited by Hawking in particular) then if you know the algorithm, and the state of the universe at any point, you can not only infer all previous states, but all future states. This is a very important point because what this implies is that

1) If you know enough about how the universe works, you can accurately predict the future from the present state of the universe.

2) There's nothing you can do to change it.

This in turn implies that free will and our sense of consciousness is an illusion. It also underpins the concept of Formalism and Strong AI theory that states (paraphrasing here) that the illusion of consciousness is a byproduct of a sufficiently complex algorithm. Put another way, the more complex we are, the more keenly we will feel our consciousness, even though we have absolutely no power to change the future as we what we choose to do is a result of our present configuration rather than our ability to consider our present situation.

Let's say for a moment however that Roger Penrose's (as discussed in the Emperor's New Mind) view is more correct and the universe permits free will through the application of Insight; mathematically, this would mean that the universe is largely algorithmic but can be impacted by our choices and actions along the way. If that is the case, the computers (by definition) cannot ever possess insight or free will, because they are algorithmic in nature.

What this shows is that the answer to your question HAS to be no, computers cannot exercise free will or be conscious in the same way humans are, because;

1) If the universe permits non-algorithmic activity, then humans may have free will but computers won't because they exist purely within the mathematical framework of algorithms, and algorithms allow you to predict outcomes in BOTH temporal directions.

2) If the universe is algorithmic in nature, then human free will and consciousness is an illusion anyway.

We really are safe from the moral and ethical questions of machine awareness, I'm afraid.

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