Some people, such as Harris, state quite confidently that free-will doesn't exist. So, if it did exist then what would it give you that you don't have now? I've never found anyone who could answer this.

Sam Harris casts free-will in the same light as ether or vitalism. We know what both of these are supposed to be. Vitalism was the idea that there was some substance or energy which when added to inanimate matter made it alive. And ether was a medium that would carry the waveform of light. What is the equivalent for free-will?

Let's establish a baseline: Pamela Hieronymi's lecture on free-will. I watched this quite a few times before I could deconstruct her arguments. I think she does a good job in showing the problems of free-will versus choice.

Edit: Thank you for the responses. While none of the posts quite answered the question they did eventually help me figure out the answer myself. Since the answer wasn't what I was expecting it is unlikely that I would have come up with it without other points of view. I wasn't asking the question just out of curiosity. Free will has been a fundamental issue of consciousness theory, so an answer on free will is one step closer to a solution.

  • 2
    Kant had a clearer understanding of this than many modern philosophers, who often conflate morals with personal dispositions: "If there is no original being different from the world, if the world is without a beginning and also without an author, if our will is not free and our soul is of the same divisibility and corruptibility as matter, then moral ideas and principles lose all validity, and they collapse along with the transcendental ideas that constitute their theoretical support." (Critique of Pure Reason, A468/B496)
    – user3017
    Jan 20, 2018 at 2:43
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    I've read Kant. I can't think of anything in his musings that is relevant. Kant didn't have access to all the science since then.
    – scientious
    Jan 20, 2018 at 2:50
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    I view free will as a judgement by an observer that a subject's behaviour is too complex for them to predict. The sphex wasp, as described by Douglas Hofstadter, doesn't have free will from the perspective of a human that can model and predict its movements. It might be considered to have free will by simpler mind, if such a mind could form such a consideration but not model the wasp's movements. However, individual humans can't accurately predict each other's behaviour and thus we view ourselves as having free will.
    – reaanb
    Jan 20, 2018 at 6:32
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    @scientious. That fact that you mention him not having "access to all of science" suggests that you misunderstood him to be talking about things that depend on empirical fact. If that's the case, I can see why you didn't find him relevant, but that's simply due to misinterpretation rather than any fault with his philosophy.
    – user3017
    Jan 20, 2018 at 9:38
  • 3
    Since free will exists, there is nothing in addition it should give you that you do not already have. It is more likely that determinism is the delusion than that free will is. Jan 21, 2018 at 1:30

10 Answers 10


Let me offer you a very simple answer. Unfortunately at this time I do not know of professional philosophers who argue for it. However, it possibly resonates with various religious views which I could expand on if you ask me to.

The answer is this: free will, to the extent it exists, is simply the name we give to an aspect of ourselves which cannot be understood in terms of determinism or randomness, or any combination thereof.

By saying that you have free will, you are saying that you have the capacity to act in a way that cannot be understood in terms of determinism or randomness.

And since these appear to be the only two categories by which we can try to comprehend behavior, it also means that it is a name for ones capacity to act in a way that is hopelessly incomprehensible.

That is to say, any analysis of ones behavior in terms of randomness or determinism is merely the shadows cast on the wall by something indescribable and unintelligible.

Most people, and particularly philosophers, and in particular philosophers of free will, will most probably instantly reject such an idea and would rather pointlessly and hopelessly go on trying to analyze free will in light of determinism or randomness for another millennia as they have done for thousands of years already.

  • This view can be traced all the way back through philosophy, eg. Aristotle's view of a causative hierarchy or organisational levels, formally supervening upon the the preceding level, all set over matter. The problem is reconciling free will with ontological monism, the default scientific view. This is now generally accepted to be done through emergent dynamics psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ambigamy/201105/…
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:28
  • Please forgive me but I am allergic to that particular type of philosophy and intellectual thought that tends to be expressed as unintelligible complicated jargon rich statements. I simply cannot make any sense of your statement "Aristotle's view of a causative hierarchy or organisational levels, formally supervening upon the the preceding level, all set over matter." As for the post you referred me to, it represent exactly the view that I reject, though he does mention my position in a few words surprisingly nicely. To the extent it exists and is not merely an illusion, free will is the name
    – nir
    Apr 6, 2018 at 20:03
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    of our capacity to act in a way that cannot be analyzed in terms of determinism or randomness. it is indeed closely related to that aspect of reality some people call G-d, or godliness. It does not represent a difficulty to monism, once you give up the idea of analyzing it. reality is one, but can only be partially analyzed - a blessed paradox.
    – nir
    Apr 6, 2018 at 20:59
  • Your 'shadows on a wall' is obviously echoing Plato. My only point was you presenting what you have to say as new-school, and it's old hat; very old (nothing wrong with old-school though). Aristotle's view en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hylomorphism
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 7, 2018 at 22:00
  • I agree, my view in general echoes that of Plato, and I would add that it is just nonsensical to a cave dweller today as it was 2500 years ago, and just as fresh, for it can never get old, as opposed to the millennia of failed and tired attempts at explaining free will in terms of determinism, emergentism, xyz-ism, etc...
    – nir
    Apr 8, 2018 at 11:19

Free will is indeed a complicated subject, but this idea of what it would give you if it was real by comparison to what you wouldn't have if you didn't is at the heart of the real philosophical debate, in my humble opinion.

Most modern physicists who believe that the universe operates by deterministic principles will tell you that free will is an illusion. This is an important point because the mathematics of a deterministic universe and our own empirical experiences and observations would seem to be at odds on this matter.

Put simply (only to give context to both OP and this answer) physical laws rely on a concept called symmetry in order for us to apply them as commonly as we do. Symmetry in this context has many special meanings, but the most important one for us is that with the exception of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy), all physical laws work BOTH ways through time. If you take billiard balls and simulate a collision, then take the end points of those balls and apply kinetic energy to them in exactly the reverse situation, you'll get the starting position of the balls from the first collision at the end of the second.

The point of that is that if you extrapolate, that implies that if you know enough information about the universe at a given point in time, AND you know completely the 'laws' of the universe, then you can accurately extrapolate what the universe will look like at any other point in time, including the future. If you can do that, then we can't change that future by making a choice that is different from that which 'always' was supposed to happen. Put more simply still, fate is a thing. That thing is also called static space-time, but that's a more detailed discussion that has been held on this site previously.

The thing is, if that's the case, then while empirically it feels like I've chosen the chocolate ice-cream and not the vanilla, that choice wasn't the result of free will; it was the choice that was foretold by the universe's arrangement of neurons and energy within my brain set at the beginning of time that made the choice and it only feels like I could have chosen the vanilla, a choice that I was never going to make. This is why physicists call free will an illusion; it feels like it's real but isn't.

If free will is real however, it would give us the most precious gift imaginable; the ability to literally change the universe by choice. This ability comes at great cost; most of the deterministic laws we believe govern the universe and that are responsible for our development of things like electricity, space flight, and even this forum on the internet are (at best) only MOSTLY consistent, and/or reliable. It would mean that while our physical observations indicate that the universe operates deterministicly in the main, our ability to make free choices that go against that deterministic 'programming' of the universe implies that at least some of the universe has to be non-deterministic in nature. After all, a deterministic universe cannot contain non-deterministic functions, but a non-deterministic universe CAN contain mostly deterministic functions as determinism is a subset of all possible actions.

As such, assuming that the laws of physics are still deterministic in nature, free will would give us the ability to override those laws and choose a new direction for the universe at every step. Some of those choices (like chocolate v. vanilla) don't have that much of an impact. Others (like burning coal for electricity generation on global warming scales) will have greater impacts. Either way, it's our choice and it alters the universe subtly each time we enact such a choice. That can only happen with a dynamic space-time model, with all the problems that creates for our modern understanding of physics.

So; no free will gives us a simpler model of the universe that complies with our existing mathematics, but means that those choices we make aren't really within our power to change and that goes against what we experience. Free will as a real thing on the other hand makes our understanding of the universe more complicated and opens several cans of worms, but bestows on us a terrible responsibility to make better choices whenever we can, which is in line with our experience.

Which is right? I don't know and I suspect I never will but to answer your question as specifically as I can, free will would give us complete responsibility for our choices. Given that I don't know if I have free will or not, I personally choose to act as if I do have that responsibility and as such I shouldn't be able to go wrong either way.

  • Physicists have yet to solve consciousness so their opinion about free-will doesn't carry much weight. You actually believe that your choice of ice cream was preordained? You might look up Heisenberg Uncertainty. So now you're back to a supernatural definition. This is sad.
    – scientious
    Jan 21, 2018 at 0:39
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    @scientious; Seriously? It's amazing how little people understand the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This isn't supernatural at all. It's about algorithmic mathematics. HUP (in short) just says that observation is all done by particles colliding, and the smaller the particle you're observing the more of an impact the observation will have. It's a shame more philosophers don't make a better study of science as a frame of reference for what they think they 'understand'.
    – Tim B II
    Jan 21, 2018 at 0:55
  • +1 However, there aren't any laws that I am aware of that will predict with 100% accuracy whether we choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream. So, we don't have deterministic laws at the moment for many of the kinds of choices we make. I see no reason to assume that such laws are likely to exist in nature. Jan 22, 2018 at 0:40
  • Hi Frank. You're right of course; at the moment there are no deterministic laws that can predict my choice of ice cream; but that may well just be because we don't understand the physical laws in detail sufficiently. Personally, I hope we don't find that such laws exist because I'd be much happier keeping my free will and changing my math. :)
    – Tim B II
    Jan 22, 2018 at 0:55
  • @FrankHubeny Maybe there are better examples, but I could easily imagine the discovery of some gene that predicts with 100% accuracy someone's preference for vanilla or chocolate, in analogy with the way that certain genes are known to determine someone's taste for cilantro. In any case, there are two separate issues: 1. whether a system is deterministic 2. whether knowledge of the deterministic laws of that system would give any way to predict the large scale behavior of the system, or indeed whether it is physically possible to make accurate predictions. Jan 22, 2018 at 10:20

The positions I have seen which exclude free-will all tend to then perscribe a reality which is modelable in some fashion. You may not know enough to model all of reality from the inside, but they have some concept of a model which prescribes what will happen -- what choices you will make.

Thus I would say the addition of freewill permits an individual to act upon reality in a way which is not modelable. For most no-free-will positions I have seen, that is a difference between that position and a position arguing for free-will.

  • A weather system can't be modeled. So, it has free-will?
    – scientious
    Mar 31, 2018 at 21:24
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    @scientious Does it not have free will? Obviously the answer does depend on splitting some hairs, but it is interesting to me that the hurricanes are given human names, and we do see phrases like "the will of nature" crop up from time to time.
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 31, 2018 at 22:10

It has always seemed to me the preoccupation with free will arose from theodicies, and is really still enmeshed with a view of physical laws as the 'god of the philosophers'. Golden axioms, like commandments.

You talk about observables around free will. As people have said, we are all conditioned in various ways, and we all have the capacity to resist or transcend our conditioning in various ways. If anyone were completely conditioned, their responses would be as predictable as a billiard ball, and no one conscious is. So unfree will never really made sense. Free will is about more than choosing your least favourite ice cream, it is a narrative freedom, about the capacity to story ourselves out of falling into the predictions of others and ourselves. We are exactly as free as we have the powers to imagine ourselves into being. That makes it cumulative, the more stories we understand the more history doesn't have to repeat itself.

It is an emergent property, which we know intuitively, but still go expecting golden axioms.


Sartre's answer to this was 'genuine responsibility'.

Even if you are utterly determined, you still do not know the right answers to the questions you pose to yourself until you decide them. That ability to decide is all we have ever asked of free will, and it is the ONLY important part.

All attempts to deal with free will as something other than the basis of accountability are just attempts to use other branches of philosophy to evade ethics and are basically a classical equivocation -- using the same word for two different things, and then declaring the things equivalent because you did.

It does not matter, from that point of view whether free will exists in any other sense. If you do not assume your decision process is free, it is impossible to survive as a human being and retain moral accountability in a genuine way. You become inauthentic as an actor, and cannot function as a human social agent.

If you believe that you have no free choice, and remain responsible in a real sense, you are being inauthentic in a different way. You are directly lying to yourself about what you believe.

But that means that physical theories of determinism and free will are not contradictory (as Calvinists and Catholics alike ultimately agree). You have free will if you experience moral responsibility, whether or not you feel that is consistent with your physics.

  • I can't but completely agree with the answer and the standpoint. We can't trace any causality unless we decide non-causally. The only stroke (in the last paragraph) that I feel could be misinterpreted perhaps by some is about responsibility as just "moral responsibility". Like something, if you do decisions you see as moral ones, you are free, - that wouldn'd be in line with Sartre, for whom responsibility is about any decision and is automatic and inevitable.
    – ttnphns
    Jan 28, 2018 at 12:54
  • @ttnphns You are right. I made a very minor edit. It still may be a little weak.
    – user9166
    Jan 29, 2018 at 1:50
  • The last two paragraphs seem to be contradictory. If determinism and free will are not contradictory, then how would belief in determinism imply being inauthentic?
    – H Walters
    Jan 29, 2018 at 2:09
  • It doesn't, and I didn't imply that it did. The relationship of ethics to physics is just a feeling and not a fact. There is no conflict, there is only the lingering devotion to the equivocation that ties the two together logically. (Being illogical it is naturally either erroneous or inauthentic.)
    – user9166
    Jan 29, 2018 at 2:12
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    @ttnphns I can explain to you why determinism doesn't entail lack of freedom in chat (symposium link), but it doesn't belong in comments. (In principle comments are for such things as clarifying answers, not debate). BTW, the way chat works here, it doesn't actually have to be interactive; there's an indefinite history... if you leave stuff for me and I'm not around I'll find it.
    – H Walters
    Jan 30, 2018 at 3:18

Some things free will could give you:

  • The ability to forget things instantaneously, like your name
  • The ability to drop a mental addiction (e.g. gambling) instantaneously
  • The ability to learn Kung Fu by reading a book about Kung Fu

Another example. Say there is a shop selling two flavours of Ice-cream. Chocolate and Vanilla. Say you really love Chocolate, you did not have it in a long time, you hate Vanilla, in fact it gives you bad rash, and so on.

Yet you order Vanilla. For no reason. Not even to prove a point, or because you are curious, or you just want to prove yourself how free you are. Not because you have Tourette or a similar disease preventing you from ordering what you want. For no reason, or precisely because none of the factors influence the will. It could be called a truly random choice.

Human cannot do that. Humans can decide to make a coin-flip just as well as deciding to always chose the opposite of what they want. But then those decisions would not have been free, and the choice of vanilla a direct consequence of a non-freeness.

  • Electroconvulsive therapy usually causes loss of memory. Are you claiming that this increases free-will? Wouldn't being able to drop an addiction be the same as being able to regrow a limb? Is that free-will?
    – scientious
    Mar 31, 2018 at 21:20
  • Loss of memory changes behavior, but the situation before and after the loss of memory are the same. I was talking specifically about dropping memory by will alone. Regrowing a limb would require cell-tissue to grow, so it's not necessarily the same. With the assumption that the brain as some kind of general-purpose computing engine that can produce any result 'freely', dropping a (mental) addiction by 'fixing a bug' could be possible. A physical addiction is a different matter, of course.
    – tkruse
    Apr 1, 2018 at 3:19
  • So, your claim is that computers have free will but people don't?
    – scientious
    Apr 1, 2018 at 5:13
  • No, anything already having a free will still has free will when using a computer to do stuff. If humans had free will and the brain was just like a computer for that free will coming from "somewhere else", that free will could make the brain compute things differently, or change computer programs. It would not be the brain or the computer itself that would start having free will in that image, but the independent will using them.
    – tkruse
    Apr 1, 2018 at 7:04

1) physics is not deterministic (the interaction-free evolution is, but the interactions aren't, even though they are constrained by the laws of physics),

2) free will is perfectly compatible with sciences: you can understand the laws of physics as constraining the accessible choices of a system (the branches of a tree), but at every interactions (the nodes of the tree) it is a free choice that decides to pick one specific branch,

3) determinism is a trivial solution of a universe with free will: if you have to make a choice between A and B, then you're free to always choose A in order to fool people around and make them think you're a deterministic system.

4) it seems very complicated to explain how determinism is able to give the illusion of free will: the experience of free will exists, and so are our feelings. If the free will is just an illusion (but the experience clearly isn't), then you have to believe that the universe is not "optimal": it contains feelings, emotions, and (an experience of) free will, but there is no meaning to find in them considering the subjects experiencing it are deterministic and have no influence on them. The universe can even be seen as "evil": it fools people inside and is not even a "perfect solution" of existence, but an ugly one.

  • I did some research on indeterminacy in nature recently, and physicists broke down how quantum indeterminacy works (fuzzy and there are many models.) But the conclusion seemed to be that, even though there appears to be true randomness at the quantum level, it only expresses on the macro level in things like crystalline formation. So, much/most of the indeterminacy we see at the macro level seems to be a function of complexity, not stochasticity. Chaotic systems? Yes. Intractable? Absolutely. But still deterministic.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 5, 2018 at 20:02
  • Even if you don't want to reduce the "macroscopic world" (whatever that could mean) to quantum mechanics, you have to acknowledge that there exists some phenomenon that are not deterministic (with our current interpretation of physics). Hence, the world is not deterministic, unless you really want it to be: you can always interpret quantum mechanics as a deterministic theory by introducing a "pilot wave", see bohm-de broglie theory.
    – sure
    Apr 6, 2018 at 9:58
  • It's a good point, b/c there are competing models, and not of them include randomness. I think there's also value in looking at the history of the lens (initially the literal glass object), in that, pretty reliably, there has always turned out to be something greater (telescopes) and there has always turned out to be something smaller (microscopes). Most seem confident there's nothing smaller than what we know about now, but that doesn't make it so.
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 6, 2018 at 17:02

fwiw my sense is the obsession with free will was/is related to religion. The idea that there has to be intentionality, otherwise eternal reward or punishment is meaningless. (Although I'm not sure if Calvin would agree...)

But I treat it like the Chinese Room Experiment, which I counter with the "duck test" (if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck..., partly because in the CRE context, we're talking about personhood of hypothetical algorithms that appear to be sentient.)

I'm don't see a meaningful distinction between the appearance of free will and the reality of free will. (It's a moot point--there's nothing you can do about it.)

Our inability to answer the question definitively is a function of observational and analytic limitations.

Where I see it having a negative effect is with individuals who take the idea of determinism as a rationale for non-responsibility. I'm tend to take a staunchly deterministic view, but I act as though I have free will, and accept the corresponding responsibility for my actions.

However, the Free Will Theorem is definitely interesting, to the degree that I understand it, and I wouldn't be surprised that, if there is true choice, it originates at the quantum level. (At least that's what science seems to indicate, since that's the only place we're finding true randomness.)

Why I posted what seems like a non answer

Because, functionally, this seems like a non-issue. The reality we experience is a wildly chaotic system that can only be predicted to varying degrees. It may very well be an intractable problem, based on the physical limits of the system (speed of light/information, processing speed/analytic capacity, limits of observation/incomplete & imperfect information.)

  • I doubt the opening claim. First, only (some forms of) Christianity emphasize freedom of the will, and second, many irreligious people care about it. It seems to have more to do with a sense of self-importance, being consequential in the world than with eternal rewards or punishments.
    – Conifold
    Apr 5, 2018 at 20:20
  • @Conifold Very good points! Although it raises the question of the idea of free will in earlier, pagan societies which had the concepts of the Fates. Aurelius certainly seems to be a determinist...
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 5, 2018 at 20:34

To be able to answer the question, I have to start by defining what "free-will" is.
My definition is: the freedom to change(or not), select(or not), any and all decisions.
Without free-will, the ability to "change your mind" would not be possible. So, to answer your question, what free-will gives someone, is the ability to change their mind.

  • So, you are saying that the philosophers who claim that free-will doesn't exist don't believe that they or anyone else can change their mind?
    – scientious
    Feb 11, 2018 at 22:36
  • Very bad definition. Even if you believe in determinism, it can be that the model of existence you're subject to is making you change your mind, deterministically. Free-will is not about changing your mind, it's about choosing. The question is, what can be chosen? Read my comment for some answer.
    – sure
    Apr 1, 2018 at 12:36

Here is the question:

Some people, such as Harris, state quite confidently that free-will doesn't exist. So, if it did exist then what would it give you that you don't have now?

That Harris, or someone else, states something confidently does not mean it is true. You will have to make a choice and decide for yourself if the assertion is true or not.

There are two cases to consider: Either we have free will or we do not.

Case 1: Suppose we have free will.

If we have free will, then the answer to the question is: “Nothing”. We already have free will. The claim that what we experience now does not include free will is false.

To help see this more clearly, suppose someone stated confidently that we do not have fingers even though we are using our fingers to type messages back and forth. They assert confidently that our experiences of having fingers are illusions. They might even argue, if they notice that we think they are nutty to suggest that we don't have fingers, that our brains are in some vat or we are part of a simulation. That often works now-a-days to get otherwise intelligent people to doubt their experiences. To further make their point that we do not have fingers they might even ask us, “Suppose you did have fingers, what would that give you that you don’t have now?” Well, it would give us nothing that we don't have now, because we already have fingers.

Case 2: Suppose we do not have free will.

If we do not have free will, then we could not answer the question.

Why is that? There are many ways to answer any question. At the very least the word order we might use could be different. We have to make a choice among all the possible variations of each answer we could give to pick that specific answer we actually do give. That requires a choice, but we are assuming in this case that we do not have free will. That means, we cannot make that choice. So, we cannot answer the question. If we do answer the question, then case 1 is true.

  • In short, Occam's razor + unfalsifiability?
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:38
  • @CriglCragl I don't think either of those ideas are related to this answer. Perhaps you could elaborate? Apr 6, 2018 at 1:54
  • You said: "You will have to make a choice and decide for yourself if the assertion is true or not". It's very funny, each person has to decide whether (they think) they have free will or not. But their thoughts have no effect on the reality. It seems that people would realize this and decide to stop worrying about it, since their thoughts cannot change what is either way?
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 22, 2023 at 12:49

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