Given some system, can you objectively determine if it has free will? In particular, you can examine the system to any extent that you want, but you are told nothing about its purpose.

If so, what is the objective free will test?


The answer to this depends on your definition of "free will." Compatabalism does not define this, other than to state that it can indeed be compatible with the results of a purely physical world. It is up to the compatabalist to dig further.

One up-and-coming definition comes from the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT). It defines consciousness in terms of information processing capability which is present in the overall structure but which cannot be explained by analyzing the individual parts (gestalt theory). It does so in a mathematical way which permits a great deal of analysis.

The result of IIT is that consciousness is not a simple binary flag. It's a spectrum, on which nothing ever receives a "0" rating. Even a rock exhibits some consciousness in this system, though it is so slight that it is worth ignoring in everything except the most pedantic arguments.

Since free-will and consciousness are heavily tied together, it would be reasonable for someone who argues for IIT to argue that the answer to your question is "yes, you can objectively test it, because everything is conscious to some degree." Although it does fail your definition slightly, because IIT assumes that information processing is a fundamental aspect of every system, so you might argue that tells the tester something about the purpose of the system.

Of course, the IIT community cannot speak for all compatabalists, but it provides one example of an answer to your question.


One way to test if a being has free-will is to see if it is a rational being, if it can govern others by "counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments," and if it "acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things," "For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses" {Summa Theologica I q. 3 a. 1 ("Whether man has free-will?") co.}.


There is no objective test for consciousness so there is no such test for freewill.

For the Zen view action that is uncondtioned would be an expression of Truth - (a theist would say of 'God's Will'). On this basis Zen denies the true existence of actors and actions, free or otherwise. Theistically-speaking the idea would be that when we act from the ego our actions are conditioned and when we surrender our will to God or Truth we cease to act. (More profoundly, there is no 'we'). God cannot have freewill since He must act according to His nature. The whole idea of freewill has to be questionned for this view or made uncommonly subtle.


I have to begin by saying, if there unambiguously were free will would not be such an area of consternation and debate.

There is a Zen story:

Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: "If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat." No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces. That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out. Nansen said: "If you had been there, you could have saved the cat."

In this Zen perspective, truly 'free' unconditioned action, can be recognised by others who have it. Buddha developed the reordering of mind, and then in the Zen phrase there has been a 'direct transmission from mind to mind'.

That is not the whole of the Zen perspective. In the Zen view, we all have Buddha nature, the capacity for freedom and to act in an unconditioned way, in any given moment. So, also surely to recognise and transmit such, in principle. But the elusiveness, the apparent subjectiveness of this, makes it unclear whether it fulfils the questions criterion. It has been characterised as intersubjective transubstantiation [can track reference down], a depersonalisation with absolute empathy that enables a direct insight into another's mind.

It is interesting to compare this to the Turing Test and it's limitations. Natural language processing has developed hugely in recent times, and this has been considered to have allowed the passing of narrow versions of the test. It is made more difficult though when we have to consider the implications of humans failing such narrow versions of the test.

It seems our minds are capable of generating tangled hierarchies, reinterpreting statements and ideas by stepping outside of dialogues and their assumptions, that is we are Strange Loops. Can we evaluate when one occurs? Only with the next challenge, some question and answer which has no precedent. Like the Zen master and student, saying redefine yourself, in this moment. Can we establish an objective measure of passing this? I would say no. But it can be falsified. Freedom cannot be unambiguously demonstrated, but unfreedom can. When a statement or an act fails to manifest a redefinition of yourself towards freedom.

  • I struggled to find your actual answer. When I did, it turned out to be pure conjecture. Your Zen monologue is unrelated to the question. – user33399 May 30 '18 at 0:51

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