From what I've looked into on the topic of free will, I've found it difficult to see how it could exist in a universe of pure causality or randomness. However, I haven't fully abandoned the idea of free will as it may be possible in either a way I can't perceive or there's possibly some other option in how the universe works other than causality or randomness. I want to make sure I'm not being close minded and instantly accepting the non-existence of free will. So are there any arguments that may give me a better understanding of how free will could exist without being incoherent?

  • I made some minor edits. You may roll them back or further edit if you find them inappropriate. Mark Balaguer's Free Will discusses the possibility of libertarian and physicalist free will. There's a chat room open on the general topic of free will determinism and fatalism if you want to discuss it further. chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/76868/… Welcome to this SE! Jun 15, 2018 at 0:22
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    The issue of Free will is complex... Maybe we do not live in a "universe of pure causality or randomness". Jun 15, 2018 at 6:34
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    Seems like you saying, "By definition, free will can't be causal, or random...so I can't see how free will exists in a universe that is only causal or only random." Everything depends on your definition of "free will".
    – Chelonian
    Jun 15, 2018 at 14:45
  • @Chelonian the problem is i cant see random choice or determined choices being free at all. Kind of what I'm trying to ask here is if there is a possible option beyond determinism and randomness. some way of operation in the universe either imperceptible or unknown as of now. What I'm looking for is any possible way to make free will a coherent concept. Jun 15, 2018 at 18:05

5 Answers 5


You write:

I haven't fully abandoned the idea of free will as it may be possible in either a way I can't perceive or there's possibly some other option in how the universe works other than causality or randomness. I want to make sure I'm not being close minded and instantly accepting the non-existence of free will. So are there any arguments that may give me a better understanding of how free will could exist without being incoherent?

There is another option - that the universe cannot be understood in terms of determinism nor randomness; however since these are the only two categories by which we can comprehend it, this option is necessarily incoherent, or better said unintelligible. It is a mystery to me why so many philosophers insist on coherency or intelligibility of the universe - such incredible vanity.

If you really want to make sure you are not being close minded then take a look down this unfashionable path.

  • Your claim that "these are the only two categories by which we can comprehend it" needs to be justified. An alternative to both might be something like agent causation with agents of all sorts acting each within their limitations. That these agents are limited allows us to make predictions on what is likely to happen. This also need not involve theism, but doesn't present an obstacle to theism either. Jun 16, 2018 at 22:05
  • Does it really need to be justified? I would love to hear of an intelligible alternative to these two. If you come across one please let me know as soon as possible. How is agent causation, or a collection thereof, an intelligible alternative? if all agents are analyzable in terms of determinism or randomness, why would their aggregation fail to be? on the other hand if any of them cannot be understood in terms of determinism and randomness but can nevertheless be explained intelligibly then please provide that explanation.
    – nir
    Jun 17, 2018 at 20:04
  • as you read through piles of text on this subject, the product of thousands of years of futile arguments, keep an open eye for arguments which are nothing more than jargon heavy and magical hand waving - youtu.be/vdnA-ESWcPs?t=1m56s
    – nir
    Jun 17, 2018 at 20:25
  • Well, it's not hard to assume the incomputability of the universe, so, I don't see the incoherence.
    – rus9384
    Jul 5, 2018 at 9:06

A resource that is helping me to answer your question is The Problem of Free Will, a major aspect of the website Information Philosopher. A variety of well thought out positions of philosophers and scientists concerning the classic problem of free will are presented in depth. The problem is defined thus, "to reconcile an element of freedom with the apparent determinism in a world of causes and effects, a world of events in a great causal chain."

There is wealth of material to dive into, hundreds of pages at least. The website is the work of Bob Doyle, an Associate in the Astronomy Department, Harvard University. He has an impressive body of work, including with Daniel Dennet.

One article of interest to me regards a seemingly incoherent position attributed to determinism, namely that experimental results in a particular theory are pre-determined! The free choice position is then made plausible. This point is made in an exposition of work by John Conway, the Princeton mathematician who gave us The Game of Life and Surreal numbers, and Simon Kochen, also of Princeton, coauthor of the Kochen-Specker Theorem. Kochen's theorem, a variation of Bell's Theorem, "puts limits on 'hidden variables' that could make quantum mechanics a deterministic theory."

Conway and Kochen have developed what they refer to as The Free Will Theorem based on axioms derived from quantum physics and the theory of relativity. The exposition is rather long and somewhat technical. The author of the article sums up their theorems (there is also a Strong Free Will Theorem) by saying that "Another way of looking at their work is to say that Conway and Kochen are trying to close a 'loophole' in the Bell inequality tests. We might call this loophole the 'determinism loophole' or better the 'pre-determinism loophole.' If determinism is true, then all the experimental tests might have been pre-determined to show that quantum mechanics is correct, and indeterminism exists, where the real underlying nature of the universe is deterministic."

The author then goes on to highlight the incredible idea that all the experimental tests were pre-determined by saying "This is beyond belief, but not beyond the hope and dreams of many thinkers, especially mathematical physicists, who hope to show that information is conserved, and that Einstein, Schrödinger, de Broglie, Planck, and friends were right, Heisenberg and Bohr were wrong."

Bohr's wrongness is in reference to free choice, which he wrote about in the essay, 'The Causality Problem in Atomic Physics.' Lengthy quotes from the essay are given. The article's author states, "Bohr again emphasizes the 'free choice' of an experimental procedure in his solution to the EPR paradox.


It depends on how far randomness goes. You could still make choices/ decisions and form intentions in a world in which everything else but yourself were random but any free will you had would be nugatory : in a random world any choice/ decision you made or intention you acted on would have totally unpredictable consequences. You might decide to walk into a shop and find yourself, not in the shop but at the top of Mount Everest. A deliberately surreal example which makes a valid point, namely that free will, to be functional, needs at least a moderately stable and regular world in which consequences can be foreseen or at any rate calculated much or most of the time with reasonable probability. This would not be the case in a random world.

But now, if randomness penetrates the agent themselves, then I don't think free will is possible. If one's character or personality were to change randomly, and whatever one's character or personality one's choices/ decisions were random in relation to it, and whatever one's choices/ decisions one's intentions (the next stage towards action) were random in relation to them, this situation is not one I can understand as that of an agent with free will.

In the limiting case, of course, a random world might coincide in one of its possible states with the actual world and it might randomly remain in that state. If so, the conditions above which negate free will would not apply. This leaves open, of course, whether we have free will in the actual world : a topic I am glad not to have to address, at least here.

  • Will (in "free will") is a reflective supplement (I decided myself; I have to decide) which adds nothing active to the spontaneous decider, only the knowledge (ie emergent circumstance). If it were my will what's to decide it would have to appear in the form of caprice or stubbornness (in order to linger myself / endure the changing world), which means the will must be founded by Being (as some constant, base). That is, the wish (which the will is attached to as its engine) needs to be. This immediately will make the wish obsolete, since what already is cannot be wanted anymore.
    – ttnphns
    Jun 16, 2018 at 8:30

Mark Balaguer in Free Will shows how someone who accepts a physicalist view of the world can still be a libertarian with respect to free will. Balaguer references Sam Harris’s Free Will. His book could be viewed by a reader as a response to Harris.

Balaguer rejects free will as something he doesn’t even want except for those few times perhaps every hour where the indeterminacy, that is, randomness, in our brains allows him to make choices that are not determined by any prior event. Those few times are all one needs to claim we do have free will.

From Balaguer's perspective once one philosophically accepts physicalism the question of whether we have free will or not is a scientific question. However, that question is unresolved today and it will unlikely be resolved in our lifetimes.

Robert Kane’s “Free Will: New Foundations for an Ancient Problem” Proceedings of the British Academy, 1962 (reprinted in Free Will Hackett Readings in Philosophy, 2009) takes a similar view.

Although the above arguments should give a physicalist pause before asserting that we do not have free will it does not address the issue from a broader perspective where a different paradigm about who we are and what the world is is preferred.

Such a different paradigm need not be a theistic paradigm although a theistic paradigm such as the one underlying Alvin Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense” would be one such paradigm insisting on our free will to avoid the logical problem of evil. The atheistic paradigm represented by Thomas Nagel’s article “Panpsychism” (in Mortal Questions, 1979) would also challenge the physicalist view of the world.

Is there any reason to even consider a different paradigm than physicalism? With the introduction of the dual and opposing explanatory ideas of determinism and randomness based on mathematically modeled, and hence deterministic, classical science and indeterministic quantum physics it makes one wonder if there isn’t something simpler underlying both of these principles. That simpler underlying principle may impact our view of free will.

Given the above there are at least two ways to motivate one to question the belief that we lack free will.

First, there is the realization that given physicalism the scientific question of whether we have free will or not has not been resolved and will unlikely be resolved in our lifetimes. It is premature to say we do not have free will given physicalism.

Second, there are other perspectives besides physicalism that might be closer to the truth about who we are and what our world is.

One might add to those two a third perspective. If we deny our free will we are accepting a particular rationalist description of the world and rejecting the evidence of our own experience that we actually do have free will. Is our free will an illusion or is the belief that we do not have free will a rationalist delusion? Are we rationalists or empiricists?

  • Thank you! I hadn't really read into Mark Balaguer but this info helps clears things up about how free will can exist, same with Robert Kane. However, when you say other perspectives besides physicalism, what other ideas are there that would help clarify the idea of free will and make it coherent in a non physicalist world? Jun 15, 2018 at 18:10
  • @JacksonFox I don't know what all the other perspectives are besides physicalism between the theistic Christian view Plantinga presents and the atheistic panpsychist view Nagel presents. However, I try to be open to all these perspectives that I become aware of as well as wary of them. One way to look at free will is to think of it in terms of agency. Free will allows agent causation. Causal determinism only allows event causation. Also it helps to ask how each non-physicalist perspective views who we are as human beings. Each view should fit our own understand of ourselves. Jun 15, 2018 at 22:12

I tend to agree. But, free will can exist subjectively, even if not objectively. What can be computed in theory greatly exceeds what can be done so practically, even within the limits of the resources of the universe. We need heuristics, which give us an apparently supervening explanatory layer of minds.

Subjectivism points out that our own minds must be our most fundamental experience, preceding all other experiences. Althougb we collaborate with language and science to find correlating evidence for things from different sources, this whole structure is neccessarily built on top of minds percieving things. So for instance, time may turn out to be an artifact for us to organise our experiences, rather than truly how things are. Our futures may exist unknowable by us. This could have real consequences on how they universe turns out to operate.

Substance dualism acknowledge that mental phenomena and material phenomena are different aspects of the same substance. Science has historically come down on the side of a material substance. Buddhism takes the side of a fundamental mind substance. Quantum mechanics is increasingly coming down more between the two, defining the substance as information https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics#Wheeler's_"it_from_bit" This is different to seeing reality as either psychological or material, it describes it instead as events, and interactions. This is a space in which what seems to be unique about the resukts of natural selection and the character of minds -their impacts on feedback between niche and adaptation- can be integrated with atoms and the void.

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