In responses and comments to Do human thoughts interact with matter?, one answer begins, "Thoughts consist of nerve impulses..."

Which, as I understand the materialist view, is partially correct. That is, human thoughts consist in whole of electrical and chemical reactions. These reactions are well-defined by mathematical equations. Perfectly? I suppose not, but that's not my field.

And yet - I have a strong sense that I have free will. Perhaps it's only a perception, right? But the simplest (Occam's Razor) explanation seems to be that free will is a real experience, and not imaginary.

Is there a way in which materialism and free will could coexist? Would there be an evolutionary reason to have an imaginary perception of free will?

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    But these kinds of information are complex to the point that they can manifest themselves as free will and everything you feel. They’ve evolved into existence to help increase the chance of your own survival and your own species. It’s a long story, and you can search more about these concepts in the literature. One website that can explain these concepts quite well are here and here.
    – user287279
    Jul 4, 2019 at 1:07
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  • IMO, you can't separate yourself from the material process. Yes the mind is material process, but you are that mind. And where is that mind? Free in the world to exert it's will. In other words, will that is free, hence why we have a sense of freedom. So really it comes down to your definition of free will. Colloquially, I think it boils down to 'I am free in the world', and not 'I'm a magic, eternal soul that's flicking switches'.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jul 4, 2019 at 18:28
  • @CanadianCoder - "Free in the world to exert it's will." Well, that's the question actually - is it free in the world if it's entirely material in its makeup? Matter and energy flawlessly adhere to physical laws, AFAIK. So, is the mind free, not constrained by physical laws, or is the operation of the mind rigorously bound to the laws of physics? Are you saying that the mind is free, and therefore is able to violate the laws of physics? Jul 4, 2019 at 20:02
  • The problem people feel in questions of free will comes from a separateness between 'I' and the thinking brain that works on material law. But.. you are that brain, you are the brain/body that's deciding and moving. The brain reacting is you. Ask yourself - what would a 'decider' look like? If your benchmark for free will is dualism, fair-enough.. I'd call it 'being a living being, that's free in the world'.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jul 5, 2019 at 13:13

2 Answers 2


There are several questions here and there are several different domains of philosophy involved. One major question is about ontology: is what we call 'free will' a 'real' experience and what's the difference between that and it being 'only a perception'? There's a broad range of thoughts on this, some of which veer into theology, but also things like "functionally we're so complex that we have effective free will, regardless of strict determinism in the process of reality" to "the question is irrelevant, because the only thoughts that actually matter are statements that make scientifically testable predictions."

For the latter case, experiences don't imply anything because they are outside the framework of our discourse, so to speak. Discussions of qualia (what it feels like to be conscious and making apparently free choices) are irrelevant because they make no testable predictions and therefore have no empirically accessible truth. Personally I find this perspective a tad bleak, as it seems to relegate a lot of profound experience (as often expressed in art) to being essentially nonsense.

Another perspective is to say that conscious experiences, including the experience of free will are either identical with or emergant from the physical happenings that we can model and make predictions about. Since these happenings become quite complex once enough systems are interacting, the effective experience is one of free will, because the esssence of choice finds itself expressed through the sheer complexity of our decision making that generally precludes our ability to predict in advance how we will act.

This does raise an interesting question, though; if we had greater mental capacities and better models, to the extent that we could reliably predict our own behaviors, would that eliminate our sense of free will? It's not hard to imagine that this might, as one finds onself continuously acting out the sequence of events that intuitively have been foreseen, though one might also argue that at this point, the perception of present vs. future becomes blurred and is more a continuum perceived at once, a rather alien perspective compared to our sense of being caught in one moment, with an unknown horizon before us.

As for whether there is some reason why the perception of free will would exist, should it not simply be a consequence of complexity, one could argue that any sense of self which does not develop a concomitant sense of being a free agent would be in some sense self-defeating and so it's a natural consequence of any sense of self-awareness that develops. If I can truly model myself as wholly deterministic and predictable, then I no longer have any real need to think of myself as a 'self' at all, since I and my environment operate perfectly fine without 'me'. Personally, I find this thought less bleak than relegating qualitative experience to irrelevance and in fact this is a common theme, particularly in religious/spiritual philosophy.

I recognize I haven't very directly addressed your questions, but I think that's largely because these questions cover a lot of philosophical ground. There are whole books written on various topics in Metaphysics and the nature of consciousness and free will are some of the thornier subjects to discuss.

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    +1 "the effective experience is one of free will" - yes - I experience this - would the materialist say it's real free will, imagined, or doesn't matter? Jul 4, 2019 at 1:19
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    "As for whether there is some reason why the perception of free will would exist, should it not simply be a consequence of complexity" Sure, but the materialist, who is almost certainly an evolutionist, have a reason for this perception of free will to result in an evolutionary advantage over similar individuals without free will? Jul 4, 2019 at 1:22
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    @Don Branson, I'll dodge the question of the reality of free will here, as it doesn't have a clear cut answer; suffice it to say that different flavors of materialism address it in different ways. Regarding evolution, one tact is to say that we benefit by considering other people to be free agents making intelligent choices (we model them as being somewhat unpredictable) and since I am akin to those others, I also model myself as making free choices.
    – Dan Bryant
    Jul 4, 2019 at 14:41
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    Thus, to the extent that I need to be aware of others to survive and reproduce, the sense of self-awareness may well be ancillary, a mere side effect of having had to develop an awareness of other free agents, then projecting that model onto my own behavior. It's debatable whether the capacity for self-reflection in the existential sense (as opposed to reflecting on the cause/effect of my actions to make better choices) offers any survival benefit on its own.
    – Dan Bryant
    Jul 4, 2019 at 14:45
  • "if we had greater mental capacities and better models," We're getting there, with creepy Big Data.
    – Grault
    Jul 9, 2019 at 3:17

In my answer to the original question, I started with the observation that thoughts consist of nerve impulses. While it is true that the physiological processes that form nerve impulses involve electrical currents and chemistry, and that these in turn could be described by (deterministic) equations, the human brain consists of a staggeringly large number of nerve fibers which are interconnected in extremely complicated ways. Furthermore, the transmission of nerve impulses across the synapses that connect the fibers together is mediated in complex ways by neurotransmitter chemicals that are specific to different types of synapses. Currently it is therefore impossible to write down the equations describing the electrical and chemical processes occurring inside every one of those nerve fibers in such a way as to furnish a deterministic master equation for the brain as a whole.

So while the functioning of the brain on the single-cell level may consist of discrete materialistic events, the functioning of the brain on the whole-brain level cannot in that way be modelled in any meaningful sense. Hence, we can and do experience free will even though those equations I mentioned above themselves contain no such thing.

  • Surely, as you say, the equations are more complicated than we can currently derive. Is that evidence that they're not deterministic, from a materialistic worldview? That is, how do we go from "cannot be modelled" to the expectation that we experience free will? Are you saying that we have the perception of free will because our mathematics is unsophisticated? Jul 4, 2019 at 1:05
  • No. I am saying the mathematical tools necessary to furnish a compelling and testable model for free will or consciousness for that matter do not exist and never will, because if we assume simplistically that one neuron can be represented by one equation, and that the equations can be cast in matrix form (so couplings between the neurons can be represented), you'd be talking about a ~trillion x ~trillion matrix which needs to be inverted to solve. Jul 4, 2019 at 2:32

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