I'm considering what may already be a well-known argument. Overall I am looking for a rebuttal.

I'd like to make a quick point before the argument:

For this question I would like to think of free will as the universe's dependency on a consciousness. To elaborate: perhaps all events are pre-determined, but they have been pre-determined partially by all conscious beings. So I may not have agency concerning over which door I'm about to step through, but the door I unavoidably step through has still been influenced by the fact that I am a conscious inhabitant of the universe. For the purposes of this question, free will = possessing non-zero influence over the universe.

Here's the argument:

  1. The first law of thermodynamics requires an equal and opposite reaction for all events in order to conserve overall energy (e.g. car slows down, brakes heat up; guns recoil; etc.)
  2. The conscious process (my awareness of existence) is an event
  3. There must be an equal and opposite reaction to my conscious process
  4. This equal and opposite reaction would occur outside consciousness (as it is opposite consciousness)
  5. This event equal and opposite to the conscious process would occur tangibly in the universe
  6. The universe is influenced by every consciousness

As a part of answers, could you please:

  1. Direct me to this argument having been made before?
  2. Provide a rebuttal to this argument?

(I'm very new to philosophy exchange so please help me make this question better if necessary - thanks!)

  • 2
    The first law is just the conservation of energy, it says nothing about events. The action/reaction law is equivalent to the conservation of momentum. Both are moot for your argument. If "the conscious process" is physical it will trivially be interacting with other physical processes and be subject to those laws, just like everything else. Hence your "non-zero influence" would impart a rock hitting the ground with free will as well.
    – Conifold
    Nov 3, 2019 at 22:11
  • That's true - I suppose that a "less exciting" way of interpreting the outcome of this argument is simply "the consciousness must be physical". But at least if our consciousnesses are physical we have an interface with the universe? Unlike the (quite sad, imo) view of some determinists that the consciousness does nothing apart from observe.
    – Gershy
    Nov 3, 2019 at 22:29
  • 1
    That consciousness is physical is not a conclusion of your argument, it is its premise, otherwise it wouldn't be subject to physical laws. So it does not disprove epiphenomenalism (that it has no physical effect). And your "definition" of free will is so indiscriminate that anything physical "has" it, so the conclusion is not very interesting even if the premise is granted. It amounts to a tautology: what is physical is physical.
    – Conifold
    Nov 3, 2019 at 22:39
  • 2
    Is it possible you're confusing the first law of thermodynamics with Newton's third law of motion, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"? The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in internal energy of a system is equal to the heat added to it minus the work done by it.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 3, 2019 at 23:00
  • Also, if you are thinking of Newton's third law, note that this law is only saying the force of some physical system A on another system B must be equal and opposite to the force of B on A, it isn't about "reactions" or "events" in a more general conceptual sense.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 4, 2019 at 9:48

2 Answers 2


As pointed out by Hypnosifl, the first law of thermodynamics is a book-keeping balance equation which tracks the flow of heat energy and mechanical work through a process which can also store energy. It has nothing at all to do with Newton's 3rd law.

Furthermore, although consciousness can alter the dynamical evolution of the universe (for example, I consciously elect to throw one rock at another, which is thereby dislodged from a steep mountainside and then evolves into a massive landslide), simply having a thought is causally disconnected from the dynamical evolution of the universe because as near as can be determined, psychokinesis doesn't exist.

For these reasons and others I will not go into here, there's no connection between the laws of thermodynamics and free will.

  • Spinoza explains that free will is a misconception. It happens because we are unaware of the causes of our actions and the necessity deriving from our life situations and the circumstances of our birth. 'Thought experiment'; the next time your thoughts keep you awake at night, try to shut them off using your 'free will' and poof! that illusion of free will should disappear. Seriously we do make choices but they are selected from a more narrow range than we presuppose. (See 'Ethics" Part 2- Propositions 48-49, also read all the proofs and notes.) CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 4, 2019 at 20:54
  • Overall I was trying my best to connect consciousness to causality by requiring some "equal and opposite reaction" manifesting in the physical world as a consequence of the "action" that is consciousness. I did a bad job though :-) (I'm still learning how to pose high-quality questions here).
    – Gershy
    Nov 5, 2019 at 17:11
  • you are using analogies, where the "terms of art" (action, reaction, event, etc.) have very specific meanings to a physics guy like me. Analogies are fine for illustrating points of argument, but in this context- invoking physics to support a position in the philosophy of consciousness , free will, etc. they do not work (the physicist asks, "why would they?"). Nov 5, 2019 at 18:59
  • I'm not personally a physicist, so it's good to have you here to keep me in check! :P I was inspired by the thought that throughout all physical models, actions are always counterbalanced (even at a very low level, like in feynmann diagrams), and the net sum of energy is always zero. I'm interested in what phenomenon exists to counterbalance the energy that the existence of consciousness requires (unless consciousness requires no energy?) I'm just trying to rephrase myself here, the overall thought may not make any sense
    – Gershy
    Nov 5, 2019 at 22:58
  • consciousness is a phenomenon about which physics has little or nothing useful to say at present. It is a complete mystery to me. -NN Nov 6, 2019 at 6:41

Nice! You suggest that according to the first law, free will would NOT have an effect on a system (free will would NOT be possible), since causal propagation between subsystems would nullify the causes with the consequences (hope getting it right).

You're getting thermodynamics wrong. If you are a molecule in a thermodynamic system, you can only generate a chain of actions if your energy is remarkably larger than the average. In such case, your answer is straight: yes, free will exists, because you are affecting the system since you have more initial energy (blatantly obvious, you have more energy than the other parts at the beginning!). (same conclusion with lower energy than the rest at initial conditions)

Otherwise (if you have an average amount of energy at the beginning)... wait, such interpretation is quite naive, since you are ONLY associating free will with energy exchange. But the system state is not described only by its energy. Anyway, in a closed system, you will NEVER get the EXACT same amount of energy after any number of interactions. So, if free will is associated only with energy, free will exists.

Same happens if you base your answer on entropy. After each interaction, the entropy of the whole changes (maximum entropy is just an ideal, entropy varies constantly around such value, with each interaction, since some particles can acquire a lot of energy in comparison to the rest, lowering temporarily the entropy of the whole...). In case of associating free will with entropy, free will exists.

And my personal opinion is that free will exists, based on the fact that the laws of all possible systems that we can perceive, at all scales of existence are conditioned by the laws of fundamental entities, which are not deterministic.

Anyway, the answers above are far from being enough to determine if free will exists. In particular, you cannot associate free will with energy or entropy. In general, you cannot sustain a philosophical statement with a scientific proposition, since the domain of science is quite limited (science is related to empirical facts, philosophy with facts of truth).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .