So my understanding of the "freewill is an illusion" argument is if I know everything about a system since the laws of physics are deterministic the final solution is unique. Anyone who makes this argument implicitly assumes a materialistic view. The more interesting question to ask in my opinion is where does this illusion stem from? The answer is it would stem from the observer's ignorance of physical information of himself. Proof of the negative: Imagine I knew what I was going to do then there wouldn't be any notion of freewill. By this I mean an observer is in a isolated system he knows what he is going to do and he knows how the system will react accordingly. Then there would there is no action of otherwise (or freewill).

Now consider the situation about rolling a dice. If I roll it and there is no ignorance about the physical information then there is a unique final solution. The preceding statement is trivial in my opinion. But suddenly when I say that if there is no ignorance of the system hence, freewill is an illusion! Suddenly this is considered a profound statement. To be both statements are more or less equivalent.

And saying there is no freewill (as expounded by Sam Harris) sounds a lot like if there is no ignorance then there is no probability. I sincerely don't understand the traction this topic has got. I suspect I must be overlooking something?

  • 8
    Profundity is quite the subjective criteria. Even Jordan Peterson is considered profound by some.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 8:41
  • I do not get a sense that it is treated as profound, it is too old and worn out for that. It would be a platitude if it wasn't still controversial. But your own example shows that your explanation that it stems from observer's ignorance does not work. No one gets the illusion of free will from simply being ignorant of the conditions that determine the outcome, randomness is what describes that. The idea of free will paradoxically combines this ignorance with a sense of control over the outcome at the same time, so it is peculiar that we retain it despite the paradox.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 9:02
  • @Conifold Perhaps I mislead you what I meant by "physical information" included the computing power of the observer. Now if you want to talk about experience itself that's more to do with consciousness (which is a digression). My point was one could be conscious but not experience freewill if it knew its own time evolution. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 9:07
  • Concerning your statement about probabilities, I assume you meant randomness but this unpredictability of outcome is, for all intent and purpose, what randomness is about. You could play roulette just as well with a list of numbers from 0 to 36, written before the game starts but unknown to all players. (This does not cover randomness in quantum mechanics, which could be truly random)
    – armand
    Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 9:36
  • 2
    A lot of things are profound when no one's thought of/said them before, they lose their profundity once they are widely shared. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 22:17

8 Answers 8


The idea that free will is an illusion does not originate with Sam Harris, but is around since, at least, Spinoza (Ethics book 2 proposition 35:

men are mistaken in thinking themselves free ; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are conditioned. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause for their actions.

As I said in comment, "profound" is a very ill defined and subjective criteria. The best you can do is ask people who find it profound why they do.

One more objective judgement that can be made is that it operates a Copernician revolution on the topic of free will. Our whole experience of life gives us the intuition that we are in control, but this idea challenges the notion by offering an explanation to this feeling. We attribute our wants to ourselves because we don't know what to attribute them to.

Psychoanalysis, experiments of social psychology in the lab and neurology have shown that this feeling of control is largely mistaken. People given a hot beverage before a board game show more collaborative behavior than those in the control group, yet never mention the beverage when asked why they felt like collaborating. Electrodes in the brain can provoke gestures and emotions, always rationalized by the patient as a volition of their own.

Credit is due to Spinoza for having this intuition centuries before it was confirmed by science.


When Sam Harris talks of free will being an illusion, he is not referring to the idea that our minds are subject to the laws of physics (either mechanistic laws or laws involving randomness). He is referring to a basic, and easily verifiable, Buddhist principle. It is easy to prove to yourself that you have no free will by trying to meditate (you do not have to be good at it). Sit calmly and try to think only about the flow of your breath. Your attention will soon stray and various other thoughts will pop into your mind, unbidden. It will be apparent to you that you do not have any control over these stray thoughts. It is in this sense that Harris says you have no free will: you do not have any control over your own thoughts; they enter your mind unbidden. Many people find it profound when they realize (through direct introspective experience) that they are not the authors of their own thoughts.

  • 1
    "You do not have to be good at it" - maybe that's the point. If you practice meditation, you become good at it. You can take control of those thoughts. Just because they "enter the mind unbidden" today, doesn't mean it has to be that way. A person who is not free can still hope and try to become free. Just because Sam Harris has no free will (by his own testimony) doesn't mean it's true for others.
    – Stewart
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 11:29
  • 2
    @Stewart points out that it is conceivable that in order to attain the state in which one exercises free will it might suffice to become more adept at meditation than Sam Harris. This only means that it is a logical possibility that a small number of individuals might have control over their own thoughts. For those of us without this mental control (presumably almost all of us) it does not require a high level of meditation training to directly verify (by observing our thoughts) that our thoughts do enter our mind without our having any control over them...
    – snew
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 12:59
  • ...It is this direct experience of ones lack of control over one's thoughts that many people find profound (not an academic interest in reading what I have just written).
    – snew
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 12:59
  • Surely this is no more profound than discovering you are not good at tennis, unless you practice? The idea that free will might be obtained by anyone who kept trying and reaching for it, I find that far more profound. Akin to the surge of pleasure when you discover you might be good at some activity after all. Except being competent at free will is something which would underpin every other activity of life. For example, Fred gets good at tennis by not-free-will practice (his parents made him do it) but then Fred gets good at free will; I reckon this would also increase his tennis ability.
    – Stewart
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 14:14
  • 1
    The idea that each of us has a different competency in free will would also account for the great controversies and conflicting theories. If my experience of free will is different to yours, we are bound to come up with different theories of how it works.
    – Stewart
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 14:15

The profound implication is: are you a free-acting person or a marionette of cause and effect. If nothing can be truly random as in a universally deterministic world there is only one fatalistic outcome. Nothing you can do will change it because you will always act according to your 'programming' of experience and personal reasoning. It's really just a thought experiment though.

  • I feel this is like saying the dice will always have rolled a six? The whole nothing I can do to change it kind of suggests some oracle told me the future which I have to change. But let's assume I have an (super-)supercomputer who told me the future of what I'd do. This future can be easily avoided since there is different physical information from the original system the supercomputer considered in this one the supercomputer has intervened! In the original scenario one it did not. In short: Knowing the future will change the future Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 8:54
  • Also if the supercomputer also takes it self into account and says I will say x and he will do y. Now all I have to do is find an z such that I say z and he will do z. The whole idea that this system of equations even has a solution is highly non-trivial. I would be willing to bet (most of the time) it cannot exist. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 8:57
  • In the absolute sense "knowing the future" and then changing the future - it would be known that you were going to try to change the future. You can't game it - that's the nature of the thought experiment. In practical terms though, there is a concern that consciousness is a passenger of an unconscious mind extensively driven by conditioning and instinct, and to some extent the free will of the conscious mind is an illusion, but it's not 100% illusion. The thought experiment is just trying to make a point about the issue. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 10:49
  • "it would be known that you were going to try to change the future" - I have already taken this into account in my second comment. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 10:51
  • In short: Your assuming the existence of a solution which is what you have to prove. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 11:09

Saying that free will is an illusion is profound only because it contradicts religion.

The argument presented in the OP, that if all initial conditions are know then free will is impossible, is not a profound conclusion. It is not even a new idea, and it pre-dates Sam Harris and Spinoza. Maimonides deals with a different form of the argument; that is, if God knows the future, then He know what a person will do throughout his life, and there is no room for free will, because, from God's perspective, his future is pre-determined. This argument is only strengthened by the finding of very specific physicals causes for many actions. Therefor, pure philosophy would reject the concept of free will.

It is only the concept of religion, (and perhaps only Abrahamic religions, but I do not know about other religious families,) the claim that God created Man so that he should do something positive in the world, which requires us to posit the existence of free will. And it is not something that is fully understood. (The impossibility, in a way, is the same as the question of how God could create an imperfect world.) This is a profound idea (in that it is very basic and exceptionally far-reaching), and widely accepted. So rejecting it is equally profound.

BTW, religion does not insist that all thoughts or acts must be in one's control for there to be free will, just that there must exist some actions or thoughts that are truly under man's control.


If you're interested in this, Searle has a book Freedom and Neurobiology about these topics, and gave a quick presentation to Google about this book in a Talks@Google from 2007. Like you’re making the case, he points out that it can be very difficult to isolate the philosophical problem of free will when the scientific problems of how we obtain a notion of our own free will are also still outstanding and seem much larger.

The basic problem in his phrasing has to do with an aspect of science, which is causal sufficiency of explanations, “given the forces and mass transfers present near this bridge, it had to collapse.” Mario Bunge’s Philosophy of Science is also some good reading here, it talks at least in volume 2 about how science has a structure of explaining things and therefore science questions are of the form “Why p?” and traditionally you have a structure of “Because of some particular circumstances q, and some laws that guarantee that q implies p.” Logical entailment is thus a deep part of normal science.

And the problem with free will is ultimately a feeling we have that our own choices were not determined by prior circumstance. “I voted for Obama but I could have voted for Romney,” say. And the philosophical question therefore looks at the language or understanding barrier between these two ideas, “I could have done something else” versus “Science proceeds via causally sufficient explanations” to get to some shared understanding where we can see what both of those mean.

Searle accepts “It’s all an illusion” as a valid explanation, albeit not one that he likes very much. So let’s dive deep into what this means: it is the statement that ”your notion that you could have done something else is a fiction that your brain generates to make it feel good about itself, but it does not correspond to any real physical phenomenon.” Sort of like when we say a rainbow is an illusion we mean that “I know it looks like there is a big physical arch out there but if you move around you will discover that there is no fixed prismacolor object corresponding to the arch you see.” Searle thinks that yes, this solves the philosophical problem directly, and so he only has a few meta-level problems with this explanation:

  1. It seems like the point of most “it’s an illusion” explanations is to “shake” the illusion. Unfortunately, we cannot shake this “we could have done something else” illusion of freedom because we by definition do not have the freedom to do so. You cannot freely voluntarily shake an illusion that you have the ability to freely voluntarily shake it. In the Talks@Google talk he remarks that someone had asked him, if someone proved that free will is conclusively an illusion and everything must be deterministic, would Searle accept it? and Searle had to reply that the question is assuming you had no free will, and we made you aware of it, would you use your free will to accept that conclusion? and the question rapidly eats its own premise.
  2. It seems like our body is doing a lot of biological work to sustain this illusion whereas simpler structures should be in-principle possible that do the same material outcomes without sustaining this illusion, especially if it is indeed an illusion and “we would do better to live without it,” which seems to be the philosopher’s position.

On the other hand you mention the randomness idea and Searle kind of rejects randomness as a valid explanation in the first place, if my memory serves me correctly. Randomness as an explanation, I would say, has to do with the existence of hidden information, and so the claim is that “I could have chosen otherwise” is really a statement of “I don’t know why I chose what I chose, but there is some reason, I just don’t have access to that reason. It was just one of those random things. Some days I vote for Obama and some days I vote for Romney.” And I think the point is, “no, I can give you my reasons I chose Obama over Romney and I know why I chose what I chose, I just could have chosen something else.” In this respect randomness is talking about a different aspect of determinism than the tension that we have to resolve, and yes it is certainly a valid aspect of determinism but it is not the aspect which we find in tension in our own cases, so you have to eventually “fix” the explanation by adding some other statement, e.g. the illusion idea. So a randomness+illusion explanation would say “You just don't have access to the deterministic causes that made you choose what you chose, so you maybe had reasons which established a 95% chance you voted Obama and a 5% chance you voted Romney within your bounds of what you could know about the system, but you are wrong that you could have chosen something else, in fact your next random variable was going to inevitably be 0.89381... and as long as your conscious reasons generated at least an 89% chance of voting Obama you were going to vote for Obama, with the missing gap of ‘could have’ being a fundamental illusion.” The point is that philosophical randomness does not solve the problem, so you can instead understand this as a scientific randomness which can be left to science and the philosophical aspect is being solved by the illusion explanation.

Searle mentions that he sees another explanation but he doesn’t like it either, which is that more recently, physicists have abandoned causal sufficiency in all of their quantum explanations. He says that the problem here is that usually anything that philosophers have to say about quantum mechanics is hot air at best, but this idea that causal sufficiency is only an approximate principle for our reality that works well for science but is not necessary, should suffice to solve the problem the other way. He just doesn’t like the idea that consciousness should be filed away as a quantum phenomenon when that doesn’t seem terribly likely, so it becomes an open scientific problem how things can inherit quantum non-sufficiency in explanation, without inheriting all of the weirdness of quantum mechanics.

  • 1
    "assuming you had no free will, and we made you aware of it, would you use your free will to accept that conclusion?" That's assuming we need free will to accept the conclusion, so of course it raises a logical contradiction. It's a very common flaw of pro free will arguments to beg the question by assuming free will in one way or another in their premises. Understandable, as we spend most of our lives subject to the illusion.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 0:39
  • @armand, On the very contrary. I'd state most of our lives we spend in the illusion of determinism and (mechanical-like) causality. Assumption of a determinism in a premise.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 2:43
  • @ttnphns: what do you mean? You live under the impression that your body only moves on its own, like it grabbing your phone to order pizza even though you wanted chinese, or walking you to places you don't want to go to? That must be unsettling. I am no one to tell about how you experience life, but it certainly does not match my experience, nor anybody I ever met (of course, I wouldn't know since their body would be talking without their control 🤔)
    – armand
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 3:36
  • @armand, I simply meant to say that as much as you insist free will is an illusion we often assume, others may insist determinism (of human actions) is an illusion likewise. (As for my own view of the question, it's that we are 100% free and 100% conditioned, which is not a contradiction because predisposition retains from the past but goal comes from the future: they meet to form the present).
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 4:29
  • 1
    The point is that the question seems to assume that you are indeed in control. If we assume you are not, then this is trivial, “I don’t know because by definition in that case I cannot control it, the forces outside of my control will decide whether I accept the proof.” If we say volition is illusory, one cannot exercise one's volition to accept its own nonexistence. The very act of trying to disbelieve is an act of trying. Instead, one needs to confront the illusion some other way: say by revelation.
    – CR Drost
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 5:12

The idea of free will is that you have free will if it is the case that you can do what you want to do. And it is of course easy to verify that you have free will. To prove that you have free will, it is enough to do whatever you want to do. For exemple, do I want to type "I have free will", or do I want to type "I don't have free will"? Well, right now, I want to type "I have free will", so let's see if i can do it: I have free will. Done. I have free will and I have proved I have free will.

So, the idea that we do not have free will is profound because you have to dig very deep to find an interpretation of "free will" such that it is not true that we have free will.

Spinoza, of course, was correct in that it is not our consciousness that decides what we want to do. What we want to do is decided by something else. We only decide to do what we want.

It is funny to see people deny the existence of consciousness and then proceed with denying that we have free will, for assuming consciousness does not exist, then whatever we do is what our body does and it is a fact that what our body does at any one moment is a function of what our body is at that moment, which is just another way to say that we do whatever we determine we should do, which is free will.

The debate aboute free will is essentially an ideological debate where the contenders re-enact endlessly the ideological war between the Catholic Church and European intellectuals in the Enlightenment period. It is somewhat ironic that at the same moment that intellectuals were fighting for their freedom, some of them nonetheless choose to deny that we had free will, only to try and undermine the Church. Lovely.


There is actually nothing that assumes a materialistic point of view in the statement. It is still true even if you are operating in an absolutely perfect, purely spiritual world of complete information available to everyone at all times. I.e. even in the Christian heaven or a similar realm.

The thrust of the argument is as such:

  • All actors have certain goals they wish to accomplish and values they hold
  • Actions taken by actors are taken to further their goals whilst upholding their values
  • Since every actor is perfect and has perfect information at all times, they will necessarily take the best possible course of action every time. Thus, their actions are entirely determined by their circumstances and personality, and entirely predictable given complete knowledge of those
  • However, the concept of free will rests on the idea that people can "freely" choose their actions, ie. make decisions that are at least in principle unknowable until they're made and aren't completely determined by the circumstances. But the only way to have unknowable decisions is if they're random (in the sense of being probabilistic), as otherwise the perfect reasoning available to actors would fully determine the outcome. Yet perfect actors with perfect knowledge working towards their goals and values would not take any actions other than the best possible one, as it would mean effecting a worse outcome for no reason

Thus, even in the most ideal world imaginable, free will is an internally-inconsistent, contradictory concept. And things obviously get worse if you're living in an imperfect, material world with things such as biases, illusions, emotions, mental illness, poverty, systemic discrimination, etc.

It is not a profound result because it's particularly hard to work out, but because free will is accepted as a given and necessary in almost all Western religion and culture, forming the basis of a lot of law and morality. But since it's a thing that does not and can not possibly exist, basing your entire idea of justice and morality on it is a big problem. This leads to problems such as inconsistent and arbitrary value systems, punitive rather than restorative legal systems that exacerbate the very things they purport to want to deter from, bigotry and intolerance, etc. Thus getting rid of that idea is very necessary for making the world a better place. That's why it's important for people like Sam Harris.

Note: it's important to distinguish the concept of free will from the concept of responsibility. Personal responsibility (and potentially punishment) is still useful, if it happens to produce the best achievable outcomes. Ie. if putting people in jail for a particular crime works to deter them from it, and the punishment is not excessive or cruel, it might be desirable to hold people responsible for that crime, even if they're ultimately all victims of their circumstances. However, if you can instead rehabilitate them and thus ensure they will not want or need to commit that crime, that is a far better option and it's imperative that you do that. But in legal and/or moral systems based on the concept of free will, it becomes permissible to just exact revenge and dish out punishment, since criminals "freely choose" to commit their crimes.

  • 1
    It is exactly because we live not in "perfect" world with "perfectly reasoning" spirits, processing its information, that the idea of free will is not absurd.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 4:58
  • 2
    But our imperfections do not add free will; at best they add randomness, and a lot of the time (e.g. emotions, mental issues) they will just work further to rob us of the ability to make truly independent decisions. Your argument seems to be that because we make decisions that are inherently worse than what we would actually want them to be, we are actually more free and in control of our decisions, which is pretty absurd.
    – mathrick
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 5:16
  • 1
    But if the choices are not rational, then they're no better than randomness. I could just as well roll a die every time I make dinner, and if it lands on 1, I will burn it. It doesn't add any freedom to my dinner-making process, it just makes the outcome less deterministic. I would really like to know how exactly the choices you talk about are "free", other than "they're defined to be that". In other words, how do I distinguish free choices from non-free ones?
    – mathrick
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 5:58
  • 2
    Your argument assumes that "All actors have certain goals and values" and that those are unchangeable. Free will asserts that a person can choose what his goals and values are (for example, spiritual or physical).
    – Mordechai
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 8:52
  • 1
    @ttnphns: if the randomness is not motivated by anything, then it's not freedom. Me "choosing" to be affected by an unmotivated urge to decide to roll the die before making my dinners is as free as me "choosing" to have my stove malfunction 1 out of 6 times and burn my dinner. But if my randomness is motivated by some reasons, then it's not randomness, it's just that there are additional reasons affecting my actions.
    – mathrick
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 0:11

The definition of free will is that a subject makes decisions which are not predictable — because if the decision were predictable it would obviously be predetermined. Claiming that a predetermined decision was based on free will would be a hitherto unknown use of free.

Another word for "not predictable" is "random".

Physics of the 20th century have taught us that there is no lack of randomness in the world1, including the brain. We hence do, without a trace of doubt, have free will.2

That is not profound at all, it's trivial (well, if you accept that "der Alte würfelt"). It unfortunately also doesn't make a strong case for individual responsibility, guilt and punishment: Our actions are composed of a predetermined part (our genes, our upbringing, peer pressure, what we had for breakfast) and this random part. Neither one appears to make us particularly responsible now, do they.

1 The idea that the world, including us, is a predictable clockwork was hip only from LaPlace (1814) to Heisenberg (1927).

2 Note that this says nothing about how we subjectively perceive our own decision making. The random firing of a few neurons which snowballs down our neocortex and tips the scale a certain way can well be perceived as eventually making a conscious decision. Interestingly we may feel the same about a decision which was entirely predictable (because it was predetermined by our past experiences and/or our genes).

  • Since my post, I believe, consists entirely of undisputed truths and logically mandatory conclusions I'd be delighted to know which part the downvoter found unsatisfactory. Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 14:15
  • Unpredictability can result from other conditions than randomness, for instance not knowing the contents of a black box does not require it's operation be random. Bayesian predictions may not indicate an outcome is predetermined. Determinism is preserved across Many Worlds, and in Superdeterminism, at least the former of which could be argued to be 'hip'. I didn't downvote, but your answer is not good.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 7:34
  • @CriglCragl Feel free to downvote if you don't think the answer is good -- nothing wrong with that. Ad rem: (1) Perceived randomness (e.g. because we are lacking (principally available) information) is not the same as categorical randomness. We can't predict a million things because we have imperfect information; but I claim that Laplace's demon is principally impossible. (2) Not sure how statistical considerations affect my argument. (3) Yes, in a "many worlds" universe each individual after the split would perceive randomness while overall there was determinism. Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 8:42
  • q@CriglCragl ... (3 ctd.) Isn't that just an example of the incomplete information case? Superdeterminism: Hogwash, with all due respect ;-) Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 8:43

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