Illusions are thought to be things we think that aren't true. For example, I had the illusion to find all answers on this site. But I don't find them all. For example, when I approached the house, it turned out to be an illusion (the house, not the approach).
When it comes to free will though the situation is more complicated. Some people say that free will is just an illusion. Especially people like Dawkins. They think that our free will is not free at all and all our actions and thoughts are determined by the law that determines them: do and think according to the law to reproduce your genes and memes. So according to our friend I'm just typing this question to let my thoughts, my memes, about this subject survive. Likewise, his views on evolution, genes, and memes are dictated by this law. He just writes his ideas to let them survive. It's questionable if views about memes can be considered memes themselves though. Maybe they are transcendental memes or something like that. Anyhow, he projects his views about evolution, genes, and memes upon the real world of evolution, genes, and memes. So it depends on his view if the things he describes are subject to the law he's proposing.
There are brain scientists who think our thinking is determined by unconscious brain processes, of which this article is an example. The same reasoning applies: the thing they are describing, the brain and free will, depends on the views they project on these.

But what if people feel that their thoughts and actions are free? Why do these people say that the free will is not free at all? Why is it an illusion if the people themselves don't experience it as an illusion at all? What if the thoughts that lead to the denial of free will and making it just an illusion are not an illusion themselves?

Does it even matter for the value of free will if it is an illusion or not? If we are in fact controlled by selfish mechanisms (not my idea, but Dawkins') or materialistic laws (which is my idea, but I considered them necessary to be able to think or act in the first place)? All that matters if people can act how they seem it's right and think how they feel it's right (regardless of a supposed law laying behind them). They can always deny these laws (as I do). Most of the time people are limited in their actions and thoughts, not by the supposed laws behind but by men-made laws that prohibit them to think or do certain things.

So, if free will is an illusion, doesn't that mean it exists? Does it mean it doesn't truly exist? But if so, then what's the difference? That we're not truly free, while we do feel free?

  • 1
    Correct; one of the building blocks of human society is the principle that if you violate the law you are guilty; this principle is based on the assumption that free-will exists and human beings (in "standard" conditions) can act according to a free decision. Jun 16, 2021 at 14:44
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA There are more societies than western society though. For example, societies where there are no such things that are described by the books of law. Material goods don't weigh that much, actions that we call criminal simply don't exist of are dismissed as minor actions not to be evaluated. True, human society is these days synonymous to western (scientific) society. There is almost no escape from it. But I'm not talking about the law of justice. Well I wrote about it to make clear what you mean indeed. These laws change. Sometimes things forbidden become allowed.
    – user52804
    Jun 16, 2021 at 15:15
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I'm talking about the things I tried to make clear. The views that our free will is an illusion. What can be said about these views?
    – user52804
    Jun 16, 2021 at 15:16
  • 1
    This is very much the direction Sartre takes things. Freedom is a part of responsibility, which is a psychological necessity. Since our psychology exists, and we have no choice but to provide for its necessities, freedom exists. Who cares what physics thinks? The problem is that we have very high expectations of science (or religion, or whatever else you put in that place) which cannot ever be met if determinism fails. We absolutely expect conflicting things. God must both know the future, and let us choose it. Jun 16, 2021 at 17:06
  • "Who cares what physics thinks?" this is what I meant. I totally agree.
    – user52804
    Jun 17, 2021 at 8:10

4 Answers 4


The idea of free will exists in the same way that the idea of unicorns and vampires exist; the existence of the idea does not prove the existence of the object itself.

  • 1
    +1 Essentially correct. Two problems: a) impossibility of proof: it is impossible to prove free will, so it is just an idea; b) existence: this answer describes precisely how the idea of free will exists in someone's head; given that free will is an idea, it exists as such.
    – RodolfoAP
    Jul 20, 2021 at 14:38
  • I suggest that proving free will is not known to be impossible, although it’s obviously difficult and problematic, and I certainly don’t know how to do it.
    – Frog
    Jul 20, 2021 at 21:20
  • Your analogy is invalid. The null hypothesis is that free will does not exist. Design an experiment to test this. There is no discernible difference between having free will and having the illusion of free will. Therefore, the distinction is illogical according to Leibniz"s principle of indiscernibles.
    – Meanach
    Oct 27, 2023 at 14:08
  • @Meanach on the contrary I believe that the very crux of the question is determining how to discern between free will and the perception of free will.
    – Frog
    Oct 27, 2023 at 20:16
  • It is indiscernible. Leibniz has already established this principle. QED.
    – Meanach
    Oct 27, 2023 at 20:33

What you are talking about is compatibilism: the idea free-will is meaningful, but not fundamental. Eg it is emergent, or a kind of heuristic to make conversation & prediction of others easier, or it's psychologically (a way to organise our behaviours to match our aims using the short-hand of intentions) or biologically (global workspace), or computationally (self-model in a strange loop) useful.

The majority of philosophers are compatibilists, according to conference surveys. The main alternative pictures are, incompatbilism like metaphysical libertarians who don't accept determinism for minds, and hard determinism which says freedom of will is impossible & a meaningless or misleading illusion. Many religiius people take the former. And many atheist scientists choose the latter. Honestly it seems more like cognitive biased writ large though, because those stances are very hard to keep hold of in extensive debate, at least when approached with an open mind.

To really get to grips with free will, we need to think hard about causality:

Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?

and time:

Why is the universe governed by very few laws of high generality instead of lots of particular ones?

Not everyone is 'willing to', pun not intended, but, valid..


Either we have free will or an entirely convincing illusion of free will. Logically these are identical.


Free will is our ability to decide what we do.

There is no way it could be an illusion. Someone has to decide anyway, someone must be controlling you, if you exhibit a controlled behaviour. There is no-one else.

We exhibit controlled behaviour when we attempt to make a more preferable future. Future-oriented behaviour cannot be caused by history.

  • "Future-oriented behaviour cannot be caused by history." - It can as demonstrated by machine learning.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 22, 2021 at 9:08
  • The machine is not trying to achieve anything. The programmers are. They decide what the machine does. Jul 22, 2021 at 9:13
  • You are not up to date on machine learning, are you? Google did stop and reset various projects so far because the machines started to do things they did not expect nor understand, for example, developed a language of their own so rudimentary and cryptic the programmers lost track of possible meanings. Also, as much as I myself am a proponent of (some kind of) free will, your "argument" is just wishful thinking/faith: We could just as well say "The neurological processes in your brain decide what you do, not 'you'." You effectively state it's the case because you think it's the case.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 22, 2021 at 9:18
  • BTW you did not really address the question, which is about whether the naming of free will as illusion doesn't imply the existence of something we call free will, ie. what is gained or said by calling it an illusion.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 22, 2021 at 11:35
  • "Someone has to decide anyway" as usual, you are begging the question by assuming an actual decision is made in the first place.
    – armand
    Jul 22, 2021 at 11:37

You must log in to answer this question.