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There are a number of arguments which aim to prove the impossibility of free will.

The Standard Argument (incorporating the Determinism Objection and the Randomness Objection) is well known and powerful, although subject to a variety of criticisms The Standard Argument.

I seek here to provide an argument immediately testable via personal investigation.

NOTE: At the time of this edit - 24th August 2021 - no answers have provided detailed endorsement or rebuttal.

Is this argument sound?:

  1. In order for an act to be voluntary, a person must decide to perform it.

  2. A decision is an act. Therefore, in order for a decision to be voluntary, a person must decide to decide it.

  3. This leads to an infinite regress of prior decisions, in which any voluntary decision must be the result of an infinite chain of prior decisions.

  4. Insofar as free will requires the ability to make voluntary decisions, free will is impossible.

This argument constitutes a rephrasing of an old dilemma, but it remains useful here as a specific set of propositions against which to argue.

Related reading:

Spinoza, Free Will & Infinite Regression

Google Talks: Mark Belaguer

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 4 at 14:55
  • Sorry I don't do SE chat. I have been seeking to clarify what the OP means. So far as I can tell, the term "decision" is being used with blurred meaning and this is leading the OP to a false logic of regress. But it has required some dialogue to get that far. is that not a valid use of discussion? Aug 4 at 15:02
  • @GuyInchbald Sorry, you have been unpersoned. You must use SE chat or face deletion. There is no alternative, that's how this works.
    – user253751
    Aug 4 at 16:10
  • @user253751 Sorry I haven't a clue what is going on here. I was clarifying the original question, which is what comments are for. The Help centre has no hits for "unperson", philosophy.stackexchange.com/help/search?q=unperson and my personal page carries no hint that I can see. Would you mind pointing me to where all this is explained, so we can get off this thread? Aug 4 at 17:00
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Seems like no one brought up Frankfurt and hierarchical compatabilism.

First-order desires: Desires that are directed on objects or states of affiarrs. We desire things like being healthy, well informed, and being paid

Second-order desires: Self-conscious beings are not only aware of the first-order desire, but can have desires about those desires. A smoker can have the desire to not desire to smoke.

Second-order volitions: Second-order desires we want to act on. There are second-order desires we don't wish to act on, like a priest desiring to know what it's like to be married.

To act freely, says Frankfurt, is to act on a second-order volition. If you do not formulate second-order volitions, or do not act on the ones you do form, your actions are not free-you are a slave to your first order desires.

According to Frankfurt, free actions are caused by second-order volitions that one decisively identifies with. "Decisively identifies with" is need to forestall an infinite regress. We may formulate a third-order desire and so on. But a second-order desire that we decisively identify with, claims Frankfurt, "resounds" throughout the potentially endless array of higher orders, halts the regress, and brings coherence to our preference structure.

Note that traditional compatabilism maintains that you cannot act freely if your actions are externally constrained. Frankfurt denies this. As long as you act on your second-order volitions, you are responsible for you actions, whether or not you could do otherwise.

From Doing Philosophy 4th ed. Theodore Shick Jr, Lewis Vaugh 2010 pp. 220-225

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  • Thanks, J. I'm coming to conclude that whilst my argument seems sound, it is simply a rephrasing of an ages old perspective (ultimately one of the primacy of causality); one that no-one is likely to accept - or want to accept - in the absence of a much deeper understanding of how 'volition' operates. Mark Balaguer seems to have some new things to say about the topic. I've added a link to the question. Aug 5 at 5:36
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The infinite regress argument does not work because it stops after two steps. "They must be able to decide what to decide what to decide" is not valid English grammar for a reason.

You have said that they must decide what to decide, and that's the end of it.

Task: Decide what to decide.
Result: What to eat.
Task: Decide what to eat.
Result: Pizza.

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    The fact that the expression "They must be able to decide what to decide to decide...", becomes almost incoherent is precisely the point of the argument. It is also a perfectly legitimate example of English grammar. Your claim that "that's the end of it" doesn't make much sense to me. If you provide more information, I'm happy to clarify. In the meantime: The final 'decision', D, requires a prior decision, PD, as to whether D is desirable. Without this arbitration, D is made involuntarily. It is an illusory decision. But if D illusory, so is PD (without PD2), and so on, ad infinitum... Aug 4 at 14:59
  • It sounds like you have a problem with how he worded it, rather than the actual concept he's communicating @user253751
    – TKoL
    Aug 4 at 15:05
  • @Futilitarian What is PD2? Can you express it?
    – user253751
    Aug 4 at 15:15
  • @User. Prior Decision 2. This might not be the best term. Come up with anything you like. It's simply a description of the next link in the ridiculous 'decision' chain that arises out of an attempt to get to a true, non-illusory decision, a phenomenon I'm claiming to be impossible. Aug 4 at 15:29
  • @Futilitarian but what is Prior Decision 2? What is the question whose answer needs to be decided?
    – user253751
    Aug 4 at 15:37
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Apologies, our discussion of what you mean has been cut short. So here is my best shot.

You write:

In order for a person to be in conscious control over their decisions, they must be able to decide what to decide (otherwise, the decision becomes involuntary...

But you said in the deleted discussion that you are not proposing a chain of meta-decisions distinct from the causal chain. This appears to contradict your notion to "decide what to decide", as there is no such prior decision.

It seems to me that you are conflating "decisions about decisions" with prior causes.

There is no prior decision event to require free will; the regress of decisions never gets started.

There is however a chain of prior causes, and this "regress" of causes is of course valid.

All this sheds no light on whether the one actual decision is free or not.

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  • Again, I didn't say that. Again, I stated explicitly, "I have not at any time argued for any "prior meta-decision as in any way distinct from the causal chain". I can't be any clearer. "Decisions about decisions" (should they exist) would be prior causes. I've addressed your next point about 'prior decision event' already, succinctly. I'm happy to continue in chat, but this is the third time you've made an inaccurate claim about my comments, and we're simply getting nowhere. Thanks for the chat. All the best. Bye. Aug 4 at 15:25
  • @Futilitarian The point is, your statement that "they must be able to decide what to decide (otherwise, the decision becomes involuntary." is wholly unjustified. The condition you set up for your straw free will cannot in fact be set up. If I claim that I am perfectly capable of freely deciding what to do, without any prior decisions-that-aren't-decisions or whatever, on what basis do you refute that? Aug 4 at 15:31
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The Stoic position would be to reject premise 2. Someone may be in conscious control of their actions as the determining factors of their decisions are "internal rather than external", even if their own internal range of choices is narrowly conceived. The causal physical/chemical workings of my brain and that relationship to the biological system that is my body may reasonably have established, predictable and even exploitable input-output relations, but they are nonetheless my behavioural functions, and their operation is my responsibility and my means of positive liberty.

The reason this is conceptually useful is in attributations of moral responsibility. We might reasonably say I was coerced, deprived of my free will to act, if someone else outside the boundaries of my person was holding me hostage, and this is the difference that makes a difference when it comes to understanding my freedom to choose whether to do something that would otherwise be deemed morally judgeworthy. However, that same justification would not be available to someone who, independently of outside coercion, simply did that morally wrong thing and held that physical causal determinism deprived them of moral agency.

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  • Thanks. Am I right in saying that is a compatibilist perspective? I can certainly see the considerable practical appeal and utility of such an outlook. Most of us, I suspect - even hard determinists - resort to similar assumptions in day-to-day life. It's not a reality to which I intellectually subscribe, yet is simultaneously a 'reality' with which I typically operate. It's a weird feeling sometimes. Aug 4 at 16:15
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    @Futilitarian, yes, I think it's fair to call this compatibilist. A Stoic would accept that reality at the atomic level might be properly deterministic (though not committed to it!); either way, this doesn't change the individuation of the personal agent as capable of making choices and responsible for understanding the choices they make and their consequences, and if needs' be refining their personal decision processes as they grow. Aug 4 at 18:19
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  1. Conscious control over decisions seems to be a strange way to put it. I would recommend either of the following: "conscious control over one's actions" or "the ability to make decisions".
  2. I don't exactly see what you mean by "able to decide what you decide" or "involuntary non-free decision". We only decide our voluntary actions and all decisions are free by definition. Voluntary actions are decided by the agent alone.
  3. Decisions are not past causal, there is no infinite regress. Decisions cannot be caused, decisions are the first causes of new causal chains of events. There is only forward causality.
  4. You may have disproven your own strawman version of free will, but you have not disproven our ability to make decisions.
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    Thank-you, Pertti. 1) Why is conscious control over decisions a strange way to put it? 2) If you do not decide what to decide, a decision is involuntary, in that it has occurred spontaneously. My assertion is that what we experience as a decision is in fact not a decision over which we have any but an illusory agency, for this very reason. 3) Please provide proof of your claim that decisions are new causal chains. You may be eligible for a Nobel if you are able to do this. 4) How have I strawmanned free will? Aug 3 at 13:17
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    1) It is not clear what you mean. 2) Decisions do not occur, spontaneously or otherwise. Decisions are made for a reason. Whatever you do, you must decide what you do. If someone else decides, your action is involuntary. Agency cannot be illusory, someone must decide anyway. If you don't decide, someone else has to, otherwise your action is random and pointless. 3) There is no proof or a Nobel prize. Just think about it, it is plainly obvious: What causes your voluntary actions? You do. If they were caused by an external force, they would be involuntary. 4) You used an invalid definition. Aug 3 at 13:35
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    Thanks again, Pertti. I recommend the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as a good starting point for developing an understanding of these concepts, particularly plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal, and plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill. They clearly explain how our experience of free will (including our decisions) may well be entirely illusory, and go a long way to explaining why any demonstration of self-causation would be a remarkable achievement. Aug 3 at 13:59
  • I'm afraid, they do not explain what you think. You must have misinterpreted those articles in your own way. Aug 3 at 14:05
  • Decisions cannot be caused so they're just random? They arise spontaneously and with no relationship to existing things or past events? My decisions don't feel random. I feel like they do have a causal relationship with the state of myself and my history.
    – TKoL
    Aug 4 at 13:23
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You are always free to decide what you wanna decide to decide what you decide about what you wanna decide about what you wanna decide about to decide your final decision what to decide how you decide the decision of making a free decision about what you wanna decide so the decision will not be decided by others who wanna decide for you what you are supposed to decide if you have to make a decision what to decide if you wanna decide what the others have to decide if they wanna make you decide what decision to make about a decision how to decide the decision they want you to make about you deciding how they should decide deciding your decision to make a decision how every one should make decisions about decisions that in general decide how to make decisions for them for deciding a decision.

It's your decision.

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Phyics, which is in an extremely refined state today, has never found any phenomenon in the universe that is not ultimately the interaction of aggomerations of elementary particles strictly following the laws of physics. And people do not have access to the chemical and electrical phenomena that take place in their own minds.

Therefore it is not the least bit surprising that although we generally have the impression of being able to make our own decisions independent of everything else, in fact our decisions are as determined as would be a computer making a decision based on a complicated algorithm after some amount of data has been input. The computer likewise doesn't "know" what its decision will be until it has been made, but it was nevertheless determined.

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  • Free will has nothing to do with physics. Decisions cannot be determined by any twist of logic. Decisions are not physical events. Computers don't make any decisions. People, the programmers and the users make all the decisions concerning the computer's operation. Sep 3 at 17:22
  • Everything that occurs in the universe is governed by the laws of physics, as far as we know: Nothing has ever been shown to be otherwise. That includes the operation of the human brain. Sep 3 at 17:35
  • @DanielAsimov. So Daniel, what's your answer to the question? Is the argument sound as presented? Sep 4 at 3:38
  • @DanielAsimov Human brain follows the laws of physics, as it is a physical object. The laws of physics don't apply to the human mind, which is the brain's capacity to process immaterial information. Brain physiology and psychology are different branches of science. Sep 4 at 7:00

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