NOTE: This question does not assume the existence or non-existence of free will.

Dan Dennett, Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, states that when "...neuroscientists who've been going around saying that neuroscience shows we don't have free will...[are] doing some real harm". Dan Dennett: Big Think

He goes on to describe a (seriously flawed) thought experiment to support his claim, implying that those who learn there's no free will will be rendered "mentally incompetent", and that broadcasting such news would be "irresponsible".

Dennett references Vohs and Schooler, 2008 to support his views, but Miles, 2013, claims that Vohs and Schooler's studies, "...all appear to be linked by a fundamental methodological error that suggests that... their putative findings may be spurious". Miles also makes the vital point that, "And it has long been recognised by certain scientists, legal theorists, and philosophers that far from having prosocial benefits, belief in free will acts to discriminate against the poor and racial minorities, may make justice impossible and even encourages contempt for and violence towards the weak".

Dennett's generalisation - about our ability to healthily process the notion that free will is an illusion - is broad and condescending, but he may be right in that some, if not many people will be ill-equipped to cope with such information. It is easy to imagine some people becoming apathetic, criminal, nihilistic, depressed, negligent and/or reckless as a result of being told that they are cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Assuming it is possible to suppress a finding of such magnitude, would the dangers presented by such a discovery justify its suppression?

EDIT: In response to a comment request, I provide the following (admittedly imperfect) definition of free will:

"The ability to act and make decisions in a self-determined way, independently of causal or random physical processes; to be the originating source of one's own behaviour".

...and of the illusion of free will:

"To perceive that one holds free will when in fact one's actions and decisions are dictated by deterministic and/or random physical processes".

Any suggestions for improvement of these definitions will be considered.

I provide some other references useful to this consideration of this question. Whilst there is ample peer-reviewed material on this topic, I have emphasised generalist articles that are accessible without payment/subscription, in the hope these will provide further direction to the more academically-inclined.

Punishing Without Free Will

Epistemic Paternalism in Public Health

Don't Lie but Don't Tell the Whole Truth: The Therapeutic Privilege - Is it Ever Justified?

Free Will and the Law: New Perspectives

Laypersons’ Beliefs and Intuitions About Free Will and Determinism: New Insights Linking the Social Psychology and Experimental Philosophy Paradigms

Free Will and Politics

Science is uprooting Free Will from Governance

The Conversation: The Psychology of Believing in Free Will

The Influence of (Dis)belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior

The Dangerous Doctrine of Free WIll

Belief in Free Will Affects Causal Attributions When Judging Others’ Behavior

The Hazards of Claiming to Have Solved the Hard Problem of Free Will, Sharrif, Schooler & Voss, 2008

The Illusion of Conscious Will, Wegner, 2008

  • Your question is useless speculation on the impossible. There is no way free will could be proven illusory. There isn't even a definition for what "illusion of free will" means. There is no hypothesis to prove or disprove. Aug 13, 2021 at 11:36
  • 1
    @Pertti. I'm intrigued by your confidence. Science continually proves itself capable of surprising us; of illuminating that which had not previously considered or deemed possible. If you have grounds for such a belief, and for your other statements, please post them in an answer, as these comment sections frequently get too long and it's best if others aren't crowded out. Aug 13, 2021 at 11:50
  • 1
    There is always a case for and a case against something, both are already sketched in the OP. And even aside from a purely speculative premise it is hard to see how "would the dangers justify?" can be answered other than based on personal opinions.
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2021 at 12:01
  • @Futilitarian This was not an answer, this was a comment on the question. Your question is incomplete without the definition. Before speculating on "illusory free will" you should define what it means. What happens in reality when we experience this illusion? Aug 13, 2021 at 12:03
  • Decisions cannot be dictated by physical processes. Decisions can only be made by mental processes. Physical processes have no reason to decide one way or the other. Every voluntary action aims at a goal in the future. Every voluntary action must be decided. It is not possible to cause an attempt to reach a desired future state. There is no case for illusory free will. Aug 13, 2021 at 12:31

5 Answers 5


Introduction and framework

As the citations provided with this question show, the argument Dennett makes is one that is widely made, with dozens of philosophers and scientists who believe in the illusory nature of free will advocating for suppressing this view. This is a very actively held position within philosophy, and I applaud asking this community to address how it can be evaluated.

The argument FOR suppression is made in two parts:

  1. Belief in determinism over free will vitiates the agency of many people who accept determinism is true, and this is highly detrimental to the subsequent behavior of the new believer, as it reduces their psychological behavior of exercising will to overcome temptations, or to better themselves. IE achieving better outcomes in life is often the result of psychological effort, and belief in determinism reduces the exercise of that effort.

  2. The psychological and sociological benefits of voluntary suppression of this knowledge (the supposed truth of determinism) are greater than the harms caused by a program of deception. The arguments for 2) are generally only made in a consequentialist framework, either utilitarian or Darwinian, as 2) is difficult to justify in the competing deontological/rights or Virtues formulations of moral thinking.

The counter argument is vigorously made by James Miles, who provides a large suite of argumentation paths -- many of which are efforts to rebut the claims in 1 and 2, but he also presents a specific positive argument against suppression. To summarize, he basically argues that:

  1. Determinism has been shown to be true primarily by logical reasoning, more so that the scientific justification assumed by the illusionists. Miles supplements 3) with claims that belief in free will is irrational and "mystic", but these arguments are pretty clearly fallacious argument by name-calling.

  2. TRUTH is a moral virtue in itself, and suppressing it is immoral (this is a Virtues ethic argument, and is supported by some deontological reasoning). A similar argument to 4) is made in the two Public Health essays -- but they argue this point under rights ethic (patient always has right to information), or consequentialism (harm from lack of trust in authorities if a deception is discovered exceeds any benefit from concealment of possibly misusable information).

  3. There is significant sociological harm from the belief in free will, as it decreases both empathy and the efforts to achieve equality in our societies, and makes people more punitive in their interactions and policy choices.

OK -- trying to evaluate these arguments:

The evidence FOR 1) is fairly overwhelming. The understanding that determinism vitiates agency is widely understood from personal experience, with most advocates of free will noting this is a major cause of their rejection of determinism. Multiple determinists as well, including all the "illusionist" advocates for suppression, *AGREE with is point. Many determinists admit they find they must live their lives as if they have free will, as they find it impossible to practice agency otherwise. This is basically what all the suppressions cited are saying. There is anecdotal cultural evidence -- many Arabists cite the widespread Islamic belief in determinism, as a driver of the reduced technologic and economic growth in the muslim vs non-muslim worlds. And academic studies cited here have found this effect of reduced agency and morality in multiple studies.

Miles attempts to rebut this evidence, not by arguing against either the sociology or the psychology, but by making a logic argument -- that reduced agency is not a NECESSARY outcome of belief in determinism, and he cites the Stoics, who pursued pragmatic self improvements despite their deterministic beliefs as a counter example. However, there are ALWAYS logically possible alternatives to actual sociological and psychological effects. Sociology and psychology study not logical possibilities, but instead the actual effects among us humans. This part of Miles "rebuttal" is irrelevant in its point.

Aside on the Stoics -- Stoicism maximizes rational pragmatism, and applies determinism in a compatibilist way to reasoning. But, as with Miles first argument, most determinist thinking today is reductionist. And neither the value of reasoning any consequences due to it, nor any moral values, can be readily justified in a reductionist POV. Both reasoning, and moral argumentation and justification, are IRRELEVANT if our behavior is determined by biology, or the randomness of quantum mechanics. Miles suggested alternative, is not even available to him.

He also claimed that the empirical studies were methodological flawed, as they studied fatalism, not determinism. This claim is factually untrue, as claims of the reality of fatalism was not presented to the test subjects, just claims as to the reality of determinism. The inference from determinism to fatalism by the test subjects was made solely by them. IE -- this inference and coupling is part of human psychology and sociology, and Miles is himself engaged in "irrational" truth-denying about this.

So -- point 1) is well supported and I will proceed assuming it is true.

Note, I cite a meta-analysis in a discussion of point 2 that reaches the opposite conclusion, that point 1 is an artifact of small sample size experiments. This analysis is a strong argument against point 1, as meta-analyses trump individual study conclusions, but is an anomaly in the literature and is still in pre-publication peer review. As meta-analyses conclusions are highly influenceable by methodology, it is too early to reject point 1 based on this one.

Point 2a, the DEGREE of harm from belief in determinism, has not been articulated as well by the advocates of point 1. It is fairly apparent that the degree of harm from 1) COULD be catastrophic. If all agency is vitiated from us humans, our lives and society will collapse. BUT -- the widespread adoption of suppression as a program of action by the illusionists -- AND their demonstrated accomplishments in both philosophy and science despite their belief that determinism is true, and is catastrophic for agency -- is itself is a significant refuting test case for the catastrophic claim. These philosophic and scientific leading lights have managed to continue their productive lives despite their INTELLECTUAL acceptance of determinism, by living in a state of cognitive dissonance. Their presumption that the rest of humanity is incapable of this cognitive dissonance of continuing productive lives despite holding a viewpoint that should vitiate their agency if fully embraced -- is entirely unsupported.

instead, the evidence is that we humans are able to engage in cognitive dissonance, to assist our coping with the world. See this study on self deception among amateur swimmers: https://psych.colgate.edu/~ckeating/KEATING%20ARTICLES,%20CHAPTERS/Self-Deception%20&%20Competition%20Starek%20&%20Keating%201991.pdf The more successful swimmers most likely "knew" they were not the best, yet convinced themselves to say and think so anyway. Over-optimistic thinking was highly beneficial.

Similarly, we humans tend to underestimate difficult tasks even when we are familiar with them by approximately 3x. We also gravitate to the "sunk cost fallacy" of continuing a started task, even when it proves more difficult. This combination of optimism about project difficulty, plus stick-tuitiveness when project difficulty becomes undeniable, is a set of fallacies and self-deceptions which can reasonably be inferred have contributed massively to the growth of human infrastructure over the millennia. Selective self deception can have significant societal benefits.

In addition to the "catastrophic" claim appearing to contradict our human tendency to respond with cognitive dissonance when we have rational views that could harm us, the "catastrophic" claim is also not well supported by the experimental evidence. Despite the case for harm being strong, the case for SEVERE harm is not. The experiments cited show MARGINAL effects on the test subjects' behavior, not the catastrophic ones. And human psychology is adaptive, such that the marginal detriment seen in those studies could plausibly be counteracted by a better constructed cognitive dissonance response over time, such as the suppresionists seem to have constructed for themselves.

One meta study supports this case for skepticism about the ability of reasoned arguments to change human belief about free will, or our agency. This study found that the manipulation was effective, but that the effects of manipulation of free will beliefs are highly dependent on sample size in the studies, and correcting for small sample size errors eliminates any statistical significance. Also no long-term effects from the attempts to manipulate the beliefs of participants in the studies are apparent. https://psyarxiv.com/quwgr/ Note this meta analysis is still in pre publication review.

Additionally, the Arabists rationale for the detrimental effects of determinism in Muslim society, is a leap to a conclusion. Historically, the Islamic civilization has been a co-equal competitor to Christian, Hindu, and Confucian cultures. Its current relative disadvantage should therefore be traced to some more current cause, not one that has existed for more centuries than this current disadvantage has.

The instances of cognitive dissonance and self-deception undercut the argument for 2A, but make the argument for 2B, that the harms from a truth suppression are smaller than 2a, at least somewhat plausible. As does the complete lack of any blow-back from 2 decades of advocacy for suppression. However, that advocacy has so far been fairly ineffective, as there remain multiple public advocates asserting the "proof" of determinism.

An effective suppression of this supposed proof of determinism, most plausibly therefore would require a much more effective and coordinated effort, an ORGANIZATIONAL conspiracy, either by governments or some institutional body that controls publications in academic literature. The two public health citations in the Question's references, both cite a history of distrust of governments and of doctors that prior efforts to suppress information have created. A conspiracy to suppress this "information", which would have to be organized across multiple institutions, would reasonably be expected to not remain secret. And distrust of institutions is a fairly clear and current hazard in our societies today, with the populist anti-expertise movement sweeping ignorant semi-fascists to increased power in multiple democracies.

The 2B argument that the harm from secrecy is small, is therefore not well supported.

This discussion is not definitive, but the combined argument of 2, that the harm from belief in determinism exceeds that from a conspiracy to suppress this 'fact" is not well supported, and there are strong hints that both sides of that calculation may be in error. And as noted earlier, this is a solely CONSEQUENTIALIST argument, which does not stand up under virtue or rights/deontological ethics. With only one of three primary moral stances even plausibly supporting 2, and with even the consequentialist case weak if it is even positive at all, the second point of the suppression argument does not appear to be strong at all.

Looking at the counter argument now, for point 3, Miles makes two arguments. The first, 3a) is a reductionist one, that all behavior must be caused by biology, or random effects derived from quantum effects, and neither support free will. His second, 3B) is that agency requires selecting one's own values, and this can never be done because any justification of willing must be either uncaused or resort to an infinite regression of causes.

Both of these arguments suffer from an unstated assumption of One True Logic, which is not accepted today by the majority of logicians: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/think/article/abs/guide-to-logical-pluralism-for-nonlogicians/EDFDFA1C9EB65DB71848DABD6B12D877. If there are multiple logics, then neither of these "logic" arguments are compelling, as there is no necessity for any aspect of our world to abide by the logic that Miles assumes.

The first of them, 3a, also falls afoul of the rejection of reductionism within philosophy of science, in favor of emergence and pluralism see section 5 of https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/. Emergent phenomena are some other category, neither explicitly caused, nor random. Hence Miles asserts a false dichotomy, even within the logic he presumes. Emergence is still not a well characterized process, so we can't really spell out what this third option behaves like, but there is wide consensus that our world has emergent phenomenon none the less.

3b is just an application of Munchausen's Trilemma to the justification sequence of agent choice. That one of the legs of the Trilemma has logic problems (again, per the assumed One True Logic), does NOT mean that one of the other legs must be the case! Instead, all legs of the Trlemma have problems per classical logic -- the Trilemma is one of the demonstration cases that the classical logic it is based upon, DOES NOT APPLY (at least not fully) TO OUR WORLD. A trilemma based exclusion argument -- is intrinsically flawed.

Other arguments for 3 were evaluated by Chisea in https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1850&context=lawfaculty, with the conclusion that arguments for and against free will and determinism are in a dialectic stalemate:

As a result, it seems that the free will problem has the argumentative structure John Martin Fischer called a “dialectical stalemate.”

So -- 3) is not a valid claim.

For point 4), all of the justifications summarized appear to be true, within their moral systems. BUT -- that is not a definitive case. Morality is noteworthy by having multiple competing frameworks, AND the possibility of reaching multiple different conclusions within a specific framework. With competing plausible frameworks, one needs to show that a selected framework is the most appropriate to apply that that specific moral problem. And most people judge taht -- when discussing possible collapse of our civilization (see the catastrophic argument in 2 above) consequentialist arguments, and in particular Darwinian consequentialist arguments, are generally the right kind of framework to weight most heavily. Rights and virtues, are most useful in cases where consequences are not catastrophic. 4 may be true, but it is trumped by 2, IF 2 were true. Because 2 seems more likely than not, NOT to be true, 4 has some weight.

Point 5) should be broken up into a point 5a), that belief in free will has effects of increasing support for a certain set of anti-equality and punitive morally harmful attitudes and behaviors, and a 5b) that the morally harmful claims in 1 can be ignored (or at least are dwarfed by 5a). %a, as with 1) appears to be well supported by multiple academic studies. It appears to be true TODAY. The effect size is again small however.

An interesting caveat, is that in the US and the UK at least, the neuroscience claims are increasing the belief in determinism in both societies, while simultaneously, the support for rehabilitation over punishment is decreasing, along with interest in societal equality. The social trends in both countries are the reverse of what is claimed in point 5. It is reasonable to infer that belief in free will was larger in the 1960-80 period, as determinist behaviorism had lost its control of academia, and neuroscientific determinism had not arisen as a movement. But this era was a high water point for equalization and rehabilitative policies, and electoral support for both. It is plausible to infer that belief in freedom of will, and determinism, even if they may have some small effect on rehabilitation and social equality, that effect is being swamped by some more consequential societal changes. This would be consistent with the "cognitive dissonance" critique of possible societal effects noted in 2.

Note also, as with the harm effects in 1, the meta-analysis in peer review did not support point 5a, and the effects in 5a were even more strongly discounted than those in 1.

For 5b, the arguments against point 1 by Miles were previously discussed and shown to be invalid. As the consequences of 1 are potentially of much greater magnitude than those of 5a on society, the assumption of 5b, to ignore more severe societal harms, while focusing on less severe ones, and 1 is better supported by experimental literature than 5a, the supporting rationale for 5b appears to be almost entirely lacking.


The case for suppression of determinism is weak, or less charitably, it fails entirely, as the support for point 2 is lacking.

However, the counter argument to ENCOURAGE the spread of determinist thinking for its supposed societal benefits, is an even more flawed claim, as point 3 is a drastic overstatement of the evidence for determinism, and 5 (due to 5b being untrue) is invalid.

  • I disagree that it requires any cognitive dissonance to experience choice and acknowledge you experience choice while simultaneously believing that this sense of choice is illusory. I also experience magenta, optical illusions, and voluntary suspension of disbelief in play frames. None of these are believing two incompatible or contradictory things
    – philosodad
    Jan 5 at 19:26
  • @philosodad acting as if one has a choice, while simultaneously believing one does not, is explicit cognitive dissonance.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 5 at 19:36
  • 1. obviously, that is simply not true by definition of the term. It doesn't require or involve believing two contradictory things to acknowledge that one experiences a state. I could as easily say that "beliving you have free will while simultaneously believing you have a physical brain is is explicit cognitive dissonance" and be just as wrong.
    – philosodad
    Jan 6 at 2:25
  • @philosodad -- you appear not to have understood the question above. Its premise is that there is a demonstrated difference in behavior between believing one has free will, and believing one is determined, despite our "false" experience of free will. The determinists who advocate for suppressing the supposed evidence for determinism, assume they are superior to the rest of us, as THEY can operate effectively with explicitly contradictory views (explicitly assume free will just for their actions), while the rest of us do not have the skill of being able to manage cognitive dissonance as well.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 6 at 17:15
  • what does any of that have to do with whether there is a contradiction between believing that I have the experience of free will and believing that experience is illusory? Where, exactly, is the contradiction in those two beliefs?
    – philosodad
    Jan 6 at 17:42

Disbelief in free will is a category error. Humans don't exist in physics, they are just lumps of chemistry that we have a conceptual shorthand for. And so obviously the same with free will - it doesn't exist at the fundamental level of (at least broadly deterministic physics (see black hole three body problem for evidence the universe is not fully deterministic).

Individuals have a limited amount of information, so even a deterministic model can account for arriving at Bayesian priors to choose between outcomes, as a conceptual shortcut based on incomplete information. Ie, compatibilism.

It's like saying 'beauty' isn't 'real'. Sure, it isn't meaningful for physics. But, it is a meaningful and useful shortcut in explaining human behaviour, that we can link to evolutionary and cultural conditions - which again, are not meaningful in physics. This is why claiming beauty is not real is a category error too.

There is substantial research (see linked papers) showing harms of not believing in free will, and on negative individual behaviour, although there are arguably some benefits around judging others and the cognitive bias to over-attribute internal determinants to the behaviours of others.

It is ironic that wisdom is no longer a topic in mainstream philosophy, when it is exactly what we need to understand how to be relatively more free. Socrates was focused on avoiding 'pursuasion without regard to truth' by sophists, what Harry Frankfurt calls 'bullshit'. Buddha was concerned with how we can avoid coercion by sensory experiences, habits, and impulses. I'd summarise wisdom as acting from the integrated centre of our concerns, so a practice, something cultivated in an on-going way, to avoid contradictory or short-term choices (& over prioritising only long-term choices, especially in the case of Buddhist thought). I'd frame valuing wisdom as part of a paradigm that prioritises qualities around solving dilemmas, and relate it's fall from grace on the shift to gathering the most information about the world as removing most of the need for difficult decision making. This is to neglect the qualities of good decision makers, and perhaps has contributed to a run of deeply un-wise world leaders.

Freedom, like beauty, should be understood in relative terms, as a direction rather than a state, as an active mode of comparative evaluation. We are subject to gravity, and many other constraints that limit our freedom - but someone who has more choices available to them, between more fully understood futures, can still be understood as relatively more free, even if in a final analysis with total information their choices are predictable. From their point of view & that of other humans, the conceptual heuristic overlay of intentions, is still the best way to engage with the world.

The Dunbar Number evidences that our neocortex evolved primarily to navigate our social environment, and to understand the intentions of others. That results in a cognitive bias towards the overlay on the world of narrating identities, that even pervades physics - discussed here Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)? It's fine to seek to correct for that, and to understand that our behaviours are conditioned in many ways. But if we are not Laplace's demon, we will still get better predictions in general from the conceptual overlay of identities and intentions, even though they are a conceptual shorthand imposed on a more fundamental layer.

  • It is useful to consider freedom in the relative terms of which you speak whilst simultaneously asking if it is illusory; to credit experience whilst acknowledging it may be misleading us. The ramifications are immense. Regardless of whether you consider denial of free will a category error, the question of whether or not it exists other than as a cognitive experience is valid and fascinating. This question relates to whether or not it would be ethical to suppress any finding that our experiential notion of free will is illusory, and provides ample opportunity for wisdom in reply. Aug 13, 2021 at 13:11
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    @Futilitarian: Not directed at you. Incompatibilism is a small minority stance among philosophers (epiphenomenalism is a slightly more respectable stance). Sam Harris is a fairly rare example of one, his views are deconstructed here aphilosopherstake.com/2012/07/29/… Others tend to be neuroscientists like him, not well versed in philosophy. Free will is specifically of concern for philosophy that emerged through Abrahamic cultures, in regard to theogeny & 'getting god off the hook' for evil. It's a parochial linguistic confusion
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 13, 2021 at 14:05
  • 1
    Just read your answer again, a year and a half later, with a little more experience under my belt. +1. Jan 29, 2023 at 13:01
  • 1
    It's a shockingly poor conclusion to say not believing in free will causes harm based on how people act shortly after reading a few out-of-context sentences that calls into question everything they believe about their own agency, when those people presumably have no background in philosophy and critical thinking. It can take months or years to rebuild a worldview shattered by the truth, but that doesn't mean we should lie to people or hide things from those who wish to know it.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 6, 2023 at 0:36
  • 1
    @CriglCragl (I meant the studies and/or reporting on it is shockingly poor, for what it's worth.) We can make choices, and those have consequences, regardless of the mechanism behind those choices. Finding out how your brain works needn't change anything at all about how you think. I reject free will on the basis that no-one has yet provided a definition that makes any amount of sense (so I also think the question of compatibilism fundamentally doesn't make sense).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 6, 2023 at 10:44

This argument will be shorter than one might expect (from me, or for the sake of this SE). Still, I don't have much to say right now on this score, so forgive me.

Now, if we had proof that incompatibilist free will does not exist, then we would also have a lot better of a grasp on what actually causes our behaviors here or there. We would know more about which chemical processes assemble into which neurological dynamics tending towards which whole-body activities. Hopefully, with this knowledge, we could engage in social engineering with a greater rate of predictive success; hence, if the knowledge we had included, "To achieve desirable result X in population A, we would do well to inculcate a belief/disbelief, among A, in incompatibilist free will," then if we had the relevant X-desires and could influence A effectively for those purposes, it would seem that we would have instrumental reason to promote/suppress the proof at issue.

But now there could be situations in which we'd want to promote alternative beliefs, or entirely different attitudes, even for the sake of X, but modulo some population B. Let us suppose that we'd want to settle beliefs among A in favor of free will, suppress this belief among B, and encourage suspension of belief about the question among C, try to get D not even to consider the question in the first place, etc.

Later, we might want to switch inculcating the relevant belief in A out for inculcating the opposite belief, etc., i.e. we might want to make a complex back-and-forth social circuit out of all these possibilities, to achieve X (or, by then, some now-preferable Y).

  • If you haven't already looked at it you might be interested in this attempt at a logical proof against free will. Galen Strawson has also provided one. Jul 5, 2022 at 7:51
  • I remember seeing that argument before, but I see no conclusive reason that we would need to decide to decide, neither that if we did, we'd need to do so in an infinitely regressive way or that this infinite regress, were it to form, would be vicious. For starters, suppose (for comparison) that when we know, then we know that we know (a common claim in epistemic logic). Then do we know that we know that we know? And if so, does this knowing-that-we-know go backwards forever, and if that...? Jul 5, 2022 at 11:09
  • We probably shouldn't get into a debate about another post here, but the difference I see between deciding and knowing is that deciding (if it is free) is an act (a thing done), whereas knowing is closer to the result of observation of an act or occurrence. So I don't see a parallel. For a thing to be done voluntarily (including a decision), a person simply must decide to do it. Otherwise it is involuntary. I am very interested in any illustration of how the infinite decision regress might be escaped, for this would of course defeat the argument. Jul 5, 2022 at 11:25
  • I wouldn't agree with a "knowledge is like observation" claim as such, neither that observation is not self-reflective and potentially regressive thereby, neither that if I don't decide to decide then I haven't decided in the first place. But yeah, I shouldn't pursue this discussion in the comments. Jul 5, 2022 at 11:39


Any case for suppressing the findings would assume that this is a bad thing or even a possible thing, and I think that overall these are false assumptions. A belief that we lack free will is not objectively more dissonant or dangerous than existing beliefs in free will. Predicting dire consequences of releasing such a proof is akin to predicting that one would die of thirst if given water based on the fact that one is dying of thirst without it.


Is this possible?

It seems that all people have the experience of "free will", that is, we feel like we have a "self" that makes choices. What this self even is and how it makes choices is something that we really don't have an answer to, all we can assert is that we have this experience of self.

To prove that we have no free will, we would have to prove that we had no self. How the heck does anyone propose we do this? There is no possible way to demonstrate a lack of a self that makes choices. You could demonstrate that you can force a change of mind or personality or demonstrate that people's beliefs and actions are very, very strongly determined by some combination of factors, but you can't prove that there isn't some tiny, undetectable x factor that is really calling the shots. It just can't be done without a perfect understanding of literally everything.

Not only can it not be done, no one who strongly believes they have a self would care if you did it. There are people who believe the world is flat. There are people who believe the world is an oblate spheroid. One of these two positions is supported by a mountain of physical evidence, the other is not, and the people who hold the one that is in direct contradiction to all available evidence don't care about that evidence. Why on earth would we think that anyone would care that we had "proved" there was no free will?

Overall, to take the position that one should suppress the proof that free will is an illusion is to vastly overestimate ones own relevance in other people's minds. No one. Would care. The determinists would say "See, we were right" and the non-determinists would say "You must have missed something."

You can't prove the non-existence of something you can't define.

Is this a bad thing?

The assumption is that if people didn't believe they had free will, they'd like, freak out or whatever. But of course, they wouldn't, because they don't have free will. This new fact, while impactful if believed, doesn't require one to alter one's behavior in the slightest. To give an example, the color magenta is an illusion. Our brains make it up. I learned this long after I started experiencing magenta. This information does not effect how I use magenta ink in the slightest. I still reference magenta as an ink and use it, and indeed think about it, as if it were a "real" color with an actual wavelength.

This doesn't require any cognitive dissonance on my part, because practically thinking it doesn't matter. I can shortcut the complexity of the actual situation in any real situation, and if I remember that this is an illusion, I recognize that I'm actually exploiting a weird fact about the way our brains work and move on.

Similarly, we may not have a self (whatever that might mean) or exercise free will (whatever that might mean) but in ordinary situations, we experience the world as if we do. In my experience as a person who doesn't think that the self or free will are well defined enough to believe in, while every once in a while I do remind myself that my experience is just along for the ride, my response to that is to apply some grace to both myself and to others. There may be no "I" to control "my" thoughts, but I have no choice but to experience both the "I" and the control.

This can in fact be really difficult as an experience, especially the experience of trying to account for the experience. On the other hand, experiencing the belief that one has a self can also be difficult. For example, it can lead to the experience of excessive self-recrimination or anger towards others. Even the experience of trying to understand what this "self" even is or could possibly be can be difficult.

One thing that makes these experiences difficult is that both have a potential spiral into questions which we cannot answer and experiences we cannot account for. If there were an actual answer, and that answer accounted satisfactorily for our experience, it could just as easily reduce the discomfort of the experience as exacerbate it.

As I understand it, those who are in favor of suppressing such an argument believe that the cognitive dissonance of determinism is between the experience of non-belief in self and the experience of self. This is not the nature of the dissonance. The nature of the dissonance is between the experience of belief in self and the experience of non-belief in self.

To put this in terms that embrace the lack of self: The experience exists of a strong prediction that becoming fully convinced that the self is illusory would resolve the experience of dissonance. This experience is influenced strongly by the fact that the counter-prediction is coming from experiences of not being fully convinced and not having the proof.

Free Will and Society

A final argument in favor of suppression would be that this belief, if widespread, would be bad for society. If we assume the (unlikely) case that large numbers of people would be convinced by this proof, why would it follow that this would be bad for society? How would people really react?

To which the answer likely is: people would continue to live their lives and continue to experience free will because we have no choice to do otherwise. What might change with this proposed proof is that people would have a way to experience an understanding of experience.

Fully acknowledging that a short hand description for reality exists doesn't mean that it stops being used. If the statement "I want dinner" really means "The experience of wanting dinner exists in this body" that doesn't stop the body from eating. If "I desire a world with less injustice" really means "The experience of desiring a world with less injustice exists in this body", the desire still exists. If "I decided to do x" really means "The experience of deciding to do x exists", the decision stands.

What might not stand, and hopefully would not stand, is the obsession with punitive justice that infects some philosophies. There are in fact a number of truly damaging patterns of belief and behavior that rely entirely on a belief not only in free will, but in a very strong version of free will. The argument can be made that relaxing the obsession with personal responsibility would be a massive benefit and possibly even an existential benefit to our civilization.


What are the social consequences of believing in "free will"?

If a person believes they can exercise free will to improve their future, they may decide that they are less constrained by negative elements of their life. They may decide to take action, instead of feeling hopeless.

However, it may also cause them not to seek mental health counseling when they need it. After all, if they are driven by "free" will, what use is it to try to analyze why they do the things they do? This attitude may lock them in to harmful patterns of behavior that they keep imagining they can "will" themselves out of.

"Free will" serves the social function of blaming/punishing people when they do undesired things. According to this doctrine, criminals, poor, and homeless "freely" made life choices that put them where they are, so we should punish them so they or others like them would be motivated to make different choices. This is useful so far as it is a socially effective way of changing their behavior. And punishment is at times effective.

Punishment is counterproductive when more compassionate interventions would be more effective - such as mental health counseling, or changing the person's environment. The concept of "fixing someone's mind or environment so they behave better" is incompatible with the notion of free will.

  • You raise some interesting points, but the question is, "If free will is proven illusory, is there a case for suppressing the finding?". I'd be interested to know your thoughts. Aug 15, 2021 at 10:06
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    @Futilitarian The understanding that the mind is a machine that can be fixed through counseling and change of environment is incompatible with free will, and necessary for compassionate (non-punitive) mental health interventions.
    – causative
    Aug 15, 2021 at 10:14

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