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« Free Will Is NOT an Illusion | Main | Einstein WRONG on Free Will »

Free Will Free Fall

What I love about free will is that whenever you think you’ve reached the bottom of it, you topple into dizzying new depths. Some of the respondents to my last post—particularly those wrestling with the relationship between free will and randomness—are clearly in a philosophical free fall. And so am I.

For example, I’ve suggested that free will is a variable quantity, roughly proportional to the capacity of an entity or agent to recognize and act upon choices. Then I realized that according to this definition, the IBM chess-playing computer Deep Blue has more free will than I do because it can recognize and select from infinitely more chess moves than I can.

Being hopelessly anthropocentric, I can’t accept this conclusion. I’m thus tempted to qualify my definition by stipulating that we can speak of free will only in the context of choices above a certain threshold of complexity; chess choices alone ain’t sufficient. I might add that free will requires consciousness, which drags us into the interminable debate of whether computers are or can ever be conscious. Now, alas, my simple, elegant definition has become ambiguous and messy.

This afternoon, moreover, I may choose to get away from this damn computer and take Merlin for a walk. But my “free” choice would actually be the culmination of an infinite sequence of proximate and long-range causes. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory suggest that pinpointing the causes would be extremely difficult and probably impossible, but that does not mean the causes do not exist. Retracing the steps that led to a particular act takes us back into childhood and the womb, back through the history of Homo sapiens and of all life on earth, and finally to the Big Bang itself, the creation event that supposedly set everything in motion. I didn’t ask for any of this. So how free can I be?

I nonetheless keep coming back to this one certainty: Unlike stars and planets and rocks and even computers, we have choices. Our choices are real, not illusory; they can alter the trajectory of reality.

But I’m still free-falling.



Now you're starting to think. :)

"I nonetheless keep coming back to this one certainty: Unlike stars and planets and rocks and even computers, we have choices."

What does it mean to 'have choices'? What is it about us that gives us choices, while rocks and stars (presumably) have none?

I would argue it is the fact the we have *memories* that are accessible at the same time as, and can be integrated with 'real-time' perception. We have not only 1) the ability to sort and store past perceptions, but 2) to call them up into the present moment of consciousness while 3)maintaining the awareness that they represent *previous* experiences.

A computer may be capable of sorting and storing past inputs, and those inputs may be utilized in determining current outputs, but the process is devoid of reflection and awareness. Much like the behavior of lower animals or plants.

The whole theory of emergent consciousness is that with enough complexity in the system - enough interconnectivity among the elements of perception and memory - something resembling our experience of consciousness would emerge.

But even with that level of complexity, without a certain level of randomness, the entire system is still deterministic and therefore devoid of 'free will'.

I guess we'll be in free fall until someone figures out our relationship to randomness.

Hal K

True free will would require an ability to change the underlying physical laws of reality. Otherwise we are all just following a script. What if some physical laws do not exist until they have been quantified by observation? Stephen Hawking now thinks that there may never be any final theory of everything. (If anyone is interested the link is provided with one of the articles in my blog.) Perhaps the endless series of refinements to physics that he envisions are not set in stone until they are observed. Then again, maybe not...

Tom Clark

John writes:

"Our choices are real, not illusory; they can alter the trajectory of reality."

Reality, as Einstein showed and most physicists now accept, is a space-time "block universe" in which all events, past, present and future, simply are. As conscious creatures, we have the *illusion* that the past has disappeared and that the future is yet to come into being. But the "trajectory of reality" can't be altered.

Still, human choices are quite real, part of the "fabric of the cosmos" (see Brian Greene's book of that title to learn about the block universe; he dismisses free will). As cognitively limited creatures, we don't know how things will turn out, which means we must act (choose) to bring about good outcomes, outcomes which according to physics are already there, "waiting" for us to experience. As Gary Drescher puts it in his amazing book Good and Real, "inevitability does not imply futility."

Too weird for you John? Wake up and smell the science!

PS: for a great audio presentation of these ideas with Robert Krulwich, Brian Greene and V.S. Ramachandran, go to and listen to "No Special Now."


Tom, I've read Einstein's papers concerned with spacetime and didn't find him disproving free will.

Perhaps you can direct us to a Einstein's scientific disproof of free will. (I trust it won't be an audio presentation by speculating string theorists.) Thanks.

Tom Clark

Sorry, quick correction: Drescher says in Good and Real that the *inalterability* of space-time does not imply the futility of choices.

Tom Clark

As far as I know, Einstein never attempted to disprove contra-causal (libertarian) free will. Judging by the quotes from him I've seen, however (one of which Overbye uses), he simply thought it was highly unlikely that we're causal exceptions to nature. He's joined in his skepticism by many others, see for instance .


For anyone with a serious interest in the mechanics of the brain and the workings of the mind... MIT's graduate and undergraduate courses in Brain and Cognitive Science are available free via OpenCourseWare.


doesn't fretting over free will count as "ironic science" unless someone can come up with an experiment to prove things one way or the other? long live platonia.


I don't know if it's certain that we have free will, but it seems to me to be certain that we _think_ (or feel) that we have the ability to reason and choose freely between multiple possibilities. Isn't it odd that a central defining characteristic of what it feels like to be human starts to evaporate when we try to analyse it? Maybe the buddhists are on to something after all.

Ron Avitzur

A couple science fiction books exploring these themes: Accelerando by Charles Stross, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. Both texts online in full on their authors sites at and

Ken Silber

Tom Clark:

Please cite passage in Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos where he dismisses free will. I don't remember it, and the index gives a discussion of "free will, time travel and" (p455-457) that is not dismissive.

Ed Fisher

For a different evidentiary perspective about free-will- I offer an account of my Nirvikalpa Samadhi experience at>

in which my consciousness was transformed from a state of duality and free-will into a "deterministic" state of non-duality.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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