In a Nutshell

“Free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.

“Determinism” asserts that the behavior of objects and forces in our universe provides perfectly reliable cause and effect, and thus, at least in theory, is perfectly predictable.

Because reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will. A meaningful constraint would be a man holding a gun to our head, forcing us to do his will. But reliable causation is not such a force. It is simply how we operate as we go about being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

Because our decisions are reliably caused by our own purpose, our own reasons, and our own interests, our deliberate choosing poses no threat to determinism. Choosing is a deterministic process. And this process is authentically performed by us, according to our own purpose, reasons, and interests.

As it turns out, every choice we make for ourselves is both freely chosen and reliably caused. Thus, the concepts of free will and determinism are naturally compatible.

The illusion of conflict is created by a logic error called the “reification fallacy“. This happens when we mistakenly treat the concept of “reliable cause and effect” as if it were an external force controlling our choices, as if it were not actually us, simply being us and doing what we do.

But concepts are not “things” that cause. Only the actual objects themselves, and the forces they naturally exert upon other objects, can cause events to happen.

When empirically observed, we find that we exist in reality as physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. As living organisms, we act purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As an intelligent species, we act deliberately by imagination, evaluation, and choosing. And, when we act upon our choices, we are forces of nature.

Reliable cause and effect is not an external force. It is us, and the rest of the physical universe, just doing what we do. Those who try to turn it into a boogeyman robbing us of our choices are empirically mistaken.


For a more formal treatment, see my analysis of the SEP article on “Causal Determinism”, in Determinism: What’s Wrong, and How to Fix it

For a detailed description, see: Determinism ♥ Free Will or The “Illusion” Delusion



10 thoughts on “In a Nutshell

  1. I would very much LIKE to believe that we have free will. It certainly FEELS as though we have. I have no idea as to the truth of the matter and sadly I suspect no one else does at this point in time either.

    I would very much like to see change is society: the economic model as currently practiced is, in my view as sad continuation of Darwinism and the struggle for survival. Business is sublimtade violence.

    I quite agree that if we have no free will there is nothing we can do to influence events – they will proceed in a pre-ordained fashion. If Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are correct that direction may be a good one. If not…then who knows.

    Sadly many leading scientists of our day believe in pure strict determinism. May also believe that time itself is an illusion and thus no “change” possible. Stephen Hawkings in on record as statnig that we are mere robots.

    Max Tegmark and David Deutsch have an amusing twist on randomness and determinism: the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics: randomness is an illusion caused by a constant splitting of the universe as each decision point is reached. In one universe Frank Tipler’s Omega Point will happen in another it won’t.

    Regardless of all this it can only be “belief” at present. As some believe in a god others believe in…..determinism or randomness even though we have no proof or disproof of either.

    My own answer is to act as if we have free will regardless of the truth of the situation. I will thus do my best to improve my own behaviour regardless of whether that is possible or not.


    • The practical question of free will is not about whether every event is reliably caused, but rather who or what is doing the causing. And, the only reason we care about that is so that we can encourage/enable/promote the causes of beneficial behavior, and discourage/prevent/correct the causes of harmful behavior.

      To say that the Big Bang is “responsible” for anything is useless, since there is nothing we can do at this point to modify the Big Bang’s behavior, in order to try to make things better. If we wish to make things better in the world, we need to take on that responsibility ourselves.

      Holding the bank robber responsible for his crimes make sense, because he is a cause that we can do something about. Ideally, we’d like to get him to make better choices, on his own, without further supervision. Without the presumption that he has free will, and can learn to behave differently, rehabilitation would be impossible.

      Causal necessity/inevitability makes no difference to the practical question of free will, or responsibility. The mental error is in thinking that it does. If we presume that every event is always reliably caused, then we must still sort out who or what is the cause.

      For example, either it was causally inevitable that the bank robber would decide for himself to rob the bank, or it was causally inevitable that the real bad guy would kidnap the bank teller’s child and threaten to kill the child if the teller did not rob the bank where he worked. We must still make the practical distinction between the person acting of his own free will and the person being forced to act against his will, even if we presume perfect determinism.

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      • Unfortunately my belief is that we a have a certain bedrock of behaviour which can not be changed without intervention through science. Gene editing whatever. On top of that my sad belief is that we can indeed predict the future from the past in the same way that in reverse we found our way back to the Big Bang. I believe that the illusion of randomness and hence free will is partly as a result of matters concerning chaos theory: if we had perfect knowledge of the initial variables and infinite computing power we may indeed be able to predict chaotic systems such as the weather, human behaviour, the stock markets. I do not feel, on balance, that we humans are separate from the apparently mechanical laws of cause and effect we have found elsewhere in macroscopic objects. I am much enamoured with the many worlds interpretation of quantum reality – if anywhere this seems to me to allow for free will. Unfortunately we have no idea which universe we will end up in once we are cloned in the process: the universe(s) where we managed to alter our behaviour or the one(s) where we did not.

        But of course this is pure useless speculation and belief on my part!


        • I don’t think we can gain any freedom through randomness or any other form of indeterminism. Perfectly reliable causation means that when I reach into the apple tree, and pick an apple, I can expect to find an apple in my hand.

          Indeterminism would imply that, when I pick the apple, I would find some random object in my hand, perhaps a pair of slippers, or a kitten, or the dormouse from “Alice in Wonderland”, because that is the kind of indeterministic world we’d be living in. I would have lost my control. And I would no longer be free to pick an apple when I wanted an apple.

          The whole notion of “freedom from reliable causation” is an oxymoron. Every freedom we have, to do anything at all, requires a deterministic universe. Without reliable cause and effect, I cannot reliably cause any effect, and would effectively have no freedom to do anything at all.

          So, that cannot logically be what the “free” in “free will” is about. The “free” in “free will” is actually about who or what gets to choose what I “will” do. Am I “free” to choose what I “will” do? Or is someone or something else choosing what I “will” do?

          So, I’m alone in a room with a bowl full of apples. I’m feeling hungry. Should I have an apple now, or should I wait until later? It’s still a couple more hours before dinner. So I’ll have an apple now. In this example, can you point to any other object in the physical universe that caused the apple to be eaten?

          Empirical observation suggests that I was the cause. The choice served my interests, and was calculated by the mental processes running upon the neurology of my own brain. No prior cause, such as peer pressure to adopt better eating habits, was present with me in the room. All such prior causes had to first become me, become integral to who and what I am, before they could have any influence upon my choice. There was nothing there but me and the apple.

          And this is what free will is about. It has nothing to do with some abstract concept of “freedom from causation”, which is a rather silly oxymoron, but which has trapped many great minds over the years.


          • I think we need to find out what consciousness is first. Ultimately I find speculating of the nature of reality fascinating but futile. The reason I do it (and I suspect the reason most do it) is to overcome existential anxiety. Perhaps a better way to do that is to focus instead on what is close at hand. Hence my fascination with consciousness and qualia. If you can find and operate a qualia dial like the guys at qualiacomputing suggest then that will do me just fine! Although I am a little reluctant to become a pyschonaut since I fear LSD or DMT would probably not agree with me!


            • Consciousness appears to be a data processing operation running on the hardware of the brain. While it is an integral part of us, it is not all that is us. The “whole” us is everything contained in our brain and body. And within the brain, it includes both the conscious and unconscious processes, especially those that perform decision-making operations that we are able to report verbally, and those we may be held responsible for by others.

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              • Yes, the most common view seems to be that “everything” is information. Tegmark for instance says that quarks, electrons, protons and other sub-atomic minutiae are in fact just mathematical objects, information. And we are told there is no “solidity” down at the roots of physics: just information about the direction of spin or the upness or down ness of quarks. And I’m perfectly happy with that temperamentally and emotionally as long as we eventually find the way to adjust, adapt and better both the hardware and software that is (or may be) “us”!


                • It would be perfectly accurate to say that “everything we know” is literally information. But one of the things we believe is that real things, real objects, actually exist in reality, even when we don’t know about them.

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      • So as per my (ill informed opinion / belief) there is one or many universes where the bank robber gets reformed and changes his ways and many where he does not. And also many where other things happen to said bank robber! But again this is a mere philosophical speculation backed up by nothing but my ignorant interpretation of what I have read elsewhere! I am – well yes. But I have absolutely no idea what I am. According to some I am a mere mathematical structure.


        • Personally, I find it simpler to presume one reality. And, we can assume that there must only be a single future because we only have one past to fit it into. However, part of how that single inevitable future comes about is by means of our imagining different futures, and then choosing the one that we want to bring about.

          The nature of “us” is that we’re a control link in the causal chain. And we get to decide, according to our own interests, our own purpose, and our own reasons, what we will do next.


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