Free Will Skepticism: An Incoherent Notion

In an interview with the “Saturday Evening Post”, back in 1929, Albert Einstein said something odd:

In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will.” And then, a few lines later, he adds this, “Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” [1]

Albert Einstein’s statements are confusing. On the one hand, he insists that he cannot believe in free will. But on the other, he feels compelled to “act as if” he, and everyone else, had it. I venture to suggest that he, and many others who make such confusing statements, do so because, well, because they are in fact confused. They have a little riddle, which they have not yet resolved.

So, which is it? Do people have the freedom to decide for themselves what they will do? Or, are their choices made for them by external forces? Are we in control, or is something else, something that is not us, controlling everything that we do?

We Observe Free Will

We observe a woman going into a restaurant. She sits at a table, peruses the menu, and calls the waiter over to place her order. We ask her, “Why did you order the veggie burger and the salad?” She explains that, while she wants to satisfy her hunger and her tastes, she also wants to maintain her good health and appearance. She made a rational choice, one calculated to serve her own practical interests.

We observe that she made this decision herself. She was not a child, whose parent decided for her what she would eat. And there was no one holding a gun to her head telling her what she must choose. In her reasoning, we saw no signs of mental illness, no hallucinations or delusions affecting her choice. And, as far as we know, no one had placed her under hypnosis.

So, we observed someone making a decision of their own “free will”.

By “will” we mean one’s intentions for the immediate or distant future. Her immediate goal was to satisfy her hunger by having lunch. Her more distant goal was to have a long and healthy life, by making good dietary choices.

By “free” we mean she was free of any undue influences, such as those listed. She was free to choose for herself, rather than someone or something else making the choice for her.

By observation then, we know two empirical facts: (1) that a choice was made and (2) that the woman herself made the choice.

We Observe Determinism

We also observe that this choice was “deterministic”. Given who she was at that moment, her goals and desires, her taste preferences, what she had for lunch yesterday, and perhaps many other factors that she consciously or unconsciously included in her calculations, the logical result of her deliberations was to choose the veggie burger and salad.

In theory, had we known all of the weighted variables that went into her decision, we could have made that calculation ourselves, and predicted her choice in advance, with perfect accuracy.

And this is what determinism asserts: that all real objects behave according to reliable cause and effect, such that, if we sufficiently knew the state of things at one point in time, we could, at least in theory, accurately predict the state of things at any future point in time.

You’ll notice that we say “in theory” a lot, because, in practice, we seldom have sufficient knowledge to predict the behavior of anything other than the simplest systems. Complex systems, like the weather, or what a woman will choose for lunch, are more difficult.

So far, in this single act of choosing, we have simultaneously observed both determinism and free will. So, it seems odd for anyone to suggest that free will and determinism could be mutually exclusive.

So, how did Albert Einstein, and many other brilliant minds, manage to get this wrong?

A Logical Fact

It is a logical fact that, given a universe of reliable cause and effect, every event that ever happens is always “causally necessary” or “causally inevitable”. The reason we refer to this as a “logical” fact is to avoid confusing it with a “meaningful” or a “relevant” one.

Causal necessity/inevitability is the idea that each of the causes of an event is itself either a prior state or a prior event, which was brought about by its own set of causes. And that these prior causes had their own causes, going back as far as we can imagine. This is sometimes referred to as a “causal chain”, but it would be more accurate to call it a “causal tree”, since each event will have multiple necessary causes, and each of these causes has its own multiple causes, producing a branching structure.

So then, how does this universal causal inevitability change how we look at things? Well, it doesn’t change anything. The fact that every event that ever happens is causally inevitable does not tell us anything new or anything useful.

Nothing Changes

Consider the woman in the restaurant. Ever since the Big Bang (or any other prior point in eternity), it was causally inevitable that there would be a galaxy containing our solar system, with the planet Earth circling the Sun. And it was causally inevitable that upon this Earth there would eventually appear this specific woman and that specific restaurant. And it was causally inevitable that she would feel hungry around lunchtime, enter the restaurant, sit at a table, and pick up the menu.

So, it was also causally inevitable that she would be faced with a decision. She would have to choose what to order. Thus it was also causally inevitable that she would weigh the menu options in terms of her own interests. And that she would discover that the veggie burger and salad best served her interests at that moment.

Finally, it was also causally inevitable that there would be no one there holding a gun to her head, forcing her to choose the steak dinner instead. And there would be no hypnotist, no mental illness, nor any other undue influence in play. It was just her, deciding for herself, what she would have for lunch.

Thus, it was causally inevitable that she would make this choice of her own free will.

Notice that the repeated insertion of the term “causally inevitable” has not changed our description of this event in any meaningful way. It can be removed, throughout, and we’d still be saying exactly the same thing.

Why We Love Determinism

All of the utility of reliable causation comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. In Medical science, for example, we discovered that certain bacteria cause infections, so we started looking for antibiotics to treat them. And, once we discovered that the immune system could be trained to attack viruses by vaccination, we began to control the spread of certain viral diseases, like polio and measles.

Reliable causation empowers us to take control of many of the events that otherwise would control our lives. That’s why we love determinism.

Why We Ignore Causal Inevitability

But what do we get from the logical fact of universal causal inevitability? Nothing useful.

For example, if I have a decision to make, then knowing the specific results of choosing each option could helpfully inform my choice. But the only thing that causal necessity can tell me is that, whatever I decide, it will have been inevitable. And since that is always the case, it tells me nothing new, and nothing that can help me to decide any practical issue.

Therefore, the rational mind never gives it a thought, because there are no practical matters where causal inevitability itself can make any difference. It is like a constant, that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

A Series of Irrational Implications

Unfortunately, the irrational mind can take a useless triviality and draw all kinds of false and mischievous implications.

Here are some examples: “If everything that happens is causally inevitable, then:”
(a) “The future is already written and there is nothing I can do about it.”
(b) “I have no real choices.”
(c) “I have no free will.”
(d) “The Big Bang is responsible for everything, so I am responsible for nothing.”
(e) “Everything I do is the result of prior causes external to me, so free will must be an illusion.”
(f) “Since I don’t really do anything myself, my self must also be an an illusion.”

So, let’s blow this dust away.

It should not surprise anyone that there will be one, and only one future. After all, we have one, and only one past, to put it in. The meaningful and relevant question then is this: How will this single, inevitable future be causally determined?

Well, what do we have to work with? We observe that the real world consists of physical objects, from the very small, like photons and electrons, to the very large, like stars and galaxies. These objects fall into three major classes: (1) inanimate objects, that passively obey the laws of physics, (2) living organisms, that are animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce, and (3) intelligent species, that are able to imagine possibilities, estimate how different options might play out, and, based upon these calculations, choose what they will do.

Determinism asserts that every event is the reliable result of some specific combination of physical, biological, or rational causes. Our woman in the restaurant, being a physical object, a living organism, and an intelligent species, is a source of all three types of causation.

Her biological hunger tells her it is time for lunch. Her rational mind chooses the meal that will best satisfy her hunger and her dietary goals.

Determinism cannot assert that something other than the woman herself is doing the choosing, because she is the only object at the table which is capable of performing these operations.

Unicorns and Other Magical Beasts

And this is the riddle that Einstein was struggling with: If everything she does is causally inevitable, then isn’t causal inevitability the cause, and not the woman?

The free will skeptic imagines that determinism is some thing that controls what we do, leaving us without any control of our own thoughts or our own actions. The free will skeptic insists that the woman’s decision was not her own, but the result of external prior causes, which somehow magically bypass the woman herself, bringing about the event without her knowledge or consent.

The free will skeptic’s view treats causal necessity as an entity separate from the woman, some kind of magical creature controlling her against her will. And that is superstitious nonsense.

And it is empirically false. There is the woman, sitting at the table, considering the menu, deciding for herself what she will order. But where is causal necessity?

The only place it can be found is within the woman herself. What she ordered for lunch was a product of who and what she was at that moment. And no “prior cause”, which had not first become an integral part of the woman herself, could play any role in bringing about this event.

When viewed from the standpoint of empirical reality, we find that free will skepticism is a false, incoherent belief, even if it was held by someone as intelligent as Albert Einstein.

Sweeping Up

So let’s revisit the irrational claims listed earlier:

(a) The future has not yet been written. While it is theoretically possible to predict a future event, it is impossible to say it has been caused until it happens. No event is caused until its final prior cause has played itself out. And, within the domain of human influence, the inevitable future will be shaped by our imagination and by our choices.

(b) It’s a bit silly to say we “have no choice”, when every decision we make begins with at least two of them. Our choices are theoretically predictable, to someone with a complete knowledge of the physical, biological, and rational causes by which we make our choices. But it is still us doing the choosing.

(c) When we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or undue influence, then that is, by definition, an instance of a freely chosen will. And we empirically observe ourselves and others making such choices every day. The irrational notion that our free will must be free from reliable cause and effect is an oxymoron. Because, without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all. All our freedoms require a deterministic universe, especially free will, because without reliable causation, the will could never implement any intent.

(d) While it is logically true that every event is causally necessary/inevitable, from any prior point in eternity, such as the Big Bang, it is irrational to say that this prior point is the responsible cause of any event. First, because there are an infinite number of such points to choose from. Second, because a responsible cause must be something that we can control, correct, or avoid. We hold a criminal responsible for his deliberate acts, because we can at least control (imprison) and hopefully correct (rehabilitation) his future behavior. Blaming the Big Bang is a meaningless gesture, so the reasonable mind doesn’t do that.

(e) As we’ve demonstrated here, free will is not an illusion, but rather an empirically observed event. And we also observe that we are the physical object, the living organism, and the intelligent species that is actually doing the choosing.

(f) Some neuroscientists like to say that “the self is an illusion“, but that begs the question, “who or what is having the illusion?” What they are actually referring to is the model the mind uses to conceptualize reality. Our raw sensory input passes through several areas of the brain where it is summarized and conceptualized into a form of information that can be used to identify internal and external things and our feelings about them. When the model is accurate enough to be useful, it is called “reality“. When the model is inaccurate or deceptive, as when we accidentally walk into a glass door, then it is called an “illusion“. While we may hold some illusions about the nature of our self, we cannot deny the empirical reality of its existence.

In Conclusion

There are many popular free will skeptics out there, selling their views with books, TED talks, and YouTube videos. I’m sure they sincerely believe they are right, and that they believe they have some elite truth beyond the ken of us ordinary folk.

Their own illusion is that causal necessity itself is either an object or a force of nature capable of bringing about events. But causal necessity is not an actor in the real world. It is simply a concept we use to describe the reliable behavior of those actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe.

We happen to be one of those actual physical objects that go about causing events in the real world. As living organisms, we cause things for a purpose that uniquely exists within each of us: to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce. And, as intelligent species, we imagine possibilities, estimate the outcomes of each option, and choose the one that seems best to us at the time.

And that is what we humans call, “free will”.



[1] “The Saturday Evening Post”, Oct 26, 1929, “What Life Means to Einstein”, An Interview By George Sylvester Viereck. Link:

Click to access what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf

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