May 2008

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Not THE worst argument ever. The worst argument ever is one I've seen from a fellow commenter: that the existence of bananas disproves the theory of evolution. That is a bad one though.

As most of us can tell, human actions and thoughts are controlled by chemicals and electrical impulses. I don't think that saying a given human being "chooses" something implies that they operate on a plane above these physical processes. I think that very simply free choice takes the form of the electrical impulses, that there doesn't have to be some part of us impervious to electrical and chemical stimuli to count as free will. In the absence of outside tampering, we ARE the chemicals and impulses, that alone is free will as far as I'm concerned.


Amazing how many comments you get on this topic. I am afraid some people feel threatened deep into identity and maybe take the whole thing too seriously.
This vulnerability may stem from being continuously pushed around in kindergarten, school, college, workplace, traffic etc.
One thing to mention is that "Freudian" post-rationalizing (ie.finding a reason for something your hormones or hypnotist has predisposed you to do) is a very well known phenomenon. In a way a wilful act, but best performed by someone who is able to rest in a hammock.

Charlie (Colorado)

"The point that internal verbalization starts after the beginnings of the actions means nothing to free will. It is interesting that decision can be affected without being noticed; but in the experiment the subjects had no reason to choose one hand over the other."

Chinese Buddhist psychology would claim that "mind", the thing that knows what you're doing, is a perceptual sense, like hearing and seeing. Sounds to me like neuroscience is confirming Buddhism.

Charlie (Colorado)

"[It's a good thing I never made the argument that the laws of the universe are exact. Randomness is allowed. -- Scott]"

Okay, so how can you tell the difference between some randomness in what people do, and "free will"?

Bob Dole

Yes the free argument. It is about time you came back to this.

While I myself do find the arguments for determinism more rationally satisfying then arguments for free will, I think you are unfair to the free will position. There are two major problems with dismissing free will.

1. We perceive we have free will. On what basis can you declare that some of our perceptions are illusions? To be fair though, we also can conceive of determinism. The question "What is really happening?" makes no sense because we can experience both the ideas of free will and determinism. To make it more clear, imagine how the world looks to a mouse and an elephant. Their vision of the world is different because of the difference in sizes. What is small to the elephant is huge to the mouse and vice versa. To ask which viewpoint is real or illusory is nonsense.

2. There is a strong relationship between moral responsibility and free will as the article explicitly states. The consequences are stated well in the article. I have heard it is stupid to judge a theory by it's consequences rather then it's accuracy... but maybe that is wrong.

A few other things. When examining free will from the scientific perspective, it is no surprise that we find empirical evidence showing free will does not exist. This is because science and empiricism start from a determinist position. What's funny is when science runs into the brick wall of quantum physics and finds there does exist phenomenon which we cannot understand.

As far as I am concerned, proof of determinism would be detailed prediction of human actions. Prediction on quantum scales is impossible due to objective interference. May we not find something which prohibits us from finding causes of human behavior?

L Lapeere

Yeah, yeah, yeah...Free will. My question is, what was the point of the cartoon strip? Was it a pun? (like the other two Ashtray strips) Was there an inside joke I'm missing? Was it an attempt to relate a bathroom with a research center? What does "Cat Fancy" have to do with being a manager?

I need to move on, but my life is on hold! I must find the answers to these questions!

Thanks for helping.



There were two movies (at least) about this, so it is documented well enough that I think we can, with reasonable certainty, make the claim that Willy is Free.

John Stone

I thought you might enjoy this piece from Mark Twain.


THE RABBIT. The testimony showed (1) that the Rabbit, having declined to volunteer, was enlisted by compulsion, and (2) deserted in the face of the enemy on the eve of battle. Being asked if he had anything to say for himself before sentence of death should be passed upon him for violating the military law forbidding cowardice and desertion, he said he had not desired to violate that law, but had been obliged to obey a higher law which took precedence of it and set it aside. Being asked what law that was, he answered, "The law of God, which denies courage to the rabbit."
Verdict of the Court. To be disgraced in the presence of the army; stripped of his uniform; marched to the scaffold, bearing a placard marked "Coward," and hanged.

THE LION. The testimony showed that the Lion, by his splendid courage and matchless strength and endurance, saved the battle.
Verdict of the Court. To be given a dukedom, his statue to be set up, his name to be writ in letters of gold at the top of the roll in the Temple of Fame.

THE FOX. The testimony showed that he had broken the divine law, "Thou shalt not steal." Being asked for his defense, he pleaded that he had been obliged to obey the divine law, "The Fox shall steal."
Verdict of the Court. Imprisonment for life.

THE HORSE. The evidence showed that he had spent many days and nights, unwatched, in the paddock with the poultry, yet had triumphed over temptation.
Verdict of the Court. Let his name be honored; let his deed be praised throughout the land by public proclamation.

THE WOLF. The evidence showed that he had transgressed the law, "Thou shalt not kill." In arrest of judgment, he pleaded the law of his nature.
Verdict of the Court. Death.

THE SHEEP. The evidence showed that he had had manifold temptations to commit murder and massacre, yet had not yielded.
Verdict of the Court. Let his virtue be remembered forever.

THE COURT: Prisoner, it is charged and proven that you are poorly contrived and badly constructed. What have you to say to this?
ANSWER: I did not contrive myself, I did not construct myself.
THE COURT: It is charged and proven that you have moved when you should not have moved; that you have turned out of your course when you should have gone straight; that you have moved swiftly through crowds when the law and the public weal forbade a speed like that; that you leave a stench behind you wherever you go, and you persist in this, although you know it is improper and that other machines refrain from doing it. What have you to say to these things?
ANSWER: I am a machine. I am slave to the law of my make, I have to obey it, under all conditions. I do nothing, of myself. My forces are set in motion by outside influences, I never set them in motion myself.
THE COURT: You are discharged. Your plea is sufficient. You are a pretty poor thing, with some good qualities and some bad ones; but to attach personal merit to conduct emanating from the one set, and personal demerit to conduct emanating from the other set would be unfair and unjust. To a machine, that is -- to a machine.


Scott, can you think of any experiment scientists can possibly setup that: if the outcome showed xyz then that would prove undoubtedly that Free-will does exist? I bet you cannot - at least not one that you'd accept as completely objective.

It is because a "choice" under any circumstance can be re-theorized to be some unprovable predisposed brain activity in the same vein as God believers re-theorizing all activitiy on earth as molded by God. Science will be content with a simple experiment that proves free-will by defining a limited set of well-defined choices with well-defined consequences for people to choose from. You may not accept this experiment but it will be satisfactory by scientific standards. So the onus falls on the claim-makers to prove otherwise.


Scott, can you think of any experiment scientists can possibly setup that if the outcome showed xyz then proved undoubtedly that Free-will does exist? I bet you cannot - at least not one that you'd accept as completely objective.

It is because a "choice" under any circumstance can be re-theorized to be some unprovable predisposed brain activity. But then all activity on earth can also be re-theorized to be molded by God.

Most scientists will be able to satisfactorily prove Free-Will with an experiment of well-defined choices and well-defined consequences (which u may not accept as legal) so the onus falls on you to prove otherwise just as it does with the God believers when a claim is made.


Oh, and you might also like the new book by Douglas Hofstadter, "I am a Strange Loop". Hofstadter also wrote the philosophy geek's childhood favorite "Gödel Escher Bach".

It's all about emergent properties, and how consciousness is likely to be just an entertaining bit of novelty. I woulnd't recommend it to overly sensitive types...


I've always suspected that free will was more of an illusion than most people are comfortable admitting, especially in this Western world where the importance of power and control is bashed into our heads (sometimes literally, but usually more figuratively).

However, I'm not entirely convinced that the evidence (subconscious decisions being made before the conscious mind is aware of them) is proof of the non-existence of free will. All that proves is that our decisions are not always conscious, which we alreay had figure out pretty well, erections and breathing, and all that. But what if free will was more like a faucet, where we really only have control over the amount of stuff that comes out, and not the stuff itself? What if the extent of our free will is simply the choice between letting our subconscious minds control our lives or throttling our subconscious minds? And, if so, what if our subconscious minds actually know what to do BETTER than our "will" does? Most people assume that their subconscious desires are bad (sinful, libidinous, etc.), but what if the subconscious is the professional and our "will" is the amature that gets us into trouble?

Something to think about, anyway.

Ultimately, I'm still open to the idea that there is free will, and I'm open to the idea that there isn't free will. No point in being dogmatic about it, right? Unless I'm supposed to be dogmatic. But if there is no free will, then clearly I'm not supposed to be dogmatic, since I'm not...


John Searle's argument is painful to read. (As someone with a Masters degree in Computer Science, with a concentration in A.I., I can tell you that Searle's arguments have always been painful to read). I could rather argue that the idea of free will is in fact anti-evolutionary, because the organism that makes the most successful decisions in the fastest, most natural and expedient way -- i.e., the one whose decision-making logic is as hardcoded into their genome as possible -- is the one that will survive. The guy with "free will" is still trying to choose between mustard and ketchup, while the guy with hard-wiring just ate his hamburger.


And now for something completely different...

"Did the Big Bang Have Intelligence?"


Paul O

If one doesn't understand what they're talking about, they're more likely to get it wrong.

Those who think that Free Will deals with the question of human automatons, will so argue and will get it wrong. And fame or even extensive study is no insulation against such errors.

Free Will has to do with what we might call moral choices: knowing the difference between what is Right and what is Wrong, and choosing between them.

A plant grows as its food supply and environment allows. A dog makes choices among various behaviors in order to receive rewards (food, attention, etc). A person makes choices knowing that some behaviors are hurtful and others are helpful.

The plant can be described as an automaton. The dog, perhaps. But the dog does not have Free Will as it does not distinguish Right from Wrong. Only the person is capable of such a measure, and only the person has free will.

Michael Carman

If our perception of free will is just a side effect of the biochemistry of our brains what does that mean for the people who are researching robotics and cybernetics? They're working toward (or at least foreseeing) a time when we can download our brains into a computer and live forever. What happens if consciousness transfers but "free will" doesn't?



Once again I will suggest you use your fame to speak with experts who will explain (using small words) what 'emergent properties' are, and then you won't keep making the silly mistakes about it that you do.

Why don't you speak with experts? Or send email to them if you're concerned about your voice? Believe me, they'd respond.

The only reasonable answer is that you don't want to, because then you'd have to change your mind. (or you're lazy -- which I doubt -- or you smugly think there aren't any real experts)


I am not sure I quite understand WHY you think we do not have free will. What then is your definition of free will. All these questions are ultimately pointless and meaningless and have no real truth to them.

All these questions come from a God-shaped need in the human heart to understanding purpose. Why they are here, what is the point of life etc etc.

The further people keep trying to fight off the existence of God, the more silly they look.


Let's assume for this next example that you have free will. If you are given a finite set of options with clear consequences, would that not appear to negate the idea of free will in some people's minds?

Assume my options are only A or B and I have one second to make a decision. My results are then limited to A, B, or Did Not Choose. You can see how my Free Will is practically non-existant.

Any mind scenario, worked down minutely enough to allow it to be researched, could duplicate the above experience. Does this really declare anything about Free Will?

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Phil Taint

I love your continued assertions that free will is an illusion, mostly because I agree but also because it is entertaining to hear the variety of arguments against your position.

For the record, I see the brain as a big messy analog computer chip with a multi-dimensional architecture. Just like a computer with firmware, some of the architecture is more-or-less hard-wired. Also, there are a variety of sub-units that work more-or-less autonomously. The subliminal response to pheromones is one example of a subconscious system that has real measurable effects even though we are not necessarily aware that it is working.

The illusion of free will is one of the nifty artifacts of the conscious and subconscious working together, much like an erection.

The worst argument ever is that there is any supernatural force whatsoever because I can't think of a natural force that explains it.


A full half second doesn't allow for reflex, which is the epitome of unconscious reaction. So the two may be distinct.

The experiment could still be interpreted as evidence of a soul. Perhaps the soul (in a plane separate from the brain) makes a decision and which shows up as electrical impulses and then conscious, measurable thought.

Just because choice can be affected by unconscious effects doesn't mean there's NO free will, just that the two interact with each other, and we may not always know why we act. I argue your choices determine the extent of free will in the future--choosing to become addicted to cocaine doesn't mean you didn't make the choice, but it does mean you no longer have it. And it is no requirement of free will that I fully understand why I make my choices, only that I made them.


The answer to the electrical activity build-up before you decide to move your arm is the double slit experiment. When we understand that we will understand free will.

BTW, I do believe in free will.

rob kay

A note on your update. If you truly believe that free will is an illusion, what's your opinion on consciousness? I mean, isn't it just as likely that that's an illusion as well?


The illusion of free will would not be needed to make us happy if we didn't know it existed. Meat robots would be plenty happy just running their meat programs.

Happiness would not need to evolve anymore than the illusion of consciousness would need to. It could just leave us running around like really smart ants.

Insects don't seem unhappy to me. If threatened they don't just lie there and die, they try to survive. I have not seen any bugs hang themselves because they feel imprissoned in their tiny little minds. Not even Al Gore (sorry, I couldn't help myself.. but then, you knew that).

Does that mean they have the illusion of free will?


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