May 2008

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I'm kind of on the fence about the whole free willd debate. I guess the only question I have is: What would it take to prove that free will exists and if, in fact, we don't have free will, what would be different if we did?

The main argument for free will not existing is that us making a decision is not free will, it's just an entirely too complex combination of past experiences and events that culminate into us choosing a certain thing instead of another. But what I want to know is... there had to be a time where we didn't have any past experiences or events to go on, right? What made us choose then? Our "instincts?" Where do those come from?

Say a full grown adult had been blind all their life and had never seen color and by some strange coincidence had never even heard people describe something with color. Colors as we know it do not even exist to them. All of a sudden they can see and the first and only thing they see is a color wheel in front of them and someone asks them to pick their favorite color. What makes them decide which they like the best? If there is no free will, would they be able to pick a color at all since they don't have any prior experiences to base that decision on? Or, is there some sort of genetic predisposition for them to like the color green or some other random color?

Just a few thoughts.


I listened to a slightly better, but still bad, report on this on BBC radio. They mentioned chaos theory - which is all they seem to have discovered. Fruit flies behave chaotically, in the same way as weather systems... but very few people claim clouds have free will.


Is there anything scientific about the notion of free will? Doesn't this fall under the category of religion? They need to come up with a scientific definition of it, and even then, how's it going to be anything other than a different term for some degree of true randomness in the universe?


Not much for two cents but here it goes...
Determinism implies that every human event, act and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs based on physical or divine forces. Free will is defined in the opposite. The difference is that we are self aware of the choices we make. (Note: I did not say rational choices.) Those choices are tainted by our experiences, perceptions and emotions. A la Forest Gump, please let me explain it like this… Life is like a pinball machine. You are the ball. And the only things that you truly control are the paddles. Ergo, we only realize that we have limited control over the game of life. Reality does lie somewhere between the orange and the tree. And sorry Einy, but God did also use dice.
Scot, if I may use your analogy to demonstrate: A dry silicon robot does as it is programmed but in my view, a moist carbon robot realizes what they are doing. The moist robot’s consciousness, feelings and emotions distinguishes him from all other life forms that we know of. As was the case with the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, he realized he would only be truly human when he had hart. I wonder, when we become god and some future ipod, cell phone or super-computer comes to an un-programmed and independent conclusion of … I think, there fore I Am. What will Tin Man do? What will he thinks of us? Will he have a heart? For that mater, What will we do?
Tell me Egore,… What was the name on the container?
I, I … I think it was ,,, Abby Some-one. Yes, I’m sure of it, …it was Abby Normal

Scot, many thanks for Dilbert and your wisdom.

Richard Washington (Not John)

Somewhat of a mistake has been made somewhere....I posted the comment starting ""Brembs and his colleagues reasoned that if fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) were simply reactive robots entirely de" John posted (presumably) "The article says..."if fruit flies were simply reactive robots entirely determined by their environment, in completely featureless room". Slightly odd methinks.

Maybe Scott freely chose to do this? Or may it was pre-ordained!


So...this to me sounds like a bald rich guy's version of reality (Steven Covey). He says something like..."there is a space between an action and a reaction, and in that space is agency or choice." That is free will if you so choose. I perfer not to call it free will, because that imples that there is no consequence for an action. And we all know that when there is a action, there is a consequence of that action in some manner or way. So, agency is a better fit for me. I personally don't think that fruit flies need agency, their life-spans are something like 14 nanoseconds. So what, they get to choose what direction they will be flying when they croak? Nice. I don't have seven habits, and I am not effective in any habit I have, but I do think that agency exists, but probably not in fruit flies.

jerry w

When I die, I leave you my fruit flies.

Now you have free fruit flies in my will.

LA Clay

Actually they discovered flies have short term memory loss. If their actions as less than determined, they just forgot. Let the drug companies fund a study and make a new drug. Call it refly.


Booooring! Yes, yes, yes Scott doesn't believe in Free Will or God. We know. We got that. How many more unvalidatable arguments are we going to hear on this dead, dead topic? His life is devoid of any form of mystery or ambiguity beyond the realm of such things as 'microwave oven door handles' and yet is full, fruitful and satisfying, like a 3:00am meal at IHOP. Got it. Can we move on to the next philosotainment issue sometime this century? I wonder if that fella who draws Get Fuzzy has a blog....


I bet the fruit fly was deliberately messing up the experiment, thereby proving it. God knows I would be predetermined to do so if I were a fruit fly!

Johan du Plessis

Headline: Fruit Fly has free will, but Scott Adams doesn't.

If there is no free will, the term in-duh-vidial doesn't really make sense - because a person only does what he is suppose to do - there is no choice.

Which means we can't really say anybody is an idiot and hold them responsible for it. So I for one will say ignorance is bliss, ignore the free will issue and be able to actually say that there are a lot of idiots out there and discriminate actively.


I had to pay my lawyer for my will, and it upset me greatly.

Richard Washington

"Brembs and his colleagues reasoned that if fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) were simply reactive robots entirely determined by their environment, in completely featureless rooms they should move completely randomly."

This is such bad reasoning! (ok the whole thing doesn't make any sense but this is a great example).

Who said that entities controlled by deterministic factors have to be controlled solely by outside factors? They probably have a hard coded if(noOtherInformationAvaiable==True)

Or something, this is still totally deterministic. They just seem to have totally missed the point!

"even a fly brain possesses a function which makes it easier to imagine a brain that creates the impression of free will."

Sorry what? what does that even mean! Who gave you this job! What do you mean by "even" so all brains more complex than fly brains have this type of function too? Are you suggesting this types of behaviour just looks like free will but actually isn’t? Then why the title? Surly it should be "Study hints that fruit flies have a default flight path". Which I would suggest is all that you have found out.

This does not imply free will. In the same way as if the fly just sat there. You could construe it as the fly “choosing” not to do anything! Or are they suggesting flies have knowledge of Levy's distribution and are choosing to follow it because it is an efficient way to find food? Further to this the “spontaneous variations” described happening to fit this pattern hardly seem spontaneous.

So they are saying

Determinism random

Flies are not = random & not determined by environmental factors alone -> flies have freewill.

Good work! Im glad your earning your salary.

Finally in answer to Sean

“Dark matter? No. Particles with no mass? No. God? No.”

Dark matter is real, all we know is that is does not reflect or produce any light ie can only be observed through its effects.
There are particles with no mass. Photons have no mass .(accept for relativistic mass).

By definition of your terms “Nothing unreal exists” of course not, it is unreal. This goes without saying, no one was suggesting things exist which don’t exist.

Excellent Blog btw Scott, read most days but thought I shout start commenting.


The article says..."if fruit flies were simply reactive robots entirely determined by their environment, in completely featureless rooms they should move completely randomly"

Why are they discounting the existence of state (memory) in the fruitfly's brain that can still make its movements deterministic? Don't fruitflies have any memory at all?

I would think they are state machines and we can't just expect its output to be based on just current external input. Its past inputs matter as well, until all that its memory can retain (faithfully or otherwise).


Hey Scott,

Like your post. I think there's an alternative target for mocking in the article than what you went for. Thing is, halfway between random and deterministic would make sense, at least mathetically, as a statement. Fuzzy journalism could be to blame for making it into pro- or anti-freewill jargon instead.

More useful to your cause, I would have thought, was that the scientist noted the presence of a mathetical pattern that appears in many places in life. So - the fly demonstrated free will by following a common mathematical pattern? Aren't those largely considered "determined" by their equation? That, I think, is the greater nail in free will's coffin that this article contains.


can u think of a test which would differentiate between determinism and free will? how would YOU test for that?


I read an article on this, that said (paraphrasing) "the fruit flies' behaviour was not random, but chaotic (like weather patterns for example), which shows they have free will". Free will, like weather patterns for example. I laughed.

Boraxis Baugmonster

To those who are bored with Scott's free will fixation, have you read the comments? Try skipping the free will posts if you don't like them and just jumping to the comments. This is great stuff!

-- baug

Tony Bryan

From what I understand of Spinoza he suggested that if the fundamental movements of the universe are governed ultimately by physical laws, it is the height of arrogance to suggest that humans are somehow different and able to transcend physical law to exhibit free will. Quite logical on the face of it....

Interested in your view Scott... but if we can't know everything, and given the obvious problems such as:
- just why did the big bang happen
- how to reconcile quantum and relativistic theories
...isn't it possible that with sentient life there comes a point, an event horizon, where the fundamental impluses that govern our movements ARE subject to sufficient randomness to break the restrictions placed on us by known physical laws, allowing us to break free of determinism? Clearly reaction to stimuli and genetic instinct will goven an amount of behaviour, but we already know humans can rise above animalistic impulses (voluntarily stop eating, breathing etc).

I'm talking possibility here... I clearly don't know the answer! I'm kinda from the "I think, therefore I am" camp, so struggle with the idea of pure determinism. And no I'm not religious (or creationist, not that they're different).


In the very simple, workman-like system of my mind, I break it down like this : You’ve got a range of options. You pick one.

Why you pick the one you pick is based on a range of factors – experience, values, social mores, the way your mother did it. None of these things are new or exceptional or random or particularly free – it’s just mental wiring. Yes, you have the ability to choose. But the way in which you choose – it’s got a history. It’s almost mechanical. All this guff about good and evil, right and wrong… they’re inherited perceptions. Things you’ve worked out for yourself based on a long and complicated pattern of people trying out various options and reporting back. For centuries. For millennia. Over such lengths of time, after exposure to so many stimuli, humans have become incredibly complicated and can't always fathom their own reasoning, but that doesn’t mean there isn't one. I just don’t see why that’s so difficult to grasp. At first it might be slightly scary, I guess, the knee-jerk reaction to discovering there is no free will would most likely be ‘that means I’m not free’, which leads to ‘something’s making decisions for me and I’m not in control’, which is a little unsettling. But it’s not really the case at all; you can just add this experience to the wealth of data that informs your decisions, and carry on as ever you did, with a rather better understanding of yourself and the world around you.

And finally… ‘I know there is such a thing as free will because I happen to own one’? That is surely the most predictable, non-random, proof-of-the-pudding answer ever.


A possibility of free will:
Ok so people have already made the point that we're not completely deterministic because of the inherent randomness in things due to quantum uncertainty. But you argue that this doesn't mean we have free will because it is still random and beyond our control. But what if our souls, or some part of us that is beyond our comprehension, can in fact control this quantum randomness? Then surely this part of us, though undiscernable, could potentially give us at least some degree of free will.
Yes it's a terrible argument, and there is no way to prove it but you have to admit it is possible.


One time at band camp, i shoved a Tuba up my bum.


The question of wheter we have free will or not is entirely academic, even if we don't have free will we still have a powerfull illusion of free will, there is in fact no difference at all to the person in question. I'm still the one who makes my discissions. of course I make them based om my imidate enviorment, mood ect. The only possible effect having no free will would have is that I might just be a little less happy if I thought I didn't.


"Specifically, their behavior seemed to match up with a mathematical algorithm called Levy's distribution, commonly found in nature. Flies use this procedure to find meals, as do albatrosses, monkeys and deer."

So the headline could as well be: "Study hints that flies look for food when they don't see any around".

Gah. I hope msnbc is the one to blame, not Mr. Brembs ...

Scatman Dan

Half way bewtween Orange and Three? Well, they're both mobile phone networks, so I'm guessing the answer is... T-Mobile?

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