Untangling Free Will

I think I finally understand free will. I’d like to share my thoughts.

I won’t be making any definitive, be-all-end-all claims about free will here—I think the words “choice” and “free will” and “compatibilism” mean different enough things to different people to render any such attempt fruitless. Instead, I’ll focus on addressing common confusions surrounding free will. Through personal experience and many discussions, I’ve found that most such confusions can be phrased in one of three ways:

  1. How can I make any real choices, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future?
  2. If the future is fixed, how could any of my actions possibly change it? If I can’t change the future, then how could I be said to have control over it?
  3. How can I be said to be the source of the actions I make, if my actions ultimately result from atoms abiding by the laws of physics?

I will address each of these questions in this post.

How can I make any real choices, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future?

This question is confusing because we have two similar, but subtly different notions of possibility. In one sense, something can happen if it doesn’t violate the laws of physics for it to happen. In a deterministic universe, where the laws of physics completely determine all future possible states of the universe, saying something can happen is the same as saying it actually will happen.1

In another sense, we say that someone can perform an action if, should they genuinely try to do it, they will succeed in doing so.2, 3 In this sense, I can jump an inch in the air, but I can’t jump 10 feet in the air—if I try to jump an inch in the air, I’ll succeed, but no matter how hard I try I will not jump 10 feet in the air.

I’ll refer to the first sense as “canp” (p for “physical”) and the second as “cana” (a for “ability”).

We can illustrate the distinction in the two senses by considering a chess program trying to pick its next move. If the program is following a deterministic algorithm, its move will have been determined by the algorithm beforehand, so it canp not pick a move different from the one it will make. At the same time, when it’s trying to decide on a move, there are clearly a number of moves it cana take (namely, all of the legal moves—these are the moves it would successfully make if it decided to).

It happens that “cana” is the sense of “can” we almost universally refer to when talking about ability. When we say “Billy can run a 4-minute mile!” we mean that if he eats his pasta and warms up and runs a mile while someone times him, he’ll clock under 4 minutes—that is, if he tries to run a 4-minute mile he’ll succeed. We don’t mean to say that there is some possible future state of the universe in which he does run a 4-minute mile.

Let’s return to the original question: How can any of my choices be real, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future? A choice only feels real if we have multiple different possibilities to choose from. But if our choice is fixed in the future, that means we can only choose one possibility. The question can thus be rephrased: When I am making a choice, how can I have multiple different possibilities to choose from, when there is only one possibility I can choose? And now it’s clear why this question is confusing—it seems to ask how a direct logical contradiction could be possible!

But to say that no alternative choice is possible is to say that no other choice canp be made, while to say that we have the ability to choose is to say that we cana make choices. And there’s nothing contradictory about saying, I cana choose from multiple different possibilities even when there is only one possibility I canp choose. That’s how it is for chess programs, at least! Once we delineate the separate senses of “can” appearing in the question, the apparent contradiction vanishes.

Fundamentally, it’s the same sort of contradiction in “The more cheese, the more holes; the more holes, the less cheese.” It just gets taken a lot more seriously.

If the future is fixed, how could any of my actions possibly change it? If I can’t change the future, then how could I be said to have control over it?

Your actions don’t change the future, but they do determine it, and when you are responsible for determining the future, you have control over your future.

Consider the following scenario. A student is pondering whether to study for her test tomorrow. She knows that if she studies, she will get an A, and that if she doesn’t, she will get an F. Suddenly, God appears from the heavens, tells her that he saw into the future, and gives her a transparent glass case with a folded sheet of paper inside, with her future grade written on it. He then tells her that the case will only open after the test.

The student reasons that since her grade on the test is already fixed (it’s written on that slip of paper already, after all!) she can’t change her grade, so there’s no point in studying. Feeling smug about philosophizing her way out of studying, she parties all night, gets an F, opens the case, and finds an F on the sheet of paper. She shrugs. “Guess it was always an F, nothing I could’ve done about it!”

There’s something off about her reasoning. She couldhave studied, in which case she’d have gotten an A, and the grade written on the paper would always have been an A.4 It is only because she chose not to study that the grade on the paper had always been an F.

As the contents of the paper never changed, the student never changed her future by deciding whether to study. But her future did depend on her actions. In other words, even though she couldn’t change the future, she still had control over it.

If my actions result from atoms abiding by the laws of physics, how can I be said to be the source of the actions I make?

I am the source of the actions I make because I am the atoms resulting in my actions.

How can it be said that my hand opened a bottle of water, when it was really just my fingers and palm? How can it be said that I read a message from my friend, when all he sent me were a bunch of pen marks on a sheet of paper? How can it be said that I picked up my food with a fork, when all I used was really just a bunch of atoms?

It can be said because my hand is my fingers and my palm; because the message is the pen marks on the sheet of paper; because the fork is just a bunch of atoms. I, likewise, am the atoms and chemical processes in my brain responsible for everything that I do.

To see this another way, suppose that a bunch of crazy scientists implant a bunch of electrodes in my brain that make me always desire cherry pie over apple pie. Certainly, whenever I choose cherry pie over apple pie, the scientists are responsible for my decision to eat the cherry pie. But this does not mean I am not responsible for my decision as well! The electrodes are a part of my brain, a part of of my decision-making process, a part of who I am. I ate the pie because I wanted to—the fact that the electrodes caused me to want the pie is irrelevant.


1. If our universe is deterministic, then any state of the universe determines all possible future states of the universe, so to reach a configuration of the universe not among these possible future states we’d need to violate the laws of physics.
2. It would be more technically correct to say that an observer with all relevant information would predict the agent would successfully cause the outcome, in a universe in which they do try. If someone is in a prison cell and really desires to leave, we probably wouldn’t say she had the ability to leave if her warden unexpectedly happened to come by at some point and let her walk out. On the other hand, if she knew the warden were coming along, we would say she had the ability to leave (whenever the warden came along).

3. With cana, we are considering what would happen in a hypothetical world which is logically valid to reason about, even if such a world cannot be reached from the laws of physics. There may be some concern that it is logical nonsense to talk about physically impossible worlds. I think it still makes sense to talk about them, as logical structures. For example, in the universe of Super Mario Bros., there may be certain states of the game that are unreachable no matter how hard the player tries to play (say, walking through a wall). But it still makes sense to talk about what the game would look like when such an impossible state is reached, e.g., if someone hacks the game and places Mario straight into a wall.

4. “Could” in the sense of ability, not physical possibility.

3 thoughts on “Untangling Free Will

  1. Albert Kim

    “I think the words “choice” and “free will” and “compatibilism” mean different enough things to different people to render any such attempt fruitless.”

    If you don’t agree on the semantics, the meaning of the words (Wittgenstein: how language is used) then how can you ever start a discussion about what free will in any sense? You can’t talk about concepts words refers to if no one agrees on the referral in the first place. (you can’t talk about the nature of gravity if you don’t first agree what you’re talking about when you say the word) That’s why you determine what the words are supposed to mean first before going anywhere else (or how the words mean in different contexts) As for the attempt being fruitless, I disagree. I find this claim quite baseless. All the most influential and productive discussion on the issue in the history of philosophy, since Hume, depended on such a thing.

    “In a deterministic universe, where the laws of physics completely determine all future possible states of the universe, saying something can happen is the same as saying it actually will happen.”

    This is incorrect. Something being possible in a state of affairs isn’t the same thing as saying that state of affairs WILL take place. That’s exactly why we have one set of events that have occurred (the universe we observe) instead of another one. (all event possibilities that can be occurred doesn’t mean all possibilities are fulfilled) Perhaps you mean that because of the laws of physics, only one particular definite future will occur as a result (predictions of Laplace’s demon) but it’s quite inaccurate to say it in your terms because there are many events that have no occurred that “do not violate the laws of physics” (the events that have not occurred are still possible in the laws of physics or “can happen” I’m talking about the laws of physics as mathematical constraints on what stats of affairs are possible. For instance “so and so planet is traveling around a star at a certain velocity” is possible within the laws of physics but it doesn’t mean such planet actually exists)

    (Even if you were take into account Many-World’s Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, it’s necessary to talk about how events are determined in each world, so this is not an problem)

    “In another sense, we say that someone can perform an action if, should they genuinely try to do it, they will succeed in doing so.”

    No, this is not true even in the typical sense. “Trying to do something” refers to an act of the will, an attempt with a certain expectation of the outcome of the future that can succeed OR fail. Of course, in determinism, only one outcome is possible but when you speak of “trying to do something” the outcome is spoken in terms of what is expected rather than what is certainly known in the Laplacian sense. That’s the terms for success is much more vague. It’s hard to have this discussion because you have thrown out the importance of semantics since the beginning of the post.

    Let’s repeat what you said to get a sense of what you mean “if someone can perform an action if THEY GENUINELY TRY TO DO IT, THEY WILL SUCCEED IN DOING SO” So if a person is insane and is convinced that they can fly, and genuinely try to do so, they will succeed in doing so? You haven’t paid attention to what these claims properly mean.

    “It happens that “can” is the sense of “can” we almost universally refer to when talking about ability.”

    I’d like to say “possibility” as a more proper term, as ability tends to be more of anthropomorphic term. If you want all events in the universe to be in your discussion, then you should do it as such to avoid contradiction.

    “When we say “Billy can run a 4-minute mile!” we mean that if he eats his pasta and warms up and runs a mile while someone times him, he’ll clock under

    minutes—that is, if he tries to run a 4-minute mile he’ll succeed. We don’t mean to say that there is some possible future state of the universe in which he does run a 4-minute mile.”

    This is incorrect and contradicts what you said before. If its to be described in terms of ability, then you’re discussing a possible future state of what can be potentially be true. “Billy can run a

    minute mile if he tries to, he has that ability/skill/talent/potential” In deterministic terms, its more accurate to say “Billy can run a

    minute mile if at this moment with certain conditions (eats warmed up pasta beforehand) then he will clock under

    minutes” That’s why I dislike how you chose the term ability, because “ability to do at the moment with certain conditions” is not the same thing as “person’s ability”

    “How can any of my choices be real, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future?”

    I find this quite contradictory. In the latter part of the sentence, you said choices that are made are fixed, and the former is questioning the reality of choices. The problem of free will isn’t that choices aren’t made, but that choices aren’t “freely made” No one actually has a real issue of whether choices are made, that there is a will that is in action. It’s whether if the will has freedom.

    “When I am making a choice, how can I have multiple different possibilities to choose from, when there is only one possibility I can choose?”

    A possible answer is that you choose between multiple different possibilities, it’s just that we are determined to end up choosing one possibility. I don’t see an issue with this answer.

    “But to say that no alternative choice is possible is to say that no other choice can be made, while to say that we have the ability to choose is to say that we can make choices.”

    True, but trivially so.

    “it’s the same sort of contradiction in The more cheese, the more holes; the more holes, the less cheese.”

    This is not a contradiction at all. If this was actually a contradiction, the state of affairs regarding cheese with holes would not be possible (we both know this is not true) The former part is true because the more cheese, we have more holes. The latter part is only true depending on what you mean. A cheese with more holes can specify a quantity of more cheese being available. It’s only true in the sense if we mean that cheese with no holes at all will lead to more cheese overall.

    “If the future is fixed, how could any of my actions possibly change it? If I can’t change the future, then how could I be said to have control over it?”

    Is this an issue? I’m a compatibilist and I would say my actions allow “change to occur, resulting in a future.” (we both agree that changes occur right?) I don’t think belief of free will doesn’t have anything to do with “changing the future” In fact, it doesn’t have to do with changing the past or present either. When you say change occurs, are we talking about changing the past, present, or future or the transition in between?

    I believe I have control over the future in the sense that my actions determine the future, but I don’t believe that I can control the future “however I want”

    “As the contents of the paper never changed, the student never changed her future by deciding whether to study. But her future did depend on her actions. In other words, even though she couldn’t change the future, she still had control over it.”

    Wait…..no no no. What are you talking about?! This is wholly dependent on whether “fate determined by God” is even an explicable/meaningful concept to involve in the thought experiment. I don’t think a foreseeable future in which she gets an F (fate determined by what God says has to result from whats in the letter) is a meaningful concept. I would say that her choice in not to study, and to make a choice depending on a letter, is what determined her future of getting an F.

    “I am the source of the actions I make because I am the atoms resulting in my actions.”

    No, this is not correct because we are not the atoms themselves, the self is a phenomenon that results from a collection of atoms, a system. A collective process. No Cognitive Scientist actually thinks regarding the issue “of the self” or “the mechanism that produces the self, whether illusory or not” is actually the “atoms themselves”

    “If my actions result from atoms abiding by the laws of physics, how can I be said to be the source of the actions I make?”

    Because the source actions come from the will, a process made by a collection of atoms. Phenomenon that can be described can occur that go beyond the description of individuals atoms. We simply can not transcend them (we are still restricted by the laws of physics that determine the motions of atoms) but that doesn’t mean such described phenomenon on larger scales “don’t occur” such as choices.

    “How can it be said that my hand opened a bottle of water, when it was really just my fingers and palm?”

    Easy answer, because it wasn’t your finger or the palm that opened the bottle. The action was made by the hand made collectively responsible by the motions of the fingers and palm together. It wasn’t the individual cells of your hand that opened the bottle, it is the collection of them which can in total be described as your hand on a large scale. Do you honestly agree with the statement “how can it be said that your hand opens the bottle?” What is the issue you have with the statement?

    ****End: As you can tell, I have problems with almost every paragraph you’ve written….though you may not agree with some of my criticism, please try going over everything you’ve written to see whether it makes sense because to me, it doesn’t. Another issue I have is that a lot of the concepts you are struggling with in the post is kind of irrelevant to the problem of free will.

    These posts by my friend Postmodern should help for a start, he’s a professor of philosophy so he knows the technical details pretty well:
    http://forums.philosophyforums.com/comments.php?id=69674

    http://forums.philosophyforums.com/comments.php?id=69674
    http://forums.philosophyforums.com/comments.php?id=69674
    http://forums.philosophyforums.com/comments.php?id=69674

    These are books on free will I liked:

    http://www.amazon.com/Four…/dp/1405134860/ref=sr_1_1…
    http://www.amazon.com/Freedom…/dp/0142003840/ref=sr_1_2…
    http://www.amazon.com/Illusio…/dp/0262731622/ref=sr_1_1…

    Reply
    1. zhukeepa

      “If you don’t agree on the semantics, the meaning of the words (Wittgenstein: how language is used) then how can you ever start a discussion about what free will in any sense?”

      Let me reiterate that I’m trying to *clarify confusions about free will*, not prove or disprove anything about it. There are people who muse about free will on their own and get confused about one of the questions I laid out. Then there are professional philosophers who study the various nuances around free will, who take positions on whether free will have such and such property. I am writing for the first audience.

      Free will is one of those concepts that everyone’s got some intuitive notion of that nobody can settle on clear definitions for. Indeed, there are prominent philosophers who claim the notion may be incoherent, and there are self-proclaimed incompatibilists whom others proclaim to be compatibilists. (See e.g. the Wikipedia pages for van Inwagen and Robert Kane.) Trying to establish matters of fact about free will would be to mire myself in semantic debates in which I’m wholly uninterested in partaking.

      “… Something being possible in a state of affairs isn’t the same thing as saying that state of affairs WILL take place. …”

      If our universe is deterministic, then any state of the universe determines all possible future states of the universe, so to reach a configuration of the universe not among these possible future states we’d need to violate the laws of physics. I acknowledge this was a bit unclear from the original wording, so I added a footnote.

      “No, this is not true even in the typical sense. “Trying to do something” refers to an act of the will, an attempt with a certain expectation of the outcome of the future that can succeed OR fail.”

      I don’t think you’ve correctly interpreted what I wrote. I am explicitly delineating two different notions of possiblity that we have. Let’s define “bloogle” to mean “physically possible” and “schloogle” to mean “will succeed if they tried, hypothetically.” My claim is that when we say “can”, we usually mean one of “bloogle” and “schloogle”, and when we talk about ability we usually mean “schloogle”.

      “Let’s repeat what you said to get a sense of what you mean “if someone can perform an action if THEY GENUINELY TRY TO DO IT, THEY WILL SUCCEED IN DOING SO” So if a person is insane and is convinced that they can fly, and genuinely try to do so, they will succeed in doing so? You haven’t paid attention to what these claims properly mean.”

      Will the insane person succeed in flying if they genuinely tried? If not, then by the definition I put forth, they can’t fly.

      “In the latter part of the sentence, you said choices that are made are fixed, and the former is questioning the reality of choices. The problem of free will isn’t that choices aren’t made, but that choices aren’t “freely made” No one actually has a real issue of whether choices are made, that there is a will that is in action. It’s whether if the will has freedom.”

      I never said choices aren’t made, just that they sometimes don’t *feel* real, and I expressed that the reason a choice may not feel free is that there is only one possibility for our choice.

      “True, but trivially so.”

      In your quote “But to say that no alternative choice is possible is to say that no other choice can be made, while to say that we have the ability to choose is to say that we can make choices”, you omitted the subscripts, which were the *entire point* of the sentence.

      “This is not a contradiction at all. [stuff about cheese]”

      That’s the point. The reason it prima facie seems like one is because the different words take on different meanings in different contexts, which I argued is the reason why we find free will confusing.

      “Is this an issue? I’m a compatibilist and I would say my actions allow “change to occur, resulting in a future.” (we both agree that changes occur right?)”

      If the future is determined, then it’s fixed. The point is to reconcile this with the fact that we do have control over our future, by emphasizing that what’s important is that we can determine it, even if we can’t change it (which it seems we agree about).

      “This is wholly dependent on whether “fate determined by God” is even an explicable/meaningful concept to involve in the thought experiment.”

      Sorry, I didn’t mean to give the impression that God determined the future. The future being determined beforehand by the laws of physics is all we need here. I made an edit to (hopefuly) make this clearer.

      “No, this is not correct because we are not the atoms themselves, the self is a phenomenon that results from a collection of atoms, a system. A collective process. No Cognitive Scientist actually thinks regarding the issue “of the self” or “the mechanism that produces the self, whether illusory or not” is actually the “atoms themselves”.”

      We are atoms in the sense that we’re physically built from them, in the same way that a fork is built from atoms, or a hand is built from a palm and fingers. Do you object to saying that a hand is a palm and fingers?

      “”How can it be said that my hand opened a bottle of water, when it was really just my fingers and palm?” Easy answer, because it wasn’t your finger or the palm that opened the bottle.”

      Those were meant less as serious philosophical questions and more as illustrations of how the parallel question with free will is similarly easily addressed.

      “End: As you can tell, I have problems with almost every paragraph you’ve written….though you may not agree with some of my criticism, please try going over everything you’ve written to see whether it makes sense because to me, it doesn’t.”

      I think you’ve misunderstood large swaths of my post. I hope this response has made some points clearer.

      “Another issue I have is that a lot of the concepts you are struggling with in the post is kind of irrelevant to the problem of free will.”

      The first question is the core question that leads people to incompatibilist stances. The second question takes on the fundamental confusion around predestination (if my fate to heaven or hell is already decided, why does it matter what I do on Earth?). The third is a paraphrase of the question in the first post in the first link you listed.

      Reply
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