I don’t believe in free will


Just listened to the neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, talk about free will on Sam Harris’s podcast. Neither of them believe in free will and neither do I.


It started in high school with a thought experiment: if you rewound your life and woke up again this morning with no memory of what had happened today, would you do the exact same things?

Please stop and think about this scenario for a second. If you reset to this morning with your memory wiped, would you behave the same way?

If you said yes, then let’s rewind a week, a month, a year, all the way back to when you were born, your life is predestined. That’s it, we don’t need to talk about brains or consciousness, just follow simple logic.

Okay, so what if you said no? So even with the exact same personal history, and the exact same events going on around you, you made different decisions? Given the same inputs you choose different outputs? Then it seems like, you’re not making the best decisions given the scenario, you’re just behave randomly. And behaving randomly, doesn’t seem like free will. You might not live in a pre-determined world, but you live in an utterly random one.

But it feels like there’s free will, doesn’t it? Voluntary Actions

It feels like we have free will because it seems like some actions are under our voluntary control, while others we have no control over at all.

I think a lot of what people think is voluntary, just has to do with to what degree that action can be modified by language or thoughts.

Actions feels voluntary if, when we want to do it or stop doing it it’s able to. However, a lot of actions fall into gray areas like bad habits, compulsions, unconscious tics. It’s especially hard to tell whether or not someone else is able to control a behavior — for example, is a good friend who’s an alcoholic really able to stop drinking if he or she just wants to enough? We know some alcoholics stop drinking, which could make you think it’s possible for anyone to stop drinking at any time if they just cared enough, but at the same time we know other alcoholics keep drinking until the day they die, or will keep relapsing after recovering. (In fact, in many ways getting over withdrawal is a cakewalk [though withdrawal from alcohol can cause seizures and be deadly], relapses are the real and insidious danger of addictions.) It’s really impossible to know if an individual can quit now, or later, given their situation.

Degree of Free Will

So is it worth moralizing and lecturing your alcoholic friend? Maybe your shame is exactly what they need to overcome their drinking, maybe it’s counter-productive. That’s an empirical question — or finding out whether an average shaming to an average person is anyways.

Maybe your words can tip them over the edge into the realm of voluntary realm, if not today, then tomorrow when they sober up, or maybe your words will help by set off a complicated biochemical cascade in your friend’s brain, but their effects won’t manifest into a gain of control for months. Thinking about this same phenomena less reductively, maybe they won’t really hear what you say now, but they’ll think back to it later in a moment when it’s what they need to think about.

Knowing what’s voluntary and what isn’t is important for the criminal justice system. If someone’s brain is compelling them involuntarily to violence or crimes, we need to figure out how to stop them from doing harm, but like Sapolsky says, what good is moralizing or shaming them? And you can imagine that if there was a way to detect who was at risk of committing voluntary crimes there would be a temptation to do something about it preemptively. On the other hand crimes that are at least partly voluntary, can be controlled and prevented through education and other social systems.

But when it comes to moral judgement, in the end it doesn’t really matter what’s “voluntary” and what’s not, because the words and thoughts that lead to “voluntary” actions themselves were predetermined or random. I don’t know how this doesn’t just end in nihilism.

Personally, the way I get by with this terrible life philosophy is to pretend it doesn’t apply to me because otherwise you get stuck in really circular, unproductive thinking. I do essentially try to act though as if what I’ve outlined above is true of everyone else in the world. I do think we’re conscious, I think we all have feelings, but I think we’re all pinballs bouncing around a chaotic world.

The one silver lining, is I do think it’s increased my compassion for people — we’re all in this together, even people you disagree with in every way, or people who’ve done terrible things. But on the other hand, some studies have shown that people may use a belief in predeterminism to morally let themselves off the hook (Vohs and Schooler, 2008). Well, if spreading this anti-fw gospel is amoral, I’m going to let myself off the hook because I didn’t have a choice in the matter anyways.

Hopefully people much smarter than me have figured a way out of this logical black hole, and have arguments convincing enough to take me out of it’s orbit. Maybe I need to read Sam Harris’s book on the subject:


“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.” – Rick and Morty




8 Responses to “I don’t believe in free will”

  1. 1 FSE

    Your thought experiment presupposes that either an action is predetermined, or it is “utterly random.” But this is a false dichotomy.

    To make a comparable experiment: Suppose you took Neurophysiology 101 in the fall, and got a B. Suppose you signed up for Neurophysiology 102 in the spring. Will you get a B?

    Using your reasoning, if you get a B again then I should conclude that grades are predetermined. And if you don’t get a B, then I should conclude that grades are completely random.

    But of course there are other possibilities. For example, it is possible that getting a B in the fall makes it very likely that you will get a B again in the spring, or less likely a B+ or a B-, or even less likely an A- or a C+. Your grade is not predetermined, but neither is it completely random.

    So it is with your thought experiment. It’s possible that knowing what decisions I made this morning gives you very a good estimate as to what I would do if the day were “reset”, but that’s not the same as knowing with certainty.


  2. 2 scanner

    A “random” process is defined as one that is not deterministic.

    So a “random” world does not contradict the existence of free will, in fact randomness is a necessary precondition for free will.

    In your example, one does not necessarily make “best decision” at every opportunity. One makes the “best decision” given the constraints of decision-making. You may only be willing to spend 3 seconds looking at a Starbucks menu before ordering, but willing to spend 20 seconds when the day is replayed.

    If the amount of time you spend affects your decision, then your Starbucks order is not deterministic, ie random. And neither decision would necessarily be the “best”. This sort of experiment (which of course is impossible to carry out) would be evidence of free will.


    • “One makes the “best decision” given the constraints of decision-making.” But the constraints are exactly the same, so there is only one “best decision.” Even talking the time to think for 20 seconds is itself a decision. Random is not free…


      • 4 scanner

        You were arguing that if our choices are random, then that implies that we are not always making the best decisions. Ok, but what makes you think we are always making the best decisions?

        In your thought experiment, I might spend 3 seconds looking at the menu on the first run, and 20 seconds on the second run. One decision must be better than the other. But that doesn’t mean that either is the “best” decision, which might have been to spend 10 seconds.

        And why do I even need to make the “best” decision? Why can’t I just exclude the terrible and mediocre decisions, and use free will to choose among the good or great ones? Presumably that would consistently obtain good or great results, which is quite satisfactory. For instance, I could freely choose to spend any amount of time between 2 and 25 seconds on the menu, and still achieve all of my goals.


    • Can you explain your comment about how randomness is a necessary precondition for free will, I didn’t follow…


      • 6 scanner

        Most people who believe free will exists are “incompatibilists”, which means they also believe that free will is incompatible with a deterministic universe. But if free will exists and the universe is not deterministic, then the universe is random. After all, a deterministic process is by definition free of random processes.

        Note that random does not mean completely unpredictable, as you seem to imply. Instead, it means not completely predictable. For example, the behavior of an electron is random because it is not completely predictable. But even if we can’t predict an electron’s behavior with infinite precision, we still have a pretty good idea of how it generally behaves. For most purposes, we can ignore the random elements of its behavior, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

        Likewise, we can generally predict human behavior with decent precision. You can predict that I will go to work on Monday and come home at the end of the day. But that doesn’t mean that my behavior is deterministic or free of randomness.


  3. 7 Mr Wong

    I don’t believe in free will. I do believe in proof reading.


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