Don’t Worry About Free Will

A recent pop-sci piece Think You’re Operating on Free Will? Think Again caught my eye. The article is well-written, but it focuses mostly on examples of priming and doesn’t even come close to debunking free will. However, it inspired me to write up my own thoughts on the topic. Here they are.

Whether we have free will is not a question of science. Nor is it a question of religion. And, despite the protestations of many, it is also not a question of philosophy.

Free will is mostly a matter of terminology.

Most people treat “free will” as something obvious, but it can be surprisingly hard to nail down the specific meaning of those two words. If you go and ask a random passer-by what they think free will is, they’ll probably say it’s something like “having a choice” or “your actions not being predetermined”. Answers like that are typical, but they don’t really stand up to scrutiny.


Lets consider choice first. If “free will” stands for “free choice”, then what choice is “free”? Computers can make choices – often incredibly complex and important ones – but no-one considers them to have free will. This is because a computer’s choice is deterministic: the same inputs will always produce the same outputs. No matter how complex the algorithm it runs, a computer’s behaviour is ultimately predetermined. Therefore, it does not have free will.

But then, how is a human different? Sure, our minds are much more complex than any computer program ever written. And certainly, our choices are influenced by a multitude of factors that would be meaningless to a machine – goals and aspirations, genetics, upbringing, unconscious urges, societal pressure, and so on. And maybe even the goals and aspirations of our mystical souls and the almighty god(s), assuming such entities exist.

And yet, that is still just a list of (very many) inputs. If that’s all that goes into making a choice, we are as deterministic as computers. Given the same set of goals, preferences, societal pressures, mystical influences and so on, we would make the same choice every time. The very notion of making a choice implies that you select one of the alternatives based on some sort of criteria (AKA inputs and algorithms); implies some amount of determinism. If it didn’t, you could just as well flip a coin.


Sadly, that is exactly what many explanations of “free will” end up with. Chance. Randomness. Quantum physics! Anything to escape the dread of a predetermined destiny.

Alas, that turn of the free will argument just leaves me confused. Am I to understand that “free will” means behaving randomly? How is that better? After all, if your choice is random then it wasn’t really your choice. This stands in stark contrast with the common assumption that having free will means being able to make your own choices.

Since neither deterministic nor random choice are suitable for explaining free will, some have argued that it’s actually an amalgam of the two. Personally, this “Free Will cake mix” leaves me unimpressed. And it’s certainly not what the majority of people mean when they say “I have free will”.

A cake

Mmm, free will.


As far as I can tell, free will is a confusion, a meaningless phrase. NB : I’m not saying that free will is an illusion. What I really mean is that to say “free will” is the same as to say “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. Instead of asking whether something has free will, we should instead ask specific questions, e.g. “what factors guide its decisions?” and “is its behaviour deterministic or random/semi-random?”.

Coincidentally, the arguments used in this post are very similar to the standard argument against free will. Fancy that.

Image credit : kefir @

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One Response to “Don’t Worry About Free Will”

  1. DavidM says:

    I like that you brought up the same conclusion that I came to, as most people I’ve talked with regarding the matter seem so eager to avoid the notion that freewill is fundamentally the same as random choice.

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