Free Will

There is no evidence that we are anything more than the atoms we are made of, and if we are nothing more than the atoms we are made of, then our every thought is a physical (atomic, chemical, electrical, quantum, etc.) reaction.

Assuming there is no random element to the physical reactions we call thought, it would still be true that predicting the physical reactions we call thought is impossible – for all practical purposes – today. However, as technology advances, it will increasingly enable us to predict the physical reactions we call thought, but probably never with perfect accuracy. Also, there may be a random element to the physical reactions we call thought, in which case, predicting thought with perfect accuracy would never be possible.

Free will is thus an illusion – but an illusion so close to reality that, for all practical purposes, we do have free will.

Why bother discussing the reality of free will then?

Suppose we were intellectually lazy and thus the only reason we didn’t allow punishment for crimes before they were committed was because we believed that free will was real – just because it seemed real. Then our intellectual laziness would make us vulnerable to progressive tyrants and their scientists who claimed otherwise – because they want the power to punish people for crimes not yet committed. Whereas, we who have considered the reality of free will can say that we trust no one to predict the actions of others whether free will is real or not. We trust no one to punish others for crimes not yet committed.

Like Free Speech, Free Will is a useful principle.

Although we know that some speech must be better than other speech, we also know that no government can ever be trusted to promote or censor any speech.

Likewise, although we know some people will commit crimes, we also know that no government can ever be trusted to reward or punish us for behavior not yet performed.

Just as we believe:

that government is best which operates as if all speech were equally good,

we also believe:

that government is best which operates as if free will were real.

Throughout history, those progressives who claimed to have a better way have proven to be wrong – and evil.


  • Thomas says:

    Hi Jim, I appreciate what you are trying to show and I agree that we ought to construct a defense of free will. You are arguing that free will is an illusion close to reality and that closeness justifies it. However, I believe that we ought to and can make a stronger case. Most of what we are is an illusion, roughly speaking, resulting from a sort of eviction from reality. Most of our lives is a search of that reality that always appears veiled and hardly accessible. In fact we are excluding ourselves from it while seeking contact with it. Since we do not know what that reality is, even in the depth of our subjective state, we do not want outside forces to interfere with that search. In other wards we want to government to protect rather than restrict freedom.

  • Jacob says:

    Greetings Jim, Thomas. I too appreciate both your contributions and would like to add the ability to choose, either subjectively or objectively, is (roughly) innate. We are subject to this "eviction [of] reality" and react in such a way that appears in our best interest. The extent of our interest may be simpler that what we've been led to believe. I am curious as to both of your thoughts about the following: Free [the] will from what?

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    If you deny free will, you deny consciousness and if you deny consciousness you deny existence (reality). These are axiomatic concepts, they cannot be 'proved' with logical deduction. Therefore, your argument starts off on a false premise.

    Consciousness as a corollary of existence and free will as an element of consciousness cannot be 'proved' by evidence, they are self-evident. They are included in everything that is, they are the metaphysically given and absolute. Trying to prove that they dont exist always includes contradictions, since you have to 'prove' consciousness (or free will) does not exist using your consciousness (free will).

  • Jim says:

    It sounds like you may be using definitions, which at best were constructed to force a desired conclusion, or else which are imprecise and thus not always useful in every case.

    Some things to consider:

    There is no reason artificial intelligence couldn't make the same analysis I did as a reaction to a lifetime of processing input from its environment. Would that mean such artificial intelligence had free will and consciousness?

    Animals exist. Do they have free will and consciousness?

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    You state: "It sounds like you may be using definitions, which at best were constructed to force a desired conclusion, or else which are imprecise and thus not always useful in every case."

    It sounds? Is that your argument? Why are the definitions imprecise and thus not always useful in every case? You should substantiate that a little more.

    Dont you see the difference between AI and yourself? That AI is always programmed by a natural intelligence (men) and therefore it will always act in accordance with its software or programming. Therefore, it has no free will but it has to act in accordance with its nature.

    An animal has consciousness but it is limited to the range of the moment and can only grasp percepts. It can not plan long range, it does so on instinct.

    The difference between animals and men is that we are able to form concepts and therefore can plan long range and make important decisions based on their consequences which influence our life.

  • Jim says:

    Your first post was not clear enough for me to respond beyond what I said, which is often an indication of imprecise definitions. That's all.

    I am a programmer, and I see no reason why AI cannot do everything the human brain can do – other than the limitations of our current ability to program such an AI and provide sufficient hardware.

    The human body and brain is a physical machine. It receives input, processes it, and reacts. Much of that reaction is determined by genetic programming – much like AI. Much of it is determined by previous learning – much like AI. It only seems freely initiated rather than a reaction, but a reaction is sufficient to explain everything.

  • Jim says:

    I should also add that context matters. Let me give you an example of an imprecise definition that is still useful in many contexts. The concept is a "heap".

    If I ask you whether a heap of sand is a heap, you would agree, and after I remove one grain, you would still agree. As I remove each additional grain, at what point does it cease to be a heap?

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    Thus, if it is not clear enough for you to respond the definition is imprecise. Well, in that way you can never be wrong. Its no argument.

    But do you agree that the reaction you are talking about could be different, i.e. can we react differently under the same circumstances?

  • Jim says:

    No. Given the exact state of every atom, packet of energy, etc. in your body, brain, and environment at every instant leading up to your reaction, then your reaction could not have been different unless there were some randomness in nature.

  • Jim says:

    I could also have replied by asking about your definitions, for example, but I expect that would result in a very long and interesting conversation that would get us no further than we already are.

  • Jim says:

    Have you read my related article "Predicting the Leaf?"

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    I just read your article Predicting the Leaf. I think you are making an ancient philosophical error. Well, an error – if -reason and justice is what you are seeking.

    I will not try to 'prove' the axiomatic concepts, Existence – Identity – Consciousness (free will is an element of men's consciousness, its part of its Identity) because what I said earlier it cannot be 'proved'. It is self-evident and if reason is your goal than you should accept them as axioms.

    Questioning free will will lead you on a slippery slope. It is like Hume and all the other sceptics which lead to all kinds of irrationality. But lets leave that there, I want to illustrate something in practice.


    All your readers on your blog are individuals. I am from the Netherlands and a big state is something which is 'natural' here. Ordinary hard working people believe they are part of the State and the State is in their best interest. There is also a very large part of the people working at, or with the State and a lot on welfare programs.

    You want to change all that and people to start thinking for themselves. They should question the State. But what alternative are you giving them? You say to them, your genes and atoms will shape your destiny. And they think their genes and atoms are just not good enough to survive on their own. And what do the Elites do? History shows that they have always pondered to this fear by the common people and it works.

    Obama and all the elites 'give' these people 'hope', you give them nothing, only fear for the unknown and a confirmation that they are not in control of their own life. So they are very willing to give control to a State because in their opinion they are not giving away something anyway.

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    Furthermore, the whole concept of ethics/morality becomes useless. If people have no choice than ethics is a non-issue.

    In another article I have read that you detest the lack of integrity by many elitist leaders. Integrity is a subconcept of ethics. But if these leaders have no choice, how can you make them responsible for a lack of integrity? You are simply accusing them for being born…

    So, if you believe that men only react to stimulus and have no choice in their behavior than who is going to decide what is ethical? Right, the elitist rulers.

    Free will/determinism is a very important concept. Denying it will always lead to arbitrary hierarchical and tyrannical societies. Arbitrary hierarchical and tyrannical societies you try to change in just and free societies, if I understand your motives correctly.

  • Jim says:

    Brains are wired to continuously generate decisions. We have no choice to but to make choices. That is how we are wired. In other words, that is how we are programmed. Likewise, a computer could be designed to do the same.

    Our brains have evolved a physical structure that could be described as rules. Some rules are precise and some are fuzzy. Both determine how we process input and how we react – including the fact that we will react. We have no choice but to react. Whereas, in a computer those rules are stored in the form of software. The distinction is irrelevant.

    Perhaps you are confused about "wired" vs. "programmed." Consider that any computer software could be replaced with equivalent hard circuits. But instead of manufacturing every unique program as a unique set of circuits, it is much more cost effective to mass produce a very simple rules processor and construct the rest of the circuits in the form of software.

    Perhaps you are thinking that software is too inflexible, but just as software can model hard circuits, it can model neurons, brains, or anything else: 1) if we understand it enough to model it, and 2) assuming sufficient computational power in the supporting hardware.

    One thus cannot achieve optimum justice unless one understands that any of us would have done the same thing as any criminal if we started with the same genes, atoms, quantum states, etc. and lived in the exact same environment in place of that individual – other than any differences caused by randomness in nature.

    However, just like AI, we can learn, so the logical reaction to the threats we have learned would be to make everyone else learn what happens if they initiate force or fraud against us. The logical reaction would therefore be to punish those acts we perceiving to be against our best interest, and then advertise our reaction. This would not only deter future acts by the current perpetrator, but it would deter everyone else who learned about our reaction.

    Likewise, we can learn much more complex lessons. For example, big government is always a threat, and that the free-market is in our best interests.

    Why is there no hope? We can still make decision and learn, and we can see from what we have learned how we can we could all cooperate and thrive in happiness.

    Perhaps now it is more clear why consciousness involves making decisions and learning (all reactions), but does not require truly free will.

    Although we have no choice but to learn and make decisions, and although they are always reactions, perhaps our ability to learn and make decisions is all you really meant by free will.

    Assuming you believe this new understanding of physical reality, what would you do differently?

  • Jim says:

    No hope? Don't you want to see what the future holds? You know that you will continue to learn and make decisions, and although those are always reactions, we each have little idea what the future holds for us.

    At any time, any of us can instantly become the person we want to be and thus make our life much more fulfilling. I mention this elsewhere, such as in "Your Salvation is at Hand." (It's not religious.)

    Understanding reality better is a reason for hope all by itself because we know our future reactions will be better than they would have been.

    My most recent article "Jesus Confronts and American Believer" also provides hope.

    In my second most recent article "What is wrong with the People." I explained why there is hope.

    Nevertheless, I agree that hope is not central to much of my writing, and I will be able to improve my existing and future articles based on our conversation thus far. Thanks.

  • Jim says:

    I answered this above.

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    Choice and decision implies alternatives. If you can choose that means free will.

    If you are just reacting to stimulus than you have no choice. It is one or the other, you cant have both.

  • Jim says:

    AI can weigh choices and make a decision, but that decision is still a reaction.

    I already explained that we are just reacting, and thus have no choice in the strictest sense, but given the complexity and randomness in the both inputs and the processing, and given the forced reaction generation of our brain's hardware, it appears for all practical purposes as if we exercised free will. Therefore, it is more convenient to call our reactions a choice – just like we would for AI. Also, it is much more emotionally satisfying to call it free will, so we do.

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    Well I think you argument becomes less clearer and more contradictory by every post.

    We disagree and thats fine.

    Goodluck with your blog.

  • Jim says:

    I was just summarizing what I already said, but it is indeed complex, outside the box, and outside the comfort zone for just about everyone.

    Our decisions can be sufficiently explained as a physical reaction – as if we were an unusually complex machine, and thus the burden of proof is on those who claim that our decisions are the product of some extra process that they cannot explain or even demonstrate.

  • Jim says:

    I have formulated much of my current understanding after reading Ayn Rand and Peikoff and discussing it with dozens of Objectivists in the past. I was impressed from the beginning that you did not invoke Ayn Rand's name sooner. That is always a smart move because any sooner would have just been the argument from authority fallacy. I may actually go to these links in the near future because you made it convenient. Thanks.

    The classic test to demonstrate the existence free will has been to ask me whether I have the choice to pick up the cup, to which I say something like this: "I cannot know if I will pick it up or not, and even if I felt certain, certainty is just an emotion, but whichever I decide, that decision will be a reaction to an almost infinite amount or previous causes and effects throughout my lifetime and before my lifetime." I might then go on to explain that an animal or AI would do the same.

    I do agree that most animals and most AI lack the ability to form true concepts, but I am pretty confident that Killer whales and some AI can also form concepts, and in the future, AI will become superior to the human ability to form concepts and superior to the human ability to weigh all the alternatives and make a decision. If that doesn't happen, or if it happens but is not harmful, then that outcome wouldn't be the result of DENIAL. It would be the result of UNDERSTANDING.

  • Jim says:

    Whenever I say something that implies free will, like: "You can always decide to start being the person you want to be.", Objectivists will then claim that such a statement proves free will, but all it actually proves is that the concept of free will is built into our language. So, why would I say that if I understand that free will is an illusion?

    Whether I realize it or not, I say it because it is less awkward (and more persuasive) than saying: "An infinite chain of cause and effect has caused me to react by saying stuff that causes you to react in a way that will benefits me and my offspring (as well as yourself) by causing you you to react in the future in the way I want you to react, and my reaction will probably have had some effect because everyone is always at the cusp of a similar infinite chain of cause and effect pushing them in that direction too, and my statement could thus be the tipping point in their personal chain of cause and effect."

    Or, I could just say, "You can always decide to start being the person you want to be."

  • Kaysersoze5 says:

    Objectivists who say that something "proves" free will dont understand Objectivism very well.

    As I have said earlier. Free will is a corollary of consciousness, more specific, it is part of the identity of consciousness. Consciousness as such cant be "proved". It is self-evident, just as free will is.

    If you dont accept these axiomatic concepts you will end up with all kind of "mumbo jumbo" when discussing these concepts. Which, in the end, leaves the door open to mystical philosophic systems. Examples are: religion, Marxism (socialism), postmodernism etc.

    I will try (for the last time) to convince you that your standpoint on this issue is liable to easy criticism from your opponents who advocate mystical philosophies.

    You are an advocate of freedom, free markets and reason according to some of your articles on your blog ( I havent read them all). Free markets can only function if people (can) take responsibility for their own actions. This implies a form of free will. I say a form, because you dont accept free will as I do but we are talking about the same concept, right?

    Well, I think you have also concluded that if you want to advocate free markets you need people posessing something resembling free will otherwise free markets are a useless concept and cant work. So, therefore you have come up with this theory (as stated above and in you article "free will") that somehow has to "prove" that people still can make decisions that will have an influence on their lives. It is not convincing and very contradictory.

    You are not going to convince ordinary people with this theory against your opponents who accept determinism in some form or another. By basing your arguments for freedom and free markets in such an unclear and contradictory way of describing a "form" of free will you will lose out and it will bring you on the defense. Although maybe your opponents cant "prove" that their form of determinism is correct, the scepticism and doubt spread on an axiomatic concept is sufficient for them. Doubting axiomatic concepts will erode reason and sets the stage for mystical philosophies.

    To give an example: Your name is Jim. Now assume that you meet a total stranger on the street and he will say to you that your name is Mark. He says he knows you from when you were little and has a whole alternative narrative on your life. Its absurd I know.

    Lets assume you dont have anything on you with which you can prove you are Jim and you have to convince other strangers on the street that you are Jim against these absurd claims of being Mark.

    You can choose 2 tactics.
    1: You can try "proving" that you are Jim with the correct story of your life. However, the other guy also has a convincing story that you are Mark. In this case doubt and scepticism is spread and you are on the backfoot trying to "disprove" an absurd claim. And since the claim by the stranger is a deliberate claim to spread doubt and scepticism, his tactis will be better than yours because he knows his goal and has thaugth it through in advance.

    2. Or you can just say that you are Jim because it is self-evident. This way you wont get yourself dragged into this mess.

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