where strange brilliant ideas for the future intermingle and breed…

Home > Articles > Debate Forum: Do humans have free will?

Debate Forum: Do humans have free will?

Posted: Wed, April 17, 2013 | By: DEBATE

In “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system”, Anthony Cashmore makes an interesting claim:

Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism — something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.

So . . . . the question is . . . .

“Do humans have free will?”

We’re running a poll on Zero State’s Facebook Page. Register your vote, then come back and discuss!


The way I see it, in the end, “free-will” becomes a concept that just can’t possibly survive without being redefined in our understanding of human free-will. Meaning, every memory, every flicker of action, thought, etc., will eventually be discovered and understood via the understanding of the brain and its various synaptic connections.

That isn’t to say we don’t make choices in life. Because we do. But how far is our level of control in determining and acting on said choices until we reach a point in which the brain’s sub-conscious workings acts micro-seconds before we’re consciously aware that a choice, action, or even of awareness itself, has been determined?

Hell, we may never figure out how a person will act, feel, or choose on account of the possibility of our brain operating similarly to that of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. But that then still doesn’t mean free-will has been accomplished. Merely the behind-the-scene workings of our actions and thoughts are safe-guarded by a very elaborate quantum law.

By B.J. Murphy on Apr 17, 2013 at 3:09pm

This is obviously a hard question that might very well never be resolved with certainty.

However, I must remeber you of Conway’s 2010 paper “The Strong Free Will Theorem”:

“Human free will might seem like the squishiest of philosophical subjects, way beyond the realm of mathematical demonstration. But two highly regarded Princeton mathematicians, John Conway and Simon Kochen, claim to have proven that if humans have even the tiniest amount of free will, then atoms themselves must also behave unpredictably.”

The paper then describes the theorem as follows: “It asserts, roughly, that if indeed we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity. More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle’s response (to be pedantic – the universe’s response near the particle) is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe”

All these imply that if one is full compliant to determinism then one should not support free will. If one departs from a deterministic POV of the world (even slightly), then, not supporting the existence of free will is contradictory.

Thus, I would say that humans do have a certain degree of free will, provided that the following two assumptions hold true:

1) There are true randomness sources in nature (exogenous uncertainty); and

2) There are (inner-triggered, random) degenerating physical processes occurring in the brain and in the nervous system structure (e.g. in the nerves connected to the spinal cord) that allows for noisy signals resulting in erratic behavior and decision-making (endogenous uncertainty).

I think that by proving either of the aforementioned assumptions true or false, the solution to the free will problem follows straightforwardly, given Conway’s Free Will Theorem.

If both 1) and 2) are true, it would follow that humans possess free will because they might very well act differently (or evolve different goals) under the same exact environmental circumstances (i.e. the same sensorial inputs) due to endogenous noise. Technically, this can be viewed as a form of free will (conversely, free will would require humans to output the exact same behavior under the same input).

By Carlos Azevedo on Apr 17, 2013 at 4:48pm

Unless free will is fully defined beforehand, the question is meaningless

By Dirk Bruere on Apr 18, 2013 at 5:11am

So, is free will to be defined as simply flipping a coin to make a decision?

By Dirk Bruere on Apr 18, 2013 at 5:12am

Over 30 years ago Libet found that even if subjectively we initiate a motor action, involved innervation can be detected before we consciously make that decision, and that possible inhibition occurs after we become aware, concluding that we do not have free will, but do have free won’t.

Frankly, what difference does it make ?  If it makes one feel good one can decide to interpret one’s actions as under self control, if one is more of a fatalist one can negate responsibility, regardless of the underlying physiology.  And if, like me, one is more of a daoist surfer (friendly code for ‘lazy bastard’) one must find and maintain that yoga point at which to adjust, preconsciously and in minute degrees, one’s actions to continuously changing conditions for maximal effect at minimal effort.

By René Milan on Apr 18, 2013 at 5:27am

Would someone care to define “free will”? It’s clearly not determinism, and I do not think that many people would agree that free will is just some weighted randomness. It implies intentionality, but how can that be reconciled with either view?

By Dirk Bruere on Apr 18, 2013 at 6:53am

“The assumption of controlled decision making that can be acted upon constitutes Free Will, regardless of the presence of evidence for or against the factual availability of that control” - my off the cuff definition, please fine tune or reject and replace.

By René Milan on Apr 18, 2013 at 7:12am

This comes from an interview between Bruce Wood, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol, and Sam Harris, neuroscientist:

If the self is an illusion, what is your position on free will?

Free will is certainly a major component of the self illusion, but it is not synonymous. Both are illusions, but the self illusion extends beyond the issues of choice and culpability to other realms of human experience. From what I understand, I think you and I share the same basic position about the logical impossibility of free will. I also think that compatibilism (that determinism and free will can co-exist) is incoherent. We certainly have more choices today to do things that are not in accord with our biology, and it may be true that we should talk about free will in a meaningful way, as Dennett has argued, but that seems irrelevant to the central problem of positing an entity that can make choices independently of the multitude of factors that control a decision. To me, the problem of free will is a logical impasse – we cannot choose the factors that ultimately influence what we do and think. That does not mean that we throw away the social, moral, and legal rulebooks, but we need to be vigilant about the way our attitudes about individuals will be challenged as we come to understand the factors (both material and psychological) that control our behaviors when it comes to attributing praise and blame. I believe this is somewhat akin to your position.

By B.J. Murphy on Apr 18, 2013 at 5:45pm

Deterministic does not mean predictable. Consider an (almost) omniscient computer than can predict what the next word you say will be. Can it predict what that word is if it tells you that word before you speak?

By Dirk Bruere on Apr 19, 2013 at 7:18am

My response to this question is always: To the same extent that the self/ego exists; free will exists.

By Reeve on Apr 19, 2013 at 9:01pm

I consider myself “free will agnostic” - we’re the product of massively chaotic aggregate of causes, and whether we have “true” free will or not, we certainly have a satisfactory illusion of it for the vast majority of purposes.

By David Thompson on Apr 20, 2013 at 5:33am

I strongly agree with B.J.Murphy who argues that the problem of free will is a logical impasse. I believe that we have to define ‘will’ first and then investigate what properties it should have in order to be free. If you define ‘will’ as the process of rational agents that is responsible for setting goals and deciding upon actions in order to achieve these goals, then what does ‘free’ imply? Free of its own mechanism? This is an irrational claim, that leads to logical impasse. However, I believe that more importantly, (even if one can overlook the irrationality part) freedom of the ‘will’ is an undesired property. In order for your actions to make any sense, help you survive, etc they have to be decided by a procces evolved and bounded by the previous states of the world. What you deside its useless in any consievable sense unless it is highly dependent on what has, is and will take place in the physical world. Moral responsibility is linked to the goal setting part and has nothing to do with the so called “freedom”. Your ability to set goals and act upon them is sufficient to hold someone morally responsible. In a sense I agree with Dennett views on free will, who talks about “the kind of free will worth having”. However, I believe that what he describes actually implies that the kind of free will worth having is just ‘will’ and that is all we need to attribute moral responsibility to an agent.

By Ioannis Mariolis on May 03, 2013 at 4:15am

Put it this way, when the term Free Will was coined it had nothing to do with the machinations of quantum laws of how the subconscious brain works. Also the definition of freedom is in and of it self a contradiction. It requires the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint. Simply that it has a requirement means that freedom cannot be fully defined. Which even then ... if it could be fully defined then it would be finite vs infinitely unbound. Certainly my will shall not up and leave my body to materialize to give me a high five.

Freedom is relative to a person, much like beauty is. Is it an illusion? Sure, why not, but then so is logic, math, philosophy, and pretty much every other concept and idea that does not have a concrete entity. They are all based off of observation and perception. They are not universal laws or truths.

I say free will does exist, not in a absolute state as no one can comprehend absolute freedom, though merely in a relative state.

I know this is a poor explanation but I spent hours on a post when my web browser decided to crash on me. So this will have to do.

By Samuel Daugherty on Jul 27, 2013 at 7:26pm

Leave a Comment:

Note We practice Buddhist Right Speech in our communication. All comments must be polite, friendly, and on topic.

What color is a yellow house?