Reporter's Notebook

Does Free Will Really Exist?
Show Description +

Readers join Stephen Cave in discussing the age-old conundrum of free will and determinism, in response to Cave’s popular Atlantic essay “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will: But we’re better off believing in it anyway.” If you’d like to join in, send us a note:

Show 1 Newer Notes

Free Will Exists and Is Measurable

Edmon de Haro

I’m delighted that so many people have felt irresistibly compelled to read, share, and comment on my Atlantic article “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—But we’re better off believing in it anyway.”

Quite a few of those readers have assumed—understandably, given the article’s title—that I don’t think there is such a thing as free will. But that’s not the case. I report on the idea that free will has been wholly refuted, but I don’t endorse it. I argue that this view is spreading—for example, into courtrooms—and I quote Sam Harris, who defends this view eloquently, and I explore what might happen if this view continues to spread further.

But as I say, it’s not my view. There is, however, one important variety of free will that I do reject: the one that has it as an unearthly power; some kind of mysterious force standing outside of science as we know it, and allowing us to make choices that are not caused by our brains. A significant number of those who commented on the article seem to subscribe to such an idea of free will, including the best-selling author Eben Alexander, who, in a blog post, claims that:

The physical brain does not produce consciousness, so much as serve as a filter that allows primordial consciousness to trickle into our awareness in a very limited fashion, which is the “here-and-now” that we experience in normal waking reality.

As I have argued elsewhere, I think this view is wrong: There is a great deal of evidence that consciousness—and therefore all our decision-making processes—stem entirely from the brain. I’d therefore be happy to say that there is no such thing as that kind of free will, the kind that posits such fancies as free-floating minds or primordial consciousness-transmitters.

On a different note, Alexander and some other commentators point out that quantum mechanics demonstrates that the world is not straightforwardly deterministic. In this, they are right: quantum indeterminacy implies that physical reality has an irreducibly probabilistic nature. Other readers have pointed out that even classical physics does not always allow us to accurately predict what will happen: According to chaos theory, any of an incalculably huge number of tiny differences in initial conditions can lead to radically different outcomes. (At least, that’s the excuse weather forecasters use for getting it wrong.) This too is a fair point.

It’s no surprise that Stephen Cave’s story in our current issue, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” is one of the most read and hotly debated Atlantic pieces this month. The galaxy of philosophical issues called “free will and determinism” is where morals and physics come together. In other words, it’s a subject that genuinely matters, and one that’s a hell of a lot of fun to argue about.

The relationship between physical laws and moral laws is intuitive to most people. If the rules that govern the universe that exist outside of ourselves and before we’re born apply to our actions, how can we be responsible for those actions?

But it’s worth taking a closer look at this, as some readers are already doing. This one states the case that a purely deterministic universe rules out the possibility of free will:

Conscious or sub-conscious, if our choices are governed by chemical interactions in the brain, then they are not choices or free will at all—just the result of inherently predictable and deterministic interactions governed by laws of classical physics. The only potential for free will is quantum interactions in the brain, which may or may not exist (no proof yet either way).

According to this line, the jury is out on whether we have free will, because it depends on the forthcoming findings of physics as to whether there is randomness in the decision-making processes in our brains. At its core, the claim here is that in order to be responsible for doing something—in order to have done it freely—we need to have been able to do something else. We need multiple options, or alternative possibilities.

But the following reader looks critically at why indeterminism would justify moral responsibility:

How does randomness lead to free will? Let’s say at every possible decision point in my day—coffee or no coffee, take the freeway or surface streets, place a comma or don’t place a comma—that instead of making a choice (or being causally forced into a choice), I instead have to stop and flip a coin. Heads I do one of the things, tails the other, and it’s perfectly random.

Is this anything like free will? If I landed heads and had coffee, tails and took surface streets, and tails and placed the comma, did I choose those things in any meaningful sense of the word?

Taken together, we can see the germ of an odd but appealing idea here: Perhaps neither determinism nor indeterminism leads to the kind of moral responsibility and free will we have such a strong intuitions towards. Maybe if we can be morally responsible, it’s for some other reason entirely.

I wrote my dissertation a few years ago arguing for this idea, which is called “semicompatibilism.” It’s gaining ground in philosophy circles due largely to its greatest champion, a California philosopher named John Martin Fischer. For now, it’s still a fringe view that hopes to overturn millennia of accepted wisdom about one of the oldest and most important issues in philosophy.