Free Will Is as Real as Baseball

A handful of musings about free will have been popping up in my blog reader of late. Jerry Coyne has been discussing the issue with Eric MacDonald in a series of posts (further links therein). Russell Blackford writes a long post that he promises isn’t the post he will eventually write, David Eagleman has an article in the Atlantic, and Zach Weiner also chimes in. So we have a biologist studying theology, an ex-Anglican priest turned agnostic, a philosopher and neuroscientist both of whom write science fiction, and a webcartoonist studying physics. That constitutes a reasonable spectrum of opinion. Still, what discussion of reality is complete without a cosmologist chiming in?

In some ways, asking whether free will exists is a lot like asking whether time really exists. In both cases, it’s different from asking “do unicorns exist?” or “does dark matter exist?” In these examples, we are pretty clear on what the concepts are supposed to denote, and what it would mean for them to actually exist; what’s left is a matter of collecting evidence and judging its value. I take it that this is not what we mean when we ask about the existence of free will.

It’s possible to deny the existence of something while using it all the time. Julian Barbour doesn’t believe time is real, but he is perfectly capable of showing up to a meeting on time. Likewise, people who question the existence of free will don’t have any trouble making choices. (John Searle has joked that people who deny free will, when ordering at a restaurant, should say “just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.”) Whatever it is we are asking, it’s not simply a matter of evidence.

When people make use of a concept and simultaneously deny its existence, what they typically mean is that the concept in question is nowhere to be found in some “fundamental” description of reality. Julian Barbour thinks that if we just understood the laws of physics better, “time” would disappear from our vocabulary. Likewise, discussions about the existence of free will often center on whether we really need to include such freedom as an irreducible component of reality, without which our understanding would be fundamentally incomplete.

There are people who do believe in free will in this sense; that we need to invoke a notion of free will as an essential ingredient in reality, over and above the conventional laws of nature. These are libertarians, in the metaphysical sense rather than the political-philosophy sense. They may explicitly believe that conscious creatures are governed by a blob of spirit energy that transcends materialist categories, or they can be more vague about how the free will actually manifests itself. But in either event, they believe that our freedom of choice cannot be reduced to our constituent particles evolving according to the laws of physics.

This version of free will, as anyone who reads the blog will recognize, I don’t buy at all. Within the regime of everyday life, the underlying laws of physics are completely understood. There’s a lot we don’t understand about consciousness, but none of the problems we face rise to the level that we should be tempted to distrust our basic understanding of how the atoms and forces inside our brains work. Note that it’s not really a matter of “determinism”; it’s simply a question of whether there are impersonal laws of nature at all. The fact that quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component into physical predictions doesn’t open the door for true libertarian free will.

But I also don’t think that “playing a necessary role in every effective description of the world” is a very good way of defining “existence” or “reality.” If there is anything that modern physics has taught us, it’s that it’s very often possible to discuss a single situation in two or more completely different (but equivalent) ways. Duality in particle physics is probably the most carefully-defined example, but the same idea holds in more familiar contexts. When we talk about air in a room, we can describe it by listing the properties of each and every molecule, or we speak in coarse-grained terms about things like temperature and pressure. One description is more “fundamental,” in that its regime of validity is wider; but both have a regime of validity, and as long as we are in that regime, the relevant concepts have a perfectly good claim to “existing.” It would be silly to say that temperature isn’t “real,” just because the concept doesn’t appear in some fine-grained vocabulary.

We talk about the world using different levels of description, appropriate to the question of interest. Some levels might be thought of as “fundamental” and others as “emergent,” but they are all there. Does baseball exist? It’s nowhere to be found in the Standard Model of particle physics. But any definition of “exist” that can’t find room for baseball seems overly narrow to me. It’s true that we could take any particular example of a baseball game and choose to describe it by listing the exact quantum state of each elementary particle contained in the players and the bat and ball and the field etc. But why in the world would anyone think that is a good idea? The concept of baseball is emergent rather than fundamental, but it’s no less real for all of that.

Likewise for free will. We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients. That’s the “variety of free will worth having,” as Daniel Dennett would put it.

I’m not saying anything original — this is a well-known position, probably the majority view among contemporary philosophers. It’s a school of thought called compatibilism: see Wikipedia, or (better) the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Free will as an emergent phenomenon can be perfectly compatible with an underlying materialist view of the world.

Of course, just because it can be compatible with the laws of nature, doesn’t mean that the concept of free will actually is the best way to talk about emergent human behaviors. (Just because I know the rules of chess doesn’t make me a grandmaster.) There are still plenty of interesting questions remaining to be clarified. At the very least, there is some kind of tension between a microscopic view in which we’re just made of particles and a macroscopic one in which we have “choices.” David Albert does a great job of articulating this tension in this short excerpt from a Bloggingheads dialogue we did some time back.

I don’t generally think that the superior wisdom one acquires via training as a physicist grants one the power to see clearly through complicated issues and make philosophical conundrums dissolve away. But this is a case where insights from physics might actually be useful. In particular, what we are faced with is the task of reconciling effective theories at different levels of description that have apparently incompatible features: the impersonal evolution of the microscopic level (whether we go all the way to atoms, or stick with genes and neurons) and the irreducible possibility of “choice” at the macroscopic level.

This kind of tension also appears in physics. Indeed, the arrow of time is a great example. The microscopic laws of physics (as far as we know) are perfectly reversible; evolution forward in time is no different from evolution backward in time. But the macroscopic world is manifestly characterized by irreversibility. That doesn’t mean that the two descriptions are incompatible, just that we have to be careful about how they fit together. In the case of irreversibility, we realize that we need an extra ingredient: the particular configuration of our universe, not just the laws of physics.

In fact, the connection goes beyond a mere analogy. If you look up arguments against compatibilism, you find something called The Consequence Argument. This is based on the “fundamental difference between the past and future” — what we do now affects the future, but it doesn’t affect the past. Earlier times are fixed, while we can still influence later times. The consequence argument points out that deterministic laws imply that the future isn’t really up for grabs; it’s determined by the present state just as surely as the past is. So we don’t really have choices about anything. (For purposes of this discussion we can ignore the question of whether the microscopic laws really are deterministic; all that really matters are that there are laws.)

The problem with this is that it mixes levels of description. If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei. Given our lack of complete microscopic information, the question we should be asking is, “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?” The reason why it might is precisely because we have different epistemic access to the past and the future. The low entropy of the past allows for the existence of “records” and “memories,” and consequently forces us to model the past as “settled.” We have no such restriction toward the future, which is why we model the future as something we can influence. From this perspective, free will is no more ruled out by the consequence argument than the Second Law of Thermodynamics is ruled out by microscopic reversibility.

None of this quite settles the question of whether “free will” is actually a crucial ingredient in the best theory of human beings we can imagine developing. I suspect it is, but I’m willing to change my mind as we learn more. The context in which it really matters is when we turn to questions of moral responsibility. Should we hold people who do bad things responsible for their actions — even if our understanding of neuroscience improves to such an extent that we can identify precisely which gene or neuron “made them do it?” (This is the focus of Eagleman’s article.)

This is a resolutely practical question — who gets thrown in jail? Criminal law has the concept of mens rea, guilty mind. We don’t find people guilty of crimes simply because they committed them; they had to be responsible, in the sense that they had the mental capacity to have known better. In other words: we have a model of human beings as rational agents, able to gather and process information, understand consequences, and make decisions. When they make the wrong ones, they deserve to be punished. People who are incapable of this kind of rationality — young children, the mentally ill — are not held responsible in the same way.

Might we someday understand the brain so well, reducing thought to a series of mechanical processes, that this model ceases to be useful? It seems possible, but unlikely. We know that air is made of molecules, but the laws of thermodynamics haven’t lost their usefulness. Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come. At least, that’s what I choose to think.

  1. This is an elegant description of the compatibilist position. But here’s interesting comparison for you: the reality of “free will” to you has a while lot in common with the reality of God to a liberal religious person like me. Is God a necessary and irreducible part of my physical worldview on the very lowest level? Probably not. But do I believe that the concept of God is valuable in describing the world of human beings, their experiences, and their beliefs? I do, and for many of the same reasons as you give for accepting the concept of free will.
    What’s more, the argument that you and some other atheists use against liberal concepts of the divine, that we are trying to redefine what has customarily been meant by “God” cutoff also be mass against a compatibilist definition of free will.
    So if this is ok for free will, why not for God?

  2. If I don’t have free will than I guess there’s no point in even commenting on this post since any such comment will have essentially been pre-determined at the time of the Big Bang (or, before) 😉 I might as well just respond with ‘random’ (whatever that is) letters: slkhjeuiyrycbnmzpughendxih, while awaiting to see how other human-robots respond.
    Seriously, I don’t believe the “free will” debate can be resolved (in foreseeable future), and falls into the class of arguments encompassed by the old quote: “If the brain was so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”


    Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.

    ON THE STEAMY first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them…


    WHILE OUR CURRENT style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.

    Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?

    The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive, underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society safe.

  4. ^Alex R:
    I think the answer to your question would be twofold:

    1. When we reject your redefinition of god, it is because we want to argue against the stronger kind. That is, we want to argue against the people who still believe in a god that is tangible, real and supernatural.

    2. I would argue that your kind of God is not nearly as interesting as Sean’s kind of free will. We can easily talk about nature, culture, psycology, neuroscience, economics, ethics etc. without appealing to any kind of God. Free will seems more difficult to get around.

  5. You make an excellent point when you state “Likewise, people who question the existence of free will don’t have any trouble making choices. (John Searle has joked that people who deny free will, when ordering at a restaurant, should say “just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.”) ”

    I don’t believe that a compatibilist or duality concept is the solution here. That is, I think it’s better to admit that we simply don’t understand how it is that we have the perception of conscious choice, when we can’t derive it from physics. My view is that it is wiser to admit that either our physics is incomplete or our perceptions are incomplete or both, and that we simply can’t answer this question empirically. However, all of us get of bed and choose to order this or that item at a restaurant or get angry at someone who hurt us can only do so if we believe in free will. We don’t know whether our beliefs are ultimately false and our actions are determined or whether physics and our perceptions simply are incomplete. The question simply can’t be answered at the moment. Free will is analogous to the hard problem of consciousness; it is better to admit that we simply don’t have adequate explanations. Good post.

  6. I agree with the critics of compatilism in this passage:

    “Critics of compatibilism often focus on the definition of free will: Incompatibilists may agree that the compatibilists are showing something to be compatible with determinism, but they think that something ought not to be called ‘free will’.

    Compatibilists are sometimes accused (by Incompatibilists) of actually being Hard Determinists who are motivated by a lack of a coherent, consonant moral belief system.

    Compatibilists are sometimes called ‘soft determinists’ pejoratively (William James’s term). James accused them of creating a ‘quagmire of evasion’ by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism. Immanuel Kant called it a ‘wretched subterfuge’ and ‘word jugglery.'”

    My problem with compatibilism is that it’s generally just an excuse to maintain the status quo in the criminal justice system and the ordering of society.

    Compatibilism has no use other than to resist societal changes that would reflect what we have learned from physics and biology.

    It would be far better just to accept that we don’t have “Free Will” as it is commonly thought of, rather than play compatibilist “word games” whose only purpose is to keep in place an unjust and obsolete social system.

    The article above shows the way.

  7. I think the big thing comes down to what it means to have a choice – what it means when someone says “I could have chosen differently.” Most of this is covered pretty well over at LessWrong by Eliezer, and it’s the first compatibilist explanation I had read for free will that actually made sense to me.

  8. ^Eric:
    This is also the essence of Dennet’s argument, which is wonderfully presented here:

    (edit: correct link now)

  9. Also, see Neuroethics Journal:

    “In Italy, a judge reduced the sentence of a defendant by 1 year in response to evidence for a genetic predisposition to violence. The best characterized of these genetic differences, those in the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), were cited as especially relevant. Several months previously in the USA, MAOA data contributed to a jury reducing charges from 1st degree murder (a capital offence) to voluntary manslaughter.”


  10. Compatibilism seems like it is redefining free will in order to make a definition of free will that is compatible with a universe that operates completely by the laws of physics. I don’t really see how choices could ever be considered to be free if they are fully determined by the laws of nature. I like how Alex R compared liberal theologians redefining what god is to compatiblists redefining what free will it. I think that’s a pretty good summary of the matter.

    On a side note, I wonder how a waiter at a restaurant would react if I ordered my food accordingly with Searle’s joke. Maybe I should try it, just for laughs.

  11. You make an excellent argument, one I agree with completely. In fact, I’d take it a little further:

    “If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? ”

    Even in principle, Laplace’s Demon doesn’t work. Assume for a second that it’s possible to measure the entire set of quantum states that affect some future set of states (of course that’s impossible, but just assume for argument’s sake). Now in order to compute that future state to an arbitrary degree of precision will require at least as much time as is available between the collection of the data and the time of the state being computed, even using some form of quantum emulation algorithm. The fastest computation with sufficient accuracy that current physics (and, I suspect, any future physics, though that’s a belief on my part) allows is an exact simulation of the quantum evolution of the starting state into the final solution state, and that’s just a copy of the physical system we’re trying to predict.

    That means that for every level of organization between the fundamental particle physics and the system you’re talking about there’s a gap of prediction: you can’t, even in principle, compute the causal connection between the low level events and the high level description. So the Consequence Argument fails because it cannot be appealed to even in principle. In a certain sense, we have to take the underpinning of the higher levels by the lower ones on faith. This doesn’t affect the arguments for accepting that underpinning; as long as experimentation continues to provide positive confirmation, we can continue to accept that our models work. That’s precisely the justification that we use in science even when we’re not dealing with the kind of epistemological gap that different levels of organization cause.

    What the failure of Laplace’s Demon does is it logically decouples levels of organization and gives us even more reason for considering the description of higher levels independently from the lower levels when talking about cause and effect on higher level descriptions.

  12. I think we compatibilists should allow that empirical understanding will probably keep modifying our picture of volition and responsibility around the edges, as it has been doing for awhile now. A future science powerful enough to change our view of ourselves in fundamental ways may be in the cards, but I think it’s too far away for us to sensibly imagine from here. Our basic concepts of personhood should prove useful for at least a few more millennia.

  13. “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?”

    ….but theory of humans must predict something…..but if theory predicts something then how can they be considered to have free choice??….humans become predictable the day someone finds a theory about them…….or theory turns out that there can’t be any theory about human being because they have free will and unpredictable……

  14. My tentative view is that free-will is the inability of an intelligent, self-aware mechanism to predict its own future actions due to the logical impossibility of any mechanism containing a complete internal model of itself rather than any inherent indeterminism in the mechanism’s operation. Oh, and I love baseball, but I’m not sure what that has to do with it 😉

  15. We understand “can” in “can I change the future?” as roughly synonymous with “if I wanted to, could I change the future?”. That conditional is certainly true, and that may be all we mean by free will. If I want to refill my coffee mug, then it will happen. The only reason it is already determined that it will not happen is that it is already determined that I don’t want to get up from my chair.

  16. Compatibilist free will is what Edward Fredkin calls “pseudo free will”, which he says definitely does exist. Is Fredkin one of the greatest philosophers of our era? Does Fredkin-Wolfram information underlie quantum information? Is there a decisive empirical test of the ideas of Fredkin and Wolfram? Is free will a gift from God? Fredkin claims that Fredkin’s mind is “in a simple state” and that quantum physics reduces to information processing no matter what. Can Fredkin’s ideas be empirically tested? According to Witten, “Whereas in ordinary physics one talks about spacetime and classical fields it may contain, in string theory one talks about an auxiliary two-dimensional field theory that contains the information.” Is Seiberg-Witten M-theory empirically valid if and only if (A) nature is infinite and (B) the Rañada-Milgrom effect is empirically valid? Is modified M-theory with Wolfram’s automaton empirically valid if and only if (C) nature is finite and (D) the space roar profile prediction is true?

  17. I think this is a particularly interesting topic because it gets at the roots of the human condition and it’s relationship to physics. Duality and the size scale of abstraction are the most relevant concepts, as Sean seems to have suggested. There is another concept that I also think is important and that is entropy. In entropy any fluid or gas of mixed states and unit container size will find a balance in which it will become more isotropic over time.

    However there will be instances over shorter lengths of time where gases and fluids of different
    energy and elocity states will become even more segregated with less mixing. This can be analogized to both criminal and exemplary human behavior. These people are outliers from statistical probability over shorter period of time. If a human is born into an unusually cruel or kind environment then this contributes to the probability of that person becoming a statistical outlier. But it doesn’t control all of it. There are many cases where people seem to act spontaneous good or
    bad that is undetermined by their upbringing. In actuality the former situation of horrible or terrific upbringing really can’t be considered anti-entropic changes because energy was brought to bear to make that person good or bad. But in the latter case where people spontaneously act good or bad it really should be considered a true cases of short time limit entropic reversal. Rupert Murdoch might be one those, but I don’t know his early influences.

  18. Following up on what I think FmsRse12 (#13) was getting at: in what sense can “free will” be part of a good theory of human behavior, apart from perhaps being another name for what we call “statistical noise” or “unexplained variation”? In this sense, it can never *explain* anything. “Free will” will always be that aspect of behavior that is unexplained, because it it were explained, we would cease to call it free. Thus “free will” explains nothing, and is completely unnecessary (and does not belong) in any real theory of human behavior.

  19. Well I for one find free will mysterious. To be able to say: “in exactly thirty seconds, I will throw this baseball through that window and cause the glass to shatter” and be correct seems like a form of magic in a mechanistic universe. Are we really saying that the universe already decided to throw the baseball in 30 seconds, and we are just fooled into believing that we made the decision?

    I don’t think it’s at all clear that volition, which to me is one of the properties that separates animate from inanimate matter, has been explained by current physical models. Where does life emerge from collections of particles, according to physics? I don’t see it anywhere, in theory or experiment. It seems more like a leap of faith than a proven fact. In any case, my head spins in circles trying to understand this problem…

  20. In an exercise of my non existent free will, I do endorse Mr 18.( Im sure you already pissed off a bunch of human behaviourists). Impecable physics, assuming you are one (physicist)

  21. Might i suggest that whatever philosophical view one chooses to hold re: “unrestrained willful choices,” that same view needs to apply to the larger kingdoms of life as well. We all play, make music, exhibit leisure, etc., all under the rubric of unrestrained, uninhibited choice.

  22. Speaking of free, my further opinion is that other really smart people aren’t necessarily as free as my years think they could be if they didn’t try so hard.

  23. Just as our knowledge is imperfect, so our choices are going to be imperfect, and contingent on local conditions and previous events. It may not be our fate to get run over by a drunk during rush hour, but events may trend that way.