A great many people believe that they’re in some way in charge of their own actions, that they are free to choose what they do or think next.

And yet, everything we’ve discovered in Science over the last 200 years has told us precisely a different story…

that ‘Nature’ apparently has no hiding place for freewill.

Do what you will with Quantum Mechanics, Collapsing Wave-functions, Probability Distributions, Chaos and/or Indeterminism… we just can’t squeeze freewill into our equations. In fact it is worse than that, adding freewill to the scientific corpus feels like grafting some frankensteinian appendage upon an otherwise beautiful ouverage.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. Being primarily a scientific materialist and a believer in the Natural as supposed to the Supernatural, it is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

Am I to believe in the Einsteinian Block Universe in which the past, present and future exist in some frozen, immutable state? Or seek refuge in an Everettian multiverse where everything that could ever happen actually does, continually multiplying into hyper-infinity? Or some other preposterous scheme of 11-dimensional rolled up space-time warpage?

What kind of choices are these bleak/freakish worlds? Devoid of pretty much everything it means to be human?

How are we to reconcile these worlds with our intuition of freewill and where do we have to compromise?

Are we to be compatibilists like Daniel C. Dennet, or incompatibilists like Sam Harris?

Their online exchanges tell a lot about what is at stake and where the tensions in the secular world lie. I recommend their writings whole-heartedly. Flame wars are not my thing so let’s leave these duelling philosophers to their own devises and carry on...

It seems clear that on the one hand we have a group of people saying,

“Hey look, we know what the science and math say, there’s no freewill in the absolute sense. But, with enough training, winking and a large magnifying lens we can contort the meaning of freewill enough to asymptotically approach what it feels like to be free. Like democracy. There is no absolute democracy, and most forms of it out there are a joke but nevertheless democracy does exist with all its flaws and blemishes. There is no ideal democracy but real ones exist all the same.”

On the other-side we have a different group of people saying,

“Look mate, get over it. The whole thing is an illusion. There is no freewill in any meaningful sense, pretending is pretending and no I am not willing to make any contortions, thank you. By the way, we are not into gymnastics.”

Of course there is a third group, we could call them theists / spiritualists, who believe that there is some other thing that is completely different from everything else which accounts for freewill, be it God, ether, a new force of nature, microtubules or a combination of the above. But we leave these lot to their own devices as it is a matter of their faith not scientific discussion.

It boils down to one word, our interpretation of it and the weight we give it.


There are actually two rather strikingly different ways of looking at it that both make sense and yet lead to vastly differing conclusions.

  1. every effect has a prior cause which are set by the laws of nature. In a sense nothing is really free because every effect was preceded by a cause, which cannot be chosen. There is no choice at the atomic and subatomic level. Everything in the macroscopic world is nothing but an amalgamation of all the causes and effects in the microscopic world. No choices can be seen anywhere. Period. No buts, no ums…
  2. freewill is like entropy. It is a macroscopic phenomenon. The rise in Entropy only makes sense when we measure macroscopic properties of a system. The Temperature of a gas only makes sense when summing over all the gas molecules. Complex systems, such as ourselves, have evolved to have physical bodies with an enormous variety of capabilities and states. What we need to focus on is not the evolution of micro-states but on macroscopic phenomenon. Determinism is an ally and a synonym for the “the laws of nature”. The laws of nature conspire to create freewill just as gravity conspires to create galaxies and the nuclear forces conspire with it to create the sun and the stars within them.
Freewill is like entropy

In fact, do triangle exists?

It was once a big question and oceans of ink have been spilt over the meanings of words like ‘exist’ and ‘knowledge’, over whether the world is empirical or ideal, whether there is a platonic existence or not. It has been a great adventure and I for one have personally enjoyed reading almost every word of it.

I no longer believe these are interesting questions however. The idea of triangles is very important indeed. So much so that we wouldn’t have even rudimentary 1st century science without it. Real or not, who cares. They are bloody useful.

Whether freewill is ‘real’, similarly is not as important as what the idea means and how we can use it. We can study the idea, dissect it, combine it with others and build utterly beautiful and ultimately useful concepts.

a study

from a simple systems view point what happens physically in nature is something like the diagram below. Let our blue box be a particle or the fluctuation in some vector field or something like it… if we consider all the inputs, we can apply some set of transforming rules (i.e. the laws of nature) and determine the output. Even with probabilistic models (read Quantum Mechanics), the output, a set of possible outcomes, is determined, these outcomes are not free to be chosen.

simple systems

When we add complexity it start to look like this…

more complex systems

and when systems get very large and complex, zooming out, what we see looks like this…

very complex system

we can no longer distinguish or track individual causes and effects. Water is a very complex system. we can no longer track each individual water molecule. And when things get even more complex, zooming out, it start to looks more like this…

massively complex system

The amorphous starts to differentiate again on larger scales and it is not till you get to universal scales (on the order of the size of the universe) do thing get homogeneous again.

What actually starts happening once simple systems get complex is that inputs do not directly produce predictable outputs. Inputs are treated as information within a complex systems. Inputs only add information to massive systems and how the systems responds is determined by the new information and ALL the previous information within the system. that previous information can be looked at as memory.

So the system receives information in, which then is integrated with the systems previous memory, only then is a discernable output produced if at all. In fact things may get arbitrarily so complex that macroscopically we can no longer distinguish which inputs create which outputs. We see inputs and outputs and may be able to infer patterns, but this is a very far cry from the simple determinism we saw in first diagram.

We are already beginning to see this with computers but many people will complain that computers will never become conscious. They certainly don’t appear to be now. But that’s missing the point. Computers built today lack complexity. They are simple machines with large memories that run very very very fast indeed but also simply. One look into the Von Neumann architecture that governs most computer design will confirm this to you.

Furthermore computers lack the massive parallelism we see in nature. They are effectively single threaded or close to it. They lack massive feedback loops and self-reflectivity that we see in mammalian brain architecture. Basically they lack every form of important complexity we need to create massively complex systems. Hence they don’t display freewill.

embodied simulation

A System may get so complex that it is able to represent its set of inputs within itself. This ability is also called embodied simulation and may well go a long way to explain what we actually feel when we are expressing ourselves as free agents. What embodied simulation means is that a system is able to simulate internally both its external environment as well as its own internal environment. i.e. it could have a working simulation of itself within itself.

This reflection of the external internally is used so that the system then conversely re-reflects the internal externally through its actions. And hence we fashion the environment to our expectations. We build houses and industries, mine the earth for minerals and produce paintings.

This is a subtle point but is the crux of the argument on freewill. Think of energy sources and entropy. Energy sources like petrol are amazing sources of energy because of the fantastic concentration of ordered chemical energy. Similarly freewill is a concentration of information-memory and order within a system in an environment... so much so that it may start appearing that the system starts to affect the environment and not the other way around. Our system appears the be an agent with it own volition. Not dictated by its surrounding environment but somewhat in control of it.

This is our will and we can feel it, because it is embodied internally.

So what is freewill and does it exist?

I don’t know. I don’t know about freewill, but

I do know we have plain old will.

A great many people believe that they’re in some way in charge of their own actions, that they are free to choose what they do or think next.

I think this is true although not absolutely.

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