Unknotting free-will

NOTE HXA7241 2021-04-25T07:47Z

‘Free-will’ can be unscrambled by seeing it as two things: individual freedom, and the conscious feeling of that.

What does ‘free-will’ add to any model? How does it help in understanding or doing anything? How would we tell the difference between gaps in our understanding, our models, due to lack of knowledge, and gaps due to ‘free’-ness of will? How does anyone even know anyone has it?

Why do we not attribute ‘free-will’ to the weather? Because we could ‘in principle’ understand it, but not the same with humans? And if you did say the weather has ‘free-will’, what would have changed?


Does not the universe-model-circularity problem occur for the individual person too? A universe cannot contain a complete model of itself, because that is circular. The same for a person: a person cannot have a complete model of themself, because that would be circular. So people cannot (a priori) regard themselves as deterministic, or not so.

(Replace humans with turing machines, and re-ask the question.). How could a turing machine introspectively detect whether it had ‘free-will’ ‒ whether there was a gap, that it was not fully determined by inputs? It seems plausible that a turing machine could tell if another had ‘free-will’: set up the inputs for the other, in multiple trials, and see if it behaves differently. Although for a complex long-lived system, that will be arbitrarily difficult, and impractical at a level comparable with humans.


‘Free-will’ only exists within the domain of plain material choices, and is entirely usefully described by that ‒ an agent, faced with the same options at different times, can respond differently. That is all ‘free-will’ is and can talk about, all that is subject to it. You can only do what is physically possible ‒ all your choices, your freedom, happens in that domain, and that is the only way in which your choices matter, and your choices are all ‘free-will’ is about.

But then what is the idea of ‘free-will’ ‒ the mystical feeling ‒ adding? Everything is captured by describing the conditions and what happens. Not only everything that you can do is describable just with the plain facts, there is no other way to describe it. ‘Free-will’ adds nothing at all and does nothing at all.

‘Free-will’ is incoherent: it wants to exist outside the material it requires for it to have any meaning.


You cannot know whether you have ‘free-will’ or not, just by introspection ‒ could a turing machine? No. And other people's ‘free-will’ is subsumed in assessment of their material actions and adds nothing to that. And it is an incoherent idea. So really what is the fuss about?

Instead, think of it like this: ‘free-will’ is the feeling of ‘acting/performing’ an abstraction – to act within a bounded choice, within structured but incomplete knowledge. Humans act within certain patterns ‒ that is easy to accept. Even if and when we make detailed choices, that will still be true ‒ otherwise, with no patterns, we would be jittering around randomly. And this patternedness can be true whether or not those choices are (wholly) determined. That conformance to pattern is rendered as a feeling of ‘free-will’ by consciousness. Acting within the leeway of a known pattern has a particular feeling ‒ it feels like ‘free-will’.