You Don't Have Free Will, but Don't Worry?

I think the problem here is that “free will” isn’t well defined, particularly the distinction between libertarian and compatibilist free will. I’d say that compatibilist free will isn’t what the term usually means, while libertarian free will is incoherent. So where does that leave us?


I agree with that. I often wonder whether people are really arguing about the meaning of “free will”.

I’d have to become familiar with the difference between these. She defines free will as “in this present moment, there are several futures which are possible, and your free will plays a role in selecting which one of those possible futures becomes a reality.”

I don’t think she’s saying it’s an illusion, rather that outcome is predetermined.

Yes, I thought that was a pretty good definition of “free will”.

The libertarian version of free will insists on that. It insists that “we could have chosen differently”.

The compatibilist version of free will is silent on whether our choice affects the future. It is compatible with determinism, and determinism would rule out affecting the future. But compatibilism doesn’t require determinism, and we could be in a world where choices do affect the future. So I suppose that becomes a question for cosmologists, though not a question that they could actually settle.

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This thread from a little while ago might interest you:

I linked to the post where @John_Harshman and I begin to go back and forth there on whether free will is incoherent - I won’t rehash that here - but the main topic of that thread is pertinent to this one as well.

As far as this topic goes, I think @nwrickert is correct that the activity of science presupposes the (in some sense free) choices of scientists - the argument of Bell’s theorem famously depends on this assumption, for example - so science cannot disprove free will without undermining itself. Even if our best models of physics are deterministic, the correct conclusion is not that free will is an illusion, but instead that physics isn’t the whole story.


7 posts were split to a new topic: Comments on Tim and Matt on Free Will

If this is true, then the definition is circular, because it uses the term “free will” in the definition of “free will”.

I agree. I’d have to watch it again to see if she gives a definition that isn’t circular. But that’s definitely the popular sense of it.

You will note, then, that the popular sense is incoherent. It’s saying “Free will is, like, you know, free will.”

Spoken like someone who has heard a lot of college students offer explanations for complex phenomena! :joy:

16 posts were split to a new topic: Tim and Matt on Free Will

You’ll note I said that.

Lol. If you make comments like this, I’ll assume you’re just trolling me :wink:


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I’m currently watching another interesting discussion of free will:

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I both loved and hated those books :rofl: But her point was that there’s only one story. No choose your own adventure. Sorry Dan.

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Free will is generally defined with reference to making a choice, which is reasonable. The usual idea of selection of what possible future becomes a reality, however, is just an endpoint. A significant decision is the result of an inner deliberation where a number of “choices” are made internally as we argue with our self. Throughout this whole process, we select possible futures with regards to the material world, as thinking in language lights up the brain in different ways when using specific words. That is as much an alteration of the physical universe as pressing the trolley switch. So whatever is true of free will in terms of choices, is just as true as concerning our internal state of sentient consciousness long before the so called moment of decision. Do we have free consciousness?

I once heard that the job of the conscious mind is to rationalize the deterministic decisions that have already been made by the subconscious mind. If you start with a specific mind in a specific neuronal state and expose this system to a specific stimuli will you always get the same decision? I suspect we would.

However, the illusion of free will is good enough for me. Even though a roller coaster follows a deterministic path it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment I get out of it.


Hi @dga471,

From Dr. Hossenfelder’s speech:

We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science.

Any idea what experimental results she’s alluding to here? Because if she’s right on this particular point, then her conclusion follows. Many thanks.

I haven’t watched the whole video, but I’ve read her making similar remarks before. I think she is just referring to the success of modern physics in general. It is a classic reductionist statement, as is evident here (emphases mine):

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles. A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it. Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence. We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

Of course, even if one is a reductionist, anyone who has read even a little bit on the philosophy of science on reductionism would see that the above statement is incredibly simplistic and naive. Non-reductionists are not simply “denying scientific evidence”. Rather there is a debate on the precise philosophical implications of the scientific evidence.

And of course there has also been a centuries-long debate on what free will is, as we’ve seen in this and related threads. I skimmed through Sabine’s blog post and I am not very interested to engage about it, since it doesn’t seem to be aware of the deep philosophical literature on the subject. It reminds me of 2000s-era, anti-intellectual New Atheism which ran roughshod over centuries of careful philosophical debate by claiming “science” and “Courtier’s reply”.

You can also see one of her posts last week where Sabine talks about these laws of physics (Sabine Hossenfelder: Backreaction: What are Differential Equations and how do they work?). As you can see she doesn’t really invoke any particular experiment or discovery, just the general success of physics in predicting natural phenomena and using that to make a literally Laplacian argument for determinism. Honestly, even past discussions on determinism and physics on this forum (including several trained physicists) have been more illuminating and interesting: Predictability Problems in Physics.


I took it as a general reference to physics.

And I disagree with that. What I choose to eat today will affect which particles are part of my body tomorrow. Her account is too simplified. If you want to use particle physics for this, it cannot be just the particle physics of one person’s body. You have to include the particles that the person might ingest, breath, etc.