Is There Any Acceptable Definition of Free-Will?

Yes, we can talk about free will. No, we don’t need to throw the notion in the garbage bin of meaninglessness.


Somebody wrote to me a private email pointing out that I wrote an essay on free will (Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 1 – The Origins of Free-Will Denial) and I didn’t even define it. While I have reasons not to define it I agree with him that it would have been better if I did. So I will try to remedy that here.

While defining one’s key terms is good practice and can be even expected when there is any risk of ambiguity, I think that free will is a special case. That’s because we do have an inner, first hand experience of free will. In a way it’s similar to how St. Augustine described time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

We experience time regardless if we understand it or not. (As a matter of fact I find the matter of time fascinating and I did quite a bit of research on it. My conclusion is that there are problems with the concept of time, for example the way that second and meter are defined leads to circular definition as both rely on the equation of velocity c = s/t where c, the speed of light, is given and you have two unkowns, s and t, which render the equation unsolvable—but that’s another topic for another post). In the same way we experience free will and have an intuitive notion of it regardless whether we can properly define it or not or whether we can explain it or not.

Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum is based on the same direct inner experience. He didn’t need any external proofs that he is in fact doubting or that he is thinking or existing. It was the mere inner experience of it.

But if we can say cogito ergo sum then maybe we can also say “I choose, therefore I’m free.” It is what, after all, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, did as he describes in Man’s Search for Meaningone of “the ten most influential books in the United States” (of course, some may need to reinterpret here what “influence” means along with what it means that the book has “merit”). He “concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering.” As Frankl says himself:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Just as our experience of doubting and thinking prove our own existence (a-la Descartes), our experience of choice may prove our own freedom.

To give another example, you can’t properly define all the words in a dictionary. If you try, you will end up with circular definitions (such as to be means to exist and vice-versa). What do we do then? Throw away the dictionary and give up on communication? No, we simply accept an intuitive notion of some basic terms even though we can’t properly define them. Guess what, everybody else has the same intuitive notion and we have no problem communicating.

The insistence that we should throw away the concept of free will as meaningless has its roots in the logical positivists’ insistence that there are verifiable statements and the rest are unintelligible or pseudostatements. But it is with good reason that logical positivism fell out of favor. As philosopher Thomas Nagel says1 “logical positivism can be eliminated immediately” by applying its claim to itself. This renders it self-defeating. But the same is the situation with free will denial (since it’s related to logical positivism). If you treat the most basic terms in a language as meaningless because can’t establish a “proper definition” for them then you end up with virtually the whole vocabulary being meaningless as all the rest of the terms are ultimately defined in terms of the basic terms. Then the statement “free will is meaningless” is meaningless as well!

That’s, of course, an extreme position that the free will deniers don’t take. Because they are fine with undefined terms and with intuitive notions. But the inconsistency is here: if we find both inner experience and intuitive notions acceptable, then why isn’t the intuitive notion of free will acceptable? Why isn’t a direct, inner experience-based or phenomenological definition of free will acceptable? Things that cannot be properly expressed in words are not few. And things to which language just doesn’t do justice are even more. And “free will” is a prime example.

We can build on this intuitive definition even though not as much as what free will is but more in terms of what it is not (to be done in later posts). However, for the purpose of communication, the intuitive, phenomenological notion does suffice (as we do communicate about time, Descartes’ thoughts and the undefinable terms of a dictionary). The insistence of having a “regular” definition is unwarranted (as it is in other cases I pointed out). After all, free will is not your regular thing. In fact, it’s hard to pick anything more unusual than it. That’s of course if it turns out that it’s not an illusion. If it is, then, well, you can’t really pick anything at all. But at this point, regardless if it is an illusion or not, we can still have a discussion about it. There is no need to throw it in the garbage bin of meaninglessness as though nobody has the vaguest idea what they are talking about. They may not have an explanation but they do know what they are talking about.

This intuitive definition is not an ostensive definition. The problem with ostensive is that requires something external to point to. Free will, however, is an internal experience. An ostensive definition is needed when the other person doesn’t know what you are talking about. However here you have the same experience of free will that I have. The matter is not that you don’t know what I’m talking about. The problem is that you can’t comprehend to your satisfaction what I’m talking about (aka what you are experiencing). Now calling my experience “free will” should suffice to point to the same kind of experience that you have.

Having said that, I could still go further in describing it. While we all experience the passage of time we can’t directly point to it. It’s an inner experience. But we can give enough external clues to point to the same experience in the other person.

Therefore to spell out this intuitive definition, it’s the experience that the outcome of my choices are actions and not mere reactions. That I can make a difference in my life and I’m not just a spectator to my life. That the possible alternatives that I’m facing are, until the moment of my decision, open-ended and not predetermined. That I’m an agent and not merely a robot.

[Note: Last three paragraphs added on 6/28/2017]



The Last Word by Thomas Nagel, a more complete quote:

It is usually a good strategy to ask whether a general claim about truth or meaning applies to itself. Many theories, like logical positivism, can be eliminated immediately by this test.

Author: Adrian M Chira

I'm interest in goal achievement and productivity. I'm developing an online system to help people achieve their goals. I'm also writing a book that goes with it and I started the Wordpress blog to discuss some of the topics from the book. I'm also interested in science (particularly theoretical physics, some areas of mathematics and biology), apologetics, theology, philosophy, computing and technology.

28 thoughts on “Is There Any Acceptable Definition of Free-Will?”

  1. Pragmatism suggests that we observe how the word or concept is used in operation. Dictionary writers scan literature for examples of how a word is used in discourse. And they come up with two primary definitions of “free will”, here are three examples:

    Mirriam-Webster on-line:
    1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
    2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

    Short Oxford English Dictionary:
    1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
    2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

    1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
    2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

    The first is usually the most commonly used definition, how it is used ordinarily in everyday speech. I paraphrase it this way: “free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.”

    The second is the one you run into in philosophy classes. I paraphrase it this way: “freedom from causal necessity/inevitability”.

    Whether free will exists or not is entirely decided by which definition you choose. (See the opening of William James’s Lecture II in “Pragmatism”.)


  2. It’s OK not to have an explicit definition, but even the intuitive notion of free will leads either to triviality (free will is when I do what I want to do) or nonsense (free will is not compatible with my behaviour being either determined or random).


    1. The intuitive notion of free will is that I have decided what I will do. It distinguishes my own choices from those cases where the choice was made by someone else. For example, after the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, they hijacked a car, and forced the driver, at gunpoint, to assist them in getting to New York, where they planned to set off the rest of their ordinance. The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” because he was not acting of his own free will. This is a significant distinction made by the law. It is not a “trivial” matter.


      1. It’s not trivial in the sense of being unimportant, but it is trivial as a philosophical position, because it doesn’t capture the idea that ordinary people have when they use the term “free will”, which is that they have the ability to make decisions without being constrained by prior events, and without the decision being random.


      2. I’m pretty sure that most ordinary people, if asked, could give you the reasons why they made their decision. And they would have no problem stating that “these are the reasons that caused me to make that choice”. If you ask them 5 minutes later, they will make the same choice for the same reasons. And they will tell you they will continue to make the same choice as until they have a new or better reason to make a different choice.

        And they are also aware when they make a random choice. If two options are equally desirable (or equally undesirable) they may flip a coin to decide. This is also reasonable.

        But no one is going to claim that they make serious choices randomly, for no reason at all. If they did they would be considered literally unreasonable, if not crazy.

        Now, as to the philosophical assertion that external forces are controlling their destiny, and operating them like puppets, well, of course they would object. As would I. Because that assertion is demonstrably false.


      3. I make the choices I make because of the way my brain is configured. I could have made different choices only if my brain had been configured differently.

        The hands of a mechanical clock move the way they do because of the way the clock is configured. They could have moved differently only if the clock had been configured differently.

        It’s not correct to say that I am controlled like a puppet by my brain configuration and the laws of physics since I *am* my brain configuration and the laws of physics.

        It’s not correct to say that the clock is controlled like a puppet by its configuration and the laws of physics since the clock *is* its configuration and the laws of physics.

        Most people don’t like the clock analogy, and would claim that they are able to change their behaviour by exercising their free will, while the clock is not. But this is false; the clock and the human are equally constrained. If you think this situation is compatible with free will, then fine, free will is meaningful and exists. But I would still say that it is philosophically uninteresting, beyond the interest in clarifying that the other sort of free will is meaningless.


      4. The first distinction we need to make between a person and a clock is that the clock as no “interest” in how it is configured or in what it does. The clock is configured by a person, to perform a “purpose” owned by the person.

        The person, unlike the clock, is also a biological organism and an intelligent species. As a biological organism, the person come with a built-in purpose to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As an intelligent species the person also comes with a brain capable of imagining alternative ways to accomplish its purpose, model how these options might play out, and choose the one that seems most likely to produce the best results.

        The person, unlike the clock, participates in the configuration of its own mind. For example, a baby comes into the world crying for food, warmth, and general attention to its needs. It is not passively shaped, like the clock, but actively “negotiates” with its environment to get what it needs (as every parent learns).

        Within the entire universe, self-serving, “purposeful behavior” is only found within living organisms and their species.

        Within the entire universe, “deliberate behavior” is only found within intelligent species of living organisms. It is at this level of organization that free will emerges as a new and meaningful property of a living object.

        Now, as soon as purposeful and deliberate behavior emerges, we are beyond the “natural laws of physics”. I am not saying that the laws of physics are ever broken, but only that the laws of physics do not “cover” everything. If they did, then Physics would be the only science. But it is not.

        To understand and predict the behavior of living organisms we require the life sciences, like biology, genetics, and physiology. To understand and predict the behavior of intelligent species we need the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, ethology.

        The physical, life, and social sciences derive their “natural laws” by observing different classes of objects. And because Physics primarily observes inanimate objects it is not qualified to inform us on questions about the behavior of ants much less matters of human behavior. Physics can explain why the apple fell on Newton’s head, but not why it ended up in Johnny’s lunchbox 200 miles from the tree.

        And if the physicist wishes to claim that all other sciences reduce to physics, then we can remind him that physics itself reduces to quantum mechanics. And if quantum mechanics were able to predict the natural laws of physics, we’d have no need of physics.


      5. We could imagine some alterations to the clock: it is aware of what it is doing and announces it (“it’s now 10:02 PM, which is a very good time, much better than 10:01 PM”); it speeds up and slows down according to the weather; it has preferences for a particular speed and it continually adjusts itself as the weather changes; its preferences for a particular speed change according to the speed and according to the weather, in a complex feedback loop. What exactly the clock will do is completely determined, but unpredictable by the clock itself or by any external observer, due to the nature of complex systems. Does this clock now have free will?


      6. You keep introducing indeterminism as if had some special meaning to the issue. It doesn’t. My behavior can be perfectly predictable, and I still have free will. When I act of my own free will, then it is authentically me that is making the decision as to what I will do. “Who and what I am” at the moment that I make my choice is identical to “that which chooses”. I only lack free will when “that which chooses” is something other than “me”.

        And that’s the game that the hard determinist plays. He attempts to convince me that “something other than me” is controlling the choice.

        I am alone in a room with a bowl of apples. If I feel hungry, and choose to eat an apple, then the hunger is me, the calculation as to the best way to satisfy that hunger is my own, and soon even the apple will be me. Any cause prior to me must first become a part of me before it can influence my choice in any way. I am alone in a room with a bowl of apples.


      7. Oh, and the clock must first HAVE a will of its own before it can be said to have a “free” will or an “unfree” will. The clock exists only to serve the clockmaker’s will. It has no will of its own.


  3. The clock has a will: it wants to tell the time, it tries to run at a particular speed, it declares it’s disappointment if it fails to attain this speed. What more do you want it to do?


      1. The modified clock I described is affected by the weather, speeding up and slowing down, but has a preference for a particular speed (perhaps measured against an external clock) and can adjust itself in order to achieve this. As an added twist, its preferred speed changes according to its current speed and the weather.


      2. The point is that the clock is a machine. A machine is a tool created by a living organism to serve a purpose that is owned by that life form, and not owned by the clock. The clock is not a willful object. Every living organism, on the other hand, comes with a built-in purpose, a kind of “biological will”, to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And this is the difference between a living organism and a machine.


      3. I don’t see how the way the clock or the human originated could have anything to do with the issue we are discussing. What if the clock were assembled by random processes on a distant planet? What if the human were assembled in the future through advanced bioengineering?


      4. It is not a question of origination. The clock has no purpose of its own. The living organism does. If you want to play Walt Disney and bring the clock to life as in “Beauty and the Beast”, then we’d have a better analogy.

        The clock, like a thermostat, or a programmed drone can perform calculations and control its behavior. But all three of these serve the will of a living organism which created them to serve its purpose. The living organism comes with its own built-in purpose. And you will not find purpose anyplace else in the universe. Purpose emerges with living organisms. Deliberate will emerges with intelligent species.

        An intelligent species can create machines to serve its purposes. But the machine has no purpose of its own.


      5. If a machine arises spontaneously from random processes (which while improbable is possible) then it does not “serve the will of a living organism”. Instead, “it comes with its own built-in purpose”.


      6. The only “machines” that have (a) arisen spontaneously from random processes AND (b) which come with a built-in purpose are what we humans call “living organisms”. If you have some other example then please bring it to the table.


      7. As I said, it is entirely possible that any machine could arise spontaneously. It is perfectly valid to bring this example up in a philosophical discussion. A counterargument would be that it is logically impossible, and you haven’t provided such an argument.


      8. As I said, a machine is a tool that a person creates to serve his or her purpose. All things that ARE machines are created by living organisms. We started this line of discussion because you were suggesting that a living organism was no more than a machine, specifically a “clock”. To summarize then, living organisms may appear similar to machines in many ways. But they are different from machines in that the living organism comes with its own built-in purpose, to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce. A machine has no purpose of its own.


      9. But you haven’t answered what you would make of a machine that arose spontaneously, or argued that you don’t have to answer because such a thing is logically impossible. If I proposed that we collect self-assembled machines and sell them for profit you would rightly claim that this was a stupid idea. But we are not discussing business ventures, we are discussing philosophy.


      10. If we are going to discuss philosophy, then I would suggest that it should clean up its act. Philosophy should help us to think more clearly and avoid creating silly paradoxes like determinism “versus” free will. When properly defined, there is no conflict, no “versus”, no paradox, and nothing to debate. So, let’s resolve this matter once and for all.

        Determinism asserts that objects and forces in our universe behave and interact in a reliable fashion, as if they were “obeying laws”, such that we could, at least “in theory”, with sufficient knowledge of the current state and with sufficient calculation power, predict with 100% accuracy every future event. However, “in practice”, we have difficulty even predicting whether it will rain tomorrow.

        But from this belief in reliable causes and effects, science sustains its hope of discovering the specific causes of specific effects, like the causes of diseases and other events that impact our lives. This knowledge empowers us to change ourselves and our environment for the better. It gives us greater control over our own future as individuals, as a society, and as a species.

        This hopeful message is stomped on by the so-called “hard determinists”, who try to convince us that rather than empowering us, reliable causation enslaves us. Rather than giving us greater control, the hard determinist tells us we have no control at all, and that every thing is controlled by what came before us, as if prior causes “played on through” as if we did not exist at all. (I keep telling myself that I’ll write a post one day called, “Hard Determinism as Mental Illness”).

        The delusional state of hard determinism assigns all causal agency to the abstract idea of causation, as if the abstract idea were an actor on the stage. But it’s not. Determinism does not “do” anything. Only the real objects and forces actually do anything.

        And guess what? We happen to be one of those real objects. And we have properties drawn from three classes of causation: physical (passive), biological (purposeful), and rational (deliberate).

        And when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence, then we are said to have freely formed our will. And when we act upon this will, we are a force of nature.


      11. If free will is just the idea that we do what we want to do in the absence of external coercion, then there is no problem. This is the position of the compatibilists, like Daniel Dennett. The problem arises because some philosophers, and many laypeople, have a different idea of free will, and believe they are not actually free if their future behaviour is either fixed as a result of past events or random; and it is this which is nonsensical.


      12. What is nonsensical is to say that the future is “fixed as a result of past events”. Obviously the future can only be “fixed” by future events. If the future is brought about by an inevitable chain of causation, then no future event can actually occur until the event that is its final prior cause has happened.

        Determinism can safely assert that the future can only turn out one way.

        It can also safely assert that, everything that will occur at any point in eternity could “theoretically” be predicted from any prior point. However no determinist would claim this to be a “practical” possibility. The best we will ever be able to do is to pin specific events to specific causes and to estimate the probability of how things are more likely to turn out if we make this choice rather than that choice.

        But no determinist could rationally assert that the future has already happened. One might say in a literary sense that it is AS IF it had already happened. But literally, nothing can happen until the full chain of causal events, including those ahead of us, has played itself out.

        If, for example, some future event will be caused due to our choice to bring it about, then our choosing will in fact occur, and our acting upon that choice will in fact bring it about. And in the whole set of causation leading up to that event, our choosing to bring it about is likely to be the most meaningful and relevant cause in the chain.

        For example: I’m hungry. Looking through the refrigerator I find an apple. I eat the apple. The most meaningful and relevant causes of the apple being eaten are all part of me. There are no prior causes that had any “interest” in whether or not I ate the apple. Eating the apple served my purpose and my reasons. No one forced me to eat the apple against my will. So I was “free” to choose what I would do.

        Just one more thing. There was also a pear in the fridge. So I was also free to choose that instead, if I had wanted to.


      13. One type of philosopher agree with everything you have said and call themselves “compatibilists”; Daniel Dennett is an example. Another type agree with everything you have said but don’t think that “free will” is the correct term to use for it; Sam Harris is an example. I suppose it comes down to semantics rather than substantive philosophical differences.


      14. It comes down to the sensible definitions of determinism and free will. To the degree that you define determinism as “the absence of free will” or define free will as “the absence of determinism” you create an artificial incompatibility. So, DON’T DO THAT.

        We need the presumption of reliable cause and effect. We also need to distinguish between an act of one’s own free will versus an act forced upon you or one you are manipulated into that is against your will.

        If we presume that every event is always causally inevitable, then we still have to distinguish between (a) the event where it was causally inevitable that you would act according to your own free will, versus (b) the event where it was causally inevitable that someone else would coerce or manipulate you to act against your will.

        The point here is that causal inevitability itself does not remove the need for the free will versus unfree will distinction.

        Now, if we assume that universal causal inevitability is always present in everything that ever happens, then it becomes unnecessary to ever mention it or to even think about it. After all, it is in knowing the specific causes of specific events that gives us all of the benefits of reliable cause and effect (determinism). The fact of causal inevitability, on the other hand, is useless. It makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It cannot help you decide any issue because it always comes down equally on both sides of every issue. It is like a constant that appears on both sides of every equation and which can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

        For example, in the discussion of free will above, we can remove the “If we presume that every event is always causally inevitable, then”, and we can remove “it was causally inevitable that” from both (a) and (b). And that leaves us with the ordinary language=>”We have to distinguish between (a) the event where you act according to your own free will, versus (b) the event where someone else coerces or manipulates you to act against your will.”

        But our friendly neighborhood hard determinist objects. He calls the rest of us crazy for not explicitly taking causal inevitability into account at every turn. And he draws a lot of irrational “implications” from causal inevitability that totally disrupt practical concepts, like “free will”, “possibility”, “could have”, “responsibility”, “justice”, “praise”, “blame”, and the very idea of a human being as a “person”.

        The fact of universal causal inevitability is useless. The only rational thing to do with it is to acknowledge it and then ignore it. And that is what we ordinary folk do.

        Otherwise we’d have scenarios like this: A man walks into the restaurant and sits at the table. Our waiter, who is a hard determinist, comes over to take his order:
        Man: “What are my options for dinner tonight?”
        Waiter: “There is only one possibility.”
        Man: “Oh. And what is that?”
        Waiter: “I cannot tell you until you make your choice.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s