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.

Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 1 – The Origins of Free-Will Denial

Investigating what set the stage for free-will denial


I heard about an add in a newspaper which read: “Free help for the illiterate. Write for details.” followed by the address where the illiterate were supposed to write to. The situation is similar here. The title of this blog might be instead “Good news for those deprived of free will. Read on for more details.” But this blog cannot possibly change anybody’s mind if the reader does not have free will. Life would then be a strictly scripted play and no change from the script would be allowed.

While the vast majority of people believe in free will, there are some which don’t. As one could expect, they are materialists. They believe everything is reducible to matter and, given the insurmountable problem of getting fee will out of matter, they decide that we don’t actually have free will. An example is Sam Harris who, in his book Free Willcalls free will an “illusion.” Sam Harris is one of the “four horsemen” of new atheism along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

Harris claims’ are not new. This point was made by behaviorists, for example by J.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity back in 1971. Skinner derides the illusion of free will or “autonomous man,” as he calls it. He says “What is being abolished is autonomous man—the inner man, the homonuculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity.”

However, the rejection of free will is a modern phenomenon. You would think that this tendency simply outgrew from scientific progress made by neuroscience and other fields such as behaviorism. However, I suggest that these are not enough to explain it. There were two ideological developments of modernism that laid the groundwork for free-will denial. One is indeed related to science. More exactly it’s related to a reductionist and materialist view of science or scientism. It started with logical positivism early in the last century.

Science, however, does not require scientism. Understanding how things work does not require in anyway that everything is reducible to that understanding. Newton, for example, who is often considered the greatest physicist of all time did not think that physics is incompatible with metaphysics. He saw the hand of God beyond the reach of science, especially as it pertains to origins. As a matter of fact he wrote more on theology than he wrote on science. Another example is Einstein who exalts the mysterious, the impenetrable—that which is beyond our limited knowledge of science. He says1:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science… To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

In this sense, Einstein say, he is “deeply religious.” While he did not believe in a personal God, he believed in Spinoza’s God who “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” To him, getting to know this harmony did not exclude a mind behind it. On the contrary, it revealed “the mind of God” as he famously said “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.”

Besides this reductionist view of science, a second factor that contributed to the advance of free-will denial is related to humanism. The “forward thinking” and “progress” that was touted (aka, departure from traditional views) proclaimed that humans are essentially good. This, along with dethroning God, was simply a side effect of exalting humans. This implied saving humans from the “fearful grip of religion” and liberating them from the guilt that came with it. In 1972, one years after Skinner wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Karl Menninger, reknown psychiatrist and a founder of the world famous Menninger center of psychiatry, wrote Whatever Became of Sin?—a book that is even more timely now than when it was written. A point made in it is that the word sin “has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, but the sense of guilt remains in our hearts and minds.” But many humanists continued to push hard the “humanist progress” and to remove this sense of guilt and responsibility as well. From “the devil made me do it” to “the environment made me do it,” or “the genes made me do it,” human responsibility has been constantly eroded and people have been declared free of guilt. Therefore the problem is no longer with the person in question but rather with external factors2 which the person doesn’t have control over. These external factors are meant to explain one’s actions and behavior and, along with that, to release one from guilt. Those external factors are now to blame. Bad, guilty humans are incompatible with the positive outlook that humanists have on humans. Thus, instead of raising responsible people, the humanists are inevitably raising victims. Indeed, I-am-a-victim thinking and culture is so prevalent today and it came at the cost of personal responsibility. More and more, the attitude is now: “You cant’ blame me. I’m the victim here—victim of my genes, my environment, my upbringing, and a plethora of other external factors. I have no fault in all this.” This attitude is simple a forerunner of the position that humans have no free will. While the latter may seem radical it’s only a few steps further down the same path of “humanistic progress.”

The two factors go hand in hand. The more science explained why one acted the way it did, the more excuses one has for acting the way one did. Both of them are a drastic departure from the Judeo-Christian worldview which lays at the foundation of the Western culture3 and even especially of the US4. It is in this context that free-will denial arose. And, indeed the assumptions that characterizes these factors (such as scientific reductionism) are required prerequisites of free-will denial. It is only on their foundation that free-will denial begins to make sense. The free-will denier must assume that everything is reducible to science, to the how-things-work description of science. The denier must also assume that the external factors effectively cause and determine one’s actions and behavior and thus, fail to establish responsibility.

In the second part, I’ll discuss the arguments for and against free will.



On the same note Einstein says:

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.


While one may say that genes are not an external factor, their make up is indeed determined by external factors such as parents, environment and natural selection.


Even Huffington Post admits: “The United States was founded primarily as a result of people wanting freedom of worship and fairness in government. There is no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.”