Predictability, Computability, and Free Will

I’ve been reading some philosophical discussion of the free-will/determism question recently. Quite a number of years ago I discovered a resolution of this question, but never did anything with it because I assumed I had simply reinvented a well-known position and could not really contribute anything to the debate. However, the research I’ve done recently suggests that my resolution of the question is actually a novel one.

Like a lot of philosophy, the discussion of free will and determinism I’ve seen founders on two errors. One of this is Aristotelianism, an attachment to observer-independent two-valued logic in a system of universal categories as the only sort of truth. The other is a tendency to get snarled up in meaningless categories that are artifacts of language rather than useful abstractions from observed reality.

In this essay, I hope to show that, if one can avoid these errors, the underlying question can be reduced to a non-problem. More generally, I hope to show how ideas from computability and complexity theory can be used to gain some purchase on problems in the philosophy of mind that have previously seemed intractable.

Formulating The Problem

The free-will question is classically put thus: do we really have choices, or are our actions and behavior at any given time entirely determined by previous states of the universe? Are we autonomous beings, who ourselves cause our future actions, or meat robots?

The second way of forming the question gets at the reason most philosophers have for finding it interesting. What they really want to know is whether we cause our own actions and are responsible for them, or whether praise, blame, and punishment are pointless because our choices are predestined.

Thus the free-will question, which is traditionally considered part of metaphysics or the philosophy of mind, is actually motivated by central issues in moral philosophy. At the end of this essay, we will consider the implications of my proposal for moral philosophy.

Classical Determinism And Its Problems

The ways philosophers have traditionally asked these questions conceal assumptions that are false in fact and logic. First, the evidence says we do not live in the kind of universe where classical determinism is an option. In almost all current versions of physical theory there is an irreducible randomness to the universe at the quantum level. Thus, even if we knew the entire state of the universe at any given moment, its future states would not be determined; we can at best predict the probability distribution of those states.

Another characteristic of quantum theory is that observation perturbs the system being observed. Let’s sidestep that for the moment and introduce the concept of a perfect observer, with infinite computational capacity and the ability to take infinitely precise measurements in zero time without perturbing the system under observation. In a universe with quantum randomness, even this perfect observer cannot know the future.

Matters are worse for imperfect observers, who have only finite computational capacity, can take only finitely accurate measurements, and perturb what they measure when they measure it. Even in theories that preserve physical determinism, imperfect observers have two additional problems. One is that they perturb what they observe; the other is sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Two physical systems that are measurably identical to an imperfect observer and evolve by the same deterministic laws can have different futures because unmeasurably small differences between their present states are chaotically amplified over time — and some of those unmeasurable differences may be produced by the act of observation!

Even in the absence of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, though, an imperfect observer’s attempt to predict the future may fail without warning because his finite computer loses information to round-off errors (there are more subtle limits arising from finite storage capacity, but round-off errors will stand as a readily comprehensible representative of them). And like it or not, human beings are imperfect observers. So even without quantum indeterminacy, we cannot know the future with certainty.

For philosophical purposes, quantum indeterminacy and sensitive dependence on initial conditions in classical (non-quantum) systems have nearly indistinguishable effects. Together, they imply that classical determinism is not an option for imperfect observers, even in the unlikely case that quantum reality is not actually rolling dice.

Non-Classical Determinism and Irreducible Randomness

Philosophers have tended to make a fast leap from the above insight to the conclusion that humans do in fact have free will — but this conclusion is a logic error brought on by Aristotelian thinking. There is an unexcluded middle here: we may be meat robots in a universe that rolls dice, both non-determined and non-autonomous.

Most people (even most philosophers) find the idea that we are puppets on random strings even more repugnant than classical determinism. In classical determinism there is at least a perfect-observer view from which the story makes sense. The religiously inclined can believe in that perfect observer and identify it with God, and the rest of us can take some sort of fatalistic comfort in the face of our adversities that things could not after all have been any different.

In the indeterminate universe we seem to inhabit, the only way for even a god to know the future would be for it to intervene in every single collapse of a quantum state vector, and thereby to create that future by a continuous act of will. But if that were so, the behavior of all the matter in our bodies could be nothing but the god’s will. We’re back to determinism here, but it’s one in which a god is the sole causal agent of everything — good, evil, and apparent randomness. Some varieties of Hindu theology actually read like this; one rather lovely version has it that the entire universe is simply the vibration of the voice of the god Atman (or Brahman) chanting a giant “OM!” and will end untold eons in the future when He next draws breath. In the West this position has been called “occasionalism”.

The trouble with occasionalism is that it’s untestable. There is no observation we can make from within the universe to establish causal intervention from outside it. If we could do so, we would simply extend our conception of “the universe” to the larger domain within which causality operates — including the mind of Atman. The testability problem would immediately re-present itself. (This, of course, is a slightly subtler version of the standard rebuttal to the “First Cause” argument for the existence of a creator-God.)

For those of us unwilling to take occasionalism on pure faith, then, free will is about the only comfort an indeterminate universe can offer. Our experience of being human beings is that some of the time our behavior is forced by factors beyond our control (for example, if we fall off a cliff we will accelerate at a rate independent of our desire or will about the matter), but that at other times we make unforced choices that at least seem to causally originate within our own minds and not elsewhere.

To carry the discussion further, we need to decide what the term “free will” means. Our challenge is to interpret this term in a way that both consistent with its ordinary use and fits into a larger picture that is rationally consistent with physical theory. Try as I might, I can only see two possible ways to accomplish this. One has to do with autonomy, the other with unpredictability.

The Autonomy Interpretation of “Free Will”, And Its Problems

Most people, if pressed, would probably come up with some version of the autonomy interpretation. All the philosophical accounts of “free will” I’ve ever seen are based on it. We have no problem with the idea that our choices are caused, or even determined by, our previous thoughts, but the intuitive notion of free will is that our thoughts themselves are free. This implies that the measure of a human’s degree of “free will” is the degree to each human being’s history of mental states is autonomous from the rest of the universe — not caused by it, but capable of causing changes in it.

There are several problems with this account. The most obvious one is that we can often locate causal influences from the rest of the universe into our mental states. To anyone who doubts this, I recommend the experience of extreme hunger, or (better) of nearly drowning. These are quite enlightening, and philosophers would probably talk less nonsense if they retained a clearer grasp of what such experiences are like.

Less extremely, evidence from sensory-deprivation experiments suggests that a mind deprived of sensory input for too long disintegrates. Not only does the rest of the universe have causal power over our mental states, but we cannot maintain anything recognizable as a coherent mental state without that input. Which makes sense; evolutionary biology tells us that we are survival machines shaped by natural selection to cope with a reality exterior to our minds. Consciousness, reasoning, and introspection — the “higher” aspects of human mental activity that mostly concern philosophers — are recent add-ons.

None of this evidence outright excludes the possibility that there is some part or aspect of our normal mental activity that is autonomous, uncaused but causal. The real problem, the problem of logic and principle, is that we don’t know how the autonomously “free-willing” part of the mind (if it exists) can be isolated from the part that is causally driven by sensory stimuli and normal physical laws.

For materialists like myself who model the mind as a kind of software or information pattern that happens to run on an organic substrate, this is an impossible problem. We have no warrant to believe that any part of that system is causally autonomous from the rest of the universe. In fact, on functional grounds it seems quite unlikely such a part would ever evolve — what would it be good for?

But the problem is not really any simpler for dualists or mysterians, those who hold that minds have some “soul” attached that is non-physical or inaccessible to observation. That “soul” has to interact with the mind somehow. If the interaction is one-way (soul affects mind, but mind does not effect soul) then the soul is simply a sort of blind pattern- or noise-generator with no access to reality. On the other hand, if mind affects soul we are right back to the beginning of the problem — is there anything in “soul” that is neither random nor causally driven by “mind”, which we already understand to be either random or causally driven by the rest of the universe?

The basic problem here is the same as the basic problem with occasionalism. Define the “causal universe” as all phenomena with observable consequences, whether those phenomena are material or “soul” or the voice of Atman. Unless the occasionalists are right and it is all just Atman saying a trillion-year “OM!”, the concept of “soul” does not actually in itself make us any space between determinism and chance. The autonomy account of free will leaves us finally unable to locate anywhere autonomy can live.

The Predictability Account Of Free Will

I have invented a predictability account of free will which is quite different. Instead of struggling with the limits of imperfect observation, I consider them definitional. I say human beings (or any other entity to which we ascribe possession of a mind) have “free will” relative to any given observer if that observer cannot effectively predict their future mental states.

By “effectively predict” I mean that the observer, given a complete description of the mind’s state and a set of stimuli applied to that state, can predict the state of the mind after those stimuli.

Since we have access to mental states only by observing the behaviors they generate, this is arguably equivalent to saying that an entity with a mind has free will with respect to an observer if the observer cannot predict its behavior. However, I specify the term “mental state” because I think the natural-language use of the term “free will” requires that we limit the candidates for it to entities which we believe to have minds and to which we thus attribute mental states.

I am deliberately not proposing a definition or theory of “mind” in this essay, because I intend my arguments to be independent of such theory. All I require of the reader’s theory of mind is that it not exclude human beings from having one.

Can There Be Minds Without Free Will?

The first thing we need to do is establish that this definition is not vacuous. Are there any circumstances under which an entity to which we ascribe mental states can fail to have free will?

A psychologist friend of mine with whom I discussed the matter reports that the answer is “yes”. The example case she reported is a bot (software agent) named Julia designed to fool people in Internet Relay Chat rooms into believing it was a person. Julia could be convincing for a few minutes, but human beings would eventually notice mechanical patterns as they came to the edge of her functional envelope. Studies of humans interacting with Julia showed that they continued to ascribe intentions and mental states to the bot even after noticing the determinism of its behavior. The study evidence suggests that they went from modeling Julia as being like a normal adult human to being like a child or a retardate.

This was not even the first such result. The AI literature reports humans projecting personhood even on much cruder early bots such as the famous ELIZA simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist — and not giving up that attachment even after the shallow and mechanical algorithms used to generate responses were explained to them.

The reader may object, based on some theory of “mind”, that Julia did not actually have one. But it is possible that we are all Julia. Suppose that the human mind is a deterministic machine with a very large but finite number of states; suppose further that the logic of the mind has no sensitive dependence on initial conditions (that is, its states are coarse enough for us to measure accurately). This simplest-possible model we’ll call the “clockwork mind”. If Julia has a mind, this is the kind of mind she has.

In principle, any clockwork mind can be perfectly simulated on a computer. The computer would have to be more complex than the clockwork mind itself. To predict the state of the clockwork mind, just run the simulation faster than the original. But — and this is an important point — a clockwork mind cannot be predicted by itself, or by any clockwork mind of comparable power to itself. Thus, whatever viewpoint a hypothetical perfect observer or god might have, human beings have free will with respect to each other.

It is also worth noting that human beings could have clockwork minds even in a universe of chaotic or quantum indeterminacy. If you put enough atoms together, the Law of Large Numbers will normally swamp quantum effects. If you make the states of a finite-state machine sufficiently coarse, there won’t be unmeasurable initial-condition differences to be amplified. After all, clockwork does tick!

The Indeterminate Mind

It is unlikely that humans have clockwork minds. The anatomy and physiology of the brain suggests strongly that it has chaotic indeterminacy. It may have quantum indeterminacy as well (the mathematician Roger Penrose suggested this in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, one of the favored texts of the new mysterians). It is possible that the mind cannot be modeled as a finite-state machine at all.

These distinctions make little difference, because what they all have in common is that that they make the prediction problem far less tractable than for a clockwork mind. Thus, they widen the class of observers with respect to which a non-clockwork mind would have free will.

At the extreme, if human minds have intrinsic quantum uncertainty then even a perfect observer could not predict their future mental states, unless it happens to be an occasionalist god and the only cause of everything.

The most likely intermediate case is that the mind is a finite-state machine with sensitive dependence on initial conditions and an intractably large state space. In that case it might fail to have free will with respect to a perfect observer, but will have free will with respect to any imperfect observer.

Implications for Moral Philosophy

The binding I have proposed for the term “free will” does not rely on any supposed autonomy of the mind or self from external causes. From the perspective of traditional moral philosophy, it combines the worst of both worlds — a non-autonomous mind in an indeterminate universe. How, then, can humans being be appropriate subjects of praise, blame, or punishment? In what sense, if any, can human beings be said to be responsible for their actions?

The first step towards solving this problem is to realize that these questions are separable. Because we ascribe intention and autonomy to human beings and believe their future behavior is controlled primarily by those intentions, we explain acts of praise, blame, and punishment directed at human beings in terms of the supposed effects on their mental states. But this is where remembering that we have no direct access to mental states is useful; what we are actually after when we praise, blame and punish is to change observable future behaviors.

Thus, we also praise and blame and punish animals without much regard to whether they have mental states or free will. When training a kitten it is of little interest to us in what sense it might be choosing to crap on the rug; what matters is getting it to use the litterbox. Humans, like animals, are appropriate subjects of praise and blame and punishment to the extent that those communications effectively alter their behavior. The attribution of “responsibility” is at best a sort of convenient shorthand, and at worst a red herring.

In any case the question of “responsibility” is simply the question of free will in another guise, and admits the same answer within a predictive account. An observer may hold a mind “responsible” for the actions it initiates to the extent that the observer is unable to identify external causes of those actions.

This accords well with the way people normally reason about responsibility. If all we know of a man is that he murdered someone in a fit of rage, our inclination is to hold him responsible. But if we then learn that he was unwittingly dosed with PCP, we have an external cause for the rage and can no longer consider him fully responsible.


The predictivist account of free will I have proposed here solves the classical problems with the autonomy account of free will, accords with natural-language use of the term “free will”, and is consilient with physical theory. It does so at the cost of making the ascription of free will dependent on the computational and measurement capacity of the observer.

The parallel with the way “space” and “time” are redefined in Relativity Theory is obvious. As in that theory, our intuitions about “free will” are largely valid in human-observable ranges but tend to break down at extremes. Relativity had to abandon the idea of absolute space/time; in our context, we need to abandon the ideal of the perfect observer and accept that finite computational capacity is yet another fundamental limit on theory-building.

I believe a similar change in stance is likely to prove essential to the solution of other outstanding problems in philosophy.

Categorized as Science


  1. Hmmm…I haven’t read “A New Kind Of Science”, but I’ve read descriptions of what Wolfram is doing in it. I’m not very surprised to hear that he has invented a predictivist interpretation.

  2. I had a bit of trouble understanding some of your terms. Would you say that we have free will proportional to how much we accept the concept of free will?

    If one rejects determinism and embraces responsibility and “free will”, they may surprise themselves and others with unpredictable, amazing actions. Of coruse, their unpredictable actions are directly caused by their rejection of determinism, so in the greatest sense of the word, their actions are deterministic. A god could predict the actions, even if they were deliberated on a few seconds ago.


    Doing random actions can cause unpredictable reactions – picking random books at the library, going to random websites, eating random food, writing random things, ect. Is that more free will?

    It also seems to me that common sense would tell us that there are causal variables that we can’t see behind the “uncertainty” of quantum mechanics, but I know almost nothing of that subject. If quantum mechanics turns out not to be random, though, it lends even more power to the idea that the universe is just running along in a pre-determined path, like a movie. That would make it seem like nothing matters – what’s the point of a movie where everything is predictable? What effect does the uncertainty of quantum reality have on the bigger view of the world, by the way?

    Human beings naturally think about things causally. We can’t imagine effects which have no causes. Judaism/Christianity solved this by essentially shutting the door – God is infinite and omnipotent, and we can’t understand him. But if there is some god watching us, what caused him? Why is he/she watching or controlling us? Are we some sort of grand experiment? Or perhaps the higher being itself is an imperfect observer, just watching to see what will turn out, like a scientist?

    I think these questions are unanswerable right now, but they’re interesting to ponder.

  3. Hmmm. Not sure I agree with all your presuppositions here. For instance your Godlike perfect observer seems to be a temporally rooted concept.

    If there is a God who created the universe, relativity indicates that he would not only have created space and the matter within it, but also time as well. If that is the case then God’s perceptions must be so inherently different from our own that understanding them is problematic. What happens if God can see the entire probability field of past and future?

  4. Interesting stuff Eric… Have you ever tried to commit a random act,and thought about the inherent non-randomness of it? Yet observing human behavior on a macro scale seems to reveal some apparent randomness.

    Also what do you think about “deja vu”?

  5. Let’s say I can predict my future from examining my own brain. If this tells me I’ll devote my life to actions the present me considers worthy, I’ll see it as good news. If I don’t like what I see, and for some reason I can’t change it, then I wouldn’t feel free. “Meat robot” seems inappropriate in the first instance, appropriate in the second. If someone else can predict my actions, that brings in separate issues of power. I don’t care about punishment in the slightest.

  6. It is sad to say that a minor flaw in the introduction of this essay is the supposition that philosophers and psychologists are interested in a solution.

    As with many of these false Aristotelean dichotomies, a solution would mean that these people would have to go find something else to do. Obviously more effort than rehashing the same old problems. Science v. Faith is another good example.

    Otherwise, some very neat ideas. Any concerns that a relative definition of free will flirts with post-modernism?

  7. The problem with your formulation is that acting randomly counts as freedom under it, but doesn’t feel like freedom. Does a roulette wheel have free will?

    To me, the root fallacy of the determinists is the “ghost in the machine” view of consciousness. I am not free if my choices are determined by something outside of me. A dualist thinks me is some spirit or mind sort-of-attached to my body, and then claims I am not free because my choices are determined by chemistry in my brain. As a materialist, I think that me is a word for a certain view of my body, and my choices are therefore not determined by anything outside myself, and I am free.

  8. Ha! found the quote I was looking for:

    “Body am I, and soul” — so saith the child…

    But the awakened one, the knowing one, saith “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body”

    There was me trying to to pin it on Robert Anton Wilson or suchlike, and all the time it was bloody Nietzsche

    It’s true, though.

    Stephen Pinker‘s good too.

  9. You said “human beings have free will with respect to each other”.

    Not if you permit a human to make use of the clockwork mind simulator. This simulator could in practice, perhaps, display a message on a screen, saying the mind it is simulating will be in state X, and now the human will know. And the human will be correct, assuming the simulator works. This of course does not violate your previous statement, since the target mind is being analyzed by a human + simulator composite.

    I am compelled to wonder about the implications of this. It would seem to indicate that a man could analyze his own mind with the help of such a simulator. If the simulator works, the human now knows himself. This would seem to violate the statement of “no mind can know itself”. The implication I see here is that the man cannot possibly know if the simulator is working; that is, he cannot know whether the simulator is displaying an accurate message about his state. Does this mean that such a simulator could never be built, since no one would ever understand one well enough to construct it? Or does it mean that as soon as it is turned on, such a simulator would immediately enter a state of unpredictability with respect to any observer?

    Another point: while any one human has free will with respect to any other human since human minds are equivalent in power, would a single human have free will with respect to multiple observing humans? Even if total human mind power could not be said to be proportional to the number of minds, might it not at least be greater by some amount? Would that increase eventually allow a group of two or more humans to analyze and predict a single human’s every whim? Also, human minds seem to vary in power. (There are smart people and dumb people.) Are the smartest minds powerful enough to perfectly analyze the dumbest ones?

    Or does all of this imply that human minds cannot possibly be clockwork?

  10. “It is sad to say that a minor flaw in the introduction of this essay is the supposition that philosophers and psychologists are interested in a solution.”

    Vroomfondel: We DON’T demand solid facts! What we demand is the total ABSENCE of solid facts! I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel! We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!

    Majikthise: We are Philosophers.

  11. Thank you for yet another fascinating essay. In the interest of accuracy, I would like to point out that The Emperor’s New Mind was written by Roger Penrose, not Robert.

  12. Paul–I think you’re taking things a little to literally. Remember, humans’ minds are not the only kind. If human minds are only unpredicatable due to complexity and computational capacity issues, there is no theoretical reason why Deep Thought, or a hyper-intelligent shade of the color blue, to choose two examples at random, could not analyze us sufficiently to build a machine we could then use to analyze ourselves. “No mind can know itself” only makes sense if you restrict the mind’s capabilities to things it can do on its own.

    Do you have any formal training in Computer Science? If so, this analogy may help: No finite-state automaton can analyze either itself or another FSA, but if it has access to a Turing Machine that performs that analysis, an FSA can read the answer.

  13. Usually I’m with you on your posts, but I’m not with you on this at all.

    Your friend claims that there can be a “mind” without a free will. You offer up an example of a “bot” that has defined behavior. There are three possiblities. The Bot has free will, it does not, or it is unknowable.

    The case in which the bot not have free will.

    From your own reasoning, the universe is random. The Bot does not have defined behavior. Sure, 1E10000 times
    you can predict the bot answers “yes,” but the probabalistic nature of the gates in the chip causes the bot to
    occasionally answer “no” unpredictably. I say that just because you can’t predict outcome does not imply fre
    e will, even if you had a computer the size of the universe. Do Earthquakes have free will? What about sunsp

    The case in which the bot really does have free will.

    The bot is not 100% predictable. If you say “Well, it is almost certainty, as far as we know the properties of the universe, that there is no free will so push it into a black hole.” Maybe little multi-dimensional creatures are adding what we perceive as randomness, and the randomness is their expression of free will, and they have come together to form this bot.

    Think of a person unwilling to betray his comrades. You just keep on doing things terrible to the person, and
    like clock work the person is willing to take the pain. Does that mean the person has no free will? Obviously, a decision is being made each time. Very predictable. Some very astute opportunists may take advantage of
    that. But still, there is a decision being made each time. One might even say that the decisions are being
    made of the person’s own free will.

    The case in which the bot might have free will.

    Well, that’s where we really are. We simply don’t know.

    Another thing that bothers me is this idea, that seems to crop up so much, that the truth is what an observer
    can divine. What does that have to do with anything? I think the origin of this has to do with hero worship,
    and the idea that death is not absolute. We want to keep our icons of yore, when they did what we perceive t
    o now be “bad things.” They were OK then. How about instead we need to face up to the idea that morality is
    a social construct and has no basis in the physics of the universe. If the Muslims win, they will look back on Osama Bin Ladin as some kind of wonderful liberating icon (of course they would be wrong), much the same as
    we say Lincoln was a good man. But maybe Lincoln really screwed up. Lincoln paved the way for the almighty US government. Perhaps without him cancer would have been cured by now.

    But the thing that dissapoints (yes, an arrogant term) me the most in your post, is the idea that you can even attempt any kind of dialogue in the absence of understanding how the brain works. First, I maintain you have to answer the question of consciousness. As you point out, “Try drowning, and then tell me we are machines.” Very true, but does that mean Ants have free will? Zap them with Raid, and watch them scurry around.

    Also, assuming there is consiousness, where does it come from? Consciousness is where I make my decisions. If you can’t define that, then how can you have a rational discussion of free will. I think it is no more than ancients trying to have discussions about the origin of the universe. I can only attribute three motives to that: arrogance, fear, or like the alchemists, being hopelessly loss, because the truth is beyond our reach.

    Frankly, I think that the philosophers, and your current line of reasoning in this post, have much the same in common with the alchemists.

  14. Paul:

    Ah, but the brain analyzer *isn’t* necessarily complex enough to be able to analyze the human-plus-analyzer system; looking at the output from one about yourself may well invalidate the results.

  15. In fact, to follow up on my last comment: this is just the God-and-freewill problem reintroduced with a deus ex mechina. And the resolution is the same; once you act on the output of a mind-predicting machine, it becomes part of the system it is modeling, and likely unable to accurately predict any further.

  16. Reposted with permission from the AGI discussion mailing list ( Please note that this cross-post is *constructive* criticism!

    —- Cross-post below:

    My main criticism of his theory is that it doesn’t seem to capture anything
    of the subjective psychological experience of free will. My own attempt to
    explain this experience and the possible mechanistic underpinning of it may
    be found at:

    Next, his theory actually ties in with some (highly speculative) work I did
    recently on the philosophy of quantum measurement; see:

    What I argue there, in brief, is that the mystery of quantum measurement
    becomes less mysterious if one assumes, among other things, that the
    universe itself has a finite computational capability. This assumption lets
    one argue that the “collapse of the wave function” occurs when some dynamic
    occurs that cannot be reversed except by using computational capability
    greater than that of the universe. I.e. there is no absolute
    irreversibility, there is only irreversibility relative to some reference
    computer — but if the universe itself is considered as a particular
    reference computer, then there is irreversibility relative to the universe.

    Now, Raymond wants to say “A has free will relative to B if A is
    unpredictable by B.” Well, if the universe has finite computational
    capacity, then we may say in some cases “A has (Raymondian) free will
    relative to the universe.”

    And if my speculative theory of quantum measurement is correct, then this
    means “A has (Raymondian) free will relative to the universe, whenever A’s
    dynamics involve collapse of the quantum wave function.”

    My feeling is that free will as psychologically experienced by humans, is a
    subclass of abstract Raymondian free will. I think that our brains involve
    plenty of examples of unpredictability that are not experienced as free
    will. What I tried to do in my above-referenced essay on free will, was to
    explain which particular unpredictable nonlinear dynamics in the brain tend
    to be experienced as free will by people.

    — Ben Goertzel

  17. In summation of a previous post, I think that attempts at discussion of free-will are premature. We are groping in the dark and we don’t know if it’s in a room or just a huge, dark cavern. Other areas of research will eventually shed light on this matter as we understand the brain. I don’t think a discussion of free will is relevant until such questions as “from where does consciousness arise” are understood better.

    Meanwhile, I found this very interesting first hand account of a hostage. It’s really provocative reading for those interested in these kinds of questions.

  18. You might like seeing (or reading) Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen”. It’s largely about free will and responsibility, and the second half, especially, examines the effect of perspective.

  19. Hey guys,

    You can wonder about, or mourn, determinism and how it contradicts free will (or not) but be more practical:

    1. Determinism’s applicability to the mind remains an open question even if there are very good reasons to think determinism is applicable to the mind
    2. More importantly, do you remember your youth, you NOT thinking up this “Am I determined-by-iron-laws” thought and living freely? Freedom is a state of mind, it is about your mind being in top shape (shaped, paradoxically, by training and work, not “free” lethargy) and believing, and acting like, in certain ideals or ambitions, however subjective and naive they may be, from a strictly materialist/determinist view.
    3. The fact that there is still a debate and that many consider themselves absolutely free – don’t “feel” the supposed or real determinedness of their lives – indicates that the question has little significance; it is not something that is “felt” much less “suffered” other than in extreme circumstances such as addiction, depression, or undesirable sexual preferences. Losses mourned such as people dying have nothing to with absolute determinism since also people with an absolute belief in undetermined free will already knew that eventually people do die; this is a common denominator of existential questions: they gradually, upon closer inspection, merge into more general complaints about the absurdity or tragic features of life, such as death, injustice, etc. This is
    understandable because life is absurd and in certain ways tragic (although Monty Python’s (“You start with nothing you end with nothing so whadda ye lost? – nothin’!”) credo still stands
    4. To mourn the determinedness of one’s life unless perhaps abovementioned extreme circumstances is bizarre because one is what one is; a = a; b = b.
    1 = 1. Normally functioning individuals have the capacity to steer their lives, more or less, into the desired direction. If not, then your real problem is not determinism but being in a bad mental shape.

    There are no solutions other than abovementioned relativations I guess unless religion which may be not so absurd and outdated as we think. Especially the Christian and Buddhist traditions are morally sound, have produced great societies (esp. Christianity), and have a wonderfully rich philosophic tradition.

    As said St. Augustine “Ama et fac quod vis” – Love and do as you please.

    Ora et labora – Pray and Work.

  20. esr, I feel the need to dispute your interpretation of quantum mechanics. You say:
    “In almost all current versions of physical theory there is an irreducible randomness to the universe at the quantum level. Thus, even if we knew the entire state of the universe at any given moment, its future states would not be determined; we can at best predict the probability distribution of those states.”
    This implies you are hanging on to the idea that there is a single ‘classical’ state of the universe now, which evolves into a probability distribution which then ‘collapses’ upon observation into a new, single, classical state. This is thoroughly Copenhagen-style thinking, and it’s thoroughly wrong. This is clear from the difficulties of defining ‘observation’, which ends up forcing collapsedness of states to be relative to the observer; consider Wigner’s Friend and all the mess that leads to. Even more damning is the delayed choice quantum eraser, whose resolution in the Copenhagen interpretation seems to require retrocausality.
    The resolution of this problem is simple; to accept Many-Worlds at a fundamental level, and moreover to completely ignore the concepts of ‘collapse’ and ‘decoherence’. Instead, treat the /wavefunction/ as primal. The ‘classical’ state that we observe and measure is merely an epiphenomenon; it so happens that wavefunctions tend to evolve in such a way that factorisable wavefunctions typically remain factorisable (or closely approximable by factorisable wavefunctions) under certain conditions on the probable bulk of classical states, yet this is entirely irrelevant to the true behaviour of the Universe.
    In the quantum eraser, for example, the information about which slit a photon passed through has not been destroyed; by observing that information (and hence entangling yourself with that part of the system) you condition your measurements on that information, thus your own wavefunction becomes a superposition of (wavefunction conditioned on slit 1 scaled by sqrt(P(slit 1))) and (wavefunction conditioned on slit 2 scaled by sqrt(P(slit 2))). No retrocausation involved.
    The consequence of all this is that, yes, a quantum mechanical Universe *is* deterministic, you just have to broaden the scope of ‘universe’ to include those Worlds you’re no longer a factor of. This of course prevents complete measurement; by measuring a system you become entangled within it (and therefore you aren’t a single factor independent of the system, so you can’t measure the entire wavefunction of the system).
    Whether this materially affects your conclusions about free will is left as an exercise for the sufficiently interested reader.

    1. >esr, I feel the need to dispute your interpretation of quantum mechanics.

      Bwahaha. Go read Eric and the Quantum Experts: A Cautionary Tale immediately. My interpretation ain’t what you think it is. :-)

      Your argument is internally sound (and I am aware of these issues), but my original language is easily rescued by reading “universe” as “observable universe” – that is, the part within which we can perform experiments and communicate about them. Even if one accepts many-worlds, the observable effect remains one of irreducible randomness – that is, you don’t get determinism of future observables from any observable information.

  21. Nice write up! Some comments about the implications of your definition.

    ‘An observer may hold a mind “responsible” for the actions it initiates to the extent that the observer is unable to identify external causes of those actions.’

    If an external observer can’t identify the causes, it’s also probable that the mind can’t identify them either (otherwise a simple explanation would serve), so how can we hold it ‘responsible’? You could say ‘responsible’ as equivalent to ‘acting under free will’, but under your interpretation of free-will, it does not put a burden on the mind, but on the observer: if you were able to compute my behavior in a better way you wouldn’t assume I’m responsible since you could find a good explanation for my behavior.

    I don’t think that’s a problem, and fits with your comments about the applicability of praise/blame, seeing them as a way of alter future behavior. That should remove hate & payback from the equation of punishment, your actions should always be focused in altering behavior and not in paying back, which is great and hard to swallow for anyone that has been wronged, and puts hard questions in things like the death penalty (maybe for when you give up altering future behavior?).

  22. I only found this article just now. Good write up. I have only a single extension.

    If we assume that the human mind is at least Turing complete, any prediction of future behavior is only possible by running the “mind program” step by step. Turing machine cannot be predicted by shortcuts. A predictor would have to copy the brains (mind) in a simulator and run the copy the whole way.

    As a mind is a molecular machine, the simulation comes down to copying the human and then exposing it to the exact same stimuli.

    I will ignore the question whether the simulation can be done faster than the original and henc predict anything. The real question is whether letting a copy of a mind live through a situation can be said to predict the actions of the original?

  23. In the West this position has been called “occasionalism”.

    Some Christians take this to hilarious extremes. One Jack T. Chick comic interprets Colossians 1:17 (“by Him all things consist”) so literally as to suggest that the strong atomic force does not exist (it is indeed a heresy of godless scientists), and that Jesus consciously and continuously holds every atom in the universe together with his divine powers.

  24. See Dennett’s Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Dennett’s a compatibilist who says that when we say we want free will, we really want control.

  25. “I hope to show how ideas from computability and complexity theory can be used to gain some purchase on problems in the philosophy of mind”

    You couldn’t help but say that. You had no choice in asserting that conclusion. As such, it has the same cognitive content as a belch.

    That’s the problem with ALL forms of Determinism: Determinism applies equally to the creature making the noises.

    “if one can avoid these errors”

    Choosing to act – choosing to identify “errors” – choosing to ‘avoid errors’ – are all acts open ONLY to beings capable of free will. A ‘Determined’ (“non-autonomous”) creature cannot do anything but follow its programming – regardless of the number of times the “dice” are automatically “rolled” by the universe.

    Put simply, like all determinists, you’ve committed the fallacy of Stolen Concepts. Every premise you proceed from rests upon that which you desire to reject: your ability to choose to act aka Free Will.

    You have declared you have NO such ability – that such an ability is merely an illusion resulting from imperfect knowledge. Your ‘argument’ (a Stolen Concept) is that your words are just the arbitrary scratchings of a branch moved by the wind against a rock. The rational human being properly treats those words exactly as your description demands: as cognitively meaningless.

    They are EMPTY.

    1. >Your ‘argument’ (a Stolen Concept) is that your words are just the arbitrary scratchings of a branch moved by the wind against a rock.


      You’re not even wrong. You don’t understand the problem, or my proposed solution, well enough to be wrong.

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