Another take on Freewill

A good philosophy has considerable reach. By this, I mean that a certain philosophy may have been expressed in some esoteric and academic area, but it can be applied in other specific disciplines as well as in broader contexts. Notice, this is more than just saying ‘a good philosophy is always true’. Instead, this is saying that a good philosophy is true, relevant and useful. (As a point of contrast, my personal philosophy about coffee is still true when thinking about data cleansing in operational data for a utilities company, but it is not relevant or useful.) This idea, then, has inspired me to take Sean Carroll’s articulation of the functioning of science and apply it to freewill (Greer Heard Forum, 2014). Carroll brings it up talking specifically about cosmology, but I think it’s relevant here.

Carroll’s view is that science isn’t as empiricism-led as we’ve been lead to believe. Instead, we create models that propose to explain a certain element of reality and then compare that model to the observations. I would argue that this is implicitly done in hypothetico deductive approaches in the formation of a hypothesis. Creating a hypothesis implies an expected model of the world. It is an overtly tentative model, but a model nonetheless.

Where I said science is less empirically-led than initially assumed, I do not mean to imply that science is not empirically-led at all. The creation of models if often an empirically-led conjecture. The models and hypotheses science tests are not just any old ideas, they are ones that have some level of empirical or rational justification. But that initial justification should be subservient to the conclusion of the research itself, and that should be heavily empirical. (I mean only to point out there is a lot more going on than just empiricism.)

Where more than one model is created to account for the same element of reality, either by overlap or by answering the same questions, these models can then be compared in their ability to account for the data. In a previous post, where I discuss the reliability of the human brain, I followed this approach: I compared the theistic argument that every element of the human mind ― the brain, the tools like logic ― were all infallibly designed with the natural argument that the mind is a product of evolution. I then compared these two models in their ability to account for the data of the imperfect brain.

The approach Carroll describes has a lot in common with Deutsch’s ‘fallibilism’ approach to science, which is to offer empirically-led conjecture and then assume the conclusion is fallible and so remain critical of it: the easier it is to be impartially critical of a conjecture, the worse that conjecture is (Deutsch, 2011).

It is that approach I want to apply to two models of human behaviour: freewill and determinism. I am excluding ‘compatibilism’ from this because so far as I can see, compatibilism can be summarised as ‘you are free to make your determined choice’. I am open to someone constructing a model of compatibilism for me, explaining how it differs from both freewill and determinism. But, for now, that won’t be included here.

Both freewill and determinism do a perfectly fine job of accounting for all of our actions. We have to dig a little deeper to look for somewhere the data can reasonably be expected to be different under both models: what are the intelligible differences between freewill and determinism? To answer that we have to make a few assumptions. Here is my first assumption: for their to be agency and thus be freewill, still with some degrees of freedom from solely linear and mechanical processes, such agency must originate in consciousness. It cannot originate in the brain, because the brain is a material object defined physical laws; there would be no degrees of freedom there.

This, as it happens, is one of my objections to freewill. Originating in consciousness ― as opposed to entering into consciousness from functions of the material brain ― makes supernatural claims about consciousness as a separate entity. In Occam’s Razor terms, it vastly multiplies its entities; it posits an entirely new type of existence, for which we have no tangible evidence. It also just pushes the question back one: now that we have this agency with degrees of freedom from the physical processes of the brain, what else influences this agency? It doesn’t answer the question of what makes that agency want to go to the cinema this evening. But that is not the approach I am taking in this post.

By contrast, determinism emerges in the brain. I say ‘the brain’ and not the intestine or a WiFi router, because of empirical data that tied certain decision making and personality traits to the brain, and the brain is a physical structure bound by deterministic processes.

I’ve been careful not to paint myself into a corner here. I have described freewill as having ‘degrees of freedom’ from the physical processes, and not having complete freedom from it. I have worded it this way to allow for the physical processes to be an influence on any brute agency that exists in consciousness, but not the only one. Therefore, evidence that the brain controls certain elements of personality and decision making is not exclusively evidence for determinism: this allows for hunger and thirst to influence the freewill agent as well.

With this is mind, the challenge continues to find a set of data that could reasonably be expected to be different under this conception of freewill versus determinism. And here is my conjecture:

If one’s will originates in consciousness, and the agency in consciousness alters the brain to realise such a will, then a person should be able to be aware of a decision they have made before it becomes apparent in the brain. By contrast, if one’s will is defined by determinism and thus a decision makes it into consciousness via the brain, then decisions should be apparent in the brain either simultaneously with awareness or before awareness of the decision arises in consciousness.

That, I suspect, is not a controversial take on what the differences between the two models would be in the only area I can see there would be an empirical difference. Before you read on, I implore you to check whether you agree and think of any other areas there may be an empirical difference between the two models.

But now the question is which of the two models presented account for extant data. The facts are these: an experiment by Libet and Benjamin (1985) asked subjects to make a small deliberate action at a random time. The subjects were asked to report the precise time they were aware of their intention to move (i.e. when the idea existed in their consciousness). Simultaneously, Libet was monitoring their material brains, specifically an electrophysiological phenomena known as the “readiness potential”. The readiness potential was evident in the brain of the subjects approximately 0.5 of a second before the intention to move was evident in the mind of the subject; the material had defined the internal.

Criticism of this experiment does exist. The philosopher Daniel Dennette noted the woolliness of the experience of intention makes any precise time-value meaningless and that the subjects must be focussed on their internal realities so cannot give fair attention to the clock they are reading. Libet’s 0.5 of a second delay could be a systematic error.

It is conceivable that Libet’s experiment only measured some sort of preparatory work on behalf of the brain, and that the readiness potential doesn’t actually reflect a decision moving into consciousness, but merely the context in which a decision has been made. Soon et al (2008) published their paper that does away with that criticism. Soon et al’s experiment was to ask subjects to press one of two buttons, one with the right index finger or the other with their left index finger. Technology has moved on since Libet’s 1985 experiment, and Soon et al were able to observe the brain in high resolution using a function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Their aims were to replicate results suggesting the a brain state is a precursor to action and to see whether the activity of the brain could be used to predict whether the subject would press the right or left button, ahead of the subject acting.

Investigating specifically the primary motor cortex and supplementary motor area, Soon et al were able to see fingerprints of readings that allowed accurate prediction of a subject’s decision up to 7 seconds before it happened; from looking at the material brain, science is starting to read the mind. These data are better explained by the decision emerging in the brain and moving into the consciousness, not vice versa. That is a characteristic detailed in the determinism model, not the freewill model.


Deutsch, D. (2011) The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. (no place) Penguin.

God and Cosmology (2014) [online]. Directed by Greer Heard Forum. (no place) Reasonable Faith. Available from:

Libet, B. and Benjamin, L. (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. The Behavioral and brain sciences. 8 (04), pp. 529.

Soon, C.S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J. and Haynes, J.-D. (2008) Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature neuroscience. 11 (5), pp. 543–545.

10 thoughts on “Another take on Freewill”

  1. Models are critical to cosmology and stellar astronomy because of the impossibility of direct observation.

    Hoaxes like global warming pilfer the credibility of actual science that has been done effectively using models.

    For example, it is possible to directly measure the amount of CO2 (the greenhouse gas that is supposed to cause global warming) in Earth’s atmosphere.

    The Earth’s atmosphere contains 0.04% CO2.

    That is a minuscule amount of CO2 that is barely enough to feed Earth’s plant life and sea algae, let alone cause global warming.

    My objective here is to point out that the use of scientific modeling has been corrupted by leftist political and economic philosophy (Marxism).

    Consequently, a Marxist academic like Allallt proposing the use of scientific models to model freewill would most probably be untrustworthy.

    1. There’s no actual argument there. You skirt around anything that might be considered ‘content’ so much that it feels like a promotion of your babbling to call it a ‘non sequitur’.

      Feel free to try again, though.

  2. Well, allallt, you are certainly nice to let a certified wingnut like sincerelyoutmind to be your first respondent, but you did a fine service covering this topic with panache. The decision “emerging in the brain and then moving into consciousness” – sounds quite right.

    1. Thank you for your review! I’m glad you like it. I do find it hard to see the way around this, without calling on magic.

      I let everyone talk. Free speech is a domain where sunlight really is the best disinfectant. SoM is quite reliable for missing the point of a post and the mark of intellectual honesty or rigor — I think it’s best to let him demonstrate that.

  3. I can’t remember whether I have made this comment before so, if I have … never mind! (I miss Emily Litella … oh, she’s president now, you say?!)

    Many people point to the experiments showing a time lag between thought and action as indications that “will” isn’t free. On the contrary I think they point up a basic problem. Our conscious minds are a set of mental abilities of which we are aware as they are working. Our unconscious/subconscious minds (I make no distinction for simplicity so please don’t whack me for that.) are a set of mental powers of which we are unaware when they are working. With which do we identify? Which has more control of our actions?

    Yep, we identify with the one we can hear internally and which has a very small role in our physical behaviors. Some refer to the conscious mind as “I” and the subconscious as “me” which, if adopted might help but hasn’t so far as I can tell. This confinement of our wills to our conscious minds really messes with the freewill argument, because our autonomic processes and subconscious minds don’t even get a vote.

    It seems to be clear that our conscious minds overlay everything else and the reason that our conscious minds lag behind our actions is that it takes that long for them to “get the memo.” If we designated more of our behaviors to conscious activities we would not survive another generation, let alone millennia. So, I think we have freewill, but that is based upon my understanding that we are not solely conscious creatures. And if there are scientific and philosophical fine points, I believe in freewill for the narrow practical reason, as a foundation of our justice systems. That certainly cannot wait for the scientists and philosophers to figure this mess out.

  4. (1) The most important question to ask about the Libet experiments is this: Were his student subjects required to participate in order to pass his course, or were they allowed to choose of their own free will?

    The answer is irrelevant. The point is that everyone knows what free will means in that question, and no one assumes anything supernatural is going on. If allowed to decide for themselves whether to participate, each person would consider the time and effort required to take part, and decide for themselves whether they had the time and the interest to take part, or whether they had other things they would rather do.

    Their reasoning, which they all will admit occurs in their brain, would decide their choice. Each reason they considered would be either a cause to participate or a cause to do other things. So no one would claim they had no cause for their choice.

    (2) Determinism doesn’t cause anything. That’s right. It doesn’t. Determinism asserts that objects and forces in our universe behave in a reliable, and thus a theoretically predictable fashion. Only the objects and forces actually cause stuff.

    We happen to be one of those objects that actually causes stuff.

    (3) A corollary of determinism is universal inevitability. If each event is reliably caused by prior events, and they are themselves caused in the same way, then the future can only turn out one way. But this is not an inevitability “beyond our control”, but an inevitability that incorporates our reliable decision-making as part of the overall scheme of causation.

    (4) Without reliable cause and effect, we cannot reliably cause any effect. That means we would have no freedom to do anything at all. Thus ALL freedoms, including free will, require and subsume a deterministic universe.

    (5) … well, that’s enough for one comment. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

    1. Thank you very much for your comments. I do appreciate comments, especially from new readers. I hope this turns into a constructive exchange (time constraints permitting).

      (1) Coercion is a very different topic to the one of whether anyone ever really could have done differently to what they did (a reasonable definition of freewill, I think). There is no doubt in my mind that all the factors in one’s brain are very personal and therefore, even, unpredictable. But to step away from cause and effect to have a personal agency that makes decisions free of cause and effect is supernatural.
      (2) The idea of reliable causation has come up in discussion before, and it has encouraged me to write again about a ‘model dependent realist’ approach to free will. See, in addition to accounting for existing data, models should also be predictive. And the brain is so complicated, and decisions so chaotic (in the technical definition: sensitive to initial conditions) that determinism does not lead to predictive models. Psychology, which often assumes free will, does. So, there is an argument here for freewill, even if the mechanism or explanation eludes us entirely.
      (3) I’m not sure I follow this comment or comment (4). Would you mind expanding on this for me?

      1. (1) The reason people object to determinism is that it seems to suggest that something else is in control of their lives. They imagine that if reliable causation has agency then they have none. And you’ll hear many hard determinists out there telling them that they are “just passengers on a bus, not in the driver’s seat”, “puppets where the universe is pulling their strings”, and that their “sense of control is just an illusion”. This is why people object to determinism, because they see it as a form of coercion, the transfer of their control to something else. That is the basis for the claim that determinism excludes free will, because it appears to be a form of coercion by reliable causation.

        (2) We exist as three things. (a) We are physical objects, which, when dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa, will reliably hit the ground at the same times as a bowling ball. Physical objects behave passively according to the laws of physics. (b) We are living organisms with a built-in drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Living organisms behave purposefully (but not intentionally) to survive. Now we need biology and the life sciences to predict our behavior. (c) We are an intelligent species with the ability to imagine possibilities, evaluate our options, and deliberately choose for ourselves what we will do. This is where psychology, sociology, ethology, and the other social sciences are required to predict what we will do.

        What we do deliberately is also deterministic, but the causes are our own purpose and our own reasons. Given the same person, the same issue, and the same circumstances, you will reliably get the same choice. If the choice is different, then either the person, the issue, or the circumstances has changed.

        (3) The idea of reliable causation (determinism) works at all three levels: physical, living, and intelligent. It’s just that the possible causes are expanded at each level. Thus, as long as we are willing to shift from level to level as appropriate, every event is still reliably caused. At one level it is physical laws, at another it is both physical and biological, and at another it is physical, biological, and rational.

        But the purpose and reasons for our choices and our actions are still authentically our own. And this is the only practical meaning of the term “free will”.

        (4) We are able to deal with each other, and reliably cooperate as a society, because we are sufficiently predictable. We are sufficiently predictable because the brain serves the purpose of the underlying biological life form and reasons sufficiently well. If someone were acting chaotically, we would recommend a visit to the shrink.

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