A Model Dependent Realist defence of Freewill

Model Dependent Realism, as articulated by Hawking and Mlodinow (2010) and Carroll (2016), is the idea that a specific and explanatory model represents a ‘reality’ and is ‘true’ if it can both account for extant data and is predictive. I have used this philosophy before to contest that determinism is the explanatory model that best accounts for data about the brain when making decisions (2017). I now want to argue something frustratingly contrary to that thesis: freewill is the better predictive model.

I should start by getting some things out of the way: freewill is not a particularly specific model, it lacks any explanation or mechanism. That does weaken its standing in a model dependent realist approach. In fact, I think the thesis I have written here fails to generate a good defence of freewill, the merit I find in writing it is the hope is sparks a worthwhile conversation or continues to demonstrate that freewill really does fail to have an intellectual defence. Run with the discussion for now.

It is worth pointing out that the assumption of freewill does a better job of predicting complicated decisions. Simple decisions are predicted by determinism (Soon et al., 2008) and it may be that it only requires an advance in technology to show that complex decisions are also predictable under determinism. But, as it currently stands, that is not the case.

It is easy, and even understandable, at this point to ignore freewill altogether because Soon et al has demonstrated that simple decisions are predictable and there is no principle difference between a simple and a complex decision. However, operating under a wise cautionary philosophy discussed by Deutsch (2011) ― a sort of knowledgeable realism ― we must operate within the confines of what we know and keep our extrapolations and conjectures as provisional. We may be able to conjecture that the simple decision is perfectly scalable to the complex decision, and therefore Soon et al’s work is applicable. But for the sake of intellectual caution, let’s not be sure of that jump, yet.

The mind is chaotic. I mean this is the technical sense mathematicians use it: sensitive to initial conditions (Boeing, 2015). It does not mean the mind is, in principle, unpredictable; but neither does it exclude that. It means that the slightest variation in how the mind starts a particular event has much larger and more profound implications on the outcome. The consequence of this is that, at present, the mind is practically unpredictable. And, for the same reasoning, as well as the fact the two are very closely linked, so is the brain. Given the unpredictability of the mind and the brain, determinism begins to fail one of the criteria of model dependent realism: making predictions of complicated decisions.

However, that is not the same as saying that people’s minds are unpredictable. We can, with some reliability, make predictions about how people we know well will make decisions. We know their values and their virtues; their influences and what they plan to avoid; we know them in the ways that are important. Psychologists can make the decisions very reliably, using models that assume decisions making and freewill.

There is an important question raised here: if a perfect psychologist is capable of predicting your decisions, does that not assume some sort of fatalism or determinism? It may not be the neuroscientific determinism I argued a defence of previously, but surely having predictable decision-making still implies determinism over freedom. There is probably a lot of work to be done here, still, on making ‘freewill’ a better defined and more specific model. That’s another hole in this thesis attempting to support freewill.

However, in looking at how we predict our friends’ and family’s decisions, and how a psychologist make predict the decisions of an addict, we see that our kind of reliable method assumes freewill. It seems self-contradictory (and I’d argue that it is contradictory) that assuming freewill makes people’s decisions predictable.

So, there’s the best thesis I can honestly muster in defence of freewill: when one focuses only on complex decisions, assuming there is no scalability between simple and complex decisions, one makes a better job of predicting people’s decisions knowing the personal profile of an individual and assuming freewill. However, this very conclusion is paradoxical because it assumes that freewill is better explained by having predictable decisions. Other pitfalls in the idea of freewill are around how well defined it is and whether there is any explanation of how it might work.

In summary, I cannot see how honestly evaluating the idea’s truth leads one to accept it. It may be that one accepts it for values on how to navigate politics and ethics (and one may even defend that as a ‘pragmatic truth’), but in terms of an actually ontological reality, I cannot see how it can be.

(Two footnotes:
This is my first post written and posted using the WordPress Add-on for Google Docs. My thoughts on it are that it is convenient, but there is a lot more it could do. For example, the menu on the right hand side of the Docs screen could include a window for adding tags and scheduling.
I cite online versions of books, which is why they are referenced without cities of publication.)


Allallt (2017) Another take on Freewill. Available from: https://allallt.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/another-take-on-freewill/ [Accessed 20 March 2017].

Boeing, G. (2015) Chaos Theory and the Logistic Map. Available from: http://geoffboeing.com/2015/03/chaos-theory-logistic-map/ [Accessed 20 March 2017].

Carroll, S. (2016) The Big Picture. (no place) Oneworld Publications.

Deutsch, D. (2011) The beginning of infinity: Explanations that transform the world. (no place) Penguin UK.

Mlodinow, L. and Hawking, S. (2010) The Grand Design. (no place) Transworld.

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.

24 thoughts on “A Model Dependent Realist defence of Freewill”

  1. It’s amazing the lengths the atheist will go, to avoid common sense.

    Freewill is the faculty of reason to make a moral choice.

    That is, we have the power to choice right or wrong.

    The eternal argument is what constitutes right or wrong.

    Western justice depends upon freewill.

    If there is no freewill than all the prisons must be emptied and the police and legal systems must be disbanded.

    Again, common sense makes such a development unacceptable.

    1. Even if I grant you a lack of freewill dissolves morality, or that a lack of morality entails the abolition of law enforcement — that doesn’t mean freewill is actually an accurate model of how humans navigate throughout their lives.

      This post started as an attempt to provide some credibility to freewill.

      1. Allallt,

        Religion is the way human beings have traditionally navigated through their lives.

        Religion tends to order living in such a way that permits the ignition of civilization.

        Plato’s “Republic” is an example of a work which attempts to model freewill.

        The Greeks used politics as the environment in which freewill is either fostered, enslaved or destroyed.

    1. Well, not that it isn’t enlightening engaging with your vague unsupported positions and absolute faith in ‘the obvious’ — but I’m going to leave you to that uninformed nonsense before you accidentally waste more of my time.

      1. Allallt,

        People who can’t see the obvious are in no position to teaching anybody anything.

        Additionally, the obvious is not vague.

        The obvious is as in-your-face as it gets.

        Before embarking on these hallucinatory sojourns into complete nonsense I assure you that it is eminently satisfying to behold and understand the obvious.

        It’s what Aristotle did to very great effect.

      2. Are you saying that the ‘obvious’ is ‘true’; elevating pre-theoretic and intuitive ideas to the domain of reliable truth? If so, you’re wrong and no one so intellectually naive should also make proclamations as condescendingly nor as arrogantly as you do.

      3. Allallt,

        I stated in simple English that it is obvious that human beings possess freewill.

        That isn’t a general statement about the obvious.

        It is a specific statement about freewill.

        But you know that, so quit trolling.

        You know by now that it is obvious that you are peddling nonsense.

      4. Allallt,

        The conclusion is that you are a sophomoric dummy who can’t manage to string two coherent thoughts together at the same time.

        If you tried to chew gum you’d probably hurt yourself.

  2. What does Add-on for Google Docs mean?

    Here’s my hypothesis. Free will exists for one moment, shortly after aborisation has stopped, or has at least slowed remarkably in the infants brain so as to start the age of memory. Much unlike a Christmas tree, 23,000,000,000 cerebral neurons (85,000,000,000 throughout the entire nervous system) don’t just come online all at once. Neurologically speaking it takes ten months, give or take, for a newborn to even discover that it is separate from its environment. It takes another twenty-four months for that same infant to get a fair handle on that environment, and most importantly, themselves. Before this process is complete, for those first 36 months as oceans of neurons and their branchlike axons spur on the growth and subdivision of an expanding universe of twiglike dendrites to make contact with up to 50,000 paths each, we do not participate in conscious life as we adults understand it. It’s rather the case that we enter it by increments; small baby steps as connection after connection is made and the brain literally hooks itself up. Then, at one moment, we are presented a choice. Hungry? Scream. Content? Smile. Whatever. It could be anything available to a 36 month old, but that is the one truly “free” act. Everything that follows flows (is determined) from that moment, that branch.

    Sound reasonable?

    1. John,

      The next time you have to urinate, notice the choices that run through your mind:

      1. Are you going to piss your pants?
      2. Do you pull down your pants and let her rip all over your boss’ desk?
      3. Do you hold it in?
      4. Do you run like the blazes to the nearest restroom and enjoy the holy heck out the perfect wiz?

      Behold! Freewill.

    2. I write on Google Docs, and there’s a little add-in on Google Docs that saves the document to your WP account with all the formatting and pictures saved.

      As for the rest of your post, I don’t think I follow.

      1. That’s the source of the controversy though, isn’t it: the difference between what is useful – freewill – and what is true – determinism?
        Or rather, the source of the controversy is the effort by various partisans to eliminate the difference.

  3. The correct definition of free will is quite simple. When people choose for themselves what they will do, free from coercion or other undue influence, we say their will was freely formed, autonomously by the person himself or herself, and we call it “free will”.

    This process of mental deliberation is deterministic, meaning that it is reliably caused by the nature of who and what a person is. As a living organism, the person is biologically driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This is not a deliberate will, but rather a built-in, instinctual intent. As an intelligent species, the person is equipped with an evolved neurological system that enables it to imagine alternate ways to satisfy its drives, evaluate the possible outcomes of choosing each option, and finally choosing the one that seems best at the time.

    The most meaningful and significant (and predictive) causes of the choice are the person’s own purpose and the person’s own reasons. And these are based upon other characteristics of the person, such as their beliefs and values, thoughts and feelings, genetic disposition and life experiences, and brain strengths and weaknesses.

    The question is not whether the choice is determined, but rather where we will find the meaningful causes that determine the choice. And we find them within the person. And that is why the free will model is a better predictor, because it has a more accurate picture of where the most relevant causes reside.

    Where the hard determinist goes off the reservation is when they try to convince us that all the causes are external to the person. Obviously that is not a realistic picture of the human being as he or she presents in nature.

    1. That’s a description of freewill that distinguishes between the proximate causes of a decision being personal and the proximate causes of a decision being external.

      But, as you also note, it doesn’t really dent the ‘neurological determinism’ or even that softer determinism of knowing a person so well that their decisions are predictable…

      1. Neurological determinism is properly called “free will”. That’s where we become aware of an issue that we need to decide. That’s where we imagine the alternative means of resolving the issue. That’s where we play out the scenarios to estimate the outcomes of each option. And that’s where we choose what we will do. Free will cannot possibly mean freedom from ourselves, from our own thoughts and feelings, beliefs and values, and all the other things that make us uniquely us.

        Quite the opposite. Free will means it was authentically us that causally determined the choice, for our own purpose and to satisfy our own reasons.

        The absence of free will occurs when we are coerced or manipulated to act against our will, where a choice is imposed upon us.

        There is no conflict between the fact that (a) it was authentically me that made the choice and (b) my choice was determined by the reasons and values most important to me, and thus could easily be predicted by anyone with sufficient knowledge of how I think and feel.

        Really, this whole notion that a person must behave so irrationally as to be totally unpredictable is crazy. Don’t you agree?

      2. But, given all the options a person identifies, would you say it is possible they could have chosen other than they did?

      3. Of course, because the logical context requires it. When you use the words “possible”, “could have”, “options”, or “chosen” your context is the mental process of choosing. Within that context we are logically required to have more than one possibility, otherwise “choosing” does not happen.

        Choosing is a mental process that actually occurs as a physical event within the brain. There is no illusion that it is happening, and you can actually watch it happening on a functional MRI.

        We are usually faced with a problem that requires a decision. We imagine several possibilities that we can choose and estimate how each will turn out if we choose it. Based on that comparison we choose the one we think will turn out best.

        It is always logically true that we “can” choose any of these possibilities. Therefore in the future, after we have made our choice, it remains logically true that we “could have” chosen any one of these possibilities. That’s what the words mean.

        What is missing in this context is the idea of causal necessity, or inevitability. Why? Because it has no use in the context of choosing. It provides no helpful information that can aid you in making any choice. Because it falls equally upon all choices.

        The fact of causal inevitability is the most useless fact in the universe. The only rational response to this fact is to acknowledge it and then ignore it.

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