Free Will Part II: No need to be disillusioned

Last week I argued that agents making free choices do not in fact have to violate any physical law, in view of quantum indeterminism. Rather than being a ‘slave’ to the quantum statistics, as some philosophers have argued (e.g. Ted Sider, 2005), a choosing agent can be governed by quantum propensities while still having enough ‘wiggle room’ to make free choices—choices that are fundamentally caused by the agent’s volitional powers.

To review, the Born Rule for probabilities of quantum outcomes can only be violated if it is applied to a well-defined quantum state in which many precisely repeated trials yield a distribution of outcomes that deviate significantly and reliably from the rule (where the frequencies of the outcomes represent the probabilities). The ‘wiggle room’ is available to the human being because, as a complex biological system, he or she is not described by a well-defined quantum state subject to a well-defined measurement observable over a time interval long enough to generate a valid statistical application of the rule.  The Born Rule may still govern the agent’s choices at each instant, but no deviation from the rule can be established if the agent’s physical state (at the quantum level) is continually changing in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way. Thus, there is no necessary violation of the quantum statistics on the part of a freely choosing macroscopic biological system like a human being.

This week, I examine a view known as ‘Disillusionism’. This approach says that free will is an illusion, yet people can have meaningful and fulfilling lives without free will. Such an approach has recently been advocated by philosopher Greg Caruso (2013). Disillusionism is based either on a deterministic interpretation of quantum theory (such as the Bohmian interpretation), or on taking the quantum statistics as constraining our choices and actions so tightly that in effect those choices are pre-determined. As I have argued, I think the latter is based on a misunderstanding of the quantum statistics and the circumstances required for their application. So let us suppose that philosophers advocating Disillusionism are doing so because they think that (despite quantum theory) all actions are truly predetermined, and/or that we live in a ‘block world’ where all past, present and future events ‘already’ exist.

If all actions are predetermined, physically we are akin to dominoes that are being figuratively ‘fallen on’ by other dominoes. Each time that happens, whether or not we also will fall depends not on anyone’s choice, but simply on the physical conditions of each fall. For example (figuratively speaking), sometimes one domino will fall on another, but the neighboring domino will not be knocked over, simply because the first domino was not quite close enough to the second one to overcome its inertia.

In this picture, all our choices and actions are determined by circumstances and forces over which we have no control at all. Whenever we do anything, it is because we are compelled to do so. If one doesn’t like the term ‘compelled,’ perhaps another word is ‘propelled.’ Whatever words we use to describe the situation, we are effectively automatons in which each input results in a single fully predictable and unavoidable output. This means that whenever we perceive ourselves as ‘trying’ to do something, it is in fact already decided whether our ‘attempted’ action will occur, and what its outcome will be. Therefore, in this disillusionist approach, isn’t our subjective sense of ‘trying’ to do things also an illusion that would need to be rejected?

Suppose dominoes were sentient. While they might be able to perceive themselves as being involved in various processes and as exerting effort, in fact they are not self-propelled. Instead, they are propelled by forces beyond their control, since all their actions are fully dictated by those forces. So, in what sense is any of those dominoes really ‘trying’ to do anything? Every action that occurs is fully explained by physical processes and forces, so no ‘trying’ on the part of any of the dominoes is really part of the explanation for anything that occurs. If a domino perceives itself as exerting an effort, that perception must be just a byproduct of the actions in which he is fully determined by forces beyond his control to engage, and therefore just another aspect of the free will illusion. Without free will, ‘trying’ is superfluous, and any conscious entity is simply a sentient automaton.

The point of the above is that we can’t have it both ways: either (1) we have free will, in which case we can exert creative efforts through our own volitional capacity toward specific aims that we are trying to achieve, or (2) under disillusionism, we are simply automatons that don’t actually try to do anything. We just fall, as dominoes, where we are propelled to fall, and our subjective perceptions that we are exerting creative efforts are just as illusory as our subjective sense that we have free will. Thus, it is doubtful that disillusionism about free will can be consistent with a meaningful, creative life. Without free will, each person is an automated cog in a machine—even if perhaps a sentient one.

However, ‘disillusionism’ is certainly not demanded by physical law, as I pointed out in Part I. We can indeed be self-propelled, and although we certainly are subject to some forces beyond our control, we need not see ourselves as primarily propelled by them. The effort we must exert to accomplish our chosen tasks could be just as real as our ability to make those choices.


Caruso, Gregg (2013). Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will. Lexington Books.

Sider, T. (2005). “Free Will and Determinism,” in Riddles of Existence, by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 112-133.

Free Will: Why We Should be Skeptical of the Skeptics

It has become quite popular lately to view the notion of free will as a misconception to be ‘debunked.’ To be sure, if we really do not have free will, we should be prepared to face that fact. But is it really a fact? I will argue here that key arguments against robust free will are seriously overrated. These are:

(1) Physical theory implies a block world (i.e. all events exist, including future events).

(2) Physical law, including indeterministic quantum physics, is inconsistent with free will.

Concerning (1), this very widespread misconception has been refuted in the literature. See, e.g., Sorkin (2007) and Kastner (2012), Chapter 8.

Concerning (2), it seems clear that if the world were fully deterministic, then all our actions would be fully determined by prior causes, so in that case there would be no room for a robust form of free will. (Caveat: there is an approach called ‘compatibilism’ that argues that free will is compatible with determinism; I find this approach decidedly unconvincing, but it’s something readers can look into.) However, in most interpretations, quantum theory implies that the world is genuinely indeterministic: given well-defined conditions, it is impossible to predict with certainty what will follow from those conditions. Nevertheless, free will skeptics such as Ted Sider (2005) have argued that free will must violate even the statistical laws of quantum theory. His argument basically assumes that a free agent, considered as a quantum system, would make choices that would violate the quantum statistical laws applying to the outcomes of his actions.

There are two serious problems with this argument. First, as noted by Clarke (2010),

“probabilistic laws of nature also do not require, for any finite number of trials, any precise distribution of outcomes. The probabilities involved…are the chances that events of one type will cause, or will be followed by, events of another type…These probabilities, we may assume, determine single-case, objective probabilities, or propensities. Actual distributions can diverge from proportions matching these probabilities.”

Thus, a statistical law is not ‘violated’ unless very large numbers of precisely repeated experimental runs yield statistically significant deviations from expected mean values, where even ‘statistically significant’ can be a matter of context and degree. Highly unlikely strings of outcomes may occur, and yet a statistical law may still not be violated. The point here is that the demonstration of a real violation of a statistical law requires a very high hurdle of empirical evidence.

The second problem is in trying to apply the quantum statistical law – the Born Rule – to human agents, which are macroscopic biological systems. In order to predict empirically useful probabilities of outcomes with the Born Rule, one must have a clearly defined system and a clearly defined observable being measured on that system. A definition of a system must specify how many degrees of freedom (usually considered as ‘particles’) are in play, and exactly what the initial state of that system is. A definition of an observable must specify exactly what forces are acting on the system and what sort of ‘detection’ constitutes each outcome of the observable being measured. These requirements may be straightforwardly met for microscopic systems in the laboratory, but it is a highly nontrivial matter as to whether they may be met under conditions obtaining in the context of human behavior.

Sider essentially argues that a human agent governed by the Born Rule should be able to make choices that would observably deviate from the Born Rule. But this assumes that one could set up repeatable experiments in which the agent could be precisely defined as a ‘quantum system’ whose applicable observable was so tightly defined as to allow detection of such deviations. It is only if such deviations were in principle detectable that there could be a violation from the statistical laws of quantum mechanics, as observed in Clarke’s remark quoted above. However, there are very good reasons to think that this is not the case.

For one thing, as noted above, one has to be able to perform precisely repeatable experiments. Does exposing a given human agent to repeated opportunities to make a choice constitute a precisely repeatable experiment of this type? Why should we think so? The human agent is an open system, continually exposed to variable influences from his or her environment: air currents, radiant energy, etc; as well to internal fluctuations (number of blood cells in the brain, number of activated neurons, etc.). Assuming the brain is the most relevant bodily system concerning the choice, the state(s) and the number of relevant degrees of freedom in the brain are in continual flux. No matter how tightly one might attempt to control the agent’s environment, one is dealing with an enormously sensitive, complex and ill-defined system, from a quantum-mechanical perspective.

At the level of individual instances, the Born Rule gives only propensities for outcomes. A human agent might instantaneously be subject to those propensities; yet, given quantum indeterminism, could still have room to make a free choice– one that would not violate any statistical law. This is because another instance outwardly presenting the same choice to the agent is in fact highly unlikely to constitute an identical repetition of the relevant initial conditions: i.e., the agent is almost certainly not in exactly the same state that he or she was just prior to the previous choice. Therefore, the Born Rule propensities are likely not really the same as in the previous instance. Even if the experiment is repeated many times, a resulting set of outcomes in which so many parameters are ill-defined and subject to change cannot be used to determine whether a statistical law is being violated.

Thus, it is a highly nontrivial matter to try to apply the Born Rule to macroscopic biological systems; yet claim (2) presumes without argument that one can straightforwardly do so. If this is not in principle possible due to the intrinsically ill-defined and/or ever-changing nature of the macroscopic physical system constituting the choosing agent, then there is no necessary violation of the Born Rule. This is so even if the agent’s choices are governed by the Born Rule, in terms of propensities, for each individual instance.

The bottom line: rather than see quantum theory as falling under yet under ‘physical law’ that is supposedly violated by free will, we can view quantum theory as being precisely the kind of physical law that allows for free will.


Clarke, R. (2010). “Are we free to obey the laws?”, American Philosophical Quarterly 47, pp. 389-401

Kastner, R. E. (2012). The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility. Cambridge University Press.

Sider, T. (2005). “Free Will and Determinism,” in Riddles of Existence, by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 112-133.

Sorkin, R. D. (2007). “Relativity theory does not imply that the future already exists: a counterexample,” in Vesselin Petkov (editor), Relativity and the Dimensionality of the World. Springer. Preprint version:

[1] The approach known as ‘compatibilism’ holds that free will is compatible with determinism. I will not address that here. However, I do think that compatibilism yields a very impoverished notion of free will.