Free Will: How We Do and Do Not Have It

Today’s topic of free will was chosen by Virginia W at Westwood High School. But was the topic freely chosen or was it already determined?

The answer has to do with the way our universe works. According to modern scientific theory, the universe can be broken down into a number of rules which govern how things interact. These rules are often presented to us as a series of confounding mathematical equations.

That, for example, is a formula of general relativity. Which would explain things including black holes:

[Both images courtesy of Wikipedia. For the rest of the images in this searches, thank Google search.]

Now, if you would agree at least that the movement of galaxies and stars are determined by rules, the laws of physics, the question is how far down does this go? Rather, a more interesting way is to look the opposite way, starting from the tiniest things we know: subatomic particles:

We can’t actually see them. But we know they are there. And we know about their properties through the laws of physics nonetheless.

How far up does this go? Combine subatomic particles together in certain ways and you get atoms. Put atoms together and you’ve got molecules, but wait, aren’t we now in the realm of chemistry?

These things are governed by formulas nonetheless. And when we put a bunch of these molecules together, we get a cell. Have the right kind of cell, and it’s a neuron. Your brain is a vast collection of interacting neurons:

Wouldn’t it follow that these also obey some rules? Even though we haven’t found these rules yet, all the neuron’s building blocks follow physical laws that are never violated. I remember Stumbling Upon this picture a couple of years ago, and it is still shocking. It shows the uncanny similarity between the structure of neuron clusters and the structure of galaxy clusters:

Point is, everything, including your brain, is governed by a set of rules. (You might hear in the news every so often that some law is broken, but that is only because the theory about the rule was incorrect, not the rule itself.)

Here is the tricky part. Suppose we knew all the rules, knew what the universe started from, and had a sufficiently powerful enough computer to run our universe as a simulation. (All 3 of these are far beyond are reach at the moment, especially the third, which is impossible, but is here for sake of thought experiment.) Because of the rules, the simulation would start running and emulating our universe exactly.

Sometime in the simulation a star would form, and there would be eight planets around it. On the third closest one, life forms would appear, eventually ones intelligent enough to question their own existence. They would ask, “Do we have free will?” And I’ll say, “No, but…

The answer is no, because if everything is governed by rules, then there is not any “intelligence” inside the simulation that is not part of something programmed into the simulation beforehand. What happens in the simulation only depends on what rules we decided upon and in what condition we started it, both choices having been made before the simulation ever began. There is no actual “free will” inside the simulation.

But there is always a “but.” Even supposing we figured out all the laws of our universe and its initial state, it would be physically impossible to create a simulation that could run our universe in at least real time.

Suppose in some simulation you have some number of particles. Further supposing that your computer has perfect, 100% efficiency, in that one particle in the computer could match one particle in the simulation, you would not be able to ever run the simulation, because you need as many particles in your computer as your entire universe contains! So you could run a partial simulation or a less detailed one, but this wouldn’t match your universe. Or you could slow it down, so you simulate only a fraction of the universe at a time (but still you would need storage).

The point here is, we physically cannot simulate our universe. We would need more particles than our universe contains. Even if we could tap into the resources of another universe, we would run into the problem that eventually in the simulation, the resources of another simulated universe would be tapped, thus requiring even more resources in the original universe. And so on.

So even though the universe might be determined, we can treat life as if we have free will anyways because we can never know what will come next. For all practical purposes, we do indeed possess free will. But theoretically, we don’t.

Edit: Here is a post I wrote later on an intriguing simulation aspect of determinism.

15 thoughts on “Free Will: How We Do and Do Not Have It”

    1. Well quantum mechanics adds a layer of randomness to it. Even though this makes the simulation unpredictable (because it would run differently each time), the simulation based on the same idea, so the actors within it do not have “free will.” They are just obeying the laws of physics with randomness thrown in.

      The real question is, What about God?


      1. Quantum Mechanics runs deeper than that though on a few levels. A recent Discovery Magazine(last year I think) posted an article on how some scientists looking into how the brain and nose work have independently theorized that quantum mechanics might be behind the workings of the brain and behind the sense of smell. (In the brain it was tunneling and pairing of electrons, for smell it was how the molecules vibrate on a quantum level as opposed to the current theory that it works on shape.) That leaves the notion that it’s inherent instability and unpredictability are built into all brains.

        On the deeper end though, really as every action has it’s preceeding parts, and all life on Earth is inter-reliant and descended from other living things gives it’s own opinion and concepts on the notion of free will, that means that the web of interaction for your great grandparents involving you involves every living thing they ever saw, smell, ate, touched or talked to. As you can imagine, such a web would become infinite pretty quickly and would likely encompass all living beings on the planet at the time(albeit likely tens, possibly hundreds of millions of years ago.) As the first living things were born from chemical reactions, that pushes it back to the birth of the solar system, which came from a dead star’s nebula. At some point that material came from the very first super-massive stars. (The dead husks of which now make up super-massive black holes at the cores of all galaxies.) But those first stars got their material(and positioning) from the big bang, and the subtle temperature fluctuations in it, as photographed by the COBE probe.

        So in some manner, part of why I’m here typing this comment up right now is because of some minute temperature fluctuations in the resulting plasma from the big bang. But another bit would have to be that our mammilian ancestors escaped the jaws of baby Trexs and Raptors.

        However, the quantum mechanics that might be an intergral part of my brain (if that theory pans out,) would have had a similar destabilizing effect on all previous life that had actions dealing with my ancestors, meaning that said web of interactions, that would already be nigh infinite and far beyond our comprehension, gets even more complex with the effects of quantum.


    1. Interestingly, C.S. Lewis (in that link) and I came up with very similar conclusions. Only, the Christian God would play the identical role of a person running a universal simulation.

      Suppose a simulator is running a universe that is much smaller and less complex than the one he is in. Furthermore, suppose he has already run it to its end once, and is running it again with the same rules, same conditions (and no randomness). Then the simulator is like God, for he knows at any step of the simulation the past, present, and future. But then the beings inside the simulation would be in precisely our situation. They would not know whether they had free will, but they decide anyways that it is in their best interest to act as if they did, whether due to belief in God or belief in natural laws.

      Thanks for sharing that, James.


  1. I was reading a CS Lewis book the other day, and here summarized is his argument, in essence, for free will: (i actually found this summary on a website)

    Here’s an argument against naturalistic determinism based on the relationship between free will and rationality.

    Free will makes rationality possible. If there is no free will, then no one is capable of choosing to believe something because of good reasons. One could never adjudicate between a good idea and a bad one. He’d only believe what he does because he’s been predetermined to do so. Arguments wouldn’t matter.

    That’s why it’s odd to hear someone try to argue for determinism. If he’s right, then his conviction is not really based on reasons–on the merits of the view itself–but on prior conditions that cause his belief. He’s determined to believe in determinism.

    Without free will, there is no rationality. Every one of our thoughts , dispositions. So, oddly enough, if there is no free will, no one could ever know it, because they could never have a good reason to believe it.

    This is the general gist. CS Lewis provided better links though, but I’ve forgotten them… lol


    1. While I haven’t read C.S. Lewis, I do have a few problems with that “summary” you found on the Internet. The main problem is that it makes the assumption that we possess rationality. If free will is required to have rationality, it argues, and we do have rationality, then we must also have free will.

      But the point of the view of determinism made in my post is that anything, including rationality, that seems to arise from free will is an illusion; it’s just determinism under the guise of free will.

      A few points:

      “If there is no free will, then no one is capable of choosing to believe something because of good reasons.”

      But if people are appearing to choose to believe something out of good reason, it has the exact same effect as if there was true free will.

      “One could never adjudicate between a good idea and a bad one.”

      Actually, the laws of physics do so because they determine how the neurons in the brain fire.

      “That’s why it’s odd to hear someone try to argue for determinism. If he’s right, then his conviction is not really based on reasons–on the merits of the view itself–but on prior conditions that cause his belief. He’s determined to believe in determinism.”

      Again, that only works if you assume we have reason in the first place. And to have reason, as that summary suggests, you must have free will. So that paragraph essentially says, “That’s why it’s odd to hear someone try to argue for determinism. If he’s right, then his conviction is not really based on free will. but on determinism. He’s determined to believe in determinism” Which logically says nothing. There’s nothing “odd” about it. The dashed part, “on the merits of the view itself” is fallacious because under the deterministic view, there are no inherent “merits” of anything; all views are just byproducts of the initial selection of rules and initial conditions.

      “So, oddly enough, if there is no free will, no one could ever know it, because they could never have a good reason to believe it.”

      Again, this is trying to discredit a view because it is “odd.” If you think about thinking scientifically, i.e., as neurons firing, there is nothing odd about someone believing in determinism.


      1. “anything, including rationality, that seems to arise from free will is an illusion”

        It’s kind of late, and I’m probably misunderstanding you, but it seems to me that an argument that assumes rationality is an illusion is inherently ridiculous. Didn’t you use rationality to basically come up with determinism? And if rationality is an illusion, what does that make determinism as a philosophy?

        Okay, wow, i sound lame. i don’t really know where im going. i know C S Lewis argued this another way with formal logic. let me read it again and ill get back to you…or just copy paste a page or two…


        1. “Didn’t you use rationality to basically come up with determinism?”

          This is probably the part which you think is odd, and indeed, it does seem odd at first. But it’s not odd, because I’m saying I’m only using what *appears* to be rationality, but is really more like a bunch of chemical reactions.

          You make a good point in asking what determinism is as a philosophy. In a deterministic universe, a being’s belief in determinism isn’t really a philosophy; it’s just a byproduct. Same as someone’s belief in free will.

          Don’t worry JC, I think I get the gist of what C.S. Lewis is saying. It’s kind of ironic that I’m arguing this even though I believe it’s best to act as if we have free will. Just something to think about.


  2. I think this is a good way of framing the argument:

    Imagine a man who has never heard of chess before, attempting to play. Perhaps its a computer version of chess, where illegal moves are impossible. He could, simply by trial and error, over time, come ever closer to understanding the rules of chess; he would more and more infrequently attempt illegal moves.

    Further, you could, after he has had some practise and has learned the basic rules, start to guess what moves he was going to make before he made them, given nothing but a knowledge of the circumstances (the board configuration), the rules (or more specifically, his understanding of them) and his tendencies (how he tends to react in a variety of situations).

    The circumstances, are absolutely determined by the rules, since they are generated by the repeated legal movements of the pieces, and his tendencies are also determined by the rules, and a collection of past circumstances – his prior successes and failures to respond adequately (by which I mean, in a way which generates results he perceives as positive) to board configurations he has previously encountered

    It may seem as though we can’t predict how the chess player will play because of his Free Will, but in fact it is because we don’t have access to complete information about his understanding of the rules and board condition, nor his tendencies.


  3. I always chuckle a little bit when I come across your website through stumbleupon, as though since I already regularly follow it, I shouldn’t need to be shown it by stumbling.

    Regardless, well thought out. Free will is one of those things where I’m sure even if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t know we didn’t have it — and furthermore, I’m pretty certain that our free will is constrained by our own social conventions. But just ramblings for another day.


  4. Sorry, but this is a load of rubbish. The idea of a completely deterministic universe was thrown out the window over 80 years ago with the formulation of quantum mechanics. You were right in the comment section that this still does not leave room for free will, instead introduces randomness rather than control over your actions, but you did not mention this at all in your article.

    The very fact that your entire argument, within the article, relies on a disproven deterministic formulation instantly gives it zero credibility.

    With regards to the similarity between neuron clusters and star galaxies, what has that got to do with anything? You can draw up countless such comparisons and they are meaningless, no relation can be drawn from them other than the fact that they look the same. Broccoli looks exactly like a miniature tree! Remarkable! So what? It means nothing. Ironically, your article and that comparison are rather similar themselves, in that, your article is also completely devoid of any useful meaning.


  5. I had no choice but to leave a comment. I came here after seeing the reference to your Stumbleupon experience. I just had a similar one on a much smaller scale. I’m heading out to Vegas to discover my fate. Wish me luck.


  6. Radioactive decay is random. So, you can’t predict the future even if you could simulate our entire universe with a simulator in a different universe.


  7. Quantum physics, radioactive decay, and Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle make it possible to have free will (or a soul). Otherwise, everything would be deterministic.


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