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Free Will Considered As Three Lunches

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

I frequently come across statements on Free Will, dressed up as science or philosophy, that are religion in drag.

Based on this unfirm foundation, the analysis goes sideways.

A thought experiment can help tidy things up.

The illusion that Free Will is an illusion

The core argument:

  • human behavior is composed of material mechanisms
  • material mechanisms can be modeled scientifically and predicted
  • therefore human behavior is determined
  • and, hence, Free Will is an illusion.

Stepping out from this overly simplistic view of Free Will, the author(s) then generally goes on to explicitly clue us in on our delusion: the activity we engage in that feels to us like the exercise of Free Will is not…and the illusion’s time is almost up!

I disagree. Free Will is what it appears to be.

The Ghost in the Machine

Descartes split the human experience into two components, the body and the mind, connected, if I remember correctly, by the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature is the classic ghost in the machine.

This is a religious perspective with a separate severable soul.

As science claimed all phenomena as a single set of unified physical systems, the immaterial had to either be delegated to the illusory (the ghost isn’t real, so how can its attributes be) or had to be reframed as a material process. Many things made the transition, but folks tend to choke when trying to bring Free Will across.

The mistake is to demand that ‘free’ means disembodied — disconnected from webs of cause and effect that make up the scientific universe.

I contend that this is misguided, and we need to follow the other fork in the road. Perhaps it’s the terminology that has tripped us up, with free having a variety of meanings, including, prominently, ‘unconstrained.’

At any rate, I contend that ‘free’ will is exactly what it appears to be…the ability to make meaningful conscious choices.

Defining Free Will.

To restate, I contend that Free Will is a meaningful process that works exactly as it presents itself to us.

The basic unit, the monad of Free Will as it were, is the consideration of at least two options and a meaningful, i.e., non-illusory, conscious choice.

Free Will is assumed here to be an emergent property of matter related to other mental phenomena such as intention, planning depth, and prediction. (In most places where I use the term, I have capitalized Free Will to emphasize that I am working with this definition.)

This definition views Free Will as being composed of material entities interacting in chains of causality. And that means it is, in some sense, determined. The choices we consider, the motivation for choosing, the limits on our ability to work through options are all determined in the way that material processes must be.

What I am contending is that, without that ‘Free Will’ component of our mental processes, we would not take the same actions. Snipping it out would radically change the process. Free Will, as we experience it, is precisely the physical process by which some action is guided.

Insisting that Free Will has to be an unconstrained non-material process to be meaningful is residual religious thinking.

A note on Predictability and Determination

We have learned over the last several decades that a process can be ‘determined’ as a physical process but not necessarily predictable. Weather, for example, may be inherently unpredictable beyond a certain rough level of precision given the theoretical limits on computation using systems made of matter. Human behavior modeled as the interactions of humans within a given brain complexity and the physical and cultural environment might be equally complex and hence only partially predictable.

A thought experiment in three models: is there no such thing as a Free Lunch?

I’ve found it useful to work through the following thought experiment to tease out the various threads of meaning that I commonly see operating in discussions of Free Will. More complex examples might ultimately be more nuanced, but I think the gist can be captured with a very simple look at three versions of lunch.


The constant — Lunch!

Lunch 1: Direct

Imagine a buddy suggests lunch. I suggest a place. We meet for a burrito. This is simple, meaningful behavior. I have made a choice to go add nutrition and some social interaction to my day.

Lunch 2: Random

Imagine I now decide to add a randomizing element to the model above. I step outside the door and roll a 4 sided dice. Each of the 4 numbers is a direction and, if it is rolled, I walk in that direction to the next intersection. If a particular direction is blocked, I re-roll until I get one that’s open. I do this until I have found a lunch spot. (My neighborhood is more or less a grid with lunch in all directions, so this should work. As a failsafe, I limit this to 100 dice rolls and pack an emergency backup burrito.)

A few points — 

  • This has made me significantly less predictable. One could build a probability map of my possible locations, but my exact location could not be predicted with any further certainty. If our definition of Free Will is behavior that cannot be precisely predicted in advance, I’m free! Also, notice I could introduce random elements at any level of seriousness… from what I have for lunch, to whether to have a child, say, or to jump off the bridge. These choices would have a more or less significant impact on my personal life and potentially human history. Call it Schrödinger’s life planning.
  • At the same time, the process is completely a material process.
  • Theoretically, I guess, one might even be able to predict the outcome of the dice rolls by modeling muscles, dice shapes, and air currents — if one had the right tools and computing power (which may be, as noted above, outside the theoretical limits of computation on a material substrate.) This observation is, of course, irrelevant inside the experiment because I couldn’t make that prediction myself when assigning pathways to dice outcomes. At the level of my ability to shape the outcome, once I commit to the game, my movement is random. (Ok, hair-splitters: here you go.)
  • The critical observation is that this behavior is much much less meaningful than my actions in Model 1. If I don’t pack a backup, I may not get lunch at all.
  • This raises an interesting point, I think. It is possible that, in a very real sense, paths become more meaningful the more predictable they are! Less predictability would mean disengagement from the essential concerns of my existence or making sub-optimal choices. In Model 1, I could go for unpredictability and lunch somewhere else, ditching my friend… and have a less meaningful lunch.

Lunch 3: The uber-rationalist


  • I have decided to attempt life extension via calorie restriction. Since I am very concerned with the calories in a meal, my aim is to get essential nutrients with a minimum of calories.
  • But, because both exercise and socializing are keys to long-term mental agility, I don’t want to stop my routine of walking out for social lunches.
  • To compensate, I have gone so far as to survey most restaurants in the neighborhood and have built charts of meals by restaurant rated by nutrition over calories. (This example would seem less outre to me if I hadn’t had a friend that routinely pulled out a scale and weighed parts of his lunch.)
  • My friend suggests Emily’s Spaghetti Shack. I suggest a sushi place a bit further down the street. We compromise on a Vietnamese place and meet for lunch.

Now, this outcome might be totally predictable, perhaps even more so than Model 1.

However, given the objectives I’ve set for myself, I am successfully exercising non-illusory Free Will to maximize meaning in my behavior. Meaning, in this case, is bringing lunch into line with a long-term goal and program.

So there you have it

It seems clear to me that predictability and meaningful choice are separate descriptive axes — and Free Will operates along the meaning axis.

Predictability, or the lack thereof, is more or less irrelevant. In all three cases, we’re dealing with embodied Free Will, i.e., a ‘determined’ physical systems of particles interacting in chains of cause and effect. Of course, we often overstate ‘free will’s impact — but that’s no reason to leave the poor thing out alone in the cold.

The final panel, Pay for a Medium subscription, needs some explanation.

I don’t think it will last but for now, Medium is paying less for articles and shifting the money to get the writers to recruit members instead. It’s pretty generous. Here are the details.

If you become a paid Medium member using my link, then all proceeds accumulate in the Beer Fund and will be spent on our preferred beverages at a future face-to-face Meetup. Time and location TBD. If you do sign up, you should probably, also, add yourself to my mailing list there so you hear about it.