You are not using a standards compliant browser. Because of this you may notice minor glitches in the rendering of this page. Please upgrade to a compliant browser for optimal viewing:
Internet Explorer 7
Safari (Mac and PC)
Post Archive
2018 (0)2012 (3)2011 (73)
December (1)

Robot Insects
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
November (6)October (5)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Women's Intuition
Friday, October 21, 2011

Thinking with your Fingers
Monday, October 17, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Souls and Confections...?
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
September (7)

On Souls...?
Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beware the False Consensus Effect!
Saturday, September 24, 2011

Your Preferences - Preliminary Results
Thursday, September 22, 2011

Popularity Survey - DO IT FOR SCIENCE!
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Zietsch's Response to PZ, Laden and Scicurious.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Personality of Cities
Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Discussion #1 - Walking Speed and City Size
Sunday, September 4, 2011
August (6)

People who Doodle Learn Faster = Bullshit
Thursday, August 25, 2011

Good News Everyone!
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Got the Time? Part II
Saturday, August 20, 2011

Got the time?
Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can Randomness Predict the Future?
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The House of Psycasm
Sunday, August 7, 2011
July (7)June (6)May (8)

Part 1: Do We Have Freewill?
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Open Letter: A follow-up
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

This is a lie, she said.
Sunday, May 22, 2011

MSPaint is mightier than the Sword
Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Art of Indecision
Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Skeptical Checklist 1.1
Friday, May 13, 2011

The Skeptical Checklist 1.0
Sunday, May 8, 2011

Of Chimps, Children and Post-Grads...
Monday, May 2, 2011
April (5)March (5)February (7)January (10)

Magical Thinking: Voodoo, Prayer, Black Cats, and You
Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Art of Character Creation
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Video Game Morality: Actions inside the box?
Friday, January 21, 2011

Psychobabble goes live!
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Trolley Problem: Who cares?
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Podcast delay and misc. Drugs!?
Saturday, January 15, 2011

My very own Natural Disaster
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A window into your Genetics and Mate Preference?
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Oh sorry, I totally phased out there...
Thursday, January 6, 2011

Porn: A force of Mutual Benefits
Sunday, January 2, 2011
2010 (35)
December (7)

Statistical Pwnage
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why you should care...
Thursday, December 16, 2010

The paper of Influence
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sharing: Part I - Emotions
Sunday, December 12, 2010

No-one cuts deeper than a Science Blogger.
Thursday, December 9, 2010

Me Meme [Ohh, links now]
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Half Full, or Half Empty? Well, That Depends on the Shape of the Glass.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
November (11)

What Your Voice Says About You
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Babushka Blog: A Meta-Blog on ResearchBlogging.
Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Announcement:
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Willful Self-Deception is Bliss
Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dance, Blogger, Dance!
Friday, November 19, 2010

The Science of Marriage
Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Moon and Antarctica
Thursday, November 11, 2010

Available: One Mentee. Good Condition.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Again we are limited by our puny human-ness
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Blogging Carnival - What is Psychopathology?: Origins
Friday, November 5, 2010

*sigh* Psi: A Rebuttal
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
October (12)

The Science of Mind-Reading
Thursday, October 28, 2010

How not to think yourself smart...
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Welcome to Assassins' League
Sunday, October 24, 2010

TODO LATER. A story of procrastination and forgiveness.
Thursday, October 21, 2010

A man and his words.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Little kids, little minds...
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Smoking (maybemightcould) is Good.
Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to stop the Apocalpyse
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to trick yourself creative
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Siesta - It sounds like Fiesta, but isn't.
Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Dread Pirate Rift
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Being Blonde. Natural or otherwise...
Sunday, October 3, 2010
September (5)
Rate This Post
Total votes: 3
Blogger Profile


Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

Post Tags

Blog RSS Feed
RSS Add to My Yahoo Add to Google
Monday, July 18, 2011

What is this all about?

See Part 1

See Kate's response, Part 2

See Denise's response, Part 3

See Psycasm's response, Part 4


Kate's response, Part 5.


If Free Will is an Illusion, What Sort of Free Will is it That We Think We Have?

Before I launch into another defence of free will, let’s get back to basics. Let’s check Wikipedia. According to the good sustainers of Wiki, free will is:

“The apparent ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints.” – Wikipedia

The word “apparent” is an important one. Free will, everybody agrees, is something we’re all convinced we have, although it may or may not be real. Both the popular and academic discussions of free will have lately consisted of people taking one side or the other towards the proposition “free will is an illusion.” One of the best-selling books by the affirmative team was entitled “The Illusion of Conscious Will” (Daniel Wegner, 2002), and a recent New Scientist feature article was called “Grand Delusions.” The sort of free will I want to defend, then, is whatever sort it is that we’re under the impression we have. Here is a passage from the New Scientist article, typical of the argument:

“Neuroscientists increasingly describe our behaviour as the result of a chain of cause-and-effect, in which one physical brain state or pattern of neural activity inexorably leads to the next, culminating in a particular action or decision. With little space for free choice in this chain of causation, the conscious, deliberating self seems to be a fiction. From this perspective, all the real action is occurring at the level of synapses and neurotransmitters.” – Dan Jones, New Scientist (2011)

This smacks of the rightly parodied excuse “it wasn’t me, my brain made me do it!” We ought to be concerned that this sort of sentiment constitutes our public debate of free will, because it contains a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Unfortunately, it seems the mistake was predictable:

"If and when the debate over free will moves into the mainstream, it will likely be in terms of naturalistic science vs. a more or less supernaturalist conception of the self..." Introduction to “The Volitional Brain” (1999)

The problem (and it’s a big one) is that as best as any of us can tell, it makes no sense at all to say that “we” don’t dictate our actions, only our neurons do. We are our neurons. But as often as we repeat that mantra, somehow dualism keeps creeping in the sides.

So what is it that we’re all so convinced we have, but might nevertheless be an illusion? Basically, that our will is effective. That the sensation of deciding to drive to work, which immediately preceded me driving to work, was in some meaningful sense the cause of my action. The kind of effective will that we’re convinced we have is a very mild one, by philosophical standards. It doesn’t have to be the case that I was likely to choose to do anything other than drive to work. It doesn’t have to be the case that my decision was perfectly self-originated, unaffected by environment and learning. Freud, Jung, and the advertising industry long ago demonstrated that our thoughts and desires are not all transparent and within our control. But still, despite all these concessions, there remains a residual conviction that it is possible for a behaviour to be caused by consciously willing it. It seems just absurd to think that our will is never effective – that it is not the sort of thing which could ever have an effect. We are outraged by the idea that “consciousness doesn’t really do anything” (Wegner, 2002). Well, I am.


That Which Must Be Demonstrated

I think there are two things which need to be shown, in order to say that our will is effective:

1. That machines, designed or evolved, do in some meaningful sense cause their outputs.

2. That conscious will is necessary for at least some of the outputs of our machines.


1. That machines, designed or evolved, in some meaningful sense cause their outputs.

The supposed problem of determinism comes in here, before we even get to humans. It is a confusion about causation in general, and applies just as much to any other system as it does to us. As the late, great Robert Nozick said:

“Nobody has ever announced that because determinism is true, thermostats do not control temperature.” – Robert Nozick

Although we don’t tend to spend much time worrying about whether our desktop computers really cause the output of the programs they run, we could easily apply the same logic to them: “One physical circuit state or pattern of electrical activity inexorably leads to the next, culminating in a particular calculation,” we might say. “With little space for meaningful manipulation of symbols in this chain of causation, the software seems to be a fiction. All the real action is occurring at the level of electrons and logic gates.”

Free will is thought to be impossible in a deterministic universe because, given the initial state of said universe, only one set of things could possibly be happening right now, which includes all those things that you think you’re responsible for. I agree that there are certain definitions of free will for which this is true, but what I deny is that those sorts of free will are relevant to the sort currently under popular attack – the status of conscious will as something which can cause actions. If it seems that my meaning of “free will” should better be called “agency,” and that it is misleading to conflate the two, then I agree wholeheartedly, and offer in my defence that I’m only doing it because everyone else is.

If we accept determinism, which I’m happy to, then the state of the universe one second after the Big Bang is indeed a sufficient condition for you driving to work this morning. However, it’s also a sufficient cause for Hitler losing the second World War and the existence of Nyan Cat, so it’s not hugely informative. What we actually care about are the necessary, proximate causes of something.

The necessary cause of my computer reaching output X is not the whole prior state of the universe, nor even a full description of the precise voltages in all its circuitry (some voltage variation is absorbed by its binary operations and so never has any effect, and some of its operations are maintaining user interfaces and background scans irrelevant to producing the particular output X). The necessary cause is the particular set of algorithms implemented by the program responsible for calculating X.

Likewise the necessary cause of me driving to work is not a full description of the state of my brain at that time (let alone the universe). Much of my brain is occupied keeping me alive. Other bits of it are busy humming a Ke$ha song, but could be humming Cindi Lauper without altering my decision to drive to work. Out of the infinitely vast sufficient cause of my action, only a very tiny bit was the necessary proximate cause – only whatever were the neural correlates of my decision.


2. That our conscious will is a necessary part of the machinery which causes our behaviour.

I think it is important to note that this doesn’t have to be the case. We can imagine a machine wired up in such a way that it produced behaviour, and also produced a sensation of having desired to perform that behaviour, without the two being causally connected. I believe it is a viable (although evolutionarily far-fetched) empirical hypothesis that conscious will is not a necessary part of what we, as organisms do. It just doesn’t happen to be true of us. And in order to disprove it, I think only two things need to be observed:

(a) That the contents of consciousness can influence behaviour.

(b) That the contents of consciousness can influence later contents of consciousness.

Before I suggest my own answers, I wouldn’t be doing my job here as Cog Pysc Representative if I didn’t mention Benjamin Libet’s now classic (alleged) refutation of the efficacy of conscious will (Libet et al., 1983). The simple experiment is shown replicated in the video below:

Activity is recorded by EEG from the subject’s motor cortex, while they spontaneously move their hand to press a button whenever they decide to. You get them to tell you exactly what time they saw on a clock face the moment they made their decision, and then you match that up with the time when their motor cortex started preparing the movement, as recorded by EEG. Reliably, you find that their motor cortex started preparing the movement some time (generally around 300 milliseconds) prior to the time showing on the clock when they report having made the decision.

Three decades of criticism have now been levelled at Libet’s experiment, but I think the most fundamental problem is that you don’t need EEG equipment to discover that spontaneously moving one’s hand is not the sort of thing that conscious will is for. Do it for yourself. There’s an obvious absurdity to the task – you sit there thinking “I’m about to move, not!” In trying to do it “spontaneously,” you get into a weird loop of trying to surprise yourself with a decision. This is certainly not the sort of free will that we’re convinced we have.

Something that’s too obvious to ever receive mention is that the experimenter’s instruction always results in the participant’s hand moving. If the subject had been asleep, or had been awake but hard of hearing, they would not have been aware of the instruction, and their hand would not have moved. Here’s a glib way to reframe Benjamin Libet’s finding:

Libet et al. (1983) asked participants to move their hand, and they did, thus demonstrating the efficacy of conscious will.

That sounds flippant, I know, but I think it really is that simple. To come back to the two points I claimed needed to be demonstrated:


(a) The contents of consciousness can influence behaviour.

Some behaviours can be performed without ever consciously intending to perform them, but some cannot. I do not believe that a human could install Linux without having a conscious intention to do so, and yet thousands of copies of Linux are installed every day.

(b) The contents of consciousness can influence later contents of consciousness.

I would be unsatisfied with the sort of will that allowed me to act on my thoughts as they appeared, but had no impact on the sorts of thoughts I might later have, and I don’t think that’s the sort of will I need to settle for. The conscious contents of my mind depend on the previous conscious contents of my mind. Thoughts about Harry Potter cannot occur without previously having had thoughts about the alphabet, and yet millions of people can think about Harry Potter. The thoughts we have now influence the thoughts we will have later.

(I have not gone into long defences of these two propositions, because I think they are too obvious to warrant it, but they certainly can be explored experimentally.)


Throughout this, I have tried to express my claims in neutral, objective terms – machines, organisms, and their contents, because I think it is easier to think clearly about those sorts of things. But I would hope it is fairly uncontroversial that whatever “you” are, you are identical with the contents of the consciousness of a particular human organism, in which case my last two propositions can be translated exactly as:

(a) You can cause your actions.

(b) You can change yourself.

What more could you possibly want from free will?



Daniel Wegner, (2002) “The Illusion of Conscious Will”

Dan Jones, (2011) “Grand Delusions: Why We’re Determined to be Free” Originally published in New Scientist. Online here:

“The Volitional Brain: Towards a neuroscience of free will” (1999) eds. Benjamin Libet, Anthony Freeman, & Keith Sutherland.

Libet, B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W., & Pearl, D.K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness potential). Brain, 106, 623-642. Online here:


This post has been viewed: 7140 time(s)

Blog Comments
Ryan McKenna

Guest Comment

Your logic is fundamentally flawed. You highlight our "outputs" as evidence of concious will, however, those outputs are truly just the products of the inputs, which we, of course, have no concious willpower over. Each and every instance in our lives is fundamentally regulated by the movements/displacements of every particle in the universe.

The only real argument for free will, is the societal impact argument. Which is essentially the belief that if the absence of free will were to become part of the social conciousness, noone could be held truly accountable for their actions, and chaos would ensue. I would counter that with the statement that free will is not essential for morality, and if the imposition of moral "will" on other countries via military might isn't demonstration enough that free will is not a moral agent, I don't know what is. What would happen in the absence of individual responsibility would be the rise of social responsibility, that is the recognition that problems expressed by individuals are expressions of a greater social disorder, and would allow us to solve social problems much more effectively. The illusion of choice and will is only designed to mask our true inseparability from the forces of nature.


Rate Post:

Like 0 Dislike

What? You provide no argument as to why 'we, of course, have no concscious willpower...'.

And the societal impact argument 'for' freewill is the equivalent of pascal's wager 'for' the existence of god. Neither is a reason for the a prior existence of either, only a motivation to act in a certain way with a certain assumption about the nature of the universe.

Rate Post:

Like 0 Dislike

Psycasm - well said, I agree the societal impact argument is a total non-starter, for much the same reason as Pascal's wager. For a start, it's not an argument for the existence of the thing in question, only for believing in the thing in question. And secondly, the only good reason I accept for believing in something is "believing it to be true." Your first point is a misreading though, I think - Ryan said "no conscious willpower over our inputs", not just no conscious willpower, flat.

Ryan - "those outputs are truly just the products of the inputs, which we, of course, have no concious willpower over. Each and every instance in our lives is fundamentally regulated by the movements/displacements of every particle in the universe."

I'm saying that inputs create outputs via processes which are sometimes experienced as conscious thoughts, intentions, wills, etc, and that those conscious contents can also change the sorts of conscious contents which will arise in the future. Your objection, which is a natural one, I agree, is "but *I* don't have any influence over that - it's all part of the infinite causal fabric of the universe!"

Yes, certainly. But my point is there is no "you" who could possibly influence it. You are just the sum of the conscious experience, and the conscious experience effectively causes things, therefore "you" effectively cause things, just like you thought you did.

Rate Post:

Like 0 Dislike

I didn't misread it. I just interpretted as 'no willpower over output' as the same as 'no willpower'. It's a debatable point, I'll concede.

Rate Post:

Like 0 Dislike

I took it to mean just that our *inputs* aren't under our control...but yes, debatable.


Guest Comment

Came across the blog post by random...

You've made a very serious and fundamental error at the beginning that renders moot the rest of your argument;


We are most definitely NOT our neurons.

*You* are not your neurons any more than you're your skin cells or liver cells. Nerve cells can be lost (such as in a brain injury) while a person's memory and personality remain fully intact.

*You* are the result of the complex *interactions* of your neurons, an intangible projection of the collective neurochemical activities of your brain.

Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and as such it is governed by a cascade of causes-and-effects. Interference or interruption of these chain reactions results in alterations of memory and personality.

The chain reactions that occur in your brain operate under the same laws of physics that govern nuclear fusion in the sun or the weathering of rocks on the surface of Mars. The atoms in your body are part of the same self-contained system (ie; the universe), and are not uniquely operated on by any special extrinsic force.

Add Comment?
Comments are closed 2 weeks after initial post.