How Much Free Will Do You Have?

Free will is a thorny philosophical problem. Many see it as the foundation for our lives and morality. Others deny it exists.

I’m not so sure where I fall on beliefs about the reality of free will. I strongly suspect it comes down to how you define it. Defined too strictly and it isn’t even a logically coherent concept. Defined too loosely and it encompasses things we don’t normally think of us having control over.

This is a hard debate, so I’m going to skip it entirely. Instead of asking whether free will exists, why not ask how much we have of it?

It may seem absurd to skip over the question of existence and move to quantity. After all, if free will doesn’t exist then, of course, we don’t have any. But as I mentioned earlier, I think the debate depends somewhat on definitions so casually defining free will as something most people would agree exists allows this thought experiment to continue.

A Casual Definition of Free Will

For the purposes of this article, therefore, I’ll say that the free will you possess is a relation between the difference of outcomes you could obtain by having different strengths of conviction with respect to that choice.

Say I want to become a famous movie star. The amount of free will I possess in relation to this situation would be how much my desire and choice to become a famous movie star brings about this outcome. If I aim to become a famous movie star, and I make this decision with great and consistent conviction, does that make it more likely that I’ll become one?

The answer isn’t binary here but a sliding value, with very little free will if the strength of conviction is poorly correlated to outcome, to quite high if strength of conviction is the dominant variable in determining the outcome.

With this definition in mind, how much free will do people have?

Clearly this depends a lot on what you’re talking about. My free will to become taller is quite low—even if I really wanted to be taller, there is probably little I could do to effect that outcome. My free will to turn out the lights in my apartment is quite high—all I need to do is get up and turn them off.

Do You Have Less Free Will the More Successful You Want to Be?

The amount of free will, depends not only on the goal, but the level of performance. If I wanted to become fairly good at basketball, the strength of that decision to become better probably dominates most other variables. If I wanted to get into the NBA, however, just wanting it badly may not have much impact on the outcome.

Strangely, this level-of-performance effect on free will not only means that, on average, there is less free will in reaching very high levels of performance, but also that for the very people who can succeed, the amount of free will is even higher. Consider that you’re a tall, athletic, dexterous person who could probably become decent at basketball with little strength of conviction in the choice, therefore free will is relatively low. However, since getting into the NBA may actually be a possibility for you, but it will require immense work, the free will component of your success at this pursuit is very high (corresponding to high degree of conviction creating a larger difference in outcome).

This flip in the amount of free will, may help explain why so many obviously advantaged people primarily credit effort for their successes. From their perspective, it was effort that mattered. Since they actually had reasonable chances to succeed, strength of conviction of the choice made to pursue it became a dominant variable, even if for most people it isn’t.

Inside and Outside Free Will

This definition of free will: the amount of change in outcome you can influence by the change in convictions is what I would call the “inside” view of free will. “Inside” here meaning that the difference in your free will comes primarily from the strength of your own internal choices and convictions.

That’s not the only possible definition, or indeed for many purposes, the most reasonable. Another could be seen as the “outside” view of free will. This is the idea that free will depends not on the difference in the strength of our convictions regarding choices, leading to different outcomes, but to the difference in social pressure/blame/praise generating different outcomes.

Scott Alexander proposes something similar to this line of thinking discussing the usefulness of describing conditions like obesity as being “diseases” or character flaws:

We use the concept of disease to decide who gets sympathy, who gets blame, and who gets treatment.

Instead of continuing the fruitless “disease” argument, we should address these questions directly. … We should blame and stigmatize people for conditions where blame and stigma are the most useful methods for curing or preventing the condition…

Continuing this line of reasoning, we should also make people feel responsible for outcomes when responsibility is likely to create better outcomes. Since the concept of free will is frequently used to assign responsibility for outcomes (we see someone as morally culpable if they had the free will to have done differently), an “outside” view of free will could be quite useful when the question involves judging others.

However, these two definitions are subtly different, and I would guess that for many questions, inside free will is actually larger than outside free will. Human beings only respond to social incentives by modifying the conviction of their choices only partially, and in complicated ways, making the impact to outcomes more ambiguous.

Which view is more appropriate depends mostly on the question you’re considering. I think for evaluating personal goals, an inside view seems somewhat more appropriate. Of course, there is also the second-order issue of how much you can change your own conviction of decision, but I feel this is more a technical issue than a practical one. For evaluating the outcomes and behaviors of others, however, the outside view feels more relevant.

The result of these different views of free will might also lead to double standards, where one is perhaps somewhat harsher in the assigning of personal responsibility to oneself than to others. However, it seems to me that this might be a feature rather than a drawback of the two systems.

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  • Jonh P

    Interesting. But my take on free will differs a little bit. Free will is like optical illusions. Although you know you’re being fooled and understand the circumstances logically, you can’t be helped but be slave of the brain and see what it wants you to see. I don’t want to get into trouble trying to define consciousness. But whatever it is, it’s something that does not controls the brain. The brain make decisions and NOTIFIES the consciousness (which probably is the combination of some areas of the brain. But it’s up to the neuroscientists to find out). This is fact. If you did research, you probably found out that experiments shows that the brain does store and load our memories, calculate trajectories of objects, make the decisions of our movements, control hormones, make the digestion, contract and dilates the pupil, controls breath, make us sweat and all sorts of things… all at subconscious level. Awareness is secondary. This is obvious when we think about sleep. Isn’t it strange? Why do we sleep? When sleeping we are not conscious. But we’re still alive. And the brain keeps working as it usually does.

    Suppose we didn’t have life on Earth. Would free will exists? Or does free will depends on the existence of humans? Does dogs have free will? Does a rock have free will? If we are made of stuff (atoms) which are structures that follow certain patterns, how could we come to think of ourselves as being capable to actually having free will? It would mean something that does not follow a pattern. Our brains are nothing but physics and chemistry. Just because we cannot permute all neurons of a brain it does not mean that its output is random. Because if brains always follow patterns (by the way, they do), then there are no real decisions to be made. Smell is illusion. Taste is illusion. Touch is illusion. Sight is illusion. Consciousness as well. Everything literally.

    However, contrasting with what I said, it may be evolutionarily beneficial to “believe” that we actually control something. You can read about experiments conducted on pigeons explaining how randomness (tell by the way, machines cannot generate real randomness) in the environment can construct behavior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._F._Skinner . It may be uncomfortable for some people, but we are no different from pigeons and any other living being when it comes to behavior or the notion of free will.

  • Jonh P

    Interesting. But my take on free will differs a little bit. Free will is like optical illusions. Although you know you’re being fooled and understand the circumstances logically, you can’t be helped but be slave of the brain and see what it wants you to see. I don’t want to get into trouble trying to define consciousness. But whatever it is, it’s something that does not controls the brain. The brain make decisions and NOTIFIES the consciousness (which probably is the combination of some areas of the brain. But it’s up to the neuroscientists to find out). This is fact. If you did research, you probably found out that experiments shows that the brain does store and load our memories, calculate trajectories of objects, make the decisions of our movements, control hormones, make the digestion, contract and dilates the pupil, controls breath, make us sweat and all sorts of things… all at subconscious level. Awareness is secondary. This is obvious when we think about sleep. Isn’t it strange? Why do we sleep? When sleeping we are not conscious. But we’re still alive. And the brain keeps working as it usually does.

    Suppose we didn’t have life on Earth. Would free will exists? Or does free will depends on the existence of humans? Does dogs have free will? Does a rock have free will? If we are made of stuff (atoms) which are structures that follow certain patterns, how could we come to think of ourselves as being capable to actually having free will? It would mean something that does not follow a pattern. Our brains are nothing but physics and chemistry. Just because we cannot permute all neurons of a brain it does not mean that its output is random. Because if brains always follow patterns (by the way, they do), then there are no real decisions to be made. Smell is illusion. Taste is illusion. Touch is illusion. Sight is illusion. Consciousness as well. Everything literally.

    However, contrasting with what I said, it may be evolutionarily beneficial to “believe” that we actually control something. You can read about experiments conducted on pigeons explaining how randomness (tell by the way, machines cannot generate real randomness) in the environment can construct behavior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . It may be uncomfortable for some people, but we are no different from pigeons and any other living being when it comes to behavior or the notion of free will.

  • Rich S

    Much like Jonh P, I’ve always felt that “free will” is largely an illusion. We think we have free choice, but our thought processes all seem to be a function of our past experiences and our physiology. But we have no way of validating whether a thought is truly “free will”, or just the expected thought as a consequence of your existence to date. If that assertion holds true, then while all over our actions are predetermined, we have no way of determining what the future was destined to hold and cannot differentiate free will from predetermination.

    So then we come down to what story is the most helpful one to internalize. Do you want to internalize that you have perfect free will, and that you are not a rock star / business legend / historical figure because you don’t want to be? That seems rather unhelpful and depressing.

    Do you want to internalize that you have no free will, and that whatever you do is an inescapable consequence of your history to date? That’d lead someone, when faced with some flaw introduced through their experiences, to just throw up their hands and blame their actions on their past experience. That’s just being lazy. “I can’t help that I weigh 500#, my childhood taught me to be always eating. Where’s my Reese peanut butter cup box?!”

    Fundamentally, I feel that you should believe in free will to the extent that it creates the optimum outcomes for you. So while you shouldn’t blame yourself for the mistakes you’ve made in the past, you should be cognizant of your experiences and use them to try to create the best outcome possible. And with others, I would always accept that regardless of whether they’re behaving correctly or not, that they’re behaving in a way that they feel is producing the best outcomes for them.

  • Rich S

    Much like Jonh P, I’ve always felt that “free will” is largely an illusion. We think we have free choice, but our thought processes all seem to be a function of our past experiences and our physiology. But we have no way of validating whether a thought is truly “free will”, or just the expected thought as a consequence of your existence to date. If that assertion holds true, then while all over our actions are predetermined, we have no way of determining what the future was destined to hold and cannot differentiate free will from predetermination.

    So then we come down to what story is the most helpful one to internalize. Do you want to internalize that you have perfect free will, and that you are not a rock star / business legend / historical figure because you don’t want to be? That seems rather unhelpful and depressing.

    Do you want to internalize that you have no free will, and that whatever you do is an inescapable consequence of your history to date? That’d lead someone, when faced with some flaw introduced through their experiences, to just throw up their hands and blame their actions on their past experience. That’s just being lazy. “I can’t help that I weigh 500#, my childhood taught me to be always eating. Where’s my Reese peanut butter cup box?!”

    Fundamentally, I feel that you should believe in free will to the extent that it creates the optimum outcomes for you. So while you shouldn’t blame yourself for the mistakes you’ve made in the past, you should be cognizant of your experiences and use them to try to create the best outcome possible. And with others, I would always accept that regardless of whether they’re behaving correctly or not, that they’re behaving in a way that they feel is producing the best outcomes for them.

  • David

    Thought provoking post and a very interesting and compelling read! Thanks and Happy holidays!

  • David

    Thought provoking post and a very interesting and compelling read! Thanks and Happy holidays!

  • Interesting thoughts, Scott, however I feel like your definition of free will is somewhat contradictory and bears little relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy. You mention that “the free will you possess is a relation between the difference of outcomes you could obtain by having different strengths of conviction with respect to that choice,” but the question is how do various strengths of conviction and “choices” arise in one’s mind? Did you, as the conscious agent you feel yourself to be, create such a choice and such a conviction? The truth is that the intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness. As Sam Harris has pointed out in his book “Free Will”, choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. Sam adds that “You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others— you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening—but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.” Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Lingholic

    Interesting thoughts, Scott, however I feel like your definition of free will is somewhat contradictory and bears little relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy. You mention that “the free will you possess is a relation between the difference of outcomes you could obtain by having different strengths of conviction with respect to that choice,” but the question is how do various strengths of conviction and “choices” arise in one’s mind? Did you, as the conscious agent you feel yourself to be, create such a choice and such a conviction? The truth is that the intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness. As Sam Harris has pointed out in his book “Free Will”, choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. Sam adds that “You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others— you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening—but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.” Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

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