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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