Free Will Is A Myth – 5 Accounts

Sam Harris on Free Will

Free Will Is A Myth – GP Walsh

“The myth of free will” – Suzan Blackmore

Is Free Will A Myth Or A Fact? – Robert Scheinfeld

The Myth Of Free Will – Kerin Webb



  1. Which “free will” is a myth? Certainly “freedom from reliable cause and effect” would be an irrational concept, but it wouldn’t rise to the status of a myth. No one believes in it.

    But people do believe there is a difference between the case where a person deliberately robs a bank and the person forced to open the safe because the robber is holding a gun to his head. One is acting of his own free will and the other is not. This is a very significant distinction, with practical implications as to how we deal with each of the two men.

    There is a problem when an irrational definition is chosen over a practical, operational definition. Those who attack “free will” because they really mean “freedom from causation” are confusing the people who use the correct and appropriate definition. I believe that philosophy has screwed this up, and has confused many people unnecessarily.


    1. Hi Marvin,

      “No free will” does not mean “freedom from causation” as you are suggesting. In fact, it is precisely because we operate in a cause-and-effect paradigm that there is no free will because given the state of the world at time t1 (the sum total of causes) the next state of the world at time t2 (the sum total of effects) is predetermined.

      Now, in the case you mention of a guy where he is “forced” to open the safe because another guy is holding a gun to his head is not entirely an accurate description because you are assuming that he will open the safe. What if the guy decides to fight back against the guy with the gun. In a sense he is free to fight back. But, paradoxically, whether he chooses to fight back the guy with the gun or he chooses to acquiesce and open the safe is also predetermined based on his past history of genes and environmental influences etc.


      1. Yes, technically a person could refuse to open the safe and take a bullet. But coercion works because opening the safe doesn’t get anyone killed, which is morally better than refusing and getting shot. Under those circumstances, opening the safe is the correct ethical choice.

        Every event, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts going through my head right now, are causally necessary from any prior point in eternity, and inevitably must happen. So, which of those infinite points in time shall we choose to call the “cause” of the event? All of them? The Big Bang? The Universe? Determinism?

        A cause is meaningful if it efficiently explains why an event happens.
        A cause is relevant if we can do something about it, either to bring about a good event or to prevent a bad one.

        Deterministic inevitability is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause. It is not meaningful because what we inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint. It is not relevant because there is nothing we can do about it. It will always be true of every event.

        But we CAN do something about the two people in the example. To correct the behavior of the guy acting against his will, all that is required is to remove the gun from his head. To correct the behavior of the robber, who deliberately chose to rob that bank at gunpoint, will take longer, because he has to change how he thinks about his choices in the future, before he can be released. Rehabilitation programs are designed to accomplish that. But rehabilitation presumes free will, the ability to learn to make better choices on his own.

        The concept of free will makes a practical empirical distinction between the two cases. The concept of deterministic inevitability never makes any distinctions between any events. All events are equally inevitable.

        And, because all events are causally inevitable, it is never really appropriate to bring up that fact. It is like a constant that appears on both sides of every equation and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result. It makes meaningful or relevant distinctions.

        The problem is that philosophy has attempted to replace “freedom from coercion and undue influence”, a meaningful and relevant distinction with “freedom from causation”, an irrational concept, as the definition of free will.

        Sometimes I feel like the kid innocently laughing at “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. It amazes me how long academic philosophy has allowed this foolishness to go on.


        1. Ok, I appreciate your stance and there is merit to the fine distinctions and points you are raising. However, subscribing to “no free will” does not preclude you from treating the actions of the guy at gunpoint and the robber differently as you suggest. To justify what I said just now is a bit complex and involved and I am a bit reluctant to engage in it through the medium of writing because it is best settled through an oral dialogue.

          However, that said, I would like to recommend that you see my blog post “The Holographic Universe (Scientific Model of Advaita)” here (provided you have the time, inclination and patience because it is a five-part series) which does a good job of explaining why there is “no free will” from both a philosophic and scientific perspective, including talking about the the scientific experiments that show there is no free will. Also, it will introduce you to a whole new perspective on the world, our place in it, religion, God, etc.


          1. Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude upon your religious beliefs. I can understand the spiritual use of the concept of causal inevitability to free oneself of feelings of regret and guilt, feelings which may have outlasted their usefulness after the behavior has been corrected, or when the hope of correction is lost. Guilt, is what I’d call a “bookmark” feeling, one that reminds you that something went wrong, and motivates corrective action. After it has served its purpose it should be dismissed.

            My concern is that we have gone past that utility when we continually attack personal responsibility by insisting that “the universe made me do it”. And, of course, we are presenting a view of the universe that is empirically false. What we observe, although a model of reality, is as real as reality gets.

            But, like I said, if you’re spiritually invested in a different worldview, then there’s nothing helpful I can say about it. If you’re curious about a very different perspective on the determinism “versus” free will issue, I have a blog here that goes into some detail:


            1. I have to admit that in your blog post you make a very persuasive and meaningful case that free will should be defined as “choice made free of coercion or other undue influence”. I think that is the kind of definition of free will that the philosopher and atheist Daniel Dennett also says is the only meaningful one.

              I also feel you are quite consistent in not falling prey to the mind-body dualism by stating “The truth, of course, is that her character is an essential part of who and what she is. So are her genetic dispositions and her life experiences. So are her beliefs and her values, and all the other things that make her uniquely her. These things are integral to who she is at the time she makes her choice. To suggest that she exists separate from these things, and is being controlled by them, would be an ironic dualism. The truth is that whatever these things together decide, she has decided, and whatever they choose, she has chosen. There is only one, single, complex entity, and it is herself. She is doing the choosing.”

              Given the above two positions of yours, I have to admit that free will as conceived by you does exist, and the other “free will” that most people talk about does not guide our actions, corrective measures and choices meaningfully.

              I will reblog this post of yours as a good counter-argument to this post of mine on which we are commenting. I guess one could say both posts, that is, this one, and the one of yours I am going to reblog, are correct in that they are approaching the question very differently semantically and ontologically speaking, so depending on what one’s assumptions are one will find one of them more persuasive than the other.


          2. I listened to the first 25 minutes of Sarvapriyananda’s presentation. Other than the references to Karma and reincarnation, he was revisiting topics that were already familiar to me. His point about the linguistic/logic approach, where a predictive statement is already true or false was an interesting twist, a different expression of deterministic inevitability. But the whole issue is based upon the presumption ‘true’ freedom must include ‘freedom from reliable causation’. That presumption is false. Reliable causation is the underlying mechanism of all of our freedoms.

            There will certainly be one single future (after all, we only have one past to put it in!), but within the domain of human influence, that future will be brought about by our imagining multiple possibilities, estimating their likely outcomes, and choosing which options we will actualize. The true meaning of “free will” is to distinguish between cases where we ourselves are doing the choosing versus those cases where a choice is being imposed upon us by coercion or other undue influence. It’s a simple concept.


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