The Paradox of Free Will

September 30, 2015

The more I think about free will, the more confused I get. The whole concept just seems incoherent and meaningless. It’s not just that we don’t have free will; it’s that the very idea of free will is nonsense.

Bronze Dogs at the Peabody in Memphis - May 20, 2014

Bronze Dogs at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis – May 20, 2014 (Enlarge)

By the way, I’m using Jerry Coyne’s definition of free will as “could have done otherwise.” In other words, determinism rules out free will. So I’m not talking about compatibilism here. I think compatibilism is a totally different topic.

Here’s a bit more about the definition of free will: See, if determinism rules out free will, then free will must be some kind of way you can act without being caused to act. In other words, you are an agent who can originate causes in the world. Instead of just responding passively to deterministic physical causes, you actually start your own new causes.

Doesn’t that sound like creation ex nihilo? Yes, if you originate a cause in the world when nothing caused you to do so, then you are creating something (a physical cause) from nothing (without a cause). And that’s just like what God did in the beginning when he created the world, right? Please tell me if I’m off base here.

Anyway, here’s my quick little paradox showing how the concept of free will is incoherent:

  1. If something causes you to act, that’s not free will.
  2. But if nothing causes you to act, that’s just random. And randomness is also not free will.

Yes, when people talk about free will, they certainly don’t mean acting randomly. That’s not free will! The trouble is just that there isn’t anything in between – either you are caused to act, or else not. What room is left for free will?

I guess people will suggest that you cause yourself to act, and that’s how free will happens. This doesn’t really solve the paradox, though. It just pushes it back a bit. See, if you cause yourself to act, then why did you do so? What caused you to cause yourself to act? If you originated a cause in the world, what caused you to do so?

Again we are faced with the binary choice of either determinism or randomness. There could be an infinite regression, I guess, because if you cause yourself to cause yourself to decide to act, then what caused you to cause yourself to cause yourself to cause yourself? Etc. Ultimately you were either caused, or else you acted randomly. And again, neither one allows for free will!

Here’s another quick thought for my religious friends: If we can’t possibly have free will, then God couldn’t have free will either. After all, the same conundrum applies to God – either he was caused to create our universe, or else not. If God’s love welled up to create the world from nothing, then what caused that love to well up? Either something caused it, or else nothing caused it. God can’t have free will.

OK, but don’t worry folks because the will still exists even if it isn’t free. That will be my topic for next time, so stay tuned.


  1. Daniel says:

    That actions are caused by an agent is right on track.

    Now, as to why the agent chose, say, pull the trigger rather than not when murdering someone, well, it is because he chose among conflicting reasons and desires.

    He chose, for example, to let himself be carried by anger or he chose to ignore the dangerous legal repercussions for the sake of robbing someone.

    When I break a diet by eating twinkies several reasons are presented for breaking a diet or keeping the diet: it is just a few twinkies, if you break your diet now you will not be able to control appetite, I can compensate with extra exercise, what will friends think of me breaking my diet…again?!

    Reasons for acting are automatically presented to the mind in different situations, this is completely passive. You cannot will yourself to believe 2+2=6
    But you can freely focus on some reasons over others and then settle on them and act in accordance to those reasons you chose.

    Most people know that murder and rape are wrong and leads to prison. Serial killers disregard those facts focusing and settling on short term satisfaction, control over a victim, sex and focus on means to avoid justice.

    This is all a bit simplified but Richard Swinburne and Duns Scotus spoke at length about this, specially the latter.

  2. Alan Le Fevre says:

    You are presenting with your a/b a false dichotomy. Neither choice you present could be valid given a fairly basic grasp of how we live. If our actions were random, we would not consistently eat food nor avoid predators. Our actions must be appropriate to the situation at least to a large degree.
    For our actions to be ‘determined’ would require a huge database of situations and responses. This data base could not exist as every individual faces unique situations. True free will evolved to solve these unique situation problems that all animals face.

  3. Fernando says:

    Very good thoughts, Alan.