Free – why science hasn’t disproved free will

It’s a short book by Alfred Mele, a Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. Mele was the director of the Big Questions in Free Will Project (2010-2013) and has authored several books and a large amount of articles on the subject.

Mele tackles the main scientific studies proclaiming that free will is an illusion. He takes them down, one by one, showing that they all suffer from several logical fallacies. But they have one fallacy in common, the Black Swan fallacy. That you have only seen white swans does not rule out the existence of black swans. That scientific experiments have not proven the existence of an agent of free will does not preclude the existence of free will. Some experiments doesn’t even look in the right places.

It’s an important book on the subject.

I take another route in my exploration of free will – a more principled approach if you will. And lately, I have revisited my “proof against determinism” and focused more on Alan Turing’s work. Looking at the Universe itself as one great computational device, Turing’s proof of the “halting problem” shows that there cannot be a Theory of Everything – there cannot be any all encompassing theory that will show everything as true or false. This is of course in line with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, but it seems to be a more direct route in proving that the universe cannot be deterministic. Which in turn leaves existence open for free will.

49 thoughts on “Free – why science hasn’t disproved free will

  1. Years pass and I miss my daily visitations, communion, and writing on your blog. Is my craving for interaction with you subject to my free will? – Yes. I can write or not write. But can I want or not want to?

  2. Interesting question Chris. How do you know you are wanting to?

    PART 1:

    The one thing about free will we all tend to assume is that it is CONSCIOUS and LUCID.

    But is it? And is an Enlightened Free Will actually enlightenment?

    Gudo Nishijima, a Soto Zen teacher, is famous for the phrase “You cannot notice your own enlightenment”. In other words, you cannot be conscious and lucid about your own enlightenment.

    So, if you THINK you are, and you SEE that you are, according to Nishijima, you AREN’T.

    But as a Dogen disciple, he believes that Zazen IS enlightenment and in that practice one drops body and mind as a decision, and that act IS enlightenment itself, and thus enlightenment is something one DOES but … never .. can … fucking … SEE.

    So, is a free-willed, enlightened Consciousness aware of itself as an ego?

    According to Zen … NO.

    Or … as they say in Japanese … “MU!”


    PART 2:

    In Renzai Zen the most common koan is “Mu.”

    QUESTION: “Teacher, does a dog have a Buddha nature?”
    TEACHER: “Mu” (TRANSLATION “No” thus making a doctrinal paradox as all beings have a Buddha nature)

    Now, in some schools, the student meditates on “Mu” until “Mu” becomes an unconscious intuition that acts independently of the ego that manifests choices … without thought.

    “Mu” is the non-self (Buddha nature) acting perfectly without ego or words.

    Same notion, the enlightened existence doesn’t notice itself, but acts and chooses freely.


    PART 3.

    So, if the enlightened self acts (sans ego and self awareness) and then manifests the ego as an afterthought that falsely THINKS it is the one choosing when it is actually “Mu” that is choosing and the ego is just BELIEVING it is actually doing the work, then what is the purpose of the ego?

    To a Buddhist, it is to be dropped away and forgotten as much as possible, and life is to be lived naturally without thinking about all this bullshit.


    PART 4.

    To some, the ideal enlightenment is to get the Ego to manifest as free will as the prime mover and get the non-self to obey the Ego’s will.

    Thus, this ego is one that SEES its own enlightenment.


    Can the Ego transcent Mu and dominate it and observe it?

      1. Hey, kg. Long time, no see. I’m leaning towards the neuroscience explanations of experience at this point.

        Regardless of any arguments about the root sources of our behavior and experience, it does not alter my constructive and optimistic approach to life.

    1. katageek – Thanks for offering some explanation and clarification. I’ll admit I’m a bit lost on what the topic is about. There might be something in this topic which offers an explanation or reason why reincarnation/past lives remains out of view for most people. I might guess that a person enters a realm which is outside of the physical universe timespace and reenters at some point for some reason. I would obviously not be the same “Richard” if I were reborn in a rice field in China, but might still come to the conclusion that I have a continuing existence as self awareness. Idle thoughts.

      I’ll continue to review the topic and comments as an interesting puzzle. I suppose if I were a dedicated Buddhist I’d *really* dig into it – haha

  3. Summation of Notions Concerning the Free Will Question on this Blog:

    1. There is no Scientific evidence that proves it. This is good actually, for it would mean that the will depends on things outside ITSELF to exist. And evidently, it is most likely IMPOSSIBLE for this to occur in this universe’s point of reference.

    2. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Turing’s Halting Problem, the Double Slit Experiment, Einstein’s “Spooky Effects at a Distance” (entanglement) and the fact that quantum experiments have shown one thing in two places, demonstrates there is more than enough wiggle room for a free will to exist. So the room is there, but is there a free will living within it? Yup, THAT’S the stumper.

    3. There is experimental evidence that time can run backwards, meaning a will could “possibly” have the chance to change history. Zen Master Dogen also believed this to be true:

    4. When a scientist measures a person’s brain as they make choices, the brain always acts and chooses before the conscious mind “decides” to choose and then act. For free will as an ego to exist in such a reality, it would have to will backwards as shown in #3.

    5. The notion of Pascal’s wager has always been applied to weather God exists or not. I think the same wager can be applied to a potential free-will-self. If there is ANY chance such a self exists (even at lottery ticket odds and above) then one could choose to bet on it completely, as a bet of “no independent will” yields no die roll for freedom.

    6. The “You Can’t Prove a Negative” AKA: “You can’t prove it DOESN’T exist” argument AKA: “The Dark Swan Fallacy” is used to justify many religious notions and could be used to provide space for free will to exist.

    7. If no free will has produced magical effects in this universe that are measurable by scientific standards and this is, in fact, impossible and a factual limitation, then these two questions remain:

    “What then, can a free will actually manifest as a human in this universe?”

    “How do YOU and I enjoy this free will with the best way we can and is that question universal?. Probably not (See #9).

    8. Geir’s work doesn’t prove that free will exists, but supports that it cannot be disproved.

    9. If one presumes that some beings are free and others are not, and then if one also presumes that each independent Will is like one of Turing’s Black Boxes, then there is no universal dharma that will find the path to independence for all. The Halting problem is presumed here to be aligned with the “Enlightenment Problem”. In short, there is no religion that does it for everybody. The halting problem and the enlightenment problem have the same structural reality logically regarding Wills and their liberation.

    10. The answer to the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42 for some, but is different for others.

    1. It has not since it is total subject to the laws of physics. And no, emergence is not a thing just as building a 4D object with 3D Lego pieces is impossible.

      1. Nope. Not according to your mythology.

        1. In your mythology, free will exists outside the universe.
        2. Therefore your will is not your body. But your body lies in a “Circle of Control” (new term I made up) that you control.
        3. I’m going to posit that any part of the circle of control when acting by your will is, IN FACT, your will in action – it is part of YOU. I also posit that a will cannot manifest itself unless it has something to control.
        4. Therefore, your BODY has free will by virtue of the borrowed will of your extra-universe will as it is part of your circle of control. I posit that your definition of free will FILLS the entire circle of control.
        5. EXAMPLE: Luke Skywalker can thus have a lightsaber of free will. If you face Luke’s lightsaber, it acts like it has a will of it’s own, but it is actually Luke’s. But when daddy cuts off his hand, the light saber has lost it’s will because it is out of Luke’s circle of control and Luke becomes a little crying sissy.
        6. If you die in the wilderness, your body still farts, poops its pants and really begins to stink and wont resist flies and maggots. It is OUT of your circle of control. It had free will by being part of your circle of control, but when it is dead it does not.
        7. To align your external will to known science, it is known that humans have the sense of a free will given to them by OTHERS. If a child grows up totally alone because of creepy evil experimenters it has been shown that the child develops no “me” identity. Thus the sense of self, that connection to free will you posit exists outside of this universe, would be mostly bestowed or revealed by the eyes that stare into yours as a baby and through the tongues that sing and talk to your eears. By all the friendly and not-so friendly faces you see as a child. People must help others gain this sense of will or it will not occur.

        … THEREFORE …

        8. In “Westworld” the robots (hosts) have people TRYING to create sentience, but there are things out of the facilitator’s control. They can’t FORCE a robot to awaken. They can give it an ego story, but they cannot get it to “BE.” The host has to do that herself. And if free will is outside this universe, then Deloris (See Above Video) is finally awakening to her self outside this universe as her robot body (perhaps with a QUANTUM computer) has been created to do. And if a Light Saber can be a force of free will, and a human body can be a force of free will, then DELORIS can be a force of free will.

        The Free Will of Geirs Body = The Free Will of Luke’s Lightsaber = Deloris Awakening to Her Self.

  4. Wow.Just popped in for a RE-taste of the cerebral/non-cerebral/supra-cerebral/ FUCK-cerebral notions and just want to say He-l-l-l-o-o-o-o – EveryBODY/ SOUL still pontificating about being/not being as animatedly as you-so-often-do!!
    ——Nice to see “nothing” (zero) is still “no-thing” though.

    Hugs ‘n high fives Geir. Kat, Chris, Rafael, ….. Richard too!

      1. Heeeey Chris…. hang on bro’…mmm, to the left (I see…) LOL
        ….. And you???? 🙂 >:)

            1. That’s one way of putting it Cal. Another way would be to say, like the scorpion, it’s “in my nature” and that it is the world around me that dynamically shifts, twists, and undulates all over the place! hahaha

      1. Now THAT, would blow me away completely, Chris!!! For now, a rain-check on this invitation, if you please (Father William!) I am also just getting my teeth into a thoroughly absorbing, brand new expansion project (globally exported) to my existing figurine manufacturing business. Don’t worry, once the venture is up and smoothly running, a trip to the States is DEFINITELY on.– with a pit stop in your parts, dear bro’ 🙂

        1. Rain check issued. Stay in touch. I am purchasing Chinese products and becoming with dealing with that marketplace. I am curious about your project. email when you can.

  5. Chris asks, “. . . I can write, but can I want to or not want to?”
    KG asks, “How do you know you are wanting to?”
    Chris’ answer: I do not know. I seem to think I know that I both want to and not want to at the same time. Not precisely in the same place of course. I am seldom if ever 100% committed into or out of anything.

    Deterministically, It is a given that humanity lives within and can only experience a narrow slice of the universal processes which are occurring. It seems unreasonable to me that a simplistic argument of “this or that” somehow encompasses a theory of everything or for that matter a theory of anything.

    In the matter of law, which is to say control, we need the bias for free will very greatly. Yet as soon as determinism is admitted to the argument, as it is with “mental disease,” the argument for free will is set aside and the person in question becomes “determined.”

    Computers for gambling and for security purposes generate “random” numbers. Black Swan Fallacy tells us this is not a proof against randomness, but having shown that randomness can be generated, does it matter?

    In this discussion, the fact that we debate an argument which leads to a paradox sets off my bullshit detector. The paradox is that there is no difference to be seen in the world whether one or the other would be “correct.” Humans behave as though they both have and do not have free will. No argument changes this DNA. No argument changes these contrary opinions for the causes of this behavior.

    So does this free will argument help? Yes. It helps get me a step closer to understanding Schrödinger’s Cat which says that something may both be and not be at the same time. It also demonstrates how big and important are our egos that we scoff at old timers arguing “how many angels can dance on the point of a needle” while assuming that “free will vs determinism” covers the basis of causality.

    1. Great points Chris. Your bullshit detector is strong. And I have been growing a garden with it of late.

      I have a strong bias toward free will. I want it to exist. Or as I put it, I want to BE free will, as I think if it exists, it is identity itself.

      But … here is an experiment for everyone. Today. Right now. Imagine and believe and ACT like you have no free will. That you are just a meat robot. Try this on for a few days and act naturally. Every time you think about free will or your self as a real being, just go “Nope, not today”.

      When I do this, I don’t see any change in my self experience. I still act the same. I still feel like I’m “me”. In fact, when I drop the “ego story” and count it as bullshit, I’m a lot nicer to people. And when I go all “I’m my own self-determined master of my universe bitches” I tend to be more asshat-ish.

      For me, the big hinge pin ignored here is that Geir’s extra-universe free will theory must deal with the experimental reality that the brain decides things BEFORE conscious thought “decides” to act.

      That would mean that this extra-universe free will he writes of must create the decision to act as a causative action before the brain does and THEN after the brain acts, the conscious mind “Decides” to act like it is its own idea.


      That’s how his model would have to work which for me is …
      ass backwards.

      It would mean that to truly live as a free will, the experience of conscious decision making just could get thrown out with yesterdays paper. Because all it carries is “yesterday’s news.”

      CONCLUSION: If “no will/self”, drop the conscious ego and live naturally with reality. If “a will/self”, drop the conscious ego and live naturally with reality.

      In either case, we take the wind out of the unknown and live naturally and can tell everybody to just fuck off cuz nobody knows nuffin.

        1. Hope he does a good job separating fantasy from reality. Cuz fantasy can seem AWFUL real in the right setting with the right minds agreeing …

          1. He is very, very factual. And succinct. He effectively demonstrates that neuroscience has nothing to offer in the question of free will.

  6. Scientists with philosophical bias and conversely philosophers with scientific proclivities seem to muck up this discussion. There are so many major premise assumptions flying around that it begins to feel as though standing in a whirl wind of bullshit.

    Claiming that, ” . . . neuroscience has nothing to offer in the question of free will.,” is a false trail. In truth, you may argue the conclusions of Benjamin Libet’s experiment in which Mele once participated. But as a whole? I do not think that scientists are trying to prove or disprove “free will” anymore than they are trying to prove or disprove God. Scientists have plenty of real world to study and calculations to make.

    I think you are free to believe what you will. (haha) But as an argument? It is not a good one, not because it is wrong, but because it leads to paradox. Better to spend your time making ashtrays stand up than trying to find empirical evidence proving or disproving free will.

    I’ve told you a few times how much I admire your essay “On Will.” At one time, it was an integral part of freeing of my mind from religious bigotry. It helped me a lot. It is still a good piece of work. But instead of combing through it and trying to wring out one more definitive answer from it, I think, like as an example of Godel’s Incompleteness, it must remain incomplete and simply satisfy by asking very good questions that because there are no definitive answers, point the way to a newer and less intuitive vector of research for the whys and wherefores of human behavior and potential.

    1. Thing is, neuroscience had nothing to do with the question of free will. Just like theology not having anything to do with neuroscience.

      1. But saying “Theology has nothing to do with neuroscience” is akin to saying “The Magic of Harry Potter has nothing to do with neuroscience.”

        I’m still reading the book, but if he makes this kind of distinction, he is merely arguing (along with you) a kind of “god of the gaps” space for free will.

        In other words, if you define a sacred cow just right, reason can never touch it. It then becomes removed from scrutiny. And as science and reason change, the idea just continues to retreat into any unknown space remaining.

        It will be forever unfalsifiable.

        But then again, maybe some sacred cows may be unfalsifiable and thus we cannot turn them into cheeseburgers royal.

        Bottom line, it’s seems to be an impossible problem to make tangible. You can come very close to squaring a circle with practice and intuition with a square and compass and a good freehand, but you can’t do it by the book with just a square and compass. It’s impossible.

        Thus, “squaring the free-will-soul circle” may be the same and only be approximated by intuition and a free hand well practiced.

        1. You got this sorta backwards. Mele isn’t here attempting to prove the existence of free will. He is merely proving that experiments in neuroscience and social sciences does not disprove it. And far from it. He is pointing out that the evidence and logic does not hold up to any scientific standard. That’s all.

          1. I finished the book and see his points and yours. He does make a good case for uncertainty and a lack clarity regarding standards.

            … and … let’s CUT TO THE CHASE.

            FACT: We, unsurprisingly, are back to where we started. If free will exists, it cannot be falsifiable from our reference points.
            FACT: He takes the Libet’s simplest choice of “Can I choose when to move my hand” and argues that it is not the simple Free-Will choice Libet makes it out to be. I … kinda spidey-sense some of the Special Pleading Fallacy here, but he does a good job of stating his case.
            FACT: Some people see free will as dependent upon a soul manifesting it. Others don’t. This is what really mucks up the question and makes it hard to define in our universe.
            FACT: In the end he states that Modest Free Will (choosing ahead of time with reason) exists, but Ambitious Free Will (the universe changes with each choice) is uncertain.
            MISSING FACT: One point missing is the notion that just because the universe ISN’T deterministic, it doesn’t mean WE aren’t deterministic. It may be that we are robots made by non-robotic means that THINK we are Pinoccio.

            FOCUS QUESTION: So what the fuck are able to do with this in regards to becoming superhuman sages that are masters of the universe with laser beam eyes and force powers?

            My Best Guesses:

            INCREASING WILL POWER THROUGH STOIC LOGIC: Modest free will can certainly be increased with Stoic Logic. By using the five points of stoic logic, we can choose HOW we are going to act in advance (and in real time for quick thinkers) and thereby be less suggestible to social pressures. This is how it could work in creating one’s morals as a participant with the Stanford Prison Experiment or the infamous authority experiments:

            1. If p then q. p therefore q.
            “If a guard abuses a prisoner I will report it and voice concern”

            2. If p then q. Not q therefore not p.
            “If I didn’t report abuse it’s ONLY because abuse didn’t happen.”

            3. Not p and q; p therefore not q.
            “If it appears I cannot be supporting prisoners AND be liked by the guards, I choose to support the prisoners and not be liked by my fellow guards.”

            4. Either p or q; p therefore not q.
            “There are two choices for action: abuse or justice. The guard chose abuse, therefore no justice from the guard. This now move me to report the abuse.”

            5. Either p or q; not p therefore q.
            “I have been given two choices: abuse or justice. I am not choosing abuse, therefore I choose justice.”

            THE BEST UNPROVABLE HOPES I HOLD: Our best hope mirrors what many Greek philosophers held; that virtue and free will can be increased thought deep work in philosophy.

            Some people may in fact be deterministic in their will and deluded that have any free will at all.

            But others may have grown or are growing their own soul, will and virtue. And this growth has no top, but is an ever-evolving and sometimes devolving thing. Unprovable, of course, but this is the only square to place a bet on if we wish more than the life of a muggle (Cue Pascal’s Wager).

            Some people may, have no soul because they are not creating one.

            But others may be creating a soul through their choices, practices and stories. And if that is the case, free will is not an aspect of the self, but the self itself manifesting by the act of willing. We aren’t free until we create and nurture our own soul’s value, all the while avoiding the traps of ego.


            Story. On. If. You. Choose. To. Socrates.

  7. Here are a couple of cerebral being/not being notions as racingintheblood39 mentions.

    Above it’s mentioned “the brain always acts and chooses before the conscious mind ‘decides’ to choose and then act.” That seems to follow Krisnamurti’s idea that existence is stimulus response. All there is of “me” is my brain reacting to “you” and what is around me. I’m not saying I’m interpreting him correctly, but if that’s what he’s saying then that’s a pretty dull way of looking at things in my opinion. Dolores and some of the other hosts in Westworld might fit that category. With quantum computing brains and enough input they might develop an independent stimulus response behavior.

    Here’s a puzzle. “What is isn’t, and what isn’t is.” For example, this is a pencil; no it isn’t, it’s graphite and wood, no it isn’t, it’s molecules; no it isn’t, it’s atoms; no it isn’t, it’s protons, neutrons and electrons – it’s sub atomic particles . . . etc. etc. At some irreducible or undefined point physical universe things becomes what is (definitional), isn’t.

    Looking at the puzzle from the conscious life point of view, any description of self/ego/I might become what is isn’t. I become undefined and irrelevant in the totality of existence and yet I’m okay with that since I’m still observing as insignificant self.

    The flip side is what isn’t is. Without any defined self I’m still a part of everything everywhere. So I’m both an irrelevant nothing and a significant part of everything at the same time. It needs work but I think a Zen Buddhist would say if it can be explained in words it’s not worth anything anyway.

    On the last television show I watched about astronomy it was stated that telescopes have now detected 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe.This allows for trillions of stars with the possibility of many having solar systems with planets supporting life forms capable of housing conscious entities. Thus any conscious entity is equally as significant as any star, particularly since the statistical probability is that there are far fewer conscious entities than stars.

  8. Thank you Richard. That seems to summarize some things that I believe as well.

    Through the years, Geir has done a great job of leading us from one philosophical topic to another providing the forum, motivation, and especially lack of censorship to write and to learn from each others experience and opinions.

    Will you introduce yourself and say a little about how you came to be writing here?

  9. Socrates talked of his soul. He talked of his Daemon spirit. He even became a dancer. But his most telling statement is (paraphrased) “The one thing I knows for sure is that I know nothing.”

    And, even with all our Science, I still come back to his realization that he, the greatest philosopher, knew nothing. And when I bash my head against these questions, the same is true for me.

    For me, Socrates was the heart of Absurdist philosophy that beat true long before Albert Camus and the Existentialists.

    Camus thought that the only real philosophical problem was suicide. He argued that suicide wasn’t warranted even if you are living a sucky life like Sisyphus.

    Or … Like … Solzhenitsyn?

    I just finished “The Gulag Archipelago” and was listening in wonder about how some people in Russia’s gulags had such deep inner worlds that the Gulags could never pierce their bliss and transendence. Solzhenitsyn testified that Sages seemed to actually exist in some of the worst hells humanity could throw at itself. Yes, it seems, Ksitigarbha is waiting to teach us how to survive the hells others force us into if we just know where to look.

    Rock on Friends of Sisyphus. Fate belongs to US.

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