The Instigator
Pro (for)
The Contender
Con (against)

Free will is an illusion

Do you like this debate?NoYes+0
Add this debate to Google Add this debate to Delicious Add this debate to FaceBook Add this debate to Digg  
Debate Round Forfeited
BertrandsTeapot has forfeited round #3.
Our system has not yet updated this debate. Please check back in a few minutes for more options.
Time Remaining
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/19/2018 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Debating Period
Viewed: 433 times Debate No: 115733
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (3)
Votes (0)




Free will is merely an illusion.

I understand that this is disturbing to many and will cause a visceral, adversarial reaction in some. It is disturbing for people to be told that they are not, have never been, and will never be in control of the wants that arise in consciousness and therefore the consequent actions. I blame no one for succumbing to the illusion of free will - the feeling that in any given circumstance, one could have chosen otherwise. Most people want to believe that their good deeds have merit and their morally praiseworthy actions are in fact morally praiseworthy. However, even a cursory examination reveals that this simply cannot be a condition that any logical person supposes.

One cannot control what it is that they want - they cannot dictate their own impulses and tendencies. We have no idea what we intend to do until that intention itself comes into existence. In no way is it possible to be the author of one's own conscious desires. Perhaps you can decide what you will do next, but you certainly cannot decide what you will decide to do.

      • "Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star." - Albert Einstein

      • "The first dogma which I came to disbelieve was that of free will. It seemed to me that all notions of matter were determined by the laws of dynamics and could not therefore be influenced by human wills." - Bertrand Russell

      • “How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?” - Sam Harris

      • "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills." - Arthur Schopenhauer

There are, of course, many deep implications of this - for the justice system, religion, morality, etc. However, that is not what I wish to debate here. I simply wish to contend that free will is a mere illusion in our current reality.


Hi Bernardsteapot,

A great topic of conversation. Perhaps we should get clear on a definition of free will? I'm open to you providing a definition. Otherwise, I propose:

An act is free if it was caused by the reasons of the agent, and the agent could have chosen otherwise.

I will start by providing four arguments for free will:

Argument 1: Common Sense Intuition: Humans appear to have choice, so the burden of proof lies on those disputing what is experienced as true by billions.

Argument 2: An ought implies a can, and a cannot implies an ought not. Without free will, the agent cannot control what it does, so cannot be held morally responsible. Hence moral responsibility fails. And, without moral responsibility, the reactive attitudes such as praise, blame, contempt, admiration, lack foundation as well.

Argument 3: In general, evolutionary processes select for traits with adaptive benefit to the organism. The appearance of free will, if lacking causal efficacy, will have no adaptive benefit. So, probably, evolutionary processes would not select for organisms wasting resources generating epiphenomenal experiences of choice.

Argument 4: beliefs are considered knowledge when reasons cause those beliefs, and not considered knowledge when blind processes cause those beliefs. If free will is false, the beliefs of knowers do not cause the conclusions of knowers, rather, those beliefs are caused by blind microphysical processes determined to occur prior to birth. So, humans would have no knowledge. So, those who know free will is false would not know that. So, the belief that free will is false is self-stultifying.

Now, on to some of the concerns you raised. You say 'one cannot control what it is that they want'. Why not? I wanted to debate this topic with you. This 'want' to debate the free will issue was created over the course of many years of thinking about what I value in life, and acting in ways that shape my character to want to debate issues. Why did I have no control in any of this?

You say 'we have no idea what we intend to do until that intention itself comes into existence'. Why not? I could have guessed beforehand that I would have intended to accept your debate before I saw your debate was open. As we become self-aware, we become more knowledgeable and accurate about what we would choose to do in different situations. It was not random that I accepted this free will debate. If randomness ruled, I may have opened up the section on 'Movies' and debated whether Star Wars is good or not. No, my intentions quite regularly follow logically from my character.

From the quotes you provided, I presume you operate within the Sam Harris school of thinking: our conscious intentions are the result of unconscious, uncontrolled processes. Please clarify if that is your view. Harris is not entirely correct on this, but I don't want to get into it if that is not your argument.

Debate Round No. 1


Thanks a lot for your well-thought out and reasoned argument, it is much appreciated. I am happy to agree with that definition of free will, with emphasis on the notion that a being is free so long as they could have done otherwise at a given juncture in life. Let's go through your points one-by-one:

Argument 1: Common Sense Intuition

I would say that asserting the truth of a concept based solely, primarily, or partially on the notion that it is common sense is a very inadequate way to look at the world. The following are just a few examples of notions once considered to be held in the "common sense" arena that are clearly no longer valid:
  • The world is flat
  • Geocentrism
  • Washing hands doesn't prevent disease
  • Continents are unmovable
"Unfortunately, it seems that our common sense notion of free will is flawed regardless of one’s opinion on determinism: free will is impossible in a world that is determined, undetermined, or anywhere in between" - Brandy Jo Newell, Indiana Undergraduate Journal of Cognitive Science

My counterargument here is not at all to say that common sense is never accurate. Rather, I am trying to illustrate that over the course of human history, it has been proven that "common sense" is not always true. As such, I feel it should be removed from the list of arguments.

Argument 2: An ought implies a can, and a cannot implies an ought not.

There are two pieces to this argument. First, you appeal to Kant's infamous OIC argument (A). Second, you state that it follows that, since free will fails, moral responsibility fails, etc.


As I said, this argument of yours appears to be a formulation of Kant's. Though he is undoubtedly one of the most respected philosophers of all time, there are an ample number of philosophers that disagree with ought-implies-can (OIC). There seem to be a plethora of counterexamples to the OIC tenet, so we will first start with some definitions (provided with the aid of Moti Mizrahi, The City University of New York):
  • 'Ought' is typically used to connote some sort of moral obligation or duty. An example would be the statement, "A husband ought not commit infidelity". In most literature, especially that of philosophical variety, 'ought to' and 'is obligated to' are typically used interchangeably.
  • As for 'can', I most agree with the definition of "what an agent is capable of doing within the limits of her physical and mental abilities in the circumstances."
Your contention translates as - If A ought to do X, A can do X.

Consider the case of a soldier, a medic, and their commander. Suppose the soldier has been wounded. Further suppose that the commander instructs the medic to treat the soldier's wound. Then, imagine a conversation such as the following:

Commander: “Medic, tend to that wound!”

Medic: “I cannot, commander.”

Commander: “What do you mean you can’t do it? You’re the medic of this platoon and I just gave you an order!”

Medic: “Commander, I know I should but I can't."

In this hypothetical, the medic is paralyzed by fear because of the heavy surrounding fire. With that, he is unable to provide aid. Both the commander and the medic know that the latter ought to treat the wounded soldier. So, it’s true that the medic ought to treat the wounded soldier, by virtue of his capacity, even though it’s false that he can actually do so.

If this is correct, we seem to have a case where the fact that the medic can treat the soldier does not follow from the statement that the medic ought to treat the soldier.

It seems we have established at least one case in which OIC fails.

B) Failure of free will -> failure of moral responsibility

If I understand at least the start of this deduction, I absolutely agree here. Without free will, the notion of moral responsibility certainly does fail. This is why the final line of my initial argument was, "There are, of course, many deep implications of this - for the justice system, religion, morality, etc. However, that is not what I wish to debate here. I simply wish to contend that free will is a mere illusion in our current reality." With that said, just because a lack of free will would imply the evacuation of moral responsibility and that a world without moral responsibility may seem askew, incomprehensible, or downright silly, that doesn't mean in any way, shape, or form that free will need not exist.

Argument 3: In general, evolutionary processes select for traits with adaptive benefit to the organism.

As a staunch supporter of evolutionary theory, I could not agree more with this statement. However, I don't at all agree with what follows. Whether or not free will truly exists, I would agree with you that an overwhelming majority of humans think and act as if they do. However, who are we to say whether evolution has selected for this notion of free will to be objectively true, subjectively true, or completely false? What if the illusion of free will is the precursor to a neurophysiological chain of events that results in increased resources devoted to mating which, in turn, leads to an increase in the proliferation of the genes that give rise to the illusion in the first place?

I don't think there are many people who would argue that human agents in any way act according to free will in their dreams. Thus, by your logic, dreams have no causal efficacy and, further, no adaptive benefit. I also don't think there are many people who would argue that dreams exist. You are entitled to your own opinions regarding the purpose of dreams (though many scientists don't think they serve a purpose (Scientific American)), put you cannot deny that in some way, evolutionary processes have selected for organisms using resources to further non-causally efficacious epiphenomenal experiences.

Argument 4: beliefs are considered knowledge when reasons cause those beliefs

I'm not sure this is a stance that can be unilaterally held, depending on your definitions of 'reason' and 'knowledge'. If I believe that God created the universe based on the reason that a priest told me, does that make it knowledge? If I believe that it only rains on Tuesdays based on the reason that I've only observed rain on Tuesdays, does that make it knowledge? Surely there must be some sort of evidence or truth requirement in transforming a belief into knowledge. You state that beliefs are not knowledge "when blind processes cause those beliefs." You might argue (and I might agree) that the priest/God example reflects a sort of blind faith and, thus, should not be considered knowledge. However, the rain example is by no stretch of the imagination representative of a blind process. It is a belief, backed up by observation and unwavering empirical evidence, used to create "knowledge".

As I run out of characters here, I'll make one last comment regarding to your answer as to you having the will to want to have this debate. We can happily discuss the remaining in future rounds.

If you take the stance that the "want" was created over the course of many years of thinking what you value, I would ask you to more closely examine what it is that you value and why it is that you value it. The further you drill down into notions like this, the closer you get to realizing that these values were the result of processes, whether on the molecular level or the nature/nurture level, over which you have no control.

Suppose you want to have this debate because you value defending your viewpoints. I would ask - why do you have this viewpoint and why do you value defending it? You might say you value defending it because you've spent intellectual energy refining your opinion in the pursuit of enlightenment and enjoy logical discourse. To that I would ask why it is that you enjoy logical discourse. You seem more than capable of tracing a thought process like this to its roots and I'd be very interested to see you trace something all the way back to its genesis without arriving at an unconscious factor.


Thanks for your really interesting replies, this should be a great discussion.

On the common sense argument for free will: I agree that ‘common sense’, or what seems to be the case pre-theoretically, can be wrong. The earth is not flat, etc… My argument is an attempt to shift the burden of proof to those rejecting free will. Pre-theoretically, we seem free, so we default to free will until shown otherwise. An analogy would be external world skepticism. Pre-theoretically, we seem to be in touch with reality. We may not be. But, we should default to our experience being veridical until someone proves we are stuck in the Matrix. So, the purpose of this argument is: if the argumentation on free will vs. determinism ends in a draw, free will should be endorsed.

On the moral responsibility argument for free will: Yes, I am arguing that an ought implies a can. More specifically, a cannot implies an ought not, but I don’t think I will need to quibble. You reply: sometimes an ought occurs without a can, as in the case of the soldier/medic. I don’t agree. Either the medic really can treat the soldier, in which case he ought to. Or, the medic really can’t, in which case he ought not. Whether the medic can or cannot really treat the soldier is murky in your illustration. May I change the illustration a bit? The medic is handcuffed to a tree, so he literally cannot help the soldier. In this case, he ought not anymore. Now, the medic is freed from handcuffs, and able to reach the soldier, so now he ought to help him.

Fortunately, there is no need to quibble on this issue either, since you agree that the loss of free will implies the loss of moral responsibility. So, the real disagreement occurs elsewhere. You think the loss of moral responsibility does not sink your view. I do. Without moral responsibility there is no criminal responsibility, so the edifices of society lack foundation. One may say: so what, we will build other structures. Ok, but then we ask: why did blind physical processes give rise to human societies that were founded on the bizarre and incorrect view that moral responsibility exists? It seems unlikely. And then another awkward question: how will we change the fabric of society, given that we lack free will. Ultimately, the same blind physical processes that gave rise to a ‘free will founded’ society will cause the existence of a ‘no free will founded’ society at precisely the time when epiphenomenal abstract reasoning concluded that free will does not exist. That is too coincidental to be likely. The causal processes of blind quantum frothing is in no way privy to, or responsive to, the epiphenomenal musings of macro objects such as humans. Then we have to draw deeper implications: not just moral responsibility fails, but the reactive attitudes as well. Praise and blame, gratitude and shaming, condemnation, being appalled, feeling contempt, all make no sense anymore. Neither does pride in one’s accomplishments, or guilt, or many other emotions. Again we ask: why are our reactive attitudes set up in such a way as to presume moral responsibility, when in fact there is none. Why would the brain waste resources on such a delusion?

On the evolutionary argument: yes, free will could be an epiphenomenal by-product of fitness enhancing brain processes, just as the weight of a polar bears coat is a by-product of the fitness enhancing warmth of the polar bears coat. But then we start asking awkward questions again: given that our mental life is epiphenomenal, why should it be commensurate with how we act? For example, why does my brain process leading to McDonalds eating behaviour subvene the exact belief/desire states that would also have caused me to eat McDonalds, if those mental states were efficacious. Why doesn’t the brain process leading to McDonalds eating behaviour subvene the belief that a teapot is floating around the solar system, and a desire to taste a cloud, leading to me acting by eating at McDonalds? It is all just a remarkable coincidence that our mental states and choices exactly correspond to what the brain is doing anyway. The more likely option is that our choices caused our behaviour, which is the free will view.

On the epistemic argument, I packed too much into a small sentence. The argument is that knowledge is justified true belief, where the true belief is caused by the justification, not other non-rational forces. For example, the juror has the true belief that John is guilty, and the juror is justified in arriving at this view based on the evidence presented at trial. But, the juror flips a coin and decides to come to her guilty/innocent verdict based on the coin flip. The coin flips ‘guilty’. The juror has justified true belief, but her reasons did not cause her true belief, so it is not knowledge. Likewise, your argument against free will is based on reasons, and let us say it is a true belief that ‘free will is false’. You do not know free will is false, since, on your view, mental states do not cause beliefs. Rather, blind brain processes, which are in no way privy to, or beholden to, the epiphenomenal abstract reasoning going on in your mind, are causing your conclusions. If determinism is true, you were determined from before birth, based on blind physical processes, to argue against free will right now. If a mad scientist re-wired your brain chemistry a bit, you would start to argue in support of free will. The reasons your provide yourself matter nothing, since they do not influence you. And, the reasons against determinism I am presently providing also matter nothing, since blind chemical processes entirely determine your brain structure tomorrow, and those blind chemical processes do not alter based on reasons.

On the free will to want what we want, we trace our character back to a self-forming action at some time in our past. Self-forming actions typically occur in genuine 50/50 cases, when there is equal reason to perform two conflicting acts. Indeterministic quantum processes select one of the choices, and our free will supervenes upon these indeterministic processes, leading the behaviour to be indeterministic, though caused by physical forces, but also having an agent cause, hence free will. You object: at the moment of self-forming actions, we are actually determined to choose path A. Well, I don’t think that fits with quantum physics. At best, the foe of free will says the probability of path A is fixed by quantum forces, so we don’t have free will. That is fine. I add: free will supervenes upon those quantum forces, and also causes the behaviour. So, we get free will.

I will add: your argument takes the cause of our ‘wanting’ to be unconscious and uncontrolled brain processes. But, our wanting is not random, it is a logical extension of our beliefs/desires. As I mentioned, I did not have a random ‘want’ to start a discussion in the movies thread, but instead my wanting to discuss free will is logically connected to my character. If my wanting was only caused by unconscious brain processes, and unconscious brain processes are not logical/rational but chemical, it is mysterious why the ‘wants’ that pop up are usually logically aligned with my beliefs/desires. It is as if my beliefs/desires cause my wants! Why not just acknowledge that our beliefs/desires cause our wants!

Debate Round No. 2
This round has not been posted yet.
This round has not been posted yet.
Debate Round No. 3
This round has not been posted yet.
This round has not been posted yet.
Debate Round No. 4
3 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Posted by BertrandsTeapot 3 years ago
Great, how do we do so? The system keeps telling me that an argument is due for me though I can't enter one. Is there any way to get this so it doesn't count toward either of our records? Should I just start a new debate challenge with you?

Thanks for understanding!
Posted by bacchicfrenzy 3 years ago
Sure, I would be happy to keep it going. I have enjoyed the discussion.
Posted by BertrandsTeapot 3 years ago
May apologies - I was out of the country. Any way we can continue this or restart it? I've been really enjoying it
This debate has 2 more rounds before the voting begins. If you want to receive email updates for this debate, click the Add to My Favorites link at the top of the page.

By using this site, you agree to our Privacy Policy and our Terms of Use.