The Nature of Freewill

Freewill and determinism are both true. This philosophical position, called compatibilism, requires a true and specific understanding of the two key concepts involved. A number of core problems and misconceptions have so far prevented this view from becoming generally accepted:

  • A mis-identification of what "freewill" actually refers to.
  • Confusion between two different aspects of determinism: mechanistic causation, and predictability.
  • The mistaken belief that freewill cannot be a mechanistic mental process.
  • Various other fallacious objections to determinism, freewill, and compatibilism, including deeply embedded beliefs, powerful intuitive misconceptions, and "cognitive illusions".

The last point raises a particularly tricky problem: many of the concepts involved in understanding compatibilism are extremely abstract and far removed from everyday experience; they requires complex conceptual models and substantial philosophical context. Because of these limitations, a good grasp of compatibilism requires solid, intuitive understanding of the core concepts involved. Unfortunately, much of our existing gut-level comprehension of freewill and determinism is based on old, mistaken ideas. From personal experience I have found that even after thoroughly understanding and working through the issues, it is easy for some old, deeply embedded misconception to produce powerful emotions of discomfort. Many of us can on occasion still intuitively fall prey to the Gambler's Fallacy, even long after we consciously understand its error.

In this article I will explore each of the core points: the true nature of freewill; how it emerges from a mechanistic brain; and how that understanding actually improves the scope and effectiveness of our self-determination. I will show how determinism and freewill intersect, and why they are not contradictory. Finally, I will touch on some implications of this theory of freewill. A scientific, non-mystical approach to the questions of mind and consciousness is assumed throughout.


What is freewill? What determines its definition? As for any concept, two questions provide the key to a valid identification: "What aspects of reality give rise to the concept?", and "What is its purpose?"

What freewill tries to account for is our introspective conviction that we are in control of many of our choices, and thus our destiny - that we are free to think and decide. We contrast this flexible, conscious control that we enjoy with the involuntary action of, say, our heartbeat or digestion, and with the instinctual imperative of a bird's nest-building or a dog's conditioned response. Our decisions are far more independent of nature and nurture than any animal's; we are aware of our ability to think and of the consequences of our choices - we can claim responsibility for our actions. These are the meaningful differences that give rise to the concept of freewill.

The two primary motives for wanting this concept, and for determining its validity, are the all-important questions of life's meaning and of personal responsibility. Without freewill, if we ultimately had no control over our goals and choices, if all of our actions were simply the inevitable operation of forces outside of ourselves, if freewill was some kind of illusion, then to many of us life would seem bleak indeed. Planning, self-esteem, prescriptive morality, self- and social responsibility would be quite meaningless. However, formulating the concept and proving its validity are two separate tasks - wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Before I list some common definitions of freewill, let me construct a description of what we actually know about the concept that we call freewill - lest we smuggle in some unjustified or unnecessary aspects: A meaningful theory of freewill must account for our undeniable experience of freedom of choice. However, it does not necessarily need to conclude that our choices are free from antecedent factors - empirical evidence and reason must resolve that issue (Later on I will refute the claim that knowledge itself is impossible without indeterministic choice). Secondly, it must account for the flexible, conscious control that we experience in everyday life - the fact that we deliberately select goals, values, and optional plans of action. I insist that the question of what kind of mechanism gives rise to these abilities, whether it is deterministic or not, cannot form part of the definition of freewill.

Here is sampling of traditional descriptions: "Freewill is the ability to freely choose one of several possible alternatives, to make decisions the outcome of which is and cannot be known in advance", "Freewill is the doctrine that human choices are not predetermined", "Freewill means that we are self-determined, not (ultimately) subject to forces outside of our control - it means, we could have done otherwise", "Freewill is the ability to choose and act according to the dictates of our own will", "Freewill comprises choices not caused by, and independent of antecedent factors"

There are many ambiguities, errors, and misconceptions that lurk in these definitions. In order to expose these fallacies let us return to what we know about the phenomenon of freewill and carefully analyze its various elements: Who chooses? What kind of choices? What does it mean to be able "to have chosen otherwise"? Choices free from what? How are freewill choices made?

Who or what does the choosing? Choice is an action, so there has to be an "actor". Our mind - the totality of our mental processes - does the choosing. In particular, it is that aspect of our mind that is aware of the "self" that recognizes and monitors freewill choices. The traditional view that "I choose" is misleading in that it tends to set up our cognition and understanding for implicitly accepting a dichotomy between the mind and the body. It infers that there exists an "I", an entity that is divorced from consciousness, the mind, the brain - a problem that Dennett describes as the Cartesian Theater[1]. However, there is no independent "I" as such; the "I" that we experience is our self-image, our self-concept, our self-awareness. This point is absolutely crucial to understanding compatibilism: The "I" that experiences and exercises freewill is an integral aspect of mind.

What kind of choices we are referring to? We choose to think or not, what to think about, how much and how long to concentrate on an issue, how many options to consider, which of the options to select, etc. We also make higher level choices of goals and values, such as desirable character traits, careers, friends and lovers, and of course, moral decisions such as when to lie or tell the truth. Freewill comprises conscious choices only. By definition, freewill pertains to choices that we can monitor and influence, and therefore must exclude subconscious and unconscious choices. This does not mean that such unaware choices are ultimately beyond our control - beyond freewill - but only that they must be controlled indirectly. We can control them through explicit change of values and beliefs, and through conscious modification of habits. The distinction between conscious and subconscious thought is of course a complex one; all conscious thought has subliminal inputs and components, and furthermore, awareness is also a matter of degree.

How does freewill differ from "normal" choice, the kind that machines and animals make? The advance of human choice over that of (current) machines and animals lies in our ability to think abstractly, and in our awareness of ourselves and our own thinking. This creates the control - and freedom of choice - that freewill represents. We understand. Machines and animals have knowledge, but they have little or no understanding. The difference between knowledge and understanding is crucial. I use the term "knowledge" here in a very broad sense: facts of reality - truths - that may be available to a robot or animal; such as an assembly robot's knowledge of where to place the finished product, or an animal's knowledge of where to find food. While we easily accept that animals know things (even ants know how to find their way home), knowledge in machines still seems somewhat foreign to us. I think that there is little difference in consciousness between simple animals and the more complex robots of today. However, neither have conceptual self-awareness - neither can understand.

We, too, sometimes have knowledge without understanding. For example someone may know the formula E=mc2 while understanding only that it has something to do with Einstein, or they may know a foreign phrase and even have a feel for when its use is appropriate, without actually knowing its meaning. Understanding, in contrast, implies the integration of knowledge with other existing knowledge and its relationship to ourselves and to our primary means of knowledge, our senses. Until we explicitly relate knowledge to our own existence and our perceptual knowledge of reality, it is not understood. All knowledge, including abstract concepts, has to be integrated with and related to fundamental experience. A thermostat has knowledge of a temperature change, but not understanding. A flower has knowledge of the rising sun, but no understanding. An animal has the knowledge to feed itself, but fails to grasp the meaning. It is only a human's understanding of food's significance that allows us to farm, and to select a particular diet.

For us to have control over our choices, and to be responsible for them, we must be able to make them with awareness and understanding.

The choice to think. One alternative doctrine sees freewill purely as the basic choice between thinking and not thinking. I have a whole catalog of objections to this view:

  • The decision to start thinking, to be focused, must be made by our minds. Excluding the possibility of something beyond mind - such as an immaterial soul - the choice to think is made either by relatively conscious or subconscious processes. To the extent that we choose consciously, it obviously presuppose an existing degree of thought, and thus begs the question. On the other hand, a subconscious decision to start thinking must be based on factors beyond our immediate awareness and control: a noise, signal, or contextual cue attracting our attention; a feeling, desire, or intuition that initiates thought; or an automatic habitual response that triggers focus - hardly the stuff responsibility is made of.
  • The decision to stop thinking is a little different; irrespective of whether it is made consciously or subconsciously there is at least the possibility of control (and thus responsibility): If we choose consciously, then presumably we have reason to stop thinking; alternatively we simply default and allow our subconscious to decide. Only conscious regulation of thought is an exercise of freewill, anything else is the abdication of it.
  • To be thinking is a necessary precondition for the exercise of freewill, however the ability to select the initiation of thought is not. In fact, waking up or having our attention drawn to something is quite the opposite of free choice. Once aware, the decision to consciously monitor and control our thinking is only one of the many freewill choices that we can and must make.
  • Another fundamental reason that the choice to think cannot be the defining feature of volition is the fact that animals too choose to think or not. In their case the choice is automatic, subconscious; which only serves to confirm that the essence of freewill is conscious, aware choice - choice with intelligence and understanding.
  • A thought experiment can further elucidate the irrelevance of focus-selection to freewill and morality: Imagine someone who is constantly in a high state of focus - someone who by this view is maximizing his freewill, and thus morality. However, quality of thought and optimal moral choices depend on more than just continuous thinking. They require the right premises and cognitive methodology, without which our fully focused being may end up conscientiously lying, cheating, and murdering.
  • Lastly, if choosing to think were the only truly free choice that we have, then how do we account for the well established fact that a propensity for utilizing and controlling thought is subject to training? Clearly, regularly and automatically embracing - or for that matter avoiding - thought can be the result of habitulization. For this reason, the decision to focus cannot be the a sole or uncaused primary of free choice.

Freewill is more than the decision to think, it encompasses many different intelligent choices. But how free are our choices?

Free to choose. What does this mean?

Before I expand on the meaning of "free", let me discuss a question that is often, but mistakenly, posed as a test for freedom of will: "Could I have chosen otherwise?" However reasonable this question may seem, I contend that is quite meaningless and invalid within the usual context. Let's try to make its premises and context explicit: Could have chosen otherwise - if what? If everything was the same? Naturally, if everything was the same, including our will, then we would have chosen in the same way. If on the other hand we assume that our will was different, then what would that tell us about freewill? Not much, because we would be talking about a person with a different will or context. To illustrate this point, what is the sense of saying for example "I could have chosen to lie to you", unless we define the circumstances under which this statement can be judged as true or false? I could have lied to you - if I was less honest? If I wanted to avoid hurting you? If I had thought more about it? If I had reason to? If I held a different morality? If I was I different person? Or, whatever. Each of those scenarios introduce new variables, new motivations, new information. It is hardly controversial to say that humans can make different choices when faced with different situations, beliefs, or motives. Yet we have no reason to believe that in identical circumstances we would choose differently. This line of thinking does not help to illuminate freewill.

Another common variation on this theme is the claim that we could have chosen otherwise "if we turned back the clock, if we rewound the tape". Apart from the fact that this idea involves the impossible concept of assuming access to an entity with omniscience, to the extent that we can make sense of it at all, this simply restates the issues of the previous paragraph: If we "rewind" everything, then by definition it must produce the same results. This is true even for quantum events, etc. because if they don't act the same way, then they cannot have the same starting conditions. This blanket assumption of replaying history is a cognitive dead-end.

The flip-side of this error is the fatalistic belief that in a deterministic universe the future somehow already exists, it just has to "unfold". Consequently, in this view, choices that are the product of mechanistic processes don't "really" affect the future. But - the future does not yet exist. There is no roll of film that contains the script of the future, just waiting to be projected, viewed, experienced. We do not live in time - time is a measure of change. The past and future exist only in our memories and imagination. It is only the present that exists - parameters and choices of the present create the future. The future is not written, it unfolds and develops according to both blind and aware choices.

If "could have done otherwise" does not help us define freedom of will, then what does? To get clarity on this issue we must first understand that the concept "free" is always relative - relative to either what something is free to do, or something that it is free from. For example, birds are free to fly, while prisoners are freed from their cell. Depending on whether we are focusing an added ability or constraint, we use either "free to" or "free from". "Free" always describes relationships between entities, and it always requires a context. Absolute freedom from everything, or freedom to do anything, denies identity. This is true for material as well as mental entities and abilities. Nothing is causeless, even if we do not, or cannot know its cause.

What kind of freedom do our minds have? Our choices cannot and obviously should not be totally free from (or fail to take into account) our knowledge, values, and perceptions of our environment and ourselves. Our choices are not free from past thoughts and decisions, nor from external influences. Our choices can also not transcend the laws of nature, ie. do the impossible. Once we relate our mind's abilities to that of non-volitional entities, we find that the freedom in freewill is not the elimination of influencing factors as such, but the expansion of our choices by our unique ability to deal with abstract concepts; by our self-awareness, our imagination, our ability to seek out knowledge and project the future; and, most importantly, by our awareness and monitoring of our own thinking. This is the source of our freedom; this is what makes us self-determined. This is the crux of the true understanding of freewill: Not free from influences, but free to make intelligent choices.

In case you've wondered why I use the older spelling of "freewill", I have done this deliberately in an effort to break free from a semantic cognitive trap: the words "free will" imply a will that is free from controlling factors, whereas I believe it is cognitively more useful to concentrate on what our will is free to do - our unique abilities versus those of animals. Naturally, "free from" can always logically be converted to "free to"; however, the emphasis differs.

How do we choose? What is the meaning of "intelligent choices"? By this term I do not mean that only those choices that are clever or wise qualify as free choices; I use "intelligent" in a wider sense: choices that are made with conceptual awareness and understanding. Freewill is of course our ability to make such choices, not whether we actually do - a dog has the ability to swim even if it never actually encounters water.

According to a widely held belief, free choice must be uncaused - meaning in effect "chosen for no reason" - nothing could be further from the truth. Surely, volitional choices are made for reasons, compelling reasons. Our deliberate choices are based on evidence and values, and on anticipating their consequences - nothing suggest non-logical, uncaused thinking. It is absurd to assume that freewill choices are not based on antecedent causes, that they are made for no reason; or that they are based on random factors or factors beyond conscious thought. How could such choices represent personal responsibility? It is the fact that we consciously weigh the pros and cons of each freewill choice that provides for accountability. Our choices are implicit or explicit conceptual calculations.

Hallmark examples of freewill include extraordinary acts of will that counter non-volitional desires and emotions: hunger, sexual desire, fear, rage; choosing not to eat contaminated food when starving, willing yourself away from a potentially detrimental sexual encounter near the "point of no return", or leveraging your values and reason to overcome fear or rage. Animals can do these things only in response to another, stronger emotion; we have the capacity to do it my means of conceptual thought, considering the consequences, and comparing it to our values - by exercising our freewill. Lawful causation is not the opposite of freedom, but the very cause of it; lawful, rational deliberation is a prerequisite for our additional ability and freedom. Furthermore, because our freewill choices are based on our values, and the reasoning employed is our reasoning, it is valid to say that our choices are self-caused.

Naturally many of our choices have indirect, and often unpredictable, consequences, but our intelligence allows us to monitor and modify our decisions as situations unfold and as we learn more. For example, a choice to think about morality may affect us in far reaching and unforeseen ways; it may fundamentally change our perception of right and wrong, and how we live life. Here, the initial decision to contemplate ethics - which in turn was based on its own antecedent factors and circumstances - can lead to radically different choices: to select a career as a missionary in Africa, or a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills; to "gracefully" grow old and die and "make room for generations to follow", or to vigorously pursue a pro-active, fulfilled existence and maximum life-span.

There are millions of unknown and uncontrollable factors in our decisions. Random events, other people's choices, and our own cognitive errors and limitations all impinge on optimal goal selection and attainment. It is our freewill - our intelligence - that provides the freedom, the ability, to counter and correct these influences.

From this it follows that freewill is a feature of high-level conceptual intelligence, and not something separate, not some prerequisite to intelligence. Any entity, any animal or machine that possesses the ability to think abstractly, and that has self-awareness (and awareness of its own ability to think and decide), will have freewill.

Introspective awareness of our ability to choose - of the control we have over our destiny - is a byproduct of conceptual intelligence. Our minds are self-aware. The mind's understanding that it is making all of the calculations and decisions, is what gives us the unshakable knowledge that we are - the mind is - free to choose. This belief is not an illusion, it represents our real power and control. However, what we cannot know purely by introspection, are details of the various subconscious factors that shape our decisions. Nor can our subjective experience of freewill directly identify its underlying causal mechanism any more than our experience of touch can reliably locate how sensations are generated - witness the phenomenon of amputees' phantom limbs. In fact, logically there is no possibility of ever having immediate detailed awareness of the specific processes involved - these processes are invariably more complex than their resultant capacity can directly apprehend. In addition, at the time of choosing we must by the very nature of the task focus on the goal at hand, and not on awareness of the reasoning process itself.

While introspection cannot by itself shed any light on whether freewill is determined or not, nor sense the neurons that give rise to it, conceptual investigation has no such limitations. There is every reason to believe that the phenomenon of freewill - and of consciousness for that matter - can and should be explainable in terms of naturalistic mind/ brain processes; questions that are the purview of cognitive science. While such analysis will ultimately explicate all aspects of mental experience, it can, of course, never replace the experience itself. Unfortunately, a common philosophical position seriously hampers progress in this field: the belief that our first-person experience cannot in principle be reconciled with psychological or scientific models of cognition. This outdated view simply perpetuates the ancient mind-body dichotomy.

Something else that is not quite an illusion, but a pervasive misunderstanding, is our feeling that "we could have chosen otherwise". In a limited, but important sense this can be meaningful; we could indeed have chosen otherwise: We considered several different alternatives, and depending on circumstances and goals, the conclusions we came to could certainly have been other than they were. While choosing, we were aware of some of the alternatives that we considered and could have chosen, had we not rejected them. In this context it does not matter if the reasons for our rejection were rational or emotional, conscious or subconscious[2]. Ultimately, our subjective experience of free choice is the certainty we, our minds, are doing the choosing - that we select from a great number of possible alternatives. Our certainty does not imply that those choices are free from either goal-defined considerations, or from neuronal processes.

Degrees and scope of freewill.

Similar to the way intelligence and compassion exist in degrees, so do understanding and freewill. Limited by their inability to think abstractly and by their limited self-awareness, animals have lower degrees of understanding than humans[3]. True understanding requires a grasp of the concept of "consciousness" (though not necessarily explicit knowledge of the word) and of an "I", a self, that is experiencing and thinking. The freedom of choice that we enjoy is in a different class from that available to animals; that is why we validly identify it as a unique ability and give its own concept - freewill. There is no absolute cut-off point between "normal" choice and freewill. For example, children's ability to choose with understanding develops incrementally over the first few years of life. It surpasses the complexity and competence of chimps at an early age. We recognize this fact of developing freewill in the way we treat babies as compared to children or adults. All conscious humans have the capacity for freewill, but the scope of actual utilization is highly variable. We determine the degree of freewill ourselves, we are self-determined. We may do this by implicit, automatic default or by explicit, conscious decision.

Curiously, awareness and acceptance of our power of self-determination actually affects the scope of our freewill. To the extent that we reject belief in our power of choice and assume that we are just products of the blind forces of nature and nurture, to that extent we undermine the effectiveness of our volitional ability. This fact naturally has vast personal and social implications; a doctrine of volitionless determinism denies both self-esteem and self-responsibility. Understanding the true nature of freewill helps us maximize its effectiveness; just like knowing the mechanisms and limitations of cognition increases its potency.

In the graph showing the average relative influence of freewill versus other factors (nature/ nurture/ subconscious thought/ random events) in human choices, the broken line represents a narrow scope of freewill ('Low'), the solid line a wide scope of freewill ('High'). We can chose to move toward a habitual 'High' or 'Low use of freewill at any time in our lives.

Low and high freewill increasing over age.
Average Relative Influence of Freewill versus Other Factors in Human Choice

Many people of course totally reject the existence of freewill. As evidence they may recite a litany of genetic and environmental factors: We are determined by our blond hair, our ghettos, private schools, broken homes, satanic rock-music, Bibles, Camel advertisements, sex symbols, The American Dream, Hershey Bars, adolescence, falling in love, and the roll of a dice. We are determined by our genes, environment, education, parents, art, literature, the media, instincts, drives, addictions, hormones, feelings, and by chance. All true. In fact, we could not function as animals, let alone humans, were we not to respond to these influences. Freewill does not deny them but acknowledges and controls them. They are not sufficient to uniquely determine us; the nature of freewill - awareness of thought and consequences - will often override their influence. While freewill is not omnipotent, it frequently plays the trump card. More importantly, its limits are flexible, they can be expanded by the very use of our will.

One factor that obscures the debate is the fact that nature, nurture, and freewill interact in complex ways. For example, brain structure and chemistry, being one aspect of the operation of the brain (the mind), is modified by our thoughts. Our thoughts, in turn, are influenced by genetically programmed brain structures and chemistry. There is an intrinsic and perpetual interaction between these two aspects of brain/ mind. In addition there are also complex interactions between environment and thought; our thoughts help to select our environment and our environment affects our thoughts and choices.

The traditional debate between whether someone's character or decisions are the result of nature or nurture usually ignores the crucial influence of cognition. Neither genes nor environment serve as adequate explanatory models for higher-lever animal behavior, and far less for that of humans. While there is undoubtedly substantial interplay and overlap between these three factors, human action in particular cannot be understood without the concept of abstract, intelligent choice.

To summarize, freewill is not choice free from the "wiring" of our brains, our genes, or chemical factors. It does not mean that we are free from environmental influences, our life's experiences, or prior thoughts and decisions. Freewill is the extra freedom - the extra ability that we have - to create and evaluate options by projecting and understanding their implications. Freewill is the ability to make conscious choices; choices made with awareness and understanding of their possible and probable consequences, and of the fact that we (our minds) are doing the choosing. The question of whether these intelligent choices are products of mechanistic processes and whether they are deterministic is not contained in the definition, and requires further investigation. What exactly does determinism refer to?

Varieties of Determinism

A fatal fallacy lurks in the concept "determinism"; it hides the subtle, but crucial distinction between lawful mechanistic causation on the one hand, and predictability and fatalism on the other. Compatibilism accepts the first, but denies that determinability (predictability) follows from it. It could be argued etymologically that I am abusing the word "determinism" when I exclude "determinability" from its definition. This may be so, but the determinism argument has typically taken causation as its primary premise and simply assumed determinability (in principle). In this section I hope to show that in reality there are deterministic processes that are not determinable - not just in practice, but in principle. To the compatibilist "determinism" implies only mechanistic causation, not predictability; and I will use the term as such.

Of course, the word "mechanistic" has ambiguities all its own. I use mechanistic determinism or causation to refer to the view that all events and conditions are caused - that they are the direct result of antecedent events and conditions. Lawful mechanisms determine the operation of all that exists. All of science and human progress confirms this view: from the discovery of how to produce fire, to the identification of seasons; from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics. Even paranormal claims - however unscientific and mistaken they may be - assume, and attempt to uncover, new mechanisms of cause and effect.

Naturally, the kind of mechanistic causation that I refer to goes far beyond the simplistic clockwork analogies of past centuries: The last hundred years have significantly expanded our understanding of just how complex mechanistic systems can be. By now we now have a pretty good understanding of how evolution creates and develops life; we routinely design and build cybernetic control systems for missiles, robots, and plant control; and remarkably, we even rely on lawfulness at the ultimate limits of knowledge - uncertainty and chaos.

Not only do all natural and man-made processes seem to be lawful, evidence also overwhelmingly supports the view that all higher level processes are the lawful result of their underlying processes and components. This does not mean that complex systems do not possess emergent properties - new properties that the component parts do not have - they clearly do, but that these emergent properties are fully compatible with, and are indeed caused by, properties of the underlying entities. However, reductionist explanations are valid and illuminating only in the context of the more complex phenomena. Specific combinations, arrangements, and interactions of components give rise to totally new attributes. The whole is more than the sum of its parts: Diamond's (or charcoal's) properties emanate from carbon atoms that don't possess them; a drum made entirely from flat planks acquires the ability to roll; a picture's shapes and images arise from individual ink dots that surely do not contain them; life emerges from the glorious combination of inanimate molecules. Similarly, all indications are that intelligent choice is the product of complex, high-level interactions of the atoms, molecules, and neurons that make up our brains - something that I will explore in more detail a little further on.

While everything existing acts according to its nature, the mechanisms that cause its action may not be known. As science progresses, more and more of these mechanisms become known. It can be immensely useful to treat complex units as primary agents of causation, to see them as what engineers call a "Black Box": The Sun produces heat; engines propel cars; consciousness causes volitional choice. However, such cognitive abbreviations - whether motivated by ignorance or to aid comprehension - do not imply that no underlying causes exist. Quite the contrary; complex entities are what they are and do what they do because of their constituent mechanisms. We can always ask "how" and "why". It would be quite arbitrary to exempt consciousness and freewill from these questions. To label them as indeterministic may say little more than "I don't understand how they work".

What exactly does "indeterminism" mean? Again, this word hides a number of different concepts and implications. Indeterminism can refer to either practical or theoretical unpredictability, and to limits of knowledge or metaphysical uncertainty - or even lawlessness. In addition indeterminism is sometimes described as "uncaused action". This last interpretation can be rejected out of hand; any action must be the action of an entity, and as such has to be caused by that entity - irrespective of the determinability of its causal mechanism. What is debatable is the question of whether certain actions are inherently unpredictable, and what exactly that means.

Something that considerably adds to the confusion in the compatibilism debate is the fact that the dominant connotation of "determinism" is not the opposite of what "indeterminism" primarily refers to. Let me explain. As mentioned before, determinism focuses on mechanistic causation and only secondarily assumes predictability (in principle), while indeterminism focuses on unpredictability and assumes that that requires an absence of mechanistic causation. This confusion yields three different combinations: predictable mechanistic causation, unpredictable mechanistic causation, and unpredictable non-mechanistic causation (something I reject).

Usually, quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle are cited as the strongest evidence for so-called indeterminism. However, these models do not contradict mechanistic determinism, but only extend our understanding - and define its limits - at the sub-atomic level of matter and energy. (This is similar to Einstein's Special Relativity modifying and extending Newtonian Physics near its limit, the speed of light). The dramatic implication of this new knowledge is that it casts severe doubt over the possibility of ever discovering or measuring the mechanisms that cause subatomic uncertainty. What is noteworthy however, is that even quantum randomness - regarded today as the only true randomness - is strictly constraint by probabilistic laws.

It seems unclear whether quantum randomness is epistemic or ontological - whether it represents limits of knowledge or (limited) lawlessness. Perhaps the distinction is no longer meaningful at that level. Irrespective of Quantum Uncertainty's eventual status, it seems to have little impact at the level of molecules and neurons. It is doubtful that it plays any significant role in our thoughts and decisions, and in any case, would only make our will "random", and not free.

Those quantum events that do impact mental activity are just one of many random events that impinge on our brain's operation - events whose origins we cannot determine. For example, stray cosmic rays or miscellaneous blood impurities can randomly damage or trigger neurons. The convergence of any number of unconnected events (ie. chance) can have significant consequences - however, that is not freewill but quite the opposite: lack of possible control. An instance of random brake failure in the car behind me, causing it to crash into me, has little to do with free choice; striking up a conversation with the driver and developing a friendship is however well under our (mutual) control.

It is important to realize that, with the possible exception of quantum randomness, all other random events represent limits of knowledge, not lack of mechanistic determinism. The first order of ignorance is lack of data, such as the randomness of an earthquake or mechanical failure. A higher order of chance consists of the convergence of two or more seemingly unconnected causal chains - which, when they strike us as particularly unusual, we call coincidence. For instance, there is no identifiable reason - no common causal connection as far back as we can determine, or even imagine - why my license plate should match my new employer's phone number; yet this kind of thing happens all the time. Sometimes we purposefully introduce ignorance when, for example, we randomly select a player by eeny-meeny-miney-mo, or with mechanical or computerized random-number generators. To summarize, randomness is either an expression of ignorance of the relevant underlying causal mechanisms, or it represents a lack of meaningful causal connections between separate events.

Another natural source and expression of randomness has recently been identified in the mathematical Theory of Chaos. This discovery of inherent indeterminability reveals that many systems' predictability is strictly limited by the accuracy of measurement - that the behavior of such "chaotic" systems cannot possibly be approximated or extrapolated from their histories or from limited measurements. To fully predict such systems would require infinite precision - an impossibility. The nature of chaotic systems is that their behavior will diverge unpredictably and abruptly for only minuscule differences in their operating parameters[4].

More generally, complexity theory shows that some seemingly simple dynamical systems are, even over relatively short time spans, uncomputable - and thus indeterminable. Such systems require exponential amounts of computing power for every new variable involved - soon the number of computing elements required far exceed the number of atoms in the known universe.

The ultimate limit to knowledge is the impossibility of omniscience. All entities in the universe are directly or indirectly connected with each other, and potentially influence each other. No system in the universe can know the state of every particle in the universe, far less project all of their future interactions. Yet much of the determinism-freewill debate assumes just such omniscience - it assumes a "theoretical" possibility of something that is impossible.

Specifically, determinability (but not determinism) refers to the ability to (at least in principle) precisely calculate the future state of an entity, knowing only its initial state. An often overlooked philosophical point is that "possible in principle" means that one must be able to define conditions that would make that something possible "in practice". These imagined conditions must not be impossible - they must not contradict known facts of reality or logic - otherwise the "in principle" does not relate to reality, i.e. it is not true.

Clearly, there are natural lawful processes that are deterministic in the causal sense, yet meet the above criteria for indeterminability - theoretical unpredictability. Long-range weather forecasts and biological evolutionary developments are two examples - human consciousness is another. However, randomness and unpredictability are not the essence of freewill, nor - as I will argue later - even necessary conditions. Freewill is about intentionally choosing and pursuing goals that are of value to us. It means asserting our will - not being driven by random influences. Nor is freewill a meaningful concept simply because we cannot know all of the details, all the specific data and logic, that lead to our conclusions. It is not a delusion born of ignorance, quite the contrary. The better we understand our decision making processes, the more control we have over our destiny, the freer we become.

Before I address other objections to compatibilism and further integrate freewill and determinism, let's look at how our the extraordinary abilities of the human mind relate to the functioning of the brain.

Freewill Emerges from a Mechanistic Brain

Our volitional ability represents the highest form of control of any mechanism or organism. Today, there is little doubt that the fantastically complex abilities of animals - awareness, cognition, learning, and motor control - are products of the mechanistic operation of their brains. Evolution, biology, developmental psychology, and computer science combine to give ample evidence that these mental abilities emerge from the specific interaction between neurons, molecules, and atoms. Furthermore, all indications are that these interactions are entirely subject to the known laws of physics and chemistry. Justifiably, modern science takes it for granted that, in time, machines will have all the functionality of animals.

However, there is still a large school of thought that contends that while all the wonderful abilities of some animals - including consciousness and goal-directed behavior - are indeed the result of mechanistic processes, human consciousness and choice (and possibly that of some of the higher animals) simply cannot be the result of an essentially Newtonian physics. Why ever not? Apart from deeply ingrained notions of immaterial souls, human chauvinism, and denial for fear of living a predetermined, meaningless life, there seem to be no reasons.

I predict that in the not-to-distant future we will be able to be genetically modify chimpanzees to endow them with near human language ability, intelligence, and freewill. Such an enhancement would of course, once and for all, dispel the myth of the immaterial human mind - the soul. Actually, we don't need to carry out this experiment at all, nature already provides us with the data: healthy babies and some brain-damaged adults operate pretty much at the level of the higher animals. While this similarity does not provide an irrefutable argument, it strongly suggests that additional neuronal circuits and connections are responsible to our extra capabilities. Arguments from developmental and pathological psychology, and correlation between DNA and cognitive ability also present overwhelming evidence in favor of a naturalistic account of consciousness and freewill[5].

More evidence that freewill does not logically require any non-mechanistic or indeterministic processes (whatever they might be) comes from an analysis of the nature of choice. To build on previous conclusions, freewill choices include: whether to focus or not, how long and hard to think about an issue, between Coke and orange juice, to make love or to make war. These choices by themselves do not require any non-material mechanisms, animals perform them and computers can in principle (or perhaps even already in reality) also accomplish them. Another look at a hierarchy of choices may remind us what is so different about human choice; why freewill is a product of man's unique cognitive processes.

The simplest life forms have elementary sensory inputs that trigger fixed reflex actions; their action chosen similar to that of a thermostat acting in response to a sensed temperature change. More advanced organisms utilize feedback and learning to achieve conditioned reflexes. Complex decision systems are formed by the integration of various sensing, control and memory circuits. More advanced designs include pattern-recognition, which incidentally is the basis of concept-formation. Cybernetic systems at this level of sophistication are routinely designed today, and are well understood. The next level of development adds emotional responses. It does so by means of generalized pain-pleasure control mechanisms that serve as a guide to both physical as well as mental health. At this level self-awareness is limited to rudimentary awareness of the body as a concrete-bound concept. While such higher animals make extremely complex choices, those choices do not qualify as freewill - the important ability to handle abstract concepts is missing.

Abstract thinking, the ability to deal with higher-level concepts, opens the Pandora's box of human possibilities: language ability, self-awareness of thought, imagination and the ability to project the future. Such conceptual thinking enables true understanding, integrating facts of reality and relating them to both our sense-perception and to our self-image - giving meaning to facts and observations. At higher levels of abstraction we can form crucial concepts such as life, purpose, value, morality, community, and justice. Freewill is the freedom of choice arising from the awareness of our own thinking and the understanding of knowledge. This allows us to make sense of our thoughts, to project consequences and crucially determine our decisions - it allows us to shape the future.

But is such advanced thinking still the result of a strictly mechanistic cause-and-effect? There is every reason to believe so: The brain is made up of molecules and atoms that obey mechanistic laws of causation. Because all mental activity is the functioning of a living brain, it follows that all of our cognition - including abstract thinking and freewill - is based on mechanistic processes. This view is further supported by recent developments in artificial neural network research. There is now strong empirical evidence that pattern recognition and concept-formation are indeed (complex) computational procedures. Practical demonstrations of systems billions of times less complex than our brains have already achieved the learning of fairly complex motor-skills, as well as reasonably accurate face and gender recognition. Some theoretical work even indicates how insight and scientific discovery can arise from such adaptive pattern recognition[6].

Naturally, focusing on the radical difference between high-level human cognition in contrast to the relatively simple abilities of most animals can easily hide the continuum of volitional choice. Reminding ourselves of the continuos process of evolution and fetus-to-child-to-adult development can help us mentally close the gap between simple mechanistic processes and complex intelligent choices - and to help us realize that there is no hard dividing line between body and mind.

In addition to scientific evidence, there is an important philosophical argument that contradicts an indeterministic (in the sense of not mechanistic or lawful) basis for abilities in general, and intelligence and freewill choice in particular: For any ability to be effective, it has to consistently (though not necessarily faultlessly) achieve results - otherwise it is not an ability, but an inability! Abilities require lawful behavior. This point is very obvious in lower level abilities such as motor skills, food seeking, injury avoidance, and conditioning responses. If any of these functions were truly indetermined, they would not work. If randomness or uncertainty were their central feature, what would they achieve other than to produce random results?

Intelligence is the ability to accurately represent reality in conceptual form, and to be able to inductively and deductively reason with these concepts. If this operated in an indeterministic manner what would ensure our concepts' accuracy? It is only through lawful mechanisms "designed" to generally achieve results such as valid concept formation or effective choosing that we can survive and flourish. Our capacity for freewill implies that our minds can, in opposition to external and historic forces, pursue our goals and values. What is more, we can transcend "nature and nurture" to choose our own goals, goals that suit our philosophy, character, and values. Naturally, these factors in turn are subject to intelligent revision. Each of our choices critically depends on antecedent factors - understanding were we come from, and what our goals are. This is how we are self-determined.

If we compare a strong-willed person - someone we categorize as exercising independence and freewill - to a weaker person, we notice that the strong person logically and consistently pursue his or her values. One of these values is discovering and deciding what goals to pursue. Our volitional ability leaves us free to select from a wide variety of both goals and solutions - limited only by our imagination, strength of character, and intelligence. A weak-willed person tends to be uncertain and subject to random influences, both in setting and in pursuing goals. Here, the causal mechanisms are not as tight, and ability and freedom to control his destiny are impaired.

Abilities give us the freedom to do things that we could not otherwise do. Freewill gives us the ability - the freedom - to choose with understanding.

One objection that is frequently raised in connection with freewill is the claim that a deterministic being would not be able to judge the validity of any knowledge. This theory asserts that it would be determined to believe something to be true or false irrespective of its real validity. This view is based on an oversimplified understanding of mechanistic processes; it ignores the possibility of feedback and error correcting systems. It mistakenly assumes that the results of a mechanistic evaluation will be independent of external reality. All that has to be true for a system to be able to verify the validity of its data, is for it to be able to check its knowledge model against reality (via senses or interfaces), and a mechanism for identifying contradictions (logic ability). Interestingly, both of these abilities demand deterministic mechanisms for their effectiveness. Any indeterminism, in fact, limits the degree of certainty that the system has.

Many existing systems, including animals and machines, have the ability to acquire valid information. Many systems even have the ability to test, validate, and adjust their beliefs or conclusions. However, at this point only humans are able to evaluate and understand that fact - only humans have devised epistemology. Because all cognitive systems are subject to error they need mechanisms for identifying and eliminating contradictions, and for re-analyzing prior conclusions in the light of new expanded knowledge. An iterative process of zeroing in on truth. The claim that deterministic systems cannot compute the validity of their data, is simply false. Some systems may be better than others at arriving at the truth - but then, so was Einstein better at it than most of us.

In conclusion let me briefly revisit the topic of the mind's inherent unpredictability in order to raise some additional technical points:

The brain contains countless chaotic dynamical systems, it is subject to occasional quantum events, its complexity is beyond computation, and it is subject to numerous external random events. The only way to try to predict a specific brain's operation would be to effectively replicate or emulate its structure. However, this could only ever be an approximation of the actual brain. It could not, for example, represent the distances between molecules to an infinite precision. This approximation would not necessarily reflect an inaccurate overall copy of the personality, knowledge, beliefs, etc. of the mind, but would still at best have minute inaccuracies that would be mathematically chaotic. Over a very short period of time the emulated mind's decisions would differ substantially from that of the original one. If the emulation was sped up in comparison to the real brain, further divergence would be introduced. This is because timing differences between electrical and chemical brain functions could not be scaled. If emulation happens in real-time, then no prediction is possible. The faster the emulation, the less accurate it is: An Uncertainty Principle of emulation.

The next level of indeterminability derives from the interaction of the brain with the rest of the body and the real world; this being the actual context of human choice. It would entail replication of our senses and the chemical factories that are our bodies - exactly as they are. Unless these were identical in every respect, the emulation would react differently because of different influences of bodily functions (for example sneezing, blood impurities, indigestion, etc.). The only way replication could be identical would be through a perfect copy of the body and its interaction with the world. Even then, this duplicate could not occupy the same space in reality as the original. Limitations just pile up. Even if we assume that we achieve some limited emulation, then awareness of this very knowledge would modify our decisions, another infinite regress. Prediction of specific human consciousness is not possible - neither in practice, nor in principle. It is an epistemological impossibility.

Human thought and choice are deterministic, but not determinable.

Having just vehemently argued that human freewill is not even in principle predictable, I want to point out that indeterminability is not in fact essential to the concept "freewill". For example, let's consider someone's choice between claiming a million-dollar lottery prize and voluntarily forfeiting it. This is a free choice, even though in most cases we can confidently predict the outcome. The fact that the winner could "theoretically" choose to forgo the money is enough. Looking at freewill from the perspective of its constituent abilities - such as monitoring of thought processes, self-awareness, and understanding - we note that they do not require unpredictability. An immediate implication of this is that non-random machines with freewill are possible. To the extent that they interact uniquely with the world, they would nonetheless be indeterminable for the same reasons as given for humans. The essence of freewill does not rely on unpredictability, however, we may choose (unnecessarily) to invent a new term for "theoretically determinable freewill" - the kind of freewill that an intelligent machine may possess.

The Enigma of Compatibilism

A myriad of misconceptions and intuition traps conspire to make compatibilism a difficult position both to accept intellectually, and to emotionally feel comfortable with. As mentioned in the introduction, this topic is highly abstract and relies on an intuitive grasp of many of the concepts involved. Most of us have substantial emotional investments in deeply ingrained but incorrect conceptions of ideas related to this issue. Are we willing to relegate "soul" to little more than a metaphor for character? How can we escape the "certainty" that our freewill must be free from prior influences and physical causes, free "somehow"? There has to be an "I" somewhere in my head that decides. I can feel him/ her/ it? We just "know", intuitively. But what is intuition? It is no mystical power, no innate knowledge; it is nothing more (or less!) than the emotional response attached to subconscious evaluations of knowledge. We may can have a deep intuitive conviction for the merits of socialism at one time and libertarianism at another; intuitive comfort by itself is no guarantee of validity. Emotions are not primaries, they are consequences of implicit and explicit beliefs[7].

We model new abstract ideas to familiar concepts: atomic interactions are billiard balls; the "I" that decides is "someone"; the "free" in freewill means "no strings manipulating it". Familiar models, however useful and plausible they may be, can be fatally flawed when applied to different contexts. Not recognizing these often subtle limitations of a changed scale or context can lead us down a treacherous path to a cognitive dead-end: Our intuition is primed by a familiar model, the analogy "feels" comfortable, and we then struggle to recognize the model's limitations. These "intuition pumps" are magnificently exposed and exploited in various writings by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter[8].

Let me now recap various issues pertaining to compatibilism; many of them involve deeply held or intuitive misconceptions:

With respect to freewill, it may be difficult to tear ourselves away from a number of well entrenched errors: insisting that volitional choice must be independent of antecedent factors and material causes; that the "free" in freewill refers to free from influences rather than the ability, the freedom, to make intelligent, aware choices; that freewill is essentially the choice to focus; or accepting the grossly misleading definition of "could have chosen otherwise".

Our subjective experience of freewill, while a crucial starting point for identifying volition, can also lead us astray. It is a serious mistake to assume that we should not question our near unshakable introspective certainty that our choices cannot possibly be determined by prior causes, or be "simply" the result mechanistic neural activity. We need to move beyond introspection, to conceptual analysis, to realize that our experience of choosing cannot possibly, by itself, expose the underlying factors and mechanisms.

Possibly most difficult to eradicate, even for those who reject a mind-body dualism, is the lingering notion that there exists a separate "I" that chooses; an "I" that is not part of the mind, but an independent observer and controller. Our experience of the mental self creates a powerful image of an autonomous entity divorced from other mental processes; it gives us no clue that the "I" is actually the mind's conceptual representation of itself.

Determinism has its own set of misconception: It is hard to purge an outmoded billiard ball view of mechanistic determinism, to integrate a modern understanding of dynamic feedback systems and chaos, and to shake off the false belief that determinism implies "theoretical" predictability. The epistemic status of randomness, and vague notions of determinism, indeterminability, and mechanistic are also the source of much confusion.

While modifying our intuitions about freewill and determinism are a prerequisite for understanding compatibilism, the intersection of the two views is probably the most counter-intuitive. We start with common, but fallacious belief that freewill and determinism are inherently incompatible. The first hurdle here is the historic, almost axiomatic, philosophical tradition of a volition/ determinism dichotomy. In fact, to many philosophers this is true by definition. Many objections to determinism are not against determinism per se, but are based on a supposed contradiction with freewill: They take freewill as a given, as axiomatic (we can feel or know it intuitively; or we simply must have freewill lest life without it would not be worth living), assume a contradiction, and conclude that determinism must "break down" when it comes to freewill. Other objection arise from the false claims that deterministic beings cannot possibly discover objective truth, and that freewill is a prerequisite to, rather than a feature of, intelligence. With the contradiction between freewill and determinism eliminated, these objections fall away.

On the flip-side we may have to overcome the fallacy that modern determinism allows, at best, a pseudo-freewill based on randomness or ignorance - that a deterministic freewill is not "really" free, that it is little more than an illusion, that with it life has no real meaning.

Let me digress a little to explore the meaning of "illusion" in this context. Illusion is the invalid belief in something based on a fabrication or distortion of reality. It implies the possibility of the opposite, objective reality. An optical illusion implies a true view of reality; beyond the spell of an illusion, reality exists. The "illusion of freewill" implies that we are fooled into believing that we have freewill, when in reality our will is not free. This supposes that it would in principle be possible to have a will free from all imaginable factors. This, of course, is impossible. An example of an intuition pump priming a fallacious metaphor.

No, freewill is not an illusion, and furthermore, it does not arise from randomness or ignorance - chance and theoretical unpredictability are not even essential features of true volition.

A related cognitive hurdle that needs to be overcome, is the notion that free choice must be uncaused. As I have pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth: we choose for reasons, good reasons. Lawful causation makes all abilities possible; and in particular, we note that strong will is in fact exemplified by the unwavering pursual of established values. Uncaused or indeterminate sources for our behavior are often seen as an antidote to the genetic versus social determinism debate. But nature/ nurture is a false dichotomy. Explanatory models of causation must include intelligent choice, as well as chance - with all four factors interacting dynamically. We can see the interaction most clearly in the continuum of volition; from fetus to adult, from animal to human. The scope of our freewill is a matter of degree.

As if the long list of misconceptions is not enough, the two most stubborn counter-intuitions are still to be addressed: the seeming inevitability of a deterministic universe, and the apparent incompatibility between the freedom of my will and the action of my mechanistic neurons.

When contemplating determinism, it is easy to assume, to picture, a future that is predetermined. Such inevitability obviously represents the opposite of "could have done otherwise", and thus implies a similar open question, "Could not have, given what?" Inevitability is meaningless without specifying which parameters are assumed or known, and which are not - all freedom is relative. Moreover, this fatalism suggests three other errors: Firstly, an implicit acceptance of omniscience - we can imagine that something or someone could know the exact state of the universe, even though this is quite impossible. Secondly, the notion that we live in time, and just move from the past into a somehow existing future - experiencing a preexisting script. Thirdly, the belief that choices that are the product of mechanistic processes don't "really" shape the future. However, the future is not written, it unfolds and develops according to both blind and aware choice, and to mechanistic causation - choice being just one of many expressions of causation.

This last point introduces the other major paradox, the apparent conflict between me and my neurons. The simplest clarification is that the "I" that chooses, is my mind, my brain. I am my neurons; it is not what my neurons decide versus what I decide. While this simple statement is true, it does not by itself seem to give an adequate account. Two additional viewpoints may help to close this cognitive gap between mind and matter: a review of emergence and reductionism on the one hand, and appropriate perspectives of causation on the other.

Understanding any aspect of reality requires an appropriate context and perspective. For example, we cannot comprehend the concept of ecological balance by focusing on the molecules that make up the environment; neither can we make sense of the spelling function of a word-processor in terms of the underlying electrons and transistors, even though they precisely determine its function. Each cognitive task must, by the nature of knowledge and of mind, be focused on limited data, and on an appropriate level of complexity. Shifting our focus to a more detailed level is reductionistic. While this usually provides crucial additional information of underlying causal mechanism, it often does so at the expense of loosing the bigger perspective - important higher-level attributes and patterns may no longer be discernible. Conversely, moving to a less detailed view allows us to become aware of larger patterns that were previously hidden from us - the emergence of properties. These scales of detail apply both to "levels of magnification" and to levels of abstraction; they apply to static, material structures as well as dynamic processes.

Reductionism has an undeservedly bad reputation. It frequently stands accused of explaining things away, of ignoring crucial aspects of reality: "Reducing life to the blind interaction of atoms cannot possibly do justice to the complexity and glory of nature". Of course, it can't. Not by itself. However, within the context of everything else that we know about a phenomenon, unraveling the more fundamental laws of nature that give rise to the complexity can only give us a more profound understanding and respect for nature. The more simplistic, more fundamental perspective does not replace the high-level one, but adds to it.

The glorious abilities and functions of our mind, including consciousness and freewill, can be profitably explored by reductive analysis. We can analyze memory, learning, perception, pattern recognition, induction and many other aspects of cognition. We can look at them from the perspectives of philosophy, psychology, neuro-biology, and physics; and furthermore, we can also integrate these different perspectives. We can, for example, relate our own subjective experience of, say, learning a new task to brain scans identifying brain locations associated with that activity, to behavioral and physiological observations, and to artificial neural network models of skill acquisition. Going down to a more detailed level, we can investigate underlying neural structures and connections, neuro-transmitters and molecules, as well as electrical activity. Each of these additional viewpoints adds to our understanding and appreciation of learning - it may even help us get better at it.

An analysis of freewill brings to light its various abilities and functions, and ultimately, the material mechanisms that give rise to it. We discover that volitional choice requires the abilities to form and deal with abstract concepts - including the concepts of "self" and "mind" - and to project the consequences of alternative actions. Further reduction yields a more specific understanding of how actual brain structures achieve these abilities. Naturally, each change of focus, each zooming in on a particular detail, is bound to obscure part of the bigger picture.

Conversely, while the perspective of neurons and molecules may well give us a good understanding of neural activity and interaction, it is only by focusing on the bigger system - on the combined operation of thousands of neurons firing away in an ever changing cocktail of neurotransmitters - that higher level attributes such as thought and control emerge. Analysis of neural activity invariably ignores - abstracts out - any specific thoughts and patterns that may happen to be active in our minds. That is why the lack of freedom of neurons - the fact that they must obey mechanistic principles - is cognitively incommensurate with the freedom of volition. They are two quite different perspectives: one, small groups of neurons in isolation; the other, overall patterns of neural activity that represent thoughts and beliefs seen in relation to external reality.

But emergence is not just an epistemic phenomenon, it also has an ontological dimension: Particular combinations of components or processes can bring about completely new properties - characteristics that result from their interaction. Secondly, new concepts and features become cognitively apparent only when we take a large or abstract enough perspective. Ontologically, human mental abilities requires a very specific and incredibly complex system of physiological systems; epistemically, we need to climb a long ladder of abstractions to reconcile it with our natural, automatic introspective knowledge of self and volition. The cognitive ascend leads from computation to thought, from mechanical sensing to perceptual awareness, from simple switching to volitional choice; and most importantly, it leads from pattern recognition, to concept formation, to self-concept - to the "I".

The second major counter-intuitive aspect of freewill concerns causation. Just as context is all-important for understanding emergence, so does it crucially impact our understanding of cause-and-effect. Causation is the identification of regular patterns of activity, within an entity and between entities. By its nature it always tries to account for a selected entities action at a specified level of detail. Not only are there different causal perspectives of any given aspect of reality, but there are also different kinds of causation. We normally think of causation in its simplest form, namely an essentially unidirectional cause such as lightning starting a fire, or low temperature turning water to ice. However, there exist many lawful actions that are far more complex: When two asteroids collide, this can really only seen as bi-directional causation; the proverbial chicken and egg paradox and the evaporation-cloud-rain water cycle are two examples of causative loops (even more complex loops contain feedback mechanisms); species population growth rates within a defined ecology are complex causative systems where any given specie's increase in itself often causes its subsequent reduction; and finally, there is agent causation.

We regard an effect as agent caused when an entity, as a result of its own cognitive or computational processes, initiates an action. Irrespective of how the agent came to make its choice, whether volitionally or not, it is epistemically useful (and of course also true) to regard the entity as a whole, as the cause of the action: A soldier ant causes an intruder to retreat; a dog's barking makes its owner investigate; an on-board computer causes my car to maintain a steady speed; I am the agent causing these words to appear on my word-processor.

Furthermore, causation can be viewed from different perspectives. We can take a holistic, or entity based view and regard the agent as the cause: "the missile directed its flight towards the target"; or we can take a teleological, or goal-directed stance and see the objective as the cause: "the changing position of the target caused the missile to veer"; or we can take a reductionist perspective and zero in on the specific electronic circuits that sense input data, manipulate it in complex ways, and control the missile's movement; or indeed, we can take an "intentional" stance - which may roughly represent the actual computer program, the software, that directs the flight - and talk of "if I lose sight of the target, let me assume for a while that it proceeded on its prior trajectory, and then see if I can locate it again". The last example is analogous to thought or experience being the pertinent cause. Who or what designed the system - human ingenuity, evolution, or trial and error learning - is irrelevant to this categorization.

Because everything in the universe is directly or indirectly interconnected, all cognition and knowledge has to view reality selectively. Our cognitive context - what we already know (or take as being true) and what we wish to know - determines our focus. Causation explains and predicts behavior (action) by identifying lawful relationships and patterns between entities and events. Which particular laws serve any given purpose depends on what we are trying to explain, and in terms of what we wish to explain it.

Naturally, all of these epistemic perspectives must have an ontological basis - reality ultimately defines what meaningful causal connections exist, and which don't. Some are very "tight" - mathematically, one state is a direct function of another without any extraneous factors playing a significant role - while others are "loose", or obscure. Extreme "looseness" is equivalent to "random chance".

An interesting point, tying back emergence to causation, is that complex systems can sometimes establish new tight causal connections. In the above example the extremely complex causal chain of a cybernetic control system approximates mathematically to a simple relationship between target and missile. Such a feedback system has a new and relatively simple ontological causal relationship. I argue that freewill is just such an ontological relationship between our thoughts as the cause, and our actions in the world as the effect. The enormously complex causal relationship between nature, nurture, cognition, and chance (or if you wish, between neurons, body chemistry, sense input, etc.) also yields the much simpler relationship between our conscious thoughts and choices. This is why the freewill perspective is so obvious to us, and the mechanistic one is not.

In summary, we can see freewill from a number of different perspectives: We can see it as system, where we - the mind/ brain/ body system - are the cause of our actions; where we are self-caused, self-determined. Or, we can see it from an introspective or intentional stance where our thoughts, beliefs, and motives account for our choices. Or, we can reduce it to a mechanistic perspective. All of them describe the same reality. However, it is the first two perspectives that are the most natural (because they are based on direct experience) and also the most useful in everyday life and morality. The third is primarily of interest to philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists - and to those interested in optimizing self-responsibility.

Legitimate volition - self-determination - is compatible with mechanistic causation; the first is the systems view of the second. We are our mechanistic neurons - there is no battle between our will and our "determined" neurons. While, in time, we may be able to comprehensively explain consciousness and freewill in terms of reductionist perspectives, we will not ever be able to directly grasp those higher-level properties from such narrow vantage points - nor will it ever replace our first-person experience. On the other hand, the two positions can well be reconciled conceptually. I think that it was Patricia Churchland who gave the appropriate reply to a skeptic's lament, "I cannot imagine how consciousness could possibly emerge from a mechanistic brain" - she said, "Try harder". We need to carefully prime our intuition to grasp these difficult concepts. With so many deeply ingrained misconceptions it is no wonder that the mind-body dichotomy still persists in the form of incompatibilism. To re-learn and integrate these new ideas is no trivial matter - it takes substantial mental effort. Aren't we lucky that we have freewill to help us?


Why is freewill so important to us? Its implications touch the roots of the purpose of our lives. If we cannot influence our destiny then why bother "sitting back and watching our lives unfold before our eyes"? What can be more important than knowing the nature of control that we have over our lives and that of others? Implications reach epistemology, ethics, politics, law, education, artificial intelligence design, and psychology - nearly every field of human interest.

The most important implication though remains self-determination. We want and need control over our lives. We suffer the consequences of our actions irrespective of whether chosen by freewill or by default, so it makes sense to strive for the exercise of freewill, to make decisions that are likely to bring us closer to optimizing our lives - to set goals and to achieve them. Increased control implies increased personal responsibility for our lives and actions. That is an important aspect of what makes us human. I think it is reasonable to say that the scope of our freewill is a measure of our humanness. We are beings of self-made soul in the sense that we can decide to take charge of this process, or to default and leave it up to random influences to take us where they may. The implicit or explicit recognition and acceptance of freewill is probably the single most important factor determining who we are; it is a factor we have control over. Use of freewill, by its very nature, cannot be enforced by external agents. Society and parents can encourage its use and discourage the lack of responsibility, but each individual has to choose the degree of utilization of their volitional ability. Proper, internally generated self-esteem carries with it an inherent commitment to the use of freewill. Unfortunately many current social policies discourage the belief in freewill, undermine personal responsibility, and rely on external pseudo self-esteem rather than the real thing[9].

Quite contrary to the common fear that compatibilism undermines the concepts of moral and legal responsibility, it actually opens the door to a more definitive assessment: Whenever we could reasonably have foreseen that the consequences of our actions would be detrimental, then we are morally responsible. Naturally the same sort of reasoning determines what actions we can take credit for.

The reconciliation and understanding of freewill and determinism also opens the way to artificial systems that posses freewill - machines with self-awareness, conceptual thought, and understanding.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to investigate further implications to ethics, politics, law, education, psychology, etc. - undoubtedly they are not insignificant. This theory of freewill appears to be consistent with evolution, animal cognition studies, child developmental models, and computer models of mind - it should be instructive to pursue these various perspectives.


Are we just glorified robots ? Is a Porsche Turbo just a glorified '54 Beetle ? Perhaps - but what Glory.

The "freedom" in freewill is the glorious ability of our minds to reprogram themselves and to evaluate automatic thoughts and emotions. We all have this ability, and we all choose to utilize it to a greater or lesser degree. The effects of nature, nurture, random events, and past decisions are not eliminated, but can be modified by our ability to project consequences and by our power to influence choices - by our awareness of freewill itself. All of this abstract thinking, projecting and deciding is the product of mechanistic causation, determined but not determinable. It is this freedom that makes us human.

Let's not squander our freewill by boxing ourselves in with irrational beliefs and counter-productive emotions, poor thinking, or lack of knowledge. The widespread awareness of this new understanding of freewill may help to usher in a great new era of human development based on a morality of reason and understanding, in which true knowledge of the nature of man leads us to a workable pro Optimal Living ethic and psychology, that minimize tribalism and foster individual responsibility. We can reach a new peak of human greatness: The third phase in human development - from primarily genetic determinism, to largely social determinism, to self-determination - is achieved by greater use of freewill and reason[10]. The evolution of mankind is now in our own hands, the genie of freewill is out of the bottle and we cannot put her back. Let's make the most of our free wishes.

Peter Voss, July 97

[1] Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained chapter 5. I believe that Dennett's explanation here is valid irrespective of whether one accepts the rest of his theory.
[2] I want to thank George Lyons for pointing out a number of important issues to me - here, the crucial difference between awareness of alternatives, and our purposeful selection of them. See bibliography.
[3] It seems that chimpanzees are the only animals (apart from humans) that form some kind of "self" concept; this is demonstrated by their ability to identify themselves in mirrors.
[4] Order out of Chaos by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers provides a good introduction to this subject.
[5] Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea fearlessly explores the full implications of the theory of evolution.
[6] The most readable work in this area must be Paul Churchland's The Engine of Reason, Seat of the Soul.
[7] The view that emotions are responses to beliefs held (subconscious evaluations or value judgments) is detailed in Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Chapter 5).
[8] Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett and The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter & D.Dennett - Excellent!
[9] The nature and importance of true self-esteem - as opposed to externally generated "pseudo" self-esteem (success symbols, other people's opinion) - is thoroughly explored in Nathaniel Branden's The Psychology of Self-Esteem and Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
[10] Robert Pirsig takes us on an intriguing journey of these stages of human development in Lila.