Are you skeptical about free will? Prove it!


Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz is a lecturer in philosophy at Rutgers University, and host of the Embrace The Void and Philosophers in Space podcast.

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Free will persists as a philosophical problem that frequently spills over into public discourse. While it often serves as a punchline, the mainstreaming of pop psychology and systemic analysis has raised genuine doubts in many that they are truly in control of their own actions. That debate has largely focused on the possibility of free will in a deterministic universe, and the implications that has for what we make of our lives.

Personally, I’ve argued that free will is impossible, because everything in the universe comes down to luck – nothing that happens is under our control in the kind of robust way needed to support our natural intuitions about moral responsibility. Rather than rehash those arguments, however, I want to talk about two related questions that continue to vex me:

  1. Can I (or anyone) genuinely internalise the belief that I don’t have free will?
  2. Can I prove to myself and others that I have genuinely internalised the ‘no free will’ view?

Let’s start with question one. What does it mean to fully internalise a belief like “I lack free will”, rather than simply paying lip service to that belief? Thomas Nagel, to whom I owe the vast majority of my limited understanding on these issues, explains it in terms of the subjective point of view versus the objective point of view. The subjective point of view is the one we experience every day, where folks generally report a sense of control over their actions; the objective point of view, sometimes called the view from nowhere, is the one that we sometimes try to get ourselves into when we engage in a range of projects like moral or scientific analysis. From the objective point of view, our behaviour is just more effects in the endless chains of cause and effect stretching back to whatever cosmologists decide is the beginning of the universe.

Nagel is skeptical that we can ever fully replace the subjective point of view with the objective point of view when it comes to free will, even as we become more and more intellectually convinced by the evidence that the objective point of view gives a sufficient account of our behaviour. He argues that our psychology will always require seeing ourselves and some others as more than simply “portions of the world”.

While I fully endorse Nagel’s philosophical argument against free will, I part ways with him on the psychological necessity of belief in free will. I believe Nagel prematurely forecloses the possibility that we could truly do away with our subjective experience of ourselves as free agents and replace it fully with the objective perspective that we’re radically interconnected to a deterministic universe. He presents no evidence that this is impossible.

In contrast, strains of Daoism and Buddhism, which agree that free will is an illusion and advocate for internalising the objective perspective, present a variety of practices for dismantling the subjective perspective and cultivating the objective perspective in its place. Of course, Nagel can deny that any of these practices are psychologically successful, but that is an empirical claim in need of evidence.

Let me turn then to question two and the problem of evidence. What evidence could support the claim that I have successfully internalised the objective perspective and no longer experience myself as having free will? That might seem like a silly question; shouldn’t I just be able to introspect and see if belief in free will is amongst the set of beliefs I hold? How is it any different from internalizing the belief that 2+2=4?

The reason it’s different is that introspection is fallible, and it’s more fallible for some kinds of beliefs and experiences than others. If introspection were infallible, we’d have to accept the “sensation” of acting freely as sufficient to prove we have free will. If we’re going to try to deny that free will exists, we’re going to have to acknowledge we could be wrong about a lot of what is going on inside our own minds.

In case of free will, the burden of proof is fairly high, given the claim amounts to a pretty fundamental rewriting of perspective. Given the low stakes and general consensus (Twitter wars notwithstanding) I can reasonably infer that my experience of believing 2+2=4 tracks my actual beliefs on the subject. The same cannot be said for such a hotly contested and counterintuitive claim as the rejection of my own free will. If someone claimed to achieve enlightenment, you’d want substantial evidence, and fully internalising the objective perspective about free will shares several qualities with various accounts of enlightenment, such as increased non-attachment and equanimity.

A statue of a man deep in thought

I’ll be honest up front, when it comes to trying to prove that I no longer believe in my own free will, the options would be grim even if the burden of proof wasn’t high. I have my fallible introspection, in which I, like Hume, can find nothing that looks to me like an independent self capable of sustaining free will. When I look inside I see a chaos of forces that I barely understand much less feel is under my robust control. That may just be me, as much of philosophy is just philosophers telling on themselves, but I get the impression that’s not the case here. Nor do I think mindfulness or psychological work fundamentally replaces the chaos with order and control. It’s more like it helps me be okay with the reality I experience. I don’t have the “feeling” of freedom some folks talk about when I ask them about their experiences around this issue. However, I also have no way to show any of that to anyone, and so can’t expect anyone else to be convinced based solely on my self-reporting.

Turning from introspection to externally observable behaviours provides little help. As far as I can see, there’s no necessary connection between belief or lack of belief in free will and any set of behaviours. Much like saying “I don’t believe in free will” provides little guarantee of the internal reality of my beliefs, acting in various ways and then saying “I acted that way because I don’t believe in free will” carries little weight to those not already convinced.

This is not the same as saying that belief or lack of belief in free will has zero impact on people’s behavior. Rather, it’s acknowledging that there is no easy one to one connection between any particular behaviour and belief or lack of belief in free will. There is substantial research that reported beliefs about free will correlate with a variety other beliefs and behaviours. I personally have experienced shifts in my behaviour as I’ve worked to internalise the objective perspective towards free will, but I can’t hope to isolate the influence of that one belief shift. At best, I can tell a somewhat convincing narrative about how rejecting belief in free will leads to increased humility and compassion, and then point to behaviours that seem to embody those values, but there is no way to externally verify that narrative. Furthermore, in an age when it’s seen as cool in some quarters to deny free will, folks may reasonably worry that my narrative is as much performance art as honest analysis of my own beliefs and behaviors.

I’m left in a rather perplexing position. I believe strongly that I have managed to internalise the objective perspective on free will, enough so that I’ve long since forgotten what it feels like to believe in free will. If there is some subconscious part of me that still clings to the illusion of free will, I can’t find it. Without evidence that it exists, persistent claims that it does and that it still controls my behavior start to feel like gaslighting. I find the persistent insinuation just as unpleasant as theists telling me that I’m not really an atheist because deep down I secretly still believe in god. Yet I’ve had fellow philosophers insist emphatically that I still believe I have free will and I’m just mouthing words to the contrary. I’m baffled how they can have such certainty about the internal state of my mind, when I can’t even manage that, despite a lack of argument or evidence.

Ultimately, these considerations are just another reminder for me of how little I can confidently say about my own mind, which just reinforces to me how I can’t possibly be the person in charge.

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