Free will: The Answer.

Eliezer Yudkowsky (
Thu, 30 Jan 1997 14:32:51 -0600

And now, brought to you by the originator of formal ethical systems and
The Interim Meaning of Life, a cognitive analysis of "free will". I
have a detailed answer but not much free time, so this is the short
version and snap summary. I realize that some of you may disagree with
what I say, but I don't have the time to justify it, so please do not
challenge me (rather than politely disagreeing) unless you find a flaw
in my logic (rather than my assumptions).

1) Everything we say about "free will" is an artifact of the way we
view causality.
Because people were talking about free will long before they knew
anything about physics.

2) Causality, in human intuition, is counterfactual.
When we say "A caused B", we mean that, if A were not present, B would
not have been present, and that in order to get B one should do A.
(This is a cognitive, not an ontological, statement about "causality".)

3) "Determinism" conflicts with "free will".
"If reality is deterministic, than instead of your thoughts
determining your actions, your actions are predetermined; therefore
whatever you do isn't your fault."

4) Determinism does not conflict with free will.
If your thoughts were not present, you would not have committed your
actions. Therefore your thoughts do cause your actions; *you* cause
your actions; and there is no moral problem with blaming you for your
actions. There is no distinction between deterministic you and
deterministic reality; even if reality is deterministic, you are still
the source of what happens and what you do makes a difference. QED(*).

Right? Doesn't this cognitive analysis dovetail exactly with our
intuitions on the subject? Our intuitive model of determinism
conflicting with free will goes like this: If the outcome is prewritten
in the Book of God, than what we do must "match" that outcome and isn't
our fault. In other words, our thoughts are coerced to match the
prewritten outcome, and the prewritten outcome is the causal source of
our misdeeds. As if the outcome of your decision were *explicitly*
written in your brain, and your thoughts tuned to match. Were this the
case, the explicitly prewritten outcome would indeed be the source of
your misdeeds and you couldn't be blamed for them.

This model of deterministic reality is incorrect; what we will do is not
explicitly written within our brains. We, ourselves, still reach the
decision of our own free will. That which produces the outcome is
identical with our thoughts and ourselves; hence free will.

Epigrammatic snap summary:
The outcome may be pre-written in our brains, but WE are the writing.

--      Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

(*) QED is "Quad Ergo Demonstratum", Latin for "So there!"