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Free Will? Who Cares?

This is the text of the talk I gave at the Beagle Symposium last summer.

It niggles

I listen to a lot of popular science podcasts and I read a lot of popular science books. Over the past few years, the free will topic has been popping up pretty regularly.

Being a successful human, I like the idea of free will because it means I can take credit for my successes and (more importantly) feel superior to people who fail to overcome similar or lesser handicaps and hurdles than I have.

Consequently, as I heard these stories about the mounting body of evidence against our traditional notion of free will, I mostly ignored it. It wasn't that I took a position on one side or the other, I just didn't think about it too hard. The topic kept coming back via this article or that radio show. Every one of these explained how the idea of free will was eroding and none were in defense of the idea. The free will question sat in the back of my mind stewing, until I read a short review somewhere of Sam Harris's book Free Will.

The review said two things about the book.
1. It is short.
2. It redefines how we think of free will.

"Great," I thought, "just what I need. A short book to help me redefine how I think of free will so that I can continue to believe that I have it."

Well, the book is short. And if "redefines how you think about free will," means "makes you face the fact that you seriously cannot defend its existence in any way," than the number two point is also true.

The Illusion of an Illusion

I am not going to try to convince you that free will doesn't exist. I am am going to tell you why it's not very important one way or another. I'm asking you to at least meet me at "what if free will did not exist." Still, I do think it is a good idea to quickly clarify what exactly we are talking about. Free will. The idea that at the precise moment where you do one thing or a different thing it would have been possible for you to do the thing that you did not do.

Serendipity's darling

The thing that really pissed me off about being forced to admit that free will is not real is that, frankly, I put a lot of energy into doing the right things. I make pro and con lists. I take time… but not too much time. Making good decisions is one of the main things I get paid to do at my job. I even give brilliant advice to help other people make their own excellent decisions. I love to make decisions! And I am really, really good at it.

If the real reason I am a successful maker of decisions is first that I am lucky to have been born with the right kind of brain for this activity and secondly that I've been pretty lucky in who and what I came into contact with when… if, at the core of it all, I am serendipity's darling, then I don't deserve any credit for all that agonizing hard work I do. I do it because I could not do differently. I'm no better than a person who goes through life making dumb choices or worse, a person who goes through life choosing not to make choices. I am just more or less fortunate.

No fair, right?! Luckily, it doesn't matter.


Effort is real. When you have a big decision to make, you still have to go through all the trouble. You just don't really decide whether you will or not. Either you are the kind of person at that moment who will make an effort or you are not. Maybe you are the kind of person who would prefer to be different than you are. If so, maybe you will become different because of the influences this desire brings into your life. Your success or failure to change is not your responsibility, but the effort you put into it is still effort.


Influence is real. Punishment & reward are still useful. If a society rewards what it values and punishes what it deems undesirable, isn't that enough? Is it so terrible to punish the action without despising the person?


Inspiration is real. What you do does matter. You just don't deserve any credit for it.

Personal responsibility

OMG! If all this is true, then personal responsibility as we know it is a hollow sham!

Correct. So what?

Personal responsibility, like many things which are not precisely real, can be felt deeply. This is good! This is one of the most fun and interesting parts of being a human: our ordinary schizophrenia. We know that it is impossible to truly communicate with one another, but we feel connection everywhere. We know that our individual lives are insignificant and ultimately without meaning, but we are filled with passion. Similarly, we know that we deserve no credit for our successes and no blame for our failures, but yet we strive and strive. This is the wonderful awful human condition.


Religion is not a prerequisite for a sense of morality and ethics. Free will is not a prerequisite for a sense of personal responsibility. A moral sense and a sense of personal responsibility are adaptations of the social animal. We need them because we need each other, not because there is a God and not because we have free will.

Free will doesn't exist. Who Cares?

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