A Brief Thought Experiment ~ The Semantics of Free Will

A Brief Thought Experiment ~ The Semantics of Free Will
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When people talk of individual freedom, many things come to mind. Of primary importance is the question of whether you are free to do what you want to do.

Someone locked in a room tied in a straight jacket is clearly less free than you are at this moment. You are more free because you have more options.

In a broader sense, we can say that a free society is more valuable than an oppressed society precisely because one is more able to do as they wish. Few would argue that this freedom is worth having.

But is this truly what it means to be free?


In a recent discussion on free will, Dan Dennett, one of the world’s most renown philosophers of consciousness, proposed the following scenario:

Imagine a chess program that contains a flaw that limits the movement of its queen to only one square at a time. (1)

This limitation would considerably decrease its chances of winning against a comparable program without this flaw. In fact, if given the opportunity to gamble on a series of games, you’d be crazy not to put all your money on the program without the flaw.

Yet look at what’s really the difference here. One program has more “freedom” of moves than the other solely on the basis that its queen is not constrained. But is this kind of freedom really what we think of when we talk of free will?

Hardly. We know each program is fully tied to its data. Every move is merely a calculation predetermined by its programming. If you could understand its code, you could predict its move in every sense.

Thus by any genuine sense of the word, no one would attribute freedom to this program, despite one being described as more free than the other.

Isn’t what’s really important far more significant than just having more options?


Perhaps we should define genuine freedom as having some sense of control. When we are free, we are able to influence the behavior of things or the course of events. This would seem a sensible way to differentiate between the type of freedom you and I have versus that of a chess playing computer.

Yet this also has issues related to semantics. As Dennett explains, if a pilot gives up control of a plane to an auto pilot program, then the program designed to run that auto pilot is, by all definitions, controlling the plane in that moment.

This is true, made evident by the fact that the pilot could be sleeping while the auto pilot navigates the plane, a situation where the pilot is clearly not in control of the plane.

Yet is an auto pilot program “free” in any useful sense of the word? Isn’t it just as tied to the data as the chess playing program?

It seems control isn’t enough either. We need something better than control to convey the type of freedom we have. But if having options and control is not enough to illustrate genuine freedom, then what is?


Perhaps the missing ingredient that demonstrates genuine freedom is the ability to act on one’s desires.

This would surely differentiate the type of control we have over that of an autopilot. For as much as it is in control of the plane, it is not doing this because it wants to, it does so because its programmed to fly. It has no desires.

So we can say that the freedom we attribute to ourselves that genuinely differentiates us from a computer program is not simply having more options, or having the ability to do as we wish, its the ability to have those wishes in the first place.

Options, control, and desire. No sensible human would suggest we don’t have all three. So why isn’t this case closed?

Genuine Freedom

The reason is that for many, its not enough to simply say we can act on our desires. That’s top level stuff. What’s really important is the root of those desires. Our thoughts.

Famed German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted this issue almost two centuries ago when he said, “Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.” (2)

Isn’t genuine freedom of will best defined as the ability to consciously originate and control our own thoughts and desires? Consider what it would mean to not have this ability.

Suppose every thought you had all day was merely placed into your mind by your neighbor. Though you would be aware of the thoughts entering your consciousness and could follow along with the process of deliberation, you would have no control over any thought.

In such a scenario, you’d be at the behest of your neighbor’s desires. In what possible way would anyone describe this situation as being free? Thus consciously initiating our thoughts is genuine freedom.

Initiating Thoughts

Luckily, though we’re susceptible to influence, no other person is in control of our thoughts. But are we consciously initiating our own thoughts?

It sure seems so that way. Yet there’s no logical manner to demonstrate the ability to consciously initiate a thought because for that to be possible, you’d have to think a thought before you thought it.

There is no logical way to consciously author our own thoughts because each thought either pops into our consciousness for reasons we’re not aware of, or they each require a thought of their own.

Though it may feel like we are consciously originating our thoughts, the idea is nonsensical.

The Endless Loop

And thus we end up with two distinct ideas of free will that keep the world’s top thinkers endlessly debating. It ultimately comes down to what you value.

If the ability to make choices and to follow your own desires is how you define free will, then surely have it.

But if you value the notion of consciously originating your thoughts, actions, and desires, there is no logical manner in which free will is possible. You cannot think a thought before you think it.

It’s a game of semantics. How you define free will is really what determines your position. There is nothing wrong with either view, you merely must choose what elements you value most.

(1) Harris/Dennett Free Will Discussion:

(2) Arthur Schopenhauer Quote:

(Artwork by: Matthew Baily)


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