Apostle Paul Neither predetermined choices nor random choices are free choices. Therefor, neither a deterministic universe, nor a universe where atoms sometimes randomly swerve, can host free will1, or so the argument goes. I will argue that determinism is fully compatible with free will.

Firstly, because a universe like ours is a chaotic system, a deterministic universe is only computable2, not predictable. That is, you could compute the next state if the current state was known. But you cannot jump ahead in time and calculate, unless you go at it step by step simulating every atom3.

Secondly, atoms don’t make choices nor desire things. But atoms in certain configurations can learn to recognize cats in videos. And atoms in a brain-like4 configurations can learn to model the world, imagine futures, to guess5 what its options are, to weight consequences of each option against desires — and then choose. Moreover, as we do so, we feel like something, we are conscious, we are aware.

Because choices and awareness go hand in hand and no choice can be predicted unless simulated step by step, atom by atom, we can say that we have aware will. Nobody can predict our choices, unless by letting us be aware6 and let us make those choices. The rest of the argument will show aware will is the same as free will.

Thought Experiment

As a thought experiment, imagine a deity7 who blesses some people with the gift of free will. On their 7th birthday, this deity shows them all the beauty of the universe and beyond. Grants them temporarily perfect knowledge; grants them free will. And asks them to select some things they really want. Then rewires the 7 year old brain accordingly. The next day, these children are no longer a product of the causal chain8, are no more a victim of determinism, no longer part of the “whole show”9, but are free.

As these kids grow up, go through life learning, experiencing, self-reflecting, will they be different from the rest of us? Circumstances will still shape them as it shapes us. They will make choices, and how the future unfolds still depends on those choices. Same for us. At age 30, nobody can tell the difference between the people who were given free will at age of 7 and the rest of us.

Layering Violation

Atoms don’t make choices, that is the wrong layer to be analyzing the the situation from. Choices are made by minds that can imagine futures, guess their options, and have goals and preferences by which to weight those options. The universe doesn’t give those things to minds, nor forces them on minds. Instead, minds learn them.

Places in the universe where there are minds are profoundly different than places where there are none. It is not the universe that is in control of this, but minds. How the future unfolds around a mind is very much dependent on the choices such a mind makes. And they do so in a way indistinguishable from a truly free mind.

A deterministic universe, or something fairly close to it10, is required for our brains to exist and function. But such a universe has no predetermined choices. While it will only unfold in one way, that unfolding fundamentally depends on the minds inside on the predictions they make and options they choose as they are aware.

  1. Another option is libertarian free will. Which posits the mind is not physically bound and can control its choices free from external constraints. But either this is an incoherent argument, or such a mind is a bad model or reality. Moreover, this passes the buck only one level up, the same problem of free will continues to exist. 

  2. This is impossible for three reasons: 1. quantum mechanics doesn’t allow us to know enough; 2. no computer simulation can be faster than the original; 3. a higher level simulation might work, but is unlikely to be high fidelity enough to compute anything far ahead in time. 

  3. The most fundamental things in our universe are not atoms. But this makes it easier to present the argument. 

  4. Our minds are our brains. But the brain is a distributed system that functions very different from how it feels to our minds. See also the Libet experiments and neuroscience of free will

  5. to reason about its options 

  6. Do note that the original you would have no access to the copy of you that is being used to predict your choices. But that doesn’t mean that copy-you isn’t aware. If it wasn’t, how would it come to the same choice? 

  7. For obvious reasons, such a deity does not exist. But this is a thought experiment, not a real experiment. Please suspend your disbelief until the point has been illustrated. 

  8. “On determinism, every state of affairs was determined by a prior state of the universe, and every future state is determined by the present state. In short, everything that happens was going to happen from the onset of the big bang, and if that’s true, there is no free will.” source 

  9. C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles talks about “the whole show”: “Thus no thoroughgoing Naturalist believes in free will: for free will would mean that human beings have the power of independent action, the power of doing something more or other than what was involved by the total series of events. And any such separate power of originating events is what the Naturalist denies. Spontaneity, originality, action “on its own,” is a privilege reserved for “the whole show,” which he calls Nature.” 

  10. A random universe is equivalent to a deterministic universe from a computer science perspective: instead of “rolling a dice” per random event, pre-roll the dice and record a long list of outcomes, then run the universe and reference the pre-rolled list per random event. To an observer that doesn’t have access to the pre-rolled list, both results are identical.