What is free will, really? Steven Pinker explains.


I do believe that there is such a thing as
free will but by that I do not mean that there is some process that defies the laws of physical
cause and effect. As my colleague Joshua Greene once put it,
it is not the case that every time you make a decision a miracle occurs. So I don’t believe that. I believe that decisions are made by neurophysiological
processes in the brain that respect all the laws of physics. On the other hand it is true that when I decide
what to say next when I pick an item from a menu for dinner it’s not the same as when
the doctor hits my kneecap with a hammer and my knee jerks. It’s just a different physiological process
and one of them we use the word free will to characterize the more deliberative, slower,
more complex process by which behavior is selected in the brain. That process involves the aggregation of many
diverse kinds of information – our memory, our goals, our current environment, our expectation
of how other people will judge that action. Those are all information streams that affect
that process. It’s not completely predictable in that there
may be random or chaotic or nonlinear effects that mean that even if you put the same person
in the same circumstance multiple times they won’t make the same choice every time. Identical twins who have almost identical
upbringings, put them in the same chair, face them with the same choices. They may choose differently. Again, that’s not a miracle. That doesn’t mean that there is some ghost
in the machine that is somehow pushing the neural impulses around. But it just means that the brain like other
complex systems is subject to some degree of unpredictability. At the same time free will wouldn’t be worth
having and certainly wouldn’t’ be worth extolling in world discussions if it didn’t respond
to expectations of reward, punishment, praise, blame. When we say that someone – we’re punishing
or rewarding someone based on what they chose to do we do that in the hope that that person
and other people who hear about what happens will factor in how their choices will be treated
by others and therefore there’ll be more likely to do good things and less likely to do bad
things in the expectation that if they choose beneficial actions better things will happen
to them. So paradoxically one of the reasons that we
want free will to exist is that it be determined by the consequences of those choices. And on average it does. People do obey the laws more often than not. They do things that curry favor more often
than they bring proprium on their heads but not with 100 percent predictability. So that process is what we call free will. It’s different from many of the more reflexive
and predictable behaviors that we can admit but it does not involve a miracle.

100 thoughts on “What is free will, really? Steven Pinker explains.

  • I like Pinker's thinking but I don't think he hit the nail on the head in terms of free will being tied to unpredictability. I think that if you consider the laws of physics in the way that Pinker does, in that they create a deterministic outcome for the universe, then absolutely everything down to the neural impulse could be predicted, just not by humans themselves at the moment. That element of unpredictability is purely a human limitation, but some omniscience could predict every single human behaviour throughout all of history. So if everything is predictable given the strictness of the laws of physics, then you need another measurement to determine what free will is.

    It's been said that this absolute predictability could nullify free will totally, as free will would necessitate being able to shift the absolute outcomes of reality. For me though, free will doesn't have to go as far as changing absolute reality, but rather acting with the intent to do so.

    Free will to me is the ability to act with consideration of one's fate, and the want to guide that fate, on principle or anything else, even if this change doesn't necessarily occur. Predictive sight of one's own path is a uniquely human ability among Earth's animals, but free will goes a step further in being the conviction to attempt to control one's own outcomes, as opposed to acting in complete reaction to one's experiences.

    So yes, describing free will as being the ability to act in consideration of free will is a bit paradoxical, but so is the kind of meta-thinking that permits it to happen. I think that when our cognition evolved to the point of thinking about thinking, free will emerged as the phenomena of acting with the intent to change reality. Even though this more advanced thinking may still produce a fixed outcome that fully complies with the laws of physics, it produces better, far more rationalised, even energy-efficient behaviour that in turn produces far better outcomes than purely fatalistic thinking.

  • I like what Mr. Pinker has to say, but the "free" here is superfluous (and to most people, misleading) – "will" is more than enough.

  • In short: thoughts are deterministic as well as random so we don't know if free will exists or not. My guess is that thoughts and will are two different systems.

  • I think we should start at: what is the sense of "freedom"? And by sense I mean, what is the idea, feeling or understanding of freedom in your head based on all of these stimuli? Sure we have lexicographers and dictionaries so there are standardised meanings for "free". However if you had to ask 1000 people to write what they define free to be you'll see that all the answers will be different. Some longer some shorter, some complex and some really simple, but in the end no two humans have the same 'sense' of freedom. As pinker says "you can only describe a word in terms of other words". Which I think is true, but words are infinite in the sense that as long as there are speakers, language will be spoken. If you had to ask me to define 'free' I would describe it in a political sense. You are only as free as society will permit, based off your race, gender, ideology and so on. Then even if you have cheddar and a stable life in which you can play video games all day and smoke weed with no cares you'll still question freedom. You'll still question what it means to be free. Free from taxes. Free from fatigue. Free from poverty. Free from crime. Free from loneliness. Free from obligations. These are stimuli too, and they also influence how we move through the world and mediate our lives. We all have 'freewill' but none are 'free'. After all, this is one of the many paradoxes inherent in language, philosophy, science and psychology etc.

  • "LIFE IS SUFFERING – FILLED WITH TRAGEDIES [ACCENTUATED] BY MALEVOLENCE AND EVIL!" = Dr. Bling. When injustice becomes LAW, then rebellion [and martyrdom] becomes DUTY as CHRISTIANS!

  • Free will is overrated in the current way we organise, as it comes with so many restrictions as to effectively turn ‘us’ in to nothing more than robots.
    I question how much ‘free will’ we have anyway as there are so many subconscious automated ‘learned/conditioned’ actions that effectively means we don’t really have free will.

  • This perverted society only PUNISHES people for doing good while rewarding EVIL and Malevolence with impunity!!! "No good deed goes UNPUNISHED!" IT NEEDS TO BE BURNED DOWN LIKE SADOM AND GAMORRA.

  • Coming from an Eastern/Buddhist perspective, the concept of "free will" is unknown to me though I studied and understood what it's about. I tend to agree with Steven Pinker's statement here as well.

  • He didn't come close to convincing me that we have free will. Not the free will that most people mean when they say it.

    The fact that the process that we call "free will" is much more complicated than the knee-jerk reflex is not an argument for free will.

  • Free will does not exist when you realize there is fate behind everything. Since only what will happen will happen and your "free will" is just the part of you that's you seeing things from a limited point of view. Your fate contains everything especially your free will decisions which are your moment to moment fate. God does not play dice with the universe the dice always land where they will land same with free will

  • What I don't understand is why there's such a huge problem with accepting this. It's a balancing act between our deterministic functions and the consciousness which has to process an endless stream of stimuli to make decisions. Even if it is completely deterministic it doesn't matter because we as biological beings don't interpret things that way and we certainly can't predict more than a fraction of all those decision making processes.

    I think it's fine to say we're probably completely deterministic machines but that we still have something we can call "free will" because that's how the quirky UI on top of the machine works.
    The discussion is ruined the second someone tries to come in with their soul dualism world view because they seemingly have to think that there's absolutely no room between either having free will or being completely railroaded machines with nothing that could be interpreted as free will.

  • free will isn’t achievable or not complete, due to the factors and circumstances that we cannot control but yet they will influence our choice.
    free will is man made term just to make us and our egos to feel more superior to others species on the planet.
    there is no free will if you obligated to pay taxes!!! you are fucking slaves!!! deal with it

  • Even the question of free will is kind of paradoxical, because it implies there there's a choice we "would have" made if not for determinism, which raises the question of what causes the decision in the hypothetical alternate version of us. We run into an infinite regression problem. Even if there's a ghost in the machine, we just end up asking if there's another ghost inside that ghost, and so on.

  • Free will is just another excuse made by humans to make us feel noble and special and important in the grand scheme of things. We're not. We're just another species of primate on a spec of dust around an average-sized star in the suburbs of an average-sized galaxy that is one of trillions of others.
    Man, I can't wait for the AI to take over.

  • I think he is false when he talks about the possibilities of chaotic events in the brain, saying “If you put the same person in the same circumstance they won’t make the same choice every time”. Have such events been observed in the brain? I don’t think they have, meaning that it’s likely someone would make the same choice every time

  • You are at a fork in the road. How do you decide (freely) to go left or right? Arguments for left or right will pop up in your head but do you really control which ones come to mind? Are you sure that all possible arguments that your brain had have popped up? How do you decide which arguments you like better? You can rationalize some if asked, but truthfully you know 'instinctively' which arguments you value more. But this 'instinctively' feeling is not free will. So where is the free will, if you don't truly control any of this? Then again is there even the possible existence of such a thing as true control over what you think?
    Free will appears to be the state of mind where the thoughts that come to mind are not coerced from outside and your brain and you are not under any form of strong outside coercion to choose one option over the other.

  • Synopsis of Pinker’s view here: if we call complex human decision-making and behavior free will, then we can say free will exists. All of it comes from neurophysiological processes that you have zero influence on, but don’t worry too much about that.

  • How is the pedophile Steven Pinker still getting AirPlay? Was I the only one who saw he was mentioned as a companion to Jeffrey Epstein? It was run on all the major news networks…

  • Just because something's more complex, doesn't mean it's any different than simpler chemical processes. An 8 bit computer doesn't have any less free will than a 64 bit computer, and vice versa.

  • doubt, and you didn't really say much more than shedding light on predictability, even though we don't have sufficient methods for testing it (twin studies are definitely not sufficient when we can't measure the true state of the subject's brains). Larger demographics are predictable enough when measuring tendencies to assume at least most thinking is predictable. There's not much pointing to any of it being unpredictable, and thus, occam's razor. Free will most likely does not exist.

  • lol, human ignorance really has no limits. This guy doesn't even know whether he really exists or not and talks about the nature of free will. First figure out whether you really are.

  • Unpredictability and randomness are not "free will"

    Pinker is playing semantics in saying that our inability to perfectly predict behavior is what we "call" or define as "free will" which is not the question at hand at all.

  • I don't think free-will and autonomy are even all that different, in all honesty.
    Seems like they're both working together to actually help you rather than both of them working against each other, to me it seems a little silly people decide to sit in one camp or the other.

    I imagine biology and environment determines the scope of your free will, I imagine it's heavily context-dependent too. If there's a situation that really pulls on the strings of your limbic system I don't imagine you have anywhere near as much control to act as freely as you'd like. A situation that gives you severe anxiety, for example, you're going to be largely at the helm of your biology. However, you can make the conscious choice to train yourself change and to gain more control in those situations where you once had none. That conscious choice to train yourself changes the course of your entire life.

    I don't believe you have control most of the time, I think that kind of critical thinking would be exhausting. But you clearly do have the freedom and will to set your life down a certain trajectory of your choosing. Parameters for those are largely set by your biology and environment.
    Free will & autonomy is probably a bit like firing a bullet, you get to consciously chose what to aim at but once you're orientated towards a goal, your habitual and goal systems drive the behaviour. Free-will only seems to come back in to re-align yourself towards the outcome.

    Could argue that the outcome you want is pre-determined by the environment you grew up in (wanting to be a lawyer) and the biology (actually feeling positive emotion pursuing something) and for everything physical in the world I'd agree. But considering awareness of thought, I feel like it's a little more complicated.

    If you hear a loud crash in your environment and there is no conscious choice, your entire body is orientated towards the noise. That same awareness you can choose to turn inward, in paying attention to yourself, while self-aware, paying attention to your thoughts or self-concept you can choose to adjust them if you don't like them. Those are what some people call metaphysical changes, I'm not sure about real metaphysical but sure enough nothing coming in from the physical world that's influencing you. Just an incomprehensible amount of neuron's firing in an ocean of connectivity and fluidity. But it generates real changes, the neuron's bridge stronger connections with thoughts you chose. None of it coming from any physical in the environment, but all the changes coming with the thoughts themselves. That is what I imagine is free-will.

    I don't know though, just my 2 cents, I'm just a high school drop out with no qualifications.

  • As I like to say, free will is a little like my computer's random number generator. It sounds like it, smells like it and acts like it. So better treat it like it is real.

  • So, basically you are defining free will into existence by saying it's compatible with deterministic physical laws. Free will exists because we make decisions although those decisions are driven by physical processes that are ultimately deterministic? Is it just me or does this not sound contradictory?

  • Wow. I'm also a scientist and I completely disagree with Pinker's simplistic and incomplete definition of "free will".

    So according to him when "complex processes using billions of neurons and trillions of connections" are involved on making a choice then that's free will? Seriously Steve?? Then some current AI's already have free will today (i work on AI btw) according to that poor definition.

    Or when the outcome/choice has some "uncertain or random" component that's free will?? So his definition of "free will" is simply a somewhat uncertain/random choice involving very complex processes?

    It's impossible for me to know whether there is "something more" or not (e.g. anything beyond our physical universe that could sometimes guide/influence what to us appear as "random processes/outcomes" within physical systems in our universe, without violating a single physics law). It's also impossible for him to know it. But he instead tries to establish his own definition of free will to convince others about his own "beliefs". Yes, its just his own "beliefs", which he has absolute right to have. But as a scientist shouldn't try to convince others on simple "beliefs" he absolutely cannot prove.

    Sorry but it's quite disappointed to see this non-scientific attitude from someone i used to respect as a scientist.

  • We have will, the honorific “free” prefix is misleading. It’s a will not independent of external factors (real or imagined), we evolved an ability to respond to and navigate particular environments (that we ourselves are originate, a reflection both biologically and conditionally).
    The suggestion that deliberation and choice is somehow apart or uninfluenced by such factors is overtly untrue, naturally.
    So I don’t think the question, “is there free will” asks anything pertinent to the question of accountability, which is more so the deeper question at hand.

    Regardless if a person acts consciously or reacts unconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily, both are natural biological reactions, whether the brain is thinking about whether it should or should not perform such actions.
    Obviously the universe is unfolding, and any event you find yourself in is thus an eventuality of this passage (stochastic or deterministic), but a question of responsibility is more intimately concerned with the vehicles most related to a particular event.

    Whether the wolf thinks about biting a human, doesn’t really change the fact that he did, even if given another chance it might have decided to nap instead.
    Intention is only really relevant if you are trying to create a behavioral profile of said creature, human or otherwise. As a means of gauging further possible risks and tendencies (to yourself and others).
    After all, why even consider intention unless your were interested in evaluating the subject’s propensity to perform or engage in said actions?

    And of course the motive behind all these questions is to concoct some rationale for the way we ourselves behave in response to someone’s intentional or non intentional behavior. That is the tall and short of it, irrespective to humanity’s desire to imbue actions with social judgement, their own judgment, which is to say the collective and inconsistent view of the people.

    Let’s face it folks, humans are the only creature with a narrative called morality, it exists only in our imagination, a useful if not sometimes dangerous fiction, but a fiction none the less. I like pinker’s work, but that dribble about morality at the end was a cop out via the appeal of popular sentiment. Sometimes people do things you dislike, sometimes, often, you won’t be alone in your feelings… sometimes there have been trends in human history, long enough and prevalent enough to have been labeled, and ruled against the actions that provoke them… evil, immoral, criminal.

    There is no inherent objective truth apart from collective trends in psychology, for the longest time and still in some regions of the world, homosexuality is a crime, while slavery hasn’t been. Ladies and gentlemen, l think it’s about time we put this subject in the dust bin.

  • It's almost a bummer to be aware of being amongst a Big Bang explosion. But no matter the complexity and difficulty predicting outcomes, true free will may be unachievable. BUT, Grasshopper, tis the journey not the destination we must appreciate. Daily interaction details are unpredictable an make for a rich free will dynamic.

  • Fine and dandy, but Steve avoids the fundamental point. When we make a choice, could we have chosen differently? The answer is no. The brain does the analysis and processing before we are consciously aware of our choice. So, does free will exist in the sense that we consciously evaluate a circumstance and then make a choice? Sorry, no.

  • As we will never be able to KNOW if our definitions of the laws of nature are correct, we will never be able to KNOW anything.

  • I'm under the impression that most people think that free will is the freedom to choose to choose what we choose (which is faulty; it has one too many "chooses"). Prof. Pinker didn't touch on that Dualism other than to deny the presence of a miracle. I don't think that does justice to the subject, given its importance in the minds of most people. It's a misunderstanding that should be more explicitly disassembled.

  • How can it be "your choice" made by "your free will", if there are plenty of factors that are not in your control. It could be the case that if you have been born in a poor neighborhood, and the expectation from you would be dealing drugs you wouldn't be on the "bigthink" YouTube channel.
    Luck is a big factor if not the only factor.
    You are lucky you are smart, well aducated, and healthy. You had zero control over those advantage.

  • Reflexive, determined, free will …I'd say that each of these are relevant …and there may be more 'brain' options. I think 'leaps of faith' are exercises in free will because the individual brain has no basis for outcome and will actively work against making a choice of a true unknown. Once the choice is made the brain reacts immediately to commit because ' fear causes hesitation and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true" -Bodie (Point Break) 😁🍻

  • He is essentially defining what we BELIEVE to be free will, not confirming that we have free will. The question was what is free will really ( meaning what is the exact phenomenon that leads us to believe we are in control).

  • You literally can't put the same person in the same situation multiple times because every time after the first they will have memories of the first time they faced the situation and of everything that's happened since then. They won't be quite the same person anymore. If you could somehow run the clock back and actually run the same situation multiple times, my hypothesis is that the subject would behave identically each time.

  • Free will implies an effect without cause, which is clearly illogical, therefore there is no free will. You don’t need free will to make decisions. Computers can make decisions based on input and goals, and they don’t have free will.

  • “Aggregation of many diverse kinds of information. Our memories, our goals, our current environment, our expectation of how other people will judge that action”. Isn’t that what free will is? Making a decision based on the info you have?

    Twins aren’t a good example to show that there is random chance and unpredictability in the decision making system. It should be obvious, but twins having the same genes does not guarantee identical expression of the genes, and growing up in the same household does not guarantee the same upbringing or disposition later in life. They will see different sides of their parents, have different encounters with people, etc that will cause them to make different decisions. Not due to random chance but variation.

    I do think there is random chance, but people making different decisions for the same choice isn’t proof of chance. Someone could just be in a different mood.

  • If a being or conscience could exist that could see every event to our lives down to the last, smallest detail – then no, free will doesn’t exist. Said being could be able to predict our every action, even me writing this right now. It would know that and even that I’m writing about it. So given that theory, we don’t have true free will, even if that theory of the all-knowing being does not existed of yet. Everything could be reduced to data if everything we do could be quantified and exactly recorded. The only way Free Will exists in that circumstance, is if there is an incalculably small chance that someone does something random. Which should be impossible in said scenario. I hate it, but it seems the most logical in the end about Free Will. It all comes down to if we can truly be random.

  • Free will is simple.

    If you're doing something without pressure from the others, you're doing it by your free will.

    There's no another free will, all your choices are predetermined from the beginning of the universe.

  • He talks with way too much confidence about something we currently know nothing about. We don't even know what consciousness is and how it can exist, so currently we have no idea what free will is.

  • Well the thought process is similar to the knee jerk reaction … only diff is we we are not sure of the cause …… so we call it "FreeWill"

  • Knee-jerk reflex is different from our higher level thinking in a same way a 5-line python code is different from all the Google software currently executed. Yet, both complicated software and our brain is incapable of acting freely in any way. It's just fairly deterministic execution based on prior learned input sprinkled with some level of randomness.

  • Even identical twins are going to be different to some degree, and have different needs. So it would make sense to me that they would make different choices based upon their differing needs

  • Just because we don’t have the intelligence to predict every effect/reaction does not mean that said reaction was not determined by natural law

  • Here is free will. (red or blue) red….(red or blue) red…(red or blue) blue…(red or blue) red ….(red or blue) red….(red or blue) blue… (red or blue) blue….(red or blue) red….(red or blue) blue….(red or blue) red…(red or blue) red….(red or blue) blue…(red or blue) blue… (red or blue) blue…(red or blue) red…(red or blue) red…(red or blue) blue…(red or blue) red.

    Everyone can immediately and without consequence pick red or blue.
    I am making a FREE choice every single time.

    I am deciding which color. And given the same choice time and time again, I am able to choose a different color when given the same choice.

    I can do this as rapidly as someone saying (red or blue).

    There is no reward. There is punishment or expected outcome. There is no prediction that can be made, any more than a roulette wheel landing on (red or black). I'll pick a color. I will make a decision without even giving it much of any thought, because all it requires is that I pick one. It doesn't matter which one, but in the end, I will pick one of them.

    We have the free will make a choice.

  • I'm not religious but some higher power is pulling the strings in this world..I saw a premonition of the 2001 WTC attacks..1 week before it ever happened ..read it in the Jan 2004 edition of Fate magazine

  • Let me guess, after they destroy the lives of a lot people when the “Abovemen” or “ the Superman” tight this violent retarded experiment to the last election; the “beyond comprehend superior minds” decided that it turns out free will it wasn’t a black or white things like they said it was.🙄

  • You cannot have free will and believe in an all powerful, all knowing god
    at the same time.
    They are incompatible and lead to cognitive dissonance.
    Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, BELIEFS or behaviors. This produces a feeling of MENTAL DISCOMFORT leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.
    I suffered from this mental condition for twenty years as an indoctrinated Catholic.
    Today I am an atheist and free of the conflict.

  • If you did this, “tolerate the Jews,” Lord Vader would like to see you in his office so he can discuss some things with you.

  • "Decisions are made by neuro physio processes in the brain" really, what about the decision not to believe that this is the cause of decisions? Is it the brain that doesn't believe this?

  • In a video game, one has the Free Will to control the character, but the end the result is the same; die while trying to pass from one level to the next, that is.
    So, no matter how the humans try, they’re stuck in the first level; unless, the humans go into the Nirvana state.

  • We only have free will when we are rational 🌱🥩

    It doesn’t make sense to tear innocent playful loving children 🐖🐬🐄🐑🐕🐈🐎 apart with our teeth when we can eat plants instead

    Humans are just animals called human

    We don’t accept this evil behavior with dogs and cats because we know it’s evil, we are trapped releasing subconscious fear created from this evil 🐕🥩🐬🥩🌱🐖🥓🐄🥩🌱 destructive behaviour needlessly creating the extinction of all life on earth, as the irrational 🌱 passive anger of tearing each other’s children apart with our teeth when we can eat plants instead

    Human is the name for an ape

    A vicious circle ⭕️

    Same fear 👩‍🦳🥩🐬🥩🐕🥩🐖🥓🐄🥩🐑🥩🐎🥩🐈🥩🐓🥩🦃🥩🐅🥩🦌🥩🦘🥩🐂🥩🐋🥩🦍🥩🐟🥩🐍🥩

    Duh

  • Simulation theory not mentioned a single time. Goes to show how little steven pinker looks into the technological possibilities of the future.

  • The crazy thing to consider is that, for any given experience or decision, by the time we're aware of it a series of biochemical-electrical functions have already occurred…utterly beyond our awareness or control. In that context the freedom of Free Will is…a bit hazy.

  • but if you 'put the person back in the same circumstance' then they will always choose the same thing. Pinker seems not to include the brain-state as part of the situation.

  • Correct. Free will is not a choice that is free of reliable cause and effect. Free will is a choice that is free of coercion and other undue or extraordinary influences (brain tumor, hallucinations, hypnosis, etc.). That's the operational definition used in questions of moral and legal responsibility.

    Unfortunately, there has been the spread of a mental virus suggesting that causal necessity/inevitability is an entity that goes about in the world making stuff happen, and that it, and not us, is the entity that controls our choices and our destiny.

    But that is a superstitious myth. Causal necessity is not an object or a force that goes around causing things. It is only a comment, a simple statement asserting that every event has a history of reliable causation, of one thing leading to another, that necessarily lead to the event. Events are the reliable product of the objects and forces that make up the physical universe. The objects and forces are the causes, and the event is the effect. And, guess what? We happen to be one of those actual objects that make up the physical universe. And we do go about causing stuff to happen, all the time.

    Causation never causes anything. Determinism never determines anything. Both concepts are about the reliable behavior of actual objects and forces. They are about us! They do not replace us.

  • “Besides objective limitations, we are self-determining (physical self, including the brain) to the extent that we believe we are self-determining.”

    ~ Me. Thoughts and challenges?

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