back to article Deploying Turing to see if we have free will

Alan Turing didn't just lay the theoretical basis for modern computing and save Britain in World War Two by defeating German cryptography: one of his problems also provides a theoretical basis for understanding free will, according to MIT quantum theorist Seth Lloyd. Given the number of biologists – particularly in the …


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  1. Thorne

    Some people say I'm indecisive ....

    But I'm just not sure.....

  2. Mike Bell

    Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

    “The inability of the decider to predict her decision beforehand holds whether the decision-making process is deterministic or not”.

    Call me old fashioned, but I find this kind of right-on politically correct language to be very annoying, not to say patronising. The possessive 'his' has for many years been defined as 'belonging to or associated with a person or animal of unspecified sex'.

    I don't need my hand held to remind me that women comprise half the species, and clever talk like this won't force me to re-evaluate my perception of where they fit in the world. I really don't. So leave it out, will you.

    Having said that, my wife can never make her mind up, so I won't deny the truth of the statement.

    1. ElectricRook

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      Once we can name the demon, we can slay it. The demon's name is "cant". Cant is the polite chatter we make to show our membership in the local good ol'boy's club. We express the political correctness we feel is required to prevent being viewed as a nonconformist. To be a nonconformist is to invite scrutiny and perhaps inquisition. So you'd better learn the cant or suffer the oppression of big brother. "Obey"

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

        >The demon's name is "cant".

        'Immanuel Kant was a real piss-ant who was very rarely stable... Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed; A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he's pissed.'

    2. Steve Knox

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      You are presuming that the gender choice was intentional. That implies the existence of free will, which is the subject of discussion.

      Your objections are therefore begging the question and logically invalid.

    3. Grogan Silver badge

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      ... about God: She's black :-)

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        Re: about God: She's black

        She's black what? A poodle? A paramecium? Black hole? You're still being an "-ist" if you assume God is human/humanoid/human-like/human-aligned at all.

        Of course, there's the part where God doesn't exist, but let's just set that to one side for now...

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      Or maybe you could stop thinking about sex every time you read the feminine pronoun? Comments like this are enough to make one think that maybe the feminists were right about that whole patriarchy thing all along.

      As long as this remains jarring to anyone, it needs to continue. Once it ceases to be jarring, it will continue regardless because nobody will think twice about it.

      If men ruled the world it would be in a somewhat parlous state.

    5. Danny 4

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      I was taught that their is the non-gender specific possessive form.

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

        You're not allowed to use "their." That is something that the patriarchy uses to pretend women don't exist whilst simultaneously attempting to appear unbiased. A bunch of feminists decided that they didn't like it so they set upon a campaign to convince the world that using the plural form of pronouns was abuse of grammar - not to mention demonstrating "gender bias" - so they decided that everyone should default to the feminine pronouns instead.

        In case you missed the memo this is huge in US journalism right now, and it has become "the thing" in SF tech circles as well.

    6. GrantB

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      Ok, so let me be the first to confirm that you are indeed old fashioned and sexist. Simple test of this would be to ask yourself if a women or young (< 25 say) person would have read an interesting article on the nature of free will, and had to comment not on the nature of determinism but because the author dared to use a female for an example.

      I find people complaining about 'politically correctness' generally can't even define what it is, and why doing something like acknowledging 50% of people in any example scenerio might be female is so wrong..

      The possessive 'his' may have for many years been defined as 'belonging to or associated with a person or animal of unspecified sex', but language changes, there are alternatives 'their', and without having read the paper, you don't know if the author was talking about a specific person like like Alice, Bob or Eve.

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


        I prefer to use gender non-determinative pronouns so that I can both acknowledge and dismiss 100% humanity. I don't give a flying Vista what gender, race, creed, religion or whatever "group" you are: you're all clownshoes to me until proven otherwise.

        When talking about an indeterminate person I don't feel it's appropriate to use "his" or "hers." Gender determinate pronouns should only be used when a gender is known. Period.

        That's like saying "he drove* from A to B."

        *method of transportation not known, using a manually controlled vehicle as the descriptor "just because."

        1. Oninoshiko

          Re: @Trevor_Pott

          so: Sie/Hir then?

          1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


            I truly wish I was allowed to use Sie/Hir or Ser. Unfortunately, we'd be back in the same boat; it's so uncommon, the usage of it would detract from the story.

            I have started to use Sie in some of my personal stuff.

    7. t.est

      Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

      And your wife, nor mine or any other wife I know is predictable.

      The interesting part is that if they aren't predictable, you cannot simulate them either. You can only simulate based on past events, not on predictable behaviour.

      With men it's questionable if we have a free will. Someone said once to me long time ago, few will like this ^^, "men are the head, the woman are the neck that turns the head".

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


        Oik! I gots me two heads!*

        *I can only use one at a time.

  3. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge


    I do realize it would demonstrate nothing, but it'd be amusing if Siri was rigged up to provide "yes, yes, yes, yes" 8-)

    1. Ralph B

      Re: Siri?

      To the question: "Are you a decider?" Siri answers "No comment." So, while the free will question is unanswered, at least we now know that Siri is a politician.

      That being the case, would you vote for Siri?

    2. WhoaWhoa

      Re: Siri?

      "I do realize it would demonstrate nothing, but it'd be amusing if Siri was rigged up to provide "yes, yes, yes, yes" 8-)"

      But, isn't Siri that program that tells you where the nearest restaurant is?

      1. lawndart

        Re: Siri?

        I'll have what Siri is having.

      2. Robert Grant

        Re: Siri?

        Almost! It's that program that searches Bing to tell you where the nearest restaurant is :)

        1. Identity

          Re: Siri?

          "program that searches Bing to tell you where the nearest restaurant is :)"

          Actually, I think it's Wolfram Alpha...

  4. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?

    I do have some doubts about this. Maybe it's just me but consider the following situation. I see a gorgeous girl sitting at the bar. Do I invite her for a drink or not? There's not much of conscious reasoning in answering that question, it's just a gut feeling that tells me whether to ask her. Ok, some machine, far beyond today's technology might be able to model decision-making - I cannot exclude this possibility.

    What current information (i.e. all that my senses sense) and what experiences do I take into account ? And what of all that do I leave out? What mood I'm in? Good luck with modelling that.

    Up to now, all that was shown is that scientists do not really understand our decision-making process. This is especially true about the neuroscientists that propagated the view that we don't have free will. What they showed, in brief, is that our brain makes a decision before we are consciously aware of the decision. Is it so unthinkable to think that decision-making not only takes place in consciousness?

    1. James Micallef Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?

      "What they showed, in brief, is that our brain makes a decision before we are consciously aware of the decision.Is it so unthinkable to think that decision-making not only takes place in consciousness?"

      Agree completely. It doesn't automatically follow from the first sentence that we do not have free will. It simply means, as you imply in the second sentence, that decision-making processes are mostly unconscious. In fact decision-making mostly depends on internal patterns that we are mostly unaware of, but that we can detect if we 'slow down' and analyse our own processes.

      For example, some people, on being given an option will accept it immediately. Some people on being given an option will reflexively go for something different. Some people want to check out every available option before choosing. Some people will ask for external validation for their choice. And so on, and so on. It's easy to see at a restaurant. Some people go for something familiar, some go for something new. Some people already know what they want before even seeing the menu. Some people read every single damn item in the Chinese restaurant menu, all 450 items, and then ask you "what are you having?". You will note that the same people consistently exhibit the same pattern.

      The key thing is that this unconscious decision that over time has become part of a person's 'programming', so day-to-day they will default to that behaviour. But if that behaviour is noted and challenged they are capable of changing it. Hence people DO have free will, but many times do not demonstrate it because their brain is working 'on automatic'

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: their brain is working 'on automatic'

        Well, what's the point of having a large and complex brain if you can't (if you so prefer) spawn a subprocess to deal with choosing items off a menu? Maybe there are other things to concentrate your fully conscious mind on - like social interaction, or whatever other priorities you might have.

        Quite a lot of what I do is managed by un- or semi-conscious bits of my body or brain. Doesn't bother me at all. I think handling restaurant menus comes under the "semi-conscious" heading :-)

    2. Primus Secundus Tertius

      Re: Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?

      I thought, consciously or otherwise, that the brain does multi-threading on a large scale.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Mike Bell

    “The inability of the decider to predict her decision beforehand holds whether the decision-making process is deterministic or not”.

    As I understood it, the correct word to use in that sentence is the neutral 'their' and it was only when wossisface decided to create a dictionary for the English language that it was decided to impose the male term 'his' instead for what were regarded at the time as 'politically correct' reasons. It can be quite irritating to be reading stuff which is meant to be talking in general terms but which persistently ignores the fact that the person carrying out the described actions might just be of ones own gender, y'know. I'm as against political correctness for PC's sake as most, in most cases, but this is one case where I happily support the modern effort to redress the balance.

    Besides, (donning fire-proofs), thinking about it, as us women tend to do more communicating than men, why the heck do you blokes think you own the language?! :-)

    1. Mike Bell


      As I understand it, 'their' is an acceptable alternative to the use of 'his' in this context. Its use is not, however, any more correct than 'his'. I'm not a fan, since it usually refers to multiple people rather than an individual.

      I'm sorry that you feel ignored when writers use a word that, by definition, pertains to an unspecified sex. But to tell the truth, the writer isn't talking about you, or even your sex, so you are bringing something to the party that doesn't exist.

      The next time you see a group of girls out on the lash calling themselves, collectively, 'Guys', perhaps you'd like to think about who owns the English language. It's no more men than women.

      I'm putting my own fire-proofs on now: the origin of the word 'Woman' is Wife + Man.

      1. Kubla Cant

        He/his, she/her, they/their

        While "his" has the endorsement of grammar Nazis, "her" is espoused by the politically correct, and "their" has the overwhelming backing of popular usage, it's odd that all these groups would probably object to "it" and "its" to indicate a person of unspecified gender. In most cases it would be clear enough from the context that the referend was not inanimate.

        1. ~mico

          Re: He/his, she/her, they/their

          I use "one's" in such cases. But that's only because English is not my native language.

      2. t.est

        @Mike Bell

        "the origin of the word 'Woman' is Wife + Man."

        Not really, the real origin should be "Female" + "Man". Though Wikipedia etc says female human, and they are partly correct as "man" has also been used as "human", also in modern language, e.g. mankind, referring to the specimen as whole including females.

        But it's not Wife + Man. You could also consider the biblical view in how it has influenced the evolving languages. Where the woman is made out of a man's rib, where you could consider the meaning of man to both refer to the male man an to the species of "man".

        That's what has influenced at least the languages of the western and mideast countries. I can't say how it is in asian or native american languages.

        Furthermore you see the same structure when you consider the word's "male" and "female", were "female" is based on the word "male".

        So to conclude if you want to refer to the other gender in a way that is not involving the opposite gender, you better start calling them aliens instead or maybe venuses, or simply invent a new word. For my sake, I happily follow the traditions where the female gender is included in the meaning of "man". That way a woman is privileged, as they have a word that describes only them specifically, while man refers to man of any gender.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Men they may have many faults

      Women have but two

      Everything they say

      And everything they do.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    confused, moi?

    I'm sorry, but I read the article twice, very very carefully - but while I understand each sentence individually, I am not sure how they together logically address whether we have free will.

    1. Marvin the Martian

      Re: confused, moi?

      It may come as a surprise, but philosophy is an actual field of research... After reading a one-page writeup on Fermat's last theorem and the proof thereof, do you expect to understand how elliptic functions tie to diophantine equations? No. You cannot hope to get more from a sketch like this than an idea of what direction the researcher is digging in.

      This holds for most fundamental research (stamp collecting needs no such depth), although sometimes the difficult bits are easy to gloss over in a writeup.

    2. Paul Kinsler

      Re: confused, moi?

      I once read some Bertrand Russell, and had to read each sentence twice in order to understand it and its in-context meaning. Some time you just have to keep banging the (mental) rocks together and hope it eventually becomes clear.

      But if you'd prefer a more IT angle, why not try this instead?

      "When does a physical system compute?"

  7. cheveron

    quantum non-determinism

    I assume that if the universe is non-deterministic at the quantum level, then we have free will. Probably just not very much.

    1. David Pollard

      Re: quantum non-determinism

      John Conway and Simon Kochen had a similar perspective when they came up with the first version of their Free Will Theorem:

      "Do we really have free will, or, as a few determined folk maintain, is it all an illusion? We don’t know, but will prove in this paper that if indeed there exist any experimenters with a modicum of free will, then elementary particles must have their own share of this valuable commodity."

    2. breakfast Silver badge

      Re: quantum non-determinism

      Given that quantum events happen at a quantum level and are very predictable at any larger level and that their variability is truly random, then it only really means that we have free will at a sub-atomic level and that free will means the same as unpredictable behaviour.

      How would free will of that nature be useful?

      1. Bounty

        Re: quantum non-determinism

        "Given that quantum events happen at a quantum level and are very predictable at any larger level and that their variability is truly random, then it only really means that we have free will at a sub-atomic level and that free will means the same as unpredictable behaviour.

        How would free will of that nature be useful?"

        Because, watching a monkey type in "1" over and over again as input to a very complex program would be very boring. Let the money put in truly random numbers and it might be entertaining.

    3. Gordon 11

      Re: quantum non-determinism

      I assume that if the universe is non-deterministic at the quantum level, then we have free will

      No - that just makes things non-deterministic.

      Free will means that what you think/choose can affect the outcome. So, if you believe in multi-verses, the version of you that thought "yes" goes off down one path while the version that thought "no" goes off down another. But they can't contact each other, so can never detect this.

      Which is part of the problem. Whether you do or do not have free will won't affect what you actually do as it can't be detected since to do so means you have to predict the future, then change it, at which point did you change things, or was your prediction wrong? Just like Gődel's theorem says, some things are unprovable...accept it and get on with life.

  8. Chris Miller

    As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

    Human consciousness cannot simply be equivalent to a Turing machine, for if it were, we would not be able to understand Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. See "The Emperor's New Mind" (1989), et al.

    [Note that, contrary to the attacks of the strong AI crowd, this does not imply that consciousness cannot be achieved by a machine. Only that the machine would necessarily involve some non-algorithmic processing.]

    1. Julian Bradfield

      Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

      Gawd. There should be a licence required to use the name of Gödel.

      Penrose may have been a decent physicist, but as a logician he's what we in the trade call a "crackpot".

      The incompleteness theorems say nothing at all about understanding, because understanding is not a mathematical concept. They merely say that any (suitably powerful and well-behaved) mathematical theory has things it can't prove. The incompleteness theorems themselves are NOT things that the system can't prove: they are proved in ordinary logic, and are no harder to understand than many other theorems.

      1. Chris Miller

        Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

        You need to read the book(s). I suspect Sir Roger may know just as much and maybe even a teeny bit more about Gödel than you do.

        Gödel shows that there are always true theorems that cannot be proved within a certain set of constraints of a particular set of axioms. Yet we can see they are true (otherwise there would be no contradiction). A purely algorithmic system would be unable to do this (by the theorem). Therefore we are not purely algorithmic systems.

        But, as I say, for a complete explanation you need to read the book (and the associated academic papers).

        1. Julian Bradfield

          Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

          I did read the book. It's unlikely that Penrose knows more about Gödel's theorem than I do - it's not his field, and it is mine. Your (vague) statement of the incompleteness theorem is incorrect, and your `argument' fails in the second line, because we can't see that the Gödel sentence is true - we can only see that either the Gödel sentence is true, or the theory is inconsistent. (The proof of incompleteness takes a theory T, constructs its Gödel sentence G, and then says EITHER G is true (and hence unprovable in T, because G says "G is not provable in T") OR G is false (in which case it is provable in T, and so T is inconsistent). Given any particular theory, we can't tell which of those is the case, because we have no way of determining whether a theory is consistent (except by using a different theory, which we then can't prove consistent...).

          The formal statement of the theorem doesn't mention "truth" at all, because can't be pinned down in any reasonably powerful theory. It simply says there is a statement such neither the statement nor its negation can be proved by the theory.

          So if you want to argue that humans are more powerful than computers, you need a more refined argument than that.

    2. Roj Blake Silver badge

      Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

      And as Daniel Dennett pointed out at around the same time, consciousness is chaotic and uses natural selection to get stuff done, but is still essentially deterministic (see Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea).

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Interesting PoV.

    So the only way to decide what your decision is going to be is to actually apply all the logic and then make the decision.

    Nothing less will do.


  10. AlexV

    Free from what, exactly?

    "Free will" is rather poorly defined. In this article, it seems to be predicated on unpredictability. It's unclear why being unpredictable is any useful indicator of will, free or otherwise. An unstable double pendulum is unpredictable, but that doesn't make it have free will by any useful definition.

    1. Francis Boyle

      Re: Free from what, exactly?

      Exactly. The (hidden) premise seems to be an evolution of the wobbly old idea that quantum indeterminacy can somehow provide a physical basis for free will (as if being driven by a random number generator in the brain looks anything like freedom).

      The thing is, I'm most free when I can act in ways that are meaningful to me and those ways tend to be easily predictable by anyone who knows me. Of course, maybe free will isn't the same thing as personal freedom but if it isn't I don't know what it is bar a meaningless theological concept.

    2. Paul Kinsler

      Re: "Free will" is rather poorly defined.

      Physical models explicitly disallow free will. The most free-will-like thing they can do is add in some statistical uncertainty to either the initial conditions or the dynamics; and then consider this uncertainty to be a proxy for whatever free-will might be. Note that chaos cannot help here, since it is still strictly deterministic, although it can be a handy way of making things more complicated when constructing a pseudo free-will fr your models.

      How do you build a mathematical (or physical) predictive model of something with free-will? The notion of a predictive model of free-will is an oxymoron. If I've got a good model, the decisions no longer look free, they are just consequences of the state of the system. Hence, there are (can be) no predictive models of free-will.

      Hence the article's focus on "practical unpredictability" -- i.e. "we cannot in-principle predict in advance" -- as a way of assessing the likelihood of free-will being present. It's about as close as we can (currently) get to understanding free-will.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Free from what, exactly?

      The question is whether our brains are just very complicated, but squishy, computers. In which case, the structure determines each decision we make - and so although we may think we're deciding things - actually we're not. That decision was built into the system. Thus with sufficiently complex modelling, you could entirely predict our brain output.

      I'm not sure if this debate is even worth having yet, seeing as we don't really understand how the brain works. Although I guess there's an argument to be made that it doesn't matter how many interactions there are between the chemical and electrical bits and bobs, so long as you can model it you can predict it.

      I'd have thought the brain would be a chaotic system though, given how complex it is, and that bits of it work in several different ways, often simultaneously. But to be honest, all this makes my brain ache. And I'm sure you could have predicted in advance that I'd say that...

      1. AlexV

        Re: Free from what, exactly?

        The point, however, is more fundamental than this. It doesn't matter how the brain works in practice, or whether it can be, even in principle, actually predicted or not.

        Why does whether it is predictable or not make any difference as to whether it is 'free will'? What is the difference between thinking we are deciding things, and actually deciding them?

        Without a workable definition of what you mean 'will' to be 'free' of or from, there's very little that can meaningfully be discussed about it. You can start from the other side, what would non-free will be? If all you can say is that non-free will is that where by you could not have made any other decision, then the question becomes, under what circumstances? There is the decision that you actually made, that can clearly not be changed.

        If circumstances had been different, could you have made a different decision? I think that's trivially obviously true. If I decide to have a picnic, if circumstances were different and it was raining, could I have decided not to have a picnic? Or if my state of mind was different and I just didn't feel like one? I don't think anyone would argue otherwise. If circumstances including state of mind were identical, could I still have had some random probability of swinging either way? Possibly, though untestably - but would having some random element to your decisions outside of your awareness or control make you *more* 'free'?

        There is no special time dependence about this either. The decision that you did make can't be changed. No more so can the decision that you will make. Tomorrow, you will decide either to go on a picnic, or not. You may change your mind several times before then, and it may be impossible to know in advance which way you will decide, but there is only one true answer to what the decision you make will be - even if no-one knows what it is.

        This gets a bit squidgy if you believe in multiple worlds/timestreams such that you believe that you will, in fact, make both decisions. I think under those circumstances you need to have a bit of a think about identity and what you consider to be *you*. If both the picnic-goer and the non-picnic-goer are both *you*, then that opens a whole great big can of worms that I don't even want to touch here. At a bare minimum, you should live your life in a constant state of abject terror because something extremely horrible is guaranteed to happen to at least one of 'you' very shortly, even if the overwhelming majority of 'you' are in happier timelines.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Free from what, exactly?


          To quote from 'The Terminator', "the future is not set". Although of course it turns out that it is. Ooops.

          But just because the past cannot be changed, doesn't necessarily mean that the future can't be. Although this then presents fun problems if it turns out that time travel is possible.

          If there's a picnic planned tomorrow, it doesn't have to happen. I can change my mind several times, and the question is then is the picnic decision already decided for me, before I get to make it. I don't see any evidence that it is. That seems to be a circular argument that because my mind is predictable, then the outcome is predictable. But if intelligence isn't predictable, then neither is the universe, assuming it has intelligence in it - as that intelligence can change the universe.

          So as far as I can see, we're back to where we started. Is the brain basically following a pattern, or are we actually thinking inside here? To some extent it doesn't matter I guess. If, 'I think - therefore I am', then why not, 'I think I influence whether there is a picnic or not - therefore I do'?

          1. AlexV

            Re: Free from what, exactly?

            If you think the future can be 'changed', what is it being changed from? Something is going to happen at 10:00am tomorrow. You don't know what it is for sure. No-one knows for sure what it is. It may even be fundamentally physically impossible to know for sure, even granted perfect knowledge of the entire state of the universe at this snapshot moment in time.

            But just because it is unknown, doesn't mean that it can change. To change, there must be at least two states, and it must at one time be in one state, and at another time be in another state. The thing we are talking about is just one single instant in time, specifically 10:00am tomorrow. It can't change because there is only one state, and no time elapsed. There may be many possibilities for what might happen, but only one will turn out to have been the one that actually does.

            The picnic is planned for tomorrow. It may or may not happen, you may change your mind several times. It hasn't been decided for you; you are the one deciding. There is, however, only one final decision that you will make about it. Any decision you make before then isn't the final one, by definition. The question you seem to be asking is, can you change what your final decision will be? Again, the problem here is 'change' it from what? From what you, or anyone else, thought it probably would be, before you made it? Sure, of course, but that's not changing it from what it actually will be.

            For your final point, is the brain following a pattern, or are we actually thinking? What would you consider to be the distinction?

            1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

              Re: Free from what, exactly?


              In which case, I think we agree, I just misunderstood your earlier post to say that we were unable to make a decision. Sure, I can happily agree that once things have happened, they stay happened. Unless someone discovers a way around even that...

              At the point that our picnic happens, the fact can no longer be changed. But if we're talking about free will vs. a deterministic system we still get to decide whether to picnic or not to picnic.

              1. AlexV

                Re: Free from what, exactly?


                At the point the picnic happens, it can no longer be changed? What is special about that point? At time t, the picnic happens. At time t-1, the picnic will happen in 1. At time t+1 the picnic happened 1 ago. Your point of observation moved from t-1, when you did not know for sure if it would happen or not, to t, when you were enjoying a nice hamper of goodies on the grass, to t+1, when you know it happened. What changes is your knowledge about the event, not the event itself.

                This is true whether or not, at t-1, your final decision on whether or not to have the picnic rested on a dice roll or on working through a algorithmic set of calculations.

                To be clear, I'm not asserting that we don't have free will. I'm saying that, trying to think it through, the concept doesn't appear to mean anything...

                1. AlexV

                  Re: Free from what, exactly?

                  It occurs to me that I may have come across slightly negative in my posts on this thread. For balance, then, here are some more positive assertions that still square with my arguments above. In my opinion:

                  * You exist. By any sensible definition, you are a thinking, concious, sapient being.

                  * Your choices and actions matter - to you, and to others who in turn matter to you.

                  * You will not be forced into an unwelcome future by some ineffable force of destiny. (By society, your parents, and peers - now there's a different matter!)

                  * No-one knows for sure what the future holds. Enjoy the surprises!

                  1. ~mico

                    Re: Free from what, exactly?

                    @AlexV, the answer is both simple and complex.

                    Simple answer: Free from strict causality.

                    Complex answer: Not having free will simplifies lots of currently intractable physics paradoxes. Grandfather paradox of time travel? No problem, this was set to happen since Big Bang, and is not more paradoxical than that bang itself. Quantum entanglement? No problem, the tests carried on entangled particles were entangled as well, since the experimenters were pre-determined to carry out those exact measurements they did.

                    Having free will means we're (potentially) free from limitations imposed by our own laws and theorems we discovered: halting problem, Godel's incompleteness theorem, etc. Having it means also, that brain can never be replaced/simulated by a Turing machine, because it is a hypercomputer.

                    Also, there's an ethical distinction. Not having free will, a murderer will still stand trial and punishment (because his judges and executioners have no free will in the matter as well), but he shouldn't be considered any more guilty than the knife or gun he used.

        2. t.est

          Re: Free from what, exactly?

          Let me try a quick definition of free will.

          The ability to break ("free") from what is already known. As an extension maybe add "to something yet unknown".

          As an example, some of you may have a habit of having a morning coffee at 9am. The ability to break that pattern should be free will in action.

          You may be influenced to break that pattern in different ways, but these are not deciders. As you can also break free from being influenced when you know you are influenced.

          As someone pointed out earlier, we behave in a certain way, when we become conscious about that behaviour we can change it. So in the end, its all about self programming. Our brain is as a computer running a software, a software that is self conscious that can manipulate the results at any given moment.

          Thinking about this in this way leads me to that free will is a function of consciousness. We may have a decision made unconsciously, and that one may or may not be based on free will, but being able to break off from that decision that may or may not be based on patterns, that should be the essence of what we call free will.

      2. Kubla Cant

        Re: Free from what, exactly?

        @I ain't Spartacus: The question is whether our brains are just very complicated, but squishy, computers.

        Gilbert Ryle's phrase "the ghost in the machine" exposes the problem of thinking that we have anything beyond a squishy computer to work with. If you once accept that mental processes involve something beyond the physical then anything goes. Non-physical thought processes are as intrinsically likely as gods, fairies and flying spaghetti monsters.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Free from what, exactly?

          Kubla Cant,

          I'm happy to agree that our brains work on physical processes. Although weird ones, as we get to play with electricity and chemicals.

          I'm not up enough on my neuroscience to know how much of the thinking process we currently understand. But computers are a difficult analogy. Since our brains don't seem to work in the same way, and if we are conscious (whatever that actually means) then we can affect our own mental processes (programming?), thus adding to the fun and complication.

          At which point I don't see any necessary contradiction between free will/consciousness and not having to invent some sort of metaphysical process to explain everything.

          In the end, maybe it'll come down to the old game of I can't prove I exist, but since I think I do, I may as well get on with it, on that working assumption. Maybe the brain will be just too complex to predict, even if we think it's theoretically merely a mechanism following a set path.

  11. b0llchit Silver badge

    Outsourcing your decision

    If you are married, then you surely do not have any form of free will left.

    Whether or not anything then gets decided is not bound by traditional physics. Counterpart logic defies all rules and is either made by an Executive Decision Maker, or with tears no one can explain either.

    1. Forget It

      Re: Outsourcing your decision

      If you are married, then you surely do not have any form of free will left.

      From 1st person to 2nd/3rd person perspective


      From consciousness to scientific perspective

      [pic of dog] caption we are not allowed to enter!

    2. t.est

      Re: Outsourcing your decision


      "If you are married, then you surely do not have any form of free will left.

      Whether or not anything then gets decided is not bound by traditional physics. Counterpart logic defies all rules and is either made by an Executive Decision Maker, or with tears no one can explain either."

      Unless you happen to be the woman in that marriage. Suddenly you have two wills you can control freely.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Too subjective

    Look at it this way. On the table in front of me is a glass of Malbec. I can either lift it and drink, or I can leave it where it is. Ignore the fact that leaving it would be sinful waste.

    I am certainly going to take one course or the other (although we should probably impose a time limit). Now consider the universe as a 4-dimensional continuum with three spatial dimensions and one of time. (Ignore the fact that there may be far more dimensions - this is philosophy not physics). Imagine the entire continuum from outside time, rather like a very big Caithness Glass paperweight. Peering into it, we can see whether I drink the wine or not. (There are severe difficulties with the tenses of verbs when doing this kind of thought experiment, as we are imagining that we step outside time to adopt a godlike perspective, but then we are compelled to go on using tenses because without them we have no language).

    So both propositions are true:

    1. Of the two alternative actions, I will do one and not the other (so that tomorrow all observers will agree which it was).

    2. I don't know, in advance, which I shall do.

    There is nothing contradictory about both those propositions being true at once. Perhaps more accurately, one could say the whole false dichotomy is an artifact of languages that were never designed to analyze the nature of reality so closely. Simplistic as it is, I think this explanation is compatible with TFA's argument.

    1. Paul Kinsler

      Re: nothing contradictory about both those propositions being true at once

      As I understand it (Seth Lloyd's paper), to determine whether or not you have free will or not you need a third proposition:

      3. It is physically possible that another (not-you) entity or system could have a model of you that reliably predicts your actions /before/ you so act [1].

      If this (3) is true, then you fail Seth Lloyd's "free-will" test; if false, you pass, and might have free will after all.

      [1] Note: A prediction generated using prior information, but without looking at the outcome, but which is calculated after you act, does not satisfy (3)

  13. CBN

    Am I allowed to say:

    So the decider is always a woman?

    Or is that sexist nowadays?

    Enquiring minds need to know...

    (But seriously, if you haven't got the balls (sheesh - sexist again!) to say "he" then why not just keep using "decider" instead of "she". "she" is just sexist positive-discrimination nonsense. And before you start - my boss is a woman and one of the best managers I've ever had. Then again, perhaps it's sexist to admit that...)

  14. Faye B

    To be or not to be

    Surely free will boils down to whether you adhere to the single time-line unverse or the multi-time-line universe. With a single time line each event follow on the from the previous in a cause and effect manner, meaning that any decision is predicated on previous events creating an undeniable influence on the thought process. So if we could step outside of time we would see all events in history already defined by this single timeline and hence every decision already made for us.

    To accept free will we would have to imagine a universe that can fork into two or more different futures at each decision, with each possible future extrapolating away from the decision point. This has been the subject of many a fiction novel, the 'what if' scenario, often leading to a resolution where the decision becomes irrelevant when it becomes clear that the same future state is obtained. One of the main difficulties with the multiverse idea is where all the energy would come from to generate each possible future for every person that ever lived and generating each universe into a separate reality, completely isolated from all other universes.

    The AI proponents argue that as each state of the brain, such as synaptic charge levels, hormonal balances, etc, is predicated on a previously existing state, much the same as a Turing machine can only move from one computation step to another in a predefined manner, then free will does not enter into the decision making process. As a crude example, I may think I have free will to decide to stop and have chocolate but in reality that decision has already been made by my body craving chocolate, my previous experience of eating chocolate and thus desiring it, and what my hormones are telling me would be a good thing to do. However, my initial decision can be totally countermanded by the fact that when I open my drawer I find I don't have any chocolate left! Cause and effect.

    Even if I consously override my initial, possibly sub-concious, decision, the decision to override my initial decision has already been predicated on previous states of my mind, due to previous cause and effect on the chemicals in my brain. Hence my free will decision has already been made for me by my brain.

  15. scrubber

    Basic failures

    In an article that has such pretentions then one cannot skim over such a basic assumptions as:

    "I" exist as a meaningful entity for a period of time great enough for "me" to make a decision. This is basically untrue as the very decision making process the system (commonly known as you) undertakes changes in subtle ways that very system and so "I" change as "I" cogitate, consciously or otherwise, about any options.

    "Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?" Yes, but is the I referred to here the conscious mind, or the complex, unseen, committee of brain parts that generally have a big neurological shouting match before your conscious self is even aware of it, by which point the decision has generally already been made and all your conscious mind can do is to rationalise the decision and/or punish/reward that decision to encourage less/more decisions to be made of that ilk.

    "Can I model and simulate – at least partially – my own behavior and that of other deciders?" Yes, but not very accurately. Unless one simulates the brain (and hormones and electrolytes and neurological pathways in the gut and blood sugar and ... etc.), in which case computing power could allow all your decisions to, potentially, be either perfectly predicted or statistically predicted (depending on whether QM uncertainty plays any part in the biochemical-neurological processes). If a computer can predict your decisions before you make them, then in what sense do you have 'free will'? Even if you cannot know what you will do as that feeds into an infinitely regressing feedback loop (which isn't necessarily true) then the fact outside observers can know in advance your precise actions and reactions (and potentially set up scenarios to push you to certain, known outcomes) means you are not free.

    Just because I can't see the predictions of my own behaviour beforehand does not make me free any more than my inability to see my opponents cards at poker makes them random.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Basic failures

      That all implies that the conscious mind can't overrule the subconscious. And I'm not sure that's true. Certainly from personal experience. Although even if it is, I don't know how you set about proving it...

      Certainly I make many decisions instantly, without conscious thought. But I've often changed decisions or opinions on reflection, as well as post-rationalising others - or just not thinking about it any more.

      But even here, you can program, or train yourself to react instantly in ways that you have decided beforehand. This is what sports and military training is all about. Now is that the subconscious instructing the conscious to train the subconscious? How would we prove it either way?

      My personal answer to this question is that I don't particularly like the idea of pre-determination. But it's a bloody hard question to answer. However, as we can't even say how the brain works physically, or even what is consciousness, we probably don't have sufficient information to hit the bigger questions just yet. If our actions are pre-determined, but we and the universe are too complex to predict, then I guess it doesn't really matter, and we can carry on with our illusion of free will perfectly happily.

      If we were ever able to predict ourselves beforehand, that might give us the option to try changing the outcome - and then we're into time travelling and prophecy paradoxes. That's why I prefer drinking to philosophy...

  16. breakfast Silver badge

    Freedom through ignorance

    I came up with almost exactly this theory in a Philosophy essay twenty years ago. I seem to recall my tutor at the time was unimpressed by what he termed "freedom through ignorance" but it's nice to see the idea popping up again, albeit far better expressed than my undergraduate ramblings could achieve. I still think it's as close as we're going to get to any kind of useful free will.

    The flipside is that given an omniscient observer, our actions would be entirely predictable ( indeed all one needs to have absolute determinism is to consider time as a direction ) but if they don't feel that way from the inside, then we're still acting and feeling as though we have free will, which I think is probably what free will actually is.

  17. Just_this_guy

    Read the T-shirt, dudes:

  18. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Am I a decider?

    How would I know? What is the definition of a decider?

    It would be interesting to work out the implications of Godel's theorems on completeness and inconsistency for reasoning about your own reasonsing processes.

    But then, I get confused easily.

  19. Lottie

    Does it matter?

    Really, the only folk who need to worry about having freewill are Prog- DJs

  20. poopypants

    I was going to comment

    but I decided not to.

    Oh wait...

  21. Primus Secundus Tertius

    Cogito ergo sum

    Brain: that with which we think we think - Ambrose Bierce, Devil' Dictionary. (But would we credit that to other people, especially certain other people?)

    A void said to a vacuum

    Cogito ergo sum (*)

    The vacuum stood up and winced

    And left the space it had not filled

    Completely unconviced..


    (*) I think, therefore I am.

  22. The Dude

    I picnic tomorrow and I picnic not. At the same time and in the same place.

    The picnic (or not) is as real as opening the box and seeing the state of the cat.

    Observation is decision.

  23. Neoc

    I, for one, welcome our new decision-making digital overlords.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It makes perfect sense.. that's why she cant make up her mind.. its a 'HER'!

    ... anonymous because my wife occasionally checks el reg when she hears me laughing from the bathroom.

  25. cortland

    So... where's the new RR Turing car?

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