The Experience of Free Will Isn’t Free Will

Many people make the following argument in favor of free will:

I know I have it because I, and billions of other people in the world, experience having it every day.

This seems compelling enough, but there is a fundamental mistake being made here, and that’s the difference between experiencing something vs. that something actually being real.

It’s true that we all have Practical Free Will, which is the experience of having options and choosing from among them, but there is a fundamental difference between that and having the actual ability to affect the outcome.

People can have an experience of something we’ll call X that is very real, while X itself is not real at all. This is not a word game.

As an example every bit as powerful as choice, billions of people feel the presence of God in them on a daily basis. Ask them. Interview them. Hook them up to MRIs when they’re having a religious experience. Their brains are likely to light up like a Christmas Tree when talking about or feeling the presence of God, and that experience is every bit as real as something can get. But the God that they’re experiencing, I think most listeners will agree, is not real at all.

Another informative example is magic. Daniel Dennett does a brilliant bit about “real magic”, where he points out that real magic is not the supernatural kind, but instead the kind based on tricks and misdirection and failed perception. So basically, REAL magic is the kind that’s not real, and the kind of magic that’s real, meaning we can actually do it, is NOT REAL MAGIC.

Again, the concept at play here is the distinction between experience and reality. Real magic in this case is the sense of delight in seeing something appear or disappear when it should not have. It’s an experience, and it’s quite separate from the supernatural.

Importantly, two people can view a magic show and see two different things. If the person is superstitious and uneducated, like someone from the Middle Ages, they are likely to head straight to church after seeing the show and then call for the performer to be burned at the stake. Why? Because they just witnessed the supernatural. But if the audience member is a fellow magician from 2015, he will smile knowing the whole time that it was a trick.

Daniel Dennett has a great quote about consciousness, magic, and reality that fits well here, which he talked about in his “Illusion of Consciousness” TED Talk from 2003:

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Consciousness is not a miracle, and it isn’t magic. It’s a bunch of tricks. Just like real magic is not real magic, consciousness is a bunch of tricks in the brain.

Well, Practical Free Will, or the experience of choice, is like real magic in precisely this way. It’s extraordinary. It’s powerful. And it’s useful. And it should not be disrespected. But let us not mistake it for the real thing.

There are things that experiences can give us, and there are things that only reality can give us. The difference between real magic and supernatural magic today is that if one needs to move the Statue of Liberty in real life they cannot call David Copperfield to do it, even though he demonstrated exactly that live on stage in front of hundreds of people.

And the difference between the experience of free will vs. actually having it is even more significant, as the experience of free will can provide a feeling of freedom and autonomy, but it cannot give us moral responsibility, which is the whole reason the topic is important.

Moral responsibility is the justification of blame or punishment, and it hinges 100% on the belief that the person in question had multiple options and willfully chose the wrong one. The mistake being made here is confusing the experience of having that option, vs. actually having it.

Outcomes depend on inputs, and when it comes to human choice the inputs are our genetics and our surroundings—neither of which we control. So while we clearly have the ability to experience having choices, we cannot truly control which choice we will make.

The experience of free will is not the same as free will. We have the former, and we don’t have the latter. And because we are not able to choose otherwise than we do, for any given decision, we have no solid ground on which to base moral responsibility.


  1. Image from the game Choice of Robots.

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