Free Will’s Absurdist Paradox

Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910

Philosophers and scientists have been debating the concept of free will for centuries. While there are many nuances and subtleties, there are generally three main positions.

  • Libertarian Free Will is the idea that we have a completely free will that is not significantly determined by our makeup or our surroundings. Basically, our choices are our own, and physics and environment might have an influence but don’t ultimately determine anything. Most modern believers in Libertarian free will believe in a supernatural God that gave them this freedom.

  • Compatibilists believe the world is deterministic—meaning that outcomes are ultimately determined by a set of initial conditions combined with the laws of physics (which likely include randomness). But they believe we can still have free will within this deterministic framework, i.e., they believe free will is compatible with determinism.

  • Incompatibilists also believe the universe is deterministic, but they believe that a world constrained in this way offers no room for a free will.

Most people actively debating this topic today have long rejected the Libertarian possibility and are therefore discussing what’s possible within a deterministic framework that both the compatibilists and incompatibilists agree is true.

This brings us to why we care at all, and continue to discuss the matter, which inevitably reduce to questions of morality.

Compatibilists have a number of powerful arguments on their side.

  1. We experience choice, therefore we have it

  2. The kind of free will that we experience is the only kind that’s possible, so we should stop thinking about the kinds that are impossible due to Determinism (Daniel Dennett)

  3. We cannot, as humans, practically live as if we don’t have free will

  4. Believing we have free will is useful to us as a society because if we told people they didn’t have free will they would stop behaving morally

  5. The model of humans making choices is the most useful way to describe what happens in the real world on a day to day basis (Chris Meyers)

Incompatibilists have their points as well.

  1. If we agree that Determinism is true, and that we don’t control the universe or the laws of physics, then it’s not possible to control any higher-level phenomenon either

  2. If you could not have done otherwise for any previous decision (because Determinism is true) then you also cannot do otherwise for your next decision

  3. Just because we experience making choices doesn’t mean that’s happening. We also experience the color red, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, and these things don’t exist independently from being experienced by someone

  4. We have already show in numerous studies that humans can be made to think that they made a decision on their own when the outcome was externally generated, and the human can’t tell the difference

  5. Believing in free will justifies the concepts of reward, blame, and punishment, and negates any requirement to explore the physical, biological, and environmental causes of undesirable behavior

Until a couple of years ago I listed myself firmly among the Incompatibilsts.

It seems obvious to me that once a choice was made in the past—in a mechanistic world—then each outcome unfolds the only way it could have gone. And since we’re talking about determinism, we don’t have any control of the variables. From there it’s an easy move to see that all your future choices are exactly the same.

That’s open and closed for me, and it’s why I’m still also an Incompatibilist.

I say “also” because Incompatibilism isn’t enough. What I’ve come to learn is that the problem with Incompatibilism is not that it’s wrong, but that it’s incomplete. It insists on prioritizing the abstracted world of quarks, atoms, and molecules, instead of the human world we actually live in.

And that’s the point some Compatibilists have been making all along. Here’s a great example by Marvin Edwards.

This passage is the most powerful attack on Incompatibiism that I’ve ever seen. Of course the configuration of the universe is actually responsible for those trees coming down! Of course the human is just a configuration of quarks! And of course the person who removed the trees had no free will! As it turns out though, this “reality” usually doesn’t matter in a world where humans build houses and need trees to feed families.

But as strong as this argument is, it still doesn’t make me want to be a Compatibilist, and nor should it for anyone else. Compatibilism would be fine if it were just saying, “We know free will doesn’t exist, but we think we should mostly behave as if it does”.

Compatibilism would be more correct if they were just saying that we should behave as if we have free will even though we don’t. But that’s not what they’re saying.

What they’re saying is that free will is compatible with determinism. It’s the actual definition of Compatibilism. They’re saying we actually have free will.

And that’s precisely what leads us to this paradox. Incompatibilism is not false, but rather—incompatible with practical human existence. And Compatibilism is technically flawed because we cannot have chosen otherwise in a deterministic world. So what we’re left with is—quite literally—an Absurd human existence.

Examples from human experience

The best way to see this is to imagine all the real-world situations that break either the Compatibilist or Incompatibilist narratives, and demand a new model in their place.

  • You feel like you haven’t been trying hard enough to improve yourself, and while laying in bed you make a personal vow to get back into your projects and actively pursue your goals.

  • A man who’s tortured and killed multiple people in his life is shown in 2027 to have a set of genes that are associated with psychopathy, and he’s in the courtroom facing a judge and some of the victim’s families.

  • You tell a friend, or a colleague, that they should do x or y, instead of z.

In the first case, if you’re an Incompatibilist, why are you having an internal dialogue with yourself about improving your life? Who is talking to who? And since there is no free will, what exactly are you trying to change? Absurd.

Thanks to Sam Harris for first using this tumor vs. genes illustration to clearly illustrate the problem.

So we have a murderer who doesn’t have a giant tumor in his head, which would make it fairly obvious he was under a negative influence during his actions, but instead we find out that his genes themselves are tumors telling him to do the wrong thing, and he clearly didn’t pick those for himself. Absurd.

And finally we have the big one. The very concept of “should” is completely inert in a world where free will does not exist.

  • Why do we try to be better people?

  • Why do we dislike bad people?

  • Why do we try to create anything?

  • Why not lay in bed and wait for the universe to just happen?

As logically-minded Incompatibilists we simply must accept that believing there is no free will must invalidate the entire concept of “should”, including everything that comes with it.

Planning. Praise. Punishment—all these concepts pivot on the belief that there are options in human behavior.

This is how the Incompatibilist smashes into the paradox.

For logically-minded Compatibilists, the impact comes with the realization that you can’t hold people responsible for having brain tumors or bad genes that affect and control their behavior. And then extending that out to realize—in accordance with Determinism—that the entire world is just a large, comprehensive set of those constraints that we also don’t control.

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So think about where that leaves us as humans.

We’re speeding along on a molten rock, in the middle of vast emptiness, with the universe happening to us. We’re not making it happen. We’re observers. But because of the trick that evolution played on us, we experience our choices as if we made them.

This is the Absurdist Paradox of Free Will.

Just as Camus talked about with the lack of intrinsic meaning in the universe, and how we must live on despite that lack of meaning, we must also accept that we are not ultimately in control of anything in our lives.

The entire human endeavor—to survive, to interact, and to better ourselves—is unalterably immune to our choices and actions.

Thus, the debate between the Incompatibilists and Compatibilists ends unrewardingly in paradox. It’s not that one is right or one is wrong. They’re both wrong because they collide with either reality or life as a human being.

The reason the Compatibilist vs. Incompatibilist debate has continued without a victor is due to the foundational disconnect between reality and human experience.

And yet we must live on. We must rebel.

We must embrace the unique and beautiful experiences that we have as human beings, and pretend as if we are their authors. We must work to better ourselves despite knowing it’s all a charade.

Why must we do this? Why must we pretend?

Because knowingly pretending is our best option. We could lie in bed and do nothing. Or we could be murderous thieves because at some abstract level of reality there’s no such thing as pain and suffering.

But we live here—in this reality—in the world of the Absurd.

Here it does matter.

And here I choose to do my best.

Here I choose to fight.


  1. I think another interesting way to think about this is to imagine an enlightened thinker on this topic existing in a permanent quantum state of neither compatibilist nor incompatibilist. Day to day, we just are, without a particular charge. The difference is that with free will, there is no definite up or down to collapse to. The Absurdism of human existence in a physical world represents a permanent quantum state.

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