Freedom of Will and Political Action


Without freedom of will, human beings could not make choices, let alone “good” or “bad” ones. Without freedom of will there would be no point in arguing about political philosophies, for — as the song says — whatever will be, will be.

This post examines freedom of will from the vantage point of indeterminacy. Instead of offering a direct proof of freedom of will, I suggest that we might as well believe as if and act as though we possess it, given our inability to delve the depths of the physical universe or the human psyche.

Why focus on indeterminacy? Think of my argument as a variant of Pascal’s wager, which can be summarized as follows:

Even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

Whatever its faults — and it has many — Pascal’s wager suggests a way out of an indeterminate situation.

The wager I make in this post is as follows:

  • We cannot discern the deepest physical and psychological truths.
  • Therefore, we cannot say with certainty whether we have freedom of will.
  • We might as well act as if we have freedom of will; if we do not have it, our (illusory) choices cannot make us worse off, but if we do have it our choices may make us better off.

The critical word in the conclusion is “may.” Our choices may make us better off, but only if they are wise choices. It is “may” which gives weight to our moral and political choices. The wrong ones can make us worse off; the right ones, better off.


Our Inherent Limitations as Humans

I begin with the anthropic principle, which (as summarized and discussed here),

refers to the idea that the attributes of the universe must be consistent with the requirements of our own existence.

In fact, there is no scientific reason to believe that the universe was created in order that human beings might exist. From a scientific standpoint, we are creatures of the universe, not its raison d’etre.

The view that we, the human inhabitants of Earth, have a privileged position is a bias that distorts our observations about the universe. Philosopher-physicist-mathematician Nick Bostrom explains the bias:

[T]here are selection effects that arise not from the limitations of some measuring device but from the fact that all observations require the existence of an appropriately positioned observer. Our data is [sic] filtered not only by limitations in our instrumentation but also by the precondition that somebody be there to “have” the data yielded by the instruments (and to build the instruments in the first place). The biases that occur due to that precondition … we shall call … observation selection effects….

Even trivial selection effects can sometimes easily be overlooked:

It was a good answer that was made by one who when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods,—‘Aye,’ asked he again, ‘but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?’ And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by. (Bacon 1620)

When even a plain and simple selection effect, such as the one that Francis Bacon comments on in the quoted passage, can escape a mind that is not paying attention, it is perhaps unsurprising that observation selection effects, which tend to be more abstruse, have only quite recently been given a name and become a subject of systematic study.

The term “anthropic principle” … is less than three decades old. There are, however, precursors from much earlier dates. For example, in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one can find early expressions of some ideas of anthropic selection effects. Some of the core elements of Kant’s philosophy about how the world of our experience is conditioned on the forms of our sensory and intellectual faculties are not completely unrelated to modern ideas about observation selection effects as important methodological considerations in theory-evaluation, although there are also fundamental differences. In Ludwig Boltzmann’s attempt to give a thermodynamic account of time’s arrow …, we find for perhaps the first time a scientific argument that makes clever use of observation selection effects…. A more successful invocation of observation selection effects was made by R. H. Dicke (Dicke 1961), who used it to explain away some of the “large-number coincidences”, rough order-of-magnitude matches between some seemingly unrelated physical constants and cosmic parameters, that had previously misled such eminent physicists as Eddington and Dirac into a futile quest for an explanation involving bold physical postulations.

The modern era of anthropic reasoning dawned quite recently, with a series of papers by Brandon Carter, another cosmologist. Carter coined the term “anthropic principle” in 1974, clearly intending it to convey some useful guidance about how to reason under observation selection effects….

The term “anthropic” is a misnomer. Reasoning about observation selection effects has nothing in particular to do with homo sapiens, but rather with observers in general…

We humans, as the relevant observers of the physical world, can perceive only those patterns that we are capable of perceiving, given the wiring of our brains and the instruments that we design with the use of our brains. Because of our inherent limitations, the limitations that our limitations impose on our instruments, and the inherent limitations of the instruments, we may never be able to see all that there is to see in the universe, even in that part of the universe which is close at hand.

We may never know, for example, whether physical laws change or remain the same in all places and for all time. We may never know (as a matter of scientific observation) how the universe originated, given that its cause(s) (whether Divine or otherwise) may lie outside the boundaries of the universe.

Implications for the Physical Sciences

It follows that the order which we find in the universe may bear no resemblance to the real order of the universe. It may simply be the case that we are incapable of perceiving certain phenomena and the physical laws that guide them, which — for all we know — may change from place to place and time to time.

A good case in point involves the existence of God, which many doubt and many others deny. The doubters and deniers are unable to perceive the existence of God, whereas many believers claim that they can do so. But the inability of doubters and deniers to perceive the existence of God does not disprove God’s existence, as an honest doubter or denier will admit.

It is trite but true to say that we do not know what we do not know; that is, there are unknown unknowns. Given our limitations as observers, the universe likely contains many unknown unknowns that will never become known unknowns.

Given our limitations, we must make do with our perceptions of the universe. Making do means that we learn what we are able to learn (imperfectly) about the universe and its components, and we then use our imperfect knowledge to our advantage wherever possible. (A crude analogy occurs in baseball, where a batter who doesn’t understand why a curveball curves is nevertheless able to hit one.)


The tautologous assumption that individuals act in such a way as to maximize their happiness tells us nothing about political or economic outcomes. (The assumption remains tautologous despite altruism, which is nothing more than another way of enhancing the happiness of altruistic individuals.) We can know nothing about the likely course of political and economic events until we know something about the psychological drives that shape those events. Even if we know something (or a great deal) about psychological drives, can we ever know enough to say that human behavior is (or is not) deterministic? The answer I offer here is “no.”

A Conflict of Visions

Economic and political behavior depends greatly on human psychology. For example, Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, posits two opposing visions: the unconstrained vision (I would call idealism) and the constrained vision (which I would call realism). At the end of chapter 2, Sowell summarizes the difference between the two visions:

The dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is based on whether or not inherent limitations of man are among the key elements included in each vision…. These different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war.

Thus, in chapter 5, Sowell writes:

The enormous importance of evolved systemic interactions in the constrained vision does not make it a vision of collective choice, for the end results are not chosen at all — the prices, output, employment, and interest rates emerging from competition under laissez-faire economics being the classic example. Judges adhering closely to the written law — avoiding the choosing of results per se — would be the analogue in law. Laissez-faire economics and “black letter” law are essentially frameworks, with the locus of substantive discretion being innumerable individuals.

By contrast,

those in the tradition of the unconstrained vision almost invariably assume that some intellectual and moral pioneers advance far beyond their contemporaries, and in one way or another lead them toward ever-higher levels of understanding and practice. These intellectual and moral pioneers become the surrogate decision-makers, pending the eventual progress of mankind to the point where all can make moral decisions.

Digging Deeper

Sowell’s analysis is enlightening, but not comprehensive. The human psyche has many more facets than political realism and idealism. Consider the “Big Five” personality traits:

In psychology, the “Big Five” personality traits are five broad factors or dimensions of personality developed through lexical analysis. This is the rational and statistical analysis of words related to personality as found in natural-language dictionaries.[1] The traits are also referred to as the “Five Factor Model” (FFM).

The model is considered to be the most comprehensive empirical or data-driven enquiry into personality. The first public mention of the model was in 1933, by L. L. Thurstone in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Thurstone’s comments were published in Psychological Review the next year.[2]

The five factors are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN, or CANOE if rearranged). Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the Openness factor, which is sometimes called “Intellect.” [3] Each factor consists of a cluster of more specific traits that correlate together. For example, extraversion includes such related qualities as sociability, excitement seeking, impulsiveness, and positive emotions.

The “Big Five” model is open to criticism, but even assuming its perfection we are left with an unpredictable human psyche. For example, I tested myself (here), with the following results:

Extraversion — 4th percentile
Agreeableness — 4th percentile
Conscientiousness — 99th percentile
Emotional stability — 12th percentile
Openness — 93rd percentile

(NOTE: “Emotional stability” is also called “neuroticism,” “a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.” My “neuroticism” doesn’t involve anxiety, except to the extent that I am super-conscientious and, therefore, bothered by unfinished business. Nor does it involve depression or vulnerability. But I am easily angered by incompetence, stupidity, and carelessness. There is far too much of that stuff in the world, which explains my low scores on “extraversion” and “agreeableness.” “Openness” measures my intellectual openness, of course, and not my openness to people.)

I daresay that anyone else who happens to have the same scores as mine (which are only transitory) will have arrived at those scores by an entirely different route. That is, he or she probably differs from me on many of the following dimensions: age, race, ethic/genetic inheritance, income and education of parents and self, location of residence, marital status, number and gender of children (if any), tastes in food, drink, and entertainment. The list could go on, but the principle should be obvious: There is no accounting for psychological differences, or if there is, the accounting is beyond our ken.

Is everyone with my psychological-genetic-demographic profile a radical-right-minarchist like me? I doubt it very much. But even if that were so, it would be impossible to collect the data to prove it, whereas the (likely) case of a single exception would disprove it.

A Caveat, of Sorts

There is something in the human psyche that seems to drive us toward statism. What that says about human nature is almost trite: Happiness — for many humans — involves neither not wealth-maximization or liberty. It involves attitudes that can be expressed as “safety in numbers,” “going along with the crowd,” and “harm is worse than gain.” And it involves the political manipulation of those attitudes in the service of a drive that is not universal but which can dominate events, namely, the drive to power.


The preceding caveat notwithstanding, I have made the case that I set out to make:

We might as well act as if we have freedom of will; if we do not have it, our (illusory) choices cannot make us worse off, but if we do have it our choices may make us better off.

In fact, the caveat points to the necessity of acting as if we have freedom of will. Only by doing so can we hope to overcome the psychological tendencies that cause us political and economic harm. For those tendencies are just that — tendencies. They are not iron rules of conduct. And they have been overcome before.