IEET > Rights > Personhood > Fellows > Ben Goertzel > FreeThought
Will and Intention: Illusion and Reality
Ben Goertzel   Feb 12, 2010   Cosmist Manifesto  

Nietzsche said that free will is like the commander who takes responsibility, after the fact, for the actions of his troops.

Modern brain science has proved him remarkably on-target: Gazzaniga’s split-brain experiments, Libet’s work and a lot of other data shows that when we feel like we’re making a free spontaneous decision, very often there’s an unconscious brain process that has already made the decision beforehand.


So Are We All Just Automata?

So what does this mean? That we’re all just automata, deterministically doing what the physics of our brains tells us, while deluding ourselves it’s the result of some kind of mystical spontaneous conscious willing?

Not exactly.

Science’s capability to model the universe is wonderful yet limited. Contemporary science’s models of the universe in terms of deterministic and stochastic systems are not the universe itself, they’re just the best models we have right now.

The evidence clearly shows that our feeling of our “willed decisions” as being distinct, separate and detached from our unconscious dynamics, is often inaccurate.

But this does not imply that we’re deterministic automata in any simplistic sense.

It does imply that we’re more enmeshed in the universe than we generally realize—specifically, that our deliberative, reflective consciousness is more enmeshed with our unconscious dynamics than we generally realize.


Intentionality Beyond the Illusion of Will

Might there be some meaningful sense of intentional action that doesn’t equate with naive “free will”?

Yes, certainly.

But this meaningful sense of “intentional action” must encompass the enmeshed, complexly nonlinearly coupled nature of the mind and world.

I.e., it’s not intentional action on the part of the deliberative, reflective consciousness as a detached system.

It’s intentional action on the part of the cosmos, or a large hunk thereof, manifested in a way that focuses on one mind’s deliberative, reflective consciousness (perhaps among other foci).

The “intentionality” involved then has to do with the particular kind of patternment in the sequence of actions.

“Choice-like” action-sequences tend to involve reductions of uncertainty—reductions of “entropy” one might say ... collapses of wide ranges of options into narrower ranges.

When our deliberatively, reflectively conscious components play a focal role in an entropy-reducing dynamic in our local hunk of the cosmos, we feel like we’re enacting “free will.”

But rather than focusing on the erroneousness of some of our causal ascriptions related to the feeling of free will, why not focus on the joy of transcending one’s individual boundaries via experiencing unity with the larger entropy-reducing processes of which we sometimes form the focus?

This brief article is part of the overall Cosmist Manifesto.

Ben Goertzel
Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (


Free will according to a neuroscientist:

Free will according to a computer scientist:

Free will according to Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Free will according to philosophy:

Ahh, more of Goertzel’s wonderful “philosophy.”

“When our deliberatively, reflectively conscious components play a focal role in an entropy-reducing dynamic in our local hunk of the cosmos, we feel like we’re enacting “free will.”“

Whence morality, sir?

LMAO @ Kyle

You guys just crack me up!

Ben you remind me of Socrates, you give us these tasty morsels and then quickly vacate the Market Square leaving chaos and everyone to deliberate and deduce what you really mean. Come on, throw us another bone here.. Come on, I’ve read this three times now already!

You’d better watch out! There is a rebellious wave lingering that may just try to slip hemlock in your coffee. In fact it may be best if you eat only from tins from now on. All we need to do now is sit back and wait for Fritz to get all steamed up.

@ XiXiDu

Thanks for the links!

This might also be of interest: Brains as output/input devices

“Faced with novel situations, humans and most animals spontaneously increase their behavioural variability…

  Controlling external events: the input

  Thus, competitive success and evolutionary fitness of all ambulatory organisms rely critically on intact behavioral variability as an adaptive brain function. But relative freedom from environmental contingencies is a necessary, but most often not a sufficient criterion for such accomplishments. Tightly connected to the ability to produce variable behavior is the ability to use the effects of these behaviors to control the environment. The incoming stream of sensory information is noisy and fluctuates for any number of reasons. Any covariance between the behavioral variations and those of sensory input indicates that the latter are con-sequences of the behavior and can thus be controlled be the animal. This function is so paramount, that we humans express our delight over control of our envi-ronment (including other people) already as children, by e.g., shrieking in excitement when Daddy jumps after a “boo” or proudly presenting Mom with “look what I can do!”.”

“when we feel like we’re making a free spontaneous decision, very often there’s an unconscious brain process that has already made the decision beforehand.”

That unconscious brain process making a decision beforehand can be a deterministic process or can be a process guided by quantum mechanics. After all it is just another set of neurons, which can also be making the unconscious decision due to uncertain spikes.

In any case I would agree that these should be viewed in a different context when it comes to free will and intentions.

Idle curiosity question apropos of nothing. As you can see I’m living in the Far East right now and I’d love to know where the above picture was taken. It reminds me of so many little snaking, narrow streets I’ve seen here and in Japan.

What a Gish gallop

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