Stephen Hawking on Free Will

The Free Will Scale

symbols of justice and law on table of judge
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So, next comes my thoughts on the ‘Free Will Scale’. This largely comes from my experience as a human, combined with observing both the young and old.

Watching my now 1-year-old, I can see how completely free she is. She knows very few words, although understands us quite well now, but has no real knowledge of things around her. She’s experiencing the world for the first time and everything is ‘woooooooow, oooooooh, aaaaaaah!’

This is great to watch, and it is clear to see she isn’t bound by any real parameters. She wants to touch the hot oven, even if I say it is hot, she will touch the hot oven. After a few times of doing this (or less hopefully) she will form a belief in her mind. The belief will be something like, ‘If I touch this oven, my hand will hurt’. She might also form another with an association of me telling her what ‘hot’ is, and when it comes to her food learn that she needs to wait for me to say it is ok and blow on it. (this has all happened now, although sometimes she still wants to touch the hot oven) .

The short of it is, she still very much has a choice to touch the oven or not. One could argue that she is being controlled by her desires, and with the exception perhaps of some Pavlovian training you can’t control what you desire, however, I mentioned we should work within the system we have. This is much the same as my thoughts On Value in that without life, there is no value, but within the confines of life, there are things with intrinsic properties that add value, like science or medicine, regardless of if we personally value them and prefer things like faith healing and homeopathy.

We compare this [baby] to an adult, and they, or at least most, will do everything they can to avoid the pain of getting burned by an oven. They already have this driven into them at an instinctual level rather than it being a conscious thought, and even if they did think about it the thought ‘If I do that, I will get burned’ will jump out of their head.

We can apply this to many things, but it seems the less we know the free-er we are with our choices. Equally the older we get, the harder it is to learn new things and change our minds on topics.

If we accept that desire is part of our physiology, and often around things that will help us survive, even if you argue about how this makes everything ultimately determined, we can consider how we go about fulfilling that desire.

We consider trying a number of different foods, and we might eat them all but some of them we do not like the taste of. Our choice has become limited. We might find some we really love the taste of and focus on eating them. We might then learn a bit about nutrition and start balancing our diet having the things we like most occasionally, and the rest of the time eating things that are more healthy for us, for another desire, to live a long and healthy life. This desire is, in part, why we are eating the the first place.

black and white dairy cow s head
Photo by Jan Koetsier on

The more you look into this topic, the more limited your choice might become. You could consider the morality of the way animals are treated in farms or how overly unhealthy some foods are and decide never to eat them again. More choices might open up sometimes too, seeing a recipe online, hearing about new food, going on holiday and finding food you can’t even pronounce, but eventually, you will whittle away at this list and become more and more habitual till you it a watsit sandwich every lunch at 12.30 pm because that is lunchtime and what you have at lunch*.

*perhaps not that specific, but this is an anecdote of a family member.

Conflicting Desires

We sometimes have conflicting desires too. We might want to eat all the chocolate, but we might also want to lose weight. We could want to have sex with our attractive friend that is hitting on us whilst wasted, but we might also value their friendship and not want them to do something they will regret in the morning. I am sure you can think of many situations where you are processing clashes.

In these instances, you might spend a lot of time deliberating them in your mind, weighing them up, considering all factors, talking yourself in and out of both options and eventually coming to a conclusion. This to me, is you actively reflecting on your knowledge, experience, emotions, and desires to come to a conclusion in which you make a choice. This to me is showing a form of a free will.

There are two easy arguments to make against this, of course, the first being ultimately it was what you desired more won the battle in your head and it would have gone that way anyway, however, I think the process of reflecting on it actually is a bit of a feedback loop into what we desire, and we could even be acting against our immediate desires for something more long term.

The second is, if you wound back time, inclusive of your knowledge of events so that you had the same knowledge and experience at that point in time, would you have made a different decision? This is, of course, harder to answer. It starts with an ‘I don’t know’ and leads into an ‘I don’t think so’ to which many will say speaks for determinism. In some respects, I do agree.

I think that there are causal factors that influence our actions, and the more causal factors there are the more limited our choices become. I do think at times our brains are a little bit of an x-factor when it comes to things, especially if under the influence, and we do things that are against what all the causal factors predict – of course, someone would say that we just don’t know all the causal factors and I could say the same about the probabilistic nature of quantum particles. So again, I would take the more pragmatic approach with both of those and go along the lines that humans, like quantum particles, are more probabilistic in nature and sometimes do things we don’t predict. So whilst I think if we wound back time, the same thing would happen again, I don’t think things are pre-determined.

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