A new movie about free will, and it’s worth watching

February 12, 2023 • 10:50 am

It must have been at least two years ago when a group of young but eager filmmakers came to my lab in Chicago to spend several hours filming my lucubrations about free will for a movie they were making. I didn’t hear much about the project after that, and assumed that it had died, but no: I just heard that the movie, “Free Will? A Documentary” was out. It’s two hours long, very absorbing for those of us interested in this question, but you’ll have to pay to see it. (As an interviewee, I got a free viewing.)

You can watch the short trailer on YouTube by clicking below; the notes say this:

Free Will? A Documentary is an in-depth investigation featuring world renowned philosophers and scientists into the most profound philosophical debate of all time: Do we have free will?

Featuring physicist Sean Carroll, philosopher Daniel Dennett, writer Coleman Hughes, neuroscientist Heather Berlin, and many more.

The website for the film is here; it was directed by Mike Walsh, produced by Jeremy Levy and Mitch Joseph, and the cinematography is by Matteo Ballatta. They did an extremely professional job, complete with animations, movies, photos of the relevant scientific papers, and so on. You can rent it from either Vimeo or Amazon for only $2.99 (“rentals include 30 days to start watching this video and 48 hours to finish once started”), or buy it to watch permanently for ten bucks. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and if you want to watch it via rental, three bucks is a pittance, especially because it’s as long as and as well produced as any documentary you can see in theaters. And it has a lot of food for thought. I put a few notes below.

The trailer:

The movie is largely a series of talking heads: nearly everyone who’s ever weighed in on free will is here (a notable exception is Robert Sapolsky). You can see physicist Sean Carroll, Massimo Pigliucci, Trick Slattery, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, Coleman Hughes (new to me on this topic, but very good), and neuroscientist Heather Berlin (also new to me, and also very good). And of course there’s Dan Dennett, who gets more airtime than anyone else, perhaps because he’s the most well known philosopher to deal with free will (he’s written two big books about it), but also because he speaks with vigor, eloquence, and his trademarked confidence. I appear in a few scenes, but the concentration is on philosophers.

On the whole, the film accepts naturalism, giving little time to libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will.  There are two libertarians shown, though: psychologist Edwin Locke (an atheist) and Rick Messing (an observant Jew and, I think, a rabbi). I don’t find them convincing, for, as Carroll points out, the laws of physics have no room for an immaterial “agency” that interacts with matter (our brains and bodies). I would have liked to see a full-on religious libertarian, some fundamentalist who insists that we all have free will because God gave it to us. (Remember, most people are libertarians.)

But everyone else interviewed is a naturalist, all believing that at any one moment you have only one course of action. Whether that can be made compatible with some conception of free will, as do “compatibilists” like Dennett, is a subject of some discussion in the film. But there are also hard determinists like Caruso and me who spurn compatibilism. In fact, at the end of the film several people, including Dennett, suggest that the free will “controversy” between naturalists one hand (i.e., “hard determinists” who accept quantum indeterminacy as well) and compatibilists on the other is a purely semantic issue, and perhaps we should jettison the idea of free will altogether. With naturalism settled as true and libertarianism held only by a few philosophers and a lot of religious people, getting rid of the term would make the debate purely philosophical. That’s fine with me, for once you accept naturalism, one can begin dealing with the important social consequences, including how to judge other people in both life and the legal system.

There’s a good discussion of the science, including the Libet and more recent Libet-like experiments (I find them fascinating, and a good argument for naturalism, but libertarians try to find ways around them). The filmmakers do neglect a wealth of information and neurological phenomena that also support naturalism (e.g., confabulation explaining actions caused by brain operations on conscious subjects, the fact that we can remove and restore consciousness, or trick people into thinking they are exercising agency when they aren’t, and vice versa). That’s one of only three quibbles I have with the film. Another is the failure to connect libertarian free will to Abrahamic religions, of which it’s an essential part—a connection that accounts for why more than half of people surveyed in four countries accept libertarian free will. Finally, the philosophers talk a lot about “desert”, which means that, in a retrospective view of your actions, you deserve praise or blame, but the film never defines the term (if they did, I missed it).

But I think they’ve done as good a summary of the issues involved as is possible in two hours, and have neatly woven together in “chapters” the conflicting ideas of people from all camps, letting the academics do all the talking. (There’s a wee bit of necessary narration.) I would recommend that those of you who like to talk about free will on this site ante up the measly three bucks and rent the movie. (The site for renting or buying it from Amazon or Vimeo is here.)

There are eleven “chapters” of the film, which I’ll list to whet your appetite:

  1. What is free will?
  2. The problem of free will
  3. Libertarian free will
  4. Compatibilism
  5. Free will skepticism (includes “hard determinism”)
  6. The great debate: responsibility
  7. Neuroscience
  8. Physics
  9. The “morality club” (i.e., do we need free will be to morally responsible?)
  10. Free will and the law (I think this section should have been longer, but I do get some say in the movie about this issue)
  11. Should we stop using the term “free will”?

Now if you go to the movies for escapism or to see happy endings, this isn’t the film for you. It’s aimed at people who want to see a serious but eloquent intellectual discussion that involves philosophy, physics, ethics, and neuroscience. And the filmmakers did a terrific job, amply fulfilling their goals. Remember, you can’t even get a latte at Starbucks for three dollars, but for that price you can have a heaping plate of brain food!

36 thoughts on “A new movie about free will, and it’s worth watching

  1. Another notable exception was Sam Harris, and I think that had something to do with Covid and busy schedules or some such thing. I can’t wait to view it.

  2. … Libet-like experiments (I find them fascinating, and a good argument for hard determinism, but compatibilists try to find ways around them),

    Libet-like experiments are just as good an argument for compatibilism, since compatibilists and hard determinists agree that our thoughts and actions are caused by our prior state (which is caused by the state before that, etc).

    The difference between compatibilists and hard determinists really is just about what language and concepts we use to describe and understand a deterministic world.

  3. Thanks Jerry. Overall I’d say the free will skeptics, especially you, Caruso, and Pereboom, did a great job in making the case against libertarian free will and for revising our concept of moral responsibility. I liked your point that compatibilism is dangerous since it allows people to think they have free will while ignoring the implications of determinism for society (52:10). As you say, we need to think about determinism otherwise we become complacent, and compatibilists like Dennett tend to downplay determinism.

    “There are two libertarians shown, though: psychologist Edwin Locke (an atheist) and Rick Messing (an observant Jew and, I think, a rabbi).” The other, best known, libertarian they interviewed was Robert Kane, getting a bit long in the tooth. None of them explained how being exceptions to determinism would add to the origination, control, and responsibility for action we already have under determinism.

    “But everyone else interviewed is a naturalist, all believing that at any one moment you have only one course of action.” The libertarians interviewed here are likely naturalists in the way naturalism is usually defined, namely that only the natural world exists. Locke, Messing and Kane are probably naturalists in this sense, that is, they are not supernaturalists. You call the commitment to determinism “naturalism” which is pretty idiosyncratic. I’d just call those folks with that commitment “determinists,” and compatibilists are those who argue that free will is compatible with determinism (not naturalism). Of course there are those like Caruso and Pereboom (and you I think) who argue that neither determinism nor indeterminism support free will, and this position has been dubbed “hard incompatibilism.”

    1. Determinism isn’t precisely accurate because there are physical laws that, so far as we know, are probabilistic but not deterministic. Insofar as those laws affect behavior, it’s possible that even in an identical physical situation there could be two different future outcomes. I thus use “naturalism” (a term that’s not idiosyncraatic; it was suggested by Sean Carroll) to mean “determinism + quantum mechanics”, i.e. the laws of physics. People who hear “determinism” think that at the big bang the entire future of the universe was determined, which isn’t true.

      Yes, I am a hard incompatibilist.

      1. Interesting, I didn’t know that Sean defined naturalism as determinism + quantum mechanics; if you can locate the reference that would be great. He’s known for his idea of “poetic naturalism” – that there are multiple “ways of talking” about what he takes to be an ultimately physical reality at various levels, chemical, biological, psychological, etc. So he’s a physicalist, and like you, accepts that there might be some indeterminism in nature. But unlike you he’s a compatibilist since he thinks we have free will that’s compatible with determinism, should that be true, *and* with indeterminism, should it exist. I haven’t heard him comment on the possible social implications of determinism. I suspect that like most compatibilists he’s more conservative than you on the potential ramifications for moral responsibility and criminal justice of not having libertarian free will.

        1. Check out this fairly recent Big Thinkvideo featuring Sean. It covers many topics including free will, starting at about 1:16:30.

          The Universe in 90 minutes: Time, free will, God, & more | Sean Carroll

          In it Sean says something to the effect that in his view determinism is a category error with respect to free will and that all that matters is that there are laws, not what the laws are. Rather than the traditional (I thought) meanings of Compatabilism = free will is compatible with determinism and Incompatibilism = free will is incompatible with determinism, he says that determinisim is the wrong metric. It should be “the laws of physics, whatever they may be.” He says that if someone starts talking about determinism in a discussion about free will that he knows that they’ve missed the point. It happens that I completely agree with that and long since came to that view, but I hadn’t heard Sean say so before. I know that in an older article he wrote that “determinism is true, at least locally, and that is all that matters for the issue of free will” (my paraphrase). Of course, perhaps his views on the subject have evolved.

          Listening to Sean here, it dawned on me that he is not a traditional Compatibilist, at least not by the definition I’m familiar with. Perhaps the definition has changed over time? Certainly possibly. For one example, he starts off by explaining that he doesn’t like the term “free will” and thinks it should be discarded because it carries too much baggage (my characterization)! That always used to be a key point of the Incompatibilist position. Given this I really don’t see much left that an incompatibilist could argue with about Sean’s view. Well, except that he does make some comments about his understanding of the incompatibilist view that I don’t think are accurate, leaving little doubt that he would reject my claim.

          1. Thanks, I’ll check out that talk by Sean. Here’s what he says in a recent paper on consciousness that seems to invoke causal determinism:

            “Within its domain of applicability, the Core Theory is what we might label *causally comprehensive*. If we give a complete specification of the quantum state of the Core Theory fields within that regime, there is a specific equation that unambiguously predicts how it will evolve over time. This equation is sufficient to describe everything human beings generally do, unless they jump into a black hole or stick their hand inside the beam of a high-energy particle accelerator. There are no ambiguities or loose ends. The fact that brains are big, complex things is irrelevant. The Core Theory makes specific predictions for how any particular brain will behave; our choice is to either accept that prediction, or modify the theory in some way.” (original emphasis)


            1. Sean is not saying that determinism is not true or not relevant for how minds work, he’s saying that what the laws of physics actually are does not matter for the question of free will, all that matters is that there are laws of physics and that minds are bound by them, whatever they may be, just like everything else.

  4. Unfortunately, the philosophers who have made the most progress on free will in a long time – Jenann Ismael and Carl Hoefer among others – aren’t nearly as famous as Dennett.or Pereboom. Not that the latter don’t deserve their fame, but they’re not philosophers of physics, which is where the surprising insight comes from. It turns out that philosophy has had it wrong since Democritus and Lucretius: you don’t need a “swerve” to save you from inevitability. (The “swerve” is mentioned in the movie’s trailer.)

    Sean Carroll had Jenann Ismael as a guest on his podcast, but unfortunately spent the podcast talking about the first half of her book. That half is about how it makes sense to think of a purely physical human being as an agent making decisions. The second half of her book takes down the most influential argument against free will, the one that pits free will “versus” determinism or “versus” natural laws. If you go to the link I gave at Ismael’s name, which is a book review, there is a brief summary of her argument. For a while I thought Sean Carroll, who literally wrote the book on how the “Arrow of Time” is emergent rather than fundamental, had independently discovered Ismael’s second insight. But I seem to have been mistaken.

    I’ll probably watch the movie to see what Sean Carroll says, if nothing else.

  5. I always think things like #9

    do we need free will be to morally responsible?

    begs the question … it assumes somehow morality exists, ie some actions are moral (or not). Sure we label some actions moral/immoral, but I would argue they are not in the same way fire engines are not red.

  6. Thanks for the heads on on this film Prof CC !

    I have to admit at this point videos on free will tend to make me grit my teeth, so I’ll have to put aside some time to be aggravated and watch this one 🙂

    It looks very well produced and with a good cast of characters.

  7. Thank you for this link. I do not follow the free will debate closely, so I will not venture a firm position on the various schools of thought. But I have always been a bit puzzled by one element of it, one related to praise and blame. I have heard those who are determinists speak in empathetic terms about criminals: they cannot help what they do, etc., but we still need to sometimes lock them up for the safety of others. Okay, I understand this, but I wonder about the moral condemnation and ridicule that we oftentimes unleash upon those who are not criminals and who are, presumably, just as incapable of controlling what they do—or what they believe. Republicans who let children roam streets with guns, religious believers, Trump voters; authoritarians of any stripe; the Woke, believers in “other ways of knowing” and all things “alternative”, and so on.

    Most of us would never ridicule a fat man, or an ugly woman, or an invalid. After all, they cannot help being who they are. Yet, when they are stupid adults, or take different political stands, or have religious beliefs, then ridicule is fair game. So, what is the difference? A Woke person, for example, is no more capable of freely choosing what she believes than an ugly person is of choosing how she looks. Why is the one fair game for ridicule or condemnation and the other not? (I am not exempting myself from this question; I have ridiculed and condemned plenty in my days.)

    Perhaps it is to influence the behavior or belief of the ridiculed person or, more likely, of other people, whereas ridicule cannot change the disabled man or the dull woman. But to ridicule or condemn as an attempt to change behavior presumes that we are acting with intent. Yet we, ourselves, are supposedly determined in our own actions and beliefs. So, it strikes me that these explanations of WHY we do or say the things we do—to exercise influence, attempt to persuade, change behaviors, etc.—are post hoc rationalizations. If I am inclined to view a given person or group as stupid or odious, then I am simply inclined to do so. No reasons needed other than my genetic disposition and environmental influences. So, other reasons are not needed, but perhaps they can still be ascertained. But this attempt to understand my own actions or beliefs, to give them some justification or coherency, seems to fail on one level in that I am predisposed to accept certain types of explanations and not others—again, through no choice of my own. How do I know that I am predisposed to have the correct beliefs and the correct explanations for those beliefs, rather than just accepting as correct the beliefs and explanations to which my genetic constitution and experiences have predisposed me? And, in any case, right, wrong, or irrelevant, how can I help but believe what I believe, or do what I do? Any attempt to change will be constrained or directed in certain ways—and not others—by that same constitution and experience. Indeed, whether I am even “willing” to make an attempt may be constrained.

    I’ve now gone off on a tangent from my original concern about ridicule and condemnation, so I’ll stop. For those who do follow this debate closely, please forgive the long post and the parts above that will strike you as obviously ignorant. I am grateful for any feedback or an article / book recommendation or two.

    1. “How do I know that I am predisposed to have the correct beliefs and the correct explanations for those beliefs, rather than just accepting as correct the beliefs and explanations to which my genetic constitution and experiences have predisposed me?”

      If we try to answer this as a non-rhetorical question then we’ll be led to think about what are reliable grounds for belief, and I’d say the most reliable are empirical, intersubjective observations and evidence as exemplified by science but also in everyday life, in contrast to faith, revelation, intuition, etc. This is basically Jerry’s take in his book Fact vs. Faith. It’s rational to align with empiricism given its track record of coherent, unifying explanation and successful prediction and control. And beliefs based on it are corrigible in the face of new evidence. Your genetic constitution and experiences certainly predispose you to hold certain beliefs, but that doesn’t prevent you from evaluating their validity on the basis of thinking about what makes them true.

    2. Just because a lion’s hunger is caused by prior causes doesn’t alter the fact that the lion is hungry and wants food.

      Just because our “intent” to “influence” someone else’s behaviour is caused by prior causes doesn’t alter the fact that we have intent to influence another’s behaviour.

  8. Just a quick commentary on the video itself. I thought:
    1) The cinematography was excellent.
    2) After reading extensively on the subject over the fifteen years, I can’t say there was much new for me. So it would be an excellent starter for newbies to the beast.
    3) I would have liked longer bits from each contributor, to get a better sense of where they were coming from, rather than a cut-and-paste of conflicting arguments.
    4) That Vohs and Schooler paper needed a rebuttal.

  9. It’s interesting that the trailer opened with Alex O’Connor, Cosmic Skeptic. As far as I’m aware he’s still a student at Oxford, though probably at postgraduate level, and it shows the power of YouTube that he’s amongst such exalted company.

  10. Being an atheist I have to accept that free will is an illusion. But this has no relevance to the criminal justice system. Most people want criminals punished (unless they are their own kind in which case they see them as warriors) and work from the notion that the criminal could certainly have decided not to rape and murder his 10-year-old victim. Criminologists can debate, on free will principles, whether the purpose of prison is deterrence, revenge, or rehabilitation but ordinary people don’t care as long as the sentence provides a just measure of pain. If enough people want to draw back from revenge and deterrence then we can do that but academic arguments about free will won’t cut any ice. Especially when most voters seem to believe in God and are unlikely to renounce free will, whethervit “really” exists or not..

    1. A fourth rationale for incarceration (though not for fines) which determinists seem OK with is to protect the community from re-offending, a goal that is frustrated by parole and by activist-driven objections to over-incarceration of black people. So determinists eager to excuse criminals for moral responsibility ought to press for longer, not shorter, sentences unless you have faith in rehab and reforming of the brain’s reward centres.

  11. A new thought occurred to me – if I may think it over here briefly :

    We usually discuss the notion of free will with ideas like determinism, agency, will, and maybe responsibility. But I do not recall those ideas discussed in the well-known idea of “will power”. Clearly, as the word “will” is in both, it struck me as contributing to widespread confusion.

    So now I’ll have to keep a look out for it.


  12. The semantic problem has a very easy solution: human beings have responsiveness to reason — not free will—, because free will cannot exist in a universe where everything obeys the laws of physics. No agency, no control, just passive responsiveness to reason in different degrees.

  13. I recommend Mark Balaguer’s book “Free Will” (MIT Press, 2014), which contains a detailed critique of the neuroscientific arguments against (libertarian) free will that are based on the Libet&Haynes studies.

    1. Uri Maoz et al have an open access article that nicely shows the limits of Libet’s work.

      But previous work focused on arbitrary decisions—purposeless, unreasoned, and without consequences. … While we found the expected RPs for arbitrary decisions, they were strikingly absent for deliberate ones.

  14. I just watched this. It was quite good. The subject tends to hurt my brain but over time I’ve found myself to be a pretty hard determinist.

  15. Excellent documentary. Thanks for the recommendation.

    It’s been said before that convoluted, muddled, and seemingly unintelligible language is usually a reflection of ideas devoid of clarity. This seems evident in the abstruse assertions of Dan Dennett concerning compatibilism. Or maybe it’s just me… At any rate, I just can’t make heads or tails of what he says. I don’t know if he truly buys his own stuff. What makes me doubt is the supposition that he may be motivated by a “little-people argument”. In other words, trying to salvage some notion of free will, however ill-defined, is good for the masses, since otherwise—he believes—they’d fall into apathy, nihilism, and immorality.

    Massimo Pigliucci wasn’t too clear either, and I think that’s because he also favors some sort of compatibilism.

    And, as could be expected, the least impressive were the libertarians. The incoherent arguments of philosopher Robert Kane and psychologist Edwin Locke amounted to little more than “I believe in libertarian free will because magic”.

    As a fellow hard incompatibilist, I appreciated and agreed with everything you said. Gregg Caruso was also very sensible and cogent in all his interventions. I also quite liked what was said by that YouTuber, Alex J. O’Connor, whom I didn’t know.

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