Freedom Is in Being Who You Are

I've been toying with a conceptualisation of free will for a while, it's not fully formed but I want to write about it and try to sketch it out and make it more concrete.

The idea is that the actions of a person are strictly, universally unique to them. Then, regardless of how those actions come to be, they can only be expressed by that person. So, a person is free in the sense that they are the only entity which can act in the way that they do.

Jumping from unique behaviour to freedom is the essence, let's try to pin down why that should follow, and what the boundaries of the claim are. My starting intuition was that this uniqueness is incompatible with making complete determinations about expected behaviour, which puts the knowable status of determinism into question. Though that's really just a comment on determinism alone, it doesn't say anything either for or against free will.

Why freedom in unique behaviour then? Because I feel that there is an essential similarity between being the only entity that will act a particular way and being an entity able to choose to act a particular way, and this is what I want to explore.

Two main questions then, are actions unique to persons? And is uniqueness of action essentially similar to free will?

Actions are Unique to Persons

There is an immediate and trivial way in which this is true. If I am at some location, at some time and I take an action, then since no one else can be at exactly the same location and time as me, I am the only one who could perform that action at that time.

This is straightforward, but it doesn't cover an important part of how we think about actions as not being unique. We often consider whether we would act the same way as someone else, our intuition suggests this is possible. So the counterfactual retort to the trivial argument goes: someone else could have acted in the same way. If another person could have acted in the same way, had they been in that circumstance, then in what sense is the action unique? If multiple people would take that action then surely it is not unique to a single person at all.

We'll need something more to make the claim and the criteria we need to fulfill is to negate the counterfactual. One argument is that the equivalence of action in the counterfactual (expressed by "the same way") cannot apply between two persons. Another, that no other entity could make the same action.

Pedantically Different Actions

I'm going to just extend the thought behind the above trivial point to undercut the possibility of sameness of action, but I'm not sure that this argument is very convincing. To agree or disagree with some statement of the form: two things are the same, we need to know how to judge sameness.

Let's then take actions of a person being distinguished by their physicality as far as it will go. The argument is that if we can distinguish two actions by any means then they cannot be the same, and we can always find this distinction if we look closely enough at any action. Essentially, we're being firm skeptics about the the notion of sameness.

Two people may take similar actions, but these cannot be the same action because the DNA of the individuals is different. That is, reducing the action to more elementary components of how people exist physically, we can find physical parts of the action which must be different. In this case, two different people must have different DNA (excepting twins for a moment), so their actions must be different.

Not pedantically skeptical enough? How about this, the electrons in the atoms in the molecules of two people are guaranteed with extremely high probability not to be in the same position, so we can use this fact to distinguish between two actions.

As I said, I don't think this is very convincing when talking naturally about sameness of action. Generally when discussing actions we are abstracting away from physical reductions and concerning ourselves with the effects, consequences and observations of actions.

Yet, given our purpose, such reductions may be appropriate because they give us a foundation on which to build a sensible notion of uniqueness. If we agree that this reductive uniqueness applies to actions, then the counterfactual claim of actions being the same is defeated. It's probably worth noting here that the counterfactual we've set out above is definitely a strawman, and it would take more work to give the opposing position its due. Furthermore, we'd need to argue why this reductive uniqueness should apply to actions.

You Cannot be Simulated

No other entity could make a person's actions. I take this as a strong claim because it should require that we cannot predict or simulate the actions of a person. Extending the reach of the statement this far protects claims of uniqueness from counters which construct actions by whatever means, at the cost of making it harder to argue for. I want to make a distinction about the operative nature of different kinds simulation to argue this, so please bear with me.

We can distinguish between two kinds of simulation. One is wholesale reality simulation, which is the kind of simulation invoked by the brain in a vat thought experiment.1 This simulation is equivalent to the total construction of experience, and as such, the nature of the simulation exists outside of what can be experienced. Brain in a vat uses this to question the direct relationship between the meaning of a sentence describing an experience, and the actual nature of reality driving that experience.

Another kind is model simulation, which is the kind of simulation we run, for example, to investigate if the forces on a bridge will cause it to collapse. These are model simulations in the sense that we model some part of reality, and then run or simulate the model to make predictions.

For something to be operatively real, it must be able to be part of our experience. The idea is that what is operative can be acted upon, that it is part of the world that can be affected. So we can distinguish reality simulation from model simulation by saying that reality simulation is not operatively real, while model simulation is. Reality simulation may have an effect on how we consider the nature of reality, but it cannot be experienced so it is not operative.

That's a brisk treatment 😅 I'm not going to get fully into operativeness here, but I will write directly about it at some point.

Applying this distinction: actions can be reality simulated, but not model simulated. Naturally, by whatever means reality occurs, it must be true that reality makes a person's actions. Indeed, anything in our reality must be a consequence of that reality.

Model simulation cannot make your actions because these simulations can be part of your experience. As part of your experience, a model simulator must be able to simulate your awareness of the simulator. In other words, your simulated actions are the actions you take in the reality containing a simulator. Actions without the possibility of experiencing the simulator cannot be simulated.

Yes, the simulator could be hidden and not take part in some circumstance of action for which it also provides a prediction. Claiming this is not enough though, because it leaves the gap for actions which could occur in the presence of the simulator. So the simulator cannot ever give a complete picture of the actions of a person.

This is only an argument by technicality, but I think it meaningful in evoking that simulations are always incomplete in some respect, that there will always be a perspective from which a model lacks veracity. Deeper still, we're touching upon a criteria for uniqueness which excludes duplicated circumstances, which cannot effect the original, from dispelling the uniqueness.

Person in a Box

Part of what I've been trying to fend off here is what I would call the person in a box counter.2 It goes something like: if you completely control the environment of a person, then you can make their actions. Perhaps, but this would be a kind of reality simulation for that person, and so it is not operative. Or to reframe, it is not convincing to use omnipotence to contrive examples.

Your Actions are Your Own

Actions being unique provides a significant property: actions cannot be separated from a person, they cannot be attributed to any other entity. Regardless of how these actions came to be then, they are intrinsically linked with the person who made them. We can say that one person's actions are their own and not another's. The locus of responsibility for action must be found within the person.

We cannot place the responsibility for action elsewhere, so then we must say that a person is responsible for their actions. Exactly this is the essential similarity to free will because we place responsibility with a person and not in any other part of the world which could be said to have caused their actions.

What kind of responsibility is this? Free will is commonly associated with moral responsibility, where we could take having moral responsibility as amounting to having free will. If we took a similar view then we could attempt to show that the responsibility we outlined above is some kind of moral responsibility. That straightforward path would be to argue that it is moral responsibility as being attributable since we have already started this.3 For myself, attributability by itself is not a strong form of free will.

Free to Do Otherwise?

Here's where it gets more difficult for this account of free will. A person's actions may be inseparable from them, but that does not mean these actions could have been anything other than what they were. We're exposed to the criticism that this is not an account of free will at all, but only a justification for assigning responsibility for their actions to the person, regardless of how those actions were determined.

I think to meet the bombast of this post's title we're obliged to give a response to this, and whether determinism is knowable now comes back in to do its job. The argument relies on the uniqueness of action, in particular that action cannot be model simulated. Because we cannot simulate the actions of a person we cannot confirm that their actions are determined to be one way or another. That means we do not have access to knowledge which decides whether a person's action could have been anything other that what it was.

There's the fundamental issue to making claims about actions being otherwise or not, the claims are not operative. This is not entirely satisfying, it seems to pass over the question of the proper reality of free will. What it gives though is space for freedom within the bounds of our experience. Whether beyond the limit of experience we have free will or not may be a question, but it is not an operative one.

Leaving space open for the possibility of free will could perhaps be developed into a satisfying response. The route could be taken that the operative impossibility of determining the answer to the question of free will is positively arguing for free will. What we have is freedom from the answer to this question.

Compatible or Incompatible?

Following immediately on from this response to determinism, it's convenient to briefly discuss where this position falls in the compatible vs. incompatible distinction. The compatability in question is whether free will is compatible with determinism (let's agree determinism is real for now).4 Incompatibilists argue that free will is not compatible with determinism.

I've not thought too much about this, but I would be immediately tempted to suggest that this kind of free will is invariant to determinism, which I suppose is a kind of compatibilism. Invariance seems a more accurate term, even though this account is compatible with the existence of determinism, because this freedom is not effected by the status of determinism. The questions of free will and determinism are independent, hence invariance.


Alright, well that's all I've got at the moment. I think there's something here but this post became somewhat bogged down by technicalities. I feel that we did not reach deeper insights about the nature of uniqueness well enough, but that's good to know since it clarifies my desire for this. Positively, uniqueness seems to be useful in making space for individuals to claim free will, if they so desire. Furthermore, utilising an operative stance gives us tools to tackle these questions.

If this position does not already have a name then maybe we can make one up. How about Being Uniquely Free? We're all BUF?


Thanks to my friend Tom Cattermole for discussing this with me. He asks a good question, what is the use of this freedom?

  1. Brains in vats is a nice goto for wholesale skepticism. The eponymous paper by Hilary Putnam can be found here

  2. Need a thought experiment? Put something in a box or room, two things if you're feeling extra spicy. 

  3. Here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on kinds of moral responsibility. 

  4. Again SEP on compatibilism