Does compatibilism imply that a chess program has free will?



I am puzzled by compatibilism and am trying to understand what it means using a test example. Given that a typical chess program generates several choices, evaluates them with a goal of winning and chooses a specific option, would this imply that it has free will as defined by the compatibilists?

If not, is the reason that the human decision system is a more complicated circuit than the implementation of the chess program? (This is of course, assuming the position of compatibilists like Dennett, that the brain is equivalent to a computer). To me, free will, whatever it means, doesn't seem to directly have connotations of complexity or intelligence beyond a basic decision taking capability. The opposite view would be that the more one is aware and in control of nature, the more free will one has. Even if this is true, does that not mean that a computer program has more free will than a chess player in the context of a game?

Or is the reason that 'goal', 'evaluating', 'choosing' have specific meanings for compatibilists which dont apply to the chess program? If so, what would these meanings be?


Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 311

2Depends on the specific variant of compatibilism. While Dennett is sometimes described as a compatibilist, his views lead to very strong determinism. He espouses a very liberal, "middle ground" determinism in order to "fit in" (common early in the publishing careers of philosophers) but his reasoning throughout Elbow Room seems to lead me to think he's a hard determinist deep down. He would almost certainly say we are no different in principle from a chess program on a computer, except we have a few other "bells and whistles" with our "software". – stoicfury – 2012-08-26T06:28:04.943

@stoicfury: We are certainly very different to a typical chess program: We learn from our experience. If you have a typical chess program and you win a game against it, then the chess program will not have learned that this game will get lost. The only reason why you might not be able to repeat the exact game is some randomness in its decision making (if the program cannot determine which of several moves it better, it has to use other means of decision, and using a random decision makes it less predictable and therefore stronger). – celtschk – 2012-10-28T07:20:27.090

We can learn from our experience, but we don't always. :P Regardless, the relevant point here is not how similar we are to chess programs, but whether the notion of "free will" is fundamentally similar between humans and software. In other words, do humans have something that programs do not that give them a different kind of freedom (or one at all) that a computer doesn't have? I was suggesting that Dennett, a compatibilist, would probably say our choice (free will) is not significantly different (i.e., still determined), albeit with more layers of complexity. :) – stoicfury – 2012-10-28T07:45:25.823

2I also think that a suitably written program can have free will. However, I consider it important that this does not mean that all programs do have free will. Specifically, one of the things I consider necessary is the ability to learn from your experience. – celtschk – 2012-10-28T09:37:56.007

1@celtschk: I think you are mixing up two concepts. Free will is as banal as executing an IF statement in a computer program. Learning is the ability to change the conditions of the IF statement. – leancz – 2012-10-29T12:05:59.010

@leancz - great way of putting it :) – stoicfury – 2012-11-17T23:11:19.147

What do you mean the program will not learn that the game will get lost? Sure it will. Computer chess programs learn from their own matches and from all recorded human matches, hence in some sense they learn more than humans. This doesn't free their will though. – artm – 2012-11-30T15:21:00.827

No chess machine can choose to play checkers instead. – Andrew Lambert – 2012-12-04T21:13:32.603



Lovely! I was musing on the very same question. I believe it is the sheer complexity of our cognitive machinery, that gives us a much much greater degree of freedom than the chess program, but yes, I believe we are both similar and both have the agency that we call "free will".

Hard determinism is very hard to escape, especially with matters of the mind, but I find it quite useful to think of agency as what a chess program has, except that we have so many levels of freedom: conscious cognitive veto, a theory of mind that lets us gauge each others' possible responses, and hence the ability to either operate on the basis of logical reasoning, or violate their (expected) expectations giving rise to "deliberate" surprise, etc.I think it is this dense web of possible actions, this extravagant possibility space that makes us so special.

Evolutionarily speaking, creatures with central coordination might possess a basic degree of freedom,(increasing with brain capacity) that is enhanced once a mechanism that integrates various subroutines and decisions arises(conscious awareness). A cognitive "veto" of innate "urges"(evolved subroutines), something not usually selected for(although it may be seen in many animals), could have been selected for social reasons (hedging rewards, trust, sharing resource and other eusocial behaviour) requiring a more complex theory of mind (other creatures also show non-innate behaviour now), leading to the ability to use arbitrary, non-innate vocalizations to communicate. Recursive syntax, and language arises, and the human mind becomes a powerful machine with a high degree of freedom of thought and action!

Just the brash, exuberant thought process of an undergraduate, but still. Thank for a wonderful article:)


Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 81


Currently chess playing machines are absolutely goal directed, they only work towards a goal, be it to win, to not lose, or to a specified level of competence or resource use. Animals (including humans) are not. For instance, at the beginning of a chess game I may feel instilled with the goal to win, but if the house catches fire I'll drop that goal like a hot fianchettoed bishop.

So (given current technology) I'd say machines do not have anything like what we see as "free will" in humans. This is not to say that technology can't advance to the point where machines will seem like they have "free will", but are still theoretically deterministic.


Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 673

a chess machine won't run out of burning building because it won't realize that there is fire. A stereotypical absentminded chess player could pay no mind to fire - for the sake of this argument - while keeping his/her compatibilist free will. People running out of a burning building are acting out a program to reach the goal of personal salvation, encoded in their genes. Or do you imagine they "could have acted otherwise"? – artm – 2012-12-01T17:07:14.967

'Or do you imagine they "could have acted otherwise"?' Certainly. There are plenty of examples of people subjugating their extremely strong survival instincts (exhibiting "free will"). – obelia – 2012-12-02T19:08:09.627

If examples of free behavior are abundant how come you use instinctive behavior (escaping death by fire) as example of free will? – artm – 2012-12-02T20:05:17.873

I was suggesting subjugating instinct 'exhibits "free will".' As I'm in the free-will-is-illusion camp it I should have said "has the appearance of free will". – obelia – 2012-12-02T23:43:11.143

sure. but in your answer you contrast striving-for-its-goal-no-matter-what machine and instinctively-running-for-their-life humans, but neither behavior is free: both are hardwired reactions to the external stimuli (chess positions in case of the automaton, environment in case of people). The only difference example demonstrates is that a chess program is unaware of its physical substrate. – artm – 2012-12-03T05:48:11.797


The computer makes decisions that give it the highest probability of winning, with an element of randomness throw in by its maker to make the game more interesting.

A human, however, could intentionally lose or attempt to create a stalemate. The computer cannot until a human tells it how to.

In short, I would say that it appears to make decisions, but has no real freedom in doing so.


Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 141

A person could intentionally lose or draw if the context and personal history made him/her to. A typical chess automaton is unaware of any context beyond the board - and hence doesn't suffer from having to make choices in the face of many uncertainties, while following its program. – artm – 2012-12-01T17:14:32.933


There is possible kind of compatibilism where chess program still doesn't have free will. If we take 'free will' phenomenologically, as mental phenomenon, will it depend on reason? Yes. Otherwise it would be foolish or random action. So even this, perfect free will is determined by reason. And the reason is determined by logic and circumstances. Note, that from this reasoning it does not follow that we are any kind of robots/computers. It follows that perfect free will is deterministic. I.e. it is compatibilistic.


Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 277

Why doesn't it follow that we are any some kind of robots or computers? – k0pernikus – 2012-10-28T10:11:08.587

@k0pernikus Because we have (phenomenon of) free will. Even though it is deterministic, it is still a phenomenon of consciousness and, thus, very different from material(istic) robots. Having the phenomenon of free will is also causal to moral responsibility. – catpnosis – 2012-10-28T13:48:38.960

While it is true that today's robots are very much different from humans, I'd say humans are robots that have the ability to value deeds. Humans have by their evolutionary heritage created the illusions of free will and moral responsibility. Illusions that work quite well though as it allows for a stable population. – k0pernikus – 2012-10-28T14:04:07.223

@k0pernikus Robots are cardinally different from humans because they don't have consciousness. And that's very important. You are actually reducing sentient beings to complicated forms or materia, abstracting from phenomenon of mind. My reasoning, though, doesn't include a reduction to materia (i.e. monism). Monism is thinking attitude, not the fact of being. – catpnosis – 2012-10-29T20:43:36.860


Compatibilism does not maintain that free will is the only mechanism of “choosing a specific option”.

free will, whatever it means, doesn't seem to directly have connotations of complexity or intelligence beyond a basic decision taking capability

A radioactive nucleus may decay every moment. It has two choices - to decay or not to decay, evaluates them with a goal of compliance with the laws of nature and chooses a specific option. But it is me who sees the options, the goal and the choice in the behavior of the nucleus. This is just one way of describing what the nucleus does. But I won’t call the mechanism by which the atom “decides” whether to decay or not - “free will”. Something is missing here.

An apple falling to the ground doesn’t appear to have any choice. But suppose it falls on a pointy obstacle, now it has some options! It may choose to go left or right of the point, or it may decide to get punctured. It’s actual “choice” though is entirely determined by myriad of fine details about itself and the point. Again, even though I use the metaphors of choice, they are just that - a way to talk about an apple that ignore the details about it’s situation that I’m either unaware of of deliberately ignoring.

A chess automaton goes through the motions as you describe and lends itself to the options and decisions jargon. Just like a randomly decaying nucleus or chaotically falling to one side of an obstacle apple, it doesn’t “really” choose what it will do. But we may choose to describe it as making decisions, because such high level description is easy to understand for someone who’s used to thinking in terms of decisions.

Finally we have our own case, as choice making entities sharing the Universe with nuclea, apples and chess software. Unlike our random, chaotic and deterministic co-inhabitants of the world, we consider the free will language as applied to us literally, not just metaphorically. We are where and for whom this language originated.

There are some processes within us, that aren’t covered by free will: there are some decaying radioactive nucleas in us - which we consider our atoms be virtue of their constituing of our bodies. There are some chaotic processes that involve to many variables to be able to consider: what exact effect would a particular chemical cause in some organ when ingested in this particular body? But when we face the consequences of such injestion - say tummy ache - we describe the ache as ours by virtue of our body (and not someone elses) being aware of it.

A compatibilist free will is the feeling that we have of owning "decisions" made as a result of deterministic causes and effects. As far as we're aware nobody's programming any such thing into chess programs - because there doesn't appear to be any reason to. Would a decision-owning program play better chess? It isn't obvious. Moreover, it is unclear how would one go implementing the sensation of ownership in software.


Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 733


The program would have had to be produced by a conscious mind. Fact. The game would not exist with out someone (a conscious being) creating and writing the code by which it runs. This is based on the programmers free will. If half way through the chess match the programmer free willingly decided to program the image of a pig running across the screen - it would appear. The idea is produced in the mind initially and programmed in code. Recognition can be programmed via the basic 0/1 system. This is how synapses work within our cpu (our brains.) The computer itself can not make up its moves. For example: if you wrote down every chess move you made - then every chess move the computer was programmed to use to combat that in order to win. The game would duplicate itself again and again. If I was playing you - I may decide to let you win! That's the difference in free will. The chess game is a product of the programmers free will. Simple

Emily E

Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 1

Greetings, welcome to Could you use paragraphs? [put two line breaks in when you edit]. Also, how does your answer relate to the questions' concern on compatibalism? – virmaior – 2014-12-03T14:23:24.653


Sorry to post two articles. Another analogy. A robot gets programmed to recognise the phrase "do you want an ice cream?" (A conscious being has created it - fact) the programmer then uses his free will to program the options in specific order. Ie: yes please, no thanks just had one and maybe later. He decides the first three times the robot is asked he'll program it to say maybe later then when asked again yes please, then the next time no thanks just had one. The existence of this robot mimics free will. The actual freewill comes from the idea of the programmer. Granted we have programmed our brain since we were born or maybe in the womb?? to make sense of our surroundings. And to logically do the easiest option in order to make understanding quicker and simpler. But have the freewill to go about things illogically and make things difficult. We link our senses with their "names" .. Like a code. But someone's conscious freewill gave them their names in the first place. I have the freewill to start calling things by a different name or choosing to ignore it all together. If this game had free will it could do things that haven't been programmed. It can't. We physically are only limited from our surroundings ie what our senses find and the limitations of our bodies. If a part of our body gets damaged we are unable to use it which is a limitation which looks to impact on our freewill. Our possibilities of every outcome are endless. The computers outcomes are as good as the programmers. It doesn't "think for itself" it's a physical piece of material - made up of the basic cells our bodies or a teaspoon is made up of. Without an ethereal free willed user nothing would work.

Emily E

Posted 2012-08-25T22:15:26.293

Reputation: 1

While I would tend to agree with your assessment of technology, I don't think it's not going to prove convincing for those who tend to deny the idea of free will. But compatibalism is the idea that we make free choices but ones that are utterly predictable. I'm not really seeing how you're relating this answer directly to that issue. – virmaior – 2014-12-03T14:26:27.043