Uncommon Sense

May 17, 2016

Free Will and the Perfect Pool Table

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 11:49 am

pool_table_3Being of a philosophical bent, I enjoy discussions of philosophical concepts such as free will. Recently I had a reverie that shows to me that we do have free will, even though there are a great many people who claim that free will does not exist and that it is only an illusion. My reverie began with a pool table.

In physics we can make great progress in a situation by removing extraneous factors, solving the situation without them and reintroducing them while making corrections. So, to begin with, our pool table has all of the accoutrements: felt, bumpers, pockets, pool cues, ordinary pool balls and a cue ball, etc. Allow me to remove the felt and replace it with a frictionless surface, something infinitely slippery. The bumpers have to be replaced also and are replaced with perfectly elastic bumpers. These bumpers return every erg of energy transferred to them by a colliding ball, back to the ball. The pockets have to go (for now) and the balls have to reconstituted with some also perfectly elastic material of exactly equal mass and size and shape. (Ordinary cue balls are ever so slightly larger than the others and they will have to be made equal to the others (in all ways) for a time.)

Now, once these ball are set in motion, they never stop. When they collide, momentum is conserved, momentum being the product of the mass and velocity of a moving object. So, if one ball hits another and some speed is transferred, since the balls are of the same mass, the amount one ball slows is equal to the amount the other speeds up. This is true even if one ball hits two others simultaneously, the total speeds lost equal the total speeds gained.

This situation is analogous to a sample of gas trapped in a bottle. The gas molecules are analogues of the balls and the bottle is effectively the bumper. As long as the bottle and gas are the same temperature and that doesn’t change, the analogy is perfect (albeit the molecules are much smaller, move much faster, etc.). We can describe this state mathematically perfectly and we can predict any particular situation in either the past or the future of such a system (where the molecules are, how fast they are going, etc.). This is a fated or deterministic mini-universe.

But now let us add the real-world pool table items back in. If we were to just add the pockets back, some of the balls would leave the table by falling into the pockets and the balls that remained would have to have paths that repeated themselves and which didn’t involve colliding into a pocket. If the felt is added back, so is friction and the balls in motion will then stop at some point due to that friction. Also, the not perfectly elastic bumpers will absorb some of the energy of the balls colliding with them. We end up with an imperfect, non-deterministic game, one in which the result of any balls being set in motion becomes quite uncertain. The only thing we can say for certain is the balls will come to a stop after each “play.” The motions are somewhat but not perfectly predictable, which allows for the skills of elite pool players.

Every time the cue ball is struck (the cue ball being made slightly larger than the other balls so it strikes them ever so slightly above the equator, minimizing the chances of a ball being hit slightly below the equator which can result in the struck ball flying off of the table (now you know)), the table ends up in a new state, that is the positions of the balls involved in collisions is almost guaranteed to be different as well as somewhat unpredictable.

So, as a player of any pool game, you must make decisions based upon the state of play. Some of those games require the balls to be sunk in numerical order (they are numbered to facilitate this) while others just require the balls be nudged into any pocket through a collision with the cue or other balls in any way one can. If a ball is sunk during a play, another turn is earned. So, decisions have to be made. Should I try to sink this ball or that ball? If I sink that ball, will the cue ball be in a position to sink another ball (or the next numbered ball in the sequence) and, if it won’t be properly positioned, can I make it properly positioned by some skill of my possession.

All of these “decisions” involve free will. I make this claim because two different pool players will sometimes play a particular situation differently. It is not the case that the “state” of the table determines the next play. The skill set of the player is involved. One is better with short shots, another excels at longer shots. One player can make very fine massé shots, another not so well. One player excels at bank shots, etc. So, the universe cannot dictate how a table will be played, and a player cannot either. Even giving a player’s particular skill set, occasionally they will play a shot that invokes a weakness rather than playing to their strengths time after time. When queried about that “decision” later, they invariably acknowledge the multiple approaches they were considering. And occasionally state that “they don’t know why they chose the route they did” or they felt more confident “in the moment” in that path, or…. And sometimes they get frozen in a state of indecision, that is they have two paths forward that they cannot distinguish between and they get “stuck” not being able to decide. And other times we make decisions to be perverse out of a desire not to be predictable (e.g. a chance averse golfer taking a big chance to win a tournament).

I think much of the debate about the existence of free will is based upon a faulty definition. Most people describe free will as a conscious decision making ability. But many, many of the decisions we make are subconscious, that is we are not aware which of our thoughts or feelings added up to the decision involved. Such decisions come up most obviously when we struggle with making a decision consciously and go with a “gut feeling.” Your gut may have a great many neurons, but I doubt it thinks per se.

If one uses a definition of free will that includes both conscious and unconscious decision making, I think it is quite clear that we have free will, that we can choose to do things one way and when faced with the exact same situation again, choose to do it differently.

The reason free will is important is that if we do not have the ability to make our own choices, that our response to situations was either hardwired into our brains or programming in by social conditioning, then we are not responsible for our actions, our engineers and programmers are. How could we punish criminals or send sinners to Hell without them having the ability to do other than what the situation triggers? How indeed?


  1. I find this argument even more interesting in that recently I was listening to an interview with a genetic scientist who is looking into how our own genetic makeup may temporarily change under certain circumstances to allow us to function. Therefore, I wonder, how often are we simply at the mercy of our genes? 🙂


    Comment by ciedie aech — May 17, 2016 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

    • Our genes control a lot as to our capabilities but environment still counts for about 50% of our influences. The famous twin studies usually show that twins, left in the exact same environment have many, many similarities. But if one of the twins is injected into a different culture, a great deal of difference shows up. So, your genes control how tall you might be (malnutrition, for example, can reduce this) and how coordinated you are but do not determine whether you will play basketball.

      On Tue, May 17, 2016 at 12:30 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 17, 2016 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  2. I want to see Noel’s response to this.


    Comment by john zande — May 17, 2016 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

    • Alert him! Avaunt!

      I wish we knew more about subconscious processing of information in our brains. I suspect that Philosophy is “speculating on things for which we have insufficient data” and not much more. It is great fun trying to come up with answers to questions that are unanswerable, but foolish to expect more from the effort.

      On Tue, May 17, 2016 at 2:19 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 17, 2016 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

      • Alerted


        Comment by john zande — May 18, 2016 @ 8:41 am | Reply

        • Pithy is that you?

          On Wed, May 18, 2016 at 8:42 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — May 18, 2016 @ 9:33 am | Reply

        • Oops, hit enter before done. Note today’s follow-up on the same topic.


          On Wed, May 18, 2016 at 8:42 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — May 18, 2016 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  3. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

    Interesting your post and this came out on the same day. I find my self more and more believing that there is no free will and you are absolutely right that the implications for crime and punishment and moral absolutism are tremendous. I really like the way you added ‘subconcious’ thoughts to the decision making process…..I think that is a helpful concept to make the idea of “No Free Will” palatable to many trying to make sense such heresy!


    Comment by drakodoc — May 17, 2016 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

    • Anybody involved in sports or a sporting activity is well aware that much of what we do does not involve conscious thinking processes. If we only think of our conscious minds as “I” or “me” then who is hitting the golf ball or driving the car? In fact I identify more with my subconscious self than with my conscious self (or at least I try to).

      On Tue, May 17, 2016 at 3:37 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 20, 2016 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  4. […] his blog post, free will and the perfect pool table, my friend Steve concludes we do. I don’t think he has demonstrated that we actually do we […]


    Pingback by Free will: do we have it? | Random thoughts — May 19, 2016 @ 12:36 am | Reply

    • Actually, it really is premature to conclude one way or another whether we have free will. I find the arguments that we do not, unpersuasive at this point. Pragmatists say we are better off believing that we do and acting on that belief, which seems to be a reasonable position. One of my philosophy professors once decried that after 4000 years of philosophy we still couldn’t define the meaning is “is good” (and he was teaching ethics).

      Note that in my arguments I am harping on the narrowness of the definition of free will (it currently being limited to conscious actions) and if you can’t define it, then it is very hard to conclude anything. Right now, I feel that free will is more likely to exist than the alternatives. I think the same problem exists in the idea that one’s “self” is an illusion. Many philosophers believe that we have no “selves.” Again, I think this is a problem of definition. If by self, they mean the philosophical equivalent of a soul, I agree with them. There is no Master of your body that is in charge of your person and which represents you. You are your body; it is not a vessel for some spooky spirit. And, if defined that way, you almost have to be your “self” because what else would you be?


      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 19, 2016 @ 9:34 am | Reply

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