Conscious Robots Theory

Do you have free will?

Are you free to make your own moral choices?

Did the death-row murderer have a free choice to commit murder?

The Turtles Thought Experiment. 

Can humans ever choose “for themselves”?

Does any human have “free will” worth having?

Are we no more free than a chess computer?

You decide.  

The Turtles thought experiment goes like this.

We all have a set of “values” – a set of values that determine how we make decisions, a set of values that make us who we are. 

Values are what you use to make a decision. 

A chess computer has one value – capture the king. Every decision it makes – whether to move the pawn forward one space or two, whether to take the knight or the bishop – is dependent on this single value. Does this move improve my chances of achieving my target  – to capture the king. 

A lion has a slightly wider set of values. Stay alive. Capture food to eat. Mate with as many high lionesses as it can. Should I attack that herd of elephants on my own… it has to weigh up “chances of death” with “how hungry am I – is this my only chance of food?” Is it time to challenge the old lion that’s in control of the pride – or do I need to bide my time for another few months? It has to weigh up the value “mate with lioness” with the value “stay alive”. 

Humans live in much more complicated societies than lions. Thus we have a much wider set of values upon which to base our decisions. 

We still have the value “get enough food to eat”, but we have other values about food – maybe we want to save money, but we don’t want to cook and we want to avoid junk food – when we make our decision about which restaurant, we have to weigh up three competing values. 

, maybe we have a value “lose weight”, which means we want to avoid eating too much food full stop – a lot of avoiding going on with food choices. 

You might have values about what you eat – whether you should avoid junk avoid, whether you should eat healthy, whether meat is murder 

and maybe your values tell you that it’s important to make a lot of money in your job or business or maybe you think that personal wealth is a shallow goal and true satisfaction lies in the caring professions such as teaching or medicine

You might have political values –  maybe you believe a well-funded state is necessary to support the less fortunate members of society, or maybe you think that an organisation that has a monopoly on violence should be given as little money as possible…

You may have religious values – maybe you believe in a christian god or a muslim god or maybe you believe that when you die there will not be an unaccountable deity with a monopoly on the afterlife sitting in judgement of your every weakness. 

But whatever 

– whatever your values are, the reason they are so important is because 

your values are what 

you use to make 

all the important decisions in life

Some decisions are simply logic – like is it safe to cross the road now, or when to refuel your car

– Decisions such as who to marry, who to vote for, how much to donate to charity to donate to, how to bring up your kids…  it’s these values it’s these values that you’re going to use to make all the important decisions in life.

Let me compare your process of decision making to that of… say… a lion. 

A lion also has a set of values that it uses to make decisions. It needs to eat. That’s probably its most important value. It doesn’t have a value that says “don’t hurt other animals” because then it wouldn’t eat. It has another value that says “find ways to mate with high quality lionesses” and another value that says “don’t get killed by a more powerful lion” – and that value tends to override the “mate with a lioness value”. And it also have a value that says “don’t waste energy doing much at all that isn’t one of the above”, which is why it sleeps a lot. 

Now, you’re probably going to agree with me when I say “the lion doesn’t choose its values”. It does have the freedom to work out the best way to achieve those values, but it doesn’t choose whether to eat or to stay alive or to mate – those are values that it’s born with – they are hard-baked into its genes. 

Of course, we humans – we’re different when it comes to our values. We choose for ourselves whether we’re Christian or Jewish, we choose for ourselves whether we vote left or right, we choose for ourselves whether or not to be vegan. 

Because if we didn’t choose those values… if we’re making all your important decisions using values that have simply been given to you by someone else – you aren’t free. You’re simply a machine, a robot, carrying out those orders. Those orders given to you by someone else. 

Now, of course – what’s most important here…

 is that those values are 


That you have chosen them 

for yourself

using your own judgement 

It’s crucial that you aren’t simply copying all those values from someone else – that your values weren’t simply given to you by someone else. 

Just like a chess machine. A chess machine has one goal in life. It has one “value”. To capture the opposition’s king. That’s its only value. Every decision it makes is “does this help me achieve my goal, my value – to capture the king?”. And it has the freedom to choose all its moves. But what it doesn’t have is the freedom to choose to “be nice” and let you win occasionally. 

So, I just want to go back now, and check that we’re ok with the idea that all the important “free will” decisions you make are determined by reference to your “values”. I’m not talking about whether it’s safe to cross the road, because that’s not so much free will. That’s just a calculation of what’s safe. Unless of course, you’re jay walking, or crossing the road when the government have said you shouldn’t be crossing. 

Because whether your decide to cross the road 

You find out that your friend has committed a crime. 

Should you report your friend to the appropriate authorities?

Ok – I hear you – you need to know the crime. 

Did he run a red light, or did he murder his wife in cold blood?

And you need to know a bit about your friend – do you owe him a big debt, or is he really a bit of pain who’s been far too successful financially and deserves a bit of come-uppance?

Well, there we have the point of this exercise. 

The point is how you make the decision. What thought processes do you go through and what values do you use to help you decide?

Do you have a set of values that requires you to report any crime, regardless of the severity and who committed it? Or do you have a set of values that considers that you are 

– Do you have a duty to report the crime, regardless?

– What about loyalty to a friend?


We all have deeply held values about such things. And it’s those values that we use to make any complex decision involving free will. 

And of course, because we have free will, picked those values ourselves

Because if we didn’t pick those values ourselves, and we were simply making a choice based on values that someone else had forced us to follow… well, we’d just be a chess computer, woudlnt’ we. We’d be making our day to day decisions to achieve the 

So… where do our fundamental free-will values come from? The values that make us who we are – the values that underlie our whole claim to free will?

Presumably it’s from some combination of parents, school, maybe church, friends, books, YouTube videos – we get exposed to all these ideas, values, ways of thinking… and then we choose which of those values we consider appropriate for our own lives. 

We don’t blindly accepted all the values of, say, our parents to the exclusion of all other views, because that wouldn’t be free will – we’d just be carrying out our parents’ wishes. We’d have been indoctrinated – we’d be… robots, programmed by our parents.

So.. – no – we make our own rational free will choices – we examine all the potential values offered up by parents, society, books, church… and out of all those, we choose our own personal set of values. The values that make you who we are – the values that make up our free will.

Cheese tasting. – send off to brain, comes back “that tastes better”


But here’s a problem.

To choose that set of values…

We need a set of values…

A set of deeper lying values…

But then.. Where did those values come from? How did we choose those values – 

We need a third set of values, even deeper than the second set…

You can see the problem.

You can see that it’s beginning to get a little awkward for free will. 

It’s what they call an infinite regression 

– otherwise known as “turtles all the way down”… 

In the same way that a chess computer couldn’t pick a new purpose, because… how would it know which purpose to pick unless it has been programmed with the criteria on which to base its decision, we humans can’t pick our own set of values because we need to have already been given a set of values to know which varies to pick.

Conscious robots theory states that, at the bottom of all those turtles is one single value upon which all others are based – “maximise the survival chances of your genes”.. 

Because there’s no other value that can stand on its own without another turtle below it.  “Maximise the survival chances of your genes” is the only value that can ever have been created by the only mechanism that can create anything that “lives”.