Do we have Free Will? And why it matters to you.

You might think that after several thousand years of debate we have exhausted all the arguments as to whether we have Free Will, or whether our actions are caused by prior events. So say the protagonists on both sides of the argument: but they still argue! Now there are some new approaches that could throw light on the problem.

Free Will is the idea that we are able to choose between alternative courses of action and actually cause something to happen. For example, I can decide to lift my arm and I consider this to be something I could have decided to do or not.

Determinism is the idea that all events are necessary effects of earlier events: future events are as fixed and unalterable as past events.

Determinism is not quite the same as ‘fatalism’. Fatalism is the doctrine that what is going to happen is going to happen regardless of what you do. For example, you will die of a heart attack on such and such a date, regardless of changing your diet, exercising, medical intervention and so on. Determinism does not predict necessary future outcomes; it merely states that whatever the outcome turns out to be it was the result of prior natural causes.

This idea of determinism is sometimes held to come from Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the laws of motion and gravity. These led us to the idea of a ‘clockwork universe’. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) claimed that if we knew all the laws of nature and the position of all the particles in the universe at a particular instant we could know the future (and the past) precisely. He did not, though, say how we could start to verify this.

In fact the idea of determinism is not recent and has roots in ancient Greek philosophy and has come through various brands of Christianity before Newton.

It is only in the last few years that we have realised that Newton’s laws do not imply a clockwork universe. In certain circumstances these laws cause chaotic behaviour. The mathematician James Lighthill (1924 – 1998) even apologised to the lay community for mathematicians giving a false impression for 250 years. (Lighthill 1986)

In the 20th century Newtonian physics was displaced by Quantum Mechanics which showed that determinism of the kind envisaged by Laplace is false. For instance it is not possible to predict when an individual atom of radium will emit an alpha particle and become an atom of radon. All that can be predicted is what proportion of a certain mass of radium will have turned into radon in a certain time.

One philosophical response to quantum mechanics is to insist that indeterminism is true: so our actions must be random, and we don’t cause them anyway. The effort here seems to be to deny free will regardless.

You might think that a determinist would necessarily shun the idea of free will and personal responsibility since our actions are all the product of physical brain activity over which the self (if it exists) has no control. Those who believe that determinism and free will are mutually exclusive – are known as incompatibilists.

Those who believe that free will can be reconciled with determinism are called ‘compatibilists’ and according to the contemporary philosopher John Searle (b1932) this is the majority view among philosophers.

Incompatibilists who believe in determinism are known as ‘hard determinists’.

There is no word (as yet) for people who believe that both determinism is false and freewill does not exist (randomists, perhaps?).

One hard determinist is the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore (b1945): “… all those things that you do when you feel that you are using your mind (perceiving, thinking, feeling, choosing, and so on) are entirely the result of the physical actions of the myriad cells that make up your brain.” Consequently, “It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious intention and those that are pure reflexes or that are caused by disease or damage to the brain.” It seems to follow that “the addict is not ill and is surely not committing a crime simply by seeking pleasure.” (Blakemore 1988)

Another hard determinist, or perhaps a randomist, since he allows the influence of random events in biological development and behaviour, is the biologist Anthony Cashmore. Even if quantum theory eventually shows that determinism is false “it would do little to support the notion of free will: I cannot be held responsible for my genes and my environment; similarly I can hardly be held responsible for any [random] process that may influence my behaviour.” (Cashmore 2010)

Whether or not determinism is true there are philosophers who believe that free will is impossible on purely logical grounds. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) said “A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.

Carrying on this theme the philosopher Galen Strawson (b1952) believes that what one wants is “just there, just a given, not something you chose or engineered – it was just there like most of your preferences in food, music, footwear, sex, interior lighting and so on… [Wants] will be just products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in… you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are.” (Strawson G 2003) If you can make yourself the way you are then you must have some nature that enables you to do that; if you can make that nature then you must have that ability built in and so on for an infinite regress. Since there is an infinite regress the idea of free will must be false.

Determinism is of course also tied to an infinite regress which is only terminated by the idea of the ‘big bang’ (but what caused the big bang?).

There are philosophers such as Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) who believe, contrary to Strawson, that Man is a being of self-made soul. (Rand 1966)

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) claimed we have free-will whether we like it or not: “We are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.” (Sartre 1956)

The free-will determinism debate is anchored in fixed metaphysical positions which are then dressed up in complex and seemingly incontrovertible arguments.

Compatibilism regards ‘free will’ not as independent agency but, rather, the feeling of independent agency. Thus a person acts freely when they do what they wished to do and they feel they could have done otherwise. One of the earliest compatibilists was Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679): “…from the use of the words free will, no liberty can be inferred of the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do.” (Hobbes 1690) A person would not do what they wished to do, or do what they did not wish to, except if they were coerced by acute discomfort, threat or torture.

For the compatibilist the wish is determined by the genetic makeup and life history of the person, nature plus nurture, so free will is just being able to act as one wishes without coercion. However, the person, according to determinism, has no power to change his or her future whether he or she is coerced or not. So the feeling of having been able to have done otherwise than what he or she did must be a delusion. Thinking freely must also be an impossibility. In particular, the espousal of the doctrine of determinism must have been determined, and those who defend the opposite, non-determinism, must have been similarly determined.

This leads to an endless debate between non-determinists who believe they can induce the determinist to make a non-determined decision and determinists who believe they can determinedly box in the non-determinist to see his impotence. John Searle was evidently once asked, “If someone could unequivocally prove determinism, would you accept it?” to which Searle replied, “Are you asking me to freely accept or reject such a proposition?” He points out that if “you go into a restaurant and they give you a menu and you have to decide between the veal and the steak. You cannot say to the waiter, ‘Look, I’m a determinist. Que sera sera’ because even doing that is an exercise of freedom. There is no escaping the necessity of exercising your own free choice.” (Searle 2000)

In other words whether we have free will or not, it is a difference that does not make a difference.

Incompatibilists who reject determinism but accept free will are called Libertarians. Libertarianism is the theory about freedom that despite what has happened in the past, and given the present state of affairs and ourselves, just as they are, we can choose or decide differently than we do – act so as to make the future different.

The idea is that the future normally consists of several alternatives and one has the power to choose freely which alternative to pursue.

A modern libertarian is the former New South Wales Supreme Court Judge, David Hodgson (1939-2012). He accepts that some combination of deterministic laws and quantum randomness is one form of causation. But he insists there is another kind of causation operating in the conscious decisions and actions of human beings, and perhaps also of non-human animals, ie ‘volitional causation’ or ‘choice’. He suggests that physical law does not necessarily imply determinism, ie a number of possible futures may all be consistent with physical law. He grants that the choices a person might come to may partly be the result of unconscious reasons and motives codified in the neural mechanisms. But the function of consciousness is to “allow choice from available alternatives on the basis of consciously felt reasons …the rationality and insight of normal adult human beings, even though far from complete or perfect, is generally sufficient for them to be considered as having free will and responsibility.” (Hodgson 1999)

The motive of both libertarians and compatibilists seems to be to justify holding people morally responsible for their actions. The libertarian might also claim that if we are not free agents then there is no basis for morality at all. The fear is that if moral responsibility is a prerequisite for guilt, blame, reward and punishment, and no one can do anything other than what they do, then no one should be rewarded or punished just as hard determinism seems to imply. Some hard determinists claim that reward and punishment is justified on the grounds that people do respond to reward and punishment in a determined way. But this leads to the view that the rewarders and punishers do what they do without grounds or justice, whereas the rewarded or punished are suckers, taken in by the authority of the judgers, continuing to believe in their guilt or worth. (Warnock 1998)

Compatibilists hold that even though people cannot do anything other than what they do, they are nevertheless morally responsible. There is an argument from Donald MacKay (1922-1987) which shows that even if there is a Laplacian demon or God who knows all about the state of my brain and even if He claims to be able to predict my every action I can have no reason to believe any of His predictions (which necessarily must include His knowledge of whether I believe the prediction or not). As I do not know whether He has predicted I will believe or not, He has given me no grounds for believing the prediction or not. (McIntyre 1981)

So according to MacKay, even if the universe is determined the self must regard itself as an agent capable of moral choices and act accordingly. Determinism makes no difference to how we conduct our lives.

Philosophers of a determinist persuasion have stuffed the self into a variety of strait-jackets in an attempt to avoid the dreaded idea of the soul. Personal experience must be denied or at least proscribed at the risk of introducing personal agency. The idea of a responsible self is opposed by the idea of scientific explanation and prediction. On the other hand philosophers of a libertarian conviction try to find in science evidence that the world is not ‘causally closed’. This could allow free will and justify the retention of our jurisprudence, against the revisionist urgings of those determinists who feel all punishment is unjust.

Peter Strawson (1919-2006) thinks that the metaphysical dispute between the compatibilists and the incompatibilists is ill-framed. It can be resolved if each side would relax a little. The compatibilist normally portrays jurisprudence as an objective instrument of social control, excluding the essential element of moral responsibility. The incompatibilist is appalled that if determinism is true then the concepts of moral obligation and responsibility really have no application, and the practices of punishing and moral condemnation etc are really unjustified. (Strawson P 1962)

But both sides, says Strawson, neglect the fact that “it matters to us [a great deal] whether the actions of other people – and particularly of some other people – reflect attitudes towards us of goodwill, affection, or esteem on the one hand or contempt, indifference, or malevolence on the other …The human commitment to participation in ordinary inter-personal relationships …is too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world that, in it, there were no longer any such things as inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them… The existence of the general framework of attitudes itself is something we are given with the fact of human society. As a whole, it neither calls for, nor permits, an external ‘rational’ justification.”

According to Strawson, determinism does not entail that anyone who caused an injury was ignorant of causing it or had acceptable reasons for reluctantly going along with causing it. Nor does it entail that nobody knows what he’s doing or that everybody’s behaviour is unintelligible in terms of conscious purposes or that everybody lives in a world of delusion or that nobody has a moral sense which is what would be required if determinism was at all relevant. Compressing Strawson’s argument down from his 11,000 words : If determinism is true this would imply that our nature includes the concept of moral responsibility that we apply in our jurisprudence. It would not be rational, even if determinism is true, to change our world to dispense with our moral attitudes.

Nicholas Maxwell recasts the problem from ‘free-will versus determinism’ to ‘wisdom versus physicalism’. (Maxwell 2005) For of all the various constructions that could be placed on the term free-will he considers that the one most worth having is not the ‘capacity to choose‘ but rather, ‘the capacity to realise what is of value in a range of circumstances‘ (in both senses of the word ‘realise’ ie: apprehend and make real). Secondly he characterises physicalism as “the doctrine that the universe is physically comprehensible.” It is not determinism but the idea that the universe is understandable that characterises physicalism. The problem of free will then comes down to how can that which is of value associated with human life (or sentient life more generally) exist embedded in the physical universe? In particular how can understanding and wisdom exist in the physical universe?

Both Peter Strawson’s and Nicholas Maxwell’s reformulation of the free-will debate appear to be compatibilist with respect to moderated concepts of free-will and determinism. Anything that weakens fundamentalist views ought to be welcomed, though how these views can be taken forward into empirical investigation is not apparent.

I think that one of the difficulties with the debate on free will is what it means to talk about ‘moral responsibility’. The usual interpretation of this concept is that when someone has done something reprehensible we hold them to account: we blame them for some situation and punish them. Blame is the attempt to impose shame on the part of the offender so as to inhibit activity. The dictionary definition of ‘responsibility’ is only vaguely related to this scenario. Responsibility is ” (Latin respondeo = to respond) the quality or state of being able to respond to any claim or duty.” Thus a responsible person can set in place those procedures necessary to prevent harm; if he has done wrong he can act to put the situation right; if some situation arises that is perceived as morally wrong he can take the requisite actions. Irresponsibility is where one seeks to evade one’s duty by excuses and inaction. Those who claim that no one is responsible for anything should be asked what they are ashamed of.

It seems to me that what is worth having for one’s self and for people in the society at large is this ability to respond to situations (to take ‘responsibility’) and do whatever is necessary in the circumstances we find ourselves. This means that responsibility is tied in closely with wisdom: it is responsible to acquire wisdom, it is wise to act responsibly.

Whether we have ‘free will’ in some ultimate sense or whether our actions are ultimately ‘determined’ is a metaphysical matter. Such concerns are junior to the fact of ‘moral responsibility’ which we can (hopefully) exercise regardless of our metaphysical leanings.

Libertarianism does not entail the idea that decisions are divorced from circumstances. It does presuppose, I believe, the ability to predict the future with some degree of confidence. “Able to choose otherwise in the same circumstances” restricts the possibilities for ‘free will’ by demanding that free will means nothing more than caprice. Responsible action requires gathering the information relevant to the decision at which time the decision may become ‘necessitated’ by what one now knows. This does not mean that that information caused the decision or that one is relieved of the responsibility for that decision.

Scientific investigation of the questions of free-will and compatibilism are difficult in principle because they are metaphysical issues that science cannot address directly. The particular side of the debate that people take would seem to depend on introspection of their decision making processes. For much of the 20th century psychological investigation of introspective accounts was considered worthless. So there is very little research on the subject.

There are however questions related to the metaphysical problem of free will that can be investigated empirically. For instance, the question of whether one’s attitude to the question of free-will affects one’s moral sense has been investigated.

In one experiment 119 undergraduates were randomly assigned to one of five groups to answer the same set of 15 standard reading-comprehension, mathematical and reasoning problems. (Vohs & Schooler 2008) Participants were told they would receive $1 for each problem they correctly solved. In three of the groups participants marked their own answers and paid themselves after which they shredded their answers. This gave ample opportunity to cheat. The other two groups had no opportunity to cheat. The five groups were treated slightly differently.

The three cheating-possible groups were given a series of 15 statements which they were supposed to think about for one minute each.

One group were given statements that were pro-determinism such as “a belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science” and “Ultimately we are biological computers – designed by evolution, built through genetics, and programmed by the environment“.

Another group were given statements that were pro-freewill such as “I am able to override the genetic and environmental factors that sometimes influence my behaviour” and “Avoiding temptation requires that I exert my free will.”

The third group were given neutral statements such as “Sugar cane and sugar beets are grown in 12 countries.”

One of the two no-cheating groups was also given the pro-determinism statements to study before doing the test. The other was given the free-will statements. So this gave two groups of interest that could cheat – one primed with determinism, one primed with freewill; and three control groups to act as a ‘base line’. The average reward for the group primed for determinism that were able to cheat was $11 ± 1 whereas the other four groups each obtained approx $7 ± 1 (with non-significant variation).
free will and cheaters
It thus appears that the spreading of deterministic views is liable to increase modest forms of unethical behaviour, a result significant at the 1% level. Whether this generalises to more serious offences and whether the belief in determinism may compensate these minor offences with an increased compassion for the less well off and a decrease in the desire for revenge is not known.

Nevertheless it seems that the question of free-will is not just philosophical but is of great interest in jurisprudence as libertarians such as David Hodgson claimed.

So do we have free will? Well, if this experiment generalises we’d better believe it.


Blakemore C 1988 The Mind Machine BBC Books pp7, 270,170

Cashmore AR (2010) The Lucretian Swerve: The biological basis of human behaviour and the criminal justice system Proc Nat Acad Sci USA vol 107(10) p4499-4504

Hobbes T (1690) Leviathan chapter 21

Hodgson D (1999) Hume’s Mistake Journal of Consciousness Studies vol 6 no 8-9 p210

Lighthill J (1986) The Recently Recognised Failure of Predictability in Newtonian Dynamics Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 407: 35-50.

Maxwell N (2005) Science versus Realization of Value, not Determinism versus Choice Journal of Consciousness Studies vol 12 no 1 p53

McIntyre JA (1981) MacKay’s Argument for Freedom Journal of American Scientific Affiliation 33 (Sept) p169-171

Rand A (1966) Philosophy and a Sense of Life The Romantic Manifesto Signet p 28

Sartre J-P (1956) Being and Nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology (transl HE Barnes) New York: Philosophical library p78

Searle JR (2000) Consciousness Free Action and the Brain Journal of Consciousness Studies vol 7 no 10 p11

Strawson G (2003) The Buck Stops – Where? (Interview with T Sommers) The Believer (march 2003)

Strawson P (1962) Freedom & Resentment Proceedings of the British Academy vol 48 p1-25

KD Vohs & Schooler JW (2008) The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating Psychological Science vol 19(1) p 49

Warnock M (1998) An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics Duckworth p 92

2 thoughts on “Do we have Free Will? And why it matters to you.

  1. Thank you for your new post. It helps people like me that aren’t at ease with the usual philosophical writings that are often obscure! You do a great job clarifying and simplifying concepts that can be difficult to grasp sometimes when explained by others!

    About Galen Strawson’s belief that free will doesn’t exist: “Since there is an infinite regress the idea of free will must be false.”
    Isn’t it the signature of a false direction in the reasoning?

    About Libertarianism: “The idea is that the future normally consists of several alternatives and one has the power to choose freely which alternative to pursue.” This sentence could signify that different futures exist already: one can choose freely between them but can’t really create them! What do you think?

    • Thanks, Alain, for your kind words.

      > About Galen Strawson’s belief that free will doesn’t exist: “Since there
      > is an infinite regress the idea of free will must be false.”
      > Isn’t it the signature of a false direction in the reasoning?

      Yes, I agree. The ‘infinite regress’ argument is designed to show that there is an error in the premises. But it does not reveal which of the premises is in error or whether there are hidden premises assumed but not proved. The effort to pin the infinite regress on a particular premise is mistaken as I tried to show by pointing out the infinite regress in determinism.

      > About Libertarianism: “The idea is that the future normally consists of
      > several alternatives and one has the power to choose freely which
      > alternative to pursue.” This sentence could signify that different futures
      > exist already: one can choose freely between them but can’t really create
      > them! What do you think?

      The ‘many universes’ interpretation of quantum mechanics would suggest that all the alternatives might exist already. But as usually stated the interpretation does not give you any choice as to which of the many alternative universes you now experience: there are an infinite number of copies of ‘you’ in all the other universes, experiencing that universe just as you do this one now. I personally find this idea so divorced from our every day experience that it is irrelevant to our quest for wisdom which is what philosophy is supposed to be about. That quest assumes that our decisions do change our future.

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