Free Will

I. Definition

When Ted Bundy was finally proven to have killed dozens of women in cold blood, there was only one way he could have escaped the sternest punishment (which he did receive) – the insanity defense.  Most of us agree that people are only responsible for their actions as long as they have the ability to “freely choose” them; and our legal system allows that if you are sufficiently deranged, you may not have this ability.  This capacity to choose is what we call “free will” and people throughout history have considered it the most unique and definitive quality of human beings, the one that supposedly shows we have souls, or consciousness, and makes us morally responsible and free, in contrast to animals.

Too bad we don’t know what it is, beyond that.  There are a variety of theories on the table but one of the most popular is that free will is an illusion.  That we are basically machines who only think we have free will. Because there may be no place for free will in a scientific model of the mind / brain.  Yet, morality, freedom, responsibility, agency, and love seem to depend on it, and nearly all of us feel that we have it, so philosophers continue to search for a way in which it could be more than a delusion.

Both “free” and “will” are subtle and ambiguous concepts.  Both are essential to the idea.  Freedom alone can depend on external constraints.  You might have a free mind, but if you’re behind bars, you’re not free to act as you choose.  The word “will” implies freedom of mind, not freedom in the world, but what is will? Our desires are generated by the vast and inscrutable machinery of our sub-conscious minds.  As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, famously quipped, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” From the point of view of cognitive science, Schopenhauer must be correct; because what we will arises from the deterministic physical mechanics of our brains, through experience.


II. Controversies

Compatibilism versus Incompatibilism: is free will compatible with determinism?

Incompatibilists — The Origination Argument: To have free will means to be the root cause of one’s own actions.  If determinism is true, then our choices are caused by events in the past over which we have no control.  Therefore, free will and determinism are incompatible.

Compatibilists – “the ability to do otherwise”: to have free will only means that one could always do otherwise than one did, and would do otherwise if it seemed like the best way to reach one’s goals.  This means that something in one’s psychology or world must be different to cause a different decision.  This definition of free will seems to side-step determinism.

Incompatibilists disagree, arguing that free will depends on having multiple possible futures to choose from, all consistent with the one past – that free choice must add something not already given by the past.

Incompatibilists – The Consequence Argument: To have free will means to have some control over our actions and their consequences.  If determinism is true then we have no control over past, present, or future events; they are all necessary consequences of what came before.


III. Famous Quotes

Quote #1:

 “Remove grace, and you have nothing whereby to be saved. Remove free will and you have nothing that could be saved.” – Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury, a Christian monk and philosopher of the 10th Century, expresses the paradox at the heart of Christianity.  According to Christian thought, God’s grace, which brings salvation, is beyond human abilities to know or modify.  Yet, free will is what makes humans morally responsible creature subject to damnation and salvation.  In other words, free will is irrelevant to salvation in one sense, and the whole point of it in another.

Quotation #2:

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

This un-philosophical argument is probably proof enough for most people that free will is real.  Unfortunately, it’s not hard to refute.  Tolstoy wasn’t familiar with the idea of robots. A simple robot could be programmed to raise an arm only in response to certain stimuli; the question is, are we just more complex robots?


IV. Types


Metaphysical libertarianism: Determinism is false and so free will is possible.

Hard determinism: Determinism is true and free will is not possible.

Hard incompatibilism: Not only is determinism incompatibile with free will but so is non-determinism; free will is impossible regardless of determinism.

The event-causal account: Choices are free only so long as they are not caused, deterministically, by events outside the mind.


Volition and intellect: Free will consists of being able to select the course of action deemed best to meet one’s goals. This might be compatible with determinism.

The hierarchical model: Free will consists of having “second order volitions.”  A first order volition is wanting something, e.g. “I want ice cream.”  A second order volition is wanting to want something – “I want to want ice cream.”  In other words, free will is being able to choose your will.

Reasons-Responsive View: Free will is being sensitive to reasons and able to respond to them.  In other words, if I can change my mind in light of new information or reasoning, I have free will.

Non-causal or “ownership” account: I can be considered in control of my volition merely by virtue of its being mine – that it happens inside me.


V. Free Will versus Epiphenomenalism

Epiphenomenalism is the theory that consciousness is an epiphenomenon – an accidental byproduct of the brain / mind – like the fact that blood is red.  The redness of blood serves no purpose and makes no difference to bodily processes (as far as I know).   Blood is red because of its chemical properties, but the redness itself doesn’t have any function.  If consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, it is nothing but the property of experiencing.  Our sense that it enables us to make choices is an illusion.  Our unconscious minds generate both our actions and the experience of volition, but in reality, the experience of willing does not actually cause our actions; that’s just a story our brains tell us.


VI. History

Nearly every philosopher and religion in history has something to say about free will; we shall only sample the diversity of these view-points.

Buddhism, founded around 500 BCE, addresses the problem differently from any of the western arguments we will be discussing.  The Buddhist “doctrine of inter-dependent arising” states that all things, including events and choices, arise through dependence on each other.  Nothing is its own and only cause. Buddhists also believe that our mental states and choices are conditioned by ignorance and habit, making any kind of free will not entirely free. An enlightened mind, free of ignorance and habit, no longer perceives itself as separate from the rest of the world. It’s hard to say what becomes of “free will” in that scenario. If all of our minds are part of a more fundamental oneness, then perhaps our wills must belong to that oneness — called by Buddhists, the Buddha-nature.

Aristotle and other Greeks discussed the problem of free will and declared that it consists of two things, “freedom of action” – the ability to do as one chooses, and “freedom of choice” the ability to choose what one chooses.  Aristotle classified this as a power, or capacity, of human beings. This has been called the “faculty” model of free will.  Both the Greeks and many since have claimed that it consists of both volition and reason; to be free, one must be able to evaluate one’s options and make choices based on that evaluation. Without reason, although you can still make choices, you will not be able to accomplish your goals, and you may be a slave to addiction, habit, or mind-control, effectively crippling free will.

Judaism and Christianity seem to have a special role for free-will in their creation story, as the vehicle of “original sin” in Genesis.  This idea that god gave humans free will and Eve abused it under the influence of the serpent can be interpreted in many ways.  Avoiding a naively literal interpretation, it seems to express that free will is humanity’s most god-like ability, the one which makes us morally responsible, and the one which allows evil into the world.

In the 17th century Renee Descartes proposed a possible solution to the problem of free will versus natural law.  His “interactionist dualism” imagines mind and matter as two entirely different substances which can each cause changes in the other.  This must be interpreted as both pro-free-will and anti-determinism, since it means that the mind can cause physical events in the brain that were not caused by previous physical events.  Descartes model has a variety of seemingly unsolvable problems, such as the question of how mind and matter can interact if they are entirely different substances.

David Hume and Thomas Hobbes seemed to consider free will only in terms of “freedom of action” or what we might call “liberty.”  They therefore believed that free will and determinism are compatible; as long as you are not prevented, by external constraints, from acting as you choose, you have free will. This perspective dismisses the question of purely internal freedom, a point of view well representing the rationalism and pragmatism that took over western philosophy during their lifetimes (17th-18th century).

Then in the 1980s, French neuroscientist Benjamin Libet carried out an experiment which many have taken as proof that free will is an illusion.  He instructed subjects to push a button, at their will, and to note the position of the second hand on the clock at the moment they made that decision.  At the same time, he used electrodes to measure the electric “readiness potential” in the brain – an indication of when the subjects’ brains prepared to push the button.  He found that the “readiness potential” preceded the conscious awareness of that choice by several tenths of a second. Indicating that their brains decided to push the button before their conscious minds (thought they) did.  This suggests that the conscious sense of will is a deception played on us by our brains.  This interpretation of the experiment is still debated and similar or improved versions of the experiment carried out in order to support or deny this conclusion.

At the same time, those who seek to fit real free will into a scientific view of the universe have been much taken with quantum theory, which seems to prove that at the sub-atomic scale all events are slightly un-determined.  However, others have pointed out that introducing fundamental randomness into physics may not work in favor of free will.  Random forces seem no more conducive to free will than determinism!


VII.  Free Will in Pop Culture

Example #1: The Oracle in The Matrix:

In the second Matrix film, Neo and the Oracle go deeper into the problem of determinism versus free will, raised in the first film.  The Oracle again hints in several ways that their choices are already determined.  “We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do.”  She does know everything Neo is going to do, so he apparently cannot choose to do otherwise.  She says that she’s there because she likes candy, hinting that their actions are determined by the way they were born, or created, in her case.  She says that Neo isn’t there to make a choice, but rather to understand why he makes it.  This sounds like a mixture of physicalist determinism, epiphenomenalism, and some sort of vague unexplained spirituality.

Example #2: Westworld

One thing the television show Westworld does particularly well is dramatize the idea that free will is an illusion.  All of the robots in the show believe they are human and choosing freely, when in reality, they are entirely controlled by programs and the commands of human beings.  The most powerful moments in the series may be when each of several robots learns that they are robots – that their passions, prides, desires, and plans were programmed.  This should be taken in at least two ways – (1) as an examination of issues concerning artificial intelligence, and (2) as an examination of the human condition, especially vis-à-vis free will.


Which of the following is most disagreed about by philosophers regarding free will?





Which of the following best summarizes modern philosophical views of free will?





Which of the following is true?





Which of the following is most likely an epiphenomenon?





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