Do We Have Free Will?
Thomas Ash

In some sense, you have just chosen to read this essay... or at least to start it. But was this a free choice and if so, in what sense? If you're surreptitiously reading a philosophy essay when you should be working, can you be blamed for this? These are the sorts of questions that intrigue people in the age-old philosophical debate about "Free Will", which tends to get muddied by its archaic name and the strong emotions it excites. Beyond the rhetoric, though, are two relatively clear questions. Is every choice we make determined by past events ultimately beyond our control? And in what sense does the answer make us free or unfree? Too often people just assume that if the answer to the first question is 'no', free will is home and dry - in fact, both answers have implications for it.

Determinists often answer the first question with a confident 'yes.' Many think that the scientific revolution, particularly since Newton gave his neat equations of motion, has shown that the universe is a well-oiled machine. Just as you can predict the operation of an old-fashioned clock if you know the motion of all the cogs and how they fit together, you could in theory predict the future of the universe given a complete knowledge of its current state. It should be no objection to this idea that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle shows the impossibility of getting a complete picture of the universe at any one time, or that most predictions would change the very future they predict. The idea is that the whole universe (humans and their decisions included) is a giant machine, in which one state inexorably leads on to the next, and so is in theory predictable. And some scientists think that there is no place in this worldview for a theological and metaphysical notion like free will, which does have its roots in pre-scientific times that lacked our modern conception of causation and physical laws, seeing every tiny event as the result of Will, either of Man or God.

But does modern science really prove that we live in a clockwork universe? Some scientists interpret Quantum Physics as showing the exact opposite, that some events at the subatomic level are truly random and undetermined. Particles may even pop into existence for no reason. Others interpret the same fundamental equations differently, supposing that there are hidden variables which do reveal the apparently random to have been determined all along. The first group then accuses the second of groundlessly assuming that "God does not play dice", in Einstein's famous (notorious?) phrase; the implication is that they can't get out of the old, Newtonian way of thinking.

But those looking to say that Quantum Physics proves indeterminism will be dissapointed by the fact that modern physics is a lot less certain than such popularized newspaper summaries. Ted Honderich points out that the orthodox theory's focus is not events but our perception of them[1], and also that after 75 years no clear evidence has been given of a random event even at the subatomic level. And of course our everyday lives bear out the existence of physical laws at the 'macro' level of falling apples and predictable clocks. The fact is that no one has produced a levitating apple, or any other less improbable violation of physical laws at the 'macro' level. This has led many physicists to accept that, even if Quantum Theory makes specific subatomic events indeterminate, the macro level remains almost wholly determined. In fact, if it is possible to deduce any general principle from our past experience, it is clearly that events at the 'macro' level of our experience follow constant, theoretically predictable patterns. And this near-determinism, which makes our actions 99.99% predictable rather than 100% predictable, is surely little comfort to an indeterminist.

Could an indeterminist argue that while our experience shows constant physical laws to apply apples and clocks, this cannot be taken to apply to such radically different things as human minds? Possibly - he could always point out that we take decisions to be mental, not simply physical, events. There are two problems for this line of argument: neuroscience has proved that mental events are more closely related to physical events in the brain than traditionally supposed, and human thought shows almost as much regularity as the physical world.

As with Quantum Theory, neuroscience is a developing story, its implications are not yet clear, and a full and convincing explanation of it is impossible in this space. It would be premature to say that it has proven that our brains act just like any other deterministic physical system, as no complex, analytical decision has been traced point-by-point through the brain. The working of a clock, by contrast, has been explained and predicted cog-by-cog, law-by-law. However, a constant correlation between mental and neural events has been all but proven, and we can now identify the types of neural activity in specific parts of the brain associated with recognising faces, speaking, analytic though and emotions. Neuroscience has made impressive progress here and elsewhere, and cannot be dismissed as speculative or lacking in hard data. It still cannot answer the perplexing question of how the physical relates to the mental, and which causes which. Nonetheless, the mere fact that there is a correlation between the two implies that the mind must follow the same physically deterministic train tracks that the electrons in the brain do, unless it can somehow make them disobey the laws of nature. And this is the same sort of terrible science you find in Lucretius's account of the will making atoms "swerve." Free will comes from a pre-scientific worldview, which saw the mind as quite separate from the body and the brain. With this picture, free will seemed easy to account for: decisions took place in the mind, where undetermined free will operated, which then ordered the body to act in a certain way. But this view is no longer tenable, as we see no evidence of a mysterious mental homunculus[2] interfering with our apparently regular, physically deterministic neural processes.

The great 18th century philosopher David Hume was impressed with the way human nature seemed to be constant across cultures[3] and thought that the correlation between motives and actions was as close as that between physical causes and events. If this were really the case, indeterminists would be guilty of inconsistency in accepting physical determinism (at least at the macro level.) What equivalent evidence can we offer for mental determinism? Well, Hume cited our reliance on predictable human nature and motives in our everyday life, whether it be in trade, politics or education. It is true that we feel confident in predicting that if someone feels pain when they put their hand in a fire, they will seek to avoid it, or that bribes will make people vote for you, unless they have been taught that bribery is wrong. Any indeterminism must take this predictability into account, and allow that motives, genes, environment and upbringing strongly incline us to certain actions, even if they do not necessitate them. However, none of this is as strong evidence for determinism as repeatable experiments. Psychology is not yet the science of human action is aspires to be

The above justifications of determinism depend on a certain mechanistic scientific or psychological worldview. There is significant evidence for such a picture, but it is still in question and may eventually be disproved. Science does not claim to understand the world as completely and certainly as some of its enthusiasts think; psychology certainly ought not to. Besides the fact that neither can account for the mind anywhere near as fully as a clock, both are vulnerable to John Hospers' criticism that they assume the very uniform, causal universe they set out to prove. We cannot yet claim to have found causes, psychological or neuroscientific, for all decisions, but we assume that there must be a hidden cause. But no such unexplained event is allowed to count as evidence against determinism, though explained events count as evidence for it - clearly inconsistent.

A better, more theoretical justification of determinism can be given, which relies not on empirical evidence from science and psychology but on the notion of reasons. This, I think, tilts the scales decisively towards determinism being true, if they were not leaning that way beforehand. Suppose someone asks me why I chose to take a slice of chocolate cake. I will answer by giving certain reasons: I like the taste, I thought no one else wanted it, I'd eaten tofu for lunch and so didn't feel guilty about the cake. Of course, such conscious, rational reasons are rarely the whole story: all else remaining equal, I might have abstained from the cake because a trendy self-help book had filled me with guilt for not perpetually eating steamed vegetables, or because I was fluey and so not thinking straight.

But if there is always a set of reasons (rational and irrational, conscious and subconscious, facts about your personality and facts about your environment) which fully explains each choice, then it must be determined by those reasons. These reasons must in turn be determined; as Bertrand Russell pointed out, we can act as we please, but we can't please as we please. And indeterminists, just as much as determinists, accept that there are always reasons for our choosing one way rather than another; meaningful free will requires it. Unless choices can cause themselves[4], which seems paradoxical, the only alternative is that they happen partly for no reason, and this clearly does not fit any definition of free will. This reveals the flaw with attempts to ground free will in Quantum Theory: all it could show is the existence of partly uncaused - ie. partly random[5] - choices, not freely willed ones. Neither can an indeterminist say that while she accepts that all choices either have reasons or are random, she thinks one of those choices is 'free will.' Free will is a certain view of how we make choices, so the question becomes whether it decides spontaneously and without cause (which does not seem very like free will), or is led to decisions by reasons (for instance, a belief that while the cake would be tasty, it would show great willpower to ignore that and eat an apple instead.)

This raises the question of what is meant by free will. Does it imply, as many philosophers presuppose, that actions are partly undetermined, and thus partly uncaused? This seems contradictory. As we have seen above, we are rightly very resistant to the suggestion that a random action can be an instance of free will. We can confidently say that this is not what we mean by the term. In that case, might free will be compatible with determinism?

A famous philosophical tradition, running through Hobbes and Hume, maintains that it is. Compatibilists say than an action is freely chosen if someone decides to do it without any compulsion, say from someone holding a gun to their head, or a drug slipped into their drink. There is something to this definition - for one thing, it reflects the legal standard for saying someone has chosen to commit a crime "of their own free will", for which they are taken to bear some responsibility. If this were all there were to our notion of free will, it would be entirely compatible with determinism - but unfortunately it is not.

The problem comes when you have to decide what counts as a compelled action. Determinism seems to make every action as compelled as every other. John Hospers invites us to consider the pilot of a hijacked plane. We could say that he is compelled to fly it to Beirut (or wherever) by the man pointing a gun in his face. But in fact, he could always defy the hijackers - he has just been given a very persuasive reason not to. This is not in principle different from his ordinary decision to fly the plan to collect his paycheck, which is simply determined by more complex reasons, like his sense of duty, or his desire for wealth. The only thing he couldn't do, strictly speaking, is obey a command to fly to Mars, unless he'd souped-up his 747. But saying that a person (or a plane, for that matter) has free will just if the options presented to it are physically possible is surely too broad.

The compatibilist might then say that the reason the pilot's everyday decision to do his job is different from the coerced hijacking is that it flows from his normal character, rather than from some unusual, external cause. Again, this seems to capture something - we feel that someone is morally and legally responsible for an action only if they are not under the influence of some powerful force, like panic, the threat of death, or a drug or psychological disorder. For us to blame someone, the action has to be "down to them", reflecting some malevolent desire we can condemn rather than the passing influence of a drug. Undetermined actions do not seem to come from the person who supposedly chooses them, but from a quantum fluctuation or other random event, so perhaps determinism is actually required for free will. If an entirely peaceable person spontaneously, randomly hit someone, we would not blame her, or say the action was really her choice.

The problem with this account is that it would grant a vending machine free will. After all, when fed a coin, the vending machine makes the decision itself, based on internal processes rather than external compulsion, to give you a packet of crisps. It is acting fully in character, so perhaps we should blame it when the crisps get stuck (perhaps many of us already do.) It is no help to say that the machine has been programmed so that when a coin goes in, crisps will always come out unless the mechanism jammed. If our genes and past experience determine what we choose as precisely as the machine is determined, the only difference is that we are more complex, and our programs may rewrite themselves in response to experience. And this still seems to give us "all the freedom of clockwork", in Kant's phrase.

The fact is that part of our ordinary conception of free will is that in any given situation, with things exactly as they were, we could have chosen differently than we did. And this is precisely what determinism denies. You could argue that we do not ordinarily mean that every electron in the brain remains constant, and follow Mill in claiming that the misconception comes from the fact that people do act differently when faced with the same choice, depending on their motives and character at the time. But common notions of free will and responsibility are surely undermined if our choices are determined by a chain of causes which ultimately goes back to before our birth.

Ted Honderich rightly identifies two distinct meanings of free will: voluntariness alone, and a combination of voluntariness and undetermined origination of actions. Compatibilism lets us say that people make decisions themselves, voluntarily, and that these decisions reflect their personalities (which indeterminism does not necessarily let us do.) But the amount of responsibility we take people to have for their choices seems unfair if anyone would have made the exact same choices, given the same genes and environment. It is this ambiguity in the meaning of free will that the traditional compatibilism-incompatibilism debate ignores. In fact, Galen Strawson claims that at least 200 distinct meanings of "free will" have been given! So compatibilism gives us free will in one sense, but not in the full, normal sense which confidently lets us blame criminals and praise heroes - perhaps that's not such a bad thing, and would encourage more equally spread compassion and concern.

Compatibilism does give us free will in a meaningful sense, and given the likely truth of determinism, this is probably all the free will we can hope for. In fact, it is doubtful whether indeterminism could offer us anything better, given that its alternative seems to be partially random actions which do not come from your character, motives or other reasons. But attempts to say that determinism is entirely compatible with free will are too neat, and ignore the many confused, sometimes archaic meanings of the term. The more modest free will we are left with is still enough to be comfortable with. Our decisions are part of a causal chain, and we are part of the physical world, not pure wills independent of it, like angels. But our motives, desires and concerns play a powerful part in shaping that causal chain, and affecting the world.


1. On page 73 of his How Free Are You? he offers a long list of things taken to be partly undetermined in the orthodox Copenhagen Interpretation, none of which is a standard physical event separate from our perception or mathematical treatment of it.

2. And it would have to be quite mysterious. Ted Honderich discusses several modern attempts to account for free will, including those of Karl Popper and John Searle, and they all require an 'originator' which causes neural events which are somehow informed but not determined by previous neural events. Quite how this 'originator' affects the brain, and how it decides remain obscure. It is often seen as an unchanging entity which gives us our personal identity, but in this case the process by which it decides to act at one point rather than another is highly mysterious. If it is treated as a homunculus, just a person-within-a-person, the problem is simply shifted to whether its decisions are determined. The next argument but one attempts to show that if decisions are made for reasons, that implies a kind of determinism.

3. This is practically heresy among many modern anthropologists and sociologists, but it is - to say the least! - an open question whether it is they or Hume who ignore the evidence to accommodate their ideology most.

4. "He chose it because he chose it." This seems to be the best account many indeterminists can offer of why someone chose one action rather than another. Our idea of cause and effect comes from one event preceding and explaining another, and the idea that something could be a causa sui (cause of itself - as God is sometimes taken to be) was mocked by Nietzsche.

5. Random, when it applies to events as opposed to numbers, is often defined in dictionaries as 'without cause.


An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume (OUP, 1999)

How Free Are You?, Ted Honderich (OUP, 2002)

An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 4th edition, John Hospers (Routledge, 1997)

What Does It All Mean?, Thomas Nagel (OUP, 1999)

Free Will, by Galen Strawson, in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Craig (Ed.)

© 2003

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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