[Starting Points] Do We Have Free Will?

Suppose an evil super-villain uses his mind-control powers to hypnotize me and make me rob a bank. The police apprehend me just after I’ve deposited the loot and the super-villain has made his getaway. Dazed and befuddled, I protest that it wasn’t me that pulled off this dastardly heist. I was just a pawn of the real villain, who’s escaped.

Another way of putting the same excuse is to say that I didn’t act of my own free will. I didn’t choose to rob the bank so I can’t be held responsible.

No one can resist my hypnotic powers
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The idea of free will is closely tied to ideas about choice, control, and responsibility. If I acted of my own free will, I chose to do the thing, I had control over my actions, and I’m responsible for what I did. I could have done otherwise. Conversely, if events were out of my control, if I had no choice, if I couldn’t have done otherwise, I can say I didn’t act of my own free will and I’m not responsible for what happened.

You don’t need mind-controlling super-villains to engage in this kind of talk. The language of choice, control, and responsibility is part of our everyday talk about what we’ve done and why we did it. But these notions can get inflated (wrongly, in my view) into metaphysical problems when we start to ask whether we ever “really” choose, whether free will exists at all, and so on. In this post, I discuss the philosophical problem of free will and some of the puzzles it gives rise to.

The Illusion of Free Will

Let’s go back to our bank robbery example. Suppose there was no super-villain involved. I walked into the bank, made the heist, and then was apprehended by the police. It wasn’t me, I protest. It was a bunch of neurons firing in my brain, which then sent signals to my body, which contracted muscles in just the right sequence and just the right ways so that my body walked itself over to the bank, my tongue and vocal cords vibrated to the tune of “your money or your life,” and out my body went, clutching a sack full of high denomination bills.

This excuse is unlikely to stand up in court. But why not? Everything I said was true. I don’t get to choose which neurons fire any more than I get to choose my heart’s contractions.

This sort of argument supports the conclusion that free will is an illusion. The argument, especially in its modern forms, tends to draw support from scientific findings. We are products of a natural world governed by unbending laws. Personality is largely genetically determined and we have no control over what genes we’re born with. Decision making is a sub-personal process and the illusion of choice is an epiphenomenon. An influential but flawed experiment by Benjamin Libet purports to show that the conscious decision to act comes after the brain has already set the action in motion.

The alternative thesis to the view that we have free will is often called determinism. This isn’t quite right, as I’ll show, but it’s a helpful starting point for understanding the motivation of the anti-free-will position.


Determinism has roots in ancient Greece and ancient India among other places. But it became popular in its modern form with the rise of classical mechanics in the 17th century. Newton and others showed that the movements of bodies could be described with precise mathematical formulas. As a consequence, it became natural to think that bodies move with mathematical inexorability. One plus one can’t equal anything other than two, and a rock thrown in the air can’t move in anything other than a parabolic trajectory.

Determinism, or at least this modern version of it, is the thesis that the movement of bodies is mathematically determined. There’s only one way things can happen, and that one way is given by the laws of nature.

Another way of putting the thesis of determinism is to say that every event has a cause. To say that x caused y is to say that x happened, then y happened, and y happened because x happened. That is, y was made to happen by x. There’s an inexorable chain of cause and effect linking events. Things can only happen in one way.

Compare that thought to the thought that motivates our intuitions about free will: I could have done otherwise. If I have free will, then I choose what I do. What I do isn’t made to happen by external forces.

So you see the problem. If determinism is true and things have to happen the way that they do, there’s no room for free will. And if I do have free will, that means that, when I act in one way, I could have acted otherwise. In which case determinism can’t be true.

According to determinism, each choice we make (represented by a node) can only go one way. If we have free will, our choices result in branching pathways. Determinism isn’t the same thing as a belief in fate. A fatalist can still believe in free choice, but just maintains that, whatever choices we make, we still converge on the same fated outcome.

Searching for Free Will in an Indeterministic Universe

As I said above, this way of framing the problem of free will in terms of determinism isn’t quite right. To begin with, our best guess as to the fundamental nature of physical reality suggests that determinism isn’t true. The laws of quantum mechanics are probabilistic, not deterministic.

But quantum mechanics doesn’t rescue free will. The probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics are still laws and they make no room for our free choice. The wave function that physicists use to model movements on the quantum level doesn’t include a variable for human freedom any more than the laws of classical mechanics do.

But suppose it turns out that the scientists are all wrong and there are no laws of nature at all. Maybe we’re just under the illusion of living in an ordered reality when in fact everything happens pretty much at random. Even on this picture, there’s no room for free will. When I say that free will means I could have done otherwise, I don’t mean that I did one thing at random but could have done another thing at random instead. Free will implies that I have control, and a world where things unfold at random is not a world in which I have control.

The Impossible Demand of Free Will

So what would be required for me to have free will? Let’s go back to that idea from the thesis of determinism that every event has a cause. That idea is deadly to free will because it implies that something other than myself is the cause of my actions. On a strictly deterministic view of the universe, the Big Bang set everything in motion. Ever since then things have been following their set trajectories like clockwork. Our piddling lives are just the consequence of particles bouncing around in particular ways that were set in motion billions of years before they came together to form us.

On this way of thinking, all of my actions can be traced back to causes that are external to anything I’d recognize as myself. In order to rescue free will, I’d need my actions to have their originating cause in me, not in the broader universe. When it comes to my actions, the causal buck would have to stop with me.

As it happens, the philosophical tradition does have a conception of a being who’s an originating cause of events—an unmoved mover, as Aristotle puts it. The familiar name for this being is God.

We’re not gods. And yet, on a certain understanding of free will, nothing short of godhead will do.

So much the worse for free will? Perhaps. But it’s also an idea that’s harder to jettison than we might suppose.

The Problem with Rejecting Free Will

Instead of insisting on free will, let’s imagine insisting on the opposite. I’ve drunk the determinism Kool Aid, or I’m all up on the latest neuroscience, and I’m totally persuaded that free will is an illusion. Not bad for a morning’s work. Okay, what’s for lunch?

If I want to stick to my anti-free-will guns, there’s no choice to make here. The neurons in my head will do their firing, my muscles will contract, air will pass over my vocal cords, and lunch will materialize. And yet, as I stare up at that lunch counter menu, I’m faced with the strange predicament that, as much as the neurons are doing their thing, I’m still faced with a choice. My lunch order doesn’t come about of its own accord. In a manner that seemed impossible just a moment ago, I have to be the originating cause of that lunch order.

The Restaurant Game

This blog post originated from a conversation along these lines. Through the spring, I exchanged a series of emails with my brilliant friend Emily Troscianko, who recently wrote a blog post of her own on a similar topic. Emily does fascinating work on eating disorders. She remarked on the way that philosophers so often resort to examples of eating when they want to insist on free will.

Emily describes the “restaurant game” that she and her mom (the equally brilliant and fascinating Sue Blackmore) have experimented with. The game is to allow a choice to be made without you doing any deliberate choosing. Sue describes the way she plays the restaurant game in terms that seem to contradict my claim that you have to make a choice. As she puts it, “[W]hen I go in a restaurant, I think, ‘Ooh, how interesting, here’s the menu, I wonder what she’ll choose.’”

I have enough experience of meditation (as does Sue) to have some intimation of what that feels like. It’s possible to attain a kind of detachment from your actions so that you no longer feel like the author of your deeds. I’ll come back to this point, but I don’t think it’s enough to show we can live without some concept of free will.

The Anti-Free-Will Argument Eats Its Own Tail

Suppose I want to extend this idea of acting choicelessly into a broader claim that there’s no free will. The trouble is that this claim that I have no free will ends up eating its own tail (more eating idioms!). How did I come to the view that I have no free will? Well, by my own lights, I didn’t choose this view. It just sort of happened to me.

In fact, it’s not even clear that I can call this a view anymore. To hold a view is to insist on its rightness and to abandon it if it turns out to be wrong. But caused events are neither right nor wrong. They just happen. A rock is neither right nor wrong when it falls under the influence of gravity. And, if my utterances are similarly caused, then they can’t be right or wrong either. The price of insisting that I have no free will is that I can’t be right in saying so. I can’t even be wrong.

Something’s Fishy

So where have I got us? The position that I have free will seems untenable for anyone less mighty than God. The position that I don’t have free will seems so far from being right that it isn’t even wrong.

Reasons and Causes

Underlying these confusions, I think, is some overlap in the way we talk about causes and the way we talk about reasons. We talk about causes in descriptive terms: one thing happened, then another thing happened, and there’s some other thing that didn’t happen. The activity of giving reasons, by contrast, uses normative language. Here’s why you should vote for this political candidate, here’s why it’s wrong to shoplift, here’s why plate tectonics is the best explanation for continental drift. Normative language has standards of correctness.

We use both these registers, the descriptive talk about causes and the normative talk about reasons. It’s hard to see how we could do without either. The arguments against free will essentially try to reduce all reason talk to talk about causes. But, as I said a moment ago, that kind of reasoning undermines itself, since it discredits itself as reasoning altogether.

Philosophical Confusion

The moral I draw from all this is that we’re looking at the kind of philosophical confusion that Wittgenstein was so adept at dismantling. When doing philosophy, we have a tendency to inflate handy everyday notions into metaphysical principles that can’t carry the load they’re asked to shoulder.

Whatever’s going on behind the scenes, we still make choices, we still hold one another responsible for the choices we make, and we still recognize that there are circumstances in which we couldn’t have done otherwise. You don’t need a theory about the fundamental laws of the universe or the nature of the human soul in order to engage in this talk. We talk this way because it helps us navigate our everyday lives. There’s no reason to stop talking this way.

But Don’t Suppose You’re Fully in Control

Or is there? Here’s a weaker version of the anti-free-will talk that I have some sympathy with. The language of free will, as I said before, is tied up with talk of choice, control, and responsibility. I opened with an example of a bank robbery. If we’re going to hold bank robbers responsible for their crimes, we have to claim that they’re responsible for their choices.

The weak anti-free-will response is to ask, really, just how responsible they are. Maybe they had abusive parents. Maybe they grew up in rough neighbourhoods. Maybe they’re struggling with mental health or addiction problems. Maybe instead of blaming them, we should try to understand them and help them to heal.

More generally, we might be more forgiving of ourselves and kinder to others if we relax the need to feel that we and others are in control. I think something like this is going on with Emily’s and Sue’s restaurant game. Philosophers as different as Zhuangzi, Nietzsche, and Iris Murdoch work to dislodge the controlling ego from the centre of our thinking about action. You don’t need to take a stand on free will vs. determinism to think they’re on to something.

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