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Free will

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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
At Target:

A: "Need help finding anything?"
B: "Not unless you sell free will. Yesterday, I became a determinist, and today I know that I’m no freer than a billiard ball being smashed into a corner pocket. I’d avoid your store entirely if it would help, but it’s not like I have a choice. Your yogurt pretzels are simply phenomenal."[1]

Free will is the reason evil exists the philosophical concept that people have some control over their actions, though this control may be subject to external pressures. The concept of free will may seem to conflict with the concept of "cause and effect". The most popular philosophical position that says humans have no free will is called hard determinism (although people may still be considered to have or not have a "free choice" in specific situations — the legal sense of "free will"). If free will does exist, it is inhibited to a certain extent for our benefits (e.g., the natural tendency to avoid self-harm). Think about this: true free will is inhibited by our own minds and bodies.

A knotty thread[edit]

The tl;dr version

There are four main philosophical positions on free will:

  • Determinism, in philosophy, is the position that 1) there is a single possible future which occurs necessarily and inevitably as the result of causal laws, and 2) human beings have no power of free will, or ability to choose a future. The first modern philosophy of determinism is Calvinism: that is, because God is omniscient and omnipotent, it is claimed that his will supercedes all other wills in what is called "predestination" — that is, God determines the final end of all creatures. In science, "determinism" means only (1). The central argument of philosophical determinism is that since future events are already sufficiently caused, and fully accounted for, by a chain of cause and effect stretching back in time to the Big Bang, there is no "elbow room" for human volition to make any further difference.
  • Compatibilism is the position that even if determinism is true, humans still have some form of free will. Disputes about what kind, and whether it is "worth having", inevitably arise. Compatibilism is found in Thomistic philosophy and theology — indeed, in trying to defend human free will in the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas may have invented the Christian form of compatibilism. Compatibilism is also a popular position in contemporary and atheistic philosophies. Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves is one eloquent defence among atheists.
  • Pessimistic Incompatibilism is the position that determinism isn't necessarily true, but free will still doesn't exist.
  • Libertarianism is the position that humans do have free will, and that it is incompatible with causal determinism, which is therefore false. In other words, it is a form of incompatibilism opposite to hard determinism. (It has no particular relationship to political libertarianism.) Most believers in libertarianism think that the power to originate events which are not a necessary and inevitable outcome of external events is invested in some kind of immaterial mind or soul; i.e, they are dualists or supernaturalists. This has, by associative thinking, created the impression that metaphysical libertarianism is a religious or non-naturalistic position which no rationalist should hold to. However, a few philosophers[2] and scientists are naturalistic libertarians, holding that free will exists and is based on quantum indeterminism.[note 1]

There is also methodological dualism, which is a methodology where human beings are only considered to have "free will" in practice and the ultimate answer to the question is not dealt with. This is often employed in the Austrian school of economics.

Belief and action[edit]

When discussing "free will", there is the concept of belief and action that creates some degree of distinction. Doxastic voluntarism is the suggestion that belief — what someone considers to be true — is optional, and falls under free will. While this is mostly brought up in the context of people having the free will to believe in a deity if they like, a quick examination of what constitutes a belief can falsify the assertion of voluntary belief quite readily. For instance, watching a particular blogger on YouTube effectively forces certain beliefs on you; namely that there is a person going by the name ImAwesomeWatchMe1988, that they sat down and recorded a video, and that your internet connection is working fine, among others. Believing these things to be true is very much non-optional for most people considered to be sane.

However, action still falls under the concept of "free" will. While what you consider to be the case is often non-optional, how you react to it can be. In the example above, you have no free will to believe ImAwesomeWatchMe1988 made a video, but you have the free will over whether you wish to write "Herp derp derp herp derp herp derp" in the comments section. Hence discussions of free will are often restricted to actions rather than beliefs — or at least the well-formed beliefs that have a direct relationship with reality.

The waters are muddied here by certain uses of terminology, and whether the distinction between "action" and "belief" blurs. For instance, people may suggest they have a belief, or not, in global warming. Yet this is very much a willful position, and people have the free will to draw particular conclusions when deducing new truths from evidence. In this case, people don't have the free will to believe that they've been shown data — again, this is a well-formed belief that has a direct relationship with reality — but they do have the free will to act on it or act to ignore it. Deducing a conclusion from evidence, therefore, is part of an action where we have free will because the act of deduction is a method, and we have a free choice in what method we use.

The free will wager[edit]

This is similar in structure to Pascal's wager, but somewhat more logically sound. However, it still smacks of argument from adverse consequences.

  1. If you assume you have free will, and you do, then you can use it to direct your life; thus a huge gain.
  2. If you assume you don't have free will, and you do, then you are wasting the only thing over which you have any choice; thus a huge loss.
  3. If you assume you have free will, and you don't, there is no loss or gain, since you had no choice in the matter.
  4. If you assume you don't have free will, and you don't, there is no loss or gain, since you had no choice in the matter.

Therefore, regardless of whether free will exists or not, you should live based on the assumption that you do have free will and that your choices do matter.

Problems with 'free will wager'[edit]

This argument assumes that people who think they have free will will be able to determine their actions if it does exist, but people who don't think they do won't. This is a major assumption that, frankly, makes no sense — regardless of your philosophical position on the matter, we all live under the appearance of having choice, even the hard determinists. How does simply not believing in something make it so that it no longer applies to you? Particularly when it can be argued that the act of choosing to disbelieve in free will is, in itself, a demonstration of free will.

However, some research has suggested that belief in free will may affect behaviors and attitudes such as aggression, helping, and job performance.[3][4] Along with its moral implications, this has led to debate over whether free will could be a "noble lie."[5] One response to this is that the idea that free will is necessary for morality has been driven into their minds all their lives, so when they're finally told it doesn't exist, they act less 'moral', as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Another is that the common folk confuse the nonexistence of free will with fatalism.Wikipedia[6]

...Of course, if there is no free will, then arguing about free will is pointless. If such is the case, then those who happen to believe in free will and those who do not will simply act on their assumption. Both sides would have no actual choice regarding their belief, nor any choice in taking said action.



See the main article on this topic: Quantum collapse

While classical mechanics is deterministic (leading some to argue for a position of hard determinism), discoveries in quantum mechanics have led to arguments positing quantum indeterminism and using various interpretations of quantum mechanics to argue for certain kinds of free will. However, other interpretations of quantum mechanics do exist such as the deterministic Bohmian interpretation.Wikipedia Additionally, there is the ensemble interpretation which is silent on the issue.

Discoveries in special relativity have led to the Rietdijk-Putnam argument,Wikipedia which notes that moving observers have differing planes of simultaneity and thus the only consistent interpretation of a real universe is the position of four-dimensionalism. According to this position, the past and the future are real and fixed. This position follows that there cannot really be "free will", as people are enjoined by the fixed future to make specific choices and actions.


Scientifically informed skeptics of free will often quote a famous experiment by Benjamin Libet,Wikipedia which supposedly shows that a kind of signal called a "Readiness Potential", detectable by electrodes, precedes a conscious decisions, and is a reliable indicator of the decision, and thus — so the claim goes — indicates that our decisions are not truly ours, but made for us by unconscious processes.

In fact, Libet himself doesn't draw a sweepingly skeptical conclusion from his own results. The reason for this being firstly that the experiment consisted solely of simple tasks performed quickly;[7] if the tasks were more complex and/or performed slower, the results may have been different. Secondly, Libet notes, Readiness Potentials are not always followed by actions. He believes it is possible for consciousness to intervene with a "veto" to the action:

"The initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he wants to act! Is there, then, any role for conscious will in the performing of a voluntary act? […] To answer this it must be recognised that conscious will (W) does appear about 150 milliseconds before the muscle is activated, even though it follows the onset of the RP. An interval of 150 msec would allow enough time in which the conscious function might affect the final outcome of the volitional process."[8]

Libet's experiments, however, became the starting point for a body of research on the neuroscience of free will.[9][10]

The neuroscientist Roger Sperry has also argued for a position called "emergent monism" or "mental monism", based on the concept of emergence.[11] This could be seen as a type of compatibilism in that consciousness arises out of the deterministic physical properties of the brain and "free will" is part of consciousness.


Multi-cellular organisms are home to many microbes; in the case of humans, it is probably close to a 1-to-1 ratio of human to non-human cells in the body.[12] That these microbes have an important role in digestion has been well-known, but it is now becoming apparent that they also have important interactions with the mammalian brain. Germ-free mice (that is, mice that are free of bacteria, fungi, and parasites) suffer from behavioral problems, including abnormal movement, memory problems, risk-taking, and stress.[13][14][15][16] An explanation for this is that several genera of bacteria have been shown to release neural-messaging chemicals: Bacillus (dopamine, norepinephrine), Bifido-bacterium (γ-aminobutyric acid or GABA), Enterococcus (serotonin), Escherichia (norepinephrine, serotonin), Lactobacillus (acetylcholine, GABA), and Streptococcus (serotonin).[13][17] So from the biological perspective, humans do not have free will in the sense that we are fully consciously making decisions, since our microbial helpers have an effect on what to do. A compatibilistic argument, however, can be made that as long as as the influences for our decisions do come (at least partially) from internal factors, we are still making the decision; additionally, it can be said that our microbial helpers don't make the decisions, they just subconsciously impact our decisions, meaning that the final decision (somewhat affected by the microbes) is up to the person.

Science woo[edit]

Non-materialist neuroscience[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Non-materialist neuroscience

A pseudoscientific attempt to reinstate dualism.

Quantum consciousness[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Quantum consciousness

An attempt to "prove" free will (among other things) through quantum woo. When it comes to free will, science can easily bleed into woo (and many scientists have been guilty as well on this front) and what might seem like woo today could in fact be protoscientific. Nevertheless, when it comes to quantum consciousness, most of the arguments have either been falsified or shown to be not even wrong.


Those religions that have an omnipotent and/or omniscient god(s), as well as the concept of sin (implying free will among humans), generally have difficulty resolving the two concepts, i.e., cognitive dissonance.


Jews have wrestled with this cognitive dissonance longer than perhaps anyone else. Pirkei Avot 3:19 of the Talmud states "הַכֹּל צָפוּי וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה", which is usually interpreted as "Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given."


Most branches of Christianity teach that people have free will, although apparently on occasion God overrides it in order for events to play out according to his script. Ironically, however, this belief is not biblically compatible.[18] Even if it was, however, this belief is also incompatible with an omniscient God, as if God already knows what you're going to do, then how are you making the choice to do it? The most common answer is that humans have been granted a special exemption from God's omniscience, which God can do because he is omnipotent and so he did this in between creating stones he can't lift and creating rains of burning ice because he does not have to follow logic. Alternately, they may claim that God seeing our future actions doesn't mean he causes them, though how this works may be unclear to many. However, other groups of Christians, especially Calvinists and other Reformed churches, further believe that God chooses who will be saved (the elect) and who will be damned (the reprobate). This is called predestination, and means that those who have been chosen for damnation cannot exercise free will in order to become "saved", while those who are elect (which coincidentally believers always are) can do more or less whatever they like since their actions are inseparable from God's own will. Needless to say, this belief system makes God sound like a huge asshole and, more importantly to those of us living in the material world, can easily be used to excuse all sorts of wildly immoral behavior, making its believers into assholes more often than not. Fred Phelps is perhaps the most egregious example of how the doctrine of predestination is a moral cancer.

In a literalist interpretation, Romans 9:18-21[19] can be seen as supporting predestination:

9:18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

9:19 Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?
9:20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?

9:21 Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

This arbitrary action is divine justice and divine love.Do You Believe That?


In Islam, the concept of qadar (قدر‎) means predestination, and is the sixth article of faith. This is believed to not contradict the concept of free will by most Muslims, while some Shias reject it entirely.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Further mindscrews reading[edit]


  1. The Philosophy Major’s Guide To Small Talk by Alex Baia (September 8, 2022) Slackjaw, Medium.
  2. Robert KaneWikipedia
  3. Baumeister et al. Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. February 2009 vol. 35 no. 2 260-268.
  4. Stillman et al. Personal Philosophy and Personnel Achievement: Belief in Free Will Predicts Better Job Performance. Social Psychological and Personality. Science January 2010 vol. 1 no. 1 43-50
  5. Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It's the Only Choice, New York Times
  6. Three Strikes Against Fatalism,
  8. Benjamin Libet. Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8–9, 1999, pp. 47–57
  9. Free Will is Not an Illusion After All, New Scientist
  10. Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them, Wired
  11. Can "Mentalist Monism" Save Mind and Morality from the Mechanistic Materialists? by Roger E. Bissell
  12. Body’s bacteria don’t outnumber human cells so much after all: New calculations suggest roughly equal populations, not 10-to-1 ratio by Tina Hesman Saey (5:47pm, January 8, 2016) Science News.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Microbes can play games with the mind: The bacteria in our guts may help decide who gets anxiety and depression by Laura Sanders (9:30am, March 23, 2016) Science News.
  14. The interplay between the intestinal microbiota and the brain by S. M. Collins et al. Nat. Rev. Microbiol. 2012 Nov;10(11):735-42. doi: 10.1038/nrmicro2876. Epub 2012 Sep 24.
  15. Wiping out gut bacteria impairs brain Nerve cell production, memory affected in mice treated with antibiotics by Laura Sanders (12:00pm, May 19, 2016) Science News.
  16. Ly6Chi Monocytes Provide a Link between Antibiotic-Induced Changes in Gut Microbiota and Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis by Luisas Möhle et al. Cell Reports Volume 15, Issue 9, p. 1945–1956, 31 May 2016. DOI:
  17. Collective unconscious: How gut microbes shape human behavior T. G. Dinan et al. J. Psych. Res. April 2015 Volume 63, Pages 1–9 DOI:

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