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17 September 2011

Free Will: What is it? and Do we have it?

What follows is a transcript of my presentation from the Winnipeg Skeptics' second annual SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking.

Free Will: What is it?

So what is free will? Well, it depends who you ask.

Free Will: Three Views

I'll briefly sketch outlines of three views of free will in this presentation.

The first is that of "Libertarian Agency". While many off-the-cuff definitions of free will seem to quickly descend into tautology, by far the most cogent definition of free will that I've come across was offered by Apologist J.P. Moreland.

The second position that I'll discuss (the dissenting view) is the determinist position. In brief: we do not have free will.

Finally, I'll take a moment to introduce the compatibilist position, which states that determinism can be reconciled with free will. This is the position taken by many modern naturalist philosophers, such as Daniel C. Dennett.


[Insert Ron Paul joke here.]

In his essay "Naturalism and Libertarian Agency", Moreland describes his "libertarian" view of free will. He insisted that our actions do not have prior causes: you are the ultimate cause of your own actions. You can initiate and/or stop yourself from initiating any action. We are all "little gods", "unmoved movers".

Now, you may ask why I'm citing an apologist to define free will. Well, theologians tend to spend a lot of time thinking about free will, as it is central to theodicy and many other works of apologetics. I'll be dealing primarily with libertarianism for the purposes of this talk, but I'll briefly discuss a different, compatibilist view of free will later on.

Libertarian agency is also called contra-causal free will, because it holds that our decisions are not bound (or "determined") by a causal chain of events. However, if our minds (and therefore our decision-making processes) are entirely the product of our brains (which are made of matter), it is difficult to imagine how our thoughts could be completely free, or causally unbound. For this reason, free will is often linked with dualism. Within this framework, the "soul" or "spirit" (which is not composed of matter, and is therefore freed from causation) is the "free agent" in decision making.

Free Will: Do we have it?

"Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills."
—Arthur Schopenhauer?

Einstein attributed this to Schopenhauer but, as often happens, it seems that the original source is slightly less pithy.1 Regardless, it certainly captures the sentiment.

Do we have free will? I don't think so. Not the libertarian kind, anyway.

Laplace's Demon

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any moment knew all forces that animate Nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."
—Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities


Determinism holds that we live in a causal universe, and that we are not somehow exempt from that web of causality. Our thoughts and deeds are fully caused. Our decisions are the effects of prior causes, and the causes of future effects.

Put simply, determinism is the position that your choices, like all other aspects of the macroscopic universe, have causal antecedents; that is to say, given the same options and the same set of preconditions, you will always make the same choice.

But we still make choices. If you're at the café for lunch, and you decide to get a regular Pepsi instead of your usual Diet Pepsi, there was a reason for that: probably many reasons, that all came together in that one decision. In fact, the question, "Why did you do that?" really only makes sense within a deterministic framework.

Remember: determinism doesn't say that you're some sort of mindless automaton with no mental life. You still deliberate over choices, your past experiences still play a role, you'll still sometimes make snap judgements based on your emotions instead of thinking things through—but all of these factors are fully caused, and causally affect your decision-making process in turn.

Determinism does constrain you, but it only constrains you to act within your own character—which, upon reflection, doesn't seem so bad.

The Process of Deliberation

Within the deterministic framework, your decision may be influenced by a multitude of factors. Some of these factors may be consciously recognized, while you may be completely unaware of others. Regardless, from the determinist perspective, your decisions are the result of a calculus. A whole bunch of variables go in, and a decision comes out.

Let's contrast this with contra-causal free will: you are waiting to cross the street, and the light says "Don't Walk". Perhaps you're running late for a meeting, perhaps you've been standing in line all day and you're feeling impatient, and perhaps you were recently issued a citation by a police officer for jaywalking. Does any of this factor in to your decision to cross against the light? If you're a "libertarian agent", the answer must be "no" (or at the very least, "not necessarily"). If you are an unmoved mover, you simply choose.

In many ways, a free choice is a meaningless choice.

When you're weighing your options, this is a deterministic process. In fact, "weighing" one's options is an excellent analogy for the way decision-making works within a deterministic framework.

Even though it might seem like a close call, 30 grams of lead and 15 grams of gold will always weigh more than 5 grams of silver and 35 grams of copper. If you weighed them a second time, could things come out differently?

I'll expand a little on the example that I used earlier (which I stole from the guys at Reasonable Doubts, by the way). Let's say you're ordering lunch, and you're trying to choose whether you're going to have a Pepsi or a Diet Pepsi. Your decision may be influenced by how you're feeling about yourself, by whether your spouse has recently made a comment about your waistline, by whether you have a strong dislike for the aftertaste common to diet sodas, by whether you suffer from diabetes or chronic hypoglycaemia, by whether you have a sweet tooth, by whether your father used to drink a Diet Pepsi while he worked on the car, by whether you just saw a magazine with a really slim model on the cover, or by whether you've decided that aspartame (or high-fructose corn syrup, for that matter) is part of a secret government mind-control project.

Do we have options in a deterministic universe? Does it make sense to say that you chose the Diet Pepsi over the Pepsi? Doesn't that imply that things could have worked out differently?

Well, in a sense, things could have worked out differently—had a different set of contingencies been in play. When choices or options are presented to us, we don't necessarily know which we will choose, but that doesn't make our choice free from causal influence.

Imagine that you are standing before a door. You might say, "Maybe there's a person behind that door." Either there is or there isn't; only one of those propositions is true, and which is true has already been determined. Your statement, "Maybe there's a person behind that door," reflects only your ignorance of which of these options has been determined. Similarly, "Maybe I'll have the Diet Pepsi," doesn't have to reflect "real" options; it may simply reflect your own uncertainty about which option you will eventually choose.

The Evidence for Causal Determinism

"Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots."
—Giulio Giorello

Although they are not without their critics, the studies of Haynes and Libet have provided evidence that decisions that we think we're making are actually made before we're even aware of them. This suggests that the "choice" that we consciously experience may be more a self-report, an epiphenomenon.

There is also a significant body of evidence from the field of psychology showing that our decisions can be predictably, causally affected by psychological priming and by transcranial magnetic stimulation.

There is also the case of Phineas Gage, a nineteenth century railway foreman who was seriously injured on the job. In an accidental explosion, he had a steel rod blown in through one eye and out through the top of his head. Although he survived, his personality and behaviour were severely affected. According to the attending physician, he became profane and impulsive.2

This handful of examples serves to demonstrate that our decisions are not freed from the web of causation.

And where does does this leave libertarian free will? To again quote Laplace, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là."

Common Objections to Determinism

"If determinism is true, our concepts of morality and justice are meaningless! We would have no responsibility for our actions!"

There are two main problems that I have with this objection. First of all, it isn't true. While it may be that we can't assign ultimate blame to people for their actions, even actions that we may find morally repugnant, there are several ethical systems which don't rely on assigning ultimate responsibility to the actors involved (consequentialism, for example, or even virtue ethics).

As far as justice goes, while a punitive system of justice makes no sense within a deterministic framework, a correctional system does. We can also focus on the prevention of crime. A system of justice based upon retribution avails us nothing.

Second, even if it were true that our concepts of morality and justice would fall by the wayside within the deterministic framework, that's not actually an argument against the truth of determinism. This is what it's known as an argument from final consequences, a fairly common logical fallacy.

In fact, many of the other arguments levelled against determinism come in the form of the argument from final consequences: "If determinism is true, then I'm just a robot!" Yup. I guess so. "If people think that their actions are determined, they're more likely to cheat and steal!" Probably true, actually, based upon some recent psychological studies. But again, that's not really an argument.

"But what about the soul?"

I'm more or less assuming monism for the purposes of the talk. I think that the principle of parsimony and fairly solid neurological evidence suggests monism over dualism. Dualism really falls apart when examined in light of modern psychology and neuroscience. It is a fact that core personality attributes can be altered by a physical change to the brain. The soul, if it exists, would seem to be completely redundant.

"Quantum indeterminacy. That is all."

It is true that quantum indeterminacy may pose a problem for a strict interpretation of determinism.3 The quantum uncertainty gambit is a red herring, however, in that it actually does nothing to rescue free will.

Modern physics tells us that there are genuinely indeterminate events that occur on a quantum level, so there may be a sense in which (on a very small scale) events are not strictly deterministic. But there are two primary reasons to think that this has no bearing on the issue of free will. First of all, that quantum indeterminacy seems to cancel out at the macroscopic level. Neurons and synapses, while small, are not at all likely to be impacted by this uncertainty. Second, even if there is some way in which quantum indeterminacy may have some impact on the functioning of the brain, how would a random, indeterminate event open the door for free will? As Jeremy Beahan, Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy at Kendall College, put it:

An indeterminate event is even more frightening than a determinate event, because even in determinate events you can say, "Hey, look, my past experiences, the influence of my environment, everything like that goes into this choice." A genuinely indeterminate event, if that could affect consciousness, then that's something that just happened. And something that happens randomly is not the same thing as freedom.

"Determinism is unfalsifiable."

Of all of these criticisms, this is the one that I find most coherent. However, I still disagree. Lab studies can and do show predictable, and replicable causal influence on our decision making. Now, you may well object that influenced does not mean determined. I have two responses to that: First, I would contend that given the obvious difficulties in controlling for all variables when conducting these tests, we shouldn't expect to get a 100% determined outcome. The physics of the brain is immensely complex. Second, if our decisions can be even influenced by factors outside of our understanding or control, how can they be called in any meaningful sense "free"?

Saying that we may be influenced, but there's still perhaps a tiny place for a free agent to make free decisions really boils down to a free-will-of-the-gaps argument.

I have also encountered other objections, but time constraints do not allow me to discuss them at length.4


There are some definitions of free will that are compatible with determinism.

Rather than asserting that a decision could have come out differently even had all of the contingencies been the same (the libertarian position), compatibilists may define "free will" simply as an agent's capacity to act in a manner that is not coerced or restrained.

Daniel Dennett articulates his two-stage model of decision making in his essay, "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want":

[W]hen we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent... Those considerations ... then figure in a reasoning process, and … ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent's final decision.

That's not only compatible with determinism, that is determinism!

Free Will: Do we have it?

Again, it depends what you mean.

We've looked at libertarian agency, we've looked at determinism, and we've looked at compatibilism, which attempts to marry the two.

Libertarianism? Certainly not.

Why I'm a Determinist

To wrap up, I'll briefly recap the three reason that I come down (provisionally) on the side of determinism.

First of all, given that our brains are made of "stuff", and our minds seem to be entirely the product of our brains, we're left without any known mechanism for free choice, from a contra-causal perspective.

Second, we have solid evidence from psychology and neurology that our decisions are not causally free, and can be strongly influenced by factors outside of our understanding or control.

And finally, we already acknowledge, both in our legal systems and in our quotidian lives, that there are reasons for our choices. Those reasons serve as explanations for our actions precisely because they have a causal influence on our decision-making.


Either your actions are determined or they're not—but you are no more a robot if you believe in determinism than if you believe in free will.

"A theory about a thing does not change the thing the theory is about."
—B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Any questions?

References and Recommended Reading


  • Dennett, D. 1984. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. MIT Press.
  • Dennett, D. 2003. Freedom Evolves. Penguin Books.
  • Laplace, P.-S. 1829. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilitiesv.
  • Skinner, B.F. 1972. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Bantam Vintage.

News Articles

Scientific Papers
  • Harlow, J.M. 1868. "Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head". Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society. 2:339–342.
  • Libet, B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W., Pearl, D.K. 1983. "Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act". Brain. 106 (3):623–642. PMID 6640273.
  • Soon, C.S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J. & Haynes, J.-D. 2008. "Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain". Nature Neuroscience. 11, 543–545.

Philosophical Papers
  • Dennett, D. 1981. "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want". Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. MIT Press.
  • Moreland, J.P. 1997. "Naturalism and Libertarian Agency". Philosophy & Theology. 10, 2.
    Schopenhauer, A. 1839. "Prize Essay on Freedom of the Will".


1 A more accurate translation of Schopenhauer would be:

You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing."
—Arthur Schopenhauer, "Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will"

2 I hesitate to mention Phineas Gage, as there exists so much exaggeration and distortion surrounding his case, with both the naturalists and the dualists of his time citing it in support of their claims. A careful review of the facts, however, supports the claim that specific damage to the brain results in specific damage to the mind and specific changes to personality.

To be clear, misinformation about the Gage case is not limited to proponents of dualism, with some (admittedly minor) misstatements of fact being presented even by the folks at Reasonable Doubts. That in mind, even a conservative reading of the known facts supports a naturalistic understanding of the mind. Although he misremembered the date of Gage's death (which I wouldn't count remarkable, save that it has been noted by several critics), Dr. John Harlow's account of the events seem balanced and fairly reliable, and supports (in my opinion) the central contention of this presentation.

Harlow writes:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage."

3 Proponents of some sort of quantum free will often point out that, since the advent of quantum physics, we can no longer be said to live in a clockwork universe. Perhaps it's trite of me to say so, but I think that certainly we can! When we look at clockwork, we see gears turning in a determined fashion, interlocking, all connected. We see inevitability. But, with our understanding of quantum physics in mind, we know that every clock ever commissioned was subject to the same quantum indeterminacy—and yet its gears continued to turn, day in, day out.

4 More objections.

"If determinism is true, then the future is fixed. We couldn't change anything!"

In a sense, that's true. But don't despair: the future will still be shaped by the present, just as the present is shaped by the past. Our actions may be causally determined, but those actions still impact the thoughts and deeds of others. It's important not to confuse determinism with predeterminism or fatalism. You're no one's marionette. I'm not suggesting that your path is laid out for you: just that you will forge your own path, and that there is a path that you will forge.

"But I feel like I have free will!"

Our senses are fallible! We may seem to have free will, but we also seem to have a complete visual field, when in fact we each have a fairly sizeable blind spot in each eye. Memory seems to accurately record events, but psychological studies continue to demonstrate that it is fickle and unreliable.

"What does it matter if we don't have free will? How could this possibly be relevant?"

First off, I think that understanding that nobody is "perfectly free" to make choices might allow us to move from a justice system that is less punitive and more focused on reformation of criminals and prevention of crime, which I think that any person in their more lucid moments would agree is a step in the right direction.

Second, exploring new areas of knowledge has proved beneficial in the past, even when no immediate application of this knowledge is readily apparent. There could be medical/neurological applications, perhaps. Determinism also makes the idea of general artificial intelligence plausible, which I find to be a hopeful prospect. I don't think that it's ever a mistake to nurture intellectual curiosity.

Third, it further hamstrings that (already quite stupid) theist response to the Problem of Evil: "Humans have free will, and thus they must have the choice to do evil. Evil is caused by free will." There are many other problems with that response, of course, but pointing out the false premise can't hurt.

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