Vids Comics Studies Misc Links

Free Will

Jamie Stroud

Table of contents


Do you believe that any nonhuman animals have free will? If so, which animals, and why do you think they have free will? If you don't believe any nonhuman animals have free will, how do animals function without free will and what is it about humans that allows us free will and not other animals?

Are we born with free will? If not, at what point does a human develop free will (for example, does a 1 year old infant have free will, how about a 5 year old child, etcetera)? If you think we are born without free will, then how does it develop (for example, through nature, nurture, or something else)?

What role does mental illness play towards the concept of free will?

Does everyone have the same amount of free will given the same circumstances?

Does everyone have the same amount of free will under any given circumstance?


Based on those definitions, it's possible to have a lot of freedom without free will, and if free will exists, it's possible to exert free will even with very little freedom.

"A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings."
- Anon

free will determinism and indeterminism

Compatibilism seems like a contradiction at face value. If determinism causes us to function by external factors out of our control while free will allows us to function without external factors determining our choices, how can they be compatible? The answer is they can't. Compatibilists don't actually believe that free will and determinism are compatible, they believe that freedom and determinism are compatible, meaning they don't bother with the distinction between freedom and free will.

Hard indeterminism and hard incompatibilism are difficult for some people to understand. They might wonder why you wouldn't believe in free will if indeterminism is true since free willed acts could be the circumstances under which events could occur indeterministicly. However, hard indeterminists and hard incompatibilists believe that some events might be indetermined not because they're free willed but simply because they're random.

According to hard incompatibilists, whether the laws of nature are deterministic or indeterministic, based on Hume's Fork and The Consequence Argument, there would be no free will either way.


There are a few views that try to solve or reconcile with The Libertarian Dilemma. They are not distinctly separate views, you can believe in any, all, or none of them.

The first 2 views merely provide considerations, but fail to explain how free will could be possible. In regards to Dualism, even if the mind is separate from the body and not governed by the laws of nature, it might still be governed by other factors, such as the laws of where ever else the mind is located, and therefore still not be free willed. Furthermore, there's a counter that applies to all these views, which is that the mind is at least somewhat affected by the physical universe considering that brain damage and drugs can affect thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Moral Responsibility

I'll use an example to explain these. Let's say I can't juggle, but I have a "desire" to one day juggle clubs. I make a "plan" on how I'll do that, first juggling balls since they're easier, then juggling clubs later. As I hold the balls in my hands, it's my "intention" to juggle, and I do so. I want to juggle the best I can, so if I drop a club while I'm juggling, that's an "accident".

With or without free will, people are exempted from actions due to ignorance or accident. If there's no free will, should people be exempted from knowledgeable actions committed on purpose? People often desire this when they commit horrible actions anyway. They don't want to take blame nor the negative consequences when they do bad things. As Chris Evatt said, "When things turn out well, we say we have Free Will. When they turn out badly, we say it's our destiny."

In general, accidental actions are treated differently than intentional actions. For the former it's often believed that an individual should make amends for a negative action (for example, fixing a broken toy or buying a new one) while for the latter the same is true with the addition that punishment should be dealt. However, if there's no free will, then you'd be no more responsible/blameworthy for an intentional action than an accidental action, on account of both are determined to happen either way.

In general, intentional actions committed by nonhuman animals are treated differently than intentional actions committed by humans. If a nonhuman animal intentionally rapes a loved one, people are generally upset but not vengeful. If a human intentionally rapes a loved one, people are generally both upset and vengeful as well. What accounts for this difference? Perhaps part of the reason is that people believe the human has free will and is morally responsible, but they believe the nonhuman animal doesn't have free will and is therefore not morally responsible. What if we saw the human the same way we saw the nonhuman animal? Perhaps then people would feel less punitive/vengeful.

How should we handle people if they can't free will their actions? Perhaps it'd help to consider how we'd deal with a harmful nonhuman animal and perhaps humans can be dealt with similarly. If possible, it'd still only be fair and logical to make amends for any damage or harm committed regardless if it's intentional or accidental. For individuals that seem likely to continue to cause significant harm, we can confine them somewhere, not somewhere noxious to punish them, but simply somewhere to prevent them from causing more harm. If they can be rehabilitated, to become harmless, then they can be released back into the wild (society).


Let's say someone got to pick out a free car, and he had to choose between either a brand new one or an old broken one. He just the brand new one. Now, let's go back to the past, immediately prior to the moment that he chose the brand new car. Given that the circumstances are exactly the same, he has the same thoughts, the same feelings, etcetera, it'd seem to be certain that he'd make the same choice again. Where's free will to be found!?

Let's say someone likes chocolate and vanilla evenly, so there are equal inclinations for this person to choose between chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream. Let's say this person was given that choice, and with equal inclinations, he chose chocolate. 5 minutes after eating his chocolate ice cream, he felt satisfied. Now let's go back in time, immediately before he made his choice. Given that the circumstances are exactly the same, he has the same thoughts, the same feelings, etcetera, it'd seem to be certain that he'd make the same choice again.

Here's the difference between the 2 thought experiments. The first was an easy decision, the second was a hard decision. The simpler the choices, the easier it is to disregard free will. The harder the choices, the more free will seems apparent. Just because a hard choice might make free will seem apparent, doesn't mean free will truly is the factor behind the decision. If a person can make easy choices without free will, perhaps a person can make hard choices without free will as well.

Impediments To Freedom And Free Will

*Coercion can be included on both sides because coercion is an external factor that functions based on psychological (internal) factors.

Freedom is the choices we want. Free will is the choices we have. Let's look at a physical restraint example. Let's say you are locked in a room and you can hear someone being tortured in the other room. You might want to open the door to save him, but you can't, therefore you lack freedom. However, you still have choices. For example, you can choose to yell at the torturer to stop, you can choose to bang on the door, etcetera. Through free will, even if externally constrained you still have plenty of choices that are not impeded. Whereas, internal constraints decrease both freedom and free will because not only do they impede you from choosing what you want, they impede you from having choices at all.

Children, the retarded, the insane, the addicted, and the compelled might lack Reflexive Self Control, and therefore lack free will. Children, the retarded, and the insane might lack this because they might have a weak ability to grasp and apply moral reasons. The insane, the addicted, and the compelled might lack this because they have a weak ability to control their behavior.

If a first-order desire rules when a second-order desire disagrees, it might be an addiction or compulsion. For example, if you have a first-order desire to smoke a cigarette, but you have a second-order desire not to smoke a cigarette, yet you smoke a cigarette anyway, then that could be considered an addiction. Some people think you should be able to free will your way out of an addiction or compulsion. Without agreeing nor disagreeing with that possibility, consider that some people don't even have a first-order desire to smoke a cigarette, and so they don't even need a second-order desire to struggle with their first-order desire, in which case, some people are under circumstances where it is harder for them to exercise free will than others.

Self-Forming Actions suggests that free willed acts develop perhaps either our personality or our spirit. It doesn't suggest that every action we make is a free willed action. Therefore, perhaps there are only certain circumstances in which we have free will, and through exercising our free will in those circumstances we can develop our being. However, Self-Forming Actions might be a specific dilemma for those with memory disorders. For example, let's consider someone who can only remember things that have happened within a 10 second time span and who's incapable of forming new memories. Such a person might be capable of free will yet incapable of Self-Forming Actions, for learning might be required to develop himself through free willed actions.

There are plenty of normal circumstances when we don't have free will. Some examples include, sleeping, automatic reactions, certain bodily processes, etcetera. There are also circumstances in which you can lose free will. Some examples include, being in a coma, consuming drugs, experiencing brain damage, etcetera.


You'll find that as long as you are living, you can't stop thinking. You might be able to turn off the auditory dialogue in your head, and you can plug your ears and close your eyes to reduce sensory perception, but you still think. You think about the darkness, you think about how you're trying not to think, your mind is always concentrating on something. Perhaps if we can't completely choose our thoughts, we can direct them, not unlike a stream of water.

As a thought experiment, imagine that your best friend died. Would you be able to not feel sadness and to instantly never think about your best friend again? A thought paradox might also occur. If you try to not think about your dead best friend, you might think about how you're trying not to think about your dead best friend, in which case, you are thinking about your dead best friend. The most you can do is try to direct your thoughts to something entirely different. However, most people in highly stressful circumstances claim that their thought inevitably come back to the trauma whenever they try to ignore it. It's possible that trying to repress stressful thoughts can cause them to exacerbate. Perhaps it's often easiest to just mourn and reflect in order to heal and move on, in order to then successfully direct your thoughts elsewhere.

Quantum Mechanics And Free Will

Before I even start to explain quantum mechanics in regards to free will, I'd like to quote Ted Honderich (2002) who said, "...there has been no direct and univocal experimental evidence of the existence of quantum events" (p. 463). The point being, please keep in mind that quantum mechanics is highly theoretical as this topic is summarized.

Classical mechanics is deterministic. Quantum mechanics is thought by many people to be indeterministic, though it very well might be deterministic just as classical mechanics is. Human are highly limited in their ability to detect things that are extremely small or extremely fast, which is why quantum mechanics can be so hard to understand.

"In classical physics, the quantities of observable properties (or 'observables') of physical systems, such as position or momentum or energy, are represented directly by mathematical objects... However, in QM the mathematical objects used do not generally represent directly the quantities of the observables but rather indicate the probabilities of various observables being disclosed on measurement, if an appropriate measurement should be made" (Hodgson, 2002, p. 88).

"For most practical applications, the inability of QM to do more than give probabilities of measurement does not matter much, since the indeterminacies and indeterminism of QM are generally at atomic scales, and in fact QM both gives virtual certainties for the behavior of systems comprising large numbers of particles of matter or radiation, and also confirms the substantial accuracy of classical physics for macroscopic systems" (Hodgson, 2002, p. 91).

Hodgson compared this to flipping coins. If you have a small number of coins, let's say 4, then it's extremely plausible that anywhere from 0-100% of the coins could land heads. However, if you have 1,000,000 coins, getting a range from 0-100% is practically impossible.

"According to QM, the regularity of the behavior of macroscopic objects depends on the high probabilities of relative frequencies in the behavior of vast numbers of particles. For most nonconscious macroscopic systems in most circumstances, the probabilities amount to virtual certainties, so that for ordinary purposes we can safely proceed on the assumption that the middle-sized objects that we deal with in our everyday lives do exist, independently of being observed, in definite positions and with definite motion and do behave in accordance with the laws of classical physics" (Hodgson, 2002, p. 91).

Even though classical mechanics is deterministic, some people claim they don't have universal application when it comes to humans. For example, in David Hodgson's last quote, it's important to note that he said "nonconscious macroscopic systems" because when it comes to conscious macroscopic systems such as the human brain, some people think it's a special case. Some people believe that quantum indeterminacies in the transmission of neurotransmitters across neurons might make the exact timing of the firing of individual neurons uncertain, thus introducing indeterminism in the activity of the brain and making "room" for free will, while others believe it'd simply make "room" for randomness which is not free will even if indetermined.

Research On Free Will

(Libet, 2002)

In Libet's research, participants were asked to spontaneously flex their wrist, while electrical charges would be measured on their foreheads. Voluntary acts are preceded by an electrical charge, called the readiness potential (RP). RP began 550 msec. before the flexion of the wrist. You'd think free will would precede or occur simultaneously with the RP, but that's not the case. The free will to act, the first awareness of an intention to act, actually begins about 150 msec before the flexion of the wrist. When there were preplans for an action, RP occurred at about 1,050 msec before the action rather than 550 msec, but the free will to act remained the same at 150 msec.

If an electrical charge was building up so long before the action, and free will occurred so shortly before the action, it would seem that the action must already be decided and free will is simply an illusion. However, his research showed that an action can be vetoed.

"In an endogenous, freely voluntary act, awareness of the intention to act is delayed for about 400 msec after brain processes initiate the process unconsciously. Awareness developed here may be thought of as applying to the whole volitional process; that would include the content of the conscious urge to act and the content of factors that may affect a conscious veto. One need not think of awareness of an event as restricted to one detailed item of content in the whole event.

The possibility is not excluded that factors, on which the decision to veto (control) is based, do develop by unconscious processes that precede the veto. However, the conscious decision to veto could still be made without direct specification for that decision by the preceding unconscious processes. That is, one could consciously accept or reject the program offered up by the whole array of preceding brain processes. The awareness of the decision to veto could be thought to require preceding unconscious processes, but the content of that awareness (the actual decision to veto) is a separate feature that need not have the same requirement." (Libet, 2002, p. 559).

To put what Libet said simply, your mind unconsciously processes a lot of factors that are applicable to an action, and you can consciously choose whether to go through with an action or veto an action based on such factors. The ability to veto an action might provide evidence for free will. However, what if the choice to go through with an action or to veto an action is actually already determined by brain activity?

"The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control occurrences of the act. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as "bubbling up" in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing." (Libet, 2002, p. 560).

"The mere appearance of an intention to act could not be controlled consciously; only its final consummation in a motor act could be consciously controlled." (Libet, 2002, p.561).

"Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants."
- Arthur Schopenhauer

(Ammon & Gandevia, 1990)

In Ammon and Gandevia's research, all participant's were right-handed. They received stimuli from a Novametrix magnetic coil. The center of the coil was positioned (tangentially) over Fz, that is, anterior to the usual site for activation of upper limb muscles. The participants were asked to extend either their right or left index finger within 2-5 seconds after each magnetic stimulus current and to not select one side repeatedly. In 1,800 trials with the magnetic stimulus current running anticlockwise, participants chose their right side 64% of the time and their left side 36% of the time. In 1,800 trials with the magnetic stimulus current running clockwise, participants chose their right side 43% of the time and their left side 57% of the time. The difference is more significant than random chance.

What's the significance of this finding? Well, if the participants claimed that they felt compelled to extend a particular finger, or they felt some irresistible urge to extend a particular finger, then this research wouldn't have as much significance. You could say the magnetic stimulus current chooses for them beyond their control, and with electrical brain stimulation, such a thing is actually possible. However, that's not the case in this research study. When questioned, the participants felt as if their decisions were made in an entirely natural way. Basically, they felt as if they free willed their choices, even though their choices were quite different depending on the direction of the magnetic stimulus current.

(Wegner, 2002)

Wegner described free will as something you experience where there's a connection made by the mind between an intention and an action. To exemplify this, most people don't feel free will over sneezing. It feels as though your body is doing something to you when you sneeze, rather than you making your body do something. There's no intention before the action, there's only the action.

daniel wegner's conditions of human action

It's the automatisms and illusions of control that are atypical and of most interest. Some cases of automatisms include automatic reactions, habits, trancing, hypnosis, delusions, and spiritual contact in its many forms including spirit possession, Ouija playing, pendulum swinging, and automatic writing. Some cases of illusions of control include phantom limb, misperceptions, and delusions.

To understand the automatisms of trancing, hypnosis, and spiritual contact, it might first be easier to understand more typical automatisms that we all likely experience (or maybe "don't experience" is a more suitable term for automatisms). Take for an example, tapping your foot. As you're talking, you might choose to tap your foot, but as you continue to talk your foot keeps tapping without you even noticing it. This provides evidence that you need to be conscious of sensations not only to feel them but to feel free will for them as well.

Free will is often either not felt or feels obscured when there is consciousness of intention and action but the relationship between the 2 is hazy. This is especially so when actions involve more than 1 person. The relationship between intention and action can sometimes be hard to understand either because the intention is attributed to someone else or because the effects of actions are attributed to someone else. If you shake hands with someone, you might not be so sure who's moving the hand where. In other circumstances, such as Ouija playing, the intentions and effects can be even more confusing.


I'll provide some examples of ideomotor actions. When you fantasize about an intense situation such as competing in a game, saving the world, or having sex, just by thinking of these things your muscles might contract, and you might not notice until after you're done fantasizing, though it could've been occurring nearly the whole time without you noticing. The same can happen for less intense thoughts. For example, just thinking about falling forward might cause your body to lean forward slightly, yet be unnoticeable to you. There's no free will experienced with ideomotor actions, probably because even though there's thoughts of an action, there's no thoughts of actually doing the action (intention).

Just as your awareness weakens when you're sleeping, it also weakens during trance and hypnosis. Due to a weaker awareness, movements can occur in a trance that people don't feel they free will. Though trancing and hypnotism are somewhat similar, hypnotism is a lot more complex since it involves another person. If a hypnotist says, "Please fold your hands together" it probably won't have as much of an effect as "You now feel yourself folding your hands together". The latter creates more of a haziness between intention and action since the hypnotist is telling the hypnotee what he's feeling and doing, which while in such a suggestible state of mind, can feel as though he has no free will over what he's doing. Spirit possession can work in a similar way as trancing, though it might be delusional as well. Ouija playing doesn't require a weakened awareness like hypnosis does, however, it still functions based on a haziness of intention and action like hypnosis does. As for pendulum swinging and automatic writing, those are both strongly due to ideomotor actions.

A common form of illusion of control is "phantom limb". For example, people who have had an arm blown off can often still feel it and even feel themselves moving it! The brain has a representation for the whole body even if some of it's parts are missing, and so signals can still be sent from the brain to move a missing part of the body and those movements will be felt psychologically even though there's nothing physically there. In such a technological society, misperceptions that result in illusions of control are probably more common than many other societies. For example, you might grab a video game controller and start pressing buttons, see the character running and jumping around, thinking you've controlled his movements. Then you notice the start screen display, and it was actually just a movie preview of the game, you weren't controlling any of those movements. There are also delusions that lead to illusions of control. For example, some people might look at the clouds and think that by concentrating on moving them they can actually move them.

Mental Illness And Free Will

People with frontal lobe lesions often have impulse control difficulties. (Joseph, 1999) This essentially means that they have difficulty free willing their behavior.

People with anterior cingulate lesions sometimes lack emotion and motivation, basically, they lack any desire to do anything. (Joseph, 2000) Without wanting to do anything, how can you free will anything? Such people tend to lay down all day and be relatively mute.

Tic Disorders are fascinating cases because they're not always described as involuntary, but rather semivoluntary. Such people experience irresistible urges for certain actions, such as movements or vocalizations, that must eventually be expressed. Once the expression is semivoluntarily initiated, it involuntarily occurs for a various amount of time. Though the irresistible urges can be suppressed, they can only be suppressed for a limited time. Furthermore, longer suppression generally leads to stronger symptoms when the irresistible urges are finally semivoluntarily initiated.

There are also cases in which people have 2 minds. I'm not talking about conjoined twins. Though they have 2 minds, they also have 2 brains and at least partially 2 bodies. There are cases in which people have 1 brain, yet 2 minds. A popular and extreme example of this is Split-Brain Syndrome. (Joseph, n.d.) With Split-Brain Syndrome, the corpus callosum is severed in half. The corpus callosum connects together the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the right side of the body. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the left side of the body. The left hemisphere is primarily verbal. The right hemisphere is primarily nonverbal. "HE" can be flashed to the left visual field (right hemisphere) and "ART" can be flashed to the right visual field (left hemisphere). For a normal person, the information from both hemispheres would be relayed to each other, so they'd say they saw the word "HEART" (HE and ART = HEART). However, since the left hemisphere is primarily verbal, people with Split-Brain Syndrome would say they only saw the word "ART". Yet, if asked to point to the word that they saw, their left hand (right hemisphere) would point to the word "HE". Both hemispheres would know what they saw, but could not relay to each other their information. The separate minds often conflict with each other. If the right hand (left hemisphere) had a purpose to button up a shirt, the left hand (right hemisphere) might automatically unbutton it. The right hemisphere (nonverbal) is more of an unconscious autopilot while the left hemisphere (verbal) is more of a conscious interpreter. If the right hemisphere causes someone to walk, the left hemisphere might then come up with instant explanations for why one is walking which might or might not be true (e.g. to get something to drink). If you believe that humans have a spirit, then Split-Brain Syndrome can conjure up some important questions. If the brain is connected to the mind, and the mind is connected to the spirit, then if damage to the brain causes damage to the mind, does that also cause damage to the spirit? If you have a damaged brain resulting in 2 minds, do you also have 2 spirits? Or, is it not that you have 2 spirits, you still have 1 spirit but it's disconnected just as your brain is? Can any spirit damage that's the result of brain damage or other biological factors be healed in the spirit world?

Life Without Free Will

It's probably natural to attribute praise and blame to people for their actions. It's probably also natural to want to reward those that are praiseworthy for good actions and punish those that are blameworthy for harmful actions. However, with the consideration that free will might not exist, we can continue rewarding since it's a nice thing to do, but we could inhibit our desire to punish and instead try to find a more positive way to deal with the bad things that people do. On a side note, some people claim they maintain lingering stress for unfulfilled vengeance. If that's the case, perhaps even then the punishment can be minimal, so as to eliminate the harm of one's unfulfilled vengeance drive without having to add much, if any, harm to the blameworthy.

Some people think the world would become a worse place if people stopped believing in free will. Such people might think that without a belief in free will, people would no longer feel responsible for their actions, and so they'd feel free to do harmful things. However, consider that there are many species of nonhuman animals that, for the most part, live happy and relatively harmless lives with each other even though they don't have religion and probably don't have any feeling of free will.

Most people would probably want to do good with or without free will. Perhaps there are some people who want to do bad and would be somewhat less inhibited to do so if they didn't believe in free will. However, if someone does do bad, many people will want to punish that person precisely because of the concept of free will. They'll say he chose to do it and deserves punishment for choosing to do such a thing. In comparison, without the concept of free will, they might instead want to simply quarantine him so that he can't harm anyone anymore. Harming people who harm people simply adds more harm, and that's perhaps more likely to occur with the belief in free will.

"Evil consequences so outweigh the benefit of belief in Free Will that, even if we really did have it, we should pretend we don't."
- William B. Provine


Regular Time Octal Time
JS problem JS problem