Is There Such a Thing as Free Will?

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Is there such a thing as free will?

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The existence of free will remains a contentious issue, with compelling arguments on both sides. Philosophical, neuroscientific, psychological, and theological perspectives each contribute unique insights into the nature of free will and its implications for human behavior and moral responsibility. While the debate is far from settled, ongoing research continues to shed light on this profound and enduring question.

The question of whether free will exists has been a subject of intense debate across various disciplines, including philosophy, neuroscience, theology, and psychology. This article explores the multifaceted perspectives on free will, drawing from recent research to provide a comprehensive overview of the arguments for and against its existence.

Philosophical Perspectives

Philosophers have long debated the nature of free will and its compatibility with determinism. Compatibilists argue that free will can coexist with determinism, suggesting that freedom is essentially about not being constrained or hindered in one’s actions10. In contrast, incompatibilists maintain that true free will cannot exist if determinism is true, as our actions would be predetermined by prior events10. Libertarians, a subset of incompatibilists, believe that we are free and morally responsible agents, and thus determinism must be false10. However, they face the challenge of explaining how randomness or chance can contribute to free will10.

Neuroscientific Insights

Neuroscience has provided significant insights into the mechanisms underlying the perception of free will. Studies suggest that many voluntary actions are initiated preconsciously, with consciousness becoming aware only after the neural events leading to the action have begun8. This challenges the notion that conscious intention is the primary driver of voluntary actions. The interaction between frontal and parietal areas of the brain is thought to contribute to the perception of free will, although no definitive “free will force” has been identified5.

Psychological and Social Dimensions

From a psychological perspective, free will is often associated with self-control, effortful choice, planning, and initiative1. These capabilities are crucial for social functioning and cultural development but are limited by finite resources1. Belief in free will has been linked to prosocial behaviors, as it enhances individuals’ sense of responsibility for their actions3. However, induced disbelief in free will can lead to reduced vindictiveness and fewer immoral actions, highlighting the complex interplay between belief, behavior, and morality3.

Theological Considerations

Theological discussions on free will often intersect with philosophical and scientific debates. Some argue that free will is essential for moral responsibility and theodicy, the justification of God’s goodness in the presence of evil7. The Free Will Theodicy posits that the existence of free will justifies the suffering of the innocent, although this argument has been contested7. Additionally, the concept of free will is explored in the context of divine providence and randomness in nature, suggesting that human self-determination is a form of free will that coexists with divine influence9.


Is there such a thing as free will?

Ariel Furstenberg has answered Likely

An expert from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Science

The debate regarding free will went through many phases along the history. One phase was a theological one: the clash between God’s knowledge of the future and human “free” action. Another phase is the alleged clash with science. This latter clash has a two main aspects to it: one aspect, is the principle understanding of scientific laws of nature as deterministic and thus leaving no room for free action. The second aspect has to do with empirical science as it is revealed through experiments that show that it might be possible to predict an agent’s free actions before he or she are aware of the choice they made. Regarding this last aspect some information and analysis can be found in the following publication: Brass, M., Furstenberg, A., & Mele, A. R. (2019). Why neuroscience does not disprove free will. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 102, 251-263.

Given all the above, there remains another central concern regarding the free will question and that is a conceptual concern: what do we mean by free will? If we mean a decision which is rational and thoroughly thought, then assuming that given the same situation we would have come to the same conclusion (the rational one) – what is free about it? On the other hand, do we expect the decision to be arbitrary and random to be a free one? Being a random machine is also not the free will we wish for. So what do we actually mean by free will? To this conceptual concern many philosophers have refered to.

Finally, I will refer you to one philosopher’s book: Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge University Press. 1988. Here you can find a definition of free will which allows you to believe in free will and at the same time hold that the laws of nature are deterministic.


Is there such a thing as free will?

Emily Willoughby has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Minnesota in Quantitative Psychology, Intelligence, Genetics

I believe that it is uncertain whether free will is a thing, because the answer depends entirely on how free will is defined. The philosopher’s conception of free will stems from Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias and later by Hume, and posits that the problem of free will can be interpreted in terms of whether we have a particular kind of causal control of our decisions and actions. Under a high enough resolution lens, this “kind” of causal control is usually thought of as being outside or prior to our empirical understanding of determinism—informed largely by neuroscience, physics, and many disciplines in between—in the causal chain of subatomic particles bumping against each other to produce, eventually, human behavior.

Under such a lens, it is nearly impossible for me—a monist—to see this kind of free will between the particles without invoking some form of dualism, whether religious or otherwise. The one possible exception may lie in quantum indeterminacy, which posits (in brief) that uncertainty in quantum states may be fundamentally necessary for the distribution of outcomes that we observe in nature. Nevertheless, even quantum indeterminacy is bound by natural laws under a monist framework.

The reason I chose “Uncertain”, therefore, lies in the tension between the philosopher’s free will and that of the everyday human. As a psychologist, I’ve had the opportunity to study beliefs about free will and determinism in several large samples of laypeople. Our findings indicate that regular people think of free will and determinism very different from scientists and philosophers. The validated questionnaires used to assess these beliefs in laypeople ask participants to indicate their degree of agreement with items such as “People ultimately have complete control over their decisions and their actions” (free will; Nadelhofer, 2014) and “As with other animals, human behavior always follows the laws of nature” (scientific determinism; Paulhus & Carey, 2011).

It is easy to imagine many people fully endorsing both statements. I do. This is because most people are compatibilists, a term introduced by Hume to articulate the position that free will can exist in a deterministic universe. To the horror of many dead philsophers, our research indicates that most people are compatibilists: the overall correlation between the free will and determinism scales in our samples is almost exactly zero!

It may be that most regular people are simply inconsistent in their set of beliefs about these topics, but I don’t believe that intuitive compatibilism must be illogical. In my own case, the reason I endorse the item “People ultimately have complete control over their decisions and actions” is not because I believe free will transcends natural law, but rather that even in a deterministic universe, there is nothing other than “I” that is performing the action or choice. Whether that I is “just” a collection of particles is orthogonal to the question. I believe that I consist of my body, my brain, my experiences, and both random and causally determined bumpings of my particles—and that “I” am the only agent that performs the action of my behavior.

In sum, I believe that we live in a fully deterministic universe (possibly excepting quantum indeterminacy) that is fully bound by natural laws. I also believe that I am the agent that carries out the action of my own behavior. I don’t believe in a dualistic power that pulls the strings of my choices, but rather that the conventions of natural language afford “agent” to the thing that I am. The modern debate about human agency often conflates the philosophical notion of free will with questions about consciousness, like “is the consciousness behind my choices something more than just the sum of its determined parts?” Across all agentic forces in the universe—from frogs to human beings to the symphony of galaxies—I think the answer can be both no and yes.


Is there such a thing as free will?

James B Miles has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Independent in Philosophy

Where free will is defined as freedom of choice (i.e. freedom for an individual to have ever chosen otherwise) then it cannot logically exist / there is no such thing as free will.

Determinism cannot give us free choice, as if we act as we do because we are the causal products of biology and environment we had no possibility of doing otherwise. But neither can indeterminism give us free choice, because if the mind is − at least in part − undetermined, then some things “just happen” in it outside the laws of causation for which, by definition, nobody and nothing is chosing.

Bourget and Chalmers’ 2014 survey of over two thousand philosophers found that 86% now accept that free choice cannot logically exist.

However, where free will is defined as OTHER than freedom of choice – say freedom from constraint, or freedom from mental instability – then such a weaker form of “free will” has been argued to exist.


Is there such a thing as free will?

Yukio-Pegio Gunji has answered Near Certain

An expert from Waseda University in Biophysics

Free will (Free choice) and Determinism contradicts with each other, if Locality holds, where Locality implies that the state at other site can be accessed by an observer without inferring the state. If Locality does not hold, Co-existence of Free will and Determinism can hold. Brain does not allow Locality in a real materialistic neural network. Thus, Free will can exist with determinism.

However, Free will itself is very perverted thing. A subject cannot see the outside of him/herself, although he/she feels he/she is passively arisen from nature. A subject sees that Nobody can generate him/herself. “Nobody” has active sense and there is no concrete thing carrying such active sense. Thus a subject can plunder the active mode from “nobody”. It can enforce the free will.

The idea is opened dependent on the request:


Is there such a thing as free will?

Andrew J Vonasch has answered Near Certain

An expert from University of Canterbury in Psychology

Free will means the ability to choose freely, without internal or external constraints determining your choice. Behaviorally, it’s clear that people make choices for their own independent reasons (because they want to, because they prefer one option over another, because they have principled reasons for choosing one way or another, etc.). They aren’t always good reasons, or original reasons, or reasons that weren’t influenced by other people’s ideas, but they are reasons nonetheless.

We have a concept of free will because it’s possible not to act with free will, depending on the situation. For example, a person who is forced at gunpoint to do something, does so with considerably less free will than someone who does something voluntarily. Similarly, a person with a brain disorder that causes constant coughing lacks free will over their coughing, even though they likely retain free will in other ways. For example, they probably retain the ability to decide what to have for lunch.

The main scholarly dispute about free will is whether the choices people make for their own reasons, are really ultimately caused by something else: usually deterministic laws of physics. It’s not clear that this is a real concern. The concern is that the mind is caused by the brain, which is caused by the laws of physics; therefore, the decisions of the mind are controlled by the laws of physics and there is no room for the mind to do any work. Wrong; the brain works in a way that is consistent with physical laws, and that allows its person to make choices based on thinking and reasons.

Consider an analogy to a car driving. The wheels turn because the engine is on, which is possible because of fuel and pistons, etc., and ultimately laws of physics. You wouldn’t say cars don’t really drive because the laws of physics ultimately determine their movement. Cars work because we make them so they take advantage of the laws of physics to produce directed and controlled movement. Minds work because evolution made them so they take advantage of the laws of physics to produce directed and controlled movement (and feelings, and principled decisions, and so much more).


Is there such a thing as free will?

Roy F Baumeister has answered Likely

An expert from University of Queensland in Psychology

Is there such a thing as free will?

Roy F. Baumeister, University of Queensland, University of Bamberg, & Florida State University

I have witnessed many debates about free will. One thing I have noticed is that the opposing sides are often quite agreed about how human action comes about. The dispute is merely whether it should be called free will. This is more a matter of definition than a dispute about the nature of reality. The two sides can’t agree because they are using different definitions. Those opposed to free will might say free will means exemption from causality, or immaterial souls causing behavior. Those in favor speak instead of making choices based on rational choice and moral responsibility, with conscious consideration of alternatives.

           Like the skeptics, I do not believe that immaterial souls cause behavior or that causation ceases to operate. (Free will would be just another kind of cause. There are thousands of types of cause.) Like the supporters, I think humans have evolved new ways of deciding and acting. Humans are animals, but we are more than animals, and that “more” frees us from acting like animals. If someone says you are “acting like an animal,” you might say, well of course, I am an animal; but in fact the person’s comment is an insult. People are animals but are expected to be more than animals.

           Clearly, human beings choose and guide actions in ways that are qualitatively different from what the rest of nature does. Unlike other animals, people can think of the future as containing multiple different pathways. People can also imagine and evaluate and compare them, to help them choose the best one. Human choice of action also involves kinds of reasons that are essentially or wholly absent in the rest of nature: financial calculations, moral obligations, religious doctrines, even mathematical calculations. That is, the human being is able to choose to act in ways and for reasons that are beyond the powers of other animals.

           So I believe that free will probably does exist in some respects (e.g., morally responsible choice among genuine alternatives). I also believe free will probably does not exist in some other respects (exemption from causality).

           To me, the most useful definition of free will is the ability to act differently in the same situation. People generally think of the future as a set of different pathways, a ‘matrix of maybe’. Humans evolved an advanced brain that can compute these alternate possibilities – and it seems even the smartest of our animal relatives cannot do this. Evolution also took the simple animal brain, which does have to make simple decisions, and refined it so it can make highly complex, elaborate, meaningful ones.

           Human action is partly caused by factors that are not physical causes, though physical things (especially brain cells) represent these immaterial ideas. Moral principles, financial calculations, promises, ideals, and of course laws – all these enter into the causation of human behavior in a way that is beyond what the rest of nature can do. (That’s part of why we put them in our zoos, rather than the reverse.) Nothing we do can violate the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, but they add a new layer, a new kind of causing, working with those more basic physical laws. The human brain is a bunch of gray neurons in which chemical reactions make electrical impulses. But these impulses can produce a conscious mind that can imagine great things. There are countless social animals, but none of them have developed universities, market economies, literature, philosophy, science, democracy, women’s liberation, or jazz.

           Thus, evolution enabled humankind to choose, decide, and act based in processes that are different from what all other animals do. That is the reality. If there is free will, that is what it is. If there is no free will, that is what is mistaken for it. The scientist’s task is to understand this marvelous power of the human mind. Whether it deserves the name free will is just semantics.

Sources for further reading

Baumeister, R.F., & Monroe, A.E. (2014). Recent research on free will: Conceptualizations, beliefs, and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 50, 1-52.

Baumeister, R.F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Constructing a scientific theory of free will. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology (Vol. 4): Free will and responsibility (pp. 235-255). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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