• Systematic review update
  • Open access
  • Published: 16 March 2021

Are mental disorders related to disbelief in free will? A systematic review

  • Maria E. Moreira-de-Oliveira 1 , 2 ,
  • Gabriela B. de Menezes 1 , 2 ,
  • Samara dos Santos-Ribeiro 2 ,
  • Luana D. Laurito 2 ,
  • Ana P. Ribeiro 2 ,
  • Adrian Carter 3 &
  • Leonardo F. Fontenelle 1 , 2 , 3  

Systematic Reviews volume  10 , Article number:  78 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

5683 Accesses

2 Citations

6 Altmetric

Metrics details

The nature and existence of free will have been debated for centuries. Since some psychiatric disorders are known to interfere with one’s ability to control their actions and thoughts (e.g., schizophrenia), the investigation of the psychiatric facet of free will beliefs seems to be relevant. In this systematic review, we were interested in clarifying if and how having a mental disorder affects individuals’ beliefs in free will by comparing psychiatric vs. non-psychiatric samples.

A systematic search of MEDLINE, Web of Science, EMBASE, and PsycINFO databases was performed between 04 and 09 November 2020. The search strategy included “free will” and related constructs and terms related to DSM-5 mental disorders characterized by psychotic, compulsive, avoidant, or impulsive symptoms. Eligible designs of studies included case-control and cohort studies. Study selection took place in committee meetings consisting of six researchers. Quality assessment of the selected studies was performed through the Joanna Briggs Institute Appraisal Checklist for Case Control Studies.

After removing duplicates, a total of 12,218 titles/abstracts were screened. Inclusion and exclusion criteria were followed, and three articles were eventually selected.


It is not possible to provide unequivocal confirmation that having a mental disorder can or cannot affect someone’s belief in free will. Studies with different mental disorders should be conducted in this field.

Systematic review registration

PROSPERO CRD42018109468.

Peer Review reports

Although debates on the existence of free will have occurred over centuries, it is generally understood as the ability to make free choices [ 1 ]. However, diverging philosophical views stand out. For instance, libertarians argue that humans have free will by assuming that our decisions have their origins within us, which means that people have the ability to make their own choices and could always act otherwise [ 2 ]. In contrast, determinism holds that free will is an illusion, as all human behaviors can be explained as being a consequence of an antecedent event (e.g., a psychological, biological, evolutionary, or environmental circumstance) [ 3 ].

Consistent with the deterministic view, seminal experiments show that individuals become aware of their decisions a few milliseconds after their decision occurs [ 4 ]. However, if the deterministic perspective holds true, a natural question is whether we can be morally responsible for our actions. The major positions on this issue can be split into those who argue that free will and determinism cannot coexist (incompatibilists) and those who posit that we can be both free and responsible agents (compatibilists), i.e., even in a deterministic condition, we can be hold morally responsible for our actions [ 5 ].

Regardless of these different views about the concept of free will, the fact that many people believe in this construct turned the attention of some scholars towards the study of free will beliefs. As researchers developed tools to explore and measure people’s belief in free will [ 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ], greater interest in the impact of these beliefs on people’s lives ensued [ 3 , 12 , 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 ]. Studies in this field showed that a stronger belief in free will was associated with better self-control [ 17 ], better work performance [ 18 ], increased helping behavior and less aggression [ 19 ], less cheating behavior [ 20 ], and less conformity [ 21 ]. Thus, regardless of whether free will does or does not exist, it has been suggested that believing in the existence of free will leads to several positive outcomes and a greater sense of agency [ 22 ].

Since some psychiatric disorders are known to interfere with one’s agency, studying the psychiatric facet of free will beliefs seems to be relevant. For instance, certain individuals with schizophrenia may feel unable to control their own actions and thoughts, which may be felt to be under the external influence [ 23 , 24 ]. Similarly, there are other examples where a restriction on the experience of free will (expressed as uncontrollable cognitions and/or behaviors) has been hypothesized to exist, including obsessive-compulsive and related disorders (OCRDs), anxiety disorders, and disorders due to addictive behaviors (DAB) [ 25 , 26 , 27 ]. Together, these observations suggest that the perception of free will might be somehow affected in disorders with psychotic, compulsive, avoidant, or impulsive symptoms.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the potential impact that research on free will can have on the conceptualization of mental disorders can be seen in addictions. For instance, some scholars have argued over whether addictions are bad personal choices or diseases of the brain or behavior [ 28 ]. While the brain disease model sees addictive behaviors as a consequence of neurobiological adaptations that “hijack” decisions about drug use, undermining a person’s free will [ 29 , 30 , 31 ], defendants of the choice model suggest that people with addiction always have control over their addiction and engage in their addictive behaviors somewhat willingly [ 32 , 33 ].

It is also possible that beliefs in free will are associated with specific phenotypes within a specific disorder [ 34 ], and discussions in this field range from clinical implications to social and legal aspects involving moral responsibility [ 35 ].

For the reasons exposed above, spanning evidence of the experiences of impaired free will in patients showing different psychiatric disorders to links between beliefs in free will and various types of social outcomes (e.g., aggression, cheating, conformity, and self-control), we systematically reviewed the patterns of free will beliefs among people with psychiatric disorders characterized by psychotic, compulsive, avoidant, or impulsive symptoms. Rather than focusing on the sense of agency (the ability a person has to detect whether he or she is the cause of an action and not some other agent [ 36 ]), this review focus on beliefs regarding free will (which seems to involve a sense of agency and expecting others to behave in morally responsible fashion [ 22 ], as measured by the Free Will and Determinism (FAD)-plus [ 9 ] or the Free Will Inventory [ 8 ] rating scales). Studying free will beliefs in psychiatric patients might shed some light on certain aspects relevant to clinical practice. Improving the understanding of patient experience can not only lead to a better therapeutic relationship, but also enrich and help to develop psychotherapeutic approaches targeting dysfunctional beliefs.

The aim of this review was to clarify if and how having a mental disorder affects individuals’ beliefs in free will by comparing psychiatric vs. non-psychiatric samples.

Protocol and registration

This systematic review protocol was registered at the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (PROSPERO) under the number CRD42018109468 [ 37 ].

Eligibility criteria

Study eligibility criteria were based on the following PECOS format: “participants”—an adult population (18 years aged and above); “exposure”—any psychiatric disorder characterized by psychotic, compulsive, avoidant, or impulsive symptoms listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5); “comparator”—a control group (individuals without a psychiatric disorder); “outcome”—the difference in free will belief scores between subjects with psychiatric diagnosis and healthy controls, measured by quantitative tools; and “study design”—case-control and cohort studies, published since 1980.

Information sources

A systematic search was performed between November 04 and November 09 of the year 2020 in the following databases: Web of Science, Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid EMBASE, and Ovid PsycINFO. The search was performed in rounds using title/abstract/keywords fields—the search strategy for each database is presented in Table 1 . Experts (three psychiatrists members of the research team—LFF, GBM, and APR) have chosen specific search terms (exposure of interest) to cover the psychiatric disorders characterized by psychotic, compulsive, avoidant, or impulsive symptoms listed in DSM-5. As we were not interested in studies with mixed diagnosis samples (e.g., patients with “anxiety disorders” rather than “generalized anxiety disorder,” “panic disorder,” “social anxiety disorder”), general terms were not included in this search strategy. In addition to the exposure terms, terms regarding the outcome of interest—beliefs in free will—were used in all searches. To cover the literature as much as possible, we have included “free will” MeSH terms and constructs possibly related to the outcome of interest. No constraint of date, language, or document type was adopted. Whenever necessary, supplementary material of selected studies has been examined for further information. In addition, two independent reviewers (SSR and APR) performed hand searches of the selected studies’ reference lists to supplement the database searching.

Selection of studies

Duplicate titles across databases and studies published before 1980 were removed. Three independent pairs of independent reviewers (LDL and GBM; MEM and LFF; SSR and APR) assessed the articles—those that clearly did not meet the inclusion criteria were excluded. Any disagreement was resolved by discussions within the broad team during weekly meetings that took place between November 2020 and December 2020. Three psychiatrists (LFF, GBM, and APR), two biomedical scientists (MEM and SSR), and one psychologist (LDL) formed the research team.

Risk of bias in individual studies

The risk of bias in selected studies was evaluated using the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) Critical Appraisal Checklist for Case Control Studies [ 38 ]. Four reviewers (MEM, SSR, LDL, and APR) independently classified each aspect listed in the checklist as “yes,” “no,” “unclear,” or “not applied” for each selected study. A consensus was reached during our weekly meetings with researchers MEM, SSR, LDL, APR, and LFF in case of doubts or disagreements. If doubts persisted, corresponding authors were contacted for clarification.

Data collection process

Two independent reviewers (MEM and LDL) collected the necessary information from the selected articles using an extraction template. Any disagreement was resolved during our weekly meetings with researchers MEM, SSR, LDL, APR, and GBM. The following data were planned to be extracted: first author, country of study, demographics (age and gender of both exposed and control participants), recruitment setting, exposure (the mental disorder diagnosis and how it was determined), matching data (variables used to match groups), study design, primary outcome data (mean values of the free will belief scales domains), and secondary outcome data (mean values of disorder severity scales). Related disorders were planned to be subgrouped in the narrative synthesis to solve a potential heterogeneity across studies.

Data analysis

A narrative synthesis of the study was conducted. A table and a narrative summary were used to present the study settings and its main findings.

The search in all databases yielded 27,332 articles. Duplicate references were removed, leaving 13,049 references. Studies published before 1980 were also removed, and the remaining 12,218 articles had their titles and abstracts screened. Most of the studies were excluded, leaving 32 articles to be further evaluated. Among them, two were not found, and attempts to contact the authors were unsuccessful. Of the remaining 30, only three fitted the eligibility criteria stated in this review. These research steps are shown in the PRISMA diagram (Fig. 1 ). The three selected articles are listed in Table 2 , which also shows the mental disorder diagnosis studied and how it was determined, the recruitment setting, the results of free will belief assessments for both exposed and control participants, the tool used to measure the beliefs, and the design of each study. Although the extraction of matching variables (i.e., variables used to match groups) and secondary outcomes (means on disorder severity scales) was planned, this information was not reported in none of the three studies. In addition, for almost all articles, demographics (age and gender) of both exposed and control participants were not available.

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram

One of the three selected articles was entitled Embodied free will beliefs: Some effects of physical states on metaphysical opinions authored by Ent and Baumeister (2014). This study compared free will beliefs among people with panic disorder, epilepsy, and healthy controls by using an online version of the Free Will and Determinism Scale (FWDS) [ 10 ], which has separate subscales for measuring (i) beliefs in free will in general and (ii) the specific sense of oneself as having free will [ 39 ]. Even though beliefs about one’s own free will were marginally diminished ( p = 0.53) among participants with epilepsy when compared to healthy controls, no significant differences were seen between participants with panic disorder and the healthy control group. People’s beliefs about free will in general, on the other hand, seem to be diminished in both epilepsy and panic disorder conditions when compared to healthy controls [ 39 ].

The second one— Ordinary people associate addiction with loss of free will —aimed to assess the relationship between people’s belief in free will and their history of addiction [ 40 ] by using an online version of the FWDS [ 10 ]. Vonasch and colleagues (2017) described that participants who had been addicted to alcohol believe less in free will (both general and personal beliefs) when compared to people who had never been addicted to it. The same pattern of results was observed in participants addicted to other drugs, except for smoking. The authors found, though, that people who tried but failed to quit smoking believe less in their own personal free will.

The third study was entitled Clinician and patient perceptions of free will in movement disorders: mind the gap . In this research, van der Salm and colleagues (2017) compared free will beliefs displayed by 60 individuals with hyperkinetic neuropsychiatric disorders [including 28 with functional movement disorders (conversive disorders), 17 with tic disorders, and 15 with myoclonus] to 22 healthy control subjects through the Free Will And Determinism Scale (FAD) [ 42 ]. In their analyses, the authors found no significant differences between free will beliefs exhibited by participants in different diagnostic groups and controls.

All the three selected articles were assessed for quality and risk of bias according to the JBI Critical Appraisal Checklist for Case Control Studies [ 38 ]. For the final evaluation of these studies by JBI checklist, we also sought other sources for further information (supplementary material, articles listed in reference, and author contact). Table 3 presents the assessment of these articles using the JBI checklist.

This review revealed a small number of studies measuring free will beliefs in individuals with mental disorders. More specifically, only three articles (Table 2 ) that included a valid assessment of beliefs in free will endorsed by individuals with mental disorders compared the strength or patterns of these beliefs to those shown by participants without mental disorders. Further, at this point, we were unable to exclude the possibility of bias in these articles as per the JBI Critical Appraisal Checklist for Case Control Studies [ 38 ] for the lack of sufficient information, including, for instance, whether cases and controls were defined and matched appropriately. None of these studies has investigated the severity of symptoms presented by participants with a mental disorder and how they correlated with their beliefs in free will.

One of the appraised studies found that people’s beliefs in general free will are diminished among those with panic disorder when compared to controls, but no significant differences were seen regarding the beliefs about personal free will between these two groups [ 39 ]. However, this study did not describe the methods for matching participants, and it did not confirm participants’ diagnostic status, which relied simply on self-reports of a previous diagnosis. Accordingly, the researchers acknowledged the possibility that some control participants had undiagnosed panic disorder or epilepsy. Although this study suggests that individuals with panic disorder (a proxy of avoidant behaviors) tend to have a weaker belief in general free will than controls; this finding requires more investigation.

Another study described that people who had been addicted to alcohol or a substance/behavior other than alcohol and tobacco believe less in both general and personal free will when compared to people who had never been addicted to these substances. On the other hand, no differences were seen between people who had been addicted to tobacco and people who had not [ 40 ]. It seems that, except for tobacco, people with addiction have a decrease in the strength of their beliefs in free will. However, this study did not include a clinical assessment to confirm the addiction diagnosis among participants and/or any way to support the validity of the reported online questionnaire. Thus, it is difficult to guarantee that cases and controls had a well-established boundary between them, i.e., that participants reporting a history of addiction had a diagnosable condition and that healthy controls did not have a substance use disorder. Plus, it is not clear whether the groups were matched properly. Therefore, the relationship between addictions and free will beliefs cannot be completely elucidated based only on these findings.

The third study found that participants with tics had no differences regarding free will beliefs when compared to controls [ 41 ], though it is not clear if and how these groups were matched. Studies on tic disorders were included for being listed within the chapter of OCRDs in ICD-11 [ 44 ]. However, evidence based on a single study should probably not be considered sufficient to discard the possibility that other mental disorders presenting compulsive behaviors (such as OCRDs and eating disorders) cause or are affected by specific patterns of beliefs in free will.

Although previous narrative reviews suggested that one’s perception of free will is impaired in several psychiatric disorders [ 29 ], our review highlights the lack of well-designed studies comparing free will beliefs by individuals with vs. without mental disorders. However, the present report also has several limitations. For instance, one might argue that our search strategy was not ideal for not including all disorders listed in the DSM-5, for excluding studies without a controlled design, and for not including studies published before 1980. Nevertheless, a closer examination of the reasons for our selection criteria supports our choices, as seen below.

Firstly, the current version of the DSM has more than 300 diagnoses, which made the inclusion of all DSM-5 mental disorders into the search strategy challenging. Therefore, we decided to focus on disorders that could be more intrinsically related to distinctive beliefs in free will, such as those presenting psychotic, compulsive, avoidant, or impulsive symptoms. Secondly, our strategy, which excluded studies based on their methodological design, may be considered too strict for a research field that is still growing. However, we thought the latter strategy would allow us to best compare both perspectives (psychiatric and non-psychiatric samples’ beliefs) to identify whether having a mental disorder affects individuals’ beliefs in free will.

Our strategy also allowed the identification of a significant gap in the literature, particularly in relation to psychotic disorders. Although schizophrenia has been traditionally associated with “passivity experiences” (feelings, impulses, or acts imposed by an external agent) [ 45 ], no controlled study on beliefs of free will among individuals with schizophrenia was found. The work by Weisman de Mamani et al. [ 24 ] represented only an initial attempt in this regard. In the future, studies should clarify whether belief systems in free will differ between psychotic and non-psychotic (or predominantly behavioral) disorders.

Finally, studies published before 1980 were excluded so we could use a homogenous concept of “disorders” regardless of the specific nature of each condition addressed in our study. More specifically, the third version of DSM (DSM-III), published in 1980, firstly introduced the concept of “mental disorder” as a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome that was typically associated with either distress (such as a painful symptom) or disability (impairment in one or more areas of functioning). It was assumed that all “mental disorders” had an underlying behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction that was not solely in the relationship between the individual and the society [ 46 ].

The fact that believers in free will tend to adopt a coping style that allows them to reframe suffering in a satisfactory manner suggests that the free will concept seems to be relevant for several mental disorders [ 24 ]. Thus, rather than simply comparing free will beliefs between different groups, future studies should also investigate whether such beliefs are dependent upon the severity of symptoms, do predict clinical outcomes, or are remediated by therapeutic interventions.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.


Disorders due to addictive behaviors

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–Fifth Edition

Free Will and Determinism Scale

Functional Movements Disorders

Joanna Briggs Institute


Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders

Other drugs and activities

Panic disorder

Participants, exposure, comparator, outcome, study design

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews

Standard deviation

United States of America

Feldman G, Baumeister RF, Wong KFE. Free will is about choosing: the link between choice and the belief in free will. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2014;55:239–45.

Article   Google Scholar  

Tait G. Free will, moral responsibility and ADHD. Int J Incl Educ. 2003;7(4):429–46.

Bergner RM, Ramon A. Some implications of beliefs in altruism, free will, and nonreductionism. J Soc Psychol. 2013;153(5):598–618.

Article   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, Pearl DK. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). Brain. 1983;106(3):623–42.

Forstmann M, Burgmer P. A free will needs a free mind: belief in substance dualism and reductive physicalism differentially predict belief in free will and determinism. Conscious Cogn. 2018;63(May):280–93.

Stroessner SJ, Green CW. Effects of belief in free will or determinism on attitudes toward punishment and locus of control. J Soc Psychol. 1990;130(6):789–99.

Viney DW, McIntyre R. Validity of a scale designed to measure beliefs in free will and determinism. Psychol Rep. 1984;54(3):867–72.

Nadelhoffer T, Shepard J, Nahmias E, Sripada C, Ross LT. The free will inventory: measuring beliefs about agency and responsibility. Conscious Cogn. 2014;25(1):27–41.

Paulhus DL, Carey JM. The FAD-plus: measuring lay beliefs regarding free will and related constructs. J Pers Assess. 2011;93(1):96–104.

Rakos RF, Laurene KR, Skala S, Slane S. Belief in free will: measurement and conceptualization innovations. Behav Soc Issues. 2008;17(1):20–39.

Viney W, Waldman DA, Barchilon J. Attitudes toward punishment in relation to beliefs in free will and determinism. Hum Relat. 1982;35(11):939–49.

Moynihan AB, Igou ER, van Tilburg WAP. Free, connected, and meaningful: free will beliefs promote meaningfulness through belongingness. Pers Individ Dif. 2017;107:54–65.

Ogletree SM, Oberle CD. The nature, common usage, and implications of free will and determinism. Behav Philos. 2008;36:97–111.

Google Scholar  

Pronin E, Kugler MB. People believe they have more free will than others. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2010;107(52):22469–74.

Article   CAS   PubMed   PubMed Central   Google Scholar  

Waldman DA, Viney W, Bell PA, Bennett JB, Hess S. Internal and external locus of control in relation to beliefs in free will and determinism. Psychol Rep. 1983;53(2):631–4.

Haynes SD, Rojas D, Viney W. Free will, determinism, and punishment. Psychol Rep. 2003;93:1013–21.

Rigoni D, Kühn S, Gaudino G, Sartori G, Brass M. Reducing self-control by weakening belief in free will. Conscious Cogn. 2012;21(3):1482–90.

Stillman TF, Baumeister RF, Vohs KD, Lambert NM, Fincham FD, Brewer LE. Personal philosophy and personnel achievement: belief in free will predicts better job performance. Soc Psychol Person Sci. 2010;1(1):43–50.

Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Dewall CN. Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Person Soc Psychol Bull. 2009;35(2):260–8.

Vohs KD, Schooler JW. The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychol Sci. 2008;19(1):49–54.

Alquist JL, Ainsworth SE, Baumeister RF. Determined to conform: disbelief in free will increases conformity. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2013;49(1):80–6.

Baumeister RF, Brewer LE. Believing versus disbelieving in free will: correlates and consequences. Soc Person Psychol Compass. 2012;6(10):736–45.

Graham KT, Martin-Iverson MT, Holmes NP, Jablensky A, Waters F. Deficits in agency in schizophrenia, and additional deficits in body image, body schema, and internal timing, in passivity symptoms. Front Psychiatry. 2014;5(SEP):1–11.

Weisman de Mamani A, Gurak K, Maura J, Martinez de Andino A, Weintraub MJ, Mejia M. Free will perceptions and psychiatric symptoms in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2016;23(3–4):156–62.

Article   CAS   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Fontenelle L, Yücel M. A transdiagnostic approach to obsessions, compulsions and related phenomena. In: A transdiagnostic approach to obsessions, compulsions and related phenomena. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2019. p. 1–13.

Meynen G. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, free will, and control. Philos Psychiatry Psychol. 2012;19(4):323–32.

Wagner V. On the analogy of free will and free belief. Synthese. 2017;194(8):2785–810.

Wiens TK, Walker LJ. The chronic disease concept of addiction: helpful or harmful? Addict Res Theory. 2015;23(4):309–21.

Pierre JM. The neuroscience of free will: implications for psychiatry. Psychol Med. 2014;44(12):2465–74.

Robinson TE, Berridge KC. Addiction. Annu Rev Psychol. 2003;54(1):25–53.

Leshner AI. Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters. Science. 1997;278(5335):45–7.

Schaler JA. Addiction is a choice. Chicago: Open Court; 2011.

Heyman GM. Addiction: a disorder of choice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2009.

Van Oudheusden LJB, Draisma S, Van Der Salm S, Cath D, Van Oppen P, Van Balkom AJLM, et al. Perceptions of free will in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a quantitative analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2018;18(1):1–9.

Callender JS. Free will and responsibility: a guide for practitioners. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010.

Swiney L, Sousa P. When our thoughts are not our own: investigating agency misattributions using the mind-to-mind paradigm. Conscious Cogn. 2013;22(2):589–602.

Moreira-de Oliveira M, Laurito L, Ribeiro A, dos Santos-Ribeiro S, Fontenelle L. Studying the relationship between psychiatric disorders and beliefs in free will – a systematic review. PROSPERO. 2018;2018:CRD42018109468.

Moola S, Munn Z, Tufanaru C, Aromataris E, Sears K, Sfetcu R, et al. Systematic reviews of etiology and risk. In: Aromataris E, Munn Z, editors. Joanna Briggs Institute Reviewer’s Manual. South Australia: The Joanna Briggs Institute; 2017. https://synthesismanual.jbi.global .

Ent MR, Baumeister RF. Embodied free will beliefs: some effects of physical states on metaphysical opinions. Conscious Cogn. 2014;27:147–54.

Vonasch AJ, Clark CJ, Lau S, Vohs KD, Baumeister RF. Ordinary people associate addiction with loss of free will. Addict Behav Rep. 2017;5:56–66.

PubMed   PubMed Central   Google Scholar  

van der Salm SM, Cath DC, van Rootselaar A-F, Koelman JH, de Haan RJ, Tijssen MA, et al. Clinician and patient perceptions of free will in movement disorders: mind the gap. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2017;88:532–3.

Paulhus DL, Margesson A. Free-will and Determinism (FAD) scale. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, Unpublished measure; 1994.

Van Der Salm SMA, De Haan RJ, Cath DC, Van Rootselaar AF, Tijssen MAJ, Bhatia KP, et al. The eye of the beholder: inter-rater agreement among experts on psychogenic jerky movement disorders. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2013;84(7):742–7.

Stein DJ, Szatmari P, Gaebel W, Berk M, Vieta E, Maj M, et al. Mental, behavioral and neurodevelopmental disorders in the ICD-11: an international perspective on key changes and controversies. BMC Med. 2020;18(1):1–24.

Schneider K. Klinische Psychopathologie. Stuttgart: Georg Thieme Verlag; 1962. p. 120–5.

Spitzer RL. Classification of mental disorders and DSM-III. In: Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry III. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins; 1980.

Download references


This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-profit sectors.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

D’Or Institute for Research and Education, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Maria E. Moreira-de-Oliveira, Gabriela B. de Menezes & Leonardo F. Fontenelle

Obsessive, Compulsive, and Anxiety Spectrum Research Program, Institute of Psychiatry, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Maria E. Moreira-de-Oliveira, Gabriela B. de Menezes, Samara dos Santos-Ribeiro, Luana D. Laurito, Ana P. Ribeiro & Leonardo F. Fontenelle

Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia

Adrian Carter & Leonardo F. Fontenelle

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar


MM was responsible for organizing, writing, and finalizing the current paper. She also registered the protocol into PROSPERO, performed part of the searches in the databases, selected the articles according to the inclusion criteria, and assessed the risk of bias in individual studies. GM contributed to the definition of the protocol of this systematic review, reviewed the terms used for the searches, selected the articles according to the inclusion criteria, and contributed to the revision and edits of the paper. SR selected the articles according to the inclusion criteria and assessed the risk of bias in individual studies. AR reviewed the terms used for the searches, selected the articles according to the inclusion criteria, and assessed the risk of bias in individual studies. LL selected the articles according to the inclusion criteria and assessed the risk of bias in individual studies. AC contributed to the revision and edits of the paper. LF performed part of the searches in the databases, selected the articles according to the inclusion criteria, and contributed to the revisions and edits of the paper. He also reviewed the terms used for the searches and acted as a referee for both the protocol definition and the assessment of the risk of bias in individual studies. The authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maria E. Moreira-de-Oliveira .

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate, consent for publication, competing interests.

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note.

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ . The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/ ) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article.

Moreira-de-Oliveira, M.E., de Menezes, G.B., dos Santos-Ribeiro, S. et al. Are mental disorders related to disbelief in free will? A systematic review. Syst Rev 10 , 78 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-021-01621-9

Download citation

Received : 22 January 2020

Accepted : 24 February 2021

Published : 16 March 2021

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-021-01621-9

Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Belief in free will
  • Psychiatric disorders

Systematic Reviews

ISSN: 2046-4053

  • Submission enquiries: Access here and click Contact Us
  • General enquiries: [email protected]

research paper on free will


Free will, determinism, and epiphenomenalism.

\r\nMark Balaguer*

  • Department of Philosophy, California State University, Los Angeles, CA, United States

This paper articulates a non-epiphenomenal, libertarian kind of free will—a kind of free will that's incompatible with both determinism and epiphenomenalism—and responds to scientific arguments against the existence of this sort of freedom. In other words, the paper argues that we don't have any good empirical scientific reason to believe that human beings don't possess a non-epiphenomenal, libertarian sort of free will.

1. Introduction

There's a very old, very traditional argument against free will that's based on the claim that (D1) our decisions are causally determined (or for-all-practical-purposes causally determined, or some such thing) by prior events, and (D2) this is incompatible with free will. We can think of this as the backward -looking problem of free will because it has to do with the causal antecedents of our decisions. There's a much more recent argument against free will that's forward -looking, or to put the point differently, that arises out of the thought that some sort of epiphenomenalism is true, rather than the thought that some sort of determinism is true. The worry might be put like this: (E1) our decisions aren't the causes of our actions (i.e., our decisions are epiphenomenal ), and (E2) this is incompatible with free will.

You might think that we should respond to the first of these arguments by rejecting (D2). I won't be concerned with such responses here. This isn't because I'm convinced that (D2) is true; it's because I think it doesn't really matter whether it's true. I've argued for this stance elsewhere ( Balaguer, 2010 , 2016 ) and won't rehearse the argument here. Briefly, though, the thought is as follows: (a) we can easily define some kinds of freedom that are compatible with determinism; and (b) we can easily define some kinds of freedom that are incompatible with determinism; and (c) the question of whether free will—i.e., real free will— is compatible with determinism boils down to the question “Which of the various kinds of freedom that we can define is real free will?”; and (d) this latter question is a purely semantic question.

Rather than bogging down in the semantic question of what free will is, I'm going to stipulatively define a variety of freedom that's incompatible with determinism—and also with epiphenomenalism 1 —and I'm going to focus on the question of whether we have that kind of freedom, i.e., the kind that's indeterministic and non-epiphenomenal by definition . Here's an initial, rough characterization of the sort of freedom I've got in mind:

NEL-Freedom (initial, rough definition) : A person is non-epiphenomenal, libertarian free (or for short, NEL-free ) if and only if she makes at least some decisions that are both undetermined (in a libertarian sort of way—more on what this means later) and non-epiphenomenal (i.e., that play an appropriate role in the causation of our actions—again, more on what this means later).

Let NE-libertarianism be the view that human beings are NEL-free. My aim in this paper is to defend this view against recent anti-free-will arguments that proceed by trying to motivate claims like (D1) and (E1). The arguments I'll be responding to are based on empirical scientific findings. Thus, in essence, what I'm going to be arguing is that the scientific arguments that have arisen in recent years against the existence of free will—the arguments that proceed by trying to (empirically) motivate the claim that our decisions are epiphenomenal and/or causally determined (or for-all-practical-purposes determined)—are not good arguments.

I should say here that I'll be assuming that mind-brain materialism is true; in particular, I'll assume that our decisions are physical events, presumably neural events. It follows pretty quickly from this that the relevant kinds of determinism and epiphenomenalism—i.e., (D1) and (E1)—are empirical claims. But if this is right, and if I'm right that we don't have any good empirical-scientific reason to endorse (D1) or (E1), then I think it can be argued pretty quickly that we don't have any good reason to believe (D1) or (E1)—i.e., that we don't have any good reason to think that our decisions are causally determined or epiphenomenal in ways that would be incompatible with the sort of freedom that I'll be defining in this paper.

I, of course, can't respond here to every empirical-science-based argument for (D1) and (E1). I'll focus on arguments based on results from psychology and neuroscience. In connection with (E1), these are pretty obviously the most important arguments, but in connection with (D1), you might doubt that the most important results come from psychology and neuroscience; for you might think we have good reason to endorse some deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics—and, hence, good reason to endorse universal determinism. I argued in Balaguer (2010) that we in fact don't have good reason to endorse any specific interpretation of quantum mechanics—deterministic or indeterministic—and that, because of this, we don't have any good reason to endorse universal determinism. I also argued there that we don't have any reason to believe that all neural events are determined. I can't rehearse the arguments for these claims here, but if they're right, then the question we should be focused on, vis-à-vis (D1), is the very specific question of whether our decisions are determined in some freedom-undermining way. And the places to look for evidence for the claim that our decisions are determined in some such way are presumably psychology and neuroscience.

In section 2, I'll list some reasons (based on findings from psychology and neuroscience) for thinking that (D1) and (E1) are true—and, hence, for doubting that we have free will (or, at any rate, NEL-freedom). In section 3, I'll provide a much more careful characterization of NEL-freedom—i.e., the kind of freedom that I'll be defending against the anti-free-will considerations of section 2. And in section 4, I'll respond to those anti-free-will considerations—i.e., I'll argue that they don't give us any good reason to doubt that human beings are NEL-free.

2. Worries About Free Will

A lot of studies have been done by psychologists and neuroscientists that raise doubts—both backward-looking determinism-based doubts and forward-looking epiphenomenalism-based doubts—about the hypothesis that human beings have free will. Some of the prominent forward-looking considerations are as follows:

F1. Consciousness is sluggish. In particular, conscious awareness of certain kinds of actions and processes comes after the occurrences of the actions and processes themselves (see e.g., Velmans, 1991 ; Wegner, 2002 ). Consider, e.g., the processing of incoming speech and quick reactions in emergency situations (e.g., when a driver yanks her steering wheel to the side to avoid hitting someone who has stepped in front of her car). There's reason to think that we only become aware of preforming these actions after we perform them; and this suggests that they're not under our conscious control.

F2. People often don't know why they perform certain actions, and they confabulate reasons for their actions—i.e., they construct false theories of why they perform certain actions, seemingly without knowing that the theories are false. There is a lot of evidence for this; see e.g., Festinger (1957) , and for interesting split-brain studies related to this, see Gazzaniga (1983) .

F3. We're often completely unaware of why we perform certain actions, and we have to infer what our reasons were from our behavior—in the same way that we infer what other people's reasons are from their behavior (see e.g., Nisbett and Wilson, 1977 ).

F4. While it's true that we experience our decisions, we don't experience our decisions causing our actions. We have to infer that our decisions cause our actions from the fact that they precede our actions.

F5. We can be duped into thinking that we willed certain kinds of actions (or caused certain kinds of bodily movements, e.g., hand movements) that were in fact performed by someone else (see e.g., Nielson, 1963 ; Wegner and Wheatley, 1999 ). Moreover, we can be duped into thinking that we didn't perform certain kinds of actions that we in fact did perform—consider, e.g., the experiences that some people have with Ouija boards.

These results seem to fit very poorly with the hypothesis that human beings have conscious control over their actions. And, more generally, they fit poorly with the view that we intuitively have of ourselves as being something approaching ideal agents—i.e., agents who (a) have reasons for actions, and (b) weigh those reasons against one another in deliberation, and (c) consciously decide what to do, based on our deliberations, in ways that guide our behavior.

Some of the prominent backward-looking (i.e., determinism-based) anti-free-will considerations are as follows:

B1. Our decisions and actions are often causally influenced by unconscious mental states (or, more precisely, events involving us having unconscious mental states) and brain processes that we're not aware of. (This is virtually undeniable; if we've learned anything in empirical psychology over the last hundred years or so, it's that this is true; and this, of course, raises worries about whether our actions are under our conscious control.)

B2. Our decisions and actions are often influenced by situational factors like mood that, intuitively, seem unimportant (see e.g., Milgram, 1969 , and for a discussion, see Nelkin, 2005 ).

B3. Conscious choices can be causally influenced by magnetic stimulation to the brain. In a study done by Brasil-Neto (1992) , subjects had to choose between raising their left fingers and raising their right fingers, and their choices were correlated with whether their brains were magnetically stimulated on the left side or the right side.

B4. Conscious decisions are preceded in the brain by non-conscious neural processes that seem (or at any rate, have seemed to some) to be part of the mechanism that actually causes our actions (see e.g., Libet et al., 1983 ).

B5. There are neural processes that precede our conscious decisions by as much as 7–10 s that can be used to predict which options we'll choose in certain kinds of decisions. To say a bit more, in recent studies performed by Haynes (2011) , subjects were given two buttons, one for their left hand and one for their right, and they were told to make a decision at some point as to whether to press the left button or the right button and to then go ahead and push the given button. Using fMRI, Haynes found unconscious brain activity that predicted whether subjects would press the left button or the right; moreover, he found that this activity arose 7–10 s before the person made the conscious decision to push the given button.

These results are compatible with the non-epiphenomenal hypothesis that our decisions cause our actions; but they seem to imply that our decisions are caused by prior events in ways that are incompatible with the hypothesis that human beings have a traditional, libertarian sort of free will.

(You might think that B4 and B5 are backward-looking and forward-looking—i.e., that they motivate some sort of epiphenomenalism as well as some sort of determinism. I don't think this is true; for it could be that (a) the mechanisms that cause our actions start running before we consciously decide to perform those actions, and (b) these mechanism go through our conscious decisions. But it doesn't matter whether I'm right about this; for if the responses that I'll give in section 4 to B4-B5-style worries about determinism are right, then they'll bring with them responses to B4-B5-style worries about epiphenomenalism as well).

3. Ne-Libertarianism

Taken together, considerations F1-F5 and B1-B5 might seem to provide powerful evidence for the claim that human beings don't have free will and, in particular, that they don't have libertarian freedom. But I think these appearances are deceiving. In this section, I'll characterize a kind of non-epiphenomenal libertarian freedom—namely, NEL-freedom —and in section 4, I'll argue that the considerations that I just listed in section 2 don't give us any good reason to doubt that human beings are NEL-free. I'll proceed somewhat slowly in this section, getting into the details of the NE-libertarian view—i.e., the view that humans beings are NEL-free. This is because we'll need to have these details in place in order to see why considerations F1-F5 and B1-B5 don't in fact undermine NE-libertarianism.

I'll start by defining libertarian-freedom (or L-freedom); then I'll define libertarianism in terms of L-freedom; then I'll articulate a specific version of libertarianism that I'll call “thin libertarianism”; then at the end, I'll define NEL-freedom and NE-libertarianism.

3.1. L-Freedom

To say that a person is L-free is, for starters, to say that some of her decisions are undetermined—i.e., not causally determined by prior events. But indeterminacy by itself is not enough for L-freedom; for undetermined events can be random in ways that are incompatible with the sort of freedom that libertarians have in mind. Thus, we can define L-freedom like this:

A person is libertarian-free —or for short, L-free —if and only if she makes at least some decisions such that (a) they are undetermined and appropriately non-random, and (b) the indeterminacy is relevant to the appropriate non-randomness in the sense that it procures the non-randomness, or increases it, or enhances it, or some such thing.

More needs to be said about what appropriate non-randomness is. There are various views you might endorse here, but however the details go, we should all agree that the relevant sort of non-randomness consists in a kind of agent-involvedness . For example, one might say that it consists in the agent controlling which option is chosen, or authoring the choice, or being the source of the choice, or making a rational choice, or some combination of these things. Also, many libertarians would follow Kane (1996) in requiring plural control (or authorship or whatever)—i.e., in requiring it to be the case that even if the agent had chosen differently, she still would have controlled it (or authored it, or whatever).

Also, more needs to be said about clause (b) of the above definition. To see why this clause is needed, consider the following view:

Humeanism with a smidge of irrelevant indeterminism : Our decisions are caused by our reasons, and so they count as ours (i.e., appropriately non-random, under our control, and so on). But our decisions aren't deterministically caused by our reasons; there are unimportant quantum indeterminacies buried in our decision-making processes; in particular, the prior-to-choice probabilities of our decisions going the way that they in fact go is always extremely high (0.999999, or whatever) but not 1.

This isn't a libertarian view because the indeterminacy is irrelevant to the freedom of our choices. Libertarians think that indeterminacy is needed for freedom—and that's why I've included clause (b) in the definition of L-freedom.

3.2. Libertarianism

I'll use the term ‘libertarianism' to denote the view that human beings are L-free. This is a bit non-standard. A more standard definition would take libertarianism to be the view that (i) humans are L-free, and (ii) L-freedom is free will. On this way of proceeding, we could say that thesis (i) is the metaphysical half of libertarianism and thesis (ii) is the semantic (or conceptual ) half. But thesis (ii) won't be relevant at all to the arguments of this paper, and so to keep things simple, I'm going to use ‘libertarianism' to denote thesis (i).

(On this usage, libertarianism doesn't entail that free will (as opposed to L-freedom) is incompatibilism with determinism, and it doesn't entail that human beings have free will; indeed, it doesn't entail anything about free will. So this is definitely non-standard usage. But no harm will come of this) 2 .

3.3. Thin Libertarianism

Thin libertarianism is a specific version of the sort of libertarianism that I just defined. There are five main features of thin libertarianism.

First, thin libertarianism involves a commitment to mind-brain materialism . In particular, on this view, conscious decisions are physical events, presumably neural events.

Second, thin libertarianism is an event-causal view; in other words, on this view, L-free decisions are non-deterministically caused (or probabilistically caused) by prior events, presumably agent-involving events, e.g., events having to do with the agent's reasons. So, importantly, thin libertarianism doesn't involve any sort of irreducible agent causation.

Third, thin libertarianism does not involve the claim that all of our actions are L-free, or even undetermined. We perform a lot of actions. Just in the course of a single minute, you might perform twenty actions. Think, for instance, of what you do when you drive somewhere. You get in the car; you put your seatbelt on; you put your key in the ignition; you turn the key; you push your foot down on the gas; you put the car in gear, you look in the mirror; and so on. We're almost constantly doing things. We barely even notice them. And we certainly don't consciously decide to do all of these things. Life would be an unbearable nightmare if we had to consciously decide to do everything we do; we'd have to constantly think thoughts like this: “Move your left foot forward; now your right; left again; right; etc., etc., etc.” We don't want to have to decide to do all of the things we do; we want to be free to think about other things while we're strolling through parks.

The upshot of this, it seems to me, is that the question of free will isn't about the gigantic set of actions we perform; it's about our conscious choices , or decisions . At any rate, this is what thin libertarianism is about. Indeed, it's really about a certain subset of our conscious decisions, namely, what I've elsewhere (2010) called “ torn decisions.” We can define torn decisions as follows:

A torn decision is a decision in which the person in question has reasons for multiple options, feels torn as to which option is best (and has no conscious belief as to which option is best), and decides without resolving the conflict, i.e., decides while feeling torn.

We seem to make decisions like this many times a day about things like whether to have cereal or yogurt for breakfast, or whether to walk to work or drive, or whatever. But we can also make torn decisions in potentially life-changing situations; e.g., you might have a good job offer in a city you don't like, and you might have a deadline that forces you to decide while feeling utterly torn.

Torn decisions should be distinguished from three other kinds of decisions. First, they should be distinguished from leaning decisions ; these are decisions in which the agent chooses while leaning toward one of her live options, whereas in a torn decision, the agent feels completely torn. Second, torn decisions should be distinguished from Buridan's-ass decisions ; these are similar to torn decisions except that the various tied-for-best options are more or less indistinguishable, and because of this, the agent doesn't feel torn . (For example, if you want a can of tomato soup, and there are ten cans of the same kind on the shelf, you won't feel torn—you'll just grab one and be on your way 3 ). Third, torn decisions should be distinguished from what Kane (1996) calls self-forming actions , or SFAs. The most important difference here is that whereas SFAs are defined as being undetermined, torn decisions are not. Torn decisions are defined in terms of their phenomenology. So we know from experience that we make some torn decisions—in fact, we make a lot of them—and it's an open empirical question whether some of these decisions are undetermined.

To see why thin libertarianism is about torn decisions, rather than other kinds of decisions, consider the following two decisions:

Non-Torn Decision (or for short, NTD ): You live in a city you hate because you have a job there and can't find another job. You also hate the job in many ways but you keep it because you can't find anything better. You dream of living in City C and having a job at Institution I. Then you're offered a job at institution I, in City C, with a starting salary three times greater than what you presently make. You have to decide whether to accept the offer. All of your reasons favor accepting it, and none of them favor turning it down. Torn decision (or for short, TD) : You live in your favorite city; you have a job that's OK, but you're not wild about it. You dream of working for Institution I. Then you're offered a job at Institution I, but it's in City C, and you hate City C. You deliberate for a week about whether to take the job, but you still feel completely torn about whether to take the offer, and the deadline is right now, and you have to decide while feeling torn.

It's easy to understand why people would want their torn decisions—decisions like TD—to be undetermined. For one might think that (a) if decisions like TD are determined, then they're determined by things outside of our conscious reasons and thought, and (b) if this is true, then we don't really author and control these decisions, and hence, they aren't fully free. In contrast with this, it's hard to see why anyone would want decisions like NTD to be undetermined. Indeed, it seems to me that we should want decisions like this to be determined by our reasons for action (or, more precisely, by events involving us having the reasons that we have).

In any event, the kind of libertarianism that I'm currently describing—i.e., thin libertarianism—is a thesis about torn decisions. Roughly (I'll make this more precise below), it's the thesis that at least some of our torn decisions are L-free (i.e., undetermined, appropriately non-random, and so on).

Simplifying a bit, we can think of a thin-libertarian agent as someone who (a) mostly plods through life in a roughly Humean way—doing things without making conscious decisions, being driven (mostly unconsciously) by reasons for action, not exercising anything like L-freedom—but who (b) comes to a fork in the road every once in a while (sometimes once an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more) and has to make a torn decision about which way to go.

This picture is simplified—e.g., because it ignores leaning decisions—but it gives us a rough idea of what I have in mind. To be clear, though, I do not think that torn decisions are the only kinds of decisions that can be L-free, or that one might reasonably want to be L-free. For example, one might wonder whether our leaning decisions are L-free. But for a variety of reasons, I think that torn decisions are the most important decisions to focus on; indeed, I've argued elsewhere (2010) that human beings are L-free if and only if some their torn decisions are L-free, so that the question of whether we're L-free comes down to the question of whether some of our torn decisions are L-free. But I won't try to argue for this here; I'm just going to focus on torn decisions; and I'm going to take thin libertarianism to say that some of our torn decisions are L-free and to not say anything about any non-torn decisions.

Fourth, note that the claim here is that some of our torn decisions are L-free. Libertarianism is perfectly compatible with the claim that some of our torn decisions are causally determined by prior events; e.g., it's compatible with the claim that some of these decisions are determined by subconscious reasons that we're not aware of 4 All libertarianism says is that some of our decisions are undetermined and L-free.

Fifth and finally, it's important to get clear on the kind of indeterminacy that's required for torn decisions to be L-free. This sort of indeterminacy can be defined as follows:

A torn decision is wholly undetermined at the moment of choice—or, for short, TDW-undetermined —if and only if the actual objective moment-of-choice probabilities of the various reasons-based tied-for-best options being chosen match the phenomenological probabilities—or what the probabilities seem to us to be—so that these moment-of-choice probabilities are all more or less even, given the complete state of the universe and all of the laws of nature, and the choice occurs without any other significant causal inputs, i.e., without anything else being causally relevant in a significant way to which option is chosen.

It's important to note that this sort of indeterminacy is compatible with various features of the decision being fully determined. Suppose, e.g., that I'm about to make a torn decision between options A and B. It could be determined that (i) I'm going to make a torn decision (i.e., I'm not going to refrain from choosing), and (ii) I'm going to choose between A and B (i.e., I'm not going to choose some third option that I don't like as much), and (iii) the objective moment-of-choice probabilities of A and B being chosen are both 0.5. All of this is perfectly consistent with the decision being TDW-undetermined. All that needs to be undetermined, in order for the choice to be TDW-undetermined, is which tied-for-best option is chosen .

It's also important to note that TDW-indeterminacy lies at one end of a spectrum of possible cases and that there are degrees of the kind of indeterminacy I'm talking about here. To see what I've got in mind by this, suppose that Ralph makes a torn decision to order chocolate pie instead of apple pie. Since this is a torn decision, we know that given all of Ralph's conscious reasons and thought, he feels completely neutral between his two tied-for-best options. But it might be that, unbeknownst to Ralph, there are external factors—things that are external to Ralph's conscious reasons and thought (e.g., unconscious mental states, or non-mental brain events that precede the decision)—that causally influence the choice and wholly or partially determine which option is chosen. Indeed, there's a spectrum of possibilities here. At one end of the spectrum, which option is chosen is TDW-undetermined, so that the objective moment-of-choice probabilities of the two tied-for-best options being chosen are 0.5 and 0.5, and nothing else significantly causally influences which option is chosen. At the other end of the spectrum, the choice is fully determined—i.e., factors external to Ralph's conscious reason and thought come in and, unbeknownst to Ralph, cause him to choose chocolate. And in between, there are possible cases where the objective moment-of-choice probabilities are neither 0.5 and 0.5 nor 1 and 0—i.e., where they're 0.8 and 0.2, or 0.7 and 0.3, or whatever; in these cases, external factors causally influence the choice without fully determining it, so that which option is chosen is partially determined and partially undetermined 5

3.4. The Central Libertarian Thesis

In order to fully define thin libertarianism, I need to say a few words about a well-known philosophical argument against libertarianism. The argument I have in mind can be put like this:

The randomness argument : Even if our decisions are undetermined in the way that's needed for L-freedom, it doesn't matter because undetermined events are just random events. In other words, they occur by chance —i.e., they just happen . Thus, if we introduce an undetermined event into a decision-making process, that would seem to either (a) increase the level of randomness in that process or (b) leave the level of randomness alone (if the indeterminacy ends up not mattering). So it's hard to see how the introduction of an undetermined event into a decision-making process could increase non -randomness. Thus, since this is precisely what's needed for L-freedom, it seems that we don't have L-freedom; indeed, it seems that L-freedom is impossible 6

I think that libertarians can respond to this argument by arguing for the following thesis:

Central Libertarian Thesis (CLT) : If our torn decisions are undetermined in the right way—i.e., if they're TDW-undetermined—then they're appropriately non-random and L-free.

If we take TDW-indeterminism to be the view that some of our torn are TDW-undetermined, and if we assume (as I am here—see above) that libertarianism is true if and only if some of our torn decisions are L-free, then CLT can be put more succinctly as follows:

CLT (alternate formulation): If TDW-indeterminism is true, then libertarianism is true.

If CLT is true, then it turns the randomness argument completely on its head. The randomness argument says that indeterminacy implies randomness. CLT, on the other hand, says that the right kind of indeterminacy implies non -randomness. If this is right (and if I'm right that libertarianism is true if and only if our torn decisions are L-free), then the question of whether libertarianism is true reduces to the purely empirical question of whether TDW-indeterminism is true.

I argued for CLT at length in Balaguer (2010) . I can't rehearse all of my arguments here, but I'd like to say a few words about one of them. If indeterminism is true, then there are at least some physical events that are undetermined. These undetermined events are events that determine how the universe will evolve. So, for example, suppose that I'm going to be in an ice cream parlor tonight and that at some specific time—say, 8:00 p.m.—I'm going to make a torn decision about whether to order chocolate or vanilla ice cream. If indeterminism is true—and, in particular, if it's not yet determined whether I'm going to order chocolate or vanilla ice cream—then there's some undetermined event E (or some collection of undetermined events, but let's simplify and suppose that it's a single event) that will occur between now and 8:00pm tonight that will determine whether the universe evolves in an I-get-chocolate-ice-cream way or an I-get-vanilla-ice-cream way. Now notice the following crucial point: if TDW-indeterminism is true, then E is my torn decision . In other words, the undetermined physical event that, so to speak, spins the universe off in an I-get-chocolate-ice-cream direction, instead of an I-get-vanilla-ice-cream direction, just is my conscious decision—i.e., it's the mental event with a me-choosing-now phenomenology.

This follows straightforwardly from TDW-indeterminism (together with the mind-brain materialist assumption that decisions are physical events) 7 So if TDW-indeterminism is true, then we get the result that my conscious decision is the undetermined physical event that settles whether the universe evolves in an I-get-chocolate-ice-cream way or an I-get-vanilla-ice-cream way. I argued in Balaguer (2010) and Balaguer (in progress) that if this is true—if our torn decisions are the undetermined events that settle which of our tied-for-best options get chosen—then (i) our torn decisions are appropriately non-random (e.g., we author and control these decisions in important ways); and (ii) the indeterminacy procures the appropriate non-randomness, so that our torn decisions are also L-free; and (iii) this gives us everything we want, or should want, out of libertarianism. But I can't argue for all of these points here.

3.5. Thin Libertarianism Defined

Given everything I've said, we can define thin libertarianism as the view that TDW-indeterminism is true—i.e., that at least some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined—and, hence, that at least some of these decisions are appropriately non-random and L-free.

3.6. NEL-Freedom

I think that thin libertarianism captures the backward -looking claim that libertarians should endorse. But it doesn't make any forward -looking claims; in particular, it's compatible with the epiphenomenalist thesis that our torn decisions don't play any role in causing our actions. If libertarians want to avoid this result, then they need to define a kind of libertarian freedom that requires non-epiphenomenalism. We can do this as follows:

A person P is NEL-free (short for non-epiphenomenal libertarian free ) if and only if at least some of P's torn decisions are such that (a) they're TDW-undetermined (and hence also appropriately non-random and L-free), and (b) they're not inappropriately epiphenomenal—i.e., they play an appropriate role in the causation of P's actions.

More needs to be said about what it would mean for our torn decisions to be “inappropriately epiphenomenal.” The most obvious worry you might have about our torn decisions being epiphenomenal is based on the thought that (a) physical events always have physical causes, and so (b) our torn decisions can't cause any physical events (including bodily movements), because (c) torn decisions are mental events, not physical events. But I'm assuming mind-brain materialism here, and so while it's true that torn decisions are mental events, on the view I'm articulating, they're also physical events, presumably neural events. So this first worry doesn't even get off the ground.

But there's another worry you might have about our torn decisions being epiphenomenal. You might worry that (a) there are wholly non-conscious neural events that occur before our torn decisions that are common causes of our torn decisions and the corresponding actions, and (b) our torn decisions aren't causally upstream from our actions in the right way. In other words, you might worry that the causal map looks like this:

If this is how things work in our brains, then it would seem to be freedom-undermining in an obvious sort of way. Thus, I'll assume that this is the relevant worry about our torn decisions being epiphenomenal. And so I'll take clause (b) of the definition of NEL-freedom to say that the torn decisions in question are not epiphenomenal in this way.

3.7. NE-Libertarianism

Given all this, we can say that NE-libertarianism is the view that human beings are NEL-free. In other words, it's the view that at least some of our torn decisions are (a) TDW-undetermined (and, hence, L-free) and (b) not epiphenomenal in the above way.

4. Responses to the Worries About Free Will

NE-libertarianism has a backward looking claim (namely, TDW-indeterminism) and a forward-looking claim (non-epiphenomenalism). These are both empirical claims, and so NE-libertarianism could be undermined by empirical findings that suggested that one or both of its empirical claims aren't true. The question I now want to ask is whether the empirical considerations discussed in section 2—i.e., F1-F5 and B1-B5—give us reason to think that NE-libertarianism isn't true.

I want to argue that the answer to this question is “No.” Indeed, now that we've got a clear picture of the sort of indeterministic, non-epiphenomenal freedom that we should be focused on—namely, NEL-freedom—I think it's easy to see that most of the supposedly anti-free-will considerations that I listed in section 2 are in fact entirely irrelevant to the question of whether human beings are NEL-free. In particular, it seems to me that all five of the forward-looking (epiphenomenalism-based) worries about free will from section 2 (i.e., F1-F5), and the first three of the backward-looking (determinism-based) worries (i.e., B1-B3), are transparently irrelevant to the question of whether we're NEL-free. In other words, the only anti-free-will considerations that I discussed in section 2 that aren't transparently irrelevant to the question of whether we're NEL-free are B4 and B5—i.e., the considerations based on the Libet studies and the Haynes studies. I'll discuss those studies in sections 4.2 and 4.3. For now, I just want to discuss F1-F5 and B1-B3.

4.1. F1-F5 and B1-B3

To illustrate the fact that considerations F1-F5 and B1-B3 are irrelevant to NE-libertarianism—i.e., to the thesis that we're NEL-free—I simply want to point out that NE-libertarianism is perfectly compatible with all of the following claims (NE-libertarianism doesn't entail any of these claims, but it's perfectly consistent with them):

1. The vast majority of our actions are not caused by—or, indeed, even preceded by—conscious choices. For example, when I take the 43rd step on my stroll through the park, I do not decide to do that in any interesting sense of the term; and the same thing is true of the vast majority of my actions.

2. We often have no idea why we do what we do.

3. We often have to infer what our reasons were for some of the actions we perform.

4. We often confabulate reasons for our actions, after the fact.

5. Many of our actions aren't caused by reasons at all—we just do them.

6. Conscious awareness of action often lags behind action—e.g., in speech processing and emergency situations.

7. We can sometimes be duped into thinking that we performed actions that we didn't perform; and we can sometimes be duped into thinking that we didn't perform actions that we did perform.

8. We are not directly aware of the causal link between our decisions and our actions; the claim that there's a causal link here is an empirical claim that requires evidence.

9. We do not have any good non-empirical reason to believe that our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined; indeed, for all we know, it could be that all of our torn decisions are fully determined by events that took place before we were born; the claim that TDW-indeterminism is true—i.e., that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined—is an extremely controversial empirical hypothesis that requires evidence.

10. Many of our actions (and, indeed, many of our torn decisions) are causally influenced by subconscious mental states (and non-mental neural events) that we're not aware of at all.

11. Many of our actions (and, indeed, many of our torn decisions) are causally influenced by situational factors like mood.

12. Our torn decisions can be manipulated by external stimuli, e.g., magnetic stimulation to the brain. (Even if we assume that torn decisions can be causally influenced by magnetic stimulation to the brain, it doesn't follow that ordinary torn decisions— without magnetic stimulation—aren't TDW-undetermined. Here's an analogy: even if we can weight a coin to make it extremely likely that it will come up heads when we toss it, it doesn't follow that the outcomes of fair coin tosses are determined by prior events; it could be that the objective probability of getting heads on a fair coin toss is usually about 0.5. Or again: even if our torn decisions can be influenced by alien manipulation, it doesn't follow that when aliens aren't present, our torn decisions aren't TDW-undetermined and L-free).

All of these claims are perfectly compatible All of these claims are perfectlywith NE-libertarianism. This is entirely obvious—there's simply nothing in NE-libertarianism that says anything that's even remotely incompatible with any of the above claims. But the whole point of F1-F5 and B1-B3—i.e., the five forward-looking anti-free-will considerations and the first three backward-looking anti-free-will considerations—was that claims like the above (i.e., claims 1-12) are true. Thus, considerations F1-F5 and B1-B3 are all entirely irrelevant to the question of whether NE-libertarianism is true—i.e., whether we humans are NEL-free.

In a nutshell, the reason that F1-F5 and B1-B3 don't do anything to undermine NE-libertarianism—i.e., the reason that claims 1-12 are compatible with NE-libertarianism—is that (a) NE-libertarianism is a claim about torn decisions only , and (b) NE-libertarianism only says that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal. If we keep these two points in mind when we read through claims 1-12, it becomes very clear that there's nothing in any of these claims that's incompatible with NE-libertarianism. Moreover, it also becomes clear that the anti-free-will argument here—the one based on claims like 1-12, or considerations like F1-F5 and B1-B3—is a straw-man argument. It's directed against a bizarre view of human beings that no one could take seriously. The NE-libertarian that I have in mind wants to respond to this argument by saying something like the following:

We're not idiots. We don't think that human beings are ideal (or event close to ideal) agents. We, of course, think that human beings are sometimes causally influenced by subconscious mental states and non-conscious brain processes that they're not aware of; and we, of course, think that human beings are often completely in the dark about why they do lots of what they do; and likewise for all of the claims that you're making here about human beings—we don't need to deny any of these claims. All we're saying—all that needs to be true in order for human beings to be NEL-free—is that at least some or our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal . And this is perfectly compatible with claims 1-12 and considerations F1-F5 and B1-B3.

It's important to note here that NE-libertarians can admit that some of our torn decisions are causally determined by factors that we're completely unaware of. Indeed, it seems to me that we have strong empirical reasons to believe that many of our torn decisions are causally influenced by factors that we're not aware of. But as far as I can see, we don't have any good reason to think that all of our torn decisions are causally influenced by such factors. To bring this out, consider an ordinary case in which an ordinary person—say, Ralph—makes a torn decision to order chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla. Do considerations like F1-F5 and B1-B3 give us good reason to think that this decision—made very calmly and consciously—wasn't TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal? It seems to me that the answer to this question is obviously “No.” And it seems even more obvious that these considerations don't give us any good reason to think that none of our torn decisions is TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal. The evidence we have just doesn't support this claim. Think of a typical day; you might make torn decisions about whether to have fruit or toast for breakfast, whether to take a walk before going to work, whether to work through lunch or go out to a restaurant, whether to work late or go to a concert, and so on. Does the existing evidence (in particular, the evidence concerning considerations like F1-F5 and B1-B3) really support the claim that none of these decisions is TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal? The answer, I think, is that it does nothing of the sort. It supports the claim that we're often influenced by subconscious factors; but it just doesn't support the claim that none of our torn decisions is TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal. Indeed, the existing evidence seems perfectly consistent with the thesis that a significant percentage of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined and non-epiphenomenal. And that's all that NE-libertarians need 8

At this point, you might object as follows:

You're not appreciating the fact that when we discover something about the way the mind-brain works in specific cases, we can infer that it works that way in all cases. So, for example, if consciousness is sluggish in some cases, then it's presumably sluggish in all cases. After all, it's not as if the neural processes involved in our conscious thinking can suddenly speed up .

I want to say two things in response to this objection, one related to the fact that (a) NE-libertarians think that we need to focus on torn decisions in particular , and one related to the fact that (b) NE-libertarians claim only that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined and L-free. Point (a) is enough to give us a response to the worry about the sluggishness of consciousness. NE-libertarians obviously don't think that the neural processes involved in our conscious thinking sometimes speed up; rather, their position is that these processes don't need to speed up in order to be causally relevant to our torn decisions in the manner required for the truth of NE-libertarianism. Why? Because torn decisions are very different from, e.g., the processing of incoming speech and the jerking of steering wheels in emergency situations. Consciousness can't keep up with things like speech processing and emergency steering maneuvers; but there's no reason to think that it can't keep up with torn decisions. And this isn't because consciousness can “go faster” in connection with torn decisions; it's because there's no reason to think that torn decisions (about things like whether to order chocolate or vanilla ice cream) occur as quickly as speech processing and emergency steering maneuvers do. So we can't infer from the fact that consciousness is too sluggish to play a causal role in speech processing and emergency steering maneuvers to the conclusion that consciousness is too sluggish to play a causal role in torn decisions. So it's not that NE-libertarians are failing to take note of the fact that results obtained about specific cases generalize to other cases; it's rather that NE-libertarians are pointing out that the generalizing inference doesn't go through in the specific case at issue here because there are relevant disanalogies between torn decisions and, e.g., speech processing and emergency steering maneuvers.

Analogous points can be made about many of the other empirical results at issue in connection with considerations F1-F5 and B1-B3. But there's a second point that NE-libertarians need to make in order to provide a full response to the above objection. The second point concerns the psychology of our torn decisions rather than the neural processes involved in those decisions. The point is this: (a) there's no good reason to think that if some of our torn decisions are causally influenced by subconscious mental states or events (in ways that are incompatible with TDW-indeterminism), then all of them are; and (b) the sum total of the evidence that we presently have does not justify an inference to a claim of universality here. Now, I am not claiming that we could never be in position to infer from individual cases to a universal claim here. If we had the ability to locate torn decisions in our brains and to observe the causal antecedents of those decisions—and these are obviously things that we can't do right now—then if we observed a random (and reasonably large) sample of ordinary torn decisions and found that in all observed cases, our torn decisions were causally influenced by subconscious mental states or events (in ways that were incompatible with TDW-indeterminism), then it would be very rational for us to conclude that this was true in general. And so it would be rational for us to conclude in this scenario that NE-libertarianism was false. But we're just not in this situation right now. We don't have the ability to look at a random sample of ordinary torn decisions and determine whether they're causally influenced by subconscious mental states or events (in ways that are incompatible with TDW-indeterminism). And so while we've got good reason to think that some of our torn decisions are causally influenced by subconscious mental states or events, we're just not in a position to rationally infer that all of them are.

4.2. B4—The Libet Studies

Perhaps the most famous arguments against free will that have been generated by work in psychology and neuroscience are based on the work of Benjamin Libet. In this subsection, I'll explain why Libet's results don't give us any good reason to doubt NE-libertarianism—i.e., why they don't give us good reason to doubt that we're NEL-free.

Libet's studies were a follow-up to a neuroscientific discovery from the 1960s, in particular, the discovery that voluntary decisions are associated with a certain kind of brain activity known as the readiness potential (see e.g., Kornhuber and Deecke, 1965 ). Libet's studies were designed to determine a timeline for the readiness potential, the conscious intention to act, and the act itself (see e.g., Libet et al., 1983 ). In the main experiment, subjects sat facing a large clock that could measure time in ms, and they were told to flick their wrists whenever they felt an urge to do so and to note the exact time that they felt the conscious urge to move. What Libet found was that the readiness potential—the physical brain activity associated with our decisions—arose about 350–400 ms before the conscious intention to act and about 550 ms before the act itself. These results were immediately seen as raising a problem for free will. The argument against free will proceeds differently depending on the kind of free will that we have in mind. In our case, we can see Libet's results as raising a problem for TDW-indeterminism. In particular, the idea here is that (a) TDW-indeterminism requires indeterminacy at the moment of conscious choice, but (b) the fact that our conscious decisions are preceded by nonconscious brain processes (namely, the readiness potential) seems to suggest that the neural mechanisms responsible for our decisions are already up and running before our conscious thinking enters the picture.

The problem with this reasoning is that it's not clear what the function of the readiness potential is. In particular, there is no evidence for the claim that, in torn decisions, the readiness potential is causally relevant to which option is chosen 9 There are many other things that the readiness potential could be doing. One way to see that this is true is to recall from section 3 that NE-libertarianism is perfectly consistent with the idea that various aspects of our torn decisions are causally determined. In particular, as we saw above, a torn decision could be TDW-undetermined and NEL-free even if it was determined in advance that (i) the torn decision in question was going to occur, and (ii) the choice was going to come from among the agent's tied-for-best options, and (iii) the objective moment-of-choice probabilities of these options being chosen were all more or less even. The only thing that needs to be undetermined, in order for a torn decision to be TDW-undetermined and NEL-free, is which tied-for-best option is chosen . Given this, it should be obvious how NE-libertarians can respond to the Libet studies. They can say that for all we know, it could be that the readiness potential is part of a process that's causally relevant to our torn decisions but doesn't causally influence which tied-for-best option is chosen. For instance, it could be part of a causal process that leads to the occurrence of a torn decision without influencing which tied-for-best option is chosen 10 Or it could be that the readiness potential is part of the process whereby our reasons cause our decisions; and it could be that while in connection with certain kinds of non-torn decisions this process determines which option is chosen, in connection with torn decisions, it merely causes the choice to come from the agent's tied-for-best options (and perhaps also causes the objective moment-of-choice probabilities of these options being chosen to be more or less even).

So the point here is that we don't presently have good reason to think that, in torn decisions, the readiness potential is causally relevant to which tied-for-best option is chosen. There just isn't any evidence for this, and so the existence of the readiness potential gives us no reason to think that, in torn decisions, which tied-for-best option is chosen is causally affected by prior-to-choice nonconscious brain processes. So it doesn't give us any good reason to doubt TDW-indeterminism. In other words, the existence of the readiness potential is perfectly compatible with the NE-libertarian claim that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined 11

4.3. B5—The Haynes Studies

I now want to consider the objection to NE-libertarianism that's based on Haynes's studies. Prima facie , these studies seem to give rise to a devastating objection to TDW-indeterminism, but I'm going to argue that this appearance is deceiving and that, in fact, Haynes's studies don't give us any good reason to doubt TDW-indeterminism.

Haynes's studies seem tailor-made to provide anti-libertarians with a way of responding to what I just said in section 4.2 about the argument based on Libet's studies. My central objection to that argument was that it fails to distinguish between the occurrence of a torn decision and the issue of which tied-for-best option is chosen . More specifically, my objection was that for all we know right now, the readiness potential could be part of what causes our torn decisions to occur without doing anything to cause a specific tied-for-best option to be chosen. But Haynes's studies seem to be explicitly constructed to block this sort of response. To bring this out, let's recall how the main Haynes study went. Haynes gave his subjects two buttons, one for the left hand and one for the right, and he told them to make a decision at some point as to which button to push, and he used a very simple method to estimate the time at which the conscious decision occurred (in particular, subjects were presented with a randomized stream of letters, and they had to report which letters they were looking at when they made their conscious decisions). What Haynes found was that there was unconscious neural activity in two different regions of the brain that predicted whether subjects were going to press the left button or the right button. Moreover, he found that this activity arose as long as 7–10 s before the person's conscious decision to push the given button.

These results seem to generate a serious objection to TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism. For (a) the results seem to suggest that our decisions are already determined before we make them, and (b) TDW-indeterminacy (and NEL-freedom) require indeterminacy at the moment of conscious choice. Prima facie , this line of thought seems extremely powerful, but I want to argue that when we look at the details of Haynes's study, the argument against TDW-indeterminism completely falls apart.

There are two details of the study that I want to discuss. The first has to do with the specific regions of the brain where the pre-conscious-choice neural activity was found; in particular, it was found in the parietal cortex (or for short, PC) and in what's known as Brodmann area 10 (or for short, BA10). Why this is important will become clear below. The second important detail is this: the pre-choice brain activity that Haynes found (in PC and BA10 regions) was actually not a very reliable guide to predicting the outcomes of his subjects' choices. Indeed, it was only 10% more reliable than blind guessing. If we just guess which button subjects are going to push, we'll be right about 50% of the time, whereas if we use information about the activity in PC and BA10 regions of subjects' brains, we'll be right at best 60% of the time. This is definitely statistically significant, so it's showing something . But it's not immediately obvious what it's showing, and as I will explain in what follows, it doesn't show (or, indeed, give us any good reason to believe) that TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism are false.

But let me slow down and explain the significance of the fact that the pre-choice brain activity was found in PC and BA10 regions of the brain. The strange thing about this is that these regions are not associated with free conscious decisions. However, they are associated with plans , or intentions . In particular, they're associated with the generation and storage of plans 12 , 13 This is extremely important. In fact, when we combine this with the fact that the neural activity in PC and BA10 regions is only 10% more predictive than blind guessing, the argument against TDW-indeterminism comes unraveled. The reason is that when we put these two facts together, they suggest an alternative explanation of Haynes's results that's perfectly consistent with TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism. I will say in a moment what this alternative explanation is, but before I do, I need to make a background point.

When someone asks you not to think about something, it suddenly becomes very difficult to obey them. For instance, if I don't want you to think about Abraham Lincoln right now, one of the worst things I could do is tell you not to think about him. If I just say nothing, then the odds that you would think of Lincoln in the next few minutes are vanishingly small. But as soon as I say, “Don't think about Abe Lincoln,” it becomes very hard for you to avoid thinking about him, even if you sincerely want to obey me. The problem is that the temptation to think about what you're not supposed to think about can be almost overwhelming.

The same goes for little decisions , like picking a number between 1 and 10. Suppose I say this to you: “In a minute, I'm going to ask you to pick a number between 1 and 10, but don't do it yet.” It's actually rather difficult to refrain from thinking of a number in situations like this. Indeed, it's fairly likely that before I can even spit out the second half of my sentence, you will already have thought of a number between 1 and 10. As soon as I tell you that you're going to be asked to pick a number between 1 and 10, you might pick the number 7 before you even hear me say that you shouldn't choose yet.

Now, once you hear me tell you that you're not supposed to pick yet, you might try to undo what you already did—i.e., you might try to unpick the number 7. But the result of this will probably not be that 7 gets, so to speak, “put back into the hopper.” Instead, it will be that 7 is eliminated from consideration all together. This is because we can't turn ourselves into random number generators. The problem is that you won't be able to forget that you already thought of the number 7. So after a minute passes and I tell you to pick a number, it's unlikely that you'll pick 7 again. If you did, you wouldn't think you were being truly random and that it was just a coincidence that you picked 7 twice in a row; you'd probably think you were cheating —that you were flagrantly disobeying the command not to choose in advance. So even if you didn't realize this, I think the real result of undoing your choice would very likely be that 7 is simply eliminated from consideration.

But now suppose that instead of telling you that you're going to have to pick a number between 1 and 10, I tell you that you're going to have to pick either the number 1 or the number 2 . And suppose that you instantly think of the number 2. Now, what's going to happen when I tell you that I don't want you to choose yet, that I want you to wait 60s and then pick a number? You might try to unpick the number 2, but if the result of this is that 2 is eliminated from consideration, then the only option left is 1. So unless you really manage to completely forget about the fact that you chose the number 2 before, the choice you end up making is not going to be truly random. It's going to be weirdly influenced by your attempt to follow the instructions despite the fact that you started off by picking the number 2.

So that's one point. Here's another point: even if you don't start out by thinking of one of the two numbers, it's actually somewhat difficult to keep yourself from thinking of one of them. Try it right now. Flip an hourglass over and tell yourself that you're not going to think of 1 or 2 until all the sand runs out and that, when the sand does run out, you're going to choose one of the two numbers. This isn't that easy. I'm not saying you can't succeed in doing it. Of course you can. You might be able to distract yourself and think about something else entirely. But you might not succeed. In short, the point here is that sometimes , when we're asked not to think about something, we fail.

Now, here's the really important point for us. You might fail in this task even if you don't realize it . You might subconsciously think of the number 1, and you might subconsciously store the plan to pick that number when the time comes. This shouldn't be controversial at all. For here are two things that we know to be true about humans: first, it's somewhat difficult for us to avoid thinking about something when someone tells us not to think about it; and second, we do all sorts of things unconsciously. We might not do everything unconsciously, but it's clear that we do a lot of things unconsciously. When we put these two points together, we get the following (highly probable) hypothesis:

If you tell a group of human subjects that in 60s they're going to be asked to pick the number 1 or the number 2, and if you tell them not to pick yet—in other words, if you tell them to wait until the 60s are up before they choose—at least some of these subjects will (without realizing it) subconsciously think of one of the two numbers before the 60s have elapsed, and they will subconsciously store the plan to pick that number when the time comes.

Again, given what we know about ourselves, this seems extremely plausible. Indeed, it seems to me that it would be surprising if it wasn't true. (By the way, I'm not claiming here that any time someone subconsciously thinks of a given option, she commits to it. That's obviously not true. But all that's needed here—and this will come out more clearly below—is that in cases like the ones we're considering here, there can be subconscious mental activity that causally influences how the decisions go. And, again, this doesn't seem very controversial.)

In any event, this is all just background. But it's highly relevant to the Haynes studies because it suggests an explanation of Haynes's results that's perfectly consistent with TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism. The explanation that I have in mind—and we'll see later that this isn't the only explanation of Haynes's results that's compatible with TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism—can be put in the following way:

An explanation of Haynes's results that's perfectly consistent with TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism: A significant percentage of the subjects in Haynes's study (say, 20% of them) unconsciously failed to make truly spontaneous decisions about whether to press the right button or the left button. They genuinely wanted to follow Haynes's instructions, but for whatever reason, and without realizing it, they unconsciously formed prior-to-choice plans to push one of the two buttons. They unconsciously stored this information in their brains, and then when the time came, these plans were activated. In other words, the regions of the brain where these plans were stored were activated. And this brain activity caused the subjects to choose in the ways in which they had unconsciously planned on choosing. This explains why (in some subjects) there was prior-to-choice brain activity in PC and BA10 regions of the brain (and, remember, while these regions are associated with the formation and storage of plans , they're not associated with free conscious decisions). It also explains why this brain activity predicts whether subjects will push the left button or the right button. And finally, it also explains why using this brain activity to predict how subjects will choose is only 10% more reliable than blind guessing—the reason is that not all subjects unconsciously formed plans about what they were going to do. Only some of them did. Most of the subjects managed to avoid doing this, and so most of them succeeded in making truly spontaneous decisions. (Of course, the claim here isn't that most of us are NEL-free, but some of us aren't. The claim is that all of us sometimes fail to be NEL-free; we're all sometimes driven by things like unconscious plans; but we aren't always driven by such things.)

The first point to note about this explanation is that if it's right, then there's no problem here for TDW-indeterminism or NEL-freedom. All Haynes's results show is that sometimes our decisions are influenced by unconscious factors. But we already knew this. NE-libertarians don't think (or at any rate, they shouldn't think) that all of our torn decisions are NEL-free. As we've already seen, they should admit that our torn decisions are often causally influenced by unconscious factors in ways that make it the case that they're not TDW-undetermined. What NE-libertarians claim is that this isn't always the case—i.e., that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined. But given this, if my explanation of Haynes's findings is correct, then those findings don't give us any good reason to doubt the NE-libertarian view because they don't give us any good reason to think that our torn decisions are never TDW-undetermined. All they show is that our torn decisions aren't always TDW-undetermined. And so these findings are perfectly consistent with the NE-libertarian view that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined and NEL-free.

One might object to my argument here in something like the following way:

Whenever someone uses scientific data to argue for a hypothesis H, we can always respond to the argument by presenting an alternative explanation of the data that doesn't involve the claim that H is true. But in order to have a good response to the argument for H, the alternative explanation can't be a cockamamie story. It has to be just as plausible (or just as likely to be true) as the original explanation—i.e., the explanation that leads to the conclusion that H is true. But in our case, it's not clear that your alternative explanation of Haynes's findings is as plausible as explanations that are hostile to TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism.

I want to respond to this objection by arguing that my explanation is actually more plausible—or more likely to be true—than any explanation that's hostile to TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism. In order to argue for this, I first need to clarify what these other explanations (that are hostile to TDW-indeterminism and NE-libertarianism) say . There are two different views that enemies of TDW-indeterminism might endorse here, namely, the following:

The early-signature-of-the-decision view : The brain events that Haynes found (in PC and BA10 regions of the brain) were early neural signatures of the conscious decisions themselves—i.e., the decisions that the subjects experienced 7–10 s later. The prior-cause view : The brain events that Haynes found occurred prior to the subjects' conscious decisions, and they caused those decisions to go in the ways that they went.

But there are problems with both of these views—or at any rate, with opponents of TDW-indeterminism endorsing these views. Let me start with the prior-cause view. The first point I want to note about this view is that, as it's stated here, it's compatible with TDW-indeterminism. Indeed, the interpretation of Haynes's results that I'm proposing in this paper more or less entails the prior-cause view—for according to that interpretation, the outcomes of Haynes's subjects' conscious decisions were caused by events in which the subjects subconsciously formed prior-to-conscious-choice plans to choose in certain ways. But it's crucial to this interpretation that this is true of only some of Haynes's subjects; in other words, according to the interpretation I'm proposing, Haynes's results don't give us good reason to think that this generalizes to all subjects.

It's worth pausing to emphasize the sort of TDW-indeterminist/NE-libertarian view we're talking about here. Before we even encountered Haynes's studies, we already acknowledged that TDW-indeterminists (and NE-libertarians) would be wise to admit that some of our torn decisions are causally determined by subconscious mental states or events. And these theorists were already committed to claiming that as of right now, we don't have any reason to think that this is universally true. We can think of the interpretation of Haynes's results that I'm proposing here along these lines. What I'm suggesting is that TDW-indeterminists can say this:

Look, we already admitted that some of our torn decisions are causally influenced by prior events (and, hence, that some of these decisions are not TDW-undetermined). Haynes's results just confirm this point.

So if you want to claim that Haynes's results undermine TDW-indeterminism, and if you want to endorse the prior-cause view, then you need to endorse the following:

Allism : Haynes's results suggest that the outcomes of all human torn decisions are caused by prior-to-conscious-choice brain events.

But it's hard to see how we have any reason to believe this. If what I argued in previous sections of this paper is right, then before Haynes performed his studies, there was a plausible view on the table according to which some but not all of our torn decisions are causally determined by prior events. (This view is obviously controversial; my claim is just that, prior to Haynes's study, it was compatible with our evidence.) But given this, it seems that in order for us to have good reason to believe allism—i.e., in order for us to plausibly claim that Haynes's results show that all of our torn decisions are causally determined by prior events—we would need evidence for the claim that causal factors of the kind that Haynes found occur in all cases. But we just don't have evidence for this. For all we know, it could be that causal factors of the kind that Haynes found are present in some cases not but not all. For example, it could be that the causal factors that Haynes found have to do with the causation of torn decisions by subconscious mental states or events, and it could be that while this kind of causation is present in some cases, it's not present in all cases. More generally, the claim that I'm making here is that (i) we don't have any good reason to think that all torn decisions are caused by events of the same kind, and (ii) Haynes's results don't do anything to change this situation.

These remarks bring out an important point. There's nothing special about the interpretation of Haynes's results that I'm suggesting here—i.e., the interpretation that has to do with the formation of subconscious plans. This is just one interpretation among many that TDW-indeterminists could endorse. All that TDW-indeterminists need to say here, in order to maintain that Haynes's results don't undermine their view, is this: while Haynes's results do seem to suggest that our torn decisions are sometimes caused by prior events, there's no evidence for the claim that the causal factors that Haynes has found are present in all cases. My story about subconscious plans is one story of the some-but-not-all kind that TDW-indeterminists can tell here; but it's not the only one.

So I don't think the prior-cause view gives us a plausible way of attacking TDW-indeterminism. What about the early-signature-of-the-decision view? Well, one thing this view has going for it is that it avoids the problem I just raised for the prior-cause view. For while we don't have any good reason to think that all of our torn decisions are caused by events of the same kind, I think that we do have good reason (at least until we're proven wrong) to suppose that torn decisions are neural events of a fairly unified kind. So if observation revealed that some torn decisions were neural events of some kind K, that would give us prima facie reason to think that other torn decisions were of that kind.

But I don't think the early-signature-of-the-decision view is very plausible. There are at least three different arguments for thinking that my explanation of Haynes's data is more plausible than the early-signature-of-the-decision view. Here are the three arguments:

1. We have strong independent evidence for the hypothesis that PC and BA10 regions of the brain are relevant to the formation and storage of plans and intentions, and we have no reason to think that these regions are relevant to conscious decisions. Therefore, since my explanation takes the brain activity that Haynes found in those regions to be related to the formation and storage of long-term plans, it fits with what we already know about those regions, and so it's more plausible than the early-signature-of-the-decision explanation, which takes this activity to be an early neural signature of the conscious decision itself.

2. The fact that there's a 7–10 s time gap between the brain activity in PC and BA10 regions and the conscious decision counts as strong evidence that that brain activity is not part of the decision. This is a bit ironic because, intuitively, the 7–10 s gap is the thing that makes Haynes's results so striking. When you first hear about these studies, you're likely to think that if neuroscientists can predict how you'll choose 7–10 s before you make a conscious decision, then you couldn't possibly be NEL-free. But upon further reflection, the 7–10 s time gap turns out to be part of what undoes the Haynes argument. This is because we have extremely strong reasons to think that human beings are way faster than this when it comes to making decisions. There is experimental evidence (see e.g., Trevena and Miller, 2010 ) that suggests that we can make decisions in less than half a second . Moreover, we all know that this is true. We have all had lots of experience making snap decisions in way less than 7 s. Therefore, since we know that decisions take less than 7 s, it's not plausible that the brain activity that Haynes observed—a full 7-10 s before the conscious choice—was an early neural signature of the conscious decision itself. It's much more plausible to suppose that this brain activity was doing something else. And my explanation provides a compelling story about what it was doing—it was related to the storage of a long-term plan that was made unconsciously and unwittingly by the subject.

3. My interpretation of the data explains why using the brain activity in PC and BA10 regions is only 10% more reliable than blind guessing. It's because only some of the subjects unwittingly formed unconscious plans about what they were going to do. Some of them didn't do this. Some of them managed to refrain from doing this so that their conscious decisions were genuinely spontaneous last-second choices. On the other hand, the early-signature-of-the-decision explanation of Haynes's results doesn't explain why using the brain activity in PC and BA10 regions is only 10% more reliable than blind guessing. People who favor the early-signature-of-the-decision explanation have no option but to say that the reason there's only a 10% increase in reliability here is that we're just not good enough yet at gathering data from people's brains. This seems much less plausible to me.

So, again, it seems to me that my explanation of the data is better than the early-signature-of-the-decision explanation. Now, I don't want to claim that I've proven that the latter explanation is definitely wrong. It is, of course, possible that the brain activity in PC and BA10 regions is an early neural signature of the conscious decision itself. But there's no evidence for this. Thus, it seems to me fair to conclude that Haynes's results don't give us any good reason to doubt the NE-libertarian hypothesis that some of our torn decisions are TDW-undetermined and NEL-free 14 , 15

In closing, I should say that I do not take myself to have provided a positive argument for NE-libertarianism, and in fact, I don't think we have any very good reason to believe it. But I also think that we don't have any good reason to dis believe it.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

1. ^ I suppose you might think that just as compatibilists reject (D2), so too we should reject (E2). Now, my own view is that the idea that (E2) is false (i.e., that free will is compatible with epiphenomenalism) is considerably less plausible than the idea that (D2) is false (i.e., that free will is compatible with determinism). But it doesn't matter; for I would deal with the suggestion that (E2) might be false in the same way that I'm dealing here with the suggestion that (D2) might be false, namely, by just stipulating that I'm talking about a non-epiphenomenal kind of freedom—i.e., a kind of freedom that just is incompatible with epiphenomenalism.

2. ^ Many people have defended libertarian views. Recent examples include van Inwagen ( 1983 ), Ginet (1990) , Clarke (1993) , Kane (1996) , Ekstrom (2000) , O'Connor (2000) , Griffith (2007) , Balaguer (2010) , Franklin (2011) , Mawson (2011) , Steward (2012) , and Todd (2016) .

3. ^ I should say that it's possible to make a torn decision while in a Buridan's-ass situation—because you could be weird enough to care which can of Campbell's tomato soup you get, and so you could feel genuinely torn about it. But most of us don't make torn decisions in Buridan situations. For example, in the above situation, most of us would just grab a can of soup without thinking about it.

4. ^ Again, to be more precise, I should say that libertarianism is compatible with the claim that some of our torn decisions are determined by events involving us having subconscious reasons that we're not aware of. I won't keep making this clarification.

5. ^ I guess there's a usage of the term “determined” on which expressions like ‘partially determined' don't make sense. But I'm not using the term in that way.

6. ^ Arguments of this general kind have been put forward many times by numerous philosophers. See, e.g., Hobbes (1651) , Hume (1748) , Hobart (1934) , Fischer (1999) , Haji (1999) , Mele (1999) , and Levy (2011) .

7. ^ TDW-indeterminism implies that nothing causally influences the decision at the moment of choice; so it guarantees that the decision is itself an undetermined event—indeed, the undetermined event that determines whether I get chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It might seem that the indeterminacy could be resolved by an event that occurs before the decision; but the assumption of TDW-indeterminism rules out this possibility because it requires indeterminacy at the moment of choice .

8. ^ Strictly speaking, all NE-libertarianism says is that some of our torn decisions are NEL-free. But it's plausible to suppose that there's a good deal of regularity here, so that if any of our torn decisions are NEL-free, then a significant percentage of them are—or some such thing.

9. ^ Indeed, we have good reason to think that the readiness potential is not part of a causal process that's relevant to which option is chosen. The lateralized readiness potential (LRP) is a more plausible candidate for being relevant here; for more on this, see Haggard and Eimer (1999) and Haggard's contribution to Haggard and Libet (2001) ; and for an argument that even the LRP isn't part of a causal process that's relevant to which option is chosen, see Schlegel et al. (2013) .

10. ^ A similar point, though a bit different, has been made by Haggard and Eimer (1999) ; and, again, see also Haggard and Libet (2001) .

11. ^ Responses to Libet-style worries about free will have been given by many people. See e.g., Mele (2009) , Balaguer (2010) , Bayne (2011) , Roskies (2011) , Schurger et al. (2012) , Levy (2014) , Nahmias (2015) .

12. ^ For evidence that the BA10 region is associated with the storage of plans and intentions, see, e.g., Burgess et al. (2001) , Haynes et al. (2007) . And for evidence that the PC region is associated with the generation of plans, see e.g., Desmurget and Sirigu (2009) .

13. ^ You might think that to make a decision just is to generate a plan [see e.g., Mele (2009) for a view along these lines]. I think there are problems with this definition, but it doesn't matter here. For instead of speaking of decisions , we can speak of conscious decisions. It may be that if I subconsciously generate a plan to do something then I've made a “decision” in some (I think pretty odd) sense of the term; but I certainly haven't made a conscious decision.

14. ^ There's another point worth making here that's pretty ironic. The early-signature-of-the-decision view doesn't actually undermine TDW-indeterminism. For if it were really true that the brain events that Haynes found were early neural signatures of the decision itself, then the proper conclusion to draw would be that the relevant brain events were parts of the conscious decision, not prior to it. But if they're parts of the decision, then there's no problem here for TDW-indeterminism. (I don't actually believe that these events are parts of the decision; but that's only because I don't believe that decisions take 10 s to occur; I'm simply pointing out what you should say if you do believe that decisions take 10 s to occur.)

15. ^ Other responses to Haynes-style worries about free will can be found in Balaguer (2014) , Levy (2014) .

Balaguer, M. (2010). Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Google Scholar

Balaguer, M. (2014). Free Will . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Balaguer, M. (2016). Conceptual analysis and X-Phi. Synthese 193, 2367–2388. doi: 10.1007/s11229-015-0848-4

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Bayne, T. (2011). “Libet and the case for free will scepticism,” in Free Will and Modern Science , eds R. Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 25–46.

Brasil-Neto, J. P. (1992). Focal transcranial magnetic stimulation and response bias in a forced choice task. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatr. 55, 964–966. doi: 10.1136/jnnp.55.10.964

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Burgess, P. W., Quayle, A., and Frith, C. D. (2001). Brain regions involved in prospective memory as determined by positron emission tomography. Neuropsychologia 39, 545–555. doi: 10.1016/S0028-3932(00)00149-4

Clarke, R. (1993). Toward a credible agent-causal account of free will. Nous 27, 191–203. doi: 10.2307/2215755

Desmurget, M., and Sirigu, A. (2009). A parietal-premotor network for movement intention and motor awareness. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13, 411–419. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.08.001

Ekstrom, L. W. (2000). Free Will: a Philosophical Study . Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fischer, J. M. (1999). Recent work on moral responsibility. Ethics 110, 93–139. doi: 10.1086/233206

Franklin, C. (2011). Farewell to the Luck (and Mind) argument. Philos. Stud. 156, 199–230. doi: 10.1007/s11098-010-9583-3

Gazzaniga, M. S. (1983). Right hemisphere language following brain bisection: a 20-year perspective. Am. Psychol. 38, 525–537. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.38.5.525

Ginet, C. (1990). On Action . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781139173780

Griffith, M. (2007). Freedom and trying: understanding agent-causal exertions. Acta Anal. 22, 16–28. doi: 10.1007/BF02866208

Haggard, P., and Eimer, M. (1999). On the relation between brain potentials and the awareness of voluntary movements. Exp. Brain Res. 126, 128–133. doi: 10.1007/s002210050722

Haggard, P., and Libet, B. (2001). Conscious intention and brain activity. J. Conscious. Stud. 8, 47–63.

Haji, I. (1999). Indeterminism and Frankfurt-style examples. Philos. Explor. 2, 42–58. doi: 10.1080/13869799908520964

Haynes, J. D. (2011). Decoding and predicting intentions. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1224, 9–21. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.05994.x

Haynes, J. D., Sakai, K., Rees, G., Gilbert, S., Frith, C., and Passingham, R. E. (2007). Reading hidden intentions in the human brain. Curr. Biol. 17, 323–328. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.11.072

Hobart, R. E. (1934). Free will as involving determinism and inconceivable without it. Mind 43, 1–27. doi: 10.1093/mind/XLIII.169.1

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan . Reprinted 1962, New York, NY: Collier Books.

Hume, D. (1748). An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding . Reprinted 1955, Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kane, R. (1996). The Significance of Free Will. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kornhuber, H., and Deecke, L. (1965). Hirnpotentialanderungen bei Willkurbewegungen und passiven Bewegungen des Menschen. Pflugers Arch. Gesamte Physiol. Menschen Tiere 284, 1–17. doi: 10.1007/BF00412364

Levy, N. (2011). Hard Luck: How Luck Undermines Free Will and Moral Responsibility . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levy, N. (2014). Consciousness and Moral Responsibility . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Libet, B., Gleason, C., Wright, E., and Pearl, D. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to cerebral potential. Brain 106, 623–642. doi: 10.1093/brain/106.3.623

Mawson, T. J. (2011). Free Will: a Guide for the Perplexed. New York, NY: Continuum Press.

Mele, A. (1999). Ultimate responsibility and dumb luck. Soc. Philos. Policy 16, 274–293. doi: 10.1017/S0265052500002478

Mele, A. (2009). Effective Intentions: the Power of Conscious Will . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milgram, S. (1969). Obedience to Authority. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Nahmias, E. (2015). Why we have free will. Sci. Am. 2015, 77–79.

Nelkin, D. (2005). Freedom, responsibility, and the challenge of situationism. Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXIX: 181–206. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4975.2005.00112.x

Nielson, T. I. (1963). Volition: a new experimental approach. Scand. J. Psychol. 4, 215–230. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.1963.tb01326.x

Nisbett, R. E., and Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychol. Rev. 84, 231–259. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231

O'Connor, T. (2000). Persons and Causes. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Roskies, A. (2011). “Why libet's studies don't pose a threat to free will,” in Conscious Will and Responsibility. A Tribute to Benjamin Libet , eds L. Nadel, and W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 11–22.

Schlegel, A., Alexander, P., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Roskies, A., Tse, P., and Wheatley, T. (2013). Barking up the wrong free: readiness potentials reflect processes independent of conscious will. Exp. Brain Res. 229, 329–335. doi: 10.1007/s00221-013-3479-3

Schurger, A., Sitt, J. D., and Dehaene, S. (2012). An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 109, E2904–E2913. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1210467109

Steward, H. (2012). A Metaphysics for Freedom . Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199552054.001.0001

Todd, P. (2016). Strawson, moral responsibility, and the ‘order of explanation': an intervention. Ethics 127, 208–240.

Trevena, J., and Miller, J. (2010). Brain preparation before a voluntary action: evidence against unconscious movement initiation. Conscious. Cogn. 19, 447–456. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2009.08.006

van Inwagen, P. (1983). An Essay on Free Will . Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Velmans, M. (1991). Is human information processing conscious? Behav. Brain Sci. 14, 651–669. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X00071776

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

PubMed Abstract | Google Scholar

Wegner, D. M., and Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. Am. Psychol. 54, 480–491. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.54.7.480

Keywords: free will, determinism, epiphenomenalism, Libertarianism, torn decisions, non-randomness

Citation: Balaguer M (2019) Free Will, Determinism, and Epiphenomenalism. Front. Psychol . 9:2623. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02623

Received: 14 August 2018; Accepted: 05 December 2018; Published: 09 January 2019.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2019 Balaguer. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Mark Balaguer, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Is “Free Will” an Emergent Property of Immaterial Soul? A Critical Examination of Human Beings’ Decision-Making Process(es) Followed by Voluntary Actions and Their Moral Responsibility

  • Published: 28 September 2021
  • Volume 38 , pages 491–505, ( 2021 )

Cite this article

  • M. Suresh 1 &
  • Satya Sundar Sethy 1  

249 Accesses

Explore all metrics

The concept of free will states that when more than one alternative is available to an individual, he/she chooses freely and voluntarily to render an action in any given context. A question arises, how do human beings choose to perform an action in a given context? What happens to an individual who compels him/her to choose an action out of many alternatives? The behaviorists state that free will guides individuals to choose an action voluntarily. Therefore, he/she is morally responsible for his/her voluntary actions. This paper attempts to answer whether a person’s action is an outcome of his/her ‘moral luck’ or ‘designated cerebral cortex processes’? While answering this question the paper examines the relation between principle of causality and free will of a person. It analyses what causes free will. It elucidates use of free will for decision-making process(es), and the relation between human beings’ actions and their moral responsibility. This paper concludes that human beings are conscious of their free will. Free will decides their actions; therefore, they are morally responsible for their voluntary actions. This paper argues that free will is an emergent property of ‘immaterial soul’.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price includes VAT (Russian Federation)

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Rent this article via DeepDyve

Institutional subscriptions

research paper on free will

Similar content being viewed by others

research paper on free will

The place of Free Will: the freedom of the prisoner

Paolo F. Nichelli & Jordan Grafman

research paper on free will

Does the Power to Suppress an Action Make Us ‘Free’?

research paper on free will

Free Will, Self-Governance and Neuroscience: An Overview

Alisa Carse, Hilary Bok & Debra JH Mathews

Bargh ( 2008 ) notes that free will as a psychological concept is not the same as free will or freedom as a political or societal level concept. Freedom at the political level does not have the same concerns as the freedom of the individual will. Free will as a psychological concept concerns the individual actions and actions that are under the individual’s power to perform. However freedom or free will as a political or societal level concept concerns the plurality and actions that depend on or are restricted by the consent and cooperation of others. Secondly, free will is to be distinguished from a free action (Kane 1998 ). To act freely is to be unhindered in the pursuit of one's purposes. ‘To will’ freely is outlined as the power or ability of an agent to choose a course of action from the various alternatives and must be absent of both internal and external constraints.

Determinism is a metaphysical thesis that proposes that whatever facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature entail the truth about the future. Determinism is to be distinguished from fatalism and predictability where the source of fatalism is located in the will of the gods, or some teleological powers and the source of determinism in natural causes or laws. (Mckenna, M., and Coates, D. J. (2015). “Compatibilism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , URL =  <  http://stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/  > .

Fatalism is the view that whatever is going to happen, is going to happen no matter what we do. As J. S. Mill ( 1874 ) points out that a fatalist believes that whatever is about to happen will be the result of infallible result of causes that precede it and there is no use in struggling against it. It will happen however we may strive to prevent it. The source of the guarantee that those events will happen is located in the will of the gods, or their divine foreknowledge or some intrinsic teleological aspect of the universe. A fatalist believes that a man’s character is formed for him, and not by him. His character is formed by his circumstances.

It is a philosophical position, which prescribes that an agent, can start a new causal chain, which is not preceded by any other prior events.

I have inserted ‘them’ into the quote.

Tourette syndrome (TS or simply Tourette's) is a common neuropsychiatric disorder with onset in childhood, characterized by multiple motor tics and at least one vocal (phonic) tic. These tics are typically preceded by an unwanted urge or sensation in the affected muscles. Some common tics are eye blinking, coughing, throat clearing, sniffing, and facial movements.

Alien hand syndrome (AHS) is a condition in a brain-damaged patient who feels that their limbs seemingly acting on their own, without their intentions.

Searle ( 1983 ), in his book, Mind, Brain, and Science, explains that one of the main features of consciousness is intentionality.

For a detailed explanation about intentions and how they affect agent’s actions and their role in moral responsibility, one can refer to Sinnott-Armstrong (2011: 242–43).

In the mechanistic case, objects have specific causal powers or dispositional tendencies, associated with their fundamental intrinsic properties. The powers might concern a unique outcome or a range of possible effects that is structured by a specific probability measure. As O’connor ( 2000 ) observes the cause here is the event of the object's having these power- conferring properties in those circumstances, whereas in agent-causation the agent having the relevant internal properties will have it directly within his/her power to cause any range of states of intention delimited by internal and external circumstances. One might say that agent-causation is essentially purposive whereas mechanic causality is not. Mechanic causality is dyadic whereas agent causality is triadic. Taking the agency theory seriously within an emergentistic framework raises several theoretical problems. The most fundamental of these is determining the precise underlying properties on which an agent-causal capacity depends.

Kane ( 1998 ) points out the problems like how to explain satisfactorily why only one choice occurs rather the other and insists that libertarians must come up with more radical properties for reconciling indeterminism and free will.

Quoted by Talmi, D., & Frith, C. D. (2011), Neuroscience, free will, and responsibility. In W. Synnot-Armstrong, & L. Nadel (Eds.) Conscious Will and responsibility (pp.124–33). New York: Oxford University Press.

Substance dualism is a type of dualism, which holds that there are two fundamental substances of foundation: mind/soul and matter. This position is expounded by Rene Descartes (Hart 1996 ). In recent times, there are philosophers like David Chalmers (naturalistic dualism), Frank Jackson who with their unique interpretations continue the legacy of this theory.

In Sect. 17 of Monadology , Leibniz confesses that perception and what depends on it is inexplicable in terms of mechanical reasons. He requests us to imagine a machine whose structure makes it think, sense and has perceptions, and if we could enter as we enter into a mill, we might find only parts that push one another and we cannot find anything to explain a perception. Moreover, Leibniz also asserts that we should seek perception and mental activities in simple substances and not in the composite or in the machines. For further reference, one can read, Rescher, N. (Ed.) (1991). G.W. Leibniz's Monadology: An Edition for Students. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

The words in the bracket are mine.

Aristotle (1985). Nicomachean Ethics. Terrance Irwin (Trans.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Ayer, A. J. (1954). Philosophical essays . Macmilan Press.

Google Scholar  

Bargh, J. (2008). Free will is unnatural. In B. John, C. James, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will (pp. 128–154). Oxford University Press.

Chapter   Google Scholar  

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego-depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 , 1252–1265.

Article   Google Scholar  

Bramhall, J. (1844). The works of John Bramhall . John Henry Parker Press.

Bratman, M. (1987). Intentions, plans, and practical reason . Harvard University Press.

Campbell, D. T. (1974). Evolutionary epistemology. In P. A. Schilpp (Ed.), The philosophy of Karl Popper (pp. 413–463). Open Court.

Chisholm, R. M. (1982). Human freedom and the self. In G. Watson (Ed.), Free will (pp. 24–35). Clarendon Press.

Clarke, R. (1996). Contrastive rational explanations of free choice. Philosophical Quarterly, 46 , 185–201.

Clarke, R. (2018). Free will, causation, and absence. Philosophical Studies, 175 , 1517–1524.

Dennett, D. (1984). Elbow room: The varieties of free will worth wanting . MIT Press.

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness explained . Back Bay Books.

Duns Scotus, J. (1986). Questions on Aristotle's Metaphysics, in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality , (selected and translated by A. B. Wolter), Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Eccles, J. C. (1979). The human mystery . Springer.

Book   Google Scholar  

Eccles, J. C. (1980). The human psyche . Springer.

Ekstorm, L. (2003). Free Will, chance, and mystery. Philosophical Studies, 113 , 153–180.

Frankfurt, H. (1969). Alternative possibilities and moral responsibility. Journal of Philosophy, 66 (23), 829–839.

Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: Implications for cognitive sciences. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4 (1), 14–21.

Ginet, C. (1990). On Action . Cambridge University Press.

Goetz, S. (2002). Review of O’Connor’s persons and causes. Faith and Philosophy, 19 , 116–120.

Goetz, S., & Taliaferra, C. (2011). A brief history of the soul . Wiley-Blackwell.

Hart, W. D. (1996). Dualism. In G. Samuel (Ed.), A Companion to the philosophy of mind (pp. 265–267). Blackwell Publishers.

Hobbes, T. (1999). Leviathan . Clarendon Press (Reprint).

Hoefer, C. (2016). Causal determinism. In E. N. Zalfa (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Honderich, T. (1988). A theory of determinism: The mind, neuroscience, and life-hopes . Clarendon Press.

Honderich, T. (1998). Consciousness as existence: Devout Physicalism Spirituality. Mind and Mater , 2 (1), 85–104.

Honderich, T. (2002). How free are you? The deterministic problem (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Honderich, T. (2013). Determinism, incompatibilism and compatibilism, and actual consciousness and subjective physical worlds, humanity. In G. Caruso (Ed.), Exploring the illusion of free will and moral responsibility (pp. 53–64). Lexington Books.

Honderich, T. (2017). MIND: Your being conscious is what and where? Chicago University Press.

James, W. 1890 (1950). The Principles of psychology, vol. I. New York: Dover Publications.

Kane, R. (1998). The Significance of free will . Oxford University Press.

Kane, R. (2005). A contemporary introduction to free will . Oxford University Press.

Kane, R. (2008). Free will: Ancient dispute, new themes. In F. Joel & R. Shafer-Landau (Eds.), Reason and Responsibility: Reading in some basic problems of philosophy (pp. 425–36). California: Thomson Wadsworth.

Kant, I. (1960). Religion within the bounds of reason alone. T. Greene & H. Hudson (Trans.), New York: Harper & Row.

Kawohl, W., & Habermeyer, E. (2008). Free will: Reconciling German civil law with Libet’s neurophysiological studies on the Readiness Potential. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 25 (2), 309–320.

Keil, F. C. (1979). Semantic and conceptual development: An ontological perspective . Harvard University Press.

Koch, W., et al. (2010). Effects of aging on default mode network activity in resting state fMRI: Does the method of analysis matter? Neuroimage , 51 (1), 280–87.

Libet, B. 1983(1999). Do we have free will?. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6 (8–9), 47–57.

Lodge, P., & Bobro, M. E. (1998). Stepping back inside Leibniz’s Mill. The Monist, 81 (4), 553–572.

Lowe, E. J. (2008). Personal agency: The metaphysics of mind and action . Oxford University Press.

Mele, A. (1992). Springs of action . Oxford University Press.

Mill, J. S. (1874). A system of logic . Harper and Row.

Myers, D. G. (2008). Determined and free. In J. Bear, J. C. Kaufman, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and Free will (pp. 32–42). Oxford University Press.

Nozick, R. (1995). Choice and indeterminism. In O’Connor (Ed.), Agents, Causes, and Events: Essays on Indeterminism and Free Will (pp. 101–14). New York: Oxford University Press.

O’ Connor, T. . (1996). Why agent causation? Philosophical Topics, 24 (2), 143–158.

O’Connor, T. (2000). Persons and causes . Oxford University Press.

Oshana, M. (1997). Ascriptions of responsibility. American Philosophical Quarterly, 34 , 71–83.

Pereboom, D. (2001). Living without free will . Cambridge University Press.

Pereboom, D. (2003). Meaning in life without free will. Philosophical Exchange, 33 (1), 1–17.

Pereboom, D. (2014). Free will, agency, and meaning in life . Oxford University Press.

Quinn, P.L. (1997). Tiny selves: Chisholm on the simplicity of the soul. In L.E. Hahn (Ed.), The Philosophy of Roderick M. Chisholm (pp. 5–67). Chicago: Open Court.

Reid, T. (1983). The Works of Thomas Reid. W. Hamilton (Ed.). Hildeshein: George Ulm.

Rescher, N. (Ed.). (1991). G.W. Leibniz’s Monadology: An edition for students . University of Pittsburgh Press.

Searle, J. (1983). Intentionality . Cambridge University Press.

Spinoza, B. de 1677 (1951). Ethics (proposition III, part II). In Spinoza: The chief works (Vol. 2), R. H. M. Elwes (Ed. & Trans.). New York: Dover.

Strawson, G. (1999). The self and the SESMET. In S. Gallagher, & J. Shear (Eds.) Models of the Self (pp. 483–518). Charlottesville: Imprint Academica.

Swinburne, R. (2013). Mind, brain and free will . Oxford University Press.

Synnott-Armstrong, W. (2011). Lessons from Libet. In W. Synnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel (Eds.), Conscious will and responsibility (pp. 235–246). Oxford University Press.

Talmi, D., & Frith, C. D. (2011). Neuroscience, free will, and Responsibility. In W. Synnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel (Eds.), Conscious will and responsibility (pp. 124–133). Oxford University Press.

Taylor, R. (1974). Metaphysics . Prentice-Hall.

Taylor, S. E. (1989). Positive Illusions . Basic Books.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). Conceptual foundations of evolutionary psychology. In J. Barkov, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 119–136). Oxford University Press.

Tranel, D., Bechara, A., & Damasio, A. R. (2000). Decision-making and the somatic marker hypothesis. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The cognitive neurosciences (2nd ed., pp. 1047–1061). MIT Press.

Van Inwagen, P. (1983). An essay on free will . Oxford University Press.

Wallace, J. (1978). Virtues and vices in contemporary philosophy . Cornel University Press.

Wallace, J. (1994). Responsibility and the moral sentiments . Harvard University Press.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will . MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54 , 480–492.

Download references

No funding obtained for the research study.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

Deptartment of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Tamilnadu, India

M. Suresh & Satya Sundar Sethy

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Suresh .

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest, additional information, publisher's note.

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Suresh, M., Sethy, S.S. Is “Free Will” an Emergent Property of Immaterial Soul? A Critical Examination of Human Beings’ Decision-Making Process(es) Followed by Voluntary Actions and Their Moral Responsibility. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 38 , 491–505 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40961-021-00260-8

Download citation

Received : 14 May 2019

Accepted : 07 September 2021

Published : 28 September 2021

Issue Date : September 2021

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s40961-021-00260-8

Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Moral responsibility
  • Principle of causality
  • Immaterial soul
  • Decision-making process(es)
  • Agent causation theory
  • Voluntary actions
  • Find a journal
  • Publish with us
  • Track your research


Why free will doesn't exist, according to Robert Sapolsky

It's hard to let go of the idea that free will exists, but neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says that society starts to look very different once you do

By Timothy Revell

18 October 2023

Robert Sapolsky is one of the most revered scientists alive today. He made his name from his work studying wild baboons in Kenya, unpicking how their complex social lives lead to stress and how that affects their health.

His most recent focus, however, has been on something rather different – a book that comprehensively argues that free will doesn’t exist in any shape or form.

As he writes: “We are nothing more or less than the sum of that which we could not control – our biology, our environments, their interactions”.

In this episode of CultureLab, Sapolsky outlines his case against free will and what a society without free will should look like.

You can find New Scientist Podcasts on your favourite podcast platform or by clicking here .

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will is out now.

Timothy Revell: Many of our listeners, they will know you as someone who spent years studying wild baboons, and then, also, as an eminent neuroscientist, so what made you decide to then suddenly look at free will so closely, which is, I guess, more often associated with philosophy? Was there, like, an enticing incident? Did something get you onto it first?

Robert Sapolsky: Yes. I turned fourteen years old, at one point, and had a somewhat existentially unnerving experience and, that night, woke up at around two in the morning and say, “Aha, I get it. There’s no God, there’s no purpose, and there’s no free will,” and it’s been, kind of, like that every since.

More approximately, about five years ago, I published a book called, Behave, The Biology of Humans at our Best and Wors t, and I did a lot of public lecturing about, sort of, the general subject in the years since. And you’d go through, sort of, an hour’s talk of telling people about, the events one second before behaviour and one minute, and one hour, and one thousand years and all these different influences. With some regularity, somebody in the audience, afterwards, with Q&A, would say something like, “Wow. All this stuff, kind of, makes one wonder about free will,” which I, in effect, would say, “You think?” and it just struck me that I needed to write something that, very expectantly, tackled how completely silly and bankrupt the notion of free will is, when you put all the relevant science together.

Then dealing with the bigger issue, I know it seems very straightforward and simplistic by now to me that there’s no free will, but the massive issue of, “Ph my God, what are we supposed to do if people actually started believing this? How are we supposed to function?’

Timothy Revell: It’s funny that you say it’s now so easy to say that free will doesn’t exist, but I think for many people it’s one of those things that, subjectively, it feels very real, but then, you know, a good argument against that is a tale feels solid, but it’s mostly empty space, so we can’t really trust what we think about the world, certainly not our own experience of it. For those that haven’t spent as much time thinking about free will and reached the conclusion that you have, that it doesn’t exist, what is the argument? What does science say about free will?

Robert Sapolsky: Well, my essential song and dance, and I should add about 90-95 per cent of philosophers agree, that there’s free will, and steadfastly hold onto it, and these are folks, who classify themselves as compatibilists, which is to say they’re willing to admit there are things like atoms and molecules and cells out there, but somehow, despite that, can still pull free will out of the hat in their thinking.

In terms of my orientation, my basic approach is you look at a behaviour and someone has just done something that’s wonderful or awful or ambiguously in-between or in the eyes of the beholder, but some behaviour has happened, and you ask, “Why did that occur?” and you’re asking a whole hierarchy of questions. You’re, of course, asking, “Which neurons did what, ten milliseconds before?” but you’re also asking, “What sensory stimuli in the previous minutes triggered that?” but you’re also asking, “What did this morning’s hormone levels have to do with how sensitive your brain would be to those stimuli?”

You’re also asking, “What have the previous months been, trauma, stimulation, whatever, in terms of neuroplasticity?” and before you know it, you’re back to adolescents and your last gasp of constructing your frontal cortex, and childhood and foetal environment and it’s epigenetic consequences, and of course, genes. Amazingly, at that point, you have to push further back. What sort of culture were your ancestors inventing and what sort of ecosystems prompted those inventions, because that was influencing how your mother was mothering you within minutes of birth, and then, you know, some evolution thrown in for good measure.

Free will: Can neuroscience reveal if your choices are yours to make?

Philosophers have wrestled with the question of whether we are truly free to decide on our actions for centuries. Now, insights from genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology are shedding fresh light on the issue

What you see at that point is, not just saying, “Wow, when you look at all these different disciplines, collectively, they’re showing we’re just biological machines,” but they’re not all these different disciplines. They’re all one continuous one. If you’re talking about genes, by definition, genes and behaviour, by definition, you’re talking about evolution and you’re talking about neurobiology and genetic variance and neuronal function. If you’re talking about, you know, early trauma in life, you’re talking about epigenetics and you’re talking about adult propensity. So, they’re all one continuous seam of influences, and when you look at it that way, there’s not a damn crack anywhere in there to shoehorn in a notion of free will.

Timothy Revell: You talk about this in your book, but I think, for many people, they still feel like maybe there’s room. You know, with each individual step, it feels like those are influences rather than the 100 per cent determining factor. Is there, when people come to you and say, “Oh, but there’s still a little bit of room,” you know, “These are all things that influence me on a given day. of course, if it’s hot, I’m more likely to go outside and enjoy the sun, but it’s still my decision,” how do you go from that, from influences, to, “It’s not just influences, everything we do is dictated in one way or another, by this whole combination of factors’?

Robert Sapolsky: Well, the jerky, sort of, challenge that I lay down at that point is, “Okay, so you’re still holding out for free will somewhere in there, just because it seems so counter-intuitive if that is all we are,” but look at some behaviour, you just pulled the trigger on a gun, like something very consequential, and you could probably even identify the three-and-a-half neurons in the motor cortex that sent that command to your muscles.

Show me, let’s examine those three-and-a-half neurons that just did that. Show me that what they did was completely impervious to what was going on in any other neuron surrounding them, but at the same time, show me that it was impervious to whether you were tired, stressed, sleepy, happy, well-fed, at that moment. Show me that it’s impervious and would’ve done the exact same thing no matter what your hormone levels were this morning, no matter what your childhood was, no matter what your genome is, the epigenetics. Show me that it would’ve done the exact same thing after changing any of those or all of those variables, and as far as I’m concerned, you’ve just proven free will, and they can’t, because there’s absolutely nothing any of your, like, molecules making you up just did to generate a behaviour that’s independent of every second before.

It is impossible to show that we can act freely of everything that came before.

Timothy Revell: Do you think there’s a reason why we seem so wired to think that free will does exist? Is there some evolutionary benefit to us believing that? If we just accepted it from the beginning, that it doesn’t exist, would that maybe actually be better for us, overall?

Robert Sapolsky: Oh, well, at first pass, it’s depressing as hell and alarming and unsettling and all of that, and all sorts of wise evolutionary biologists have thought about the evolution of self-deception, and by the time you’re as smart of a primate as we are, we had to have developed a robust capacity for not believing in what might be the case, because otherwise, it would be all too overwhelming and despairing and just existential void and all that stuff.

You know, there’s a very, very strong emotional incentive to feel agency, and endless aspects of experimental psychology has shown that you stress people or frazzle them or give them an unsolvable problem, and they get a way distorted sense of agency, at that point, as a defence. The really critical issue there though is the assumption that believing there’s no free will, okay, there’s no free will and you better believe it, and that’s about as appealing as, like, swallowing cod liver oil or something but, you know, suck it up, that’s the way the world works.

The hard problem of consciousness is already beginning to dissolve

Science can solve the great mystery of consciousness – how physical matter gives rise to conscious experience – we just have to use the right approach, says neuroscientist Anil Seth

My overwhelmingly emphasis is, if you suddenly are convinced there’s no free will, and that’s a total bummer for you, because that makes your, like, egregiously privileged salary seem like something you did not necessarily earn and your prestigious degrees and your circle of loving friends and all the other things that you feel like you, in some manner, earn, deserve, you’re entitled to, oh, bummer, if that’s not the case. If that’s your response to the idea of there being no free will, by definition, you were one of the lucky ones.

For most people on earth, who were dealing with far less privilege, the notion that we are not the captains of our fate is, like, wildly liberating and humane. I mean, just ask someone who’s genetic profile and metabolism dooms them to obesity and being subject to a lifelong of unhappiness and societal stigma over that, and that’s just one of the billion ways in which the discovery that we’re nothing more or less than the biology over which we had no control and the environment over-, is great news, and is the most humane thing on Earth. All we spent is the last 500 years of scientific insights into seeing that people are not responsible for all sorts of things for which they used to be blamed or made to feel like they are inadequate or burnt at the stake for, and this is wonderfully liberating.

Timothy Revell: Yes, so I want to get into some of those implications, because, as you say, it’s, sort of, liberating to think, “Well, we’re just the products of our biology,” but at the same time, we’ve built a whole society around responsibility. That you have responsibilities to do certain things, but also, we have responsibility as society to hold people accountable for the decisions that they make, and these words are all, sort of, loaded with an intrinsic understanding of free will being baked into it.

Robert Sapolsky: Yes.

Timothy Revell: If everyone read your book overnight and agreed with you 100 per cent, what does a society look like where we accept this principle that free will does not exist?

Robert Sapolsky: Well, I think the first thing to emphasise is the roof isn’t going to cave in, because over and over and over, we have subtracted responsibility out of our views of human behaviour in the natural world, and it’s been okay. People haven’t run amok, society hasn’t, you know, gone to hell, at that point, because 400 years ago, we figured out hailstorms are not caused by witches and, like, old crones would not be held responsible for hailstorms and burnt at the stake. About 200 years ago, people figured out, definitely, that an epileptic seizure is not a sign of demonic possession. Responsibility is subtracted out.

About 50 years ago, the damn physiatrics, sort of, old boy oligarchy figured out that schizophrenia is not caused by mothers with psychodynamic hatred of their child, and instead, it’s a neurogenetic disorder. 30 years ago, we figured out that kids at school that simply are not learning to read, it’s not because they’re lazy and unmotivated, it’s because their cortical abnormalities are making them reverse letters that have, like, closed loops in them or whatever. We’ve done it over and over and over, and things have been just fine, and in fact, things have gotten much better and much more humane.

So, the challenge is to just imagine what things people a century from now will be saying about our time period and things we still thought were volitional and things that we punished people for and things that we rewarded people for, where there was absolutely no basis for it. More practically, like, how are we supposed to function? It seems like the first, sort of, thing to get off the table is, “Oh my God, we’re all going to run amok, because people will be unconstrained by, you know, “I can’t be held responsible.”

Revealed: What your thoughts look like and how they compare to others’

We finally have a grasp on the many different ways of thinking and how your inner mindscape affects your experience of reality

Really careful studies suggest that people won’t run amok. Some pretty superficial ones say that, as soon as you prime people physiologically to believe less in free will, they start cheating like mad on their economic games, two minutes later, but, sort if, deeper studies show that that’s really not the case, and there’s a great parallel example. Instead of thinking, “Wow, I can do whatever I want, because I’m not responsible for my actions,” thinking, “Wow, I can do whatever I want because I won’t be held responsible in an ultimate sense.” Atheists are, if anything, more ethical in their behaviour than the highly religious. The running amok thing is not a worry.

The next one that’s got to be disposed of is, like nonetheless, dangerous people need to be contained and, yes, absolutely. Just because someone is not responsible for them being a damaging person, because they’ve been damaged as hell, like all of the rotten luck they’ve gotten, adversity in life, that doesn’t mean, you know, you shouldn’t constrain them from damaging. What people emphasise more and more is a quarantine model. Like, if somebody is infectious, through no fault of their own, they’re quarantined.

If a car’s breaks don’t work and it will run you over, keep it in a garage. If a person’s frontal cortex has been so done in by childhood trauma that they can’t regulate their emotional behaviours, make sure they can’t damage people. Make sure if all of that can strain them with the absolute minimum needed to prevent that and not an inch more in the name of retribution or rotten souls or anything that they deserve. And, as the flip side of it, like recognise that some people are better brain surgeons are better basketball players or something than others and that’s great. We really do want to have competent brain surgeons and I presume basketball players out there and they should be doing that stuff but don’t tell that they’re entitled to a greater salary than anyone else and don’t give them a greater salary. The meritocracy makes as little sense as does the criminal justice system when you really think about this.

Timothy Revell: Yes, it’s very interesting that as you present the things from history and you reel through them. Things like the not believing that people are influencing hail storms or that you’re-, in some way it’s a sign of the devil if you have epilepsy or the same with dyslexia. Those things feel so obvious to us now sitting here and I think that the vast majority of people will go of course it’s ridiculous we ever thought anything else but yet when you say for the criminal justice system it needs to be reframed so that it is no longer about responsibility but instead about quarantine I think there are lots of people who maybe have a harder time reaching that same conclusion. Is that what you find? That when you talk to people-, so historical examples that all makes sense but maybe the next step just seems almost unfathomable.

Robert Sapolsky: Exactly, and the real challenge is to think back that somewhere, I don’t know, 400 years ago there was some very learned, reflective, compassionate, empathic, introspective smart guy who is some sort of judge or something, and he believed in helping the underdog. And if there had been national public radio then to contribute money to, he would’ve done that and gotten a little button saying, “I support, like, everything they believe in.” He would’ve been like a total bleeding heart liberal of the time, and he’d come home at the end of the day and say, “Wow, tough day. We had this guy. Had to burn him at the stake. Had seizures. He obviously welcomed in Satan, I mean, kids. He had a wife, kids who were really upset. It was, like, hard to do but what can you do?” Nobody told him to welcome in Satan, so of course, we had to burn him at the stake, but tough day. And that would’ve been a compassionate liberal at the time and it would’ve been inconceivable then in the same way that it’s inconceivable now that somebody’s IQ or somebody’s capacity to master tough difficult things or somebody’s inability to regulate their emotions and thus be really damaging makes just as little sense.

Timothy Revell: Can you talk us through a little bit about that because quite a lot of those historical examples there about-, sort of, parts of the human condition becoming medicalized, us appreciating that their diseases or conditions that are really affecting things that happened to people. For example them having seizures but when it comes to crime I think some people will not see the immediate link there. So if you have someone who has committed a crime, how does the medical side of this, the neuroscience, all of that, fit into the point where they commit a crime?

Robert Sapolsky: Well, the examples you bring up first are the easy ones or the edge cases. Society is pretty good at recognising, at least in the American legal system, that if somebody has a sufficiently low IQ they shouldn’t be held legally responsible for a violent act or whatever. There’s, like, a cut off and people fight over what the cut off should be and all of that. If someone has had massive damage to their frontal cortex or a tumour there, I don’t know, about half the states in the United States are willing to say, in this edge case, there was not actually responsibility.

But yes, then we get to the normative range of like people doing awful stuff or people doing commendable stuff, where there isn’t an obvious whatever that presents, you know, this is a special mitigating case. There’s no special mitigating cases because it’s a continuum of the exact same biology. The second you can show stuff like what a paper a couple of years ago showed which is brain imaging on fetuses that by the time you’re a third trimester fetus the social economic status of your parents are already influencing the rate in which your brain is growing. By the time you can take kids and adolescence and show like a formal checklist of childhood adversaries and traumas, what somebody’s score is on this scale.

Brain scans are putting a major theory of consciousness to the test

A proposed way to measure consciousness called integrated information theory has been tested using data from human brain scans, and seems to work

The ace score, adverse child experience score. Like, we had a score from zero to ten depending on just how unlucky and awful your childhood was and for every additional point you get on the scale there’s about a 35 per cent increase chance that a guy by age 20 will have done something antisocial and violent. There’s about 35 per cent increase change that a female will have had a teen pregnancy of either unsafe sex, of by adulthood, a major mood disorder like anxiety or depression. If you can show that one extra step, whoa. Not only were they sexually abused as a kid but somebody in the family was incarcerated. That one extra point makes him 35 per cent more likely to be that way as an adult. You’re looking at what has to come into any of these factors which is we’ve just scratched the service on the things that move you from a 35 per cent chance of a particular outcome to a 100 per cent chance. And what I endlessly go on about is, like, ace scores adverse childhood experience scores.

You can have the exact same conclusion if there was such a thing as, like, RLCE ridiculously lucky child who experiences and you can get a whole scale on that. Did your parents read books to you? Did you, like, play and laugh a lot? Did you never wonder where your next meal was coming from? And no doubt for every one of those a 35 per cent increase chance that you’re going to have the corner office in some corporation some day. Like, you look at those and any of these myths of somebody being responsible ultimately for the bad or the good just isn’t supportable and eventually is morally repugnant as well.

Timothy Revell: I think for many-, like for me certainly when reading the book, I can accept all of that but part of me also wants to think but I’m different. There’s a certain sense of-, like, I totally understand that if you’ve gone through these horrible life experiences that is of course going to affect you later in life but it’s so hard to drop that idea that maybe I would make different choices but I think it is quite compelling that argument you put forward that I think would it be fair to say it boils down to if you had the same life experiences and you had the same biology you would do the same things.

Robert Sapolsky: Exactly. And feel the same sense of agency and captain of your fate, sort of, delusions. Something I try to emphasise though throughout the book is this is incredibly difficult to think this way. Like, I’ve believed this since I was, like, early adolescence and 99 per cent of the time I can’t manage to pull this off.

I think I recount in there a few years back there was some, like, appalling hate crime. Some guy showed up with an automatic weapon in a place of worship and killed a bunch of people and listening to the radio that next Monday morning saying whoever is being arraigned and is going to be charged with a federal hate crime as well which makes him eligible for the death penalty. I thought, “Yes. Fry the bastard.” Wait. I’m working on death penalty cases right now to convince juries that-, yet no one says this is going to be easy.

I’m terrible at it 99 per cent of the time. Not only am I violating my intellectual beliefs but my moral beliefs as well because these are really strong reflexes to both get pissed off at people who do awful things but in addition probably more fundamentally to feel, kind of, good about yourself if someone says well nice job on that. Yes. I did a nice job. I’m entitled to that praise. This is going to be incredibly hard but we’ve done it over and over and over again and it’s not that hard to identify the corners of society where it’s most important to make that emphasis first.

Timothy Revell: You hinted at it there but can you talk a little bit about your direct experience with the criminal justice system where you have appeared as a, sort of, expert on the brain. What has your role been there and how does it play into all of this?

Robert Sapolsky: Oh, this has been this little, minor hobby of working with what are called public defenders, who are the people who are assigned when some defendant can’t afford their own attorney, and this is a whole world of, like, liberal, do-gooder attorneys who lose 95 per cent of their cases. I’ve been working on a bunch of these, and what has always been the scenario is this is someone who has done something very, very bad. And where, initially, they were threatened and did something that could pass as self-defence, they stabbed the guy before the other guy could stab them who came at them first and they’re then lying there on the ground incapacitated and ten seconds later they come back and stab the guy an additional 72 times.

At which point the jury says well, you know, the first stab was self defence but 10 seconds that was enough time to premeditate and figure out that the threat was over with. But whoa, 72 additional times. That counts as premeditated murder and it’s always that, sort of, scenario and it is always somebody who was already virtually guaranteed to do this by the time they were 5 years old. Substance abuse at home, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, prenatal exposure drugs of abuse, shuttled through foster homes. Stabbed for the first time at age 10, you know, that repeated concussive head traumas from people abusing them, all of that and you look at someone like that and this is screamingly this is a broken machine.

Why are we conscious? The answer lies in other animals’ heads

The thing that I always do with these juries is take them through, like, what’s going on in the brain when you make a decision and how we’re much more likely neurobiologically to make an awful decision if we’re under a whole lot of stress. Like somebody coming at us with a knife and we’re a gazillion times more likely to make the wrong decision during that 10 seconds if we have a brain that’s been pickled in adversity from day one because your brain would’ve been constructed in a way where you’re going to make a terrible impulsive decision at that point and then I dramatically look at the jury and say the same thing you said before which is if they had gone through this fetal life childhood etc, etc, all the things that-, they would’ve done the exact same thing and the juries all nod and look like they’re following and then they go into the jury room and they look at the pictures of the corpse with the head almost decapitated from stabs number 36 through 43 or something out of the 72 and they vote to convict the guy. I’ve done 12 of these trials by now over the years and we’ve lost 11 of them and that’s even arguing, like, the edge cases. Wow, this is a guy whose frontal cortex was destroyed in a car accident when he was eight.

He spent two months in a coma, came out of it, no prior history whatever and did his first murder at age 12 and here you guys have just convicted him of his 8th and 9th murders and he’s a broken machine. And you know, they go and sit about it for a while and they come back with the death penalty so it’s a real uphill battle even with these edge cases of, whoa, traumatic examples of, like, terrible like or then look at like, Ivy League students or my undergrads at Stanford and look at their histories and you know by age 5 they already had their paths set to have a higher of an average income sometime later and would go to a prestigious college and the same exact thing. It’s very hard to just work with the gears that made them who they are.

Timothy Revell: Alright, one last question for you. What are you planning on tackling next? Is it the meaning of life?

Robert Sapolsky: Oh, I don’t know. I hope something interesting comes along, building on-, not to get all preachy and stuff, but at the end of the day this stops being an issue for neuroscientists or behaviour geneticists or early childhood develop-, and it becomes a social justice issue. It’s really great, philosophically, if people believe less in free will and all of that. The number of people on earth who are made to suffer because of the miserable luck in their life, starting with their ancestors picking the wrong, god-awful corner of the planet to live in, and centuries later, that has something to do with this person’s cerebral malaria when they were five.

The social justice aspects of this, at the end of the day, are really the things that matter most about this, because we have a constructed a world with an awful lot of myths of free will, and culpability and responsibility. And most people who don’t have the corner office in their, like, fancy corporation, most people have mostly suffered because of this so that’s, kind of, the end that is galvanising me the most at this point. At the end of the day, that’s what this stuff is really about.

Timothy Revell: So, what did you think? It’s a pretty compelling case that Sapolsky built I think that free will doesn’t exist and as he puts it in the book “We are not captains of our ships. Our ships never had captains.” And if we could really accept that the implications that would have for our society would be profound. If you have any thoughts on this do please get in touch at podcasts at new scientist.com. We would love to hear from you and if you enjoy our podcast do please leave a review on whatever platform you’re listening to us on. It does really help us out .That’s it for this episode of culture lab. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks time with some more. That’s bye for now. 

  • neuroscience

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Receive a weekly dose of discovery in your inbox! We'll also keep you up to date with New Scientist events and special offers.

Popular articles

Trending New Scientist articles

SEP thinker apres Rodin

“Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Which sort is the free will sort is what all the fuss is about. (And what a fuss it has been: philosophers have debated this question for over two millenia, and just about every major philosopher has had something to say about it.) Most philosophers suppose that the concept of free will is very closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. Acting with free will, on such views, is just to satisfy the metaphysical requirement on being responsible for one's action. (Clearly, there will also be epistemic conditions on responsibility as well, such as being aware—or failing that, being culpably unaware—of relevant alternatives to one's action and of the alternatives' moral significance.) But the significance of free will is not exhausted by its connection to moral responsibility. Free will also appears to be a condition on desert for one's accomplishments (why sustained effort and creative work are praiseworthy); on the autonomy and dignity of persons; and on the value we accord to love and friendship. (See Kane 1996, 81ff. and Clarke 2003, Ch.1.)

Philosophers who distinguish freedom of action and freedom of will do so because our success in carrying out our ends depends in part on factors wholly beyond our control. Furthermore, there are always external constraints on the range of options we can meaningfully try to undertake. As the presence or absence of these conditions and constraints are not (usually) our responsibility, it is plausible that the central loci of our responsibility are our choices, or “willings.”

I have implied that free willings are but a subset of willings, at least as a conceptual matter. But not every philosopher accepts this. René Descartes, for example, identifies the faculty of will with freedom of choice, “the ability to do or not do something” (Meditation IV), and even goes so far as to declare that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (Passions of the Soul, I, art. 41). In taking this strong polar position on the nature of will, Descartes is reflecting a tradition running through certain late Scholastics (most prominently, Suarez) back to John Duns Scotus.

The majority view, however, is that we can readily conceive willings that are not free. Indeed, much of the debate about free will centers around whether we human beings have it, yet virtually no one doubts that we will to do this and that. The main perceived threats to our freedom of will are various alleged determinisms: physical/causal; psychological; biological; theological. For each variety of determinism, there are philosophers who (i) deny its reality, either because of the existence of free will or on independent grounds; (ii) accept its reality but argue for its compatibility with free will; or (iii) accept its reality and deny its compatibility with free will. (See the entries on compatibilism ; causal determinism ; fatalism ; arguments for incompatibilism ; and divine foreknowedge and free will .) There are also a few who say the truth of any variety of determinism is irrelevant because free will is simply impossible.

If there is such a thing as free will, it has many dimensions. In what follows, I will sketch the freedom-conferring characteristics that have attracted most of the attention. The reader is warned, however, that while many philosophers emphasize a single such characteristic, perhaps in response to the views of their immediate audience, it is probable that most would recognize the significance of many of the other features discussed here.

1.1 Free Will as Choosing on the Basis of One's Desires

  • 1.2 Free Will as Deliberative Choosing on the Basis of Desires and Values

1.3 Self-mastery, Rightly-Ordered Appetite

2. ownership, 3.1 free will as guidance control, 3.2 free will as ultimate origination (ability to do otherwise), 3.3 do we have free will, 4. theological wrinkles, bibliography, other internet resources, related entries, 1. rational deliberation.

On a minimalist account, free will is the ability to select a course of action as a means of fulfilling some desire. David Hume, for example, defines liberty as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” (1748, sect.viii, part 1). And we find in Jonathan Edwards (1957) a similar account of free willings as those which proceed from one's own desires.

One reason to deem this insufficient is that it is consistent with the goal-directed behavior of some animals whom we do not suppose to be morally responsible agents. Such animals lack not only an awareness of the moral implications of their actions but also any capacity to reflect on their alternatives and their long-term consequences. Indeed, it is plausible that they have little by way of a self-conception as an agent with a past and with projects and purposes for the future. (See Baker 2000 on the ‘first-person perspective.’)

1.2 Free Will as deliberative choosing on the basis of desires and values

A natural suggestion, then, is to modify the minimalist thesis by taking account of (what may be) distinctively human capacities and self-conception. And indeed, philosophers since Plato have commonly distinguished the ‘animal’ and ‘rational’ parts of our nature, with the latter implying a great deal more psychological complexity. Our rational nature includes our ability to judge some ends as ‘good’ or worth pursuing and value them even though satisfying them may result in considerable unpleasantness for ourselves. (Note that such judgments need not be based in moral value.) We might say that we act with free will when we act upon our considered judgments/valuings about what is good for us, whether or not our doing so conflicts with an ‘animal’ desire. (See Watson 2003a for a subtle development of this sort of view.) But this would seem unduly restrictive, since we clearly hold many people responsible for actions proceeding from ‘animal’ desires that conflict with their own assessment of what would be best in the circumstances. More plausible is the suggestion that one acts with free will when one's deliberation is sensitive to one's own judgments concerning what is best in the circumstances, whether or not one acts upon such a judgment.

Here we are clearly in the neighborhood of the ‘rational appetite’ accounts of will one finds in the medieval Aristotelians. The most elaborate medieval treatment is Thomas Aquinas's. [ 1 ] His account involves identifying several distinct varieties of willings. Here I note only a few of his basic claims. Aquinas thinks our nature determines us to will certain general ends ordered to the most general goal of goodness. These we will of necessity, not freely. Freedom enters the picture when we consider various means to these ends, none of which appear to us either as unqualifiedly good or as uniquely satisfying the end we wish to fulfill. There is, then, free choice of means to our ends, along with a more basic freedom not to consider something, thereby perhaps avoiding willing it unavoidably once we recognized its value. Free choice is an activity that involves both our intellectual and volitional capacities, as it consists in both judgment and active commitment. A thorny question for this view is whether will or intellect is the ultimate determinant of free choices. How we understand Aquinas on this point will go a long ways towards determining whether or not he is a sort of compatibilist about freedom and determinism. (See below. Good expositions of Aquinas' account are Donagan 1985, Stump 1997, and MacDonald 1998.)

There are two general worries about theories of free will that principally rely on the capacity to deliberate about possible actions in the light of one's conception of the good. First, there are agents who deliberately choose to act as they do but who are motivated to do so by a compulsive, controlling sort of desire. (And there seems to be no principled bar to a compulsive desire's informing a considered judgment of the agent about what the good is for him.) Such agents are not willing freely. (Wallace 2003 offers an account of the way addiction impairs the will.) Secondly, we can imagine a person's psychology being externally manipulated by another agent (via neurophysiological implant, say), such that the agent is caused to deliberate and come to desire strongly a particular action which he previously was not disposed to choose. The deliberative process could be perfectly normal, reflective, and rational, but seemingly not freely made. The agent's freedom seems undermined or at least greatly diminished by such psychological tampering.

Some theorists are much impressed by cases of inner, psychological compulsion and define freedom of will in contrast to this phenomenon. For such thinkers, true freedom of the will involves liberation from the tyranny of base desires and acquisition of desires for the Good. Plato, for example, posits rational, spirited, and appetitive aspects to the soul and holds that willings issue from the higher, rational part alone. In other cases, one is dominated by the irrational desires of the two lower parts. [ 2 ] This is particularly characteristic of those working in a theological context—for example, the New Testament writer St. Paul, speaking of Christian freedom (Romans vi-viii; Galatians v), and those influenced by him on this point, such as Augustine. (The latter, in both early and later writings, allows for a freedom of will that is not ordered to the good, but maintains that it is of less value than the rightly-ordered freedom. See, for example, the discussion in Books II-III of On Free Choice .) More recently, Susan Wolf (1990) defends an asymmetry thesis concerning freedom and responsibility. On her view, an agent acts freely only if he had the ability to choose the True and the Good. For an agent who does so choose, the requisite ability is automatically implied. But those who reject the Good choose freely only if they could have acted differently. This is a further substantive condition on freedom, making freedom of will a more demanding condition in cases of bad choices.

In considering such rightly-ordered-appetites views of freedom, I again focus on abstract features common to all. It explicitly handles the inner-compulsion worry facing the simple deliberation-based accounts. The other, external manipulation problem could perhaps be handled through the addition of an historical requirement: agents will freely only if their willings are not in part explicable by episodes of external manipulation which bypass their critical and deliberative faculties (Mele 1995). But another problem suggests itself: an agent who was a ‘natural saint,’ always and effortlessly choosing the good with no contrary inclination, would not have freedom of will among his virtues. Doubtless we would greatly admire such a person, but would it be an admiration suffused with moral praise of the person or would it, rather, be restricted to the goodness of the person's qualities? (Cf. Kant, 1788.) The appropriate response to such a person, it seems, is on an analogy with aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty, in contrast to the admiration of the person who chooses the good in the face of real temptation to act selfishly. Since this view of freedom of will as orientation to the good sometimes results from theological reflections, it is worth noting that other theologian-philosophers emphasize the importance for human beings of being able to reject divine love: love of God that is not freely given—given in the face of a significant possibility of one's having not done so—would be a sham, all the more so since, were it inevitable, it would find its ultimate and complete explanation in God Himself.

Harry Frankfurt (1982) presents an insightful and original way of thinking about free will. He suggests that a central difference between human and merely animal activity is our capacity to reflect on our desires and beliefs and form desires and judgments concerning them. I may want to eat a candy bar (first-order desire), but I also may want not to want this (second-order desire) because of the connection between habitual candy eating and poor health. This difference, he argued, provides the key to understanding both free action and free will. (These are quite different, in Frankfurt's view, with free will being the more demanding notion. Moreover, moral responsibility for an action requires only that the agent acted freely, not that the action proceeded from a free will.)

On Frankfurt's analysis, I act freely when the desire on which I act is one that I desire to be effective. This second-order desire is one with which I identify : it reflects my true self. (Compare the addict: typically, the addict acts out of a desire which he does not want to act upon. His will is divided, and his actions proceed from desires with which he does not reflectively identify. Hence, he is not acting freely.) My will is free when I am able to make any of my first-order desires the one upon which I act. As it happens, I will to eat the candy bar, but I could have willed to refrain from doing so.

With Frankfurt's account of free will, much hangs on what being able to will otherwise comes to, and on this Frankfurt is officially neutral. (See the related discussion below on ability to do otherwise.) But as he connects moral responsibility only to his weaker notion of free action, it is fitting to consider its adequacy here. The central objection that commentators have raised is this: what's so special about higher-order willings or desires? (See in particular Watson 2003a.) Why suppose that they inevitably reflect my true self, as against first-order desires? Frankfurt is explicit that higher-order desires need not be rooted in a person's moral or even settled outlook (1982, 89, n.6). So it seems that, in some cases, a first-order desire may be much more reflective of my true self (more “internal to me,” in Frankfurt's terminology) than a weak, faint desire to be the sort of person who wills differently.

In later writings, Frankfurt responds to this worry first by appealing to “decisions made without reservations” (“Identification and Externality” and “Identification and Wholeheartedness” in Frankfurt, 1988) and then by appealing to higher-order desires with which one is “satisfied,” such that one has no inclination to make changes to them (1992). But the absence of an inclination to change the desire does not obviously amount to the condition of freedom-conferring identification. It seems that such a negative state of satisfaction can be one that I just find myself with, one that I neither approve nor disapprove (Pettit, 2001, 56).

Furthermore, we can again imagine external manipulation consistent with Frankfurt's account of freedom but inconsistent with freedom itself. Armed with the wireless neurophysiology-tampering technology of the late 21st century, one might discreetly induce a second-order desire in me to be moved by a first-order desire—a higher-order desire with which I am satisfied—and then let me deliberate as normal. Clearly, this desire should be deemed “external” to me, and the action that flows from it unfree.

3. Causation and Control

Our survey of several themes in philosophical accounts of free will suggests that a—perhaps the —root issue is that of control . Clearly, our capacity for deliberation and the potential sophistication of some of our our practical reflections are important conditions on freedom of will. But any proposed analysis of free will must also ensure that the process it describes is one that was up to, or controlled by, the agent.

Fantastic scenarios of external manipulation and less fantastic cases of hypnosis are not the only, or even primary, ones to give philosophers pause. It is consistent with my deliberating and choosing ‘in the normal way’ that my developing psychology and choices over time are part of an ineluctable system of causes necessitating effects. It might be, that is, that underlying the phenomena of purpose and will in human persons is an all-encompassing, mechanistic world-system of ‘blind’ cause and effect. Many accounts of free will are constructed against the backdrop possibility (whether accepted as actual or not) that each stage of the world is determined by what preceded it by impersonal natural law. As always, there are optimists and pessimists.

John Martin Fischer (1994) distinguishes two sorts of control over one's actions: guidance and regulative. A person exerts guidance control over his own actions insofar as they proceed from a ‘weakly’ reasons-responsive (deliberative) mechanism. This obtains just in case there is some possible scenario where the agent is presented with a sufficient reason to do otherwise and the mechanism that led to the actual choice is operative and it issues in a different choice, one appropriate to the imagined reason. In Fischer and Ravizza (1998), the account is elaborated and refined. They require, more strongly, that the mechanism be the person's own mechanism (ruling out external manipulation) and that it be ‘moderately’ responsive to reasons: one that is “regularly receptive to reasons, some of which are moral reasons, and at least weakly reactive to reason” (82, emphasis added). Receptivity is evinced through an understandable pattern of reasons recognition—beliefs of the agent about what would constitute a sufficient reason for undertaking various actions. (See 69-73 for details.)

None of this, importantly, requires ‘regulative’ control: a control involving the ability of the agent to choose and act differently in the actual circumstances. Regulative control requires alternative possibilities open to the agent, whereas guidance control is determined by characteristics of the actual sequence issuing in one's choice. Fischer allows that there is a notion of freedom that requires regulative control but does not believe that this kind of freedom is required for moral responsibility. (In this, he is persuaded by a form of argument originated by Harry Frankfurt. See Frankfurt 1969 and Fischer 1994, Ch.7 for an important development of the argument. The argument has been debated extensively in recent years, and Widerker and McKenna 2002 offers a representative sampling.)

Many do not follow Fischer here, however, and maintain the traditional view that the sort of freedom required for moral responsibility does indeed require that the agent could have acted differently. As Aristotle put it, “…when the origin of the actions is in him, it is also up to him to do them or not to do them” (1985, Book III). [ 3 ]

A flood of ink has been spilled, especially in the modern era, on how to understand the concept of being able to do otherwise. On one side are those who give it a deflationary reading, on which it is consistent with my being able to do otherwise that the past (including my character and present beliefs and desires) and the basic laws of nature logically entail that I do what I actually do. These are the ‘compatibilists,’ holding that freedom and causal determinism are compatible. (For discussion, see O'Connor, 2000, Ch.1; compatibilism ; and incompatibilism: arguments for .) Conditional analyses of ability to do otherwise have been popular among compatibilists. The general idea here is that to say that I am able to do otherwise is to say that I would do otherwise if it were the case that … , where the ellipsis is filled by some elaboration of “I had an appropriately strong desire to do so, or I had different beliefs about the best available means to satisfy my goal, or … .” In short: something about my prevailing character or present psychological states would have differed, and so would have brought about a different outcome in my deliberation.

Incompatibilists think that something stronger is required: for me to act with free will requires that there are a plurality of futures open to me consistent with the past (and laws of nature) being just as they were . I could have chosen differently even without some further, non-actual consideration's occurring to me and ‘tipping the scales of the balance’ in another direction. Indeed, from their point of view, the whole scale-of-weights analogy is wrongheaded: free agents are not mechanisms that respond invariably to specified ‘motive forces.’ They are capable of acting upon any of a plurality of motives making attractive more than one course of action. Ultimately, the agent must determine himself this way or that.

We may distinguish two broad families of ‘incompatibilist’ or ‘indeterminist’ self-determination accounts. The more radical group holds that the agent who determines his own will is not causally influenced by external causal factors, including his own character. Descartes, in the midst of exploring the scope and influence of ‘the passions,’ declares that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (1984, v.I, 343). And as we've seen, he believed that such freedom is present on every occasion when we make a conscious choice—even, he writes, “when a very evident reason moves us in one direction….” (1984, v.III, 245). More recently, John Paul Sartre notoriously held that human beings have ‘absolute freedom’: “No limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself, or, if you prefer, we are not free to cease being free.” (567) His views on freedom flowed from his radical conception of human beings as lacking any kind of positive nature. Instead, we are ‘non-beings’ whose being, moment to moment, is simply to choose:

For human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it either from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept….it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be, down to the slightest details. Thus freedom…is the being of man, i.e., his nothingness of being. (568-9)

Scotus and, more recently, C.A. Campbell, appear to agree with Descartes and Sartre on the lack of direct causal influence on the activity of free choice while allowing that the scope of possibilities for what I might thus will may be more or less constricted. So while Scotus holds that “nothing other than the will is the total cause” of its activity, he grants (with Aquinas and other medieval Aristotelians) that we are not capable of willing something in which we see no good, nor of positively repudiating something which appears to us as unqualifiedly good. Contrary to Sartre, we come with a ‘nature’ that circumscribes what we might conceivably choose, and our past choices and environmental influences also shape the possibilities for us at any particular time. But if we are presented with what we recognize as an unqualified good, we still can choose to refrain from willing it. And while Campbell holds that character cannot explain a free choice, he supposes that “[t]here is one experiential situation, and one only , … in which there is any possibility of the act of will not being in accordance with character; viz. the situation in which the course which formed character prescribes is a course in conflict with the agent's moral ideal: in other words, the situation of moral temptation” (1967, 46). (Van Inwagen 1994 and 1995 is another proponent of the idea that free will is exercised in but a small subset of our choices, although his position is less extreme on this point than Campbell's. Fischer and Ravizza 1992, O'Connor 2000, Ch.5, and Clarke 2003, Ch.7 all criticize van Inwagen's argument for this position.)

A more moderate grouping within the self-determination approach to free will allows that beliefs, desires, and external factors all can causally influence the act of free choice itself. But theorists within this camp differ sharply on the metaphysical nature of those choices and of the causal role of reasons. We may distinguish three varieties. I will discuss them only briefly, as they are explored at length in incompatibilist (nondeterministic) theories of free will .

First is a noncausal (or ownership) account (Ginet 1990, 2002 and McCann 1998). According to this view, I control my volition or choice simply in virtue of its being mine—its occurring in me. I do not exert a special kind of causality in bringing it about; instead, it is an intrinsically active event, intrinsically something I do . While there may be causal influences upon my choice, there need not be, and any such causal influence is wholly irrelevant to understanding why it occurs. Reasons provide an autonomous, non-causal form of explanation. Provided my choice is not wholly determined by prior factors, it is free and under my control simply in virtue of being mine.

Proponents of the event-causal account (e.g. Nozick 1995 and Ekstrom 2001) would say that uncaused events of any kind would be random and uncontrolled by anyone, and so could hardly count as choices that an agent made . They hold that reasons influence choices precisely by causing them. Choices are free insofar as they are not deterministically caused, and so might not have occurred in just the circumstances in which they did occur. (See nondeterministic theories of free will and probabilistic causation .) A special case of the event-causal account of self-determination is Kane (1996). Kane believes that the free choices of greatest significance to an agent's autonomy are ones that are preceded by efforts of will within the process of deliberation. These are cases where one's will is conflicted, as when one's duty or long-term self-interest compete with a strong desire for a short-term good. As one struggles to sort out and prioritize one's own values, the possible outcomes are not merely undetermined, but also indeterminate : at each stage of the struggle, the possible outcomes have no specific objective probability of occurring. This indeterminacy, Kane believes, is essential to freedom of will.

Finally, there are those who believe freedom of will consists in a distinctively personal form of causality, commonly referred to as “agent causation.” The agent himself causes his choice or action, and this is not to be reductively analyzed as an event within the agent causing the choice. (Compare our ready restatement of “the rock broke the window” into the more precise “the rock's being in momentum M at the point of contact with the window caused the window's subsequent shattering.”) This view is given clear articulation by Thomas Reid:

I grant, then, that an effect uncaused is a contradiction, and that an event uncaused is an absurdity. The question that remains is whether a volition, undetermined by motives, is an event uncaused. This I deny. The cause of the volition is the man that willed it. (Letter to James Gregory, in 1967, 88)

Roderick Chisholm advocated this view of free will in numerous writings (e.g., 1982 and 1976). And recently it has been developed in different forms by Randolph Clarke (1993, 1996, 2003) and O'Connor (2000). Nowadays, many philosophers view this account as of doubtful coherence (e.g., Dennett 1984). For some, this very idea of causation by a substance just as such is perplexing (Ginet 1997 and Clarke 2003, Ch.10). Others see it as difficult to reconcile with the causal role of reasons in explaining choices. (Clarke and O'Connor devote considerable effort to addressing this concern.) And yet others hold that, coherent or not, it is inconsistent with seeing human beings as part of the natural world of cause and effect (Pereboom 2001).

A recent trend is to suppose that agent causation accounts capture, as well as possible, our prereflective idea of responsible, free action. But the failure of philosophers to work the account out in a fully satisfactory and intelligible form reveals that the very idea of free will (and so of responsibility) is incoherent (Strawson 1986) or at least inconsistent with a world very much like our own (Pereboom 2001). Smilansky (2000) takes a more complicated position, on which there are two ‘levels’ on which we may assess freedom, ‘compatibilist’ and ‘ultimate’. On the ultimate level of evaluation, free will is indeed incoherent. (Strawson, Pereboom, and Smilansky all provide concise defenses of their positions in Kane 2002.)

The will has also recently become a target of empirical study in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Benjamin Libet (2002) conducted experiments designed to determine the timing of conscious willings or decisions to act in relation to brain activity associated with the physical initiation of behavior. Interpretation of the results is highly controversial. Libet himself concludes that the studies provide strong evidence that actions are already underway shortly before the agent wills to do it. As a result, we do not consciously initiate our actions, though he suggests that we might nonetheless retain the ability to veto actions that are initiated by unconscious psychological structures. Wegner (2002) masses a much range of studies (including those of Libet) to argue that the notion that human actions are ever initiated by their own conscious willings is simply a deeply-entrenched illusion and proceeds to offer an hypothesis concerning the reason this illusion is generated within our cognitive systems. O'Connor (forthcoming) argues that the data adduced by Libet and Wegner wholly fail to support their revisionary conclusions.

A large portion of Western philosophical writing on free will was and is written within an overarching theological framework, according to which God is the ultimate source and sustainer of all else. Some of these thinkers draw the conclusion that God must be a sufficient, wholly determining cause for everything that happens; all suppose that every creaturely act necessarily depends on the explanatorily prior, cooperative activity of God. It is also presumed that human beings are free and responsible (on pain of attributing evil in the world to God alone, and so impugning His perfect goodness). Hence, those who believe that God is omni-determining typically are compatibilists with respect to freedom and (in this case) theological determinism. Edwards (1957) is a good example. But those who suppose that God's sustaining activity (and special activity of conferring grace) is only a necessary condition on the outcome of human free choices need to tell a more subtle story, on which omnipotent God's cooperative activity can be (explanatorily) prior to a human choice and yet the outcome of that choice be settled only by the choice itself. (For important medieval discussions—the period of the apex of treatments of philosophical/theological matters—see the relevant portions of Aquinas 1945 and Scotus 1994. For an example of a more recent discussion, see Quinn 1983.)

Another issue concerns the impact on human freedom of knowledge of God, the ultimate Good. Many philosophers, especially the medieval Aristotelians, were drawn to the idea that human beings cannot but will that which they take to be an unqualified good. (Duns Scotus appears to be an important exception to this consensus.) Hence, in the afterlife, when humans ‘see God face to face,’ they will inevitably be drawn to Him. Murray (1993, 2002) argues that a good God would choose to make His existence and character less than certain for human beings, for the sake of their freedom. (He will do so, the argument goes, at least for a period of time in which human beings participate in their own character formation.) If it is a good for human beings that they freely choose to respond in love to God and to act in obedience to His will, then God must maintain an ‘epistemic distance’ from them lest they be overwhelmed by His goodness and respond out of necessity, rather than freedom. (See also the other essays in Howard-Snyder and Moser 2002.)

Finally, there is the question of the freedom of God himself. Perfect goodness is an essential, not acquired, attribute of God. God cannot lie or be in any way immoral in His dealings with His creatures. Unless we take the minority position on which this is a trivial claim, since whatever God does definitionally counts as good, this appears to be a significant, inner constraint on God's freedom. Did we not contemplate immediately above that human freedom would be curtailed by our having an unmistakable awareness of what is in fact the Good? And yet is it not passing strange to suppose that God should be less than perfectly free?

One suggested solution to this puzzle begins by reconsidering the relationship of two strands in (much) thinking about freedom of will: being able to do otherwise and being the ultimate source of one's will. Contemporary discussions of free will often emphasize the importance of being able to do otherwise. Yet it is plausible (Kane 1996) that the core metaphysical feature of freedom is being the ultimate source, or originator, of one's choices, and that being able to do otherwise is closely connected to this feature. For human beings or any created persons who owe their existence to factors outside themselves, the only way their acts of will could find their ultimate origin in themselves is for such acts not to be determined by their character and circumstances. For if all my willings were wholly determined, then if we were to trace my causal history back far enough, we would ultimately arrive at external factors that gave rise to me, with my particular genetic dispositions. My motives at the time would not be the ultimate source of my willings, only the most proximate ones. Only by there being less than deterministic connections between external influences and choices, then, is it be possible for me to be an ultimate source of my activity, concerning which I may truly say, “the buck stops here.”

As is generally the case, things are different on this point in the case of God. Even if God's character absolutely precludes His performing certain actions in certain contexts, this will not imply that some external factor is in any way a partial origin of His willings and refrainings from willing. Indeed, this would not be so even if he were determined by character to will everything which He wills. For God's nature owes its existence to nothing. So God would be the sole and ultimate source of His will even if He couldn't will otherwise.

Well, then, might God have willed otherwise in any respect? The majority view in the history of philosophical theology is that He indeed could have. He might have chosen not to create anything at all. And given that He did create, He might have created any number of alternatives to what we observe. But there have been noteworthy thinkers who argued the contrary position, along with others who clearly felt the pull of the contrary position even while resisting it. The most famous such thinker is Leibniz (1985), who argued that God, being both perfectly good and perfectly powerful, cannot fail to will the best possible world. Leibniz insisted that this is consistent with saying that God is able to will otherwise, although his defense of this last claim is notoriously difficult to make out satisfactorily. Many read Leibniz, malgre lui , as one whose basic commitments imply that God could not have willed other than He does in any respect.

On might challenge Leibniz's reasoning on this point by questioning the assumption that there is a uniquely best possible Creation (an option noted by Adams 1987, though he challenges instead Leibniz's conclusion based on it). One way this could be is if there is no well-ordering of worlds: some worlds are sufficiently different in kind that they are incommensurate with each other (neither is better than the other, nor are they equal). Another way this could be is if there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds: for every possible world God might have created, there are others (infinitely many, in fact) which are better. If such is the case, one might argue, it is reasonable for God to arbitrarily choose which world to create from among those worlds exceeding some threshhold value of overall goodness.

However, William Rowe (1993) has countered that the thesis that there is no upper limit on goodness of worlds has a very different consequence: it shows that there could not be a morally perfect Creator! For suppose our world has an on-balance moral value of n and that God chose to create it despite being aware of possibilities having values higher than n that He was able to create. It seems we can now imagine a morally better Creator: one having the same options who chooses to create a better world. For a critical reply to Rowe, see the Howard-Snyders (1994) and Wainwright (1996). Rowe (2004) continues the discussion in response to a variety of views, both historical and contemporary.

Finally, Norman Kretzmann (1997, 220-25) has argued in the context of Aquinas's theological system that there is strong pressure to say that God must have created something or other, though it may well have been open to Him to create any of a number of contingent orders. The reason is that there is no plausible account of how an absolutely perfect God might have a resistible motivation—one consideration among other, competing considerations—for creating something rather than nothing. (It obviously cannot have to do with any sort of utility, for example.) The best general understanding of God's being motivated to create at all—one which in places Aquinas himself comes very close to endorsing—is to see it as reflecting the fact that God's very being, which is goodness, necessarily diffuses itself. Perfect goodness will naturally communicate itself outwardly; God who is perfect goodness will naturally create, generating a dependent reality that imperfectly reflects that goodness. (Wainwright (1996) is a careful discussion of a somewhat similar line of thought in Jonathan Edwards. See also Rowe 2004.)

Further Reading . Pink (2004) is an excellent, concise introduction. Pereboom (1997) provides good selections from a number of important historical writers on free will. Bourke (1964) and Dilman (1999) provide critical overviews of many such writers. For thematic treatments, see Fischer (1994); Kane (1996), esp. Ch.1-2; 5-6; Ekstrom (2001); Watson (2003b); and the outstanding collection of survey articles in Kane (2002).

  • Adams, Robert (1987). “Must God Create the Best?,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology . New York: Oxford University Press, 51-64.
  • Aquinas, Thomas (1945). Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (2 vol.). New York: Random House.
  • ----- (1993). Selected Philosophical Writings , ed. T. McDermott. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Aristotle (1985). Nichomachean Ethics , translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Augustine (1993). On the Free Choice of the Will , tr. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Ayer, A.J. (1982). “Freedom and Necessity,” in Watson (1982b), ed., 15-23.
  • Baker, Lynne (2000). Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bourke, Vernon (1964). Will in Western Thought . New York: Sheed and Ward.
  • Campbell, C.A. (1967). In Defence of Free Will & other essays . London: Allen & Unwin Ltd.
  • Chisholm, Roderick (1982). “Human Freedom and the Self,” in Watson (1982b), 24-35.
  • ----- (1976). Person and Object . LaSalle: Open Court.
  • Clarke, Randolph (1993). “Toward a Credible Agent-Causal Account of Free Will,” in O'Connor (1995), ed., 201-15.
  • ----- (1995). “Indeterminism and Control,” American Philosophical Quarterly 32, 125-138.
  • ----- (1996). “Agent Causation and Event Causation in the Production of Free Action,” Philosophical Topics 24 (Fall), 19-48.
  • ----- (2003). Libertarian Accounts of Free Will . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dennett, Daniel (1984). Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having . Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.
  • Descartes, René (1984). Meditations on First Philosophy [1641] and Passions of the Soul [1649], in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes , vol. I-III, translated by Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Donagan, Alan (1985). Human Ends and Human Actions: An Exploration in St. Thomas's Treatment . Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
  • Dilman, Ilham (1999). Free Will: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction . London: Routledge.
  • Double, Richard (1991). The Non-Reality of Free Will . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Edwards, Jonathan (1957) [1754]. Freedom of Will , ed. P. Ramsey. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Ekstrom, Laura (2000). Free Will: A Philosophical Study . Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Farrer, Austin (1958). The Freedom of the Will . London: Adam & Charles Black.
  • Fischer, John Martin (1994). The Metaphysics of Free Will . Oxford: Blackwell.
  • ----- (1999). “Recent Work on Moral Responsibility,” Ethics 110, 93-139.
  • Fischer, John Martin and Ravizza, Mark. (1992). “When the Will is Free,” in O'Connor (1995), ed., 239-269.
  • Fischer, John Martin (1998) Responsibility and Control . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Frankfurt, Harry (1969). “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy 66, 829-39.
  • ----- (1982). “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” in Watson (1982), ed., 81-95.
  • ----- (1988). The Importance of What We Care About . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • ----- (1992). “The Faintest Passion,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 66, 5-16.
  • Ginet, Carl (1990). On Action . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • ----- (1997). “Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency,” The Journal of Ethics 1, 85-98.
  • ----- (2002) “Reasons Explanations of Action: Causalist versus Noncausalist Accounts,” in Kane, ed., (2002), 386-405.
  • Hobbes, Thomas and Bramhall, John (1999) [1655-1658]. Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity , ed. V. Chappell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Honderich, Ted (1988). A Theory of Determinism . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Frances (1994). “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World,” Faith and Philosophy 11, 260-8.
  • Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Moser, Paul, eds. (2002). Divine Hiddenness: New Essays . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hume, David (1977) [1748]. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding . Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Kane, Robert (1995). “Two Kinds of Incompatibilism,” in O'Connor (1995), ed., 115-150.
  • ----- (1996). The Significance of Free Will . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kane, Robert, ed., (2002). Oxford Handbook on Free Will . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel (1993) [1788]. Critique of Practical Reason , tr. by Lewis White Beck. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.
  • Kretzmann, Norman (1997). The Metaphysics of Theism: Aquinas's Natural Theology in Summa Contra Gentiles I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Leibniz, Gottfried (1985) [1710]. Theodicy . LaSalle, IL: Open Court.
  • Libet, Benjamin (2002). “Do We Have Free Will?” in Kane, ed., (2002), 551-564.
  • MacDonald, Scott (1998). “Aquinas's Libertarian Account of Free Will,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie , 2, 309-328.
  • Magill, Kevin (1997). Freedom and Experience . London: MacMillan.
  • McCann, Hugh (1998). The Works of Agency: On Human Action, Will, and Freedom . Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Mele, Alfred (1995). Autonomous Agents (New York: Oxford University Press).
  • Morris, Thomas (1993). “Perfection and Creation,” in E. Stump. (1993), ed., 234-47
  • Murray, Michael (1993). “Coercion and the Hiddenness of God,” American Philosophical Quarterly 30, 27-38.
  • ----- (2002). “Deus Absconditus,” in Howard-Snyder amd Moser (2002), 62-82.
  • Nozick, Robert (1995). “Choice and Indeterminism,” in O'Connor (1995), ed., 101-14.
  • O'Connor, Timothy (1993). “Indeterminism and Free Agency: Three Recent Views,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , 53, 499-526.
  • -----, ed., (1995). Agents, Causes, and Events: Essays on Indeterminism and Free Will . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • ----- (2000). Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • ----- (forthcoming). “Freedom With a Human Face,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy , Fall 2005.
  • Pettit, Philip (2001). A Theory of Freedom . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pereboom, Derk (2001). Living Without Free Will . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • -----, ed., (1997). Free Will . Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Pink, Thomas (2004). Free Will: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Plato (1997). Complete Works , ed. J. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Quinn, Phillip (1983). “Divine Conservation, Continuous Creation, and Human Action,” in A. Freddoso, ed. The Existence and Nature of God . Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.
  • Reid, Thomas (1969). Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind , ed. B. Brody. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Rowe, William (1993). “The Problem of Divine Perfection and Freedom,” in E. Stump (1993), ed., 223-33.
  • ----- (1995). “Two Concepts of Freedom,” in O'Connor (1995), ed. 151-71.
  • ----- (2004). Can God Be Free? . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sartre, John Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness . New York: Washington Square Press.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1999) [1839]. Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will , ed. G. Zoller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Scotus, John Duns (1986). “Questions on Aristotle's Metaphysics IX, Q.15” in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality [selected and translated by Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M.]. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.
  • ----- (1994) [1297-99]. Contingency and Freedom: Lectura I 39 , tr. Vos Jaczn et al . Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Shatz, David (1986). “Free Will and the Structure of Motivation,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 10, 451-482.
  • Smilansky, Saul (2000). Free Will and Illusion . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Strawson, Galen (1986). Freedom and Belief . Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Strawson, Peter (1982). “Freedom and Resentment,” in Watson (1982), ed., 59-80.
  • Stump, Eleonore (1996). “Persons: Identification and Freedom,” Philosophical Topics 24, 183-214.
  • -----(1997). “Aquinas's Account of Freedom: Intellect and Will,” The Monist 80, 576-597.
  • -----, ed., (1993). Reasoned Faith . Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • van Inwagen, Peter (1983). An Essay on Free Will . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ----- (1994). “When the Will is Not Free,” Philosophical Studies , 75, 95-113.
  • ----- (1995). “When Is the Will Free?” in O'Connor (1995), ed., 219-238.
  • Wainwright, William (1996). “Jonathan Edwards, William Rowe, and the Necessity of Creation,” in J. Jordan and D. Howard-Snyder, eds., Faith Freedom, and Rationality . Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 119-133.
  • Wallace, R. Jay (2003). “Addiction as Defect of the Will: Some Philosophical Reflections,” in Watson, ed., (2003b), 424-452.
  • Watson, Gary (1987). “Free Action and Free Will,” Mind 96, 145-72.
  • ----- (2003a). “Free Agency,” in Watson, ed., 1982b.
  • -----, ed., (2003b). Free Will . 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wegner, Daniel (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Widerker, David and McKenna, Michael, eds., (2002). Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities . Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
  • Wolf, Susan (1990). Freedom Within Reason . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • The Garden of Forking Paths: A Free Will/Moral Responsibility Blog , multi-contributor (maintained at the University of California, Riverside)
  • The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website , edited by Ted Honderich (University College London)
  • Bibliography on Free Will , maintained by David Chalmers (Australian National University)

action | compatibilism | determinism: causal | fatalism | free will: divine foreknowledge and | incompatibilism: (nondeterministic) theories of free will | incompatibilism: arguments for | moral responsibility

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • Patient Prefer Adherence

The Weakness of Will: The Role of Free Will in Treatment Adherence

Fisseha zewdu amdie.

1 School of Nursing, University of Gondar, Gondar, Ethiopia

2 School of Nursing, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Monakshi Sawhney

Chronic disease prevention and management requires a lifelong commitment and adherence to lifestyle modifications, monitoring of symptoms, medication use, and other forms of therapy. Treatment adherence is a crucial and complex concept in patient care provision, and it requires the voluntary active involvement of patients for the best possible outcome. Multiple factors, which may or may not be under the patient’s control, can influence treatment adherence. However, adherence or non-adherence to a certain treatment is predominantly influenced by one’s sense of agency, values, beliefs, attitudes, and willpower. It is evident that mental states appear to influence patients’ decision-making, and the best treatment outcome occurs when a patient identifies their goals, needs, and desires and exercises their decision-making and free will during the course of receiving care. The role of healthcare providers is critical in promoting treatment adherence, thereby enhancing patient outcomes. Thus, this paper highlights the importance of promoting a sense of agency and integrating patients’ values, beliefs, attitudes, and intentions during the provision of healthcare. It is indispensable to recognize the individual’s ability and initiative to control and manage their illness in the face of challenging socioeconomic and cultural reality. On logical grounds, it is not enough to appreciate the value of free will and mental states, it is also essential to empower and cultivate an individual patient’s willpower to make a well-informed, free decision based on their mental state for the most optimal treatment outcomes.


Treatment and prevention of chronic conditions often require a sustained commitment from an individual to lifestyle changes, surveillance of symptoms, medication use, and other forms of therapy. Some of the treatments can be invasive, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. Since its introduction into the health care system, the concept of treatment adherence has been a crucial part of patient care provision. 1 Contextualized within a patient-caregiver dyad, adherence implies the patient’s agreement to play an active, voluntary, and collaborative role in a mutually acceptable course of behaviour to produce optimal treatment outcome. 2 Cultivation of treatment adherence is complex and multidimensional; many national, as well as international health agencies that represent patients and health care professionals, are advocating the need to individualize treatment and communication that facilitates decision-making, putting belief and free will of patients be at the center of care. 3–6

The discourse of adherence has long been obfuscated and displaced by frameworks that situate human behaviours within a system that is subjected to the influence of environmental determinants. The purpose of the empirical inquiry is to delineate these relationships in order to control and manipulate treatment adherence. We argue that the dialogue about adherence should be guided by narratives on free will, 7 rational decision-making, 8 and individual’s belief and attitude. 9 , 10 The available evidence put forward the claim that the best treatment outcome is realized when a patient identifies their goals, needs, values, perceptions, and attitudes towards the treatment plan and services 6 and exercises their decision-making and free will in the course of receiving care. 7 , 11 , 12

In this paper, we will explore the tapestry of free will and various philosophical perspectives that describe how free will, or lack thereof, is crucial to shaping people’s behaviour in relation to chronic disease management.

To present our argument and position for the oldest philosophical question “do we have free will?”, we will start with the question “if we don’t have free will why are we here in this world then?”. As supporters of the ideas of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, 13 we believe that we human beings live in a very demanding world that requires a strong determination and struggle, not because life is terrible, but because we are destined to be free.

Do We Have Free Will? The Free Will and Determinism Argument

What is free will? Do we exercise free will to make choices? Free will is a predominant concept of discussion among different camps of philosophers and has been subject of long debates. 14 , 15 Starting from the era of Socrates, free will continues to be a major philosophical problem, and the questions of “Do we have free will?” or “Do people have a complete moral freedom or power of real choice?” continues to have relevance regardless of time and setting. 16 , 17 Simply put, free will is defined as the ability to inform intentions or to choose one course of action over the other. 18 Many thousands of years ago, before the question of free will came into the discussion of ancient Greece, it was predominantly believed that a human’s fate, life events (good or bad), and mood and state of mind were predetermined by supernatural gods. For instance, the ancient Greeks believed that certain gods were specifically assigned by Zeus to oversee mood, destiny, justice, planetary bodies, the sea, and seasons. In turn, these gods eventually control and define the life events and subsequent decisions of an individual. 16

It was the great philosophers Socrates and Plato that poised a fundamental shift proposing individual possession of free will independent of the influence from supernatural gods. 16 Every person bestowed with free will are expected to take charge of their own lives and bear moral responsibility for their own actions. Placing responsibility in the hands of individuals is supported by legal and other systems. Here we can refer to the health care system where agents/patients are expected to make healthy choices for a better treatment outcome and morally responsible for their decisions). 19 , 20

Whether humans are free to choose between alternatives continues to be the center of argument between the two major philosophical traditions. 15 , 21 “Libertarianism” claims that humans are free to make a life choice between alternatives and thereby, accept the existence of free will. Advocates of the libertarian view assert that free will determines our behaviours claiming that, based on our beliefs, desires, and intentions, we are free to propose what we want to do and we are responsible for our own actions. 18 , 22 On the basis of this argument, it is fair to conclude that any action is driven by beliefs, values, and morals. 21 , 23 To further elaborate the philosophical standpoint of libertarianism, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (2001), passionately argued in support of the idea that humans are destined to be free. Although we can not control our birth and upbringing, once we become self-aware, we make life choices that define our essence, thus, contributing to our ability to be free and exercise free will. 13 It is because we are free that we have choices, and it is our action (derived by our rational thinking and intention) that gives meaning to our lives. 24

On the other hand, the “deterministic” position can be traced back from the era of Democritus all the way through to Spinoza, Comte, and Freud. The deterministic potion primarily believes that everything that happens is unavoidable and it is the inevitable product of prior causes. 15 , 16 , 25 , 26 Along a similar line, the seventeenth-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes asserts that the mind works based on the predefined set of principles, therefore, an individual can not implement free will. 27 Later in history, Immanuel Kant agreed with Hobbes and added that although determinism can be applied to everything, some parts of the human mind is free from definite laws. 28 The argument here is that every decision made, every action taken, and every choice made is an illusion and it is the force outside our consciousness that determines what we all choose and do. 17 , 29 Therefore, in the deterministic belief, everything that happens in the world has a causal link and is due to an unbroken chain of the preceding happenings, there is nothing in the world that is self-caused. 25 , 30 , 31

The deterministic perspective of free will argues that if God knows the future performance of a person, how can a person be morally responsible for their actions? Thus, they fundamentally undermine a person’s moral responsibility for any action or behaviour committed. 27 , 30 Moreover, in modern science, this question continues to seek an answer to whether people are free to do anything. 17 , 26 , 32

Since the term “free will” has been used in multiple contexts, the debate remains open and the understanding of its importance, as well as its association with other concepts in health care, continues to emerge. Describing free will as a unique form of action control that came about to meet the increasing demands of human life driven by moral actions and the pursuit of self-interest, will open up the possibility of a person to act or react differently in any given life situation. 21

In free will, one of the basic components is to freely choose among diversified possibilities based on the values, beliefs, and perspectives someone holds in their life. 7 Therefore, exercising free will is determining one’s life, interests, and values free from unwarranted interference. 33 This will bring us to another important concept in free will, healthcare treatment adherence, which is freedom of choice.

A patient’s freedom of choice among multiple treatment options, allowing a patient to choose can affect the level of treatment adherence. Freedom of choice is

the human capacity to choose freely between two or more genuine alternatives or possibilities, such choosing being always limited both by the past and the by the circumstances of the immediate present. 34

In his book entitled, What is freedom of choice ?, Settani 26 explains the problem of free choice from both Christian and scientific perspectives to illustrate the existence of freedom of choice by presenting the “incompatibilist” position of free will which affirms the presence of free choice, morality, and blame. The most prominent advocate and founder of incompatibilism philosophical perspective Peter van Inwagen argues that if a person deliberates about whether to do “A” or “B”, he believes he has more than one possible course of action from which to choose, thus he can choose to perform either of these actions. 35–37 On the above points, we can conclude that a sense of free will, free choice, morality, reason, and blame can drive the action of patients towards a certain choice of behaviour, in this case, treatment adherence or non-adherence.

In his classic writing, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” Donald Davidson (1963) presents the causal theory of action. Davidson’s argument is that the connection between reason and action is causal, not logical if reasons are to rationalize actions. This further led other philosophers to explore the mental states involving the agent such as beliefs, values, desires, and intentions to prove that an action can be initiated and performed by an agent due to their mental states (beliefs, values, desires, and intentions). 38 , 39

In his influential writing, “Freedom and Resentment” Strawson (1974), defends the common-sense argument to claim human responsibility for any conduct. In Strawson’s argument, interpersonal relationships are something we cannot avoid as a social being and when we engage in these relationships, we open ourselves to experience certain emotions, which he refers to reactive attitudes. Reactive attitudes are adequate enough to hold individuals responsible for their actions. Strawson thus argues that as long as we are engaging in interpersonal relationships, we are responsible for our actions. 40

The Role of Free Will in Behaviour

The notion that one controls one’s own action and behaviour is strong and pervasive because humans are naturally inclined to think of themselves as free agents. 41 As humans, we do not feel like automatons and we do not treat fellow human beings the way we treat robots. 17 To strengthen the above ideas, a massive survey of people in 36 countries demonstrates that more than 70% of participants believe that they are in control of their fate. 42

A feeling of self-control and responsibility determines the way a person behaves. It is well recognized that a change in one’s sense of responsibility will change the behaviour (healthy or unhealthy) of a person. 19 For instance, in their writing, Harmon-Jones and Mills 43 develop the claim that a sense of personal accountability urges people to alter their behaviour to align with their attitudes and values. The forgoing claim implies that a sense of accountability guides the behaviour of patients in a certain way that can explain why free will, sense of control and responsibility are very important in (un) healthy behaviour or treatment (non) adherence. 19

Thinking an outcome is based on an effort, rather than an inborn trait can influence behaviour. For example, in a study aimed to understand the effect of praise on student’s behaviour among a group of fifth-graders, investigators praise students for an initial task accomplished either due to their intelligence or their hard work. Then a little harder task beyond their performance level is given. Finally, in the third task, students who believe their earlier success is as a result of their intelligence demonstrate less effort and enjoyment than those who thought their achievement is due to their effort. 44

Similarly, in an attempt to explore whether believing that human behaviour is predetermined would encourage cheating and a sense of responsibility, Vohs and Schooler 45 prove that accepting the deterministic point of view or believing in predetermined behaviour undermines a sense of agency and encourages cheating behaviour. The effect of free will in behaviour is also explored in the work of Twenge, Zhang, 46 showing that feeling of strong independence and self-determination can create a sense of control to one’s own environment and destinies. Thus, once a person feels in control of their environment, there will be a greater chance to maximize the effort to overcome the external (environmental) obstacles to treatment adherence.

One of the hallmarks of human existence is that we all hold beliefs that determine how we act. Amongst such beliefs, the idea that we are endowed with free will appears to be linked with prosocial behaviours, probably by enhancing the feeling of responsibility of individuals over their own actions. On these grounds, we can understand that free will in the sense of effort and personal agency can empower and inspire patients to adhere to their treatment recommendations.

Albritton, 18 a philosopher of independent mind, presented his essay on his 1985 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association to explain the characteristics of free will and why our will is free. In his philosophical paper, Albritton defends the idea that free will is naturally free and can not be restrained in any circumstance. He explains that free will is the ability to inform intentions or to choose one course of action over the other. Thus, in any circumstance of life, a person’s will is free, and what their desire to do is up to theirs. Furthermore, the essay explains the four interconnected concepts of freedom of action, efficacy of will, freedom of will, and strength of will to demonstrate how people are free to choose between actions, why they are free to will, and how wills are free. His essay further elaborates on the limitations of external factors to control one’s freedom of will. 18 Here, we can further develop the idea that patients’ decisions to choose among options in the course of treatment is solely based on free choices and actions. Thus, empowering patients to recognize their free will and make a well-informed decision in the best interest of their health can improve treatment adherence.

However, free will is not enough to ensure treatment adherence. An individual also needs the willpower to assist with the actions associated with treatment adherence. In illustrating the influence of willpower towards combating disease and illness, Kugelmann 47 affirms that the weakening of willpower in the battle against disease is due to the recognition of the frailty of the flesh. Thus, when a person is threatened by their illness or life challenges when battling a disease, it is willpower that gives an individual resilience to overcome difficulties. However, when a person gives up their fight against life-threatening diseases, it is their willpower that appears to be broken. This argument may bring us to a very important question what if the person chooses not to take the treatment? Well, in this case, we have to recognize that the patient no longer “desires’ to live or combat their illness, this also justifies the power of will in declining treatment. In both cases, what we love most, the willpower executes. That which our heart and mind do not desire, we will not have the willpower to obtain. Willpower is the ability to suppress pain, stress and overcome habits. 47 This definition explains the mechanisms to overcome the barriers to treatment adherence thereby, enhances treatment adherence.

In support of the idea that free will enhance treatment adherence, literature highlights that a reduced belief in free will could weaken the belief in moral responsibility, which may alter a subsequent behaviour. 19 , 45 To illustrate the strong relationship between free will and behaviour, the available evidence seems to suggest that the belief or disbelief about free will profoundly affects the behaviour of people. 46 Further evidence supporting the relationship of free will and belief lies in the finding of Baumeister, Masicampo, 48 who highlights that a laypersons’ belief in free will encourages a feeling of insightful reflection and willingness to exert energy to promote helpful behaviour and reduce aggression. On the other hand, disbelief in free will leads to more selfish and impulsive behaviour. Hence, the role of free will in displaying a positive behaviour towards self and others which may encourage responsible behaviour, in this case, treatment adherence.

The Weakness of Will and Treatment Adherence

Interestingly, the work of American behavioural psychiatrist and psychologist George Ainslie (1985), Norwegian social and political theorist Jon Elster (2000), and American philosopher Donald Davidson (1980) explain the effect of willpower on decision making and individual choices that we can further utilize to explain its relationship with treatment adherence. The first concept that can explain the problem of treatment adherence is inter-temporal choice. This concept is well explained by an Ainslie 49 and Elster 50 stating that impatience can affect rational decision making. In this case, patients may be inpatient by nature and thus tend to prefer the immediate reward of any form of non-adherence than the long-term benefit of treatment adherence. According to Olmsted and McFarlane, 51 the main reason (up to 40%) of non-adherence, while knowing its benefits, to health improvement programs (diet, exercise, etc) among Canadian women is a weakness of will. A closer look at this data indicates that weakness of will undermines the adherence of women to recommended treatment. Given the centrality of weakness of will to our claim, we will illustrate the argument of weak will and irrationality using the following real-life scenario. Say, a patient living with diabetes wants to lose weight and started to eat a low-calorie diet. The most important thing now in their life is their health and their strict dietary practice. However, at a dinner party, they cannot resist their desire to take a slice of cake for dessert. Since their goal is to lose weight, this action is irrational, and he is demonstrating weakness of will. In the practice of willpower, there is a possibility that patients may refuse to adhere, intentional non-adherence, with the treatment plan. As long as their desires, values, and practices do not contradict, we can agree that their willpower is intact and strong. Thus, this mechanism can explain why weakness of will determines a patient’s commitment and adherence to long-term therapy.

Another explanation of the problem of treatment adherence is explored in the principle of continence (strong-will) by Davidson (1980). Davidson suggests the existence of a principle of rationality, which explains the coherence of our behaviours. This principle urges us to see all the available options and act on what is best for us according to our values, beliefs, and opinions. Thus, Davidson claims that a person who fails to adhere to a recommended treatment plan is weak-willed or “incontinent”. 52 He analogizes the role of continence to elaborate the principle of rationality by describing a scenario of a person who struggles to stop smoking. The woman developed an argument in her mind and based on her judgment she determined she should quit smoking yet, she insists on smoking and gives into taking a cigarette. Here, her desire to smoke dominates or pushes out her will. The mechanism of irrational action and impatience can explain the weakness of will in treatment adherence. Thus, we can understand that a weakness in the will alters a personal desire and wish to do something which eventually can affect behaviour or action.

Two terms, compliance and adherence , are important concepts regarding the patient’s commitment to adhere to the recommended treatment plan. However, the main difference between these two terms is whether the patient is willingly deciding to follow treatment recommendations to their interest or not. Adherence is “the extent to which a person’s behaviour -taking medication, following a diet, and/or executing lifestyle changes corresponds with agreed recommendations from a health care provider.” 3 Whereas, compliance is limited to patients following doctor’s orders and defined as “the extent to which a patient’s behavior matches the prescriber’s advice”. 53 In these two separate “paradigms” the patient’s ability to decide in their best interest is very paramount for a successful treatment outcome. This paradigm difference gives a different perspective about how healthcare services should be designed and delivered to individual patients in order to promote patient engagement and treatment adherence. 54

In recent years, the role of clinicians as authoritarian figures who know everything is no longer practical, and literature identifies that patient-clinical relationship as a partnership where patients make their own free decision about their care for the best interest of their life goals and desires. 54 , 55

Patient’s decision-making ability is the major determinant factor for treatment adherence. For instance, the patient’s empowered decision-making ability and sense of involvement in their treatment plan play a great role in treatment adherence and outcome. 56 Similarly, the importance of including patients’ opinions, needs, and preferences contribute to a sense of control, self-will, and involvement which ultimately improves treatment outcome. 57 Thus, treatment adherence and success is achieved when patient’s values, beliefs, and attitudes are respected and when patent’s see themselves as decision-makers for their life. 58 Additionally, to understand and propose an alternative approach to the problem of compliance and to identify the role of nurses towards empowering patients in decision-making, Russell, Daly 59 demonstrate that shifting the power and authority towards patients and accepting patients as experts of their decision, health choices and their own lives enhance treatment adherence.

The relationship between autonomy, decision-making and adherence can clarify what consists patient’s decision-making and how patients make decisions about their healthcare. According to Sandman, Granger, 60 patient autonomy consists of will or preference, decision, action, and the intermediate relation of “because”. This finding favours the claim that self-determination of a person is guaranteed when preferences are one’s own and when a person decides to realize their preferences and then act on their decisions. As a result, the underlying issue seems to be that when a person’s preferences are their own; the more they decide in accordance with their own values and the more autonomous their will be which eventually will increase motivation to abide by the agreed treatment recommendations.

Values, Beliefs and Attitudes Reasons for Action (Treatment Adherence)

Human beings have values, beliefs, and attitudes that are developed through the interaction with family, friends, and community thus, a person’s actions (their behaviour: either treatment adherence or non-adherence) depends upon their desires (their values) and what they accept to be true (their beliefs) about themselves and the world. 61 This tells us that the values, beliefs, and attitudes we hold shape our thinking, perspective, and worldviews.

According to Scheibe, 61

Value judgments refer to what is wanted, what is best, what is desirable or preferable, what ought to be done. They suggest the operation of wishes, desires, goals, valences, or morals. [p. 41–42]

It is our values which are our personal principles, standards, and qualities that shape our life perspectives and that guides how an individual makes choices. Beliefs originate from real experiences. Patient’s belief influences healthcare choices, affects the way they interact with their health care providers, the way they perceive their treatment, and the degree of commitment towards their treatment (healthcare services). 62

Attitude can refer to a feeling, a belief, or a tendency towards a specific idea or object. It usually refers to the belief towards something and describes what we think about a particular thing. 63 Despite the difficulty of counting the number of attitudes that determine a particular act, we can agree that a certain social behaviour can be driven by an attitude. 63 Patient’s attitude towards their medication, health provider or their illness usually affects their treatment adherence. As such, it is quite important to consider and incorporate our patients’ values, beliefs, and attitudes while delivering healthcare service for a better treatment outcome.

Patients’ perceptions, values, and beliefs play a significant, yet an often-overlooked role in treatment adherence. Davidson, 7 in one of his well known and influential writings, challenges the long-standing philosophical perspective that claims intentions, beliefs, or desires cannot be the cause for action by affirming that any form of action involves a reason having both an attitude and a belief. Moreover, Davidson 7 demonstrates how an action can be rationalized by linking one occurrence to another and argues that for a certain action there is a belief, motive, urge, desire, or want what he called “primary reason”; 7 that rationalizes why the agent performed the action.

Patients’ decision to follow the recommended treatment is influenced to a large extent by their beliefs and attitudes concerning the disease, treatment, and trust in the skills of their health care providers. For instance, patients intentionally omit a few doses or alter the timing of the dose of their medications believing they are responsible for controlling their blood glucose level when it fluctuates. 64–66 Doubting the effectiveness and benefit of medication can lead to modification or alteration of treatment regimen. For example, patients with diabetes revealed their concerns about the benefits of taking their medications and assert that their disbelief about their medication make them decrease the dose or discontinue the medications. 67–73 Despite recognizing the advantage of taking medication for effective glucose control, patients with diabetes prefer to use alternative treatment methods or natural ways of treatment rather than prescribed medications. 74

Furthermore, in a cross-sectional survey aimed to identify the level of adherence among patients who started a new medication, Clifford, Barber 5 demonstrate that intentional non-adherers have a lower perception towards the necessity of taking their new medication than adherers. Intentional non-adherers concerned highly relative to their need for treatment than both adherers and unintentional non-adherers. Similarly, Gadkari and McHorney 12 evaluate the relationship between patient’s medication belief and intentional and unintentional non- adherence by interviewing 24,017 adult chronic illness patients. Authors tried to understand how respondent’s belief affects the behaviour towards taking their medication and point out that self-reported undeliberate reasons for failing to take their medication by respondents were not real unintentional causes rather predictable and intentional reasons for non-adherence. According to Wroe (2002), the balance of individuals’ reasons to take or not to take medication predicted the intentional nonadherence. The result of this study highlights how reasoning and reasons determine the behaviour of patients as well as healthy people towards their treatment plan.

The above evidence and argument do not only stress the role of individual patients but also the role of healthcare providers in providing the necessary information so that patients can make rational decisions and choose between alternatives on behalf of themselves during their health service. We can thus, conclude that decisions are influenced by beliefs, attitudes, intentions, values, and perceptions which subsequently can impact how patients receive treatment and engage themselves in medical care.

Free Will, Decision-Making and Mental States: Implication for Practice

In this paper, we have explored the role of free will, beliefs, attitudes, values, intentions, and perceptions in treatment adherence and how these concepts, what we call “internal world” influence the decision-making ability of our patients. We also presented how the concept of free will, beliefs, attitudes, values, intentions, perceptions and decision-making can be used in our healthcare delivery especially in nursing science and practice.

It is crucial for nurses to know how patients perceive treatment and how their sense of agency and mental states (beliefs, values attitudes, intentions and perceptions affect) determine their commitment, determination and action (behaviour) towards the agreed treatment recommendations. 51 , 75 Furthermore, helping patients to recognize their freedom of choice, willpower and sole responsibility for their own actions may assist patients to improve their illness experience and better manage their symptoms. 75

To achieve patient-centered care, involving patients in decision – making process is mandatory. Thus, effective involvement of patients is ensured when the capacity of choosing between alternatives is strong. As a healthcare provider, it is fundamental to acknowledge the fact that presenting ourselves (clinicians) as an authoritarian figure who knows everything is no longer practical. Shifting the power and authority towards patients and accepting patients as experts of their decision and their own lives is critical in treatment adherence. 59

Acknowledging the patient’s “internal world” is essential for effective treatment outcomes. Incorporating patient’s values, beliefs, desires, intentions and preferences in routine nursing care promotes patients’ sense of self-will, self-control and encourages collaboration between nurses and patients which ultimately will improve willingness to follow treatment recommendations. 46 , 64

Treatment adherence can be influenced by multiple unintentional factors beyond the client’s control. However, the predominant reasons for treatment adherence or non-adherence lie in the sense of agency, decision-making ability, values, beliefs, attitudes, and the willpower of our clients. It appears that mental states hugely impact a patient’s decision-making. The role of healthcare providers for effective treatment and the best patient outcome is very fundamental. Thus, this paper emphasizes the importance of promoting a sense of agency and integrating patients’ values, beliefs, attitudes, and intentions during the provision of healthcare. It is imperative to acknowledge the individual’s faculty to control and manage their illness in the face of taxing socioeconomic and cultural reality. On logical grounds, it is not sufficient to realize the significance of free will and mental states, but it is also indispensable for healthcare professionals to cultivate patient’s willpower to make a well informed, free decision based on their mental states for a successful treatment outcome. 75

Funding Statement

No grant is received from any funding agency.


Zeus in mythology is a king and father of the gods.

The authors declare they have no competing interests.

  • Share full article

A portrait of Robert Sapolsky in his backyard, sitting on a brick stair in a garden with a golden retriever resting at his feet.

A Conversation With

Robert Sapolsky Doesn’t Believe in Free Will. (But Feel Free to Disagree.)

Shedding the concept “completely strikes at our sense of identity and autonomy,” the Stanford biologist and neuroscientist argues. It might also be liberating.

Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neurologist at Stanford University, stopped believing in free will at age 13. Credit... Damon Casarez for The New York Times

Supported by

By Hope Reese

  • Published Oct. 16, 2023 Updated Oct. 18, 2023

There is no free will, according to Robert Sapolsky, a biologist and neuroscientist at Stanford University and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Dr. Sapolsky worked for decades as a field primatologist before turning to neuroscience, and he has spent his career investigating behavior across the animal kingdom and writing about it in books including “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” and “Monkeyluv, and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals.”

In his latest book, “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,” Dr. Sapolsky confronts and refutes the biological and philosophical arguments for free will. He contends that we are not free agents, but that biology, hormones, childhood and life circumstances coalesce to produce actions that we merely feel were ours to choose.

It’s a provocative claim, he concedes, but he would be content if readers simply began to question the belief, which is embedded in our cultural conversation. Getting rid of free will “completely strikes at our sense of identity and autonomy and where we get meaning from,” Dr. Sapolsky said, and this makes the idea particularly hard to shake.

There are major implications, he notes: Absent free will, no one should be held responsible for their behavior, good or bad. Dr. Sapolsky sees this as “liberating” for most people, for whom “life has been about being blamed and punished and deprived and ignored for things they have no control over.”

He spoke in a series of interviews about the challenges that free will presents and how he stays motivated without it. These conversations were edited and condensed for clarity.

To most people, free will means being in charge of our actions. What’s wrong with that outlook?

It’s a completely useless definition. When most people think they’re discerning free will, what they mean is somebody intended to do what they did: Something has just happened; somebody pulled the trigger. They understood the consequences and knew that alternative behaviors were available.

But that doesn’t remotely begin to touch it, because you’ve got to ask: Where did that intent come from? That’s what happened a minute before, in the years before, and everything in between.

For that sort of free will to exist, it would have to function on a biological level completely independently of the history of that organism. You would be able to identify the neurons that caused a particular behavior, and it wouldn’t matter what any other neuron in the brain was doing, what the environment was, what the person’s hormone levels were, what culture they were brought up in. Show me that those neurons would do the exact same thing with all these other things changed, and you’ve proven free will to me.

So, whether I wore a red or blue shirt today — are you saying I didn’t really choose that?

Absolutely. It can play out in the seconds before. Studies show that if you’re sitting in a room with a terrible smell, people become more socially conservative. Some of that has to do with genetics: What’s the makeup of their olfactory receptors? With childhood: What conditioning did they have to particular smells? All of that affects the outcome.

What about something bigger, like choosing where to go to college?

You ask, “Why did you pick this one?” And the person says, “I’ve learned that I do better in smaller classes.” Or, “They have an amazing party scene.” At any meaningful juncture, we’re making decisions based on our tastes and predilections and values and character. And you have to ask: Where did they come from?

Neuroscience is getting really good at two levels of stuff. One is understanding what a particular part of the brain does, based on techniques like neuroimaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The other is at the level of tiny, reductive stuff: This variant of this gene interacts with this enzyme differently. So, we kind of understand what happens in one neuron. But how do 30 billion of them collectively make this a human cortex instead of a primate cortex? How do you scale up from understanding little component parts and getting some sense of the big, emergent thing?

Say we figured that out. Have X happen 4,000 times per second in Y part of the brain, countered — as an opposing, inhibitory thing — 2,123 times a second when the hormone levels are doing such-and-such. How does this big thing called a “behavior” or a “personality” or a “thought” or a “mistake” pop out at the macro level? We’re beginning to understand how you get from one level to the other, but it’s unbelievably difficult.

If we’re not responsible for our actions, can we take ownership of them?

Well, we can take ownership in a purely mechanical sense. My molecules knocked into the molecules making up that vase of flowers and knocked it over and broke it — that’s true. And we can keep ourselves going with myths of agency when it really doesn’t make a difference. If you want to believe that you freely chose to floss your upper teeth before your bottom teeth today, that’s a benign myth to operate with.

But you’re saying that the myth isn’t always benign?

Fundamentally injurious things about our universe run on the notion that people get stuff that they didn’t earn or they didn’t deserve, and a huge amount of humanity’s misery is due to myths of free will.

Most of the time, I get by without having to pay any attention whatsoever to how I think things work. Recognize how hard it is to do otherwise. Save that recognition for when it matters: when you’re on a jury; when you’re a schoolteacher, assessing students. If you have myths about free will, keep it to how you’re flossing your teeth.

I want to wean people off the knee-jerk reaction to the notion that without free will, we will run amok because we can’t be held responsible for things. That we have no societal mechanisms for having dangerous people not be dangerous, or for having gifted people do the things society needs to function. It’s not the case that in a deterministic world, nothing can change.

How should privileged people think about their accomplishments?

Every living organism is just a biological machine. But we’re the only ones that know that we’re biological machines; we are trying to make sense of the fact that we feel as if our feelings are real.

At some point, it doesn’t make a difference whether your feelings are real or whether your feeling of feelings being real is the case. We still find things aversive enough as biological machines that it’s useful to call stuff like that “pain” or “sadness” or “unhappiness.” And even though it’s completely absurd to think that something good can happen to a machine, it’s good when the feeling of feeling pain is lessened.

That’s a level on which we have to function. Meaning feels real. Purpose feels real. Every now and then, our knowledge of the machine-ness should not get in the way of the fact that this is a weird machine that feels as if feelings are real.

Do we lose love, too, if we lose free will?

Yeah. Like: “Wow! Why? Why did this person turn out to love me? Where did that come from? And how much of that has to do with how my parents raised me, or what sort of olfactory receptor genes I have in my nose and how much I like their scent?” At some point you get to that existential crisis of, “Oh God, that’s what’s underlying all this stuff!” That’s where the machine-ness becomes something we should be willing to ignore.

But it’s not OK for you to decide, with the same denial of reality, that you truly deserve a better salary than the average human on this planet.

Do it for where it’s needed. I sure can’t do it more than a tiny percent of the time. Like once every three and a half weeks or so. It’s a confusing, recursive challenge to watch yourself watching yourself, and to decide that what you’re feeling feels real.


John A. Johnson Ph.D.

Robert Sapolsky and Kevin Mitchell Diverge on Free Will

How can two experts on the brain disagree about free will.

Updated April 3, 2024 | Reviewed by Monica Vilhauer

  • Two neuroscientists, Robert Sapolsky and Kevin Mitchell, have reached opposite conclusions about free will.
  • A close reading of their books shows that they agree that freedom from outside causes is never complete.
  • Sapolsky and Mitchell also agree that individuals differ profoundly in their ability to self-regulate.
  • What Mitchell calls degrees of free will, Sapolsky calls differences in self-regulation.

Robert Sapolsky (2023) and Kevin Mitchell (2023) are both biologists who have written books that come to opposite conclusions about the existence of free will . Sapolsky's book Determined argues that our best scientific evidence points to the absence of free will, while Mitchell's book Free Agents claims that our best scientific evidence establishes the existence of free will. In this post, I explain how two competent scientists, looking at the same evidence, come to opposite conclusions about free will, and how this disagreement might hinge on different definitions of free will.

Points of Agreement Between Sapolsky and Mitchell

Sapolsky and Mitchell both follow the widely accepted view about the evolution of the brain and nervous system . Both note that the behavior of the earliest organisms was reflexive, automatically responding in set ways to events in the environment . Over evolutionary time, the brain developed the capacity to contemplate behavioral options before responding to environmental events, adding flexibility to behavior.

Sapolsky and Mitchell also agree that individuals differ in the amount of control they have over their impulses. Both note that the frontal cortex is largely responsible for self-regulation . The frontal cortex does not fully mature until the mid-20s and shows a decline in old age, which means that younger and older people can have more problems with self-regulation than people between the ages of 30 and 70. Also, stress , traumas , tumors, parasites, addictions, and other diseases can adversely affect frontal cortex functioning, lowering people's ability to self-regulate and make optimal choices. For this reason, Kevin Mitchell says that free will is not an either-or issue, but, rather, a matter of degree. Sapolsky, noting that people cannot choose how well their frontal cortex regulates behavior, refuses to call differences in self-regulation differences in free will.

Sapolsky and Mitchell also agree that it is impossible to be free from all past and present influences on behavior. For Sapolsky, the impossibility of escaping all influences on behavior is his reason for denying the existence of free will. Mitchell rejects the traditional definition of freedom in philosophy as "the ability to act absolutely free from any prior causes whatsoever " (p. 278). He continues, (p. 279), "To be free of such constraints would be to act randomly, pointlessly, on a whim, for no reason."

Mitchell's Argument for Free Will

Mitchell argues that free will—the capacity for conscious, rational control of one's behavior—is a more evolved form of two characteristics of every living organism: agency and autonomy.

"You are the type of thing [unlike rocks, atoms, or planets] that can take action, that can make decisions, that can be a causal force in the world: you are an agent. And humans are not unique in this capacity. All living things have some degree of agency. That is their defining characteristic, what sets them apart from the mostly lifeless, passive universe. Living beings are autonomous entities, imbued with purpose and able to act on their own terms, not yoked to every cause in their environment but causes in their own right" (Mitchell, 2023, p. 19).

According to Mitchell, all living beings have autonomy, a separateness from the surrounding environment. The membrane of the first life forms brought hydrogen ions and organic molecules into the organism, allowing it to generate its own energy and create increasingly complex organic molecules. This gave them a degree of autonomy or self-sufficiency. In Mitchell's words, "This kind of proto-life would have a degree of independence—of freedom—from the environment" (p. 33).

Mitchell's outline of evolutionary steps (Figure 1.3 on page 20) charts organisms' increasing freedom to persist and flourish. The increasing degrees of agency, autonomy, and freedom in each stage of evolution reached their peak in the human brain, which possesses considerable independence from the immediate situation.

As a human being, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself engaging in different activities, estimating the probabilities of different consequences from the activities, weighing the costs and benefits, and deciding what course of action to take. By "free will" Mitchell means this capacity to press the pause button on life, contemplating possibilities instead of reacting immediately and automatically to every immediate situation like most other animals.

Mitchell appeals to your personal experience of free will to demonstrate that it exists. You can observe yourself exercising free will every time you make conscious choices in the way Mitchell describes, and this is Mitchell's prima facie evidence for the existence of free will.

Sapolsky's Argument Against Free Will

research paper on free will

Sapolsky (2023) argues that people lack free will because previous events over which the person had no control collectively determine every conscious choice. In chapter 3 of Determined , Sapolsky agrees with Mitchell that many choices are preceded by conscious intent. But where did that intent come from? From current hormone and blood sugar levels to cultural values instilled by parents through reward and punishment , to drugs, alcohol , and stress hormones in the mother's body during pregnancy , to inherited genetic influences, to ecological features that shaped human evolution, all of these events over which we have no control precede any conscious intent; therefore, we lack free will.

Sapolsky also agrees with Mitchell that we feel that our choices are free and that we can give reasons for our actions, but we can also be mistaken and self- deceived about the real reasons for our actions. Michael Gazzaniga (1985) has described research demonstrating that the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain can initiate behaviors that are incorrectly explained by the language centers in the left cerebral hemisphere. Creating reasonable but false explanations is called confabulation .

Similarly, Nisbett and Wilson (1977) conducted a series of studies in which they manipulated factors that demonstrably influenced participants' choices and then asked participants to give reasons for their choices after introspecting on their choice process. Oblivious to the manipulated influences on their choices, participants in the study confabulated reasons for their behavior.

Although we are sometimes aware of our conscious reasons for doing something, we cannot be aware of the unconscious reasons for our behavior, so we can never tell how much these unknown reasons restrict our freedom. Because we cannot know or control unconscious influences on our behavior, Sapolsky says our will is never free.

Semantics and Implications

Sapolsky's and Mitchell's disagreement about the existence of free will might be a matter of semantics, of how "free will" is defined. Both agree that people differ in their ability to make optimal choices and to achieve their goals . Where Mitchell calls this degrees of free will, Sapolsky would probably prefer to talk about individual differences in competencies and behavioral traits that underlie achievement, such as self-control, clarity about goals, creativity , intelligence , and so forth. These competencies, he would say, cannot be willed into existence; rather, they are all givens, determined by a vast number of prior events over which the person has no control.

But just because disagreements about free will might boil down to different definitions of free will, this doesn't mean that the arguments are just semantics. Different positions on free will have different and profound implications on practical matters such as moral and criminal responsibility, blaming and praising people, and appropriate consequences for misbehavior. I will explore those implications in a future blog post.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (1985). The social brain: Discovering the networks of the mind . New York, NY: Basic Books.

Mitchell, K. J. (2023). Free agents: How evolution gave us free will . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review , 84 (3), 231–259. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231

Sapolsky, R. M. (2023). Determined: A science of life without free will . New York, NY: Penguin.

John A. Johnson Ph.D.

John A. Johnson, Ph.D. , is a professor emeritus of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

  • Find a Therapist
  • Find a Treatment Center
  • Find a Psychiatrist
  • Find a Support Group
  • Find Teletherapy
  • United States
  • Brooklyn, NY
  • Chicago, IL
  • Houston, TX
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York, NY
  • Portland, OR
  • San Diego, CA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Washington, DC
  • Asperger's
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Chronic Pain
  • Eating Disorders
  • Passive Aggression
  • Personality
  • Goal Setting
  • Positive Psychology
  • Stopping Smoking
  • Low Sexual Desire
  • Relationships
  • Child Development
  • Therapy Center NEW
  • Diagnosis Dictionary
  • Types of Therapy

March 2024 magazine cover

Understanding what emotional intelligence looks like and the steps needed to improve it could light a path to a more emotionally adept world.

  • Coronavirus Disease 2019
  • Affective Forecasting
  • Neuroscience

Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley Research Paper

Free will involves the liberty to act freely without any influence or interests from external pressure, which may involve divine intervention, social, or natural restraint. An individual is considered to be acting freely if they have the liberty to choose what they want from a variety of options. According to Thomas Hobbes, individuals who have free will usually act on their own will without influence from emotions, laws, or actions of others (Gino, 2020). Hobbes argued that God has a free will because his free will is not affected by anything that happens. This kind of free will cannot be determined by anything outside it. He believed that freedom could not be impended and an individual’s free will existed independent of all other influences. On the other hand, George Berkeley believed that free will was controlled by God in his eternity and it was not ours (Gino, 2020). George was an idealist who believed that physical matter does not exist because they are just perceptions formed in people’s minds, which are caused by God. George believed that free will could not be determined by any casual means.

When comparing the ideas of the two psychologists, Thomas Hobbes’ perspective is a better reflection of modern psychologists’ perception of free will. Modern psychologists suggest that determinism disrupts freedom as well as self-respect while diminishing human behavior. The deterministic approach proposes that behavior and actions have a cause and can be predicted (Gino, 2020). Our internal and external environment determines our behavior hence free will, which suggests despite there being options to choose from, there are influential things that determine our decisions and actions. Hobbes did not recognize the role of social institutions and laws in free will, which differentiates his viewpoint from modern perspectives on free will.

Gino, S. (2020). Scottish Common Sense, association of ideas and free will. Intellectual History Review , 30 (1), 109-127.

  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

IvyPanda. (2023, July 1). Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley. https://ivypanda.com/essays/perspectives-on-free-will-a-comparison-of-hobbes-and-berkeley/

"Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley." IvyPanda , 1 July 2023, ivypanda.com/essays/perspectives-on-free-will-a-comparison-of-hobbes-and-berkeley/.

IvyPanda . (2023) 'Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley'. 1 July.

IvyPanda . 2023. "Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley." July 1, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/perspectives-on-free-will-a-comparison-of-hobbes-and-berkeley/.

1. IvyPanda . "Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley." July 1, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/perspectives-on-free-will-a-comparison-of-hobbes-and-berkeley/.


IvyPanda . "Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley." July 1, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/perspectives-on-free-will-a-comparison-of-hobbes-and-berkeley/.

  • George Berkeley’s Philosophy
  • Berkeley’s Argument on Materialism Analysis
  • Internship at Berkeley College
  • Berkeley’s and Locke’s Philosophies Comparison
  • Heat Cannot Exist Unperceived: Berkeley’s Argument
  • Locke’s and Berkeley’s Theories on Knowledge
  • Comparison of John Locke’s and George Berkeley’s Epistemologies
  • Human Will & Freedom and Moral Responsibility
  • Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players in Berkeley
  • Water Balance in Berkeley and Terre Haute
  • The Role of Free Will and Determinism
  • Saint Augustine and the Question of Free Will
  • Free Will: Determinism and Libertarianism
  • Philosophers' Thoughts on Liberty
  • Moral Responsibility and Hard Determinism


  1. Free Will Essay

    research paper on free will

  2. Free Will Essay

    research paper on free will

  3. Chapter 3

    research paper on free will

  4. writing a will template

    research paper on free will

  5. FREE 7+ Sample Cover Page for Research Paper Templates in MS Word

    research paper on free will

  6. Free Will Essay

    research paper on free will


  1. how to download free research papers |The Scholar Watch

  2. How to Download IEEE Research Paper Free By Prof Abhijit Kalbande

  3. Determinism vs Free Will #philosophy #determinism #freewill

  4. Complete guide on how to find research paper

  5. Do We Really Have Free Will?

  6. The Problem of Free Will (And How To Solve It)


  1. Frontiers

    The concept of free will is hard to define, but crucial to both individual and social life. For centuries people have wondered how freedom is possible in a world ruled by physical determinism; however, reflections on free will have been confined to philosophy until half a century ago, when the topic was also addressed by neuroscience. The first relevant, and now well-known, strand of research ...

  2. Chapter One

    This chapter summarizes research on free will. Progress has been made by discarding outmoded philosophical notions in favor of exploring how ordinary people understand and use the notion of free will. ... The initial papers on ego depletion used energy and willpower metaphorically, prompting some to wonder whether an actual energy resource is ...

  3. The Freedom to Pursue Happiness: Belief in Free Will Predicts Life

    Introduction. The existence of free will has been the subject of debate for centuries among scholars (Libet et al., 1999; Kane, 2005; Baer et al., 2008).Meanwhile, laypersons also have different opinions about free will (Paulhus and Carey, 2011).The present study seeks not to find the ultimate answer in the debate on free will but to explore the practical consequences of individual differences ...

  4. The relationship between free will and consciousness

    Reflection on the relationship between free will and consciousness has mainly revolved around Libet-style experiments, for example by criticizing the claim that conscious intentions never cause what we do. Less attention has been paid to whether this response captures the sense in which consciousness is relevant for free will, however. In this paper I argue that scholars seem to accept two ...

  5. Free will in context: a contemporary philosophical perspective

    A major portion of the paper focuses on the compatiblist alternative, favored by many working philosophers. The conditional account of free will offered by classical compatibilism can be shown to be inadequate. A number of compatibilist options remain open, however, and seem promising for future research.

  6. Are mental disorders related to disbelief in free will? A systematic

    The nature and existence of free will have been debated for centuries. Since some psychiatric disorders are known to interfere with one's ability to control their actions and thoughts (e.g., schizophrenia), the investigation of the psychiatric facet of free will beliefs seems to be relevant. In this systematic review, we were interested in clarifying if and how having a mental disorder ...

  7. [PDF] Recent research on free will ...

    Front. Psychol. 2017. TLDR. This paper contextualizes ontological and epistemological debates about free will, describes a scientifically-informed and instrumentalist account of the concept of free will and voluntary action consistent with recent research in cognitive science, and discusses its implications for research and practice. Expand. 11.

  8. Folk conceptions of free will: A systematic review and narrative

    Further research is needed to explicate the distinction between having free will and having the ability to exercise free will, as well as the cross-cultural validity of findings on folk ...

  9. Chapter One

    This chapter will provide an overview of recent psychology experiments concerned with free will. There are three main and quite distinct sets of problems, each with associated lines of research. The first is concerned with how people understand the idea of free will. The second concerns the causes and consequences of believing in free will.

  10. Free Will, Control, and the Possibility to do Otherwise from a Causal

    Strong notions of free will are closely connected to the possibility to do otherwise as well as to an agent's ability to causally influence her environment via her decisions controlling her actions. In this paper we employ techniques from the causal modeling literature to investigate whether a notion of free will subscribing to one or both of these requirements is compatible with ...

  11. PDF Conceptualizing and Studying Free Will Belief and Disbelief

    paper does not take a stance on whether free will exists. Rather, this paper begins with an assessment of the current debate about free will and argues that disagreements often arise from differing conceptions of free will, not from different ideas about the same conception(s). The paper proceeds to review recent research about the implications ...

  12. Recalibrating the Logic of Free Will with Martin Luther

    ABSTRACT. This article deepens the relationship between Martin Luther's theology and the logical structure of free will. First, the article analyses different positions on free will, by organizing them into four general categories; these categories are subsets of a larger set, which corresponds to the logical structure that is common to these interpretations of free will.

  13. Free Will

    The term "free will" has emerged over the past two millennia as the canonical designator for a significant kind of control over one's actions. Questions concerning the nature and existence of this kind of control (e.g., does it require and do we have the freedom to do otherwise or the power of self-determination?), and what its true significance is (is it necessary for moral ...

  14. The weirdness of belief in free will

    The term "free will" is inadequate for cross-cultural research. It has been argued that belief in free will is socially consequential and psychologically universal. In this paper we look at the folk concept of free will and its critical assessment in the context of recent psychological research.

  15. Frontiers

    Department of Philosophy, California State University, Los Angeles, CA, United States. This paper articulates a non-epiphenomenal, libertarian kind of free will—a kind of free will that's incompatible with both determinism and epiphenomenalism—and responds to scientific arguments against the existence of this sort of freedom.

  16. Neuroscientific Threats to Free Will

    Even so, for those on the lookout for threats to free will, the eliminativist threat is something to keep in mind as neuro-science progresses. Fourth, neuroscience might threaten free will if work in neuroscience is able to show that modular epiphenomenalism is true. Modular epiphenomenalism is, according to Eddy Nahmias, the view that "those ...

  17. Is "Free Will" an Emergent Property of Immaterial Soul ...

    This paper argues that free will is an emergent property of 'immaterial soul'. The concept of free will states that when more than one alternative is available to an individual, he/she chooses freely and voluntarily to render an actio ... I was working on a research fellowship application on a desktop computer while sitting near to the ...

  18. Why free will doesn't exist, according to Robert Sapolsky

    Robert Sapolsky: Yes. I turned fourteen years old, at one point, and had a somewhat existentially unnerving experience and, that night, woke up at around two in the morning and say, "Aha, I get ...

  19. Recent Research on Free Will

    In the current research, we examine how belief in free will, i.e., the conviction that humans have the capacity for free action (Baumeister & Monroe, 2014), influences indecisiveness. We develop ...

  20. Psychoanalysis and Free Will

    There are other philosophical positions on free will, such as Supervention and Libertarianism that I do not discuss. An adequate discussion of different philosophical positions on free will would require a separate paper. For a lucid discussion of these positions in the context of considering legal and moral implications, see Moore (Citation 2020).

  21. Free Will

    Free Will. First published Mon Jan 7, 2002; substantive revision Thu Apr 14, 2005. "Free Will" is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Which sort is the free will sort is what all the fuss is about.

  22. The Weakness of Will: The Role of Free Will in Treatment Adherence

    The Role of Free Will in Behaviour. The notion that one controls one's own action and behaviour is strong and pervasive because humans are naturally inclined to think of themselves as free agents. 41 As humans, we do not feel like automatons and we do not treat fellow human beings the way we treat robots. 17 To strengthen the above ideas, a massive survey of people in 36 countries ...

  23. Robert Sapolsky Doesn't Believe in Free Will. (But Feel Free to

    Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neurologist at Stanford University, stopped believing in free will at age 13. Damon Casarez for The New York Times. There is no free will, according to Robert ...

  24. Robert Sapolsky and Kevin Mitchell Diverge on Free Will

    Two neuroscientists, Robert Sapolsky and Kevin Mitchell, have reached opposite conclusions about free will. A close reading of their books shows that they agree that freedom from outside causes is ...

  25. Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley Research

    Perspectives on Free Will: A Comparison of Hobbes and Berkeley Research Paper. Free will involves the liberty to act freely without any influence or interests from external pressure, which may involve divine intervention, social, or natural restraint. An individual is considered to be acting freely if they have the liberty to choose what they ...

  26. Nutrients

    A Feature Paper should be a substantial original Article that involves several techniques or approaches, provides an outlook for future research directions and describes possible research applications. Feature papers are submitted upon individual invitation or recommendation by the scientific editors and must receive positive feedback from the ...

  27. Macbeth Free Will Research Paper

    Macbeth Free Will Research Paper; Macbeth Free Will Research Paper. 528 Words 3 Pages. To Take Fate's Hand "Destiny is no matter of chance". It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved," says William Jennings Byran. Free will is an individual's power to act without the constraint of fate.

  28. Introducing DBRX: A New State-of-the-Art Open LLM

    DBRX advances the state-of-the-art in efficiency among open models thanks to its fine-grained mixture-of-experts (MoE) architecture. Inference is up to 2x faster than LLaMA2-70B, and DBRX is about 40% of the size of Grok-1 in terms of both total and active parameter-counts. When hosted on Mosaic AI Model Serving, DBRX can generate text at up to ...

  29. Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces Aided Energy Efficiency

    DOI: 10.1109/lwc.2024.3382778 Corpus ID: 268830759; Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces Aided Energy Efficiency Maximization in Cell-Free Networks @article{Wang2024ReconfigurableIS, title={Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces Aided Energy Efficiency Maximization in Cell-Free Networks}, author={Kewei Wang and Nan Qi and Haoxuan Liu and Alexandros-Apostolos A. Boulogeorgos and Theodoros A ...